canon, Derrida, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Hermeneutics, J. Kameron Carter, language theory, N.T. Wright, Vincent Wimbush

Thoughts on Hermeneutics

Note: this post, like so many others, is the product of a class assignment, however, that is not to say I have not been thinking about this sort of thing on my own for quite sometime. There are clearly some holes within the post (like I say nothing about Barth and Word), but I think this begins to get to where I am currently at. Keep in mind that this also had to meet some professor specified requirements and although I have stripped away some unneccessary text for the internet, the form is still similar to what I turned in – when you wonder why I am actually looking at three views more indepth, it is because the prof wanted that. Anyways, enough talk, here are some thoughts on hermeneutics.

My Social Location and the Beginning of My Hermeneutic

In terms of social categories, I am the oppressor – Caucasian, male, and affluent. I am white and my genealogical makeup is European; it is German, Scottish, Irish, English, French Canadian and even has a hint of Icelandic red. Although my extended family has been in the North American continent for just over a century, it would seem that we have been here for longer – not because they come from old money (which they do not), instead there is a silence about the past and a sense of ownership and entitlement in the present that creates an atmosphere where the success of the past thirty years seems to re-create our entire story in terms of work and wealth. Granted there has been profound tragedy, separation between family members, and lower class status (during my parents’ childhood), however, that only serves to further the narcissism, rather than calling into question the truth of the family’s perception or bring people closer together. I come from a self-blinding family of white riches earned through the American dream and the power of oil.

Ironically, for all the money, hard work and conservative evangelical roots, my family is disconnected to say the least, and when there are relationships, they are generally warped through the lenses of patriotism, fear, imperialism, pain, wealth, and anger. I will say, that as they age, my family has developed and matured as persons (and maybe a cohesive family) in many ways, however, in the categories that Union cares about (mainly systemic oppression), my family is the quintessential oppressor – ignorant to their privilege and the pain of others.

As a Christian I have begun to react to what I see as wrong within my family and the church. I started with a problem that I saw in the evangelical church – that it lacks cohesion and relationality. Instead of brothers and sisters gathering for encouragement and support for themselves and those in the surrounding community, the church in my eyes seemed like a poorly done academic lecture with the inclusion of a popular sub-culture that had no intention of addressing the holistic needs of people. I saw to be the root of the problem to be the presupposition of individualism over community instead of the relational nature of the church acting like the body of Christ. My struggle for envisioning a right community led me towards kingdom theology – that is, the body of Christ enacting now the values of the suffering Christological and eschatological kingdom.

The church I was involved with (during my undergrad at a Bible College) was a group of believers that lived out the Christian call of prayer, preaching, and upbuilding and correction.1 I have never been so encouraged or supported in my life. I have never seen so few people meet the needs of so many people around them within the community, be it the Christian or secular communities. It is with this theology and experience that I begin my interpretations of the text.

Other Considerations – Some of My Basic Assumptions

First and foremost, we deal with a text and without access to the actual data that formed the text. Techniques of pre-rhetorical form are interesting and help one understand that the text was indeed fashioned in its own way by humans, how the text was influenced before it was written down, and as a possible indication as to the structure of the current text. Nevertheless, twenty-first century academics do not have access to the oral tradition, nor do we have access to “Q”, among other texts that would have helped form the text we have now. Method without the data itself seems a tenuous situation of theories based only on what can be dug up and thus I begin with the text that, for good or ill, Christians call Holy Scripture.

The Nature of the Text
We primarily deal with text that we find, to in some way, call scripture. The word scripture means that the text “is ‘authority’ for the common life of the Christian community.”2 And in as much scripture is authoritative for the community, “these texts are the church’s scripture”, and so this text is formative for the community, for the church – the community of faith.3 On another note, the use of the word scripture denotes “some kind of ‘wholeness” or canon.4 Thus, to call the biblical text scripture, is to say that the Bible is in some form an authoritative canon for the life of the community of faith.

As the Bible is a text, it is inherently genre specific, and best understood as a text with multiple genres – ranging from narrative, to poetic, to letter/epistle. Thus, whether reading or analyzing, it is vital to understand what genre the passage lies within; however, genre is a broad term that indicates a more detailed idea of structure like: introductions and closings, narration, story order, poetic devices (i.e. inclusio, repetition, chiasm, etc.), argumentative examples, word choice, how Paul is not writing a systematic theology and so forth. Simply put, analysis of the text as a text is incredibly important for me and, from what I can determine, is a rich tradition within the hermeneutical world and has produced: structuralism, post-structuralism, narrative criticism, rhetorical criticism, and canonical criticism to name a few.

Author, Text and Audience
Interestingly, textual criticism has run into rough waters with the advent of deconstructionism advocated by Jacques Derrida.5 Although there is a perceived demise of platonic language theory, I have found a haven within Speech-Act language theory – a theory that asserts both the author and the audience in relation to meaning are problematic, but the text does maintain meaning. This is to say that the author is inaccessible, but also on the other hand, the audience is not free to create meaning without the voice of the text; instead, the text itself retains meaning and is able to communicate meaning through clues like structure.

Elements of Interpretive Methodology from Class

Me in Relationship to Theories Presented in Class:
A great deal of the interpretive methodologies introduced, while not particularly new to me, were generally attractive to me. On the theme of liberation, I found the post-colonial, liberationist and (for lack of a better term) political-imperial criticism to be fairly interesting, if not convincing. A few summers ago I was listening to a number of recorded N. T. Wright lectures and that probably was the first time I saw the “Lord’s prayer” in a new light – a liberative light – that envisioned and cried out for the heavenly kingdom breaking into the present and against the imperial and false powers, which in that day was Rome. Even I, who am probably more on the conservative side at Union, has found a liberative reading of the Bible from a conservative, Anglican bishop. Also, I think in this context of America’s rule, I can move towards privileging a liberative reading of the Bible while still holding to my current core methodology; I see no reason why liberative readings (advocacy criticism) cannot join and mix with my current interpretive method and be more informative and compelling than a conservative, white, male, Anglican bishop. The result of the mixing would be an even richer and productive methodology for answering the true problems of the current world.

As one can probably tell, I am whole-heartedly for a communitarian hermeneutic and that it is not simply scripture alone, but also the local and universal community of faith that reads and interprets the text together. As far as redactionists, I appreciate the personal treatment given to each section of the text, be it story or sayings, however, redactionists can tend to lose the structure when they look too individually; they can lose the forest for the tree. Thus I prefer the canonical criticism approach that maintains that there is a theological/thematic center to each book and attempts to find the same for the entire Bible. As far as psycho-analytic criticism goes, I am hesitant when they attempt to characterize the author whom I do not think we can know, although I suppose an analysis of the tendencies in the text would prove interesting and likewise for the lens that the audience brings to the text. It is vital in my opinion to scrutinize the assumptions that the audience brings to the text; assumptions govern the types of questions the audience will ask and thus dictate the answers and, in the end, the theology supposedly derived from the text.

Three Theories from Class in Conversation with My Methodology:

Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (Feminist)
A few years ago I would have been alarmed by feminist hermeneutics, for I was just coming from a house that had a mother who read Paul’s subordination to mean that a wife ought to submit to the husband in a conservative fashion (and she still does). Today my stance is much different, though I am still relatively new to it. At first glance I am worried by looking at a Canon within the Canon – my knee jerk reaction is that one book ought not to be subordinated to another book for no book is a second class citizen – however, I quickly realized that there is always a Canon within the Canon.6 With texts that were written in another context, and not always to us who is an audience 2,000 years later, we naturally drop all sorts of sayings and notions, no matter how literal one might pride themselves in being.

On this basis I have begun to make my peace with the hermeneutic of suspicion. When I came to Union, the view about the text seemed to say the Bible was helpful, but quickly the text turned to something largely distrusted, negative and harmful. It seemed as if the book in front of me transformed into a monster that was grabbing for my throat; I finally saw how truly the Bible could be oppressive. I called myself an egalitarian at Bible college and chided the hierarchical John Piper and Wayne Grudemn fans, but I had yet to really see the frustration from oppression – the women at the school either accepted hierarchy or rarely let out their frustration it seemed (or perhaps I just missed it). It is odd how suppression, in the guise of obedience, eliminates the reality of experience.

First and foremost I think we ought to take Paul seriously, and when we do so, we might encounter patriarchy, but we also encounter a Paul who seems to lead us towards a direction of subversion. It seems to me that Paul might have told people to stay in their place in the secular world (so as to be Christ), but he also told those whom the people are submitting to, to be submitters also. I do not think it a fluke that within the early church both women and slaves had a space to be human and free because the structures of the world were turned upside down. Paul could have been a chauvinist, or the text seems to reflect the patriarchal time in which it was written, and we should take those negatives seriously to see the humanity in the writings,7 but we should also notice that sometimes in the same breath the text moves towards freedom. Perhaps seeing a flawed text moving towards the suffering and risen eschatological kingdom is the best thing ever for those 2,000 years later who are doing the same thing within the same community of faith.

Vincent L. Wimbush (“Darkly”)
Similar to feminist criticism, the African American hermeneutic that speaks about the African American experience and church approaches the text with a heremeneutic of suspicion; however, Wimbush is not speaking about gender, but race. Wimbush seeks to show theology the African American lens so to break white theologians out of their incorrectly narrow theology – a theology that sees only the white person, for it envisions a white Jesus.8 This idea is certainly nothing new after taking Prof. Cone’s systematic class last semester, nevertheless it is still powerful every time it is used for theology still seems to exist to some degree within whiteness.

However I wonder what happens when one enters into the church – the community of faith. Does this change how we see race or gender? Certainly oppression is not sanctioned, however, what happens once within the community? I have recently encountered an essay by J. Kameron Carter of Duke Divinity School titled “Christology, or Redeeming Whiteness: A Response to James Perkinson’s Appropriation of Black Theology.”9 Certainly there is the agreement to “call the white church to a deeper faithfulness to its Lord” and that Lord’s power instead of the power of whiteness; however, liturgy, and in particular baptism, is then what?10 Carter instead understands baptism as “induction into a different mode of being in the world, one that surpasses the mode of being whose nodal points are hegemonic and counterhegemonic.”11 Best understood, the induction into the community through baptism “involves handing oneself over to God in Christ so as to receive oneself back as a gift… [and thus] to receive Christ himself” on Christ’s terms and “mission” which moves from Martin Buber’s and James Cone’s use of I-Thou and into a political body in which exists a “different way of being.”12 I bring Carter’s essay up because itself has come up in discussions I have had with others on the topic of Black Liberation theology and this essay is already in dialogue with Cone inside my head, although it is unresolved. This is the question that chases after me now, now that I have been sensitized toward racism in theology.

Historical-criticism is something I appreciate, but am largely skeptical of. I disagree with the fundamental precept that we will actually know the author of the text.13 The author to Job is indeterminable, much less when the text was written, and while many books within the New Testament are certainly closer to our time than Job, the historical author seems still beyond our reach because of Derrida and my own experience of history. One of my majors in undergrad was a history major and I wrote a thesis that involved both primary and secondary sources around a rather unknown but controversial topic.14 Through my experience I discovered the utter reliance a historian has the texts and the baggage that comes with the texts, and I began to wonder how far history can inform humanity – certainly no more than concretely than, “it was probably like this from what we can determine at this time.” Ironically, history can only speak to what it has dug up and analyzed at that time, rather than stating for once what life was like; the past is always under construction and revision.

Another concern for me is those who use history, but do not have the adequate background. For instance, I have seen, in both the pulpit and the class room, the speaker who gives too much weight to one theory, without mentioning the other theories that are equally viable, and thus the speaker incorrectly privileges the theory to look like fact – I have seen Christians do terrible history, committing moves that the historical community would laugh at, and I want to avoid the disinformation and embarrassment. Likewise, I also want to avoid elevating the privileged theory to canonical status (one might call this midrashing with history), despite how unpopular it might be here at Union. We are Christians who have a text we call scripture and we ought to deal with it as such.

I have also lately become aware of a possible problem concerning the reliance on history for theology through Jürgen Moltmann’s chapter on the nature of history in his book Theology of Hope.15 His critique about history as a philosophy of crisis seems insightful concerning many schools of history. While Moltmann’s argument may or may not have aged well and has been adequately responded to, I am still concerned that the presumptions by current philosophical history (though at least excluding the Marxist historians) can, without examination, shape theology towards the French revolution instead of the cross and resurrection.

Despite all the negativity and urge to separate the categories of theology and history, there is within me a sympathy for history and certainly a few concessions. Without the study of the past, there would be no text – Greek would be gibberish. Even for the literary person who wants to avoid historical-criticism because of the language theory critique, the translation of a text is indebted to the study of languages; without an understanding of word meaning amongst various languages of the time like Syriac and Coptic, Greek would be indecipherable.

Also, I find interesting what history does have to say. I think I have the background to envision what history is actually saying (which is always less than we think) and therefore determining what is helpful that history claims. However, I still handle history as if it is apocrypha (though I still handle it) insomuch that it is outside of the canon, because it is, and therefore also outside of the community of faith’s interpretation.

1. This church, The Church of the Servant King, is part of the “New Monastic Movement” and is committed to the church as community. They have also been largely informed by recent ecclesial writings, particularly Stanley Hauewas. The Hauerwas Reader, edited by John Berkman and Michael Carwright (Durham: Duke University, 2002), 384-385. A list of what the church is and does: charity/hospitality; valuing both the married and single equally; fiscal responsibility and leveraging of resources for the needs of people; living simply; racially diverse; inclusion of all ages; resisting the Kingdom of Evil; and the list goes on.

2. The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology by David H. Kelsey (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975) 89.

3. Ibid., 89.

4. Ibid., 89.

5. Is There A Meaning In this Text? by Kevin Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).

6. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 14.

7. Ibid., 18.

8. “Reading Darkness, Reading Scriptures” in African Americans and The Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures by Vincent L. Wimbush (New York: Continuum), 8-9.

9. “Christology, or Redeeming Whiteness: A Response to James Perkinson’s Appropriation of Black Theology” by J. Kameron Carter, Theology Today, 60, number 4, January 2004.

10. Ibid., 526.

11. Ibid., 537.

12. Ibid., 538.

13. An Introduction to the New Testament by Raymond E. Brown (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 35.

14. Titled: “Truth, Dare, and Death: Epistemological Conflict Between Quakers and Puritans in Boston, Massachusetts from 1656-1661.”

15. Theology of Hope by Jürgen Moltmann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 261. Although, perhaps I would do well to review one of the books for my Historiography class, History in Crisis? by Norman J. Wilson. This paragraph is meant to speak to a concern and question that has recently popped up within the last week in relation to other classes, rather than to give an answer.


One thought on “Thoughts on Hermeneutics

  1. Sammy says:

    I really like that this is on Multnomah’s Blogosphere. And I like you. Sarah and I have recently started a Blog and you have been added to our chum list because you are our chum. Done and done.

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