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Putting the “community” in community hermeneutics

Posted by on Apr 23, 2013 in blog links, community, discipleship | 8 comments

Putting the “community” in community hermeneutics

Over the last few years, I’ve written several posts on the topic of “community hermeneutics.” (For a few examples, see my posts “Toward Mutual Hermeneutics,” “Listening to One Another,” “The First Interpreters,” and “Those pesky Bereans.”) If you’ve never heard the term before, “community hermeneutics” refers to interpreting and applying Scripture together in community with one another.

If you pushed me into a corner… ok, even if you didn’t push me into a corner… I’d say that the lack of community hermeneutics is one of the reasons that the church is in the mess that it’s in today. Our reliance on certain people to interpret Scripture for us – not only to tell us what it means but to tell us how to apply it – is one of the causes (perhaps a main cause) of continued immaturity among the church.

My good friend Maël from “The Adventures of Maël & Cindy” has recently started a series on “community heremeutics” using the German term gemeindetheologie. His first post is called “GEMEINDETHEOLOGIE: Who & How? – An Introduction.”

At one point, Maël writes this:

As Thiselton claims: “All the major traditions of the Christian church formally define doctrine in communal terms, although the emphasis and nature of the community in question varies.” [Anthony C. Thiselton, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), xviii] For example, in the Catholic tradition, the hermeneutical community is embodied in the bishops that constitute the Magisterium, while in some Anabaptist traditions, the hermeneutical community is embodied by all the believers in the local congregation.

I think Maël makes a good point here (or actually, Thiselton makes a good point, and Maël expands on it). In almost all Christian groups, hermeneutics is a community task. The question is: who is included in that community who is allowed to interpret Scripture for others?

Instead of going into all the different options, I’d like to make a case for interpretation and application being the responsibility and privilege of all followers of Jesus Christ, not just a subset. Why do I think all Christians should (and must) be involved in hermeneutics?

1. Because all Christians are indwelled by the Holy Spirit who is the one who reveals and provides understanding.

Does that mean that we always listen to him and always respond properly and always interpret what God reveals (either through Scripture or through other means)? Of course not. And, that leads to the second reason…

2. Because all Christians need others to help them understand what the Spirit is revealing to them… all Christians… even the experts.

Add to this the fact that interpretation of Scripture is not usually about TELLING what it means as much as it is about SHOWING what it means. And, the “showing” happens best in community as well.

I’ve been part of a group who practices community hermeneutics (that includes the WHOLE community and not a subset of the community) for several years now. In years of schooling, I probably have more theological education than anyone else who is part of that community. But, because we interpret and apply Scripture together, I’m also able to learn from my brothers and sisters in Christ… even from my youngest brother or sister in Christ.

You may be part of a church organization that does not practice community hermeneutics. Perhaps your denomination or your local church leaders tell you what Scripture means and how you should apply it. May I suggest that you can still practice community hermeneutics? It’s true. Gather together with some friends and begin working through Scripture and through life together.

You’ll be surprised at the difference that it makes…


8 Comments

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  1. 4-23-2013

    Great thoughts here on a tragically unused principle. I fear that this is not only not utilized but likely viewed with suspicion or outright hostility in many circles in the church.

  2. 4-23-2013

    Great post and reference to a fascinating link by Mael.

    I can understand why you see it as view with supsicion King Arthur – that is the reality. For me that’s a reason why building relationships that exist beyond the ‘worship service’ and develop those opportunities to practice this community hermeneutic there.

    That’s what I find useful about reading the blog entries and comments on blogs like this as well as your own King Arthur. Although we are not in physical community – which is the ideal – at least this motivates us in our efforts to do what we can. A topic like this is especially important to practise and highlight for the benefit of us all.

  3. 4-23-2013

    love this post!!!!! thank u

  4. 4-23-2013

    You mean it’s not the individual’s role to interpret Scripture?

    I thought I accepted Jesus as my PERSONAL Savior.

    You so funny, Alan.

  5. 4-23-2013

    Thanks, Alan. I’m not aware of any broader meaning of the term “community hermeneutics”, so I take it simply as you describe it. And as such, I totally agree. I have come to appreciate the need to approach scripture as community, with very diverse gifts, motivations and perspectives. It is in the totality of that diversity that we find a rich appreciation and a more complete understanding of what God says in His written Word.

    I think that an interpretive community is the best guard against crossing the line from affirming the authority of scripture into an oppressive, legalistic use of scripture by the few to impose their own agendas and pet doctrines on the many.

  6. 4-23-2013

    Arthur,

    I think you’re right, unfortunately.

    Christopher,

    I love that you’re building relationships to practice community hermeneutics outside of the “worship service.” I hope you write more about this.

    Randi,

    Thank you!

    Dan,

    Actually, I think it’s both… personal and corporate interpretation, working together.

    Jim,

    Yes, absolutely. Even beyond guarding against misuse of Scripture, it even guards against one person’s passions and interests (even good passions and interests) taking over.

    -Alan

  7. 10-25-2013

    let me give another more practical and even evangelistic perspective on the church as community hermeneutic. As it’s been said, hermeneutics is the study of how we interpret and understand the bible. If the gospel community is an integral part of how bible is understood, people should be able to look at the community of faith and see and understand something of what the bible’s talking about. There is an intrinsic connection between understanding the bible and obeying it. Obedience is the evidence of faith (as James says: Faith w/o works is dead faith) and it’s in Christian community a commitment to obeying the word is nurtured, maintained, held accountable and launched into the world. Community as a gospel hermeneutic is the movement of the word into world as we take the things we learn in gospel community into our homes, neighborhoods and workplaces. That’s only part of picture, Community as a gospel hermeneutic is also the movement of world into word as we reflect biblically about issues raised by life. Far from an emergent perspective, the word of God is fully able to intersect with and deal with anything the world around us throws at it and respond with grace and truth, centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ.

  8. 10-25-2013

    Bill,

    I like the way you expanded my post on community hermeneutics. I agree completely that hermeneutics must include living out the gospel by the Spirit of God. And, our community in Christ is the medium through which we are exhorted, admonished, and discipled to live according to the Spirit.

    -Alan