Sunday, July 26, 2009

The contribution of experience to hermeneutics

The Diocese of Niagara (Canada) has announced a new 'sacrament of blessing' which may be used for the occasion of civil marriage/partnerships. On their website one can find this material in support of a theological background to this new sacrament.

Reading it I am struck by the explicit and unembarrassed exaltation of the role of experience to trump the united witness of Scripture, tradition, and reason.

Indeed a paragraph in the introduction to this document nicely captures the flavour of the document as a whole (my italics):

"The first essay, A Theological Justification of Blessing Same Gender Relationships, by Brian Ruttan, argues directly for blessing of committed same gender relationships by integrating common Canadian social experience into the theological foundations provided by scripture, reason and tradition."

About 1001 questions run through my mind when I read this kind of thing! But the question which jumps out at me is this: who decides that 'common Canadian social experience' is worthy of integration into theological foundations along with scripture, reason and tradition?

But, generally, the question I am highlighting here on Hermeneutics and Human Dignity is this: what role does experience play in hermeneutics?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

People, gospel, issues in human sexuality

Richard Kew is as thoughtful a priest as you can get, with the added bonus that he has deep knowledge of both TEC and the C of E, having worked for many years in the former, and grown up in the latter, to which he has recently returned to work. His whole post, sparked by reading Oliver O' Donovan's recent book, A Conversation Waiting to Begin: The churches and the gay controversy (London: SCM Press, 2009), and discovering that one of his 'nearest and dearest' is actively gay, is worth reading. I give just a few paragraphs here:

"Rather than pontificating, he graciously nudges us to look at issue within the context of the changed realities with which we live in an evolving culture. Each relatively short chapter asks us to come at the topic using tools of ethical and theological scholarship, Scripture, hermeneutics, and measuring these against the substantial doctrines of creation and redemption. Sometimes he speaks overtly about being logical and reasonable in our quest, but on almost every page he is whispering this as if between the lines.

Why is it, he asks, that this one little thing has proved so explosive and divisive? Well, comes back the answer, it depends what you mean by 'one little thing?' How little actually is this? In the fourth century the church as it went through the exercise of creed-making seemed to be riven over one little iota, but in reality that discussion was about a great deal more because at stake was affirming a truthful understanding of the nature of God or one that is idolatrous. Are we, he asks, in a similar situation here?

While never exactly giving a definitive answer to such a question, by leading us along a number of different pathways as we approach the topic he leaves us nodding and saying, "Yes, there is an enormous amount at stake here of which differing understandings of human sexuality are merely the trigger."

Part of what is being said is that we have probably not given as much attention as we should to the changing social climate of the world in which we now live. Certainly since the nineteenth century, and especially within Anglicanism, there has existed a 'liberalism' that has modulated disagreement and enabled diversity to exist within the context of a generous unity. This underlying liberalism has been able to step back, untangle the skein, reconcile conflicting views, tone down exaggerated positions, forge coalitions, square circles, and in the process find a commonsense way through (page 5)."

Richard Kew does not do hermeneutics per se here as he reflects, but he leads us into the nuances of the contexts of society and church in which we seek to do hermeneutics. Worth a look.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Who is the centre of the Bible?

I would usually say 'God'. But this afternoon, reading through a book review in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, I came across this comment:

"... as (oddly enough) Martin Luther maintained, the Bible is not about God but about human beings. To read it in order to discover the divine nature is to read it against the grain; the true way to read it is as offering insight into how life should be lived in the presence of the God who remains deeply unknown."*

There is food for thought here! The Bible certainly tells a lot of stories about human beings and the situations they get themselves into and (sometimes) how God gets them out of their predicaments while also offering narratives (sometimes) about how God is the author of their troubles. Through these stories, and various rules, regulations, proverbs, songs and proclamations we gain a sense of 'how we should then live'. But - at risk of disagreeing with the great Luther - the Bible is also about God. Barth, after all, says that we have no knowledge about God apart from the Bible (though Barth would agree that the God who reveals himself is also the God who remains deeply unknown).

But the observation is encouraging for the hermeneutical task: it is worth trying to understand properly a writing which offers insight into how life is to be lived.

*Review of: Gershom M. H. Ratheiser, Mitzvoth Ethics and the Jewish Bible: The End of Old Testament Theology (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 460; London/New York: Clark, 2007). Pp. xiv + 409. $145, by John Barton, in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly Vol. 71, No. 3 / July 2009, pp. 624-626. Citation from p. 625.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The words of God do not justify cruelty to women

The title of this post is the title of an article published in The Observer and republished in the Christchurch Press which arrives at the end of our Nelson driveway each morning! Jimmy Carter, writing the article, makes an excellent case for an overall interpretation of the Bible determining that men and women are equal and that women may not be treated as second-class citizens. While the whole can be read here, I draw attention to something I did not know, that Jimmy Carter, possibly one of the most famous Southern Baptists ever, has severed ties with that denomination:

"I have been a practising Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when th e convention's leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be "subservient" to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service. This was in conflict with my belief - confirmed in the holy scriptures - that we are all equal in the eyes of God."

On one matter I think Jimmy Carter is too confident in his assertions:

"At the same time, I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn't until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted holy scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy."

I think it would be difficult to establish, definitively, that women served as 'priests' and 'bishops' in the early church.

In respect of hermeneutics it is interesting to observe Jimmy Carter's understanding of how the 'negative' verses re women in ministry are to be dealt with:

"Although not having training in religion or theology, I understand that the carefully selected verses found in the holy scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place - and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence - than eternal truths. Similar Biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers."

Finally, just as a good Catholic will cite the Pope in support of a challenging proposal, so Carter cites the evangelical Christian's 'next-best-person-to-the-Pope', Billy Graham:

"I know, too, that Billy Graham, one of the most widely respected and revered Christians during my lifetime, did not understand why women were prevented from being priests and preachers. He said: "Women preach all over the world. It doesn't bother me from my study of the scriptures." "

Jimmy Carter makes an important point in respect of hermeneutics and human dignity. In the name of God, women are being treated appallingly the world over. Most visibly, in the media of the West, this appalling treatment occurs in Islamic countries. But we in the Christian West should not rest easy when women are badly treated here, and should be especially concerned when God's Word is invoked in support of less than equal treatment of women. There is only one humanity in creation and in redemption, only one plan of salvation for each and every human being, without distinction between male and female.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

What are the issues?

Recently a meeting was held in London to establish the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, within the Church of England, indeed, for I am sketchy on details, probably within all the Anglican churches of UK and Ireland.

At the meeting Archbishop Peter Jensen gave a major address which you can read here. I think it as fine a statement of theology from the FCA (and it's related conference, GAFCON) as you will read. But that does not make it infallible, and More than a via media has published a post on 'The flawed hermeneutics of FCA' with special attention to ++Peter's address. I post an excerpt here which represents some of the hermeneutical challenges FCA faces ... but of course, faced by all who 'take the Bible seriously' in this day and age:

"... Back to hermeneutics. +Sydney declared that two incompatible views of Scripture exist in contemporary Anglicanism:

"Those who hold that the Bible is the inspired word of God will see in it a unity which holds all things together. Those who regard it as a human witness to God, drawn together as a sort of library, will find contradiction and tension throughout".

Admittedly the Archbishop was constrained by time and content, so it might be unfair to read too deeply into those words. Nevertheless, they do appear to be very simplistic. On the one side are the liberals - they are the ones who see only contradiction and tension, because they do not recognise Scripture's status as inspired. On the other, the - what shall we call them? - traditionalists. Because they know Scripture is inspired, they are not hampered by any contradictions or tensions in the text.

The problems are obvious with +Sydney's choice of words. He demeans, almost overlooks, the human participation in the writing of Scripture. It appears to be a form of Docetism - it looks like a human document, but it's not. N.T. Wright's language that Scripture is "one of the points where heaven and earth overlap and interlock" (alongside the Incarnation and the sacraments) is a necessary correction to the Archbishop's words.

But there is the other problem - only liberals, he tells us, are hampered by "contradiction and tension" in the text of Scripture. Yesterday in the daily office lectionary in the Church of Ireland we had 1 Samuel 15 as one of the readings. ..."

I encourage you to read the whole post.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The oldest version of the greatest book

The surviving parts of the world's oldest Christian bible will be reunited online today, generating excitement among biblical scholars still striving to unlock its mysteries.

The Codex Sinaiticus was hand written by four scribes in Greek on animal hide, known as vellum, in the mid-fourth century around the time of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great who embraced Christianity.

Not all of it has withstood the ravages of time, but the pages that have include the whole of the New Testament and the earliest surviving copy of the Gospels written at different times after Christ's death by four of the Apostles: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The bible's remaining 800 pages and fragments – it was originally some 1400 pages long – also contain half of a copy of the Old Testament. The other half has been lost.

"The Codex Sinaiticus is one of the world's greatest written treasures," said Scot McKendrick, head of Western manuscripts at the British Library.

"This 1600-year-old manuscript offers a window into the development of early Christianity and first-hand evidence of how the text of the bible was transmitted from generation to generation," he said.

Read it all on

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Niche church or catholic church

Philip Turner writing at The Anglican Communion Institute takes on the might of The Episcopal Church (TEC), relentlessly arguing that an exclusive concern for inclusiveness excludes those who do not subscribe to the particular agenda and rationale of the inclusives. In the course of his argument he makes this point (italics mine):

"Exclusion of meaningful opposition in respect to the matters now before The Episcopal Church in the end will produce a niche church rather than a catholic church. Progressive claims to inclusivity are in fact false. The logic of their position drives relentlessly toward an increasingly constricted identity. The question progressive Episcopalians must answer is why members of the Episcopal Church that do not share their views ought to think otherwise. To put the issue more directly, progressive Episcopalians need to show the membership of their church and the rest of the Anglican Communion why their position does not end in an exclusive form of church life rather than a diverse one."

This is a reminder for hermeneuticists of the Anglican churches that if hermeneutics does not lead to one absolute, unifying truth, that could be a good thing. Difference in hermeneutical conclusions can contribute to the catholicity of the church. Closedness to more than one conclusion could lead to a nice church (i.e. we like it) which is a niche church (i.e. a few of us like it, but many pass it by).