It seems to me that—from most discussions on online fora, clobber-passages, etc and from divisions within my own church (Anglican Communion)—the modern church needs to sit down and really think maturely on what it means to read the Bible and to live faithfully alongside it. My main contention is that a real, meaningful hermeneutic is not something which can be grasped once for all nor is it epitomized by proof-texting or text-dismissing. It is a life-long, continual pursuit, a living with the text, one that seeks to move between living in the ancient world of the text while doing justice to the modern world.
I will first make a few statements of what I believe the Bible is, and then I will on to what I think the implications are for the church, corporately and individually.
First, I affirm the Bible is scripture, that it is “G-d-breathed” and “useful.” Second, I understand scripture as the sacred record of G-d’s people struggling to live in light of G-d’s presence and self-revelation, most fully expressed in His Word, Jesus. G-d always speaks in the language of the people, and that means every communication must partake of the culture to which it is addressed, even while it attempts to transform it.
This means several things for the text as it relates to us. First, I believe it deserves reverence and respect (but not worship!!) We must take the text seriously, but we must not treat it like it is G-d. However, to understand it, we need to place each text in three different contexts: the original, cultural and historical context, the wider context of the canon, and the modern ecclesial context (which, for me, includes liturgical, theological, and cultural aspects). When we approach a given passage, we first need to see how a text relates to its original situation, insofar as it can be reconstructed. What previous texts does it relate and interact with? What is the genre and what does that tell us? How supportive or subversive of its own culture was it? But this layer is not enough (though sadly neglected itself). To this the text needs to be related to greater biblical themes, to the grand biblical narrative, to other passages which say similar and contradictory things. Once these two are done, these insights need to be considered in light of subsequent developments in the church, in our culture, in our ways of living. This is not straight-forward, though lots of people act like it is. To do this, similar steps as were taken with the passage need to be taken with the application. How does the current situation compare to earlier? How does it relate to previous uses, etc.
All of these steps take time, thought, and work. But what I am suggesting here is that for them to be truly life-giving and useful, all of them need to be continuous, on-going processes. We cannot assume that our biblical exegesis and interpretation has already been accomplished, once for all—either for a given passage or the entire book. It must be a “hermeneutical circle” like Schleiermacher described, a continual return, a continual attempt to find new connections and new points of conviction. We need to learn as a church to live within the text like previous generations did, but to do so less naïvely—living in the text while understanding that it is both “ours” and something wholly other. It is not “wholly other” simply because it is set apart (“sacred”), but because it is from a very different context and yet still has the power to convict us, and to point us to the Word.
What I am suggesting, therefore, is that we need to move beyond merely debating the interpretation of particular passages and to move forward into a living within the Bible, in a way which continually re-relates each text to the whole and to the modern life of the church. (This is one reason greater biblical literacy and education within the church is so important). Not until we as a church begin to do this kind of Bible-reading collectively will we ever be able to reason together both biblically and theologically.Jason M. Silverman 6 May 2011