As I observed a few discussion threads over the past few days on Christian topics, a theme tends to emerge. Some Christians disdain any mention of theology, doctrine or hermeneutics. You’ll get one pitted against each such as theology vs true faith or doctrine vs scripture. A typical statement goes like this that one person told me – “theology and doctrine has its place but that is not the substance of our faith.” Yes, Christ is the substance of our but to think theology and doctrine is not is both naive and not true. Not true.
Every Christian has a theology, a set of doctrine and a hermeneutic. Everyone!
Theology is whatever we think about God.
Doctrine is what we believe that theology teaches.
Hermeneutics is how we interpret what theology teaches.
If you say the substance of your faith is Jesus Christ, then you have to come to some conclusions about what that means, who he is and how you arrive at your conclusions. This is the task of theology and without it, you have no reasonable basis to come to any conclusions about the Christian faith.
This also supposes that you have some way of interpreting the facts about the Christian faith. From a Protestant perspective, this presumes that one is basing their understanding on the Bible, recognizing that it is the testimony of Jesus Christ cover to cover, breathed out by God to give us his word through the pens, personalities, and literary style of 40 authors (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The problem then is not knowing what it is and believing that we have complete neutrality when approaching the Bible or using other means to determine our faith. We all have some way of formulating what we believe and why we believe it.
Anthony Bradley summarized it this way in an on-line discussion I observed.
When people are not aware that they bring presuppositions to the task of exegesis. If people aren’t aware that they have presuppositions and/or are not willing to put those on the table first and actually naively believe that they are being ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ you all are wasting your time. If someone believes that they were not trained in a particular school of thought, which is impossible not to be, you’re wasting your time. Because the Fall actually happened there is no such thing as ‘true’ hermeneutics unaffected by bias and presuppositions.
That prompted this post, Presuppositions Matter. He goes on to say this;
One of the stumbling blocks in Protestant evangelicalism is that leaders teach their constituents that their respective positions are ‘the Biblical’ positions when, if fact, they are formed and concluded by particular approaches and perspectives. The implication is that each tribe says that they are ‘truly’ Biblical and those who disagree with them are not Biblical. The fact is every tradition believes that their distinctives are ‘biblical.’ Ignoring our presuppositions often leads to useless quarreling and much wasted time (2 Tim 2; Titus 3). This does not mean that all things are up for debate and difference, but it does challenge us to pay closer attention to those things that the Scriptures are more clear about.
Amen! And I have seen this first hand in discussions and observe it through polemics against other positions. When the broader framework of one’s methodology is not taken into consideration, it ends up being a war of words and needless accusations. Baptism is one topic that comes to mind and riff between the credo and paedo positions. Dr. Bradley’s point is that understanding where others are coming from, will help to forge unity.
But his main point must be duly noted. It’s naive to think that we can have no method of interpretation and just approach the text with neutrality. We all have some kind of influence that we bring to the text and especially those we learn from who help us shape our ideas about Christianity. There is no such thing as just being biblical because it is necessary to have some type of methodology to interpret Scripture. The idea that we just pick up the Bible and read often ends up in what I call Scattegory Hermeneutics, a hodge-podge of interpretative methods that either over-emphasize some areas than others and/or produce inconsistencies with the complete witness of Scripture and faithfulness to historic Christianity. When coupled with pragmatism and experience that is so prevalent in mainstream evangelicalism, interpretation becomes its hostage bending to the will of expediency.
Now this may raise an obvious question and concern. Does this mean we impose theology unto the text? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that there is a set of presuppositions that are the sina que non of Christianity. Meaning, there certain things we must believe to be true about the tenets of the Christian faith, without which Christianity does not exist. That’s why its important to have teachers, who themselves have taken the time to study the depth and breadth of Scripture, church history and the discipline of theology. This helps in knowing have or have not been faithful to the historic witness of Christianity.
But no in the sense that a framework does not mean a commitment for life. It’s basically a starting point to make sense of how we should understand how the 66 books hang together. It is not uncommon or unreasonable to shift a hermeneutical method. I myself have shifted away from a straight historical grammatical approach and embracing a redemptive-historical model.
Of course there is a danger in too much choice, especially when it disconnects from the church’s historic confessions, introduces novelty and has the potential of bastardizing Christianity. David Garner recently wrote this excellent article, Serial Choice? Hermeneutics and a High View of the Bible that is well worth the read.
Another question, or rather objection, that I think this proposal likely raises is what about the new Christian. Are we telling them they have to have a hermeneutical approach when they are just learning about Jesus and what it means to be a Christian? No, of course not. But part of the discipleship process is training people in the truth of Scripture. Over time, they have to be introduced to some kind of methodology. And this presumes the one teaching has an idea of what kind of interpretive method they are using. A response indicating that hermeneutics doesn’t matter is telling.