CCCP — A Simple Theological Hermeneutic

Last week I talked about using formal and material norms to help guide biblical interpretation. Of course, there are other factors that make this more complicated. Some people see a particular norm as a formal norm, while others see it as a material one. Where that happens, all manner of mayhem can ensue. Some examples include:

  1. Historicity of Adam and Eve
  2. Role of women in the church
  3. Same-sex marriage

Here’s what I mean. For some people, the submission of women to male authority/leadership is a contextual example of godly submission from Bible times that would look different today, and so they are comfortable with female leaders in the church now, believing that these leaders can incarnate godly submission in other ways. For others, however, godly submission means that a woman could never usurp her eternal role of submitting to male authority. For those people, the biblical texts give both the formal norm and the material application, neither of which changes.

So what’s a seminary student to do? Well, first, it is important to understand how people interpret the Bible and form their theology in different ways. If we don’t do that, then we might assume that theological opponents are either dishonest or stupid. Not good.

It is not necessary to simple resign ourselves to the fact that we disagree, even less to the idea that no one interpretation is better than another. That is simply not so. But how to we try to achieve consensus, then? Well, recognizing that others may nevertheless make different choices, we embark on the process and make the best choices we can. I organize the steps into a simple acrostic – CCCP (I am old enough to remember the Soviet Union – CCCP on their hockey jerseys – and use that as a mnemonic device). This is a very basic and preliminary set of principles. It is not intended to provide detailed instruction about how to do the hermeneutical work; rather it highlights the kinds of considerations involved in biblical interpretation and theological construction.

  • Context – the first consideration is context. Contextual interpretation is especially important for biblical interpretation, and it has multiple dimensions.
    • Linguistic context
    • Literary context
    • Historical context

There are doubtless others, but you get the idea. Good interpretation, and good theology, start with attention to the biblical text, and therefore attends to the task of good biblical interpretation. Because of what we believe about how Scripture operates for Christians, we always refer to Scripture as a fixed source of inspired content for theological reflection.

  • Canon – Canonical interpretation has at least two major dimensions
    • First, theological hermeneutics sees biblical texts collectively representing a unified whole, even in their diversity, and so seeks to understand them in relation to one another. It is important to consider all possible texts bearing on a topic in order not to be unfairly selective, and to account for all the biblical teaching in order to do good theological work. One important principle in this is that clearer passages should be used to shed light on those that are less clear – not the other way around. Here’s what the Westminster Confession says (that’s where people who talk about this idea get it):
      • The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
    • Second, attention to canonicity will need to pay attention to how Christians have interpreted and decided on a certain point throughout Christian history. This does not mean that nothing can ever change, or that we are bound by the past, but we ignore our history at our peril. And generally, people who believe they are coming up with something that not one has seen before ought to doubt the reliability of their decision. If no one ever said it before, there may be a good reason for that. This dimension of canonicity will help us see whether our perspective of a particular issue has a legitimate link to the Christian tradition. I believe that in theology, there is a sort of apostolic succession of ideas and concepts; theological ideas that arise as pure innovations ought to be regarded with suspicion. Those that are rooted in the Christian tradition have a greater chance of being faithful renderings of biblical teaching (this is not guaranteed, of course).
  • Community – Community interpretation (or the community hermeneutic) is basically the idea that the more widespread the application of a theological principle is seen to be, the more widespread the consensus of agreement needs to be. This helps people avoid going off on theological tangents on their own, because others will likely see things they miss. It also is a reminder that dissenters need to submit to the wisdom of the whole in areas of disagreement, or else leave, if they feel bound by conscience to do so. No one has the right to stay and cause trouble, but no one ought to leave for frivolous reasons, either. A community element to the process does not indicate that every decision will be equally supported by every member, or equally appreciated. But it does indicate that theological decisions need to be discerned in light of the community — its needs, context, and expectations. Decisions are not to be made for leaders, outsiders, or purely in light of the past. The goal is to help the community live out what Scripture teaches in order to be individually and collectively faithful to the example of Jesus Christ, the author and pioneer of Christian faith. Sometimes (frequently), members of the community will have to suppress their own opinions and desires in order to support this consensus of faithfulness, but this selflessness is what we see Christ modelling and what we see in our Trinitarian understanding of who God is — a loving, mutually supportive community.
  • Personal – the Personal interpretation and application is actually the last step, not the first step. It is only when people have done all the preparatory work that they are ready to make the move to interpret and apply the text personally. And this ought to be done in community as well, to ensure faithfulness and accountability.

I think that any group that commits itself to this process, continually asking for the Spirit’s enablement to undertake it, will thrive. It will foster agreement and clarity. It will also help people recognize that there are others who do theological work differently, and while it will acknowledge that there are others who will disagree (without condemnation), it will understand itself well enough to know the limits of fellowship with those who disagree. And it will be difficult, but nothing worthwhile comes easily – especially God’s work.

A couple of points to end. One is that while these principles are intended to give clarity, and to highlight the difference between formal and material norms, the process can be difficult, and there is no guarantee that everyone will always agree. The second is that while the unity of the Spirit is essential to the process, but during and after discernment of a decision, there will be issues about which Christians continue to think differently. The challenge will be to figure out how to remain united even in that difference. There is no definitively conclusive work in theology, no matter how widespread or heartfelt out convictions, so we need to remember to continue to work at building one another up as followers of Jesus Christ.

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