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A hermeneutic of suspicion

Family Ties

Melissa Miller
By Melissa Miller
Oct 18, 2017 | Volume 21 Issue 20

In a previous Family Ties column on sexual ethics (June 19, 2017), I wondered, “Where does the Bible help us [in this regard]? And where is it limited?” As I wrote, I imagined some readers might share my questions, while others would be puzzled, even disturbed, by them. Like many of you, I imbibed Paul’s teaching to Timothy that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16).

Of course, Paul, writing in the first century A.D., was referring to the Hebrew Scriptures. The Christian Scriptures were not compiled and set into canon until the third century, or perhaps the fifth century, depending on which history one is following. Unity on Scripture was shaken up, along with many other things, by the Reformation, as Protestants omitted a number of books included by Roman Catholics.

Biblical history is full of much deliberation and debate. Those of us who value Scripture ought to become familiar with the fierce struggles that took place in its shaping, to determine what was sacred and should be included, and what was peripheral or heretical and therefore omitted.

Still we claim them as our holy writings. We trust the God-breath that worked through human hands and motivations to produce them and to guide us today, as they have countless others in the past. I persist and delight in engagement with Scripture, beginning most days with a psalm followed by a gospel passage. Such a rhythm grounds my little life in God’s unfathomable love, as intimate as breath, as vast as the ocean.

Questions persist. I ponder the opinion of my atheist friend, who thinks that an ancient book is woefully inadequate as a guide to ethics today. Part of me disagrees strongly, although I am not one to argue with an unbeliever. Part of me wants to point to Jesus, whose self-giving love ethic is magnificently compelling, timeless and exactly the model needed for the world in any age. How can the teachings of Jesus not inspire, guide and disturb anyone who considers them?

There is another part of me that understands my friend’s scepticism, what I call a hermeneutic of suspicion. My hermeneutic—how I interpret Scripture—has been shaped in many ways, including by my seminary studies. From feminist and liberation scholars, I acquired permission to approach Scripture with respectful critique. What does it mean that much of the Old Testament was written down by royal scribes, possibly during the years of Israel’s monarchy, possibly when Israel was in exile?

It is reasonable to assume that the writers were male and privileged, given gender roles, subsistence living conditions and scarcity of literary skills at the time. I know as a writer that there are many ways to tell a story. Our perspectives and our location in a society influence the story we tell or even the stories we think are worth telling. A hermeneutic of suspicion invites me to look at the Bible with curious eyes, asking, “Who is benefitting from the story being told this way? Who is being suppressed or disadvantaged?”

These questions have led me to a broadened appreciation for the Bible’s powerful message, particularly when interpreted by those who are weak, oppressed and marginalized. The God who brought liberation to the Hebrew slaves is still liberating and redeeming today. The God who broke open exclusionary divisions between Jews and Greeks is still inviting all peoples into the one universal family.

Perhaps suspicion is too strong a word for some lovers of the Bible. Perhaps caution or curiosity is more fitting, and can lead us to new insights.

Melissa Miller has a passion for helping people develop healthy, vibrant relationships with God, self and others.


Comments

Well Steve, we have been around the block a few times now and I’m not sure we understand each other better than before or not. E.g. I have difficulty with your claim “that you understand quite well what I am saying” since you did not respond to the main point of what I said, namely, that I questioned your assumption that God would not speak in confusing, contradictory ways.” My question remains, on what basis have you determined how God might or might not choose to reveal himself to human beings?

Secondly, you have taken strong exception to the phrase I used (as well as Melissa), “a hermeneutic of doubt.” I looked through her article and notice that she recognizes that suspicion may be too strong a word for some lovers of the Bible. She went so far as to suggest “caution” or “curiosity” as perhaps being more fitting. I like the term curiosity.

When I read the two creation accounts in Genesis I am struck by the fact that there are two distinct sequences there and the names by which God is referred to are not the same in Genesis 1 and 2. So, I wonder about this. Could there have been two writers at work here, at two different times in history?

When I read the parable of the lost sons in Luke 15 and notice that the father “ran” to meet his younger son, I am curious and I learned a helpful cultural fact from Kenneth Bailey (Poet and Peasant), that it was a shameful thing for an adult to run in that culture. This sheds additional light on the impact of this ancient story on its first hearers.

In one passage God is said to be the reason for Israel’s census, but in another text about the same census, Satan is given credit for the census. When I read such things I'm curious. Perhaps it is that the one text written about 150 years later than the first and by a different writer and with a different purpose helps us to understand the difference. On top of that Israel considered both of these narratives to be inspired by God! Do you ever experiences like this?

Thirdly, I certainly agree with you, “Where we differ significantly is HOW God speaks through Scripture.” This is a very important point. I hope we agree that God did not dictate what ancient writers wrote; that God inspired individuals to write and later to gather and to edit the record of the faith and culture of Israel which later found its surprise ending in the coming of Jesus. The Bible is God’s Word to the people of God, but it is entirely written by humans who were situated in particular times, cultures and predicaments and used a range of literary genres. I find the story in Nehemiah 8 very instructive. The people asked for the reading of the Torah and the text says “they read with interpretation; they gave the sense so that the people understood the reading.” Nehemiah 8:8. This understanding resulted in rejoicing among the people and a celebrative feast (BBQ?).

Understanding the Bible involves the hard work of asking questions, wondering about things, trying to figure out what the writers intended and what the first hearers may have understood. At the same time it also involves trusting the same Spirit who has inspired and guided in the past will be at work in our hearts and minds so that we understand what the ancient word may be saying to us in our time and situation.

John, I will give this one final try as well to demonstrate that I have in fact addressed your ongoing question. The other points you list I will not dispute, for there certainly is much complexity in the scriptures. That is evident, and beautiful, showing the brilliance of the Mind which spoke them into being through human authors.

Nevertheless, my issue with Melissa's article is the premise that the Bible somehow cannot be trusted. This is dangerous and heretical for many reasons. Your question about the basis upon which God has determined to reveal Himself to humans is troubling to me, however, since it hints at a lack of understanding on your part regarding basic Christian doctrine.

If you read 1 Cor 2 you will see that Paul speaks directly to the absurdity of the "wisdom of this world" in comparison to the wisdom of God. He points out that the Lord has purposely hidden His wisdom from the proud and arrogant, instead revealing it exclusively through the Holy Spirit to those who humble themselves under Jesus' leadership. In other words, those who continue to puff themselves up with intellectual pride and man-made philosophies (i.e. Feminism & Marxism) will never be able to see The Truth, because the Spirit will hide it from them. Having one's eyes opened to the truth is what it means to be "Born from above/the Spirit" as Jesus explained to Nicodemus (Jn 3).

So, to answer your question about how it is that I (or anyone else) can claim to know how to approach interpreting the scriptures... well, John, it's actually 'Christianity 101', so to speak. As Paul points out, "we have the mind of Christ." (1 Cor 2.16) In other words, those of us who submit to Jesus and become born from above in the Spirit, we literally have access to Jesus' mind, for He lives directly within us. For us the Holy Spirit is not some abstract concept but a personal force who practically shows up in dreams, visions, words of knowledge, the 'still small voice', etc. He is not an 'it', showing us that spending time arguing that He is female is as futile as it is just plain ignorant. For me, when I have difficulty understanding a passage that I need to preach on I will seek God and often that night will be given a dream that interprets it for me.

Does this mean that we who have the mind of Christ are instantly infallible? No, absolutely not, but to the degree we humbly submit to Jesus' lordship in our lives we have the ability to discern the scriptures. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: walking in the power of the Spirit, just like Jesus.

The fact that many in our denomination are currently teaching others to blatantly disregard the Bible and to embrace immorality is proof-positive that many of our people have not been born of the Holy Spirit. In fact they go through CMU & AMBS without ever personally experiencing or surrendering to the Spirit, and as a result become the false shepherds warned about in Jude and 2 Peter 2. They are those who the Holy Spirit foretold would come "in the last days", who are worldly-minded and devoid of the Spirit. What makes this so desperate is that both authors (Jude & Peter) warn that such people will be condemned to eternal damnation for their refusal to submit to God's word.

So, Canadian Mennonite, you go on ahead and allow regular contributors to openly question and mock the Bible and, by extension, teach others to do likewise; but make no mistake there is a day of reckoning coming for you, and anyone else, who does. How do I know this? The same Spirit who says so in the Bible has personally confirmed it with and many others. That's what it means to have the mind of Christ, and Jesus paid a massive price to offer it to any willng to receive it on His terms.

When I read your last submission, Steve, my first reaction was simply to let it go at that, but the thought returned to me that your approach really ought to be challenged. In fact, I recalled words from Acts 15 how early believers had “much debate” and “no small dissension” about matters of faith and discipleship. I was encouraged by this biblical precedent and decided to do a bit of exegesis. I found expressions in your writing that seem puzzling and strange to me. I wondered about the underlying assumptions that inform your opinion. I also sensed a touch of judgmentalism regarding any one who doesn’t agree with you rather than curiosity which might have raised the question, I wonder how John arrived at his conclusion. Have I overlooked something?

I am delighted that you recognize the complexity of Scripture but I question the expression “the Mind which spoke them into being through human authors.” Did the Mind of God really speak them into being? This seems to be leaning strongly in the direction that God dictated Scripture to human authors. From the evidence in the Bible it seems clear that this was not the case. Human authors rooted in their culture and time expressed their truth using available literary genres of their time. The biblical creation stories bear remarkable similarities to the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth. Biblical writers made use of literary forms available to them and revised them with their own understandings about God and the relation of God to creation. God entrusted the writing of the creation accounts to inspired human beings. I am baffled by your claim that “God’s Mind spoke them into being.”

I am also struck by your “knowing how to approach interpreting Scripture” and that it's actually ‘Christianity 101’. In other words, its elementary, basic. You seem absolutely certain about this. I certainly agree that the basic gospel message of the Bible is accessible to all, but I cannot agree with you that the Bible is simple to understand and interpret correctly. How do we understand the geneaologies of the Old Testament? I have found the careful work of Denis Lamoureux of St. Joseph’s College in Edmonton to be very helpful. Take the Psalmist’s word that the Lord is patient and slow to anger, yet Uzzah in 1 Samuel did not get to benefit from the patience of the Lord. He was struck down instantly. I suggested that understanding the Bible is hard work and requires diligence and commitment, but you insist instead on seeking God in prayer about understanding a passage and “often I will be given a dream that interprets it for me.”

You come close to claiming infallibilty over time (not instantly infallible) and make the statement that to the degree we humbly submit to Jesus’ Lordship we have the ability to discern the scriptures. Yes, we do grow in our understanding of Jesus’ Lordship but that is not the way in which we acquire the ability to discern scriptures. I have found Acts 8 to be instructive. The Ethiopian is reading the scroll of Isaiah and Phillip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” His response, “How can I unless someone guide me?” Phillip did not suggest he pray about it; he painstakingly explained, interpreted the passage so he got the message.

The details of background that Jesus assumed in the parable of the waiting Father are not accessible through prayer, but through hard work, research, that sheds light on the ancient parable.

I believe you have misread Melissa when you conclude “the Bible somehow cannot be trusted” and you label it “dangerous and heretical for many reasons.” Neither Melissa nor I are teaching others to blatantly disregard the Bible. We are committed to taking the Bible with utmost seriousness and paying close attention to background, context, literary form, etc. Taking the Bible seriously does not mean we insist on taking every passage literally, but that we explore each passage literalily as well.

I am disappointed in your attitude that comes through your writing (maybe I’ve misunderstood, but I don’t think so). You make some broad accusations against others, yet Paul the inspired writer cautioned his readers in Romans 14:1-15:7 about such matters. Specifically, he names two attitudes - those who disagree are not to despise those who may understand things a bit more openly and whose discipleship doesn’t measure up; and those who disagree are not to pass judgment on a brothers or sister’s understanding of faith and discipleship. Yet you are doing exactly this, on the basis of the Spirit having “personally confirmed it with you” and many others.

Paul urges his readers to be firmly convinced in their own minds and he definitely cautions against despising or passing judgment on those who differ.

I urge you to open yourself to the insights that others have gained about the Bible as a result of the Spirit’s work in their lives and their own study.

John, I was no longer going to respond to this thread except for the incredible irony in your post. I will not address most of what you've said because it's clear to me you're perceiving something very different from what I am saying, and you are consistently in error in your conclusions.

What I will point out is that this thread has essentially ended up going full circle with you misquoting scripture. I'm curious, have you actually read the book of Romans? It wouldn't seem so; because if you had you would know that in the passage you quoted Paul is speaking specifically about the issue of dietary laws, and is part of a larger discussion about how Christ fulfills the Law through love. This passage has absolutely nothing to do with whether we are to be suspicious of the Bible. If, on the other hand, you're quoting Romans to make a point about (me) judging error in the church, well perhaps you need to read what Paul also says to the Corinthians: "What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside." (1 Cor 5.12-13a)

In any case, if you back up to Romans 12 & 13, you'll see that Paul's appeal to the Roman church is for them to come into the light of God's truth (His word, which includes the Bible) and forsake sinful practices, including sexual immorality. John, do you realize that by quoting Romans you've actually made the point that a plain reading of the Bible is authoritative, and that it can be trusted, for example, to denounce homosexuality as sin?

What you appear to have done (again) is to proof-text to support your prior suppositions and conclusions about the Bible's trustworthiness, resulting in a misinterpretation and misapplication of a fairly straightforward passage.

If this is what you mean by opening oneself 'to the insights others have gained about the Bible,' I'm afraid that's a very dubious proposition. That is where we need to direct our suspicion.

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