How Healthy is Adventist Hermeneutics? The Hypertrophy of the Interpreting Church (5)


(Spectrumbot) #1

We have been considering the importance and centrality of the “Hermeneutic Circle” in our reading of the Bible in order to really understand the nature and reach of biblical interpretation. Every reading of the Bible is legitimate and brings some blessing, but not every reading represents the Bible fully. We can’t be satisfied with a proximate, minimal, and even less with an ideological and biased biblical reading. It’s helpful and healthy to remember that anyone can easily be biblically biased. We should continually learn to be aware and admit that we all – particularly those who highly cherish the Bible – will inevitably have some biased biblical readings. And we will struggle to correct them because, on that imperfect basis, God has nevertheless blessed us. Even more difficult will be to admit that we’ll likely never be able to completely discard some important biases. It is possible to read the bible with coherence and conviction while avoiding the disturbing but healing power of an interpreting wisdom. In so doing we then maintain and perpetuate our biases. Coherence and conviction without wisdom, whose main characteristic is precisely the search for interpretation, easily become destructive “virtues”.

History shows how diligently coherent and well-intended Christians (Adventists included), using the Bible, have and still support: labor exploitation, racial discrimination, gender stigmatization, asymmetrical professional recognition, hierarchical authoritarianism and self-destructive religious attitudes. Just as eating is not only a pleasure but also includes a long list of disorders, Bible reading is not only a blessing but unfortunately also includes a long list of hermeneutical dysfunctions and pathologies.

It’s not enough to pretend to be biblical. It’s necessary to become “biblical enough”. And being “biblical enough” is not a status but a pilgrimage. Having been biblical in the past doesn’t guarantee being biblical in the present or the future. So pretending to “be biblical” can paradoxically be a sophisticated way of being idolatrous and religiously static. And affirming the “Sola Scriptura” principle is only tangentially linked to faithful Bible reading. The Bible is more concerned with our becoming than with what we are or read. The goal is to reach toward the full transforming biblical meaning to make it effective in correcting and orienting our reality and existence today. And that’s possible only with Interpretation (big I), by accepting the challenge of the “Hermeneutic Circle”. If our Bible reading only confirms our preconceived convictions, personal or communitarian, this is enough to get worried. And a beneficial and even irreverent spirit of renewal can exist only in interpreting, and not in just reading or applying – even faithfully – what the Bible apparently says.

Only a reading which is ready to become Interpretation can aspire to this, and only then can it bring full blessing. And there is Interpretation only when we respect, welcome and safeguard a healthy articulation of the “Hermeneutic Circle”, i.e. the fruitful, yet tension-filled and fragile co-existence of the “Text” and the “Reader”. The transforming and renewing meaning, strictly speaking, doesn’t emerge from the Text or Reader alone but in-between – in the tension these two poles create together and which is irreducible to either of them. There is no Interpretation without tension and risk. And not accepting the dynamic and creative risk of interpreting, can condemn us to the worst of risks – being stuck in a repetitive, static and unfruitful reading exercise. Interpretation, with all its risks, rescues the Bible from being an irrelevant sacred oracle.

We also must recognize that the two poles of the Hermeneutic Circle, Text and Reader, are not linear or homogeneous. They are complex, multi-layered and internally differentiated entities that continually re-configure and update themselves in relation to the surrounding cultural settings, even before we become fully aware of them. What Text and Reader are today doesn’t correspond necessarily to what they used to be in, say, the 16th century or the New Testament era. Our understanding today is markedly constructivist regarding the Text, and individualistic in relation to the Reader. That’s neither better or worse. It’s just the way it is. Just as it’s not better or worse to be born modern, post-modern, medieval, pre-christian or Babylonian.

Each cultural and historical period has its pros and cons. And our specific cultural configuration is already diffusely present in our way of life, secular or religious, because the deep cultural patterns, like our mother language, are not objects of rational election. In pretending to choose them, as many militant and naive Adventists would like to do, they actually confirm them even when they try to critically reject them. We humans cannot situate ourselves outside of our culture. An a-cultural or culturally neutral Adventism just doesn’t exist. It is a pious and dangerous illusion because what then is proposed as biblically binding is already culturally biased. What the Bible says is always mediated through our contemporary culture whether we are progressive or traditionalist Adventists. Linguistically we can criticize our mother language only by using it, just as as we can criticize our culture only by using it – through the categories we receive from it. And it isn’t different for our reading and interpreting contemporary texts, including the Bible. Our contemporary hermeneutics, whether Protestant, Catholic, Adventist or secular, share a common cultural horizon and a set of presuppositions. It is on them that our hermeneutical reflection should focus.

Consider first the “pole” of the Text. Here there are three intra-biblical hermeneutics: the “Hermeneutics of the Fact”, the “Hermeneutics of the Principle” and the “Hermeneutics of the Paradox”, which was described in last month’s article. These three Hermeneutics should co-exist together, remembering that only the third one, “Hermeneutics of the Paradox” reflects at best the richness of the Bible. To define hermeneutics as just this group of three is already a concession, because full hermeneutics exists only when we go beyond the Bible to interact with external reality. And including external reality means to seriously consider the biblical message in context with the questions and the needs of the Reader.

Next then is the “pole” of the Reader. Herein is what we could call the three extra-intra biblical hermeneutics. There is the: “Hermeneutics of the Reader”, the “Hermeneutics of the Church” and the “Hermeneutics of the Reality”. Reader, Church and Reality are the external territories the biblical map references and without which the intra-biblical message would become irrelevant, incomplete and sometimes even biased. This pole of the Reader will be now the target of our analysis. We have already dedicated some thoughts to the first component of this pole. Let’s consider now the second: “Hermeneutics of the Church”, focusing on what could be labeled “Ecclesiological Positivism”, as presupposed and nurtured by our biblical hermeneutics.

1. Adventist Ecclesiological Positivism

When we speak of the Church in the hermeneutical context, we should be thinking and reinforcing the Reader pole, because the Church is supposed to be the community of true Readers. But this is actually rare within Adventism. Our ecclesiology is not on the side of the reader, of the existentially and historically rooted Reader. The presupposed Reader, in Adventist hermeneutics, is a standardized and disincarnate reader. A reader who doesn’t exist in any context. Our hermeneutics frequently fears a real Reader and substitutes an inoffensive and uniform reader. But this weakness is sold as strength. Our apparently strong and dynamic ecclesiology is in fact a sublimation. It hides our incapacity to really connect with a community of true Readers. Adventism too often presupposes submissive, mechanistic and unimaginative readers.

Our ecclesiology is in fact structurally “ecclesio-centric”. It perceives and understands the reader and his/her humanity only in relation to the church, and only in envisioning their coming into the “center of salvation”, i.e. church membership. Cyprian of Carthage’s Latin phrase “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” ("outside the Church there is no salvation") is perfectly applicable to Adventist ecclessiology. Our Church is not missional, just missionary. It too often doesn’t meet people where they really are, only invites them to come in. This is what I label: Adventist Ecclesiological Positivism.

Adventists were weaned on radically criticizing the rigid Catholic ecclesiocentrism, without granting them any biblical or historical extenuating circumstances. But we have paradoxically become like them. The imperial, hierarchic and non-dialogical Ecclesiastical Adventism has mimicked the Catholic one. And it seems nobody is able to reverse course. Anyone attempting to criticize or even mention it, is immediately labeled as disaffected. This is a typical stigmatizing mechanism of dictatorial and paternalistic bodies. Such top-down models presuppose and defend the religious and psychological minority of the believer, as a condition a model we should copy in our religious experience. But how is this ecclesiological drift related to hermeneutics?

2. Adventist Ecclesiological and Biblical Positivism

This ecclesiological drift is directly related to hermeneutics because, in contrast to the “Sociological Ecclesiocentrism” of Catholicism, ours is a thoroughly “Biblical Ecclesiocentrism”. In this sense our ecclesiocentrism is more dangerous because it pretends to have a direct divine/biblical endorsement – above any critical consideration. Based on this we have created a “fundamentalist chain” made not only of a fundamentalist reading of the bible but also integrated by a fundamentalist ecclesiology and ethics.

Our “Ecclesiological Bible-based Positivism” appears as a classical expression of a hypertrophic disorder, which in medicine involves an organ thickening and becoming stiffer. But a strong and an efficient church doesn’t necessarily mean a better church. A “Hypertrophic body” is big but dysfunctional. Impressive but, in the end, nearly useless because it is unable to adequately address the disparate, unique situations which often are not immediately visible, and don’t create clear consensus. And finally, our conception of the church as a natural extension of the Bible, has led us to attribute to the Church the same holy characteristics of the Bible, immunizing it from common sense critical considerations.

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/hanz-gutierrez

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9607

(Thomas J Zwemer) #2

A learned critique of Adventism and the leadership doesn’t know how hard they have been hit. “Our way or the highway just doesn’t cut it anymore.,


#3

A hard-hitting article that may touch some raw nerves! All our comments
on this website also come under its scrutiny.
Hans G’s thinking reinforces the need for the Church’s need (institutionally
and individually) for humility.
Additionally, we may not be able to escape the conclusion
that “each hermeneutic is a child of its own time”.
Thank you Hans Gutierrez.


(Allen Shepherd) #4

How can this possibly be true? The devils believe and tremble. Is that legitimate?

This does seem a list of liberal agenda items. Is it just liberal folk that have real insight into “Biblical Bias”. And is it just a coincidence that all the problems are real on the conservative side??

Seems both liberal and conservative readers could fall into this trap, and have.

Right. We too often do that, and really need to be more liberal in our outlook, thus avoid submission, mechanics and lack of imagination. Of course if you are going to follow western cultural norms (see list above), you need to fall in line with them, and become submission, mechanistic, and unimaginative toward them.

The Sadducees, the liberals of Jesus’ day, were just as blind if not more so to the Christ as the conservative Pharisees. Liberalism will not prevent you from being lost. May even help.

The problem here is the author’s view of the church. Those that do not favor WO, etc. may not be imperial, hierarchic and non-dialogical. Just disagree with the more liberal wing. Being liberal does not make you necessarily righteous, nor your positions more righteous.


(Sirje) #5

Trying to ignore the labels, even the simple ones of “liberal and conservative,” what all this seems to boil down to is that the SDA church is worshipping the SDA church. To join the Adventist church, we [ledge allegiance to the Adventist church. This upholds its history as the primary “truth”. The prominent criticism of the Ford hermeneutic was that it modified, at best; and obliterated, at its worst, uniqueness of the Adventist “truth” which sits on pillars of Adventist making. The Sabbath School study of the Bible is simply a reminder of Adventist history.

If a poor “sinner” should wander into an Adventist service, he will find out that he has to wash up and straighten out before he comes back. The “gospel” he hears is a litany of life changes that grant him a seat among the remnant. Along with that, he must get a yellow marker so as to be able to skip the irrelevant texts hiding among the pillars.


(Sirje) #6

First thing we need to do is scrap “liberal” and “conservative” on our foreheads. What if we just refer to people instead of kicking them into a cage someone labeled, based on a handful of people that sounded the same on a given topic. Each label comes with a whole list of other adjectives that automatically get added to the general category of “liberal” or “conservative”. Those labels end conversations; but more than that, they stop us LISTENEING and THINKING.


(Allen Shepherd) #7

This is just as stereotypical was my comments about the liberal wing of the church, and its list of required beliefs. You must be against:

And if not, you are a bigot misogynist etc. Those who do not go along are called these sweet names, and you are right, it ends conversation and thinking. “Liberal, Conservative” are mild by comparatively.

I was perhaps amiss to categorize this gentleman. But the article seemed one sided to me.


#8

The above quote seems to summarize Gutierrez’s series in which he has called on strategies from his medical identity and biblical scholar identity to create a health assessment of the Adventist church ethos now, as we debate hermeneutics. He has offered a brilliantly refreshing recap of the issues of text and reader, claiming that transformation occurs in the tension-filled space between text and reader. With regards to the textual pole of hermeneutics, he suggests one attend to discerning fact, principle, and paradox. Following the hermeneutics of Jesus, Gutierrez suggests that the concept of paradox is most important. Who can read the gospels without noting that paradox was the key way to learning and transformation?

With regards to the reader pole of the heuristic endeavor, he describes the issue as being more intuitive, I think. Readers exist in particular cultures. People experience reality in a variety of ways. He says the Adventist church assumes a standardized reader and is afraid of a “real” reader. If true, this is a serious indictment. Gutierrez’ description of the danger of biblical ecclesiocentrism could be a prophetic warning. Social psychology states that people who defend a holy cause are willing to act in violent ways because their cause is “pure,” or, one might say, “biblical.” Using the metaphor of hypertrophy to describe the phenomenon of a church drunk with “Ecclesiological Bible-based Positivism” leads one to imagine the possibility of a powerful, but dysfunctional, group willing to act dysfunctionally (in a dystopic or violent fashion?) to preserve their described truth.

A last medical comparison comes when he describes the Church as having creating an identity that makes it a natural extension of the Bible, and thus, as having immunized itself from common sense considerations.

Thank you Dr. Hanz Gutierrez for this hermeneutical health assessment.


(Steve Mga) #9

Carmen –
The Bible wasn’t meant for “individual, isolated” reading and study.
It was meant for oral community listening.
Then OPEN to “free thought” discussion in community regarding what
was heard.
It is only in unrestrained discussion that the various LAYERS of Biblical
thought and meaning can be explored. Discussion of this type helps to
remove just one view, my view, my narrow view, from the “automatic
reading” of familiar and not so familiar words on the page that it is so
easy for me to retain in “isolated” study.
“Lecture” style of Bible “study” is helpful sometimes, but IT TOO can
create a narrowness of thinking when seeing words on a page.


(Sirje) #10

Not at all. It’s “canonical”. The remnant are those who dress right, worship right, eat right. The baptismal tank does not admit jewelry wearing, coffee/tea drinking non-comformists.

Aren’t they all… Anyone with an opinion, can be considered “one sided”.


#11

Hence the Mishnah and the Midrash!


#12

I agree. I think Gutierrez sees the reader as one pole of Bible study. Then, within the concept of reader there will be an individual, and group, and cultural context. When the Bible was written, the community learned by listening to an oral rendition of the text. Naturally, when literacy became widespread and when we had a printing press, then the option of an individual study became a possibility. That is to say, it is one way to experience biblical truth but not necessarily the only way or the optimal way.


(Harry Elliott) #13

I wish. :smile:

(…ineteen, twenty.)


#14

Sounds like, back to the Cult days. Maybe an update to Hoekema’s Four Major Cults is forthcoming?


(Robert Lindbeck) #15

Amen.
The only valid label is the label we give ourselves. I may call myself “liberal” but others may see me as “conservative”. We don’t act and think because of how others label us but because of how we label ourselves.


(Harry Elliott) #16

That really is the heart of our problem. The evil way Des Ford was treated–even after his death–was a demonstration of this.

In one of his countless articles, Ted Wilson wrote that by accepting baptism into the SDA Church, we made a committment to be forever loyal to every SDA teaching or leave. (No we didn’t!)

EGW wrote that not all of our expositions of scripture are correct. Maybe that’s why the leaders sent her to Australia.


(reliquum) #17

C’mon Allen, wrong is wrong. how about a real apology, instead of posturing, ducking?
And has it never ocurred to you that it (article) seems one sided, but despite your many contrary attestations, you ARE one sided?

I’m so glad for your posterity sake that none of your parishioners are as deplorable as, say, Spectrumites, although said fact might be further evidence of onesidedness.

I’d suggest that the article strummed your least favorite nerve…thou doth protest too much methinks, perhaps because this mindset might be representative of the problem this article adresses.


(reliquum) #18

Ive sometimes wondered why God did not see fit to give literature to man originally, if is so important today? And further, why he did not by his own hand write incontrovertible Truth on stone tablest then? Would surely save many of us deficient/bias seeking/ and ADD/HD readers.

Perhaps Truth was intended to be carried orally, within all comprising community (and not just chained to sanctioned altars, err, pulpits)


(Allen Shepherd) #19

Hmmm…

I made a small move to amend what seems a small oversight but I get a stern rebuke, “It is not enough Allen”.

Folk that do not confirm to the “liberal” view of matters here are castigated as misogynists, bigots, homophobes, toxic, blind and as one post on another thread said,

Yes! Or put more colloquially, those backwards misogynistic power grabbing men who don’t want to share with inferior females, who cannot see beyond their noses, thrust into the air in arrogance."

And this happens routinely here. In fact it is almost the standard practice.

When you and the other more righteous ones will rebuke such name calling and ad hominem-ing in a similar fashion, I will gladly do the required mea culpa. But until then, I’ll just posture and duck.


(Steve Mga) #20

In less advanced cultures Story Telling is Literature. The voice, facial
expressions, movement of the hands and body – all of these contribute
to understanding the story. And allow for discussion of the story
once it is presented. All done in community.
Then there are Story Teller students learning and memorizing the
words – word for word – so sometime they can pass along the
stories – word for word.
Just reading loses much of the power of actual Story Telling.