Hermeneutical Ignorance at the Root of the Crisis of Theology
The Rev. John Fry once said, “All heresies begin with failure to correctly parse a verb.” It was a surprising statement made by the radical religious leader, battling the established power structure of the City of Chicago. His audience was expecting words of encouragement for them to join his campaign in behalf of the lower layers of the social pecking order at the very beginning of a new phase of the American cultural-war that is still going on. Fry, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago, was getting at the root of the problem of bizarre theology, including especially the theology that supports what Walter Brueggemann later called our “crisis.”
The crisis of the U.S. Church … has everything to do with giving up on faith and the discipline of our Christian baptism, and settling for a common generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence and part affluence. Brueggemann
At the time Fry was making national headlines, Prosperity Gospel was just being heard about and televangelists like Rex Humbard of Akron were moving moderate Billy Graham evangelicalism into Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell’s territory.
PREMISE 1: A collective church’s rationale is its theology.
“Collective church” (or orthodox church) refers to an organization of local congregations that recognizes a shared heritage and mission. This collective may have an administrative structure, as well. In fact, several Protestant denominations are named for their administrative structures, including Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians. Denominations are such collective churches, but so are less formal associations and fellowships of local congregations.
A “theology” is a systematic compilation of concepts concerning divine-human relationships and conditions. A local congregation may have both theological and social rationales, but a wider church organization exists for its collective mission in support of its theological vision. The most formidable collective churches are those with the most compelling theological vision. It can be a great help to have an acknowledged, shared heritage as part of the collective church’s identity, as well.
PREMISE 2: Theology is the product of a hermeneutical process.
A “hermeneutical process” is an interpretation strategy. There are no Christian churches that do not have some form of Holy Bible as sacred scripture. Therefore, there are no churches that do not utilize a hermeneutical process. On the one hand are “Bible-believing churches” where leaders insist, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” The Bible is the “word of God.” The actual hermeneutical process is “we decide” what the Bible means. Often, that meaning is declared to be self-evident, conforming to the most literal meaning of a text.
At the other end of the spectrum are churches that define a more complex interpretive process. A typical hermeneutic involves identifying relevant biblical texts on a subject, considering what wise teachers have said about those texts and that subject, supplemented by relevant studies of the life and times to which the text refers, and applying that to particular present circumstances by the use of natural metaphors and inspired intelligence.
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Collective churches with longer histories tend to have more rigid regulations for their theologies. One way of regulating theology is to groom the makers of theology. The usual method is to require a regimen of training for those who will become theological instructors, such as preachers or seminary teachers. This training is about how to do theological reflection and discourse.
Traditionally, students were taught biblical languages so they could analyze and understand texts of scripture. The analytical task is exegesis, which John Fry referred to as “parsing a verb.” This gave a basis for deciding on a biblical translation and ability to critique translations provided by others. That is where textual studies were used. Two resources were live teachers and printed textbooks such as the famous Interpreter’s Bible by Abingdon Press and the Interpretation series by John Knox Press.
Then, having been taught the technical skills about how to do theology, those students were ordained and authorized to do it.
Another way of regulating theology is to make it the official property of the church. Creeds and confessions do that, but so do official edicts by popes, councils, and bishops (Amish and Mormon bishops have substantial power in this regard). Some publications have acquired official standing including John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Science and Health by Mary Baker Eddy, the Book of Mormon compiled by Joseph Smith, and John Cramer’s editorial work on the 1549 The Book of Common Prayer. The majority of books of theology are official only insofar as they influence collective opinion or are used in theological courses of study that are official.
Collective churches are weakened when they lose a compelling shared vision of their identity and mission. I believe that has happened to a number of ecclesial organizations including most mainline Protestant denominations in the USA, as well as the Church of Christ in Thailand, founded by American Protestant missionaries nearly 200 years ago.
Within my lifetime the Presbyterian Church (USA) has lost its theological consensus. Several things happened to bring about this loss:
Each of these changes was impelled by good reasons and was considered the best option as it was gradually adopted. The overall effect, nevertheless, was that the mechanisms for developing a theological rationale for a collective mission were lost.
Without a theologically-based compelling mission, collective churches drift into heresy or dwindle in influence. Influence is of two types: quantity of adherents that can become a unified political or commercial force, or quality of conviction that becomes a moral force (sometimes despite a minority status). To exert any influence on events and trends of our time Christians with no bonds to a collective church can only be change agents by allying themselves with organizations pursing similar goals. Heresy is a theological position contrary to an official position, but it becomes untenable when it results in bizarre and unsustainable spirituality that may also be irrelevant to contemporary reality or contrary to logic and reason (i.e. intellectually unsustainable).
When local churches and individuals no longer see any reason to “buy into” the larger church’s mission, the largest remaining mission engine is the local congregation. People will be loyal and engaged in what their home church is doing and nothing more. Many a pastor feels alone these days in hanging onto a commitment to the denomination and its diocese or presbytery. This is a major issue in the decline of mainline denominations and in the erosion of their influence.
What can Christians do when the USA has come to the point where the US President has steered the US government into a pattern of policies that are environmentally disastrous and lack regard for human life? Christianity in the USA is divided. One group of Christians support the government while they ignore the theological implications of what is going on; and they are opposed by another group of Christians who lack influence because they no longer have a theological rationale on which to base an effective resistance.
Christianity as a religious movement in the USA is facing two major crises, the crisis of organizational fragmentation and the crisis of declining moral influence. The loss of collective theology underlies both of these crises.
In every case I can recall, imminent organizational fragmentation has been addressed by administrative processes. That seems only reasonable since the fracturing is, first of all, a matter of control and management. The argument may have begun over points of theology, usually having to do with hermeneutics or how to read the Bible, but then the protest turns political and becomes a church fight where the only issue is who’s going to walk out the door and who’s going to keep the keys. Sometimes the walk-out is dramatic, as was the exodus of Lutherans from the Missouri Synod on February 19, 1974, and sometimes it is flaking-off of one family or congregation at a time as Presbyterians tend to have it. At the moment, the United Methodist Church is at this very same threshold.
As for the Church of Christ in Thailand, the crisis is still a distant threat. It is, however, inevitable. The church has no collective theology aside from a core principle that it is better to be a Christian than to be some other religion. The national church scaled back the educational requirements for church leaders, with the result that within one generation nearly all pastors and denominational officials have only a bachelor’s degree or less. Their limited training is how to do the work of a pastor, with little or no emphasis on how to do theology. There is no longer an official publication office for theological books and so most books are either translations of popular theology from overseas, desk-top publications by seminary teachers who have no peer dialogue or accountability about their content, or reprints of elementary theological textbooks from about 50 years ago. No hermeneutical system is standard, although the Biblical-literalist approach is taken for granted. The national church’s foundational creed has not been debated (as far as I know) since it was adopted without debate in the church’s general assembly in the mid-1990s. In fact the church has no mechanism and has lost the capacity to have a national discussion of theology.
Behind it all, in back of every major divisive encounter among Christians since the nineteenth century has been disagreement about how to interpret the Bible meaningfully. And that is the study that seldom happens.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.