Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Way the Bible Reads the Bible

I am always delighted, though never surprised, to find serious flaws in the application of the supposed ideological presuppositions of the Churches of Christ. (It’s that immature, rebellious child in me that likes to lash out at my spiritual parentage.) It was a major turning point in my spiritual development when my wife asked the very innocent question, “Where does the Bible talk about selecting elders?” It took about two hours for us to finally conclude that the Bible not only never outlines the democratic selection process so popular in the Churches of Christ but actually speaks exclusively of an appointment process. Another month of posing my wife’s question to every professor I could lay hands on did little to impede my growing realization that the very framework of Restorationist belief and practice was in fact little more than a thin fa├žade hiding rationalism and capitulation to a nineteenth century culture that is now obsolete. Calling Bible things by Bible names, doing Bible things in Bible ways, speaking where the Bible speaks and being silent where the Bible is silent - in short, restoring the first century church based only on what can be derived from Scripture - make for good slogans and bad founding principles.

My most recent reinforcement of this dismal perspective came during a course I took under Fr. John Behr at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. In the course, he addressed at length the importance of a person’s theological presuppositions in forming one’s hermeneutical presuppositions. In the context of juxtaposing Jewish and early Christian hermeneutics, Fr. Behr discussed some of the most basic beliefs about the character of Scripture in general which were shared by Jews and Christians as well as the theological disparities which yielded such radically different interpretations of the text. He made the point in passing that our own presuppositions have made it very difficult to conceive of Scripture in the way the early church did. Even simply understanding why it is certain fathers, or even the apostles, understood a text the way they did requires a complex harmony of history, theology, and exegesis. The modern person has no less a distinct starting point for biblical interpretation than did the Jews who rejected early Christian “misappropriation” of their Scriptures.

The Churches of Christ are no less guilty of this charge. In spite of claims to be restoring a first century church, a simplified Christianity with an authentic Christian mindset, Churches of Christ adopt the same basic hermeneutical launching point as most major Protestant denominations. They cling quite readily to principles of interpretation which locate relevant meaning first and foremost in a thorough and accurate exegesis of the text. Quite contrary to antique views of Scripture which held a text to be cryptic and perpetually speaking to the present, modern hermeneutics begin by stripping away any sense of mystery through scientific evaluation of what a text meant in the past. If that should happen to give insight in the present, all the better, but that is by no means an inherent characteristic of Scripture as such.

In fact, Churches of Christ may be guiltier than other groups. Their acceptance of historical-critical presuppositions is logically prior to their engagement of Scripture. The historical concept of a first century church in need of restoration and the critical belief that the plain sense of Scripture is readily accessible are the founding beliefs of the Restoration Movement which thus cloud every engagement with Scripture. Only by accepting fundamentally unbiblical ways of engaging the Bible a priori can the Churches of Christ uphold “key” beliefs, e.g. the plurality of elders, the radical autonomy of the local church, and a capella worship.

Were we to apply the “Bible things; Bible ways” principle to hermeneutics, the result would not be a historical-critical framework which locates meaning in right exegesis. That assertion ought to be self-evident, but a few simple examples should suffice to prove it nevertheless. Matthew 13:35, Mark 12:10, Luke 4:21, John 5:39, and Acts 2:16 serve as obvious illustrations of the primarily Christological interpretation of the Scriptures in the Gospels and Acts. The same basic hermeneutic continues in the epistles, e.g. 1 Cor 15:13 and 1 Pet 2:6. Other interpretations of the Scriptures include ecclesiastical (1 Tim 5:18) or theological (Gal 4:27) appropriation of Old Testament texts. The common thread, of course, is that none of these interpretations of Old Testament texts (and perhaps a New Testament one in 1 Tim 5:18) adopt the rationalistic interpretive strategy on which the Churches of Christ base everything from their ecclesiology to their deepest theology. There is little regard, if not positive disregard, for the historical context of a passage. Meaning, for the New Testament authors at least, comes not from human evaluation but only when God has “opened the Scriptures to us” (Luke 24:32).

As a closing disclaimer, let me clarify that my point is neither to undermine historical-critical hermeneutics nor to propose primarily Christological hermeneutics as an alternative. My purpose is only to illustrate a deficiency, even hypocrisy, in the way Stone-Campbell churches (of which I am a part) apply their hermeneutical presuppositions. There is a great deal of discord over a variety of issues based on whether or not the Bible approves of them. Can we have extra-congregational superstructures? Can we have instruments in worship? Can we have kitchens and gyms and fellowship halls in church buildings? What does the Bible say about this? This last question is often the first question posed. The original question, if consistency is to be maintained, would be “What does the Bible say about how to read the Bible?” Frankly, I am of the opinion that anyone honest enough to pursue that question first will be unsatisfied with the implications of the answer. I admit, however, that someone who genuinely undertakes to do Bible things in Bible ways is better than someone who only pretends to do so.

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