Friday, May 29, 2009

There are no Hermeneutical Hills to die on

In an otherwise excellent post about the Church of Scotland, its recent decisions re homosexuality, and evangelical Presbyterian strategy in response, Carl Trueman says this:

"Unwelcome also was my hint that the gay issue is the result, in part, of a hermeneutical shift on the Bible’s teaching on women’s ordination (`not a hill to die on’ according to the Stillites) which shift has now come back to haunt the evangelicals on the issue of homosexuality. This point, if press reports are accurate, has not been lost on opponents of the evangelicals who have been quick to exploit the inconsistency."

Implicit here (so I interpret!!) is an argument that evangelicals in the Church of Scotland ought to have made the issue of the ordination of women a hermeneutical hill to die on - the presumption being that if the line had been held then against change then the C of S would not be at the point it has now reached.

Now, there is a truth here: if one fights a battle on one hill and wins it, the war is unlikely to proceed to the next hill. But there is also a false analogy here: hermeneutical issues are not hills to die on but problems to be resolved (if possible), and we are not engaged in a war when we are Christians seeking to understand what it means to be human while also being partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

There are other problems with the line Trueman takes (and he is not alone among evangelicals in thinking this way). It makes the churches' understanding of the role of women in ministry subject to fear about the future of another issue. Worse, it implies that women and their concerns are to blame for the situation we have now arrived at (If only we had not agreed to the ordination of women we would not be in the current mess). Once again, male dominance is exerted over women in the life of the church.

There is another way. Human dignity in relation to hermeneutics means that each hermeneutical issue concerning our humanity is treated on its merits. The question of women being ordained and the questions regarding partnered gay and lesbian Christians being ordained or their relationship being blessed are different questions. One should not be confused with another!

Certainly all such questions involve the same Scripture, and the manner of attending to each should involve a consistent hermeneutical approach. This last point is challenging for evangelicals. Here are two questions to ponder:

- what hermeneutical approach was involved in the argument for the abolition of slavery?

- what hermeneutical approach was involved in the argument for the acceptance of the remarriage of divorcees?

If we can be clear, and agreed on the answers to these two questions we could have a good starting point to considering how we might be consistent in our hermeneutical approach to the ordination of women and to issues in regard to homosexuality.

PS There are 'hills to die on' but I suggest they concern basic creedal matters which distinguish the Christian faith from other faiths and from atheism. By definition 'hermeneutical issues' are matters of disagreement within the church because faithful readers of Scripture genuinely disagree as to the meaning of Scripture. Nevertheless I recognize that in past times Christians have killed other Christians for such disagreements (e.g. executing Anabaptists in the 16th century).


  1. Hello Peter,

    I can't answer your questions re slavery and divorce and remarriage but I've discovered a couple of interesting things. Maybe you already know all about them.

    First, here is an article titled, "Slavery, The Gospel of Life and the Magisterium . The author writes that in 1557 Pope Paul III described slavery as, "a crime 'unheard of before now'". Apparently adventurers in the New World were trying to say that the Indians were less than fully human and therefore incapable of receiving Christ and therefore they could be conquered and enslaved. But the Pope said that the Indians, "indeed are true men ... and are not to be reduced to slavery".

    Second, I've found a book titled, "Slaves, women & homosexuals: exploring the hermeneutics of cultural analysis," by William J. Webb. (IVP 2001) You can have a limited look through it here.Webb says that he uses a redemptive-movement hermeneutic.

    From pages 30-31:

    "When taking the ancient text into our modern world, the redemptive spirit of Scripture is the most significant dimension with which a Christian can wrestle. ...

    A crucial distinction drives ... the entire hermeneutic proposed within this book - the distinction between (1) a redemptive-spirit appropriation of Scripture, which encourages movement beyond the original application of the text in the ancient world, and (2) a static appropriation of Scripture, which understands the words of the text aside from or with minimal emphasis upon their underlying spirit and thus restricts any modern application of Scripture to where the isolated words of the text fell in their original setting."

    Have you read this book?

  2. Hi Janice
    I did not know about Pope Paul III - thank you.
    I have dipped into Webb's book: I think there is something in his redemptive-movement hermeneutic.

    But I suspect it is not without problems: for example, one line about movement in hermeneutics re women is this: the early church in its primitive state was fairly free re the joint roles of men and women; but as it developed a clearer sense of the roles of men and women in ministry developed; this was in an institutional direction, exemplified in 1 Tim 2:12 (all recognize this a late NT document relative to other Pauline epistles), and further embedded in the fullness of time in the Catholic priesthood. That's a hermeneutical movement ... but it's opposite to Webb's!!

  3. Hello Peter,

    You wrote:

    That's a hermeneutical movement ... but it's opposite to Webb's!!Indeed.

    So that particular hermeneutical movement is the opposite of redemptive. Therefore it must be enslaving. It's based not on the hard work of discerning the movement of God's Spirit but on the easy work of recognising the physical characteristics of human beings.

    Me, I want to be free to be who God made me to be. I am no more a "housewife" than my husband is a "fireman" or a "train driver" or a "policeman". But certain people in this world would allow my husband to be who God made him to be while telling me that I, just because I am a woman, must be shoved, willy nilly, into a box that says my "nature", and therefore my purpose in life, is to be my husband's domestic servant. Obviously I am not, not even generically, a "true man" according to those people. And since I cannot be, according to anyone's lights, a "super man" I must therefore be a "lesser man". All the talk about ontological equality is just so much wind.

  4. Hi Janice
    I would have to do a lot more work on the trajectory I outlined to say whether it was or wasn't 'redemptive' ... but others can have a go!
    Personally I have found when suggesting 'All the talk about ontological equality is just so much wind' that defenders of such notions mount a vigorous (if unconvincing) defence!