I love a good “Aha!” moment, and reading Jim Belcher’s book, Deep Church (read the review here) gave me more than one.
Consider the idea of the “relational hermeneutic.” (For those who are curious, “hermeneutics” is the technical term for the theory and method of how we interpret Scripture.)
As described Belcher describes it, in a relational hermeneutic “nothing is privileged, not even the Bible, over the community in discovering and living out truth. The Bible is just one of the conversation partners” (p. 145). Basically, truth is determined by the people of God, the Bible and the guidance of the Holy Spirit together in community.
This view is espoused by Doug Pagitt. Quoting Pagitt’s essay in Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, Belcher writes, “‘Community,’ not tradition or the Scriptures, ‘is the place where God dwells. . . . In this way, Christian community serves as a hermeneutic of the gospel. . . . ‘Christians have never been intended to be people only of a book, but a people who are led by the ever-present God, active in our lives, communities and the world’” (p.149). Truth does not and cannot come from outside the community; “truth resides within each particular community and must be worked out there.”
Belcher goes on to write that what he found most interesting was the reaction to Pagitt’s essay, particularly that of Dan Kimball. In a nutshell, Kimball’s response is that while it’s good to wrestle with our doctrine, we need to have a foundation, a constant by which to measure our insights and keep us from falling into heresy. Historic doctrine (such as the Nicene creed) is a great aid in this. Pagitt’s response:
“Dan holds to an authority in the Bible that I believe is better placed in the Holy Spirit. . . . I am not trying to say the Bible is not an important part of our faith and following, but Dan comes from a tradition that places near total authority on the Bible” (p. 152, emphasis mine).
The statement above was kind of like the last piece of a puzzle for me in understanding the issue with the “relational hermeneutic” argument. If I’m understanding everything correctly, the problem stems from a deficient view of Scripture and the Holy Spirit because of a false dichotomy.
Authority is either in Scripture or in the Holy Spirit. But both don’t have equal authority. And so we’re left with a conundrum: Which is more authoritative? And who gets to decide it?
From the quoted passages, it seems that we do.
Scripture says that it is the very words of God. Second Peter 3:15-16, Psalm 119, and many other passages testify to this. It also says that the Holy Spirit inspired its writing (see 2 Pet. 1:20-21, 2 Tim. 3:16-17, for example). It’s also only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can even understand what is plainly said in Scripture (as Paul writes regarding the message of the cross in 1 Cor 1:17-21).
The Bible’s authority isn’t separate from the Holy Spirit’s. The Bible’s authority comes from the Holy Spirit.
My concern with a relational hermeneutic is that it tries to pit the Bible against the Holy Spirit (as if the two are going to disagree) with humanity serving as the referee. But when people serve as the authority over Scripture, it goes bad. We naturally want to twist things, to do what is right in our own eyes.
We’ve seen in repeatedly over the centuries. Thomas Jefferson sitting in the White House cutting out the parts of the Bible that he didn’t like. The Jesus Seminar determining, essentially by preference, that the vast majority of the New Testament is inauthentic, especially the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus and the Resurrection. The Red Letter Christian Movement with it’s placing higher authority on certain parts of the Bible than others.
It always comes back to the question in the garden? “Did God really say…?”
We must be very careful of any system of interpretation that puts authority in the wrong place: Us.
And if I’m the authority over the Scriptures, it’s only going to go bad for all of us. It’s why we need to be humble enough to submit to the testimony of God’s written word and wise enough to see historic interpretation not as a hindrance to us growing in our faith, but a great gift in assisting us in growing.