Saturday, April 20, 2013

GEMEINDETHEOLOGIE: Who & How? - An Introduction

It's 11:30 am on a Sunday morning in Wake Forest, NC. The members of Messiah Baptist Church are gathered to discuss what God has been teaching them about a specific passage of Scripture that week. Further South in Toccoa, GA, the next day at 1:30 pm a preacher is sitting down in his study, cognizant of the preaching engagement that he has scheduled for that coming Sunday. In front of him he has his Bible, his favorite three commentaries, two systematic theologies, and his Greek lexicon and grammar. Across the ocean in Vatican City at 9:00 am on Wednesday, the Magisterium is gathering around the Pope to discuss matters of doctrine. The next day at 2:30 pm in Fort Worth, TX, a small group of PhD students are gathered in a classroom discussing how best to understand the authorial intent of Scripture. What do all of these meetings have in common? Each, in its own way, might be considered to be the meeting of a hermeneutical community.
The practice of community hermeneutics in Christian circles has been traced back by some to early events like the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.[1] This practice has also been identified in the teachings of 1 Corinthians 14[2] and several other passages in Scriptures. Historically, it was implemented in various forms by groups throughout the last two millennia and is probably most recognized among the Anabaptists. Currently, it is part of the ethos of the postmodern world and the growing house church movement. As Thiselton claims: "all the major traditions of the Christian church formally define doctrine in communal terms, although the emphasis and nature of the community in question varies."[3] For example, in the Catholic tradition, the hermeneutical community is embodied in the bishops that constitute the Magisterium, while in some Anabaptist traditions, the hermeneutical community is embodied by all the believers in the local congregation.
In light of the fact that communal hermeneutics is not necessarily the standard practice in most communities, one may ask: why has Christian community hermeneutics been seen as useful or even necessary by various groups over the last two millennia? As mentioned above, some have followed what they saw as passages describing or even prescribing a participatory hermeneutical experience. Others, instead, have pointed to more conceptual reasons. Fowl notes, for example, that "Christian convictions about sin should play a role in their scriptural interpretation, enjoining them to maintain a certain sort of vigilance over their interpretation."[4] People's awareness of human sinfulness should lead them to seek for wisdom, and as Proverbs 24:6 states: in a multitude of counselors there is safety.[5] In addition, others have identified concepts such as the priesthood of believers (1 Pet 2:9, Rev 1:6), the promise of the law written on every heart (Jer 31:33-34), and the church's possession of the "keys" (Matt 16, Matt 18)[6] as other reasons for a communal approach. No matter what the motivation, though, several questions arise at the mention of the topic of communal hermeneutics. First: how can or should hermeneutics be done in community? Second, but conceptually needing to precede the first: what characterizes this community in which and by which hermeneutics is being done?
The journey that was taken to answer these questions resulted in multiple conversations with a variety of sources, from the reformation and radical reformation to modern scholars in hermeneutics. For the sake of limiting the scope of this paper, the primary focus of these conversations took place in the Free Church context. Therefore, while there was some interaction with ecumenical thought and with the general discussion on community going on in postmodern circles, these two aspects will play only a peripheral role in this paper.
Through all these conversations, several patterns seem to emerge in the understanding of what characterizes a Christian hermeneutical community as well as several models of how to practice hermeneutics in community. What follows is an attempt to systematize the patterns found in these various conversations, which ultimately lead to the following conclusions. First, a hermeneutical community is one that necessarily brings together Scripture, Spirit, and a discerning body. The interactions between these three components are multi-dimensional and multi-directional. It is a community that is created from the authorial intent of the author of Scripture and that has for its scope the correct understanding of the authorial intent of the author of Scripture. Second, there are multiple families of possible applications for community hermeneutics and they can be evaluated by the presence or lack of an authentic hermeneutical community.

[1]See for example: Adolf Ens, "Theology of the Hermeneutical Community in Anabaptist-Mennonite Thought," in The Church as Theological Community: Essays in Honour of David Schroeder, ed. Harry John Huebner (Winnipeg, MB: CMBC Publications, 1990), 86. Cf. Wiarda, in Timothy Wiarda, "The Jerusalem Council and the Theological Task," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46, no. 2 (2003): 236-39, who argues that Acts 15 is not an effective "model for Spirit-led community interpretation of Scripture," since there is a "gap between the apostles and us, and between their time and our own," therefore decreasing the degree of analogy between Acts 15 and our contemporary communities. Wiarda does see this passage as a model, but he narrows the scope of that model to the like-mindedness that is observed within the church. He ultimately fails to connect that like-mindedness to the hermeneutical task observed in Acts 15 or give any insight on how a different interpretive model would affect that like-mindedness.
[2]See for example: Ens, "The Hermeneutical Community," 76, 86; Stuart Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1999), 168, 174-77; Malcom B. Yarnell, The Formation of Christian Doctrine (Nashville: B&H, 2007), 101; and R. Ward Holder, "Ecclesia, Legenda Atque Intelligenda Scriptura: The Church as Discerning Community in Calvin's Hermeneutic," Calvin Theological Journal 36, no. 2 (2001): 278.
[3]Anthony C. Thiselton, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), xviii. Thiselton makes a parallel between hermeneutics and doctrine, pointing out that both draw on "communal understanding" and transmitted wisdom.
[4]Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation, Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 74. Fowl presents a threefold solution to dealing with the effects of sin on interpretation: 1) seeking a one-mindedness with God, 2) living in a close knit community that is also seeking a one-mindedness with God, and 3) being sensitive to the work of the Spirit.
[5]NKJV. Unless otherwise specified, all future Scripture references will be from the NKJV.
[6]For example, Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition, 173-75, presents these and other passages as having often been used by Anabaptist leaders to justify their communal emphasis on hermeneutics.

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