Prepared for the Stone-Campbell Dialogue, Nashville, June 12-13, 2006
With the usual caveats about daring to speak for a congregationally organized denomination, this essay reflects my impressions as a well-traveled scholar in Churches of Christ. It is not based on extensive research. To my knowledge, no one has attempted a widespread survey of Church of Christ members on hermeneutics.
Broadly, there are three approaches to hermeneutics among us. All three will be found in every congregation.
Literalistic, Pattern Hermenutics
The first approach and still the majority position, is a literalistic pattern hermeneutics that assumes that the Bible is clear to all. Many in this group would deny they have a hermeneutic. They just read the Bible that “says what it means and means what it says.” This naïve literalism usually leads to sectarianism. Since the Bible is clear to all, then those who disagree with our interpretation on certain issues are not merely wrong but are bad-hearted. They thus do not deserve the name Christian and are not part of the true church.
Ironically, while claiming to follow the clear teaching of Scripture, those who take this approach are actually captive to tradition. The proof texts, the “issues,” and the hermeneutic are all earlier generations. Indeed, the very language used in discussing those texts has no changed in the last seventy years.
Scholarly, Critical, Theological Hermeneutics
The second approach, used by a large minority in Churches of Christ, has found its way into many congregations through ministers and others educated in our schools in the last forty years. This scholarly critical hermeneutics would be the same used by scholars in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and by most scholars in Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. Although the approach is the same among scholars in all three groups, their conclusions might differ greatly.
Unlike the first approach, this one focuses less on proof texts and patterns and more on the major theological themes of Scripture. For many this entails a Christological or Trinitarian reading of the text. This theological reading allows a greater variety of biblical theologies, which is why those insisting on a single pattern to Scripture find it so threatening.
Postcritical, Spiritual Hermeneutics
A third approach, taken by a small but growing minority of members, questions the entire modern rationalistic hermeneutic followed by both group above. Instead it calls for a return to an earlier meditative reading of Scripture, using lectio divina and other methods of reading for spiritual transformation. Those advocating this method are not so-much uncritical and naïve in their reading (although this is the charge laid against them by critical scholars), but postcritical with a second naïveté.
This handling of the Bible circumvents the clash between the first two approaches by expecting an encounter with the living God through contemplation of Scripture, instead of arriving at true doctrine or theology that then takes the place of Scripture. While seeking to serve God with all the mind, this hermeneutic takes the role of the Spirit in reading to be indispensable.
Implications for Our Dialogue
As a “Back to the Bible” movement, hermeneutics will always be important to all our people. However, hermeneutics has not and can never unite us. Here, Barton Stone was correct, not Thomas Campbell. In spite of Campbell’s optimism in the Declaration and Address, we never have agreed on what was expressly taught in scripture, nor on the role of examples and the silence of Scripture. Stone was correct to see such attempts as “head union,” in his words, “Each one believed his opinion of certain texts to be the very spirit and meaning of the texts—and that this opinion was absolutely necessary to salvation” Such head union can never achieve Christian unity, as our subsequent history has shown.
I suggest the problem has not been with our systems of biblical interpretation. Do we really think our three branches can agree on hermeneutics? Even agree on most important issues? Since we cannot agree on what the Bible teaches about leadership roles for women, about how we view gay and lesbian Christians, or even about church organization and worship styles, then unity must transcend these differences. The problem is not our hermeneutics but our hearts.
Practically, that means we must stop judging those or looking down on those who disagree with our biblical interpretations. Those in Churches of Christ and Christian Churches must stop lying about the Disciples, saying things like, “They don’t really believe the Bible.” Of course, they believe the Bible! We simply disagree on interpretation. Disciples must stop looking down on those in Churches of Christ and in Christian Churches, calling them ignorant, narrow-minded fundamentalists. They are none of those things. We simply disagree on hermeneutics. In the words of Scripture, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25).
Christian unity must be based on more than head union or hermeneutical agreement. It must be a genuine spiritual union where we accept one another in the Lord particularly when the other is “wrong” in their biblical interpretation. Whether the issue is homosexuality, eating meat sacrificed to idols, or the silence of Scripture, we dare not judge or look down upon a brother or sister for whom Christ died.
Does this approach entail a lessening of respect for the full authority of Scripture? No! Instead, it esteems the Bible as the inspired account of a God who so loved the world, a Son who gave his life for us, and a Spirit given to give us unity in the bond of peace. To bite and devour one another in the name of being Bible believers is to deny the authority of the one who taught us to treat others the way we wish to be treated.
Let us talk no more of hermeneutics, as if they could unite us. Let us endeavor to maintain the unity of the Spirit “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).