Tuesday, February 10, 2015

How does a missional hermeneutic fit into the current environment of biblical studies?

Below is a brief assessment of missional hermeneutics in light of current interpretive practices. This is only a sketch but I trust that it will be helpful as a conversation starter.

Spiritual Formation/Lectio Divina/Premodern

Most people in our churches read the Bible as a personal Spiritual formation primer. 

Contributions of Spiritual Formation reading:
Empowers people to read the Scriptures for themselves
Assumes the on-going applicability of Scripture
Assumes that God continues to speak through the Holy Scriptures
Protestantism at its best—people encountering the Scriptures on their own in their own tongue

Some readings do not survive a careful reading of the context.

Self-referential. It is personal.

Often Christendom based rather than missionally aware.

Authority of text is rooted primarily in the reader.

Historical Criticism
Historical criticism (a.k.a. the historical-critical method) has long dominated biblical studies.  Historical criticism brings an agenda to the biblical text driven by Enlightenment historicism (most recently by a philosophical positivism).  Historical critical approaches focus primarily on understanding biblical texts in light of a reconstruction of the world that produced the text.  Thus, historical criticism focuses its reading practices on answering questions such as: Who was the author(s)?  What sources were used in the writing of the text?  What was the date of composition?  Who were the original recipients of the text?


Understanding the historical context of a text serves as a guide to interpretation.

Demonstrated the diversity of the biblical materials

Advances in understanding of ancient languages and culture

Advances in understanding the rhetoric of the Bible


The rise of postmodern critics of the Enlightenment have pointed out the naivety of its claims to objectivity.   

Lessing’s “Ugly ditch”: German thinker Lessing pointed out in the 18th century a fundamental problem for those engaged in historical criticism in support of the theological enterprise of the church.  The problem as he saw it may be stated in this manner: How can contingent truths, i.e., the possible truths found through the tools of historical analysis be used as the basis for the absolute truth claims of Theology?

How does one move from a historical analysis of a text to a theological reading of the text for contemporary communities of faith? Pastors trained primarily in the tools of historical criticism have struggled for centuries with how to make this leap.  This has lead to a major problem with historical criticism—its results have not shown the ability to nourish and sustain communities of faith.

Authority is rooted in a hypothetical reconstruction of the world and/or author who produced the text rather than the text itself.

Readings on the Margins: Postmodern Critiques    
In the last decades of the 20th century, interpretive voices from previously marginalized communities began to be heard.  Biblical studies have long been dominated by male scholars from Western Europe and the United States. In the present milieu, the voices of women, non-Westerns, feminists, liberationists as well as others have joined the academy.       

Demonstrated the importance of recognizing the social location of the reader in understanding Scripture

Challenged the hegemony of historical criticism, especially as practiced by white Europeans

Pointed out biases of other readings

Emphasis on the role of Scripture in shaping contemporary expressions of faith

Self-referential in terms of denying the possibility of critique by outsiders

Readings can be highly ideological (though admittedly all reading find their root in some ideological or theological commitment)

Elevates the experiences of groups and sub-groups over the claims of the text itself. Thus, its conclusions are just as fragmentary as the results of historical criticism.

Authority is rooted in the experiences of marginalized persons.

How does a missional reading relate to and engage these forms of reading? 

1) A missional hermeneutic (MH) does not deny the diversity of Scripture which the historical-critical enterprise has made evident.  A MH does not attempt to harmonize or ignore the diverse viewpoints within the Scriptures.  Instead, the diversity of Scripture is understood in light of the overarching mission of God.  Mission is the common thread that unites the Old and New Testaments into the Christian Bible.  Seeing the Big Picture is essential for understanding the Holy Scriptures.  This is not a call for a harmonizing hermeneutic that erases tensions within the Canon.[1]  Rather the differing voices in Scripture point to the missional dimension of the Canon.  Beeby argues that “mission rarely occurs without conflict.”[2]  Tensions within Scripture serve to call the people of God in various contexts to live as faithful witnesses.  Different times, contexts, and cultures call for different emphases.  Beeby writes:

This biblical parliament includes wisdom books which differ greatly from the prophets.  Within wisdom Job does not agree with Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes is out of tune with almost everybody.  The prophets include Jeremiah and Isaiah who concur on much but differ considerably…No wonder that some deny to [Scripture] any unity.  But it has a unity: a unity in tension, a harmony of conflicting forces that can speak to all sorts and conditions of humanity, in all sorts and conditions of human joy and anguish.  At times we must hear one voice more than others.  In affluence we must hear the vocation to poverty, in strength we must be conscious of the power of weakness; severity must temper goodness and law nourish grace lest it become cheap.[3]

Think about some of the more famous tensions in Scripture: differences in created order in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-25 or the different perspectives on faith and works found in Paul’s letter to Galatians and the writings of James.  Does not reading these in the larger framework of God’s mission place the relationship of these texts in a new light?  Rather than seeing the Bible as hopelessly diverse, an emphasis on the mission of God serves as the light that brings out of the true beauty and unity of the kaleidoscope of Scripture.

2) A missional hermeneutic focuses on reading the Bible as an invitation to outsiders.  Part of this involves the active engagement of the world with the message of Scripture.  We listen to the critiques and criticisms of men and women not defensively or argumentatively but as an avenue for bringing the Scriptures into conversation with lost persons.  We assume a “faith seeking understanding” stance of humility.  This is not a denial of the trustworthiness of Scripture, but instead a profound confidence in God’s word.

3) By reading the Bible as an invitation to conversion, a missional hermeneutic alleviates some of the risk of a self–referential treatment of Scripture.  The Bible invites its readers to understand and find themselves in terms of its narrative and its story rather than their own. The call of the Scripture is to live for something larger than the self, i.e., the mission of God. The text itself becomes a canvas. Authority derives from the ability to make sense of the discrete data of the text rather than in the reconstruction of the world behind the text (historical criticism) or in reader’s personal experience.

4) A missional hermeneutic is an advocacy hermeneutic like a postmodern hermeneutic in the sense that the social location of the reader is taken seriously.  A MH assumes that the Church exists for the sake of the mission of God.  Since the Scriptures are the story of God’s mission, a reader participating in God’s mission in the 21st century shares some common ground with God’s people in the Scriptures.  In other words, if as a missional approach suggests Scripture is the story of God’s mission and the participation of God’s people in it, then a contemporary community of faith that consciously defines itself in terms of God’s mission and acts on it stands in continuity with original readers/recipients of the text.  Gruder describes this in terms of the New Testament materials in his essay, “Missional Pastors in Maintenance Churches”:

“Missional hermeneutics” is a way of interpreting Scripture that starts from the assumption that the NT communities were all founded in order to continue the apostolic witness that brought them into being. Every NT congregation understood itself under the mandate of our Lord at his ascension: “You shall be my witnesses.” The work of apostolic witness was not only to proclaim the gospel of salvation and to establish congregations of believers. Their work was not done when there was a community of Christians now growing in their faith and moving towards its promised outcome, “the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet 1:9). Their mandate was to found congregations where their shared experience of God’s saving love equipped them to become witnesses. They were empowered by the Holy Spirit to spread the word and the evidence of the gospel of new life and hope, and they did it! To that end, the NT documents were all, in some way, written to continue the process of formation for that kind of witness. They intended the continuing conversion of these communities to their calling—and that is how the Spirit used (and still uses!) these written testimonies.[4]

5) A missional hermeneutic shifts the Scriptures from serving as an individualized Spiritual formation primer to an invitation to participation with the people of God in the mission of God. Scripture transforms its readers/hearers for mission. Spiritual formation is not separated from God’s mission to extend God’s blessing to the nations (Gen 12:3, Exod 19:4–6, Matt 28:18–20, Acts 1:8).

6) A missional hermeneutic is an approach to Scripture that focuses primarily on the text itself.  It is the text that serves as the arbiter of interpretation.  Discovering the artistry and voice of the world that the text creates is the goal of a MH. However, MH does not give a blind eye to issues of historical-criticism, but it does not begin with these.  Historical data is deployed as an aid to reading the text to for its message rather than as an end in itself.  Likewise, as noted above, a MH does not deny the importance of the reader.

What do you think?

© 2015 Brian D. Russell

[1]For an excellent study on the diversity within the OT see John Goldingay, Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).
[2]Harry Daniel Beeby, “A Missional Approach to Renewed Interpretation” in Renewing Biblical Interpretation, eds Craig Bartholomew, Colin Greene, and Karl Möller (Cumbria and Grand Rapids: Paternoster and Zondervan, 2000), 279.
[4]“Missional Pastors in Maintenance Churches” Catalyst 31.3 (2005): 4

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