Monday, May 20, 2013

GEMEINDETHEOLOGIE: Who & How? - Concluding Remarks

Two questions were asked at the beginning of this series of posts. 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? Through our conversations with various historical groups, the following conclusions were drawn. A hermeneutical community is one that necessarily brings together Scripture, Spirit, and a discerning body. This community has come into existence by the proclamation of the Gospel, is sustained by the proclamation of the Gospel, and sustains the proclamation of the Gospel. It is inherently centered on Scripture and Scripture is at the genesis of said community. While this community is centered on a text, this fact does not preclude the possibility that illiteracy is present within the community. Tradition provides a good hermeneutical safeguard but is not a hermeneutical community in itself. The participants' sinfulness requires the working of the Holy Spirit, and requires a communal platform to make sure that the work of the Spirit is being interpreted correctly. All of this precludes a close knit believing community that practices repentance and forgiveness and that does not isolate itself from other communities. This community is composed of people possessing a diversity of knowledge, and it appropriately uses all the gifts with which it has been endowed. What has just been described, then, 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.
In addition, four vignettes were presented of possible hermeneutical communities. Two of the vignettes were deemed not to match the three elements of Scripture, Spirit, and a discerning community as described above. The other two communities, the community holding the pastor accountable and the community with congregational participation, did match the criteria for a hermeneutical community and represent two families of possible applications for community hermeneutics.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Vignettes of Community Hermeneutics - Congregational Participation, but What of Divisions?; In the series: GEMEINDETHEOLOGIE: Who & How?

When discussing such a model, the topic of disagreement often is broached.[1] As Fowl claims, disagreement is to be expected, but charity needs to be the governing trait of the participants involved. The community "provides part of the context in which disagreement can best be articulated, debated and, at least provisionally, resolved, so that Christians can live and worship faithfully in the situations in which they find themselves."[2] Ultimately, unity is the work of the Spirit of God, and therefore should be entrusted to Him.

[1]See: Roth, "Community as Conversation," 45.
[2]Fowl, Engaging Scripture, 87. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Vignettes of Community Hermeneutics - Congregational Participation; In the series: GEMEINDETHEOLOGIE: Who & How?

This vignette could have multiple expressions. It is the one that is most fully participatory and which truly requires the threefold characteristic community described above. Murray claims that this type of communal hermeneutics would have distinguished Anabaptists from state churches, Spiritualists, and Catholics. "Given what Anabaptists believed about the nature of the church, the work of the Spirit, and the ability of all to interpret," it is not surprising that many among them seemed to assume the need for a communal process. This can be seen in The Swiss Order, which circulated with the Schleitheim confession and was also known as the Congregational Order. In it, Article 2 states that "when the brothers and sisters are together, they shall take up something to read together. The one to whom God has given the best understanding shall explain it, the others should be still and listen, so that there are not two or three carrying on a private conversation, bothering the others."[1] This also is attested in some tracts where the listener, "bound by Christian love," is compelled to share with the congregation "if something to edification is given or revealed to him." The contributions might "include reading texts of Scripture, expounding them, asking and answering questions, prophesying, and discussing what has been said."[2]
In this model of hermeneutical community, individualism is criticized since due to it "consensus is seldom sought; discussions are mere forums, and in most cases are not intended to lead to binding commitments; controversial issues are avoided."[3] In opposition to this, Burkholder introduces some structural lines describing the framework of what he refers to as a discerning community. First, congregationalism and the congregational meeting (which could take the form of open forums) should be the basic decision-making instrument. Second, discussion should "be considered just as 'spiritual' as preaching and no less central to the congregation's life." Dialogue should "be conceived as an avenue through which the Holy Spirit speaks." Third, "the congregation would live 'under' the Bible, while employing critical methods of interpretation." Ultimately, these discerning communities would need to seek to 'listen' to the Spirit.[4]

[1]Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition, 161. This practice was often referred to as lex sedentium, the Latin for the "law of sitting." The practice was historically connected to the school of prophets instituted by Zwingli, and biblically connected to 1 Cor 14. See: Yarnell, The Formation of Christian Doctrine, 101.
[2]Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition, 161. Also see Ens, "The Hermeneutical Community," 76-86.
[3]J. Lawrence Burkholder, "The Peace Churches as Communities of Discernment," Christian Century 80, no. 36 (1963): 1072. Dumais and Richard, in M. Dumais and J. Richard, Église et Communauté (Anjou, QC: Fides, 2007), 95-96, connect an individualistic relationship with God, due to Calvinism in France, with a loss of communal identity and the exiling of one's religious identity to individual consciences. One can see then why individualism (which is a plight in Western culture) is antithetical to communal hermeneutics. It is not possible to have an individualistic outlook on life and want to participate in a hermeneutical community. Ultimately, the former will inhibit true community formation, rendering the latter impossible.
[4]Burkholder, "The Peace Churches as Communities of Discernment," 73, 75.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Vignettes of Community Hermeneutics - The Community Holding the Preacher Accountable; In the series: GEMEINDETHEOLOGIE: Who & How?

Probably the next simplest type of community hermeneutics is the one where the community serves as an accountability tool for the official teacher. Holder refers to this as a "community of discourse,"[1] and tries to identify it in the hermeneutics of Calvin. Similarly, this mode of community hermeneutics was practiced among some strands of Anabaptism,[2] and is suggested as a viable contemporary model by Westphal.[3]
While John Calvin often is seen as placing the "whole interpretive authority in the hands of the preacher," and as not always accepting criticism and correction there is evidence, according to Holder, in Calvin's writings (including the Institutes) and in the life of the Genevan community to indicate that Calvin saw the church as a discerning community. This communal aspect of interpretation manifested itself in two ways. First, by insisting on a scripturally literate congregation, Calvin "implicitly acknowledges that the understanding of the Scripture by the laity allows, or forces, scriptural sermons to be preached." Therefore, the congregation serves at a minimum as an accountability partner, holding the teacher responsible for correct teaching and therefore for a correct exegesis of the text. This implies the second, closely akin point: the community sits in a place of judgment, judging the exegesis of the text. Calvin warns against "easy credulity, which does not test teachings by what is known of the Word of God," and "specifically warns the congregation against a too-passive reception of the words of the preacher and bids them to test the words of men by the Word of God."[4]
Westphal, after arguing that hermeneutics "cannot be the exclusive task of an ecclesiastical elite, namely, theologians and pastors," points to the claims of the reformation to argue for the involvement of the entire congregation. "If we take seriously the Reformation theme of the priesthood of all believers, we will have to acknowledge that hermeneutical conversation is the privilege and responsibility of the laity as well." By postulating that "to read is to interpret," Westphal asserts that there are therefore three levels of interpretation in which the laity partakes: individual, family, and congregation. It is at this point that Westphal postulates that one aspect of the congregational interpretation is keeping the pastor in check because of his knowledge that others have looked at and thought about the text that he is teaching.[5] Unlike the preceding vignette, this community does fit all three aspects of the threefold description presented above: Scripture, Spirit, and a believing community.

[1]Holder, in Holder, "Church as Discerning Community in Calvin," 277n22, notes that the terminology "community of discourse" is a concept he drew from modern hermeneutics, especially the writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur. He also is indebted to Stock for his notion of a "textual community." In the article, Holder defines this "community of discourse" is several ways. At first, he defines it as the "the communal context in which particular textual readings come to have meaning" (277). He then defines it as the "community without which the interpretive project makes no sense–being shorn both of the community to whom the message is addressed and the community of joined interpreters" (277-78). In his conclusion he more specifically defines it as a community which "is consciously and existentially formed by the desire to live by the dictates of the interpretation of this central text, God's Word" (288).
[2]Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition, 17.
[3]Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?, 146.
[4]Holder, "Church as Discerning Community in Calvin," 275, 277-79, 281. Holder does hedge his argument by warning his reader not to read too much into the texts that he presented and claiming that "Calvin may well have been offering up the task of arbitration to the congregation. He may instead have been attempting to teach it enough so that it would give an educated 'Amen' to his exposition" (287).
[5]Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?, 143, 146. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Vignettes of Community Hermeneutics - Tradition; In the series: GEMEINDETHEOLOGIE: Who & How?

Like the previous vignette, tradition lacks the third characteristic of a hermeneutical community: a close knit believing community. In addition one has to ask questions about interaction. While Westphal, based on Gadamerian theories on conversation, would argue that static texts can be a conversational partner (and admitting that similar terminology has been used metaphorically in the introduction of this series of posts), it is hard to imagine a conversation with a static document. Conversation has to be dialectic. Therefore, tradition, while a good hermeneutical safeguard, does not in itself constitute a hermeneutical community.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Vignettes of Community Hermeneutics - Openness to Correction; In the series: GEMEINDETHEOLOGIE: Who & How?

Some have seen the Anabaptists' openness to correction as the simplest way in which congregational hermeneutics was practiced,[1] for in doing so they opened themselves up to a conversational partner. This community fits two of the threefold descriptions presented above: Scripture and Spirit. Yet, "openness to correction" as a hermeneutical community is not a very good fit when it comes to the community of believers criteria, for it often lacked the tight interconnection and relationships postulated as essential by Fowl.

[1]See the discussion in Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition, 166-69. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Vignettes of Community Hermeneutics - An Introduction; In the series: GEMEINDETHEOLOGIE: Who & How?

Throughout the last two millennia there have been different embodiments of the concept of the church. Since the concept of the church is integral to our understanding of what a hermeneutical community should look like, it come as no surprise that since the time of Christ there have been different kinds of communal hermeneutics. These might have "family resemblances," but ultimately will still look different.[1] The following vignettes are an attempt at systematizing some of these families of hermeneutical communities as identified in the literature. The list is not exhaustive or prescriptive, just descriptive.

[1]Michael G. Cartwright, "The Practice and Performance of Scripture: Grounding Christian Ethics in a Communal Hermeneutic," Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics  (1988): 49-50. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Characteristics of a Hermeneutical Community - A Believing Community, but a Community Beyond the Local Church?; In the series: GEMEINDETHEOLOGIE: Who & How?

If this community is defined in terms of an independent hermeneutical body of believers, another question poses itself. Is there not a danger in creating such a hermeneutical community that potentially isolates itself from the rest of the world? Fowl understands that there is always the potential that there might be something wrong with how a hermeneutical community interprets Scripture. Consequently, he suggests that the community should be "willing to subject their interpretive practices to scrutiny and criticism." This scrutiny obviously can come from within, but can also come from members of different Christian communities, or even those outside any Christian community.[1] Ens points out that Hubmaier did envision the possibility of the local church erring in its conclusions and therefore was open to the scrutiny of a wider council.[2] Yarnell highlights the fact that the Anabaptists' belief that "the Spirit spoke to the entire community as it read the Scripture together encouraged the Anabaptists to seek conversation with other Christians." This resulted in their willingness to participate in debates even when it resulted in their persecution and execution.[3] In Anabaptist writings, one often can find open pleas for their enemies to correct them if they are wrong, as long as their enemies only used Scripture to do so. So one can say that this community, while independent from other groups, should be open to the scrutiny of other Christians.[4]

[1]Fowl, Engaging Scripture, 82.
[2]Ens, "The Hermeneutical Community," 81-83.                                                                                                    
[3]Yarnell, The Formation of Christian Doctrine, 100.
[4]We see here the traditional pattern of associations seen throughout Baptist history. Churches who are independent, but who associate for the sake of missions, help, and to demonstrate unity amongst Christians.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Characteristics of a Hermeneutical Community - A Believing Community, but a Community of Scholars?; In the series: GEMEINDETHEOLOGIE: Who & How?

Given the last paragraph, one can ask legitimately: what is the role of scholars, if any, in this type of community? While Murray claims that Anabaptists "searched the Bible for themselves and participated in the congregational process of discerning its meaning and application," he also claims that this did not underplay the role of their leaders, especially educated ones. Instead, this created a special dynamic in the hermeneutical process. The leaders' sermons and writings provided "foundational teachings," but "they did not give authoritative answers to every doctrinal question or final interpretation of every biblical text." In addition, the leaders also provided guidelines that "prevented Anabaptists from lapsing into naive subjectivism." On the other hand, since non-leaders were very involved in "exploring and interpreting Scripture," Murray sees their contribution, "which was encouraged and expected," as providing a way to help "prevent leaders from uncritically adopting traditional or Reformed hermeneutics." According to Murray, it was the leader who set the tone as to whether the congregation would operate as a hermeneutical community or not. The ones who did allow it saw themselves as guides, rather than dominating figures, and acted as facilitators, rather than sole participants. Therefore, "their task was to ensure that Scripture was being read and that, through the contributions of all members, it was being understood and applied." This did not prohibit them from still exerting much influence on the congregation by providing "basic teaching and guidance in selecting and interpreting biblical texts." Even if many Anabaptists underplayed the need for education, Murray believes that in practice, the contribution of educated and respected leaders would carry greater weight, "for in congregational hermeneutics, there is no requirement that every contribution carry the same weight, but every contribution must be weighed."[1]
Even the topic of leaders, though, has the potential of being at the genesis of a hermeneutical community. Although among Anabaptists "communal emphasis was well-established in the very early years while the movement still had some scholars and theologians at its head," Murray postulates that there might also have been some pragmatic reasons for the development and continuation of communal hermeneutics. Murray sees the eventual lack of theologians and leaders, due to persecution, as requiring the congregation to "develop ways of operating that could survive the removal of their leaders."[2] He supports this theory among the Hutterites by quoting Oyer's and Miller's conclusions:
It is possible that for the Anabaptists sharing preaching or instruction . . . was a necessity, since many of the educated leaders were killed off. . . . Maybe they made a virtue out of necessity - since there were few strong, literate leaders, everyone needed to help out. . . . This became known as zeugnis, 'witness,' and such commentary was open to anyone, even those who had quite contrary words to speak.[3]

[1]Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition, 16-17, 163-65.
[2]Ibid., 173, 171.
[3]Ibid., 171. Murray also points to other possible reasons that led to the development of communal hermeneutics. According to him, anticlericalism could have been a reason for communal hermeneutics, since in this hermeneutical model the congregation assumed for itself the key clerical responsibility, that of interpreting Scripture. Murray also suggests that the lack of formal meeting places with typical "church architecture" could also have been a probable facilitator of multiple participation. (171-72)

Thursday, May 2, 2013

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

This emphasis on the interaction between the community and the Spirit of God points to a community of regenerate believers, indwelled by the Spirit of God, who are disciples of their Lord Jesus Christ.[1] For the Anabaptists, "obedience as a prerequisite for understanding Scripture meant that only a community of would-be disciples could expect illumination." A community of disciples creates a community of obedience and faithfulness, which is essential, as the Anabaptists knew, for "unfaithfulness could make a congregation unable to function properly as a hermeneutical community."[2] This line of thought parallels Fowl's emphasis on a community that recognizes that it is populated by sinners. Fowl argues that this problem of sin can only be solved by creating vigilant communities where individuals are aware of their sinfulness and the sinfulness of others, and where all are single-mindedly focused on Jesus. This requires a community that is actively practicing forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation, and where the goal is for all to grow in virtue, particularly when it comes to interpreting Scripture.[3] Ultimately, "recognizing oneself as a sinner is necessary but it must lead to growth in virtue, particularly growth in virtue as an interpreter of scripture." This growth should produce individuals who have what he calls a Christological density. In a community, this characteristic allows others to be able to judge the interpreter's interpretation. "Unless Christians can offer this sort of christological density to their judgment about the character of any particular interpreter, they will have good reason to be suspicious of that interpreter's counter-conventional interpretation." [4]
This community has to be tight knit so as to be able to judge each other's interpretation and the to judge the work of the Spirit in each other. As a believing community that is wanting to practice communal hermeneutics, this community also has to recognize and value the diversity of gifts that God has given to it.[5] It has to realize that the work of the ministry of the church is the work of the entire body, not of a select few.[6] Like its Anabaptist predecessors, it should believe that the Holy Spirit speaks to the entire community as it reads Scripture together and should believe in the participation of multiple members in its gatherings.[7]

[1]This can be seen as the ideal of many free churches, and some have identified it as the distinctive mark of Baptist churches. See for example: John S. Hammett, "Regenerate Church Membership," in Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches, ed. Thomas White, Jason G. Duesing, and Malcom B. Yarnell (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008). Yet, the free church does not have the corner on this type of community. In many ways, this is the community that is described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as he describes the communal experiment that he experienced with his seminarians at the seminary and at his home in Finkenwalde. Since such a community is a spiritual community, Bonhoeffer argues that its basis must be "the clear, manifest Word of God in Jesus Christ" and truth. Its essence must be light. It must be a community of called ones who will embody the love of Christ in lives of service. This service is simple and humble and characterized by love: "unsophisticated, nonpsychological, unmethodological, helping love." This community is characterized by order and humble submission to one another. It will be ruled by the Word of God alone, which is binding. In it, all "power, honor, and rule" are surrendered to the Holy Spirit, allowing the Spirit to rule the community. In line with the Pauline emphasis in 1 Corinthians 12, this community recognizes the importance of all its members and therefore does not exclude the "weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people," for their exclusion may well be the exclusion of Christ. See: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly, Gerhard Ludwig Müller, and Albrecht Schönherr, trans., Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 39-40, 45.
[2]Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition, 213, 214.
[3]Fowl, Engaging Scripture, 78. In other words, what is envisioned here is a community that practices the "one anothers" of Scripture. For a complete list see: Maël Disseau, Those "one another"s [on-line]; accessed 22 April 2011; available at; Internet.
[4]Ibid., 83, 159.  Cf. Thiselton's similar thoughts about doctrine presented above.
[5]See: Maël Disseau, Hierarchy in the Body of Christ - another small excursus [on-line]; accessed 22 April 2011; available at; Internet.
[6]See: Maël Disseau, The NT Concept of Ministry - a small excursus [on-line]; accessed 22 April 2011; available at; Internet.
[7]Yarnell, The Formation of Christian Doctrine, 101-02. 

Join my blog network
on Facebook