Saturday, June 06, 2009

Wesleyan Hermeneutics (plural): My Take Away

The symposium was a great time to refect on things, to hear new ideas, to get a feel for where others are. Here is my take away from the weekend. First, it is clear that not everyone in the room operates with the same hermeneutic. For many, their system of interpretation is actually unknown to them. Others lean toward a fundamentalist/old school evangelical hermeneutic. Some have incorporated some postmodern elements. Some are in a "second naivete" and reclaming the "pre-modern" hermeneutic of the late nineteenth century holiness writers.

So it is no suprise that some wondered whether there really is such a thing as a Wesleyan hermeneutic, although Dr. Tom Armiger, one of our General Superintendents, did a superb job of capturing the dominant points of the weekend. I'm sure they will be posted online soon, probably here.

But I think I can map all this confusion and thus specify clearly a number of Wesleyan hermeneutics, plural, none of which we can properly reject.

A Tale of Two Hermeneutics
I am quite certain that you could approach this issue from another vantage point than the one I take here. But I can't think of any other approach that will bring greater categorizing power than the following.

Hermeneutical theory, in my mind, is a given. It is not Wesleyan. It is not Calvinist. It is not this or that. It just is. It is a science, and it is valid. It is the question of how one assigns meaning to a text.

There are only two ways to interpret a text, when we approach them from my categorizing approach. 1) You can try to read them in terms of their original contexts or 2) you can read them against some other context. There is no other option from this categorizing standpoint.

Now, there is, of course, a multiplicity of contexts other than the original ones against which you might read a text. This is where the notion of polyvalence, much invoked in the conference, come into play. These are almost impossible to categorize exhaustively.

It is also true that there is some degree of ambiguity about what it might mean to read a text in the light of its original contexts. An author might have a different understanding of a text than his or her audience, even though they partake of the same general context. Texts often have unintended potentialities, as anyone who has taken a true/false quiz will recognize. Texts leave gaps... and so forth.

But the general distinction seems unassailable. There is a kind of reading of a text that listens to it in the light of its original contexts and there are a multitude of other readings that loosen the text to one degree or another from those original contexts.

A Wesleyan Hermeneutic: Original Meaning
Clearly at the conference were those who find the locus of biblical authority in the original meaning. I consider this meaning valid as well. (I didn't like the way the term "historical-critical method" was painted as evil in contrast to "grammatio-historical method." At some point it would be fun to go through the history of biblical interpretation Terry Paige did and show the positive contribution of each figure rather than treating them all as the spiraling demise of the Enlightenment.)

Now there are right and wrong answers as to what the original meaning was. We cannot know them for sure, but there is surely nothing wrong with trying. My critique of those who operate with a more rigid understanding of inerrancy is that, in my opinion, they do not actually do what they say. They impose boundaries on what the text can and cannot say. If the text wanted to stay within those boundaries, it would not be a problem. I just personally think that the text doesn't want to stay within those boundaries.

What is a Wesleyan version of this hermeneutic?
Since we cannot change what the text meant, a Wesleyan version of the original context hermeneutic is distinctive in the sense of 1) the questions it approaches the text with from today, 2) the way it prioritizes biblical material, 3) the way it organizes the individual books of the Bible into a biblical theology, and 4) the contemporary context with which it is establishing points of continuity and discontinuity.

These are of course a matter of contemporary Wesleyan community and Wesleyan theology. The same elements apply to a Calvinist or Lutheran appropriation.

A Wesleyan Hermeneutic: Beyond the "Literal"
Once we have loosened the original contexts, a number of potential Wesleyan readings come into play, each with varying degrees of continuity with the original meanings.

1) There is a reading that dialogs between us and Wesleyan readings of the past. We read the Anglican, pre-modern Wesley reading Scripture and appropriate what we like. We read the nineteenth century pre-modern holiness writers reading Scripture and appropriate what we like. We read twentieth century fundamentalist/old school evangelical Wesleyans reading Scripture and appropriate what we like.

But we do the appropiation in the light of our sense of the Spirit's leading today, not as slaves to any particular way Wesleyans in the past have read Scripture. We are twenty-first century Wesleyans. If there is not some continuity we may as well change our name. But we have yet to define who will dominate our hermeneutical flavor this century.

2) There is an openness to pneumatic, spiritual readings in the Wesleyan holiness tradition that you do not find in evangelical Calvinism. John Drury pointed out that Calvin say the Spirit's role more in terms of illumination of what the text already meant, while Wesley was more open to unique inspiration of us as readers. We are clearly more closely related to Pentecostals than to the Reformed or Presbyterians, and we have a place for direct inspiration in reading the text--in ways never intended originally.

3) There was talk of the "rule of faith" and the "rule of love" as controls on non-contextual reading. There is a kind of Wesleyan "rule of faith" that goes beyond the core. I personally, however, would not recommend us validating Wesleyans reading the biblical text ideologically, however, unless it is the Spirit leading as in #2. However, we probably do want to affirm that in the past the Spirit has led us as a community to read the text pneumatically. But such a reading seems a combination of #1 and #2.

There is more than one valid hermeneutic. There is a valid original meaning hermeneutic and there are valid non-contextual hermeneutics. God has used both in the past. God will continue to use both in the future.

Wesleyans have in the past employed both hermeneutics differently. In the late twentieth century, some Wesleyans at Houghton and Asbury employed a fundamentalist/old school evangelical approach that is at least partially an original meaning approach, riding the wave of Reformed influence in the earlier part of the century. In the eighteenth century, our forebears were far more non-contextual and pneumatic in orientation. Wesley, although he did not know it, employed a theological hermeneutic not unlike most of the principle church "fathers."

So one thing that does make us somewhat unique among evangelicals is our openness to both hermeneutics. You will not get the Calvinists at Trinity or Gordon Conwell to condone the hermeneutic employed by Daniel Steele in the 1800s. But it is a part of our heritage that postmodern philosophy actually has justified. No one can say it is not properly Wesleyan.

In my opinion, I cannot say that the fundamentalist inerrantist approach is not properly Wesleyan either, for it has been practiced by a slice of the Wesleyan Church in the late twentieth century. I'm glad, however, that the Wesleyan understanding of inerrancy is bigger than it, as Dr. Armiger pointed out in his final summary.

1 comment:

Ken Schenck said...

Check out Keith Drury's thought provoking approach to what our Wesleyan hermeneutic is!