Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Characteristics of a Hermeneutical Community - A Bibliocentric Community; In the series: GEMEINDETHEOLOGIE: Who & How?

Central to any hermeneutical endeavor is the fact that there must be something to interpret. Yet, a Christian hermeneutical community is not necessarily like any other community: it is a community that has come into existence due to the proclamation of Jesus Christ, is sustained by the proclamation of Jesus Christ, and sustains the proclamation of Jesus Christ. Therefore, to use Westphal's terminology,[1] this community's "classic text" has to be the revelation of Jesus Christ: the Bible. As Stock argues, "the 'text' is what a community takes it to be. . . . For, like meaning in language, the element a society fixes upon is a conventional arrangement among the members."[2] Yet, for a Christian hermeneutical community, the text of Scripture is not only the agreed upon text, but more importantly, it is the necessary nucleus of such a community.[3]
This cohesion around a text creates what Stock refers to as a textual community:
Through the text, or, more accurately, through the interpretation of it, individuals who previously had little else in common were united around common goals. Similar social origins comprised a sufficient, but not necessary condition of participation. The essential bond was forged by means of belief; its cement was faith in the reality of belonging. And these in turn were by-products of a general agreement on the meaning of a text.[4]
Consequently, this textual community is by default an interpretive community as well as a social entity. This leads Stock to claim that the Christian community's faith might be in the Word of God, but "proof is in the text" that they are interpreting, therefore again emphasizing the centrality of the text.[5]
This centrality of the text of Scripture to the Christian community is clearly seen in the reformation. In the proclamation of sola scriptura, the reformers identified Scripture as fundamental to their movement. They were "committed to the careful study of scripture, . . . and utterly convinced of the Scripture's authority and relevance in all matters of faith and daily life."[6] Accordingly, one of the characteristics of the participating church in Geneva was Calvin's expectation of a biblically literate commonwealth.[7] Likewise, among the Anabaptists, Scripture was central to their life and their identity as seen by "the intricate knowledge of Scripture that even illiterate Anabaptists expressed."[8]
Scripture is not only at the core of the hermeneutical community, but it is also at the genesis of this community, in both a theological and a pragmatic dimension. Space does not allow a full discussion of the theological dimension. Suffice it to say that in the New Testament there are descriptions of local communities formed around the Word of God. Acts 2 is a good example of such a community, for the believers are portrayed as devoting themselves to the apostles' teachings and fellowship: the scriptural and the communal dimension. In Hebrews 10, believers are instructed to gather for the purpose of encouragement, but only after they are instructed to hold fast to the confession of their hope: the communal and the scriptural dimension, yet again. As for the pragmatic dimension, Ens believes that the importance of Scripture's "interpretation and application to the life of a Christian" was actually a motivating factor that made Anabaptists search "for a process of interpretation that would ensure correct understanding and proper application."[9] In many such communities, this process was that of communal hermeneutics. "The hermeneutical community was both the locus and focus of their interpretation of Scripture and their implementation of it." This dynamic between community and Scripture was in no way "the church sitting in authority over Scripture but the church as the Spirit's chosen location for interpreting Scripture." Their focus was often ecclesio-centric and ultimately, the "congregation both shaped and was shaped by how Scripture was interpreted in order to produce something true to their understanding of biblical ecclesiology."[10] This highlights the multi-directional interaction between community and Scripture.

[1]Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church, ed. James K. A. Smith, The Church and Postmodern Culture. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 118. Westphal tries to apply Gadamerian theories on conversation and classic texts to the Bible. Westphal does admit that the Bible being the word of God makes it much more than just a classic text, but he insists that "it is not less than the church's classic text" (147). While discussing classic texts, he concludes that "classic texts found communities, are sustained by communities, and in turn sustain communities. But this means that their interpretation is also a communal affair, a dialectic and not a monological process. It takes place among individuals within a community and among communities. If the Bible is the 'classic text' of the Christian church, that church, in turn, is the community of the Bible's interpretation. It belongs to the church's identity that it is the conversation in which its members and its communities seek to understand the Bible and its subject matter: God and our relation to God." For Westphal, therefore, the relation between Scripture and community is multi-directional.
[2]Brian Stock, Listening for the Text: On the Uses of the Past (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 146. 
[3]Stock portrays post antiquities textual communalities as not centering on the Torah and the New Testament, but as centering on other texts like the Mishnah and the Rule of St. Benedict, for example. This is because, according to him, "it is the rules, not the Scriptures, that transcend preexisting economic or social bonds, since it is the rules that are both the basis and the result of common interpretive efforts." (Ibid., 150-51.) Since Stock's focus is on medieval society where monasteries were the important textual communities, one can see his identification of documents like the Rule of St. Benedict as the focal texts of those communities. Yet, if it is the Scriptures that are both the basis and the result of common interpretive efforts, as is the case in the communities under discussion in this paper, then it would seem that Stock would agree with the claim that the text of Scripture is the focal text of a Christian textual community.
[4]Ibid., 37. Similarly, Hamilton, in Neill Quinn Hamilton, "Hermeneutics and Community," Drew Gateway 44, no. 1 (1973): 4, claims that "community must arise from conviction rather than arrangements of convenience and expediency." Yet, Hamilton also notes that "Christian conviction has as much power to prevent, as to create community." Cf. Roth, in John D. Roth, "Community as Conversation: A New Model of Anabaptist Hermeneutics," in Essays in Anabaptist Theology, ed. H. Wayne Pipkin (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1994), 43-44, uses the work of David Sabean on rural communities in early modern Germany to similarly argue that Anabaptist hermeneutical communities "were not united by a specific set of shared values, the familial bonds of love, or even a clear sense of corporate purpose." Yet, instead of providing a text as the cohesive element, he posits that it was the conversations or arguments that each community was engaged in that produced their essential bond. Ultimately, Roth concludes that while Anabaptist hermeneutics were not "merely a reflection of material forces or pragmatic considerations," he thinks that it is "clear that Anabaptist theology did not emerge directly from Scripture." In this he seems to be alone, for while others agree that other factors molded Anabaptist theology, none deny the role of Scripture as he does.
[5]Stock, Listening for the Text, 149, 150.
[6]Roth, "Community as Conversation," 36.
[7]Holder, "Church as Discerning Community in Calvin," 274. Below it will be argued, based on Holder's research, that even in Calvin one can find an element of hermeneutics in community.
[8]Yarnell, The Formation of Christian Doctrine, 102.
[9]Ens, "The Hermeneutical Community," 73.
[10]Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition, 181, 176-77. 

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