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…