Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Stages of Hermeneutical Maturity

Yesterday, I synthesized some stages of Christian maturity (in relation to adults).  I don't mean to suggest that everyone goes through these stages.  These are more levels of Christian maturity, in my opinion.  The spark behind that post was actually today's post, namely, to suggest that these levels of Christian maturity relate directly to the way a person might use the Bible.

Stage 1: Pleasure Hermeneutic
Many people read the Bible primarily in a self-oriented way.  What is God going to do for me today?  What does God want to say to me today (in a narcissistic way)?  This would especially apply to those who teach or believe in a prosperity gospel--teachers like Joel Osteen, for example.  Another person reads the Bible so they can have pleasurable spiritual experiences--not to be changed but just for the good feelings. A person who is preoccupied with biblical prophecy can be in this category, maybe reading the Bible to get secret knowledge no one else has or fixated on what they have coming.

This way of using the Bible relates to the self-oriented stage I mentioned yesterday, the most immature way a person might use the Bible.  In some ways, it is oriented in the exact opposite direction of Christian ethics, which is other-centered rather than self-centered.  Instead, this type of reader reads to pleasure him or herself.

Stage 2: Rule Book Hermeneutic
Many Christians read the Bible as the "rule book" and the "answer book."  This generally corresponds to the rule-oriented Christian of yesterday's post.  This person is oriented around reading the Bible to get the rules to bind others and to find easy answers to life's questions.  They want to reduce the complexity of life and truth, the hard work of working out our salvation, to simplistic rules and answers.  "God said it; I believe it; that settles it."

At its worst, this is the way the legalist reads the Bible, who delights in making rules and making sure others keep them.  But it is also the way a fundamentalist reads the Bible, whose version of inerrancy is primarily concerned with whether historical details fit together or and whether a person interprets the ancient poetic narratives of Genesis to support a particular version of science today.  The quest is to find who does not measure up and who needs to be kicked out.

This is also the reader who sees God primarily as a judge.  As they are, God is primarily concerned with rules and is a legalist when it comes to people who break them.  He demands satisfaction and cannot show mercy unless someone pays.  He cannot break his own rules, as if the rules are a higher law than himself.  Suffice it to say, in any of the moral development theories out there, this version of God suggests he has some growing up to do.

The rule-oriented reader will have a tendency to trump the spirit of Scripture with its letter.  This again is the problem with the fundamentalist approach to Scripture.  It was this approach that so many Christian readers of the early 1800s used to argue in favor of slavery, and it is this approach that so many are using currently to argue against women in ministry and for a rigid male headship in the home.  Unlike Jesus and Paul, this reading cannot see behind the ancient specifics to the kingdom ideal.

It is this approach that forgets the absolute principle of loving one's enemy and trumps it with a hate for homosexuals as rule breakers.  It is this approach that forgets the spirit of loving the stranger and trumps it with a delight in punishing the wrongdoer.  It is this approach that is voted more likely to hear the words, "Depart from me, you doer of iniquity.  I never knew you."  It is this approach that is most in danger of making the Bible into an idol.

Stage 3: Transformational Hermeneutic
The most appropriate way to read Scripture as a Christian is to read it with an openness to being changed, in the posture of a servant.  Such change should, as the first order of business, lead you to love others more, to love God more.  As a friend says, it should "form a holy people."  Yes, such change involves our ideas but it involves our attitudes even more.  It also leads us to live differently, but not because we are preoccupied with rules.  The Spirit of God inside of us changes us, the "law written on our hearts."

There is a mysterious quality to this openness to Scripture.  It cannot be tied down neatly by our confessional words.  Yes, the word God speaks through Scripture is inerrant, infallible, authoritative, instructive, and corrective.  But our tidy interpretive methods and hermeneutical formulas are not inerrant or infallible.  Hearing God's voice is a spiritual task and it is a task for the church as a whole even more than for me as an individual.

Behind this statement is the fact that the Bible was written to address multiple, diverse ancient audiences.  Since it addressed them, the task of figuring out what it says to us--indeed the task of determining the relationship of those words to each other--is not an exact science, as the 10,000's of denominations demonstrates beyond question.  Appropriating the Bible is not an exact science even when reduced to the accepted evangelical method.  Thus application requires hard work from the body of Christ, and we should read the Bible in community.

A transformational hermeneutic is more concerned about the spirit than the letter.  This hermeneutic recognizes that a world without slavery is closer to the kingdom of God than a world with it.  It favors abolition when the rule-oriented reader is arguing to preserve it because of the household codes in Colossians and 1 Peter.  But it does not make such decisions in isolation from the body of Christ.  It is a surrendered hermeneutic--surrendered to what is best for others, surrendered to the mystery of God's will, and surrendered to the fact the community of faith as it reflects on Scripture is perhaps the surest of places to hear God's will clearly.

It is a hermeneutic, in short, that is centered on the Word more than the words.  It reads the Bible to see God with a servant's heart.  Yes, it is pleasurable to experience God.  Yes, God requires things of us.  But these are not the goals of reading.  These are the result.


John Mark said...

As a recovering Pharisee, I would say that sometimes we like rules because that is the way we were taught to measure maturity or holiness. Rule keeping is a tangible to measure my so called spirituality, and it is hard to measure my attitudes in other ways, or maybe I don't want to have to become a person who is open to transformation, and others oriented. I think, and maybe it is already happening, we need a whole lot more discussion on this kind of thing.

Jim ~ Random Arrow said...

Ken, thanks. I’m looking for a Polkinghorne rivet (book, article) I once read and failed to put in my bib file! Google searches are not helping me. I’m going to email Polkinghorne soon if my searches keep failing. Point is that Polkinghorne likened the Bible to a lab notebook. Chiefly like a field-lab notebook. Of experimentation. My charismatic/Pentecostal bent has me reading the humanistic-liberal anthology, Michael Welker (ed), The Work of The Spirit: Pneumatology and Pentecostalism. Wonderful edition. But no mention (from Polkinghorne or other liberal analysts) of the Spirit and humans in a mutual laboratory! Of experiment.

Would you (Ken or other readers) please sketch your own sense of the experimental nature of observations in the Bible? And how to read the Bible as such? This sense seems included in Ken’s – “A transformational hermeneutic is more concerned about the spirit than the letter” – but I’m not sure whether this amounts to eisegesis of Ken on my part?

Ken, even if you disagree with such an approach (Bible as lab notebook), could you please offer your best sketch? Or perhaps I’m the bird chirping here in non-English? :).


FrGregACCA said...

Jim, I think that the lab notebook analogy applies to that aspect of the Christian Tradition that deals with the experiences of those commonly known as Saints in terms of their growth in holiness, material such as Teresa of Avila's "Interior Castle" or, from much earlier, the "Ladder of Divine Ascent". There is some of this in the Bible as well.

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you, sir.

By the way, Blogger seems to have discovered a new Element. It's asking me to type "abionium" as verification that I'm not completely automated.

Jim ~ Random Arrow said...

FrGreg, thanks. I agree with the substance of what you wrote. Maybe I botched my copy and paste of the small snippet of Polkinghorne on the bible as a lab notebook. I'll take a little Teresa of Avila interior peace! My Quaker-quiet is disturbed because I cannot find the Polkinghorne book I want. Who is there to deliver me? ... ~ Jim

Richard said...

Polkinghorne comparing the Bible to a lab notebook is on page 1 of ENCOUNTERING SCRIPTURE. He may have used it before that too.