Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Bridging Lessing's Ditch

The introduction to a paper I'm writing...
Evangelical hermeneutics has hovered between two worlds. The one is the world of faith, and a particular stream of Christian faith at that. Using the four-fold focus of David Bebbington, we can characterize the key elements of evangelicalism as 1) the Bible, 2) the cross, 3) conversion, and 4) activism. [1] Some in the Wesleyan Theological Society have felt more comfortable with the evangelical designation than others. [2] The Wesleyan-revivalist tradition brings slightly different perspectives to these issues, with slightly different parameters than some evangelicals. [3] Nevertheless, it remains emphatically the case that the world of faith features prominently in our approach to Scripture, far more specifically than basic orthodoxy.

The other is the world of (contextual) biblical scholarship. We can generally agree that the rise of historical-critical study of the Bible is, more than anything, the primary counterforce in modern times to Christians reading the Bible as they generally did throughout prior centuries. Twentieth-century evangelical hermeneutics can be read as a coping strategy to deal with this counterforce. One might suggest that the primary goal of evangelical hermeneutics has been the intellectual justification of reading Scripture in relation to the world of faith by engaging--and often deflecting--the world of biblical scholarship. "Theological hermeneutics" has only risen as a term in recent years, but it is arguably what fundamentalists and neo-evangelical scholars have been doing since the early twentieth century, namely, interpreting the Bible in such a way as to mediate between the world of faith and the world of the Bible's historical context.

Gotthold Lessing lived in another world in another day, eighteenth century Germany. His "ugly ditch" is not exactly the same as the tension we have just mentioned. His chasm was between historical data and metaphysical claims like the existence of God. How could contingent truths of history, subject to doubt, prove necessary truths of reason, transcendent and absolute? The particulars of his ditch need not concern us. He lived at a time that wrestled with slightly different issues than we are here.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the problem of theological hermeneutics is an ugly ditch of its own sort. How can we maintain Christian faith in a way that is intrinsically formulated in connection with the Bible without ignoring what seem to be the most compelling findings of contextual biblical research? Much of what takes place in the name of theological interpretation is simply a repackaging of the older evangelical coping mechanism. The difference is the imprimatur of a label justified philosophically in the light of postmodernism and co-opted by non-postmodernists to legitimize what they have always been doing. We might conceptualize this particular evangelical theological hermeneutic as follows:

1. The normal rules of contextual exegesis are followed in relation to specific passages insofar as they lead to conclusions that cohere with the world of evangelical faith.

2. When the rules of contextual exegesis potentially point to original meaning conclusions for specific passages outside the world of evangelical faith, the scholar strategizes to find possible ways to interpret the data within the boundaries.

3. Various theological-hermeneutical mechanisms are used to integrate the varied biblical texts into a theological whole ("Scripture") that is identified with the evangelical world of faith.

The third impetus has given rise to a great multiplicity of approach and is the current focus of theological hermeneutics. How do we get from "this text says" to "the Bible says"? Here we find everything from D. A. Carson's version of progressive revelation [4] to Kevin Vanhoozer's "drama of doctrine" and various uses of a speech-act model [5] to broader canonical approaches like that of Brevard Childs [6] to more postmodern treatments like that of A. K. M. Adam. [7] What makes classification of this spectrum difficult is the unique ways in which individual scholars combine author-, text-, and reader-centered approaches together in combination with models from multiple disciplines. [8]

An underlying thesis of this paper is that, in the end, only two approaches to the biblical text are coherent: 1) a historical-contextual approach and 2) reader-centered approaches that locate meaning (or "experience" of the text) in relation to specific readers and communities of readers. The spectrum of hermeneutical models currently in play are all varied combinations of these two broad categories, however they might self-describe. Despite the "ugly ditch" that often arises between conscientious use of contextual method and traditional faith readings of specific passages, the ditch is crossable. That is to say, these two hermeneutics can be integrated in a coherent way.

In particular, specific "reader-centered" interpretations of Scripture can be combined coherently with diverse, particular, contextual readings of individual passages by way of the notion of progressive revelation. One need only assume that the reader's vantage point represents the current pinnacle of progress. [9] Individual books thus can be interpreted in context and appropriated as authentic points in the flow of revelation. But the most authoritative and determinative reading becomes the holistic, integrating perspective of the person or community interpreting and appropriating the biblical texts taken together as a whole.

Although we believe that these parameters are definitive, they do raise numerous legitimate questions. Are some reader vantage points more appropriate than others? Is there a specifically Christian vantage point from which to read Scripture as a whole? How proximate are the "original" meanings of individual biblical texts to the most appropriate holistic vantage points? To what extent does this paradigm cohere with evangelical fundamentals? To what extent does it cohere with the Wesleyan-revivalist tradition?

In the pages that follow I argue that this paradigm is indeed the only legitimate bridge across the ugly ditch between historical-contextual interpretations of individual biblical books and a holistic Christian perspective on Scripture as a whole. I argue further that the most stable reader vantage point from which to view Scripture as a whole is that of the consensus fidei, the broad consensual understanding of the overall story, ethic, and personal impact of the text as the Holy Spirit has led the church universal to experience it. Within this broad Christian understanding is room for many localized reader vantage points, among which Wesleyan-revivalist readers can fit nicely.

[1] The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), 21-40.

[2] And certainly some broader evangelicals have been more open to extending the designation to Wesleyans than others. For a defense of Wesleyanism as evangelical, see Donald Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1976).

[3] I have decided to refer to the typical participants in the Wesleyan Theological Society (WTS) as members of the Wesleyan-revivalist tradition. To call us the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition would be too broad, since it would include many individuals who are Wesleyan but who would not typically be involved in WTS. To call us the Wesleyan-holiness tradition would be accurate but probably would not communicate our current identity as well. The Wesleyan-revivalist tradition seems to capture better our identity as revivalist groups in the Wesleyan tradition that emerged mostly in the late 1800s.

[4] "Unity and Diversity in the New Testament," Scripture and Truth, D. A. Carson and J. D. Woodbridge, eds. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1992).

[5] The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005).

[6] His classic treatment was of course Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1979).

[7] E.g., Reading Scripture With the Church (with Stephen Fowl, Francis Watson, and Kevin Vanhoozer), Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006, esp. pp. 17-34, 143-48.

[8] In this classification, I would place non-cognitive oriented approachs in the "reader" category.

[9] Certainly we can suggest that contemporary experience of the text via the Holy Spirit both individually and corporately may stand in much greater continuity.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Ken said,"Gotthold Lessing lived in another world in another day, eighteenth century Germany. His "ugly ditch" is not exactly the same as the tension we have just mentioned. His chasm was between historical data and metaphysical claims like the existence of God. How could contingent truths of history, subject to doubt, prove necessary truths of reason, transcendent and absolute? The particulars of his ditch need not concern us. He lived at a time that wrestled with slightly different issues than we are here."

Why is this not pertinent to 'our" concerns? And why is "his time" not "our time"?

What you have proposed begins with accepting "by faith", without any outside support, what Christians have always believed. What Christians have always believed cannot be in accordance with empiricism, because people don't rise from the dead, or reveal themselves as "God" (unless they are psychotic).

Empiricism would underwrite psychological phenomena of "conversion" experiences. Such that this phenomena itself is of interest to the scientific community.

Jason E. Vickers said...


For what it is worth, my preference is to begin theological heremeneutics with the doctrine of the Trinity, locating Scripture under Pneumatology and sanctification (John Webster also does this). Unfortunately, the four evangelical markers you give at the outset include neither the Trinity nor the Holy Spirit. From my vantage point, these markers might make one evangelical, but that do not and can not make one Wesleyan. It is at the outset of Wesley's Notes on the NT after all that he quotes Luther approvingly, saying (I paraphrase), "Divinity is nothing but a grammar of the language of the Holy Ghost." Finally, have you read Geoffrey Wainwight's little gem of an article, "Wesley's Trinitarian Hermeneutics?" It was published in WTJ around 2000/01. I look forward to seeing you this weekend!

Grace and peace,


Ken Schenck said...

Hey Jason--will be good to see you tomorrow!

This question of where we start is crucial--and potentially one on which the differing sides are irreconcilable. If epistemology is almost entirely a self-contained world that proceeds from very detailed yet uncritiquable theological claims, then no real discussion can take place if all those assumptions are not all in place.

I recognize this position as coherent. My question is, however, is what happens if on the level of micro-reason, the ordinary reason by which historical judgments in everyday life are made, there proves to be a significant disconnect between this common sense realism and the theological micro-impingement on biblical interpretation? Such a mode of epistemological operation can and is regularly sustained--but it would seem to require adjustments to the other system.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"where one begins is everything"...beginning and ending with empiricism and not metaphyics is more reasonable.

If one holds to "beginning and ending with God", then there is no way to enter that "world" because everything will be described within that frame of reference, as God controls everything. Therefore, whatever is, is "to be", just as the Greeks thought about "fate".

We know now that the world began, not with God, but with natural causes or processes, therefore, there is an attempt to "re-create" some type of religious understanding in the midst of it all.

Some would adhere to an agnostic stance toward the metaphysical where humanity, and its needs are on the forefront of "theology" man is made in "God's image". But, how do we interpret that within this world, but throught the disciplines.

Problem is, it undercuts the need for the Church as it has been understood, because it begins with what any organized structure is concerned with as far as human flourishing. We then, promote the political realm, where the differences will be hammered out as to how do we further the "end of man". God is irrelavant, except useful to promote this agenda on those still affirming "theology proper".

It is a practical measure to unite all under one umbrella in one sense, but then when things are played out on the political scence and the "worlds" collide, then we have what we have today; our cultural wars.

John Hobbins said...


Thanks for this series. I've posted an initial reply here: