In Which the Ethical Tail Wags the Hermeneutical Dog
So, for example, we start with the commitment that the West African slave trade was dehumanising, wicked and appalling (which it was), and then make that foundational for our approach to interpreting the entire New Testament, leading to the conclusion that we can’t take Paul’s imperatives as God’s best because of what he said about slaves. Or we begin with the (completely right) conviction that driving entire people groups out of the Middle East by means of military conquest is not something we ought to do these days, and then reverse engineer our view of Scripture to make sure nobody thinks it is, or ever was. Or, as Denny Burk pointed out recently, we start with what we think are self-evident ethical positions, and then, on finding that Paul or John don’t share them but the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels (when interpreted a certain way) does, we give hermeneutical primacy to the latter and become red-letter Christians. The ethical tail, more often than not, wags the hermeneutical dog.
In some areas, it is extremely difficult to stop this from happening. If you work in the theology faculty of a secular university, and by a process of careful exegesis you reach the conclusion that Paul believed men and women had different roles to play in marriage and the church, it must be the easiest thing in the world to develop a hermeneutic that confines the application of those texts to the first century. Likewise, as Ben Witherington describes it, teaching pacifism in the context of a seminary in North Carolina can be extremely unpopular, and this must tempt interpreters to rethink their hermeneutics to avoid having to do so. None of us, of course, are exempt from this temptation; all of us are shaped by what we hope the Bible says as well as what we believe it says. But the likelihood of fashioning a hermeneutic that fits our conclusions is probably greater if we deal in the realm of ethical pronouncements with high contemporary relevance.
I was thinking about all this yesterday, and then by coincidence I came across a post from Doug Wilson. He was giving a pithy history of American political dialogue in the last half century, and then, with reference to the reconstructionist movement, he said this:
After they got shouted down by the Reformed establishment, their arguments (no neutrality, Jesus is Lord over all, etc.) were deftly shanghaied by leftists, and made to apply to a bunch of things that the leftists already wanted to do. It turns out the Old Testament is grand when you want to justify forgiveness of Third World debts by an appeal to the Jubilee, but verses that said “you shall not suffer a witch to live” were serenely ignored. To their credit, the original reconstructionists were trying to make coherent sense of the whole Bible, and they would talk about all the verses. That is part of what got them in trouble, and why they were shouted down. But the soft leftists (Sider, Wallis, et al.) had the kind of worldview that allowed them to simply apply the happy face verses to what they were sure Jesus would want - call it rubber stamp reconstructionism. It turns out that Jesus used the Old Testament in creative ways that simply confirmed the general outlook that you might hear in an average NPR broadcast. And who could be upset with that? Well, nobody who landed in Connecticut. But we can’t just assume that our landing pod from Euclidville has to land in Connecticut.
The reason I find Wilson so annoying is that, for all his extreme views, he’s often so insightful. I think reconstructionism is bunk, and I love the idea of a Jubilee for Third World debt. But mini-rants like this force me to admit that I cannot really defend one and not the other, on the basis of Mosaic law, with hermeneutical consistency. That’s not to say that the case for debt cancellation cannot be made, nor even that it cannot be made from Scripture; it’s just to say that the way I was using Scripture in my head, to support the idea, was hopelessly inconsistent. My ethical tail was wagging my hermeneutical dog.
Or how about the way we treat the praxis of the early church? We start with the fact that our church meetings involve sung worship, spiritual gifts and teaching, and then we go through the New Testament to find justification for this, on the basis that we should do what the early church did. Consequently, verses that talk about the whole community bringing spiritual gifts are very useful (“when you come together, everyone has a…”), and we read them at the start of meetings sometimes, pausing at the end with pointed significance. They did this whenever they came together, so we should, and you should. But three chapters earlier, when the same phrase is used about sharing the Lord’s supper together (“when you come together…”), many of us ignore it, because in our tradition we don’t break bread every week. The vaunted principle that our meetings should contain the same elements as theirs turns out, in the end, to be a way of justifying our existing practice, rather than a consistently applied hermeneutic. Again, the tail is wagging the dog.