Monday, June 1, 2009

The possible aims of a hermeneutical project

Towards the end of the previous post I said,

" But second sight tells us that life is more complex and the Bible turns out to be less than completely clear. A key issue at this point is the high number of divorced persons in the life of the church in the late modern and early post-modern eras: the churches of the West have simply not coped with this issue in the sense of preserving a high quotient of unbroken marriages and resisting the remarriage of divorcees. "

By 'less than completely clear' in relation to divorce and remarriage I mean that for the situation in society in which an extraordinarily high number of people have been divorced, and in which a variety of reasons for breakdown of marriages are recognised beyond 'adultery' and 'division over belief', the manner of the churches' response(s) is not completely clear according to the Bible (e.g. our response to a request to conduct the marriage of a divorced person). Should we respond on a case by case basis? Should we have (what we effectively have in ACANZP at this time) a 'no fault' basis to judging whether to remarry a divorced person? I appreciate that for some the situation is 'clear' as to what the Bible teaches us; but when, for example, I see the numbers of remarried clergy within the worldwide evangelical movement, I assume that for many the situation is not 'clear'. I would hope, of course, that we are all clear that the intention and commitment at the beginning of every marriage is for a faithful, permanent, stable, sacrificially loving relationship solemnly enacted through vows before God.

Nevertheless the above thoughts raise questions about the aims of any hermeneutical project in respect of human dignity. Are these aims to overturn a traditional interpretation of the church? To offer a 'get out' or 'let out' clause to a rule? To support one position as a plausible position amongst a plurality of positions? Any given question we put to the Bible can be a complex matter when viewed against the backdrop of history, to say nothing of the nuances of contemporary life. Let me give an example in respect of military service for Christians.

In the first few centuries, before Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, and then the dominant religion of Europe and the rival religion (with Islam) of the Middle East, Christians were known for their refusal to join the army. Indeed many were martyred for this act of obedience to the Scriptures. Thereafter Christianity found a way not only to permit Christians to serve in armies, but also to provide chaplaincy services, and even, shamefully in hindsight, to raise up armies for the purposes of reclaiming Palestine for Christ. (Already we see a variety of interpretations at work in the church responding to a variety of situations). Fast forward to the twentieth century and the Second World War. This war, perhaps of all wars Christians have ever fought in, even from its beginning, and cemented by the time of its conclusion, was not simply a 'just war' but a fight between the forces of good and of evil (think not only of the Holocaust, but also of the inhumane treatment of POWs by the Japanese).* Yet, fascinatingly, one of the great Christian leaders of the twentieth century, John Stott, on the basis of Scripture (of which he was to become one of the most famous preachers and interpreters through voluminous and popular writings), believed that he could not and should not fight as a soldier in that war.

No doubt some would say John Stott was wrong to draw the conclusion he drew. Others would say that the conclusion he arrived at was a possible conclusion relative to the situation (and perhaps in the same breath give thanks to God that it was not a universal conclusion of Christians in the Allied countries). Some might raise the irony of another influential Christian of the time, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, arriving at the conclusion that he should support an act of killing, namely the attempt to assassinate Hitler.

In short (and with more to be said in other posts to follow), the very aims of hermeneutics themselves are worth reflecting carefully on, even before a specific hermeneutical question is considered, since there are significant examples from history of the difficulty of knowing what the Bible clearly teaches on certain matters!

In conclusion, two notes:

(1) This particular blog is not necessarily intended to lead to a particular conclusion (so that, for example, these early posts might be interpreted as a 'softening' up for a conclusion I have already reached about a given matter). My hope remains that this blog might be one contribution to a larger set of conversations in our church.

(2) Within Scripture itself we see some interesting occasions in which hermeneutical questions are asked. One is a sober warning to all would be interpreters: the question 'Did God really say?' on the lips of the serpent in Genesis 3 led to ... well, you know the rest of the tragic story of unredeemed humanity.

Another is fresh from yesterday's Pentecost readings: in Acts 2:12 some of the people gathered in Jerusalem who witnessed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and its manifestation in tongues asked 'What does this mean?' They had a spirit of genuine enquiry and exploration, in marked contrast to others, the mockers, in the same verse, who accuse the apostolic congregation of being drunk.

BREAKING NEWS: The question of the 'right to kill' - through abortion, through the imposition of (rough) justice - for Christians is a lively, and here, a question with capacity for tragic answers.
UPDATED: To get a 'larger perspective' on Dr Tiller's role in offering abortion as a Christian, read Alpha Mummy's post which alerts us to the reasons why some women came to Dr. Tiller for help - a reminder that abortion is not as straightforward as some would like to make out.

*Yes, it was not always simple: the conquest of evil by the Allied forces sometimes involved decisions which have been vigorously challenged as to their wisdom, e.g. the fire bombing of Dresden and the atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


  1. Testing that comments are working ...

  2. How ironic! Dr Tiller's family mourns a man who was shot in church, "a place of peace". This was a man who must have killed many, many infants in the womb, their "place of peace", by crushing their skulls and dismembering their bodies. And these were only the ones older than 20 weeks; the ones who had some small chance of survival if they'd been delivered whole.

    Odd that he could be respected enough to be given a job as usher in his church. Or may it's not that odd at all.

  3. I note Dr Tiller's church was the "Reformation Lutheran" church. What would Luther make of the present state of the hermeneutical project he unleashed in the church?!