Aug 23 2012

Brethren Hermeneutics

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By Andrew Hamilton

I was recently rereading an old edition of Brethren Life & Thought and rediscovered a thought provoking article by Nadine Pence Frantz.1 In her article, “Biblical Interpretation in a ‘Non-Sense’ World,” Frantz offers a thought provoking discussion regarding the Believer’s of both modernity and post-modernity. Modernity, being most notably marked by the epistemological foundation of a Cartesian mind-set, lends itself hermeneutically to the understanding that the source of meaning lies within the individual. The basic idea here is that the individual receives unmitigated information regarding reality allowing the person to apprehend the said reality leading to an objective understanding of that reality. In addition to this objective apprehension is the role of individuality and particularity in this epistemology. First, it is only the individual who apprehends the objective information regarding the object (reality). Any other individual must also understand that which one individual understands regarding said object. Therefore if one person sees and understands the reality of a chair, any other individual will also see and understand the reality of the same chair. Secondly, the reality that is perceived by the individual is a particular reality that is not like any other. For instance the chair that is experienced by the individual is an oak high-backed chair and not just any chair. Therefore according to modernity, the individual can and must apprehend the objective reality of that particular chair. This process of apprehension relies upon the fundamental presupposition that the locus of knowledge and understanding is located within the individual, whom Frantz labels the “unmediated self of the Cartesian ego.”

As Frantz points out, this philosophical posture underlies the development of biblical criticism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Therefore the result of this philosophical foundation was that there could only be one meaning for any text. Consequently the goal of historical criticism is to find the singular meaning that lies within the words written by a particular author during a particular time period. In order for the historical critical method to be applicable for contemporary readers and hearers, one must find the underlying universal principle, which extends out of the singular intended meaning of the text.

This desire and hunt for objective truth, however, eventually succumbed to the criticism and questions of postmodernity. While Frantz notes authors such as Derrida, Foucault, Schussler-Fiorenza, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, one of the most interesting examples is offered by Stanley Fish in his text, Is there a Text in this Class?2 What each of these scholars contributed included the recognition that individual perception is affected by a multitude of external factors including not least of these life experiences. Unfortunately, some of these factors include power, economics, gender, and class. In the real world it is the powerful, rich, and ethnically righteous who have been allowed to provide the normative interpretations and each of these aspects contributes to the shaping of the textual interpretations.

What these postmodern scholars did was to debunk the notion that any text contained a singular meaning. In essence it moved the locus of meaning from the mouth of the author to the mind of the hearer or reader. What postmodernity hermeneutics said was that regardless of what the author intends the hearer or reader creates the meaning. Again Fish illustrates this with the interpretation of a supposed poem by the students of his literary criticism class.3 While the class assumed that what they were looking at was a poem, they indeed provided an interpretation. However, the supposed poem, which they were observing, was in fact merely a list of author’s names. This particular narrative illustrates that the meaning of any text is subject to the individual’s (in community) perspective. What this means is that to live in a postmodern society is to live in a society that accepts a plurality of interpretations and meanings.

This then leads Frantz to pose the question, “Can the Bible mean in a postmodern world?” The answer is found in the relationship of the Believer’s church hermeneutic to postmodern approaches for interpretation. In order to find the relationship one must first understand the nature of the Believer’s church hermeneutic. Unlike other traditions, the Believer’s church traditions do not formulate their hermeneutic according to creeds or even statements of faith. Rather one of the primary factors of interpretation for these churches is the extent to which the believer is living the scriptures. Orthopraxis is emphasized rather than orthodoxy. In Frantz’ view this may offer itself as being a potential link to an encounter oriented postmodern world.

The Believer’s Church traditions understand scripture in a unique manner. Frantz states that her understanding of the Believer’s church’s view of the Bible is one that sees the text as primarily testimonial narratives. She says, “The stories, events, and worship materials recorded in the Christian canon are regarded as ‘a scattered series of documents emerging from the ongoing struggles of a community.’”4 In other words, the text of the Bible is not seen as containing a collection of principle truths or as merely a historical account. These churches understand the Bible to be a narrative of a group of people whose self-perception was defined by its interdependent and dialogical interaction with God. Therefore they emphasized the intent of the Bible as a whole to be a testimonial possessing rhetoric aimed at evoking a response. She specifically describes this as being “that which was told and recorded with the intent to evoke a similar life and faith in other people. It is intended to evoke an encounter.”5 Thus the only appropriate response to this testimony, according to the Believer’s church, was humble obedience.

Moreover the Believer’s church tradition holds to a contextual understanding of revelation. Unlike other tenets of Christianity, these churches do not believe that revelation is some sort of abstract truth. For them it is the insight received by the community of faith seeking to be attentive to the text within a particular context. Frantz describes it as “seeing a new way of interacting or of structuring community life.”6 Instead of attempting to shed the historical contextual information to get at the abstract kernel of truth, their understanding requires the concrete historical circumstances surrounding the text because it is only within real history that Christ can be known.

Modernistic hermeneutical approaches have notoriously attempted to separate the processes of interpretation, understanding, and application. While Frantz points to Hollinger’s compilation of essays, Hermeneutics and Praxis, as evidence toward this end, one can find evidence of this even within the practical manuals of biblical interpretation.7 However, for the Believer’s church tradition there is a fundamental link between epistemology and practice. Life experience is the validation of knowledge. One comes to know God through the living encounter with God as experienced with the reception of the scriptural testimony. In other words, interpretation essentially involves application. The exercise of interpretation is not complete until it is lived. The implication of this is that revelation requires a response to the encounter. Revelation is not revelation unless the recipient responds even as divine revelation demands a response. Revelation cannot exist exclusively apart from a response to it and in the same way the hermeneutical endeavor is not complete unless that which was understood is lived. This idea is perfectly expressed in Bernhard Rothmann’s quote: “And, if we, with constant diligence, earnestly do what we understand we will daily be taught further by God.”8 Therefore as Cornelius Dyke once stated, revealed truth is only received through obedience and understanding is only accomplished through the application of the information.

While postmodernity surely questions and ultimately denies the power of narrative, the Believer’s church tradition challenges postmodernity by an insistence of trusting the scripture to be a continuation of history which shapes our epistemological lenses and ultimately a testimony which elicits a response.

Andrew Hamilton is pastor of Akron Springfield Church of the Brethren and an adjunct professor of theology at Ashland Theological Seminary.This post originally appear on his blog Hermes Table.

  1. 39 no 3 Sum 1994, p 153-166 []
  2. Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 33ff. []
  3. Ibid., 33ff. []
  4. Frantz, “Biblical Interpretation in a ‘Nonsense’ World,” 158. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Ibid., 159 []
  7. See Randolph Tate’s, Biblical Interpretation. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997). In the introduction Tate’s discussion of interpretation completely eclipses praxis. He argues for procuring meaning through the exegetical process. []
  8. As cited in Cornelius Dyke’s article, “Hermeneutics and Discipleship,” Essays on Biblical Interpretation. Edited by, Willard Swartley, (Elkhart: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), 30. []
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