- Joel Rainey is the Director of Missions at Mid-Maryland Baptist Association, an adjunct professor at Capital Bible Seminary and blogs at Themelios (Twitter – @joelrainey).
This week, I’m teaching a doctoral seminar atSoutheastern Baptist Theological Seminary on current issues affecting the church. Western evangelicalism faces an increasing number of challenges when it comes to engaging its surrounding culture in a way that is both faithful to Jesus, and fruitful within our current environment. And sometimes, we find ourselves at cross-purposes with one another regarding an issue.
Whether we are dealing with family, sexuality, ecology, technology, or any other issue which has proven to be a “moving target” in our day, our approaches are sometimes divergent. Jen Hatmaker and Rachel Held Evans, for example, both talk an awful lot about Jesus and claim a high level of reverence for the written Scriptures, but come to very different conclusions when it comes to homosexuality. Jonathan Merritt and Albert Mohler likewise, often come to opposing views of numerous social and political issues that currently dominate our national conversation.
Most of the time, our differences in approach are merely that–varied and sometimes contrasting perspectives on how to effectively engage the world Jesus died to save. But occasionally, the divide is much deeper. The advent of what has been commonly called “post-evangelicalism” has, on the surface, seemed to be about engagement. But beneath the surface, it becomes apparent that the issue is far more serious.
Its about how the authority of Scripture is perceived.
As a result, I led our Doctor of Ministry cohort yesterday morning in a discussion of the three prominent approaches to interpreting Scripture that are currently driving a lot of discussion within the western churches. For pastors and other ministry leaders, this is crucially important to understand, because its not just our belief about Scripture that drives our approach to culture. Its also how we approach its interpretation.
Currently, there are three predominant schools of thought in regard to how Scripture should be approached and interpreted. While each approach brings perspectives that can be helpful to those who follow Jesus, some contain inherent dangers that can lead to failure rather than fruitfulness. What follows is a very brief, and therefore admittedly somewhat oversimplified, overview of these approaches.
The Historical-Grammatical Approach: Current approaches to this method emerged in the early 20th century in response to European higher criticism. Like the higher critical approach, this method seeks to understand and respect the literary aspects of the Scriptural texts, and as a result gives heavy consideration to the literary, linguistic, contextual, historical, and canonical factors when seeking to determine meaning.
What sets this method apart however, is the presumption that authorial intent should govern our approach to interpretation. And this presumption is informed by a view of Scripture that assumes a plenary verbal understanding of inspiration. This is to say that advocates of this approach (myself included) come to the Bible presupposing that The Holy Spirit ensured that every word left to us in its pages is the fully inspired word of God Himself. And since this inspiration is expressed through the personalities, writing styles, and employed literary genres of the more than 40 human authors who penned the Scriptures, the best way to arrive at Scripture’s meaning is to ask one simple question: “What did the Holy Spirit-inspired author intend to say here?”
Admittedly, this approach results in some degree of circular reasoning, and some of its advocates have occasionally fallen victim to epistemological idealism. Nevertheless, this approach best undergirds a high view of Scripture as God’s inspired Word, and is therefore the best starting point for understanding appropriate application to any context in which we might find ourselves.
The Postliberal Approach: This hermeneutical school of thought emerged out of a view of Scripture known as “Neo-orthodoxy.” George Lindbeck, Hans Willhelm Frei, and Stanley Hauerwas, all of whom were deeply influenced by Karl Barth (the founder of Neo-orthodoxy), developed this approach to understanding Scripture while the three were teaching together at Yale Divinity School. For this reason, the postliberal hermeneutic is sometimes loosely referred to as the “New Yale school.”
Though this approach employs a non-foundationalist approach to the text, there is a very helpful side of it that recognizes–perhaps more clearly than their historical-grammatical counterparts–the noetic effects of the fall and the resulting inevitability of subjective interpretation. Additionally, postliberal thinkers do affirm a “normative element” in every interpretation informed by the history of the church, and the way the global body of Christ has approached a given text. Therefore, this school of thought sees a solemn responsibility of the present church as a “sub-community” which seeks to stand on the shoulders of those who read and interpreted in the past, while simultaneously forming active responses to current issues themselves. As such, they focus on the community of faith as Holy Spirit-filled and thus competent interpreters of Scripture, further emboldened in their attempts by their brothers and sisters who interpret Scripture together with them in the sub-community.
The problem with this approach is the tendency to see the sub-community as the final authority in itself. In many ways, this approach is an advocacy of Neo-orthodoxy in reverse. Karl Barth taught that the transcendence of God meant He could not be fully and finally revealed in human language, and therefore Scriptural interpretation becomes an exercise in “listening past the scratches [human error in the text] in order to hear the Master’s voice.” In other words, the Bible isn’t the Word of God, but becomes the Word of God as we encounter it and respond to it. Conversely, postliberal hermeneutics require that the sub-community impart present meaning to the text, thereby placing the final interpretive authority not int he text itself, but in the sub-community. In Neo-orthodoxy, Scripture isn’t the Word of God until it meaningfully encounters us. In postliberal thought, Scripture has no meaning until meaning is imparted by the sub-community. Current voices like Leonard Sweet have advocated this approach as the preferred approach–especially when seeking to address issues affected by philosophicalpostmodernism. The inherent danger, however, is of a presumptuous sub-community that sees itself imparting meaning, and thus authority to the Biblical text. The authority of Scripture is inherent. Scripture doesn’t need the church to be Scripture, or to have inherent meaning.
The “Redemptive Movement” Approach. Canadian scholar William J. Webb is currently the most visible advocate of this interpretive approach. His 2001 book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals is a thoroughly researched, comprehensive description of this school of thought, which views Scripture as calling believers toward an “ultimate ethic” To do this, redemptive movement advocates seek to locate common “voices” in the text which collectively call believers toward a “progressive trajectory.” As a result, critics of this view will sometimes use the pejorative term “trajectory hermeneutic.”
Webb point to three distinct recognitions that must be ascertained in order to properly interpret any Biblical command. The first is the specific Biblical command itself. The second is the cultural context in which that command appears. The third is the “ultimate ethic” that can be determined by understanding how the command and surrounding culture relate to one another when they are placed together on a “trajectory.”
This approach assumes an “arc of history” understanding of human progress. That is, it views human history as a history of moving forward, becoming constantly more enlightened, and progressing forward in more effective ways.Though positive, this is a rather naive and simplistic view of history that sometimes results in what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” Thinking that my grandfather probably wasn’t as smart and enlightened as me simply because I grew up 6 decades after he did is historically adolescent and full of hubris. But thinking I have a better view of the “ultimate ethic” of God than Jeremiah or the Apostle Paul is simply spiritually dangerous.
The biggest issue with this approach is that the “ultimate ethic” is never clearly definedwithin Scripture. When you leave the end result open like this, the inevitable result is that culture’s prevailing views will determine meaning. Such is precisely the kind of scenario that can end with entire churches who have their feet planted firmly in mid-air, and ultimately irrelevant to their communities and the world. Though Webb stops short of full cultural capitulation, many who have come behind him have taken those additional steps, and there is nothing in this approach to interpretation to stop them from doing so. In particular, when you read Justin Lee or Rachel Held Evans on homosexuality, you are reading opinions that are largely informed by this approach. One does not have to employ this approach to recognize the culturally and covenantally-bound nature of some Biblical texts.
For followers of Jesus, every subject is ultimately a spiritual conversation, and consequently, a conversation that should take us back to our source of authority. Understanding the proper way to interpret that authority source is perhaps more important today than it has ever been.