Monday, April 7, 2008

But Whose hermeneutics?

     A great deal of press in the Episcopal Church over the next few months will likely center around a fancy word called hermeneutics. Indeed, much of the upcoming Lambeth conference will be devoted to Bible Study and a consideration of hermeneutics. Of what authority are the Scriptures in our life? What do the words that we study really mean? Can we be reconciled when faithful Christian come to diametrically opposed understandings of the same words, verses, or passages? As I mentioned at the second service yesterday, hermeneutics is related to the Greek god Hermes in mythology. How do we know what we know about anything, but especially about God? The Greeks held that Hermes had to deliver and interpret messages. But who or what interprets for us?

     Probably, if we pinned philosophers down and demanded an answer to that last question, they would fall into one of two camps with varying shades. Some would likely say that we apprehend what we know by reason; while others would likely argue that we learn through experience and experimentation. Unfortunately, as many of you know, I am far too familiar with the works of people such as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Heidegger, Schleiermacher, Habermas, Gadamer, and the like to want to be this brief. But how do we, as Christians, answer the question of hermeneutics?

     Our Gospel reading this week gives us an insight to that question. The two disciples are walking on the road to Emmaus. The stranger approaches and ask them what they are talking about. In a brief testimony, they recite the events of Holy Week and the background of Jesus of Nazareth. Keep in mind, these disciples have walked and ministered with Christ for some time. They have seen or heard about the demons being cast out, the lame walking, the lepers being cured, the dead being raised, the deaf given hearing, and all the other miracles that we read in the various Gospel accounts. Perhaps, just perhaps, they have performed some miraculous works in His name when He commissioned them earlier in the story. Jesus was for them a prophet mighty in deed. In other words, they have experienced Christ's ministry to the point that they have given up their former lives and followed him.

     Further, as His disciples, they have been taught. Jesus, we know, would often take His disciples aside and teach them about the significance of the events which they just experienced. Often, these teachings to the masses were in parables, but Jesus was forced to explain His teachings to His disciples so that they would understand. Jesus was also a prophet mighty in word to them as He spoke with authority rather than in interpretation. In other words, we might say that their ability to reason fell far short. They needed to be spoon fed by the Incarnate Word.

     Of course, as the story continues, Jesus chastises His disciples. How foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Jesus then goes on to explain to them that all that Moses and the prophets wrote pointed to Him. Salvation history points to the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. The entirety of God's saving work has been directed towards the Incarnation of the Son and His redeeming work on behalf of humanity. That we might know that all that Jesus taught and said, God raised Him on that third morning and He ascended to the Father. Were Jesus anyone other than who He claimed to be, the Father would not have vindicated Him that Easter Morning and Ascension nearly 2000 years ago! And look at the transformation in the disciples. When their eyes were opened, they remarked to one another, "were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" In fact, they are so transformed that they travel back the seven miles, when they had only a brief time earlier encouraged the stranger to stay and dine with them!

     In short, our faith has always held that God is a revealing God. Were He to choose not to reveal Himself to us, we would have no way -- not reason nor experience -- of ever apprehending Him. We come to know Him and know about only Him through His revelation to us. Because He is a revealing and loving God, we do not think that He is trying to trick us as did many people of the Ancient Near East thought about their own gods and goddesses. We are encouraged to call our Father in heaven, Abba -- "daddy."  Daddy's do not trick or mislead intentionally.  

     One of the questions with which faithful Christians must struggle, however, is the question of that revelation. In this respect, we are no different than the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus. As Episcopalians, we have acknowledged that struggle in our BCP on page 853. "How do we recognize truths taught by the Holy Spirit? We recognize truths to be taught by the Holy Spirit when they are in accord with the Scriptures." Certainly, faithful people in the Church throughout history have argued for the inclusion/exclusion of slavery as an acceptible practice, for the exclusion/inclusion of women in ministry, for war, for polygamy and a whole host of other practices. The questions we, as faithful, discerning Christians, no matter our time, must grapple is whether we misunderstood then or are currently misunderstanding. Certainly, no one today can read Deuteronomy (if anyone ever does) and God's demand that His people garland their slaves with flocks and crops as they are freed, both male and female, and think that God demanded slavery. Similarly, it is hard (though Paul gives some fodder in his letters) to argue for the exclusion of women's ministry given the claim by God that females were created in His image and that Jesus allowed women to call Him Rabbi and even that the first recipients of the apostolic mission "Go and tell" were the women. Do you think that war is encouraged by God? Read His implicit criticism of warfare in Deuteronomy. Want to argue that God encourages polygamy? Certainly many of the family dysfunctions in the Bible center around the envy and sin aroused in polygamous families (Sarah and Hagar; Jacob and his treatment of the sons not of Rachael; Solomon -- ton name a couple). And, again, within that book that so few of us read, God has to remind father not to favor sons of an unfavored wife.  Whatever the church has gotten wrong, the corrective teaching was confirmed by the Scriptures.  Some may have been led to their insight to question the church's position through the world's experiences, but the Scriptures were necessary to confirm that the experiences and thoughts were not in opposition to the revelation of God's Holy Spirit.

     It is because of the fact that God is not a trickster that we Christians can approach a wide number of subjects from different understandings.  And because we believe that He is remaking us in the image of His Son, we can wrestle for many years before we ever accept His authority on any given subject, even the presenting issue facing our church and communion.  And because we know that He has revealed to us everything He wants us to know now, we can face those discussions and debates without fear and with much love, knowing that He came to us when we were ignorant sinners because He loved us so dearly.  No challenge to us or our thinking is above Him.  And some of those challenges may well prove to be the refiner's fire at work in our minds.

     What can we do in the midst of this ongoing dispute on the western edge of Davenport, Iowa? We can continue to pray and to study. As inheritors of God's kingdom we can ask Him to make manifest His truth to His church. As pilgrims on our own faith journeys, we can continue to study His word and to study our own hermeneutics. Does what we know exist in accord with the Scriptures? If not, we may have more studying to do, or we may be in error. If so, we may be in need of even more of His grace to proclaim by word and deed that knowledge which leads to His Son. It may sound exhausting and tiresome, but is there any greater knoweldge to posses on earth?



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