Thursday, September 11, 2014

My Journey, Part 6: A Better Hermeneutic

This is part 6 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

After I accepted my doubt, the way was finally clear for God to begin making some big changes to my faith. I admitted that His Word had (as far as I could tell) real contradictions that could not simply be brushed aside or explained away, that would require real changes to me and my perspective to see past. I realized I would have to delve into the basement of my faith, to the foundational beliefs that I had previously been fighting to preserve.
Something has to give in this logical quandary—my view of God, the Bible, or truth itself. (2013-1-27)
As it would turn out, all three would undergo drastic change. This post will address the shifts that took place in how I viewed and read the Bible.
Maybe the tension and seeming contradiction in the Bible is real and intentional. How then should I believe? (2013-2-7)
More than anyone else, I have Old Testament scholar Peter Enns to thank for helping me to revitalize my view of the Bible. Here was a theologian who took seriously the kinds of questions I was having about the Bible and my faith. His book Inspiration and Incarnation addressed these and other topics head-on, rather than minimizing them or pointing to the big picture of the "gospel" to explain everything. Many of my subsequent revelations were applications of things I learned from him.

Rejecting false assumptions/rethinking paradigms

As I began to pick up the pieces of my Christianity, I applied my new, beyond-rational definition of 'faith' to it, especially to how I viewed the Bible, the source of so much of my doubt and trouble.
Basically, I think I've been treating the Bible wrong, approaching it wrong for my entire adult life. My relationship with it was intricately woven into my faith, and how I have to separate them. (2013-2-2)
I turned my skepticism toward my old view of Scripture that expected it to neatly and simply cohere because that was what I expected 'truth' to do, especially the totally-true word of God. So I questioned the simplicity of Scripture, on the grounds of the complexity and elusiveness of its Author:
I had assumed that if the Bible is 'God's word' given for us to know Him, it would be easy for anyone to understand. But then, is God? (2013-2-11)
Based on what I was learning of the cultural background of the Bible, I questioned what some might call the 'perspicuity' of Scripture.
I dispute the need for interpretive aids because first-century Christians understood Scripture without them—but I am not a first-century Christian. (2013-2-4)
The more I learned about this background to the Bible, the clearer it became how different the biblical authors were from you and me, not just externally but in how they thought. The Bible didn't simply communicate 'absolute truth' beneath a thin cultural wrapper as I had thought; it was soaked in the idiom of an ancient culture and worldview. I saw this as the key to making sense of the Bible's apparent (to my modern worldview) contradictions.
The central issue here, I think, is that the Bible seems to be written with a radically different, looser, premodern view of truth than the one I hold—a view of truth where God can have conflicting aspects to His nature and it's no problem, say and do contradictory things with no contradiction, and the meaning of symbols is decided by the interpreter's feelings and context. … I can't go back to my old, absolute truth way of thinking. It is only possible for the Bible to make sense in such a premodern paradigm? (2013-2-8)
Besides this, I questioned how I saw Scripture used, more practically, and the evangelical doctrines of scripture like inerrancy, sola scriptura, and inspiration itself that were used to justify these abuses. I was weary of the exclusivist attitude towards other sources of truth that a strict "Bible-only" attitude could produce:
We misuse the Bible when we use it to show why we're right and others and their glimpses of God are wrong. When we use it to drain the divine from the created world, from everything but itself. (2013-7-28)
I resented it when the "authority of Scripture" was used to quash legitimate doubts and question over our understanding of the text. This next entry is admittedly unfair and I was definitely misunderstanding, but it can happen.
When I hear of Scripture 'having authority' I usually connect this with obeying or believing what it says unthinkingly, unquestioningly. This is a lie. (2013-8-9)
When the Bible is interpreted in a vacuum, isolated from the world merely to shore up a theological system, I don't think we're treating it as the 'living and active' word. (2013-9-23)
I began to see more holes in doctrines about the Bible itself. Inerrancy had seemed unconvincing to me for a while and I had few qualms about discarding it, especially since Enns felt the same way. I also found more reasons to question sola scriptura, especially as I thought through the implications of the fact that the Christian belief of the early church (which didn't yet have a New Testament) unapolegetically went "beyond Scripture". Or, for example, how could Paul launch such polemics against Judaizing false teachers in Galatians and elsewhere if they were just doing what their Bibles (as they stood at the time) told them to do?
If disbelieving the word of God is our litmus test for bad doctrine, why were the Judaizers wrong? (2013-5-12)
The early church clearly recognized a truth that was larger than their Bibles, but evangelicals, it seemed, believed that that truth had been entirely contained in writing with the New Testament canon. I disagreed, seeing this as putting God in a box. 

The incarnational hermeneutic

The central point of Inspiration and Incarnation was something Enns called the "incarnational hermeneutic". This basically postulated that the Bible was both a fully human and fully divine book, just as Jesus was both fully God and fully man. The kinds of questions I was having about Scripture, Enns explained, were because of the expectations I was imposing on it (like containing no contradictions of any kind, and being full of timeless 'spiritual truths' for us to harvest and apply) by viewing it as only (or almost completely) a divine book. Just as Jesus' divinity in no way overrode His humanity, so we couldn't expect the fact that Scripture is the speech of God to suppress the fact that it was written by a diverse cast of human authors. So I started getting more in touch with the human dimension of Scripture, messy though it was.
The binding of the Bible into one volume with chapters and verses is not how it always was—it was received as a scattered set of documents in different languages, with no instruction plan for how to put it together. (2013-2-2)
What 'timeless truth' is to be read from the Bible is available to us 'secondhand', as it were, expressed in the cultural milieu of a particular time and place. This is a direct corollary of Enns' incarnational view of Scripture. (2014-2-14)
Beginning to come to terms with Paul, I realized that maybe (just maybe!) he wasn't writing to lay down abstract spiritual doctrines that would apply equally to all believers in all time; maybe, since the letters were originally written to churches in specific regions, he was writing to address their specific situations!
Paul isn't so much acting to establish what the church should believe so much as reacting—his letters had definite, limited recipients. (2013-5-12)
I still wasn't exactly sure how this helped my confusion about the Old and New Testaments; that would come later.

Later, I realized that the incarnational hermeneutic was strongly implied in the doctrine of progressive revelation—the idea that God reveals Himself more and more fully to people throughout biblical history, implying that earlier believers (even, say, the Old Testament authors!) would have a less full knowledge of God than we now have.
If you believe in progressive revelation, you should have no trouble accepting that God is depicted in very different, even contradictory ways throughout. (2014-1-18)
I went a little too far here; I probably had in mind the apparent contradiction between the warlike God of the Old Testament who commands aggressive military action to take other peoples' land and the teachings of Jesus. In the Old Testament, God was interacting with people from a culture that saw war as a test of the strength of the participating nations' gods, who fought alongside and through their worshippers. What we see throughout the Bible is not an instantaneous shift from this to Jesus' command to love your enemies, but something more gradual. The Israelites' expectations of what God was like were refined as He progressively revealed Himself to them more and more fully, revealed truth replacing erroneous cultural assumptions

In some confusion that came up in my Bible study over the apparent contradiction between Acts 20:22 (in which Paul says he is "bound in the Spirit" to go to Jerusalem) and 21:4 (in which disciples in Tyre tell Paul "through the Spirit" not to go), I tried to see how a dovetailing view of divine inspiration and human context could explain things. Of course it's unrealistic that everyone in the early church lived in perfect harmony with no disagreements of any kind; they were all human, after all. The problem people were having lay in how Luke said that these contradictory messages about Paul's itinerary both came through the Spirit. But how could Luke have known this? Did his inspiration give him a "God's-eye view" of the situation so that he could actually see the Spirit acting in both cases? Or was he faithfully relaying what both parties expressed, trusting the Spirit to be at work even if His working seemed (from a limited human perspective) confused?

That is, does Luke's inspiration enable him to report exactly and objectively "what happened" in a modern, scientific way, or does it simply mean that his writing conveys authentic (but human) faith, even in an ambiguous situation? The former meaning seemed to drive a wedge in between early Christians' beliefs (assumed to be protected by inspiration, at least when writing Scripture) and their actions (which never had any such protection).
Why do we expect the writers to be perfectly precise if we don't expect the people to perfectly agree? (2013-10-6)
If all it took to redeem peoples' human weaknesses and make them infallible was "inspiration", why send Jesus at all? Why not just inspire everyone all the time?

Jesus as the Truth

I eventually decided that the incarnational hermeneutic went even further than Enns said. In John 14:6, Jesus claims to be "the way and the truth and the life". This had radical implications, which I tried to explore in my Metatheology series. I realized that assigning ultimate authority to determine truth to the Bible necessarily involved a modern idea of "truth" as something that can be conveyed by a book—and then endlessly studied, analyzed, and assembled into "authoritative" doctrinal systems. But if the Truth was ultimately a Person, that shattered the modernist paradigm. This freed my mind and my imagination from seeing my quest for truth as simply an endless search for the perfect lenses through which to read the Bible that would finally make it make logical sense. The Bible itself, I realized, was a lens to view the ultimate Truth.
We come to know God primarily through experience, not propositional truth. What if the purpose of the Bible is to allow us to experience the life, death, and resurrection of Christ? It's so beautiful, makes so much sense of everything—it must be true. And that, to me, is the Christocentric hermeneutic. (2013-5-6)
Jesus says He is the 'truth' and His word is Truth—but we interpret 'truth' in a modernist way, as 'that which corresponds with reality'. What if this definition is wrong? (2013-5-11)
Further following the implications of the Church predating the New Testament, I saw further hints that the Bible was not set up as "the truth", but a testimony to Him.
The early church didn't believe in Jesus because of the Bible; they believed in the Bible because of Jesus. (2013-6-6)
(By "Bible" here I probably just meant the then-unwritten New Testament) This was supported by the obvious fact that the church predated the "complete" Bible by anywhere from a few decades to a few centuries. In the beginning, the only Bible anyone had was the Old Testament.
How was the church at Galatia expected to discern the true gospel with no New Testament? Not from Scripture (the Old Testament). We [modern Christians] treat the written word as the source rather than looking to its source, or through it. (2013-11-10) 
I imagined that if Jesus was really the Truth, then we would have to stop thinking about biblical "truth" as primarily doctrinal or propositional. Truth was not only believed, but lived.
I refuse to see the gospel as mere information to be learned. I get the feeling that it meant much more to Paul than it does to me or most Christians today. (2013-9-6) 
The Scripture is not merely a 'text' to be studied; it is to be lived. If we do study it, we should do so with the urgency of a man studying the instructions for a life vest. (2013-10-2)
Jesus' death and resurrection were not abstract spiritual objects to the disciples—they were there. They were real. Have we lost that, so that we only teach the gospel instead of experiencing it together? It is from this experience that the New Testament was written. If we simply try to study the writings rather than trying to get beneath them to the apostles and Christ, we are getting the gospel secondhand. (2013-11-10)
In the euphoria of realizing that truth was a person instead of a body of statements, an ocean instead of a pool, I carried some of these ideas too far. I was tempted to discard the propositional side of the Bible's truth altogether, thinking that the experience was the real point. Looking back, I'm glad I never fully made this mistake. But the relation between these dimensions of truth was something that would take me time to figure out, and in the meantime I was prone to regrettably dichotomous statements like this.

With a hint of postmodernism, I also began to realize the ever-present difference between "what Scripture says" and our interpretation of what it says. Owing to the aforementioned complexity of God and differences between biblical cultures and ours, we can't expect the Bible as "God's word" to be nearly as straightforward as words spoken by a personal friend; hermeneutics are required. Inspiration (the Bible speaking to us as God's words) is not simply a static, absolute quality that baptizes whatever we do with the Bible; it is dynamic, active, dependent on manner as well as matter. Our interpretations of what the Bible says need the Spirit to guide them just as much as the original authors did.
We may say we're following the examples of the church fathers who knew Christ so well even as they follow His, but when we make their words a rigid gold standard of truth, we are not imitating but elevating them. The fact that God can speak through their words does not mean we can assume He always will. The same is true of the Bible. When we misuse the Bible in ways that misrepresent Christ, it is no longer the word of God for us. One way I commonly misuse it is by using it as just a part of a merely human argument. (2013-8-28)
Now I was leaning somewhat towards Neo-Orthodoxy. Were my theological oscillations converging on anything, or still accelerating?

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