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Mennonite Hermeneutics: A Reflection

In a previous post I mentioned that hermeneutics may be described as one’s placement of “Yeah, but…” A fellow anabaptist suggestedPerhaps the Anabaptist version would be: “Yeah, but Jesus says…”” I began a response to this suggestion and soon realized that maybe the reponse should become a post. So, the response/post follows. Please keep in mind this is a spontaneous reflection.

Your comment brings up an itch I have had since being a part of an anabaptist community for about a year now. The itch that I need to scratch here a bit is that when we say things like “Jesus says…” we must realize that whatever it is we think Jesus says comes to us only in the words of our sacred text, and as our sacred text the New Testament somehow hangs together as a coherent (loosely used term!) body of literature. What Jesus says can certainly take priority, much as what Paul says is an implicit priority for a good many folks. But in saying things like Jesus says or Paul says as our heuristic key we somehow undermine the coherency of our sacred text–we develop our own canon inside of the canon. The task then for me as a hermeneut is not to judge everything over against what Jesus says in the Gospels, but to judge everything over against what God says in the whole of Scripture. No doubt the Word sheds light on the word, I just need to remnd myself that there is more to the New Testament texts than the Gospels, and these other parts are God’s word as well. One thing I have noticed in my year as a part of a Mennonite community is that sermons are more often than not based on either Gospel or OT narrative texts. I recognize that anabaptists (myself included) are more responsive to a narrative base for theology–it feels more real when a theology springs from an actual life lived and now retold (thank Jim McClendon for that one)–but I wonder whether we are not neglecting other parts of the word. Just a thought, not an indictment.

Another thing these sorts of heuristic keys do is create a climate wherein we forever debate what Jesus REALLY said. The next thing you know we’ve got people casting votes with colored balls and color-coding the Gospels and other non-canonical texts in an attempt to say definitively what Jesus said. In this way we get a canon inside of a canon inside of a canon.

What I am driving at in all of this is a more holistic hermeneutical perspective. Any thoughts? While its on my mind, I do wonder how a holistic perspective could still allow for the distinctives of various traditions. Hmmm…

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3 Comments»

  Pat McCullough wrote @

Wow, I’m glad I exposed the itch! I should say that I was only being half serious. I tend to agree with you in general about living according to the full canon of Scripture and I was kind of poking fun at a simplistic, stereotypical anabaptist mindset. But I confess that I do find the words of Jesus as we have them remembered in the canon the most authoritative personally.Dangers certainly abound in giving priority to one text over another. But I would say that it is inevitable and my reasoning for leaning towards the Gospels is simple: I am a Christian and I believe that means we must follow and attempt to imitate (to some extent) Jesus the Christ. If I understand Barth’s view (or one of his many views), he too saw God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ and Scripture for him “becomes” revelatory only inasmuch as it functions within the community of God. The words of Scripture in themselves are not God’s revelation. This is in some way similar to the 16th Century Anabaptist Hans Denck who believed that the “outer Word” of Scripture meant nothing without the “inner Word” of the Spirit. My point is that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God in humanity, not the Bible. The Bible is a witness. That doesn’t negate anything you said, I just wanted to highlight my reasoning for placing more weight on the “words of Jesus.”

One other thing I’d like to mention: This narrative based theology is, of course, not just an anabaptist thing. I was part of a presbyterian church for a year in Seattle and they have a very similar view in that regard (imagine that, anabaptists and calvinists together!), but the “emergent movement” also seems to be picking up steam with narrative ideas as well. I think it’s great that our church addressed the “older testament” at all and it is probably because of our esteemed former OT scholar-pastor and current Goshen College president, Jim Brenneman. My last anabaptist congregation (the one we are still members of) also had an emphasis on the OT, but our pastor their was also an OT scholar. What’s up with that?

Now about whether the words of Jesus really are the words of Jesus… This is an area of thought that gets to the heart of what I would like to explore as an aspiring scholar. What is the role of history in the authority of the Gospels (and the Bible, for that matter) upon our lives? Actually, I had an interesting conversation with Jim about this. Jim, of course, is a canonical critic of the OT, so the authoritative role of history a la the old guard historical-critical method is already diminished in his mind (If you read this Jim, I hope I’m not misrepresenting you!). He gave me an example from the OT (and this is my best memory of what he said): There are some OT scholars, such as Patrick Miller, who give a later date to the “Yahweh War” texts in which Yahweh fights while the Israelites take a passive role. In doing so, they question the historicity of these texts and thus their authority. The Mennonite, Millard Lind, then challenged this view by arguing for their historicity and thus their authority. Jim himself responded to Lind in Lind’s feschrift by arguing that Lind was agreeing to the false perspective seen in the other scholars. But the historicity of these texts do not give them their authority, rather their canonicity does. He would even allow for a later date and they are still authoritative. Then we have to deal with the tricky concept of contradictions in Scripture and that brings us to his dissertation on “Canons in Conflict.” But that’s for another blog. In our conversation, Jim used this same principle and applied it to the Gospels. He said that John Howard Yoder was one who placed a lot of emphasis on the power of the historical-critical method and text criticism to be able to affirm the historicity of the sayings of Jesus and thus their authority for our lives. In Jim’s view, someone needs to raise the same question of Yoder that he raised for Lind. Is not the canon of the Gospels authoritative even if we cannot affirm its historicity? Who cares what the Jesus Seminar says? They are trying to get “behind” the text, which is impossible, and we need to deal with the text itself.

But if we lesson the weight of history, at least in the details of things (I’m not talking about the resurrection), we are setting up another conundrum for ourselves. I said that the Gospels are authoritative because I believe we need to follow Christ and be like Christ but if we emphasize the canonical critic’s view, then we are following and imitating the memory of Christ. I’m inclined to say that the memory of an intentional oral tradition within an oral culture is pretty darn good, but then I’m just trying to validate the Gospels by affirming their historicity. This is my problem, Chris, I don’t know how to get out of this cycle! Canon or history? What do we do with them?

  Chris wrote @

I told you this whole hermeneutics thing is a can of worms! What do we do with it indeed.

Maybe the following response should be a post in and of itself again, but I do not want all my posts to emanate from a comment thread so I will keep my response contained to the comments. I will try to be brief.

Paragraph #1 – If you represent Barth correctly, I am Barthian! I would, however, want to maintain some semblance of the Bible as God’s word. So, I would likely amend your sentence, “The Bible is a witness.” to “The Bible is God’s witness of God’s self in God’s community.” or something like that. I would also want to ask how you are using the term “revelation” when you say the words of Scripture in themselves are not God’s revelation. If by revelation you mean something that comes directly from God with no mediation, then I would agree. If revelation can be understood as anything in which God is directly involved and by which God’s self is made known, then I would still describe Scripture as revelation.

Paragraph #2 – Yes, I realize narrative theology is not unique to anabaptists. I do recongize their proclivities toward it. I also recognize that much of what the emergent movement is saying has been said for generations within anabaptists communities. From following Jesus and not the Bible to narrative theology, I think emergers can find their forebearers in the anabaptists. I hinted at such in a very early post on my blog.

Paragraph #3 – Whoa! I am not sure I can say anything about these things briefly. I resonate with Jim’s assessment and critique of those who think h-c methods affirm the Bible’s authority. I think N.T. Wright’s new little book does a good job of speaking to the issue of where the Bible’s authority is derived. I too don’t care much for what the Jesus Seminar has to say, however, I am not sure I agree with your concluding statement, “They are trying to get “behind” the text, which is impossible, and we need to deal with the text itself.” Just because historical-critical methods do not firmly establish Scripture’s authority does not mean that we should not practice methods that help get us “behind the text”. One of the major thrusts of my dissertation was to say that it is unhealthy to locate meaning in any one place–behind, in, or in front of the text. Similarly I think it is unhealthy to avoid methods because their perceived goals are impossible. The outcome of dealing with the text itself is no more a “sure thing” than getting behind the text. I tend to think that Scripture’s authority, meaning, etc. manifest over time in communities spending energies behind, in and in front of their sacred texts. True we do “need to deal with the text itself” but not to the exclusion of dealing with the persons and communities who wrote, complied and read these texts way before we ever got here, nor to the exclusion of dealing with the current environments and communities that affect the text’s authority/meaning for us today (and for those who will follow us). In short, I do not want to throw the historical-critical baby out with the murky bath water of “modern” rationality, empiricism, objectivism, etc.

Paragraph #4 – Yes, this is indeed a conundrum. Jesus was, after all, a person in history. And, to be truthful, the formation of the canon took place over the course of history. Even more, our communities have a history, indeed, the Christian community as a whole has a history. We cannot get away from history. But it is quite a bit more to say that history is that which and only that which validates the meaningfulness of Scripture as a whole, the Gospels in particular or Jesus specifically. I like the language of “following Jesus” but I would want to qualify it. It is not a game like “Follow the Leader” where we have to walk around the tree if Jesus walks around the tree. It is not even, to me at least, like “Follow where we remember the leader walking.” Historically speaking, we simply cannot “follow” Jesus in either of these ways. We can, however, follow him in spirit and in truth. One of the ways we do that is by embracing the character of him that we see in the Gospels. I may not ever be faced with a mob wanting to stone an adultress, and by historical measures we cannot be absolutely sure Jesus was either. But, I can embrace the character of Jesus found in this historical narrative and stand up for those being attacked by overly zealous religionists. All of this does not really address your question of canon or history; I just wanted to say it. On that question, I would appeal to the argument I made above. The question of canon or history (one could also add community) is another way of asking the question of in or behind (and one could add in front of) the text. I do not see these things as options, but rather see them all as a part of the life we have with our sacred text. So I do not see that you have a problem of a vicious cycle. You seem to have a healthy interest in the fullness of your Scripture. No need to try to affirm historicity in order to validate it, but rather explore the historicity because it is a part of the life of the text.

The can of worms is still open and those little boogers are squirming all over the place!

  Pat McCullough wrote @

There is a short passage in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer where the book’s protagonist, Binx Bolling, says, “Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. Though I do not know whether I am liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other.” Then he describes his reading response: “Down I plunk myself with a liberal weekly at one of the massive tables, read it from cover to cover, nodding myself whenever the writer scores a point. Damn right, old son, I say, jerking my chair in approval. Pour it on them. Then up ad over to the rack for a conservative monthly and down in a fresh cool chair to join the counterattack. Oh ho, say I, and hold fast to the chair arm: that one did it: eviscerated! And then out and away into the sunlight, my neck prickling with satisfaction” (100). Sometimes I feel Binx in this way. That’s why I referred to my own “seesaw hermeneutics” in your “Yeah, but…” post. Your thoughts make me go back and forth all over again and I feel I should respond in a somewhat autobiographical manner, defining what role these issues play in my life thus far.

When I was in college, a final paper for a class called Biblical Interpretation and Criticism had to define our own “method.” We had made our way through McKenzie and Haynes’ To Each Its Own Meaning (which I see in your bibliographies) and it was an exercise in locating ourselves within the methods described in the book. I argued for a “balance method” that took into consideration the historical and cultural situation of the author(s)/redactor(s) and readers, the text itself, and the response of later readers and their own social locations. It sounds like your dissertation was something of a balance method. This word “balance” was very important to me in college (I underlined and circled it whenever I saw it in a book).

I actually grew up with no connection to church until I attended a Unitarian Universalist congregation in high school with my father. But at the same time, I went with my friend Nic to a youth group at a fundamentalist church. Somehow, I did not recognize the tension at the time! Eventually, I dedicated myself solely to the fundamentalist church… at least until college. For the first bit of college, I swung to the “liberal” side of the pendulum until I got tired of it. So when I wrote this paper on my balance method, it was at a time when I was not satisfied with either side. Indeed I enjoyed reading the yelling fights of the two sides (like Binx), but I wanted something a little more rational, a little more tolerant, a little balanced.

So that’s where Anabaptism came in. I became an Anabaptist (specifically Brethren in Christ) through this unsatisfying struggle between left and right Christianity. Since then I have been trying to reconcile my newfound faith tradition with my biblical studies education at Messiah College and here at Fuller Seminary. When I read the Bible personally and when larger groups of disciples read the Bible collectively, what does “behind the text” mean? What is its purpose? Truth be told, I was fatigued and annoyed by the first third of McKenzie and Haynes’ book. Personally, I get excited about history as an endeavor in itself. I took James VanderKam’s course on Second Temple Judaism this summer and was totally revved up by it. Combining the historical exercise with interpretation, however, sometimes irks me. In M & H’s first chapter, J. Maxwell Miller says, “The historian’s task, therefore, is to separate the authentic historical memory from its highly theological and often legendary context” (22). Again, I find this interesting to some extent (although I don’t like detailed theories based on speculation), but I wonder what difference it really makes in interpretation. If the historical task is to explicate the “authentic historical memory,” it would seem that it is trying to undercut the authority of the text in some way, as if we must toss aside any “highly theological and often legendary” material. When it comes to actually reading and interpreting the text of the Bible, for me, history serves as providing a context for understanding Jesus’ parables, for example, or the nature of apocalyptic literature. That is, history serves the text and not the other way around.

Now back to our conversation about Jesus. The only part of Scripture that makes me wrestle with a greater role of history, at least in this stage of my theological journey, is the Gospels. As you say, “Jesus was, after all, a person in history,” and thus a real, historical person is the center of my faith. I am therefore caught into an interest in history when it comes to the basis for my faith (here, I am especially talking about the resurrection). I appreciate your suggestion of N.T. Wright and I am hoping to explore his work more in depth than I have thus far. But I can’t help accusing myself of inconsistency when I concern myself with historicity for one part of Scripture and not others. I guess I answer that concern in myself by saying the history is important to affirm foundational theological propositions about Christ, but not to actually live out my faith. The text itself is more important in this regard and, again, history only provides a context for understanding it.

My fundamentalist mentors from high school would probably call me liberal for not taking the Bible literally. But in Anabaptism, I have found a hermeneutic that takes the Bible just as seriously (if not more seriously) than fundamentalism. The difference is I am concerned less in its historicity and more with its message, its usefulness in “teaching, rebuking, and training in righteousness.” The Anabaptists have always been most concerned about how we live out the Scriptures. And that gets into the Anabaptist hermeneutic of obedience, which is a whole other can of worms.


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