Community Hermeneutics: the importance of corporate reading

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In response to the omni-prevalent notion of individualism in America (and abroad, no doubt), it has recently become popular in some Christian circles to be much more communitarian, or community-focused. This is good for a number of reasons, reasons that I will not go into for sake of time, and honestly, laziness. One theologian, Stanley Grens (RIP), even goes so far as to elevate the idea of community into the role of being a dominant operative metaphor for the doing of theology (see his Theology for the Community of God).

Now, I have recently developed what I think to be a pretty compelling idea which I think lends credence (sp?) to the need for hermeneutics to be communally postured? What do I mean by communally postured? I mean that the hermeneutical process undertaken by anyone interpreting Scripture ought to involve readings that are both, (1) subject to more than one lone interpreter in isolation & (2) outside its own domain, or circle(s) of existence. For instance, we do well to read what might be called advocacy group readings (post-colonial readings, feminist readings, third-world readings, liberation readings, etc.). My professors, Dr. William Klein & Dr. Craig Blomberg do an excellent service to me and other students at Denver Seminary by encouraging us towards this end. But, aside from assuming a priori that we need to consider such readings, is there any grounding or legitimacy to the idea that we NEED to read from such diverse perspectives and traditions?

I think there is…and here is where my “compelling idea” comes in:

[It might be a generous to call it “my” idea since it has been inspired a writing of C. S. Lewis, but the application is certainly (I think) original to myself.And again, keep in mind that I am trying to provide justification for a communal reading (a reading that by its very definition does not flow from a lone interpreter but takes into consideration the work of the Spirit in community and, particularly, in communities much different from its own].

But enough qualifications; let us consider an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves:

Lamb says somewhere that if, of three friends (A, B, and C), A should die, then B loses not only A but ‘A’s part in C,’ while C loses not only A but ‘A’s part in B.’ In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend. They can then say, as the blessed souls say in Dante, ‘Here comes one who will augment our loves.’ For in this love ‘to divide is not to take away.’ Of course the scarcity of kindred souls–not to mention practical considerations about the size of rooms and the audibility of voices–set limits to the enlargement of the circle; but within those limits we possess each friend not less but more as the number of those with whom we share him increases. In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ to one another (Isaiah VI, 3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall all have.

from the Four Loves by C. S. Lewis

From what I understand, the essence of what Lewis is saying is that we can know more about an individual when they are immersed in community. In the context of community, what would seemingly detract from our ability to know someone in actuality helps us to know them even better. That is, if I have two friends and one dies, just b/c I now have more of the other person to myself, this does not mean that I will know them better. This is because there are certain things about that person which will now never be excavated or evoked b/c the only person that could see them or bring them out is that third friend who has passed on. But how does this apply to reading and interpreting Scripture?

When we think about Holy Scripture and the Word of God more generally, we need to always understand the idea of revelation in terms of SELF-revelation (a point I gladly borrow from my beloved Dr. Payne). The authority of Scripture, as N. T. Wright points out, has to always be understood in terms of GOD’S (!) authority. Thus, when we seek to understand the Word of God, we are seeking to understand something which is inherently personal. [This is presupposition of mine is crucial for understanding what I am about to say]

If we then think back to what Lewis highlights, we do not necessarily know more about the Word of God if we have sat in our Western, academic tower and through much rigorous and personal engagement with the text, exegeted it to our satisfaction. [Obviously the Word of God is more than just the text, but hear me out] Indeed, we may know more of what the author originally intended, what kind of genitives are being used, what socio-cultural factors are in the background, etc. However, if we want to truly seek to understand the Word of God, then we need others. We need to gather together with others in community and share our exegesis, our interpretations, our understandings of the Word, not withholding our differences but bringing them to bear fully on the text. With convicted civility and humility, we may then and only then, learn more fully what the Word of God is trying to tell us. You see, by hearing Johnny Liberationist’ reading and personal engagement with the Word of God, I am not getting less of the Word of God, but more. Granted, not just any reading helps me know the Word of God more, but there are no doubt instances where readings VERY different from my own might bring out elements of the text which my cultural blinders passed by. Now, there will have to be boundaries to just who can be your “hermeneutical friend.” I am convinced that more often than not I will not be able to successfully have a “hermeneutical friendship” with a deconstructionist, primarily due to such different methodological commitments. However, this is not to say that it is impossible.

So, what do you think? Does my application of Lewis’ illustration make sense when applied to hermeneutics? I might suggest provisionally that I wonder if this is what was going on in the conciliatory creeds of the early church? Who knows? Please, share your thoughts!!!

4 Responses to Community Hermeneutics: the importance of corporate reading

  1. Daniel says:

    We could liken it to the “trifecta of excellence” as an example. My interpretations of Scripture might vary from Tony’s, and then from yours. At Bible study for example, Tony’s insight into a passage sheds light for me (and presumably you) into what the text is saying exegetically and then what the text is saying to me personally. The same could be said for the rest of us; I hope I contribute worthy thoughts anyway instead of blabber!

    And how can we tie that into the church, homiletics, hermeneutics etc? What came to my mind was another Lewis-ism: democracy of the dead. I’m getting less and less interested in what individual commentators might have to say on a certain passage anymore. What I’m getting more and more interested in is what commentators throughout church history have thought about a particular passage, i.e. historical theology. I’m not saying that it is irrelevant to read modern thinkers. Why? Because these modern thinkers are influenced and mentored from thinkers of the former century and those thinkers from the prior century and so on and so forth. Ex: Many people were influenced by Lewis. Lewis was influenced by guys like Chesterton and MacDonald (?). Undoubtedly they were also influenced by people before them. And so the lineage goes down through the centuries all unto the time of the Apostles and Christ himself. Wow! The dead have a voice in hermeneutics, sermons, and even the modern Church (!) today!!! The democracy of the dead— everyone has a voice.

    EVEN IF pastors and laypeople don’t want to admit it!! What do I mean? Not to go in to much of a tangeant of something readers of this blog already know, but I’m thinking about Tony’s favorite topic, the historical church. Many churches today are either unable or unwilling to recognize this democracy of the dead and faithfully apply it to their orthodoxy and orthopraxy. That’s sad, in my book. But in conclusion, one might also think that those who do not recognize the democracy of the dead are still in fact members of that fraternity, even if they don’t recognize it. All scholars/thinkers/laypeople/pastors have a voice in and for the Church. Hmmm.

  2. Clinton says:

    Daniel,

    Good observations. I especially like the piece about the democracy of the dead. Community MUST also involve the community (communion) of saints who have tried to faithfully interpret before us. What writing of his does that come from?

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