More on Vanhoozer and metaphors of the hermeneutic task

Vanhoozer and dramatic interpretation

I confess. Around the turn of the century I used Kevin Vanhoozer’s brilliant Is There a Meaning in this Text? as a textbook in teaching a postgraduate course on hermeneutics. The book addresses complex ideas, but is written in such complex language that it is almost impossible to read. I have not paid the attention I should to his more recent work. (My excuse is that I have not taught hermeneutics at that level since that time.)

Yesterday I posted a brilliant two sentence quote. It not only shows that he has available a totally different writing style, but really resonates with me. As Jerry Shepherd  pointed out on Facebook Vanhoozer uses the quoted sentences in introducing his preferred metaphor, interpretation as the performance of a drama. This is a powerful and useful metaphor. Like all metaphors it fails as a complete analogy. It captures the communal nature of interpretation well, so long as each of us accepts being an actor and not the director! It also reflects the given nature of the text. It expresses really well the way in which faithful; interpretation in the 21stC must be different from a performance in the “author’s day”. However, on my early reading it fails to capture one essential aspect of faithful biblical interpretation.

Community and individuality

Faithful reading of the Bible is (almost) never an individual pursuit. Vanhoozer’s performance of a drama gives this powerful play, suggesting the distinct contribution to the whole each player is called to make. In doing this it also suggests a model for recognising when one player’s performance has become too different from the overall interpretation offered by the company that that player is failing.

The metaphor of a play, suggests also that only one performance is ‘correct’ for this company of players. This pictures nicely our experience of a Church divided (the Presbyterians form a different company from the Baptists…). Yet it suggests such companies of players are competitors.

The metaphor of the pilgrimage

Vanhoozer, at least in the little introduction focused on going ‘beyond the Bible’ 1 Gary T. Meadors, Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology. Harper Collins, 2009. also used (in passing) the metaphor of a pilgrimage. I cited yesterday two sentences in which he encapsulates this understanding.

Having talked of the early description of the church as ‘followers of the way’, he wrote

The process of biblical interpretation is itself a means of discipleship. One cannot follow the way without following the way the words go.

This pilgrimage image has similar, but different, affordances. On a pilgrimage each group of pilgrims must follow a particular route. There may however be different routes that lead to the same destination. Just as there are different performances that are true to both play and the players’ context. On a pilgrimage there are routes that lead away from the destination, one should not follow these. Just as there are performances that are not true to the script-writer’s intentions. Though notice that in the drama model the standard is the script, while in the pilgrimage model the standard is the destination.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Gary T. Meadors, Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology. Harper Collins, 2009.

Trajectory hermeneutics in two sentences

The process of biblical interpretation is itself a means of discipleship. One cannot follow the way without following the way the words go.

Kevin Vanhoozer in Gary T. Meadors, Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology. Harper Collins, 2009, 154.

Beyond the Bible? Howard Marshall’s proposed Evangelical hermeneutics (part 1)

Howard Marshall’s little book (see previous post) 1Marshall, I. Howard, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004. is really important. Yet it seems little-known in the circles in which I move. I decided to postpone my promised second post and to do a series briefly summarising Marshall’s work and seeking to persuade more people to read it :)

In the first chapter Marshall provides a quick neat and authoritative summary of developments in biblical exegesis and hermeneutics among Evangelicals across the span of his career and a little beyond. 2 Basically from the 1960s till today. The emphasis is on the UK rather than the USA, which is refreshing since some issues that weigh heavily on American Evangelicals sit lighter or are even not really significant in the British context and the result is a more spacious treatment.

This summary account is directed to two goals, distinguishing what makes Evangelical hermeneutics Evangelical, and presenting what he sees a the need to develop a common understanding of the proper ways to “go beyond the Bible” in ways that are faithful to the Bible. He sees the recognition of the need for this as something fresh in Evangelical hermeneutics. It might be more accurate to say that making this need conscious is the new thing, for it is a need that has been resisted. Such resistance is understandable, for talk of going beyond the Bible sounds like establishing ourselves in control. Indeed, Vanhoozer, in the same volume criticises Marshall’s proposal as risking “lording it over the Bible”!

Next Marshall discusses Packer’s 3 James I Packer, “Understanding the Bible: Evangelical Hermeneutics,” Melvin Tinker, ed., Restoring the Vision: Anglican Evangelicals Speak Out. Eastbourne: Monarch Publications, 1990, 39-58. proposals of understanding Evangelical hermeneutics he finds them good, yet also lacking in several ways. The most important of these is that they make it difficult or impossible for someone following the proposals closely to address issues that the Bible’s human authors could and did not address.

This point is a key one and I wish Marshall had developed it further rather than assuming everyone would see the need for and importance of recognising this requirement on us to live by Scripture by going beyond Scripture in addressing issues the Bible does not address.

Marshall then points to the need to avoid the Scylla of “liberalism” (meaning “peeling off of those aspects of biblical teaching about Christian faith and ethics that are held by many people today to be incompatible with a so-called scientific worldview and an “enlightened” understanding of morality) and the Charybdis of “Fundamentalism”. The latter temptation being more natural to most Evangelicals he spends longer explaining why it should be resisted.

Thus this the first lecture sets up the context and need for a hermeneutic that allows us faithfully to “go beyond” the Bible, that is to address issues that were not part of the world the Bible’s human authors addressed.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Marshall, I. Howard, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004.
2. Basically from the 1960s till today. The emphasis is on the UK rather than the USA, which is refreshing since some issues that weigh heavily on American Evangelicals sit lighter or are even not really significant in the British context and the result is a more spacious treatment.
3. James I Packer, “Understanding the Bible: Evangelical Hermeneutics,” Melvin Tinker, ed., Restoring the Vision: Anglican Evangelicals Speak Out. Eastbourne: Monarch Publications, 1990, 39-58.

Trajectory hermeneutics: Trajectories and biblical theology

The concept of a trajectory, though the word is a technical one from the science of mechanics, is simple enough. In mechanics it describes the path that an object (like a ball that is thrown or hit) takes. As a metaphor for a hermeneutic process it draws on the way in which if we know the direction and speed of start of the path and the forces (like gravity and air resistance) the point at which the ball will touch down can be calculated. Of course, hermeneutics is not a mathematical science, yet the metaphor is an interesting one.

Trajectories in Scripture

Biblical scholars have begun using this picture language for two reasons.

Firstly, within the Scriptures we find examples of developing understanding. So, there are passages which reflect the beliefs of early Israelites that the gods of surrounding (polytheistic) peoples had some sort of reality and power. Psalm 82 is an example. 1 At least it is when the text is translated and read in its plain meaning. Both the Hebrew and the LXX seem to understand the picture in v.1 speaking of Yahweh as the king with the gods as his ministers. One translation tradition, more recent than the LXX understands the ‘gods’ (‘el and ‘elohim, or in Greek the singular and plural of theos) here uniquely as ‘rulers’. Moses’ song of God the Rock in Deuteronomy 32 offers another example (Dt 32:8). Even v.12 which denies the role of any foreign ‘god’ in guiding Israel through the desert seems to allow these ‘gods’ some possibility of existence. Yet alongside, and by far overwhelming, such passages are others that proclaim that God is alone and only, denying existence to all beings claimed as divine. Between these points other passages seem to suggest the beings worshiped in error as ‘gods’ are really demons (Lev 17:7; Dt 32:16-17; perhaps 1 Cor 10:20-22).

There are two main ways for Evangelicals to handle such examples. The traditional conservative approach has been to harmonise the ‘odd’ cases to the predominant view. The tradition rendering ‘god’ in Ps 82 as ‘ruler’ is an example. The advantage of this approach is that it fits neatly and easily with the modern US touchstone of Evangelical approaches to Scripture that it is ‘inerrant’. The disadvantage is that one risks seeming to twist some Scripture passages in ways that contort either the words or the sense. The other approach makes use of the metaphor of trajectory. It recognises that God’s self revelation in Scripture was progressive. Not all of the truth was revealed at once. In the revelation of God through covenant and law to Moses on Sinai some truth about God (e.g. the gospel of grace through the redeeming sacrifice of God incarnate in Jesus Christ) is only present as seeds or hints. These fuller and more complete aspects of God’s nature and work are revealed fully later in Scripture.

Trajectories from Scripture

There is a further area where such trajectory thinking is needed. We live in a world which is different from that inhabited by the writers of Scripture. In many ways the issues that face us were unimaginable to them. Yet, God chose to inspire the dozens of writers with messages that were (with perhaps a few notable exceptions) comprehensible to the writers and their audiences. How can we respond biblically to the challenges of life in the 21st C? Often the answer is simple. The principles the Bible teaches can be applied to our issues. The Bible contains many warnings against becoming intoxicated. Most of these point clearly to the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption. This principle that intoxication is to be avoided can clearly and simply be extended to suggest that the use of P or LSD or other drugs developed in recent times in order to become intoxicated should likewise be avoided. Note that in such cases some Christians push the argument a stage further and suggest (following the trajectory of the biblical teaching) that all consumption of such drugs (like wine and beer) might be better avoided.

Thinking not merely of the principles taught in Scripture but of the direction they point (their trajectory) has evidently been necessary in some cases. All churches today teach that slavery is wrong. No one would argue that slave owning is proper for a Christian seeking to follow the Bible. Yet in Scripture slavery as an institution is not condemned. Indeed in an extreme case (where a partner in ministry of Paul, Onesimus, is the escaped slave of one of Paul’s converts, Philemon) Paul attempts to convince Philemon to forgive and perhaps even set Onesimus free. Paul does not declare slavery itself to be wrong! However, after much bitter argument which pitted those who defended the plain and simple teaching of the Bible against others with ‘weaker’ arguments, we decided that the direction in which Paul’s (and the rest of the Bible’s) teaching was headed made clear that slavery is wrong. This position also coheres well with other core biblical teaching (thus confirming our conclusions). God is the creator of all, Jesus died to save us all, the Holy Spirit fills us all (potential slave and potential slave owner) alike!

In this post I have sought to explain the desirability, even the necessity of a trajectory hermeneutic as one interpretative tool. In the next I plan to consider some of the objections to trajectory hermeneutics (what some have called ‘trajectory theology’). Perhaps the best place to start for an Evangelical thinking about such issues is the book I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004.

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. At least it is when the text is translated and read in its plain meaning. Both the Hebrew and the LXX seem to understand the picture in v.1 speaking of Yahweh as the king with the gods as his ministers. One translation tradition, more recent than the LXX understands the ‘gods’ (‘el and ‘elohim, or in Greek the singular and plural of theos) here uniquely as ‘rulers’.

Mad March Hares?

Jonathan of ξἐνος and of Robinson offers a feast (in five, count ’em, parts) for the regular festival called the Biblioblog Carnival. Although it is April he is apparently mad as a March Hare!? The carnival is full of good stuff, including a link to nice clear simple and (even better) slightly humorous post on hell by none other than ‘Christ Almighty!’

Jonathan himself in his apologia pro carnivalis sua 1 Pardon my Latin, the language has been dead to me since the 1960s, and I can not be bothered looking up the proper forms. makes interesting comments on the past and present of Bible blogging. Here I’ll just add that I am finding that (at least on ‘hot’ topics) Facebook seems to be the locus of the sort of discussion we used to get on blogs. Though (is it the hot topic or is it the hot medium) sadly with more heat and less light.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Pardon my Latin, the language has been dead to me since the 1960s, and I can not be bothered looking up the proper forms.

Contraception and Theology of Marriage

 

I have several times in different forums expressed sadness that ‘our’ (which varies somewhat in its content depending on my context when making the claim, but usually implies NZ Baptists or more widely Evangelicals in NZ) theology of sex and marriage does not cohere well with our pastoral practice. In this post I am focusing on one such area, contraception.

Contraception

At the end of the last century Al Mohler, writing in a reevaluation of the encyclical Humanae Vitae three decades after its publication, made this point in typically forceful style:

Most evangelical Protestants greeted the advent of modern birth control technologies with applause and relief. Lacking any substantial theology of marriage, sex, or the family, evangelicals welcomed the development of “The Pill” much as the world celebrated the discovery of penicillin-as one more milestone in the inevitable march of human progress and the conquest of nature.
R. Albert Mohler untitled in “Contraception: a symposium” First Things, 1998

Has this changed substantially in the first two decades of the 21st C?

Having asked this question in a number of places and received only louder and louder affirmations of the splendours of the imperial sartorial equipment, I would really like to be pointed to something better than the threadbare old trousers that her Imperial Highness only permits her husband to wear in private!

I am not aware of any readily available teaching by/for NZ Baptists that suggests limits on their use of contraceptive technologies. Mohler’s article made a strong distinction between contraceptive technologies that could have abortifacient effects and those which did not. I am sure that (insofar as they are aware of this issue) most NZ Baptists would share Mohler’s concern. Looking around at the number of children in the families in churches I visit it seems clear that (as is apparently true according to census data) family sizes are often higher than the current societal norm (with three and even four children being not uncommon) however families with more than five children are almost as rare in church as outside. 1 In writing this I am thinking of the few such families that I know. They are exceptional, in every sense!

Thus the pastoral practice seems to be that contraception as a means of ‘family planning’ is quite acceptable in our churches, and that the only firm restrictions on the methods used are those put in place by the medical establishment.

Marriage

Christian theological understandings of marriage have (at least since Augustine) presented the conception, birthing, and raising of children as (at the very least, one of) the ‘goods’ (in the sense of the good things that are inherent in the institution)  of marriage. For Augustine it was indeed the first good.

However, procreation cannot be a necessary condition of marriage. Infertile couples remain married even when their hopes of bearing children seem (possible miracles apart) dashed. Our approval (even if nuanced as Mohler suggests) of birth control measures makes this even more clear. Yet an ‘openness’ (whatever that is understood to mean and to me the phrase seems vague) to procreation by the bearing and raising of children has been understood to be a necessary part of marriage.

Inconclusion

This is an inconclusion not an ‘in conclusion’ because I have not clarified for myself these questions.

The bearing and raising (both and each) of children is a great ‘good’ of marriage and beyond that is part of what marriage is about. Yet, some remain childless and know that they will. Must such couples adopt? Or does anyone’s definition of marriage exclude the possibility of childless marriage. This seems to me an impossible and arrogant claim. For the childless couples I know simply are married.

Given the social 2 E.g. an assumption of nuclear family households, combined with geographical mobility. and economic context in which NZ marriages are lived, birth control seems sensible. It is allowed, and by default (through the witness of average family size) encouraged, in our churches.

Procreation is a good, but not a necessary, feature of marriage.

Little of this is clear, or worked out in theologically consistent and biblical ways. None of it is much taught in churches. We do however in many ways devalue or exclude singleness. Even widows (those once, but tragically no longer, married, because death has intervened) 3 I plan to write about divorce in another post. find their position in church is somehow ‘less’ (less easy, less clear, even less esteemed).

So, finally, I return to the question I started with: Do 21st C Evangelicals in New Zealand have a clear and widely accepted theology of sex and marriage that coheres with our pastoral practice? My answer is: No, we do not. Yet each time I pose the question I am told forcefully (though so far without any referencing of such theological teaching) that we do, it is ‘understood’ by 90% of us!

Can anyone point me to a nice clear simple expression of this ‘understood’ biblical theology?

Notes   [ + ]

1. In writing this I am thinking of the few such families that I know. They are exceptional, in every sense!
2. E.g. an assumption of nuclear family households, combined with geographical mobility.
3. I plan to write about divorce in another post.

Once were couples

Marriage Week (7th-14th Feb) seems an appropriate time to post about marriage and committment

Over two generations (mine and my parents), marriage has been redefined. We have done this through changes in divorce law, but even more through changes in attitude. Now marriage is merely a means to fulfillment, it is no longer understood as primarily a lifelong commitment. Yet marriage means commitment, if not marriage has little meaning at all!

Repost for Marriage Week 2017

The world has changed… My parents’ generation made legal divorce a less painful process. My generation has run behind them, and overtaken them – the statistics are terrible. Marriages don’t last (at least not in the affluent egotistical West).Our kids’ friends from school always included more from “broken” or “blended” homes, than those with parents still till-death-do-us-parting. Churches too, seldom slow to learn bad ways from the world around, are full of separated and divorced halves of what once were couples. And one has to admit, the people concerned are often the better for it.

Daya Willis had an op ed piece in the Herald back in 2004, which summed the social context up nicely:

Clearly, the baby boomers cocked up the whole marriage thing. They got hitched too young, felt unfulfilled en masse, split up and occasionally repeated the process.

Later she continued:

My beloved and I will get married when we’re good and ready – and only because we can see the value in celebrating our commitment to each other with all the people who matter to us.
What’s more we’ve already taken the ultimate leap of faith – we had a baby together. Having both emerged (slightly dented) from broken homes, it’s our sworn mission to maintain a happy whole family for the sake of our son.

From other things she wrote it’s clear she saw this as something totally different from the dreams and ideals of the generation before. Perhaps it is. Though, it shares with the boomers’ the belief that a couple “should stick together for the sake of the kids”. And like theirs it is also, in its own way, totally different from the Christian view of marriage.

When a couple promise each other (however they word it) to love, and cherish, and share their lives, till death alone parts them – it’s not “for the children”, it’s for each other. It’s all about the big C, the word neither the boomers nor their successors like to say: commitment.Marriage means committment yet, paradoxically, in the Bible Ruth and Naomi are the prime examples of the virtue of commitment.

Oddly (in a time of “Civil Unions” and “marriage equality”) it is the story of two women that best illustrates what it means. Ruth and Naomi:

Don’t force me to leave you; don’t make me go home.
Where you go, I go;
and where you live, I’ll live.
Your people are my people,
your God is my god;
where you die, I’ll die, and that’s where I’ll be buried,
so help me GOD–not even death itself is going to come between us! (Ruth 1:16-17)

Isn’t that what Gen 1 and 2 tell us the Creator planned for marriage – partnership with no holds barred. Marriage means commitment. I hope and pray, that when Thomas and Melissa watch Barbara and me locked in fiery argument, they see the for-richer-for-poorer-in-sickness-and-in-health commitment that undergirds our lives and even feeds the flames!

Marriage isn’t about “a perfect match”, it’s about commitment – promises that you’ll keep, and those that you can rely on.


PS: For an excellent theological and pastoral treatment of divorce and remarriage in a 21st C New Zealand church context see “Divorce and Remarriage” by Graeme Carle.

Let’s manage education

All five nations that embraced this high-stakes, outcome-driven form of accountability are still well below expectation and seeking answers, while those nations that maintained traditional, norm-based, competitive examination systems have risen or held the line in Pisa.

To illustrate, since 2000, New Zealand students have seen a drop of 42 points in Pisa maths, 20 in reading and 15 in science – a total of 77 points.

Warwick Elley (emeritus professor of education) in the NZ Herald