A recent headline in a national newspaper read, “NYT could try a little humility . . .” It made me wonder whether replacing “NYT” with “Christians” might be appropriate as it concerns our attitudes and interpretations . . . at least now and then. What could be a way forward in both loving the truth and humbly doing so?
Theology and hermeneutics are two important terms and spheres concerned with knowing and understanding reality and truth. The combination of these two central fields instantly entails a tension: that is, if one is committed to deeply valuing both. While the first term relates to the study of the Triune God and Christian belief, the second emphasizes the interplay between the biblical text and our contemporary context—including assumptions, precommitments, faith communities and practices that shape these interpretive “horizons.” Thus, the tension between theology and hermeneutics often is acute within certain Christian interpretive “neighborhoods” or among some “residents.” Let’s explore why that is and how we can move forward hopefully in Christian unity.
For some, hermeneutics is unnecessary—even unwelcome—since the system or the interpretation or the authoritative leader/s thereof advocate a “once and for all” settled position: rejecting any alternative viewpoints. This acuteness is exacerbated within some faith communities that focus mainly on strictly protecting secondary or tertiary beliefs (e.g., a particular view of American politics or timing of Christ’s return)—along with allegedly inerrant interpretations of such beliefs—often more intensely than on primary convictions affirmed by the broader, consensual Christian faith neighborhood (e.g., God as Trinity or Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord). Sadly, a hyper-fundamentalist and sectarian/separatist ethos damages God’s communicated mission in the world: as understood through his word. No doubt, Christ-followers should avoid such (often anti-intellectual) claims to entirely infallible comprehension of God’s word and world. A better way includes embracing an imperfect-yet-sufficient interpretive understanding of our infallible God’s revelation of both word and world. Perfect knowledge belongs to the perfect Knower alone. Humility ought to be a cornerstone characteristic of Christians—for Christian “hermeneuts” as well.
So while “making a case”—or giving one’s testimony—for Christian faith is a sign of faithfulness, embodying the right spirit is essential to our witness, including gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:10-17). Having been immersed as a young believer (in the ‘80s) in a rather exclusivist form of Christian apologetics, I witnessed firsthand my own (and others) regularly failing to exude this right spirit, even if “winning” arguments and perhaps leading some to the saving grace of the Lord—only by the Spirit’s work and surely in spite of me at times.
The fruit of the Spirit cannot be set aside while we “defend” our Christian faith when the fruit itself is a defense (or evidence) of real faith. In contrast with fleshly desires, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There is no law against such things” (Galatians 5:22-23). Thus, an “either/or” approach—standing for theological truth or hermeneutical humility—falls short of our Christian calling to a “both/and” practice: loving the truth and living the humility. Faithfulness demands both doctrinal and character integrity. Peace expresses resolute conviction and acknowledges our fallibility. Self-control confides in God’s revealed truth and his power to work in and to change us.
Perhaps we can work together in changing the aforementioned headline to read, “Christians are showing a little humility”—particularly when it involves the combination of theology and hermeneutics.
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