A hermeneutic of suspicion

Family Ties

October 18, 2017 | Viewpoints | Volume 21 Issue 20
Melissa Miller |

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.

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With all due respect Melissa, I'm wondering where in the holy scriptures we find a divine directive (even an invitation) to approach the Bible with a 'hermeneutic of suspicion'? Quite the opposite, the scriptures compel us to come to God and His inspired word full of faith and belief. Failing to do so, as the scriptures themselves say, results in us receiving nothing from God. If anything, teaching God's people to doubt the sure word of God sounds very much like what Satan continually offers humanity.

To be frank, Feminist and Liberation theologies are what you should have approached with suspicion; they are merely modern heresies deliberately introduced into western seminaries to deceive future church leaders into accepting an impotent gospel. Is there any surprise that now, several decades removed from the 1960s when much of this 'theology' reached its peak, that we have a church body that knows virtually nothing of the power of Jesus' resurrection and is powerless to stand against the headwinds of a Godless secular culture? Do we not see that never-ending discussions about social ethics form the crux of our understanding of the Kingdom of God as a result, rather than Holy Spirit power ("For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power." I Cor 4.20)?

Folks: suspicion, skepticism and doubt are not Godly virtues. They are modern idols that will eventually bring about God's judgment (see Jude 5).

"If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and NOT DOUBT, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do." (James 1.5-8, emphasis mine)

I want to affirm your “respectful critique” approach to Scripture and your use of the expression, “hermeneutic of suspicion.” Everyone who reads the Bible carefully will notice that there are different convictions and understandings of faith and discipleship in Scripture.

I will share only one example (but there are many). When we read Deut. 23:1-8 and Nehemiah 13:1-3 we get the clear message that certain outsiders and foreigners are to be excluded from worship in Israel. This was understood to be the Word of the Lord by ancient Israel at that time. When we read Isaiah 55:7 we read as follows, “Let no foreigner say I am excluded.” Two inspired Bible texts are exclusionary but the other inspired text is inclusionary. Somehow this has to be taken seriously and interpreted.

If the Bible were a constitution or a rule book then every part must be consistent with every other part. Rather, the Bible seems to be the library of an ongoing conversation in which various viewpoints are preserved as inspired text. I certainly agree that all Scripture is inspired and useful for teaching, but not all parts are equally useful for us. We have long held the conviction that Scripture is to be interpreted in the light of Christ. Taking these texts-in-tension seriously we must seek to know whether Jesus has any light to shed on the matter. And He does. The cleansing of the temple text in Mark 11:15-19 contains a quote from Isaiah, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” This is not exclusionary; it is inclusionary! Jesus chooses the viewpoint of Isaiah over against the attitude found in Deuteronomy and Nehemiah. We have guidance here about responsible Christian interpretation of Scripture, according to the mind of Christ.

What seems clear to me is that what the Bible says in one place may be in tension with what is taught in another. Accepting this means practicing a hermeneutic of respectful critique and finding that one part of inspired Scripture is of less importance than another part of inspired Scripture.

John, perhaps unknowingly you have vividly illustrated my point about the danger of a 'hermeneutic of suspicion'. Please allow to explain.

The Deuteronomy & Nehemiah passages you quote are perfectly in sync with one another, reflecting Israel's call to faithful obedience to the Torah. In the Law Israel was to be separate and holy unto the Lord. Isaiah, however, is a prophetic book and the verse you quote is taken from a portion of that book that speaks about the future glory of Israel when the Lord (whom we know to be Messiah Jesus) comes to earth to finally establish God's eternal rule. Of course there will be no 'foreigners' excluded on that day because when Jesus returns all his enemies will be made his footstool (Ps. 110)! In other words, all foreigners who have joined themselves to Jesus (see Isaiah 56.3) will be part of the Abrahamic family of faith (aka true Israel), and as such, could never be excluded. The other 'foreigners' who refuse to be joined to Jesus will be destroyed (something Isaiah depicts graphically).

Here's my point... when a person comes to the Bible with skepticism, suspicion or unbelief (a 'hermeneutic of suspicion' or 'respectful critique') he or she is vulnerable to misunderstanding and misapplying the scriptures, just as you have done. There is no tension, nor contradiction in these three passages - only continuity, beauty and promise.

When scripture initially appears to contradict it is our duty as followers of Jesus not to give ourselves over to doubt, but to pray and allow the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to what we cannot immediately apprehend, believing in faith that a good God would not speak in confusing, contradictory ways. There is much yet to be discovered in the scriptures but we will never uncover it if we approach them with doubt and unbelief. The Bible itself testifies to that reality. Let's be honest and admit that a 'hermeneutic of suspicion' and 'respectful critique' is merely unbelief wrapped in euphemism.

To continue the conversation with Steve I want to do two things: one, ask a question and two, give another example of real diversity in Scripture.

My question arises in relation to Steve’s seeming inability to accept diversity in the Bible. He states, “a good God would not speak in confusing, contradictory ways.” This is an assumption that was not discovered in Scripture but brought to the text as a prior presupposition. Somewhere he got the idea that a good God would not speak in confusing or contradictory ways and a good God’s Bible would not behave that way. But it does and it challenges us to come to grips with the fact that the Lord dared to inspire frail and fallible human beings to tell His story in culturally appropriate and ancient ways. The Lord permitted his followers to express their understandings and beliefs in stumbling and preliminary ways, growing out of their experiences and reflections. This is sometimes perplexing to us, but often finds resolution in the clearest revelation we have of God in Jesus.

My example begins in Deut 28:1-14 where we find the expression “abound in prosperity”, “bless you in all you undertakings”, and “you shall be only at the top and not at the bottom” - this is one of the key texts of the prosperity gospel in our time. But this is given a quite different interpretation in the book of Job. Job is introduced as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil”. According to Dt 28 Job should not have had to suffer, but he suffered terribly! Job’s friends argued on the basis of the assumptions of Dt 28 and told him he must have sinned. He rejected that and in the end God affirmed him.

What happens with this tension in Jesus’s time? It is raised twice, John 9 and Luke 13:1-5. The question in the first century was “who sinned” to cause blindness and were the worst sinners killed in the tower of Siloam incident. Jesus clearly states, neither his parents or he sinned to cause blindness and no, they were not worse sinners who were killed in the accident.

To me this is inspired and creative dialogue within Scripture. The dialogue is rooted in real diversity of opinion; not harmonized but allowed to be part of the biblical narrative for our benefit. Let’s be honest and admit that this is rooted not in unbelief but in careful reading.

John, I am astounded that you seem to think that the concept of God's goodness is simply my own presupposition. As Christians, the goodness of God is a cornerstone of our faith (“Why do you call Me good? Jesus replied, No one is good except God alone." (Mk 10.18) It strikes me that this is the root of your error with regard to hermeneutics. It's not about allowing diversity into the discussion, but rather about whether to allow heresy! To that point, I believe you have yet again supported my thesis about the dangers of a hermeneutic of suspicion with your reference to Job.

For example, if Job was to employ a post-modern 'hermeneutic of suspicion' the Bible would record that once confronted with undeserved calamity Job was forced to conclude that God's word to humanity was simply too unpleasant, confusing, contradictory and/or culturally irrelevant for his situation. As such he would be compelled to massage its meaning until becoming more palatable to his specific cultural context.

Is this what Job did? No, quite the opposite. The Bible demonstrates that precisely because Job believed in the inherent goodness and justice of God he refused to (a) accept the easy theological answers of his friends and (b) throw in the towel by cursing God (as his wife advised). Instead Job persisted for an answer as to how this could be. In fact, thematically the book ponders the question about whether Job will retain his faith in a good and just God in the absence of answers, or simply give in to unbelief. When he does finally come face to face with God he quickly concedes that from his limited human perspective there are some big questions only God can answer. He concludes with a posture of humility saying, "Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know." (Job 42.3)

Job's entire story begins and ends with faith and humility toward God. Within the uncertainty and cruel crises of life Job emerges steadfast in faith, not suspicious of God's word as many Mennonites now prescribe. In the face of difficult biblical questions, our approach should be like Job's: presuming the goodness of God, knowing that God's salvation will come according to His timing, not ours.

In light of God's bold response to Job ("Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!” Job 40.2), I ask similarly: Who exactly do we think we are to question Almighty God about the way He has chosen to speak to humanity? Only modern man and woman would be so arrogant to do so by audaciously rewriting his commands regarding human sexuality.

Steve, I appreciate the confidence and certainty you have found in your faith, but you may want to consider that the insistence that there is no tension whatsoever in Scripture stands somewhat apart from our Confession of Faith. Take a look at note 4 under article 22 on peace: "There is no simple explanation for the practice of war in the Old Testament." We are a peace church, and we acknowledge that the Biblical call to peace exists in tension within Scripture. There are plenty of people who have tried to explain away that tension in various ways - and perhaps you've found an explanation that you find satisfactory - but our tradition doesn't demand that we do so.

Matthew, I think you've misconstrued what I am saying. I think if you read carefully what I wrote you'll see that I'm not saying there is no tension within the Bible. Rather, I was referring to the alleged tension John saw in the 3 passages to which he referred. My point is that many of these so-called contradictions can easily be resolved by approaching the bible with faith, humility and prayer; not suspicion as Melissa invites us. In those cases where tension yet remains we must lean upon the goodness of God and trust that any confusion and lack of understanding is due to our fallibility, not God's. (After all, how many times was Israel not able to see the stunningly clear and precise Messianic prophecies in the Psalms and Prophets, which we now see were obviously placed there by the Holy Spirit?)

A proper, faith-filled hermeneutic is crucial for us as Christians because of how it establishes our faith, while a non-biblical approach relying upon post-modern relativism only leads to more doubt, unbelief and, inevitably, apostasy. Sadly, this is where our denomination has now arrived after employing an unchecked 'hermeneutic of suspicion'.

Steve, please reconsider your last post which seems to be based on a quick reading of what I wrote. Not only have you misread my statement but you have drawn conclusions based on it, arguing that this is the root of my hermeneutical error and that I am on the way to allowing heresy.

I did not question the goodness of God at all, but I did question your statement, “a good God would not speak in confusing, contradictory ways.” That seems to be your presupposition; you have determined what a good God could or could not do in and through the Bible and are not willing to accept obvious diversity within it. This has nothing to do with allowing heresy.

My reference to Job had a different focus as well. Careful reading and reflection leads me to see the book of Job as expressing a challenge to the assumptions expressed in Deut. 28. That is the issue that Jesus addressed in John 9 and Luke 13. I was illustrating how diversity of belief and understanding is being handled within Scripture. I did not impose this diversity nor Jesus’s response to it on the text. These texts invite us to wrestle with what the Lord is trying to reveal to us and to struggle with the reality the inspired text presents.

I believe I understand quite well what you are saying. Where we differ significantly is HOW God speaks through scripture. It very much seems you are distressed by the idea that God's inherent goodness can provide a person with great confidence to understand what God is saying in the Bible. Are you sure you don't have a blind spot here? After all, you appear to have leaped to endorse Melissa's hermeneutic, which also claims to be able to (quite confidently, I might add) interpret God's activity in human history. This has less to do with 'diversity' (another vague/euphemistic term, I'm afraid) and more to do with where one casts his or her lots hermeneutically.

Feminist theology for example, as Melissa points out, refuses to read the bible at face value because the writers (allegedly) are "male and privileged." This raises a very serious issue, because if what she and other feminists say is true then one must conclude that the Holy Spirit was powerless to transmit God's word to humanity without error when faced off against human patriarchy. Or how about Liberation theology, which believes the primary mover of history is human socio-economic forces? Here, too, the very Spirit through whom all creation was spoken into being(!) AND raised Jesus from the dead(!) was apparently thwarted in His efforts to speak God's word accurately by corrupt human institutions. Do we seriously want to go down that road, theologically?

Yet, John, you seem willing to accept such a premise, while scorning the orthodox assertion that God's goodness enables us to know his will with remarkable clarity. Are you sure you haven't simply bought into the oxymoronic post-modern idea that there is no such thing as meta-narrative (i.e. the Bible)? I submit that the premise of Melissa's 'hermeneutic of suspicion' outlined above is fundamentally flawed. A basic rule of argumentation is that a flawed premise (no matter how sincere the argument or arguer) inevitably leads to a faulty conclusion. In this case the stakes are tremendously high because we're talking about how to interpret scripture and thus live our lives before a Holy God. Any hermeneutic that is inherently humanistic in its foundation, like feminist & liberationist theology, is purely dangerous and idolatrous.

Job seemed to understand that amidst theological tension the rule of thumb is to always side with God and trust that the tension will one day be resolved, either in this life or on resurrection day when we "know fully, just as we are fully known." This is precisely why Job, in the midst of his time of greatest questioning comforted himself with a confession of faith, not doubt: "I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth." (Job 19.25)

A hermeneutic of suspicion can never give us that kind of confidence in times of trial because Job's words are about trust in God's character; not the pseudo-spiritual language of doubt, skepticism and unbelief.


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