Why I’m studying theological hermeneutics

Beginnings

As a seventeen year old university student I made a decision to become a Christian. This took place in north American evangelical context. I’m convinced that a very real change occurred in my life at that point. Subsequently, I was involved in an evangelical Church, which in many ways was typical. Our Christian community was quite homogeneous and in the process my belief system became very clearly defined. Yet, even at this stage of my life I would often ponder my interpretations of the Bible and wondered if we were interpreting correctly, what God wanted to tell us. For instance, were things being treated literally which should have been viewed metaphorically or vice versa, or were the meanings of words being dealt with appropriately. Statements like “‘all’ means ‘all’ and thats all all means” are still in my memory. This was an attempt to absolutize for theological purposes certain passages like Collossians 1:6 “… All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing …” However, an absolute understanding of the word “all” runs into theological difficulties when one reads 1 Corinthians 15:22 “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” Questions such as these accompanied me throughout the first phase of my Christian life. However, I never made the effort to make a serious investigation and in some ways my inquiring spirit became dormant.

Questions reinvigorated

Later, I moved to Europe as part of a church planting effort and in the process was confronted with views of the bible and Christian traditions that differed from my own. I had been fairly sheltered theologically in a homogeneous Christian tradition and was approaching things from a north American cultural viewpoint. This confrontation to my belief system caused me to consider if my belief system was in fact true and it reinvigorated my desire to investigate how we interpret the bible and to discover the idealized “correct” way of doing so.

The quest for truth

A few years later I had the opportunity to begin a theological education and finally settle these questions. My goal was to learn how to interpret the bible properly after which I could return to my Christian community with a strengthened certainty about what we as Christians should be doing. However, in the process of my theological studies it became ever more apparent that this was no easy task. I discovered that the theological convictions of many which I had previously discounted as being incorrect did have a biblical backing and were logical. The root of the differences were to be found not in the bible but in the presuppositions and traditions that one used to interpret the bible. In short hermeneutics the method one employs in interpretation was the key. So my focus went in that direction and my goal then became determining a water tight hermeneutical method which would result in the correct interpretation. I wrote my first thesis on the book “The hermeneutical spiral” by Grant Osborn. asking the question “How certain can we be that we are using the correct hermeneutic?” The results were rather disappointing. It seemed more and more the case that there is no absolute way of knowing on a purely rational basis if one is correct or not. Our starting point and presuppositions we have are things that we simply choose, accept and believe. One can surely narrow things down quite a bit but a water tight hermeneutic which could be used to “prove” a specific theological stance became less and less a realistic possibility (for more on this see Two leaps of Faith).

How should we interpret?

Not giving up I continued my studies at the masters level and wrote a thesis comparing the views of Kevin Vanhoozer in his book Is there a meaning in this text? with James K. A. Smith and his book The fall of interpretation. This investigation was a major turning point in my theological outlook concerning hermeneutics. Vanhoozer’s book is excellent but more or less went in a similar direction to what I had already done. Certainty and singularity in meaning can be improved if one approaches the bible using the paradigm that Vanhoozer recommends (this is of course debatable Integral and Differential Hermeneutics – A. K. M. Adam). However, Smith’s book provided for me a completely new insight and was especially convincing. In short he asserts that the need for interpretation can never be overcome since it is part and parcel of the way God created us. Thus, we must accept that we as human beings are in essence stuck in a situation where we all interpret differently because we are all embedded in culture, traditions and limitedness that cannot be overcome. For Smith interpretation is a good because it is part of our created nature and existed even in the garden of eden. To try and overcome the need for interpretation is in essence trying to overcome part of nature which God intended to always be there. Smith’s viewpoint was a radical change for me and for a long time took the wind out of my sails. If we cannot achieve certainty in our hermeneutic then why bother? I am still continuing my theological studies at the doctorate level and after my epistemological depression have recently overcome my doldrums and am investigating other avenues and approaches to theological hermeneutics which may not yield a 100% certainty but do hold some promise. The writing of A. K. M. Adam (see photo right and the link above) has reinvigorated me to continue asking questions and to seek some way of knowing more clearly what God wants to tell though the bible.

Share

A fatal blow to Christianity ?

This article about an Artificial Mind caught my eye. It touches on a core theological tenant of Christianity, namely the makeup of the human being or anthropology.

With the advance of scientific discovery over the centuries more and more people have discarded Christianity and the Bible as a viable source of truth and have instead placed them alongside other legends, mythologies and religions. I believe this is a mistake. I would assert that the world of modern discovery and technology has not made it necessary to discard the Bible. There are challenges, yes, but I have not yet found them to be insurmountable.

What event or discovery would it take to shake your belief in the Bible? Life on other planets? This would be a monumental discovery but for me it wouldn’t necessarily disprove Christianity (this reminds me of a Larry Norman song). How about proof that Jesus was not raised from the dead? Yes, this would be troubling indeed. Even the Apostle Paul would have given up if that were the case.

If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” – 1 Corinthians 15:32

Another topic which is central to Christian teaching is the dualistic makeup of the human being. On one side there is the physical body and on the other side the metaphysical, soul, spirit. And then there are things which are difficult to categorize like the mind. If it could be shown that these dualistic and quasi dualistic views are false and that in reality a materialistic view is true, namely everything can be explained by the interaction of the neurons, then this for me would pose a serious blow to Christianity if not a fatal one. If all the talk of spirit, soul and mind is simply an attempt to explain something which is so complex that it is otherwise not understandable, then it follows that all the metaphysical claims of the Bible should also be discarded as mythical products of human imagination.

The article reports on efforts to create an artificial mind. Not just a computer but a mind. It should have the ability to go beyond computing and actually think. Here is an excerpt.

Computer Brain

This is a question that has troubled scientists and philosophers for centuries. The traditional answer was to assume that some sort of ‘soul’ pervades the brain, a mysterious ‘ghost in the machine’ which gives rise to the feeling of self and consciousness. If this is the case, then computers, being machines not flesh and blood, will never think. We will never be able to build a robot that will feel pain or get angry, and the Blue Brain project will fail. But very few scientists still subscribe to this traditional ‘dualist’ view – ‘dualist’ because it assumes ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ are two separate things. Instead, most neuroscientists believe that our feelings of self-awareness, pain, love and so on are simply the result of the countless billions of electrical and chemical impulses that flit between its equally countless billions of neurons. So if you build something that works exactly like a brain, consciousness, at least in theory, will follow.

Will they succeed? Personally, I’m not to worried. They have big ambitions and have allocated themselves a convenient timespan of ten years but the implications of this are staggering, so I will be keeping my eyes open.

Share

Two leaps of Faith

Faith is an essential element of Christianity. It is included in Paul’s’ top three Christian Virtues (1 Corinthians 13:13). It is a never ending topic of discussion in sermons, literature and the like. In evangelical circles faith is often likened to trust. We are to trust what God says, believe it is true and live accordingly. This can be an enormous challenge. In this article I will contend that this type of faith has a sibling, which is often overlooked. Every time one trusts God in faith this sibling is present. Without it the act of faith is not possible.

The Qua and the Quae

A picture often used to describe faith is that of a father waiting to catch his child with outstretched arms. The child is standing on a window ledge, the father is calling the child and telling him/her to jump. There are many variations on this picture but the key element is always the same. The person doing the jumping must relinquish control and jump placing their destiny in the hands of the father. This illustrates the kind of trust I believe that God desires from us. It may involve dramatic episodes like placing yourself in dangerous circumstances such as a missionary or trusting God for financial well being via “faith”-offerings. It can also refer to rather mundane and long term steps people take in their lives like eschewing a profitable profession for one in the ministry or refraining from certain practices in the hope (or faith) that God will eventually reward such decisions. This is the first kind of faith and usually what one thinks of when discussing faith.

The second kind of faith focuses not on trust but on knowledge. Recall the picture of a child leaping into the arms of his/her father. Imagine that the child is so far away so that it is difficult to understand what his/her father is saying. In addition it is quite windy making his words even less understandable. Before the child jumps he/she must be convinced of what the father is saying. Maybe he isn’t yelling “jump” but rather “wait for the ladder.” If the child were to jump under these circumstances, it would not be faith but foolishness.

In order to act in faith one must first know what the act requires. In the past theologians recognized this distinction and used specific Latin terminology to distinguish these aspects of faith. fides qua creditur: the faith which by which it is believed (i.e. the jumping) and fides quae creditur: the faith which is believed (i.e. the knowing).

A Symbiotic Relationship

Thus, the qua requires the quae. The act of faith is dependent upon the determination of what should be acted on. Should the child jump or wait for the ladder? This relationship between the qua and the quae would seem fairly obvious. But is that all? I would suggest that the quae is also dependent upon the qua. To claim to know what one should act upon in and of itself requires a leap of faith.

The fides quae is fundamentally a question about knowing and thus epistemology. Two classical epistemological questions are:

  • How can I know something?
  • How can I be certain that I know something?

In my assessment there are three basic ways in which we can know what God expects of us:

  • The rational approach, which attempts to formulate specifics of the faith through interpreting the Bible.
  • The spiritual approach, which attempts to ascertain God’s will though prayer, meditation and the like.
  • The natural approach, which attempts to glean God’s will through experience and wisdom.

These are the ways we usually respond to the first first epistemological question. This is the how.

But what about certainty? How do we know we have truly achieved knowledge? This is a question which has been pondered throughout the ages from Plato to Descartes to Kant and on to Derrida. I would suggest that without a certain degree of fides qua (the jumping, acting, trusting kind of faith) the knowledge element fides quae is not possible. Consider the three approaches. There are different interpretations of the Bible, different schools of thought on how to interpret it correctly, how does one decide which rational approach is correct? And the spiritual method? Is it not possible to be deceived? The spiritual approach is perhaps the most passive of the three. A fides qua is almost implied in such approaches, since one must trust that God will inform him via the spirit. And the natural approach? A brief look at the diversity within Christianity should be enough to show that there are many options, experience and traditions all claiming to be correct. But is one really certain that it is correct? At the end of the day does not on simply take a leap of faith and decide for one tradition over the other. I believe that all three options ultimately at some point require a leap of faith, a fides qua. In terms of the analogy. At some point the child up on the window ledge makes a decision that he/she has understood what his/her father has said. In spite of the possibility that his message was heard incorrectly, a decision is made, an epistemological leap of faith, which in turn is the basis for the second existential leap of faith.

Thus, fides qua is dependent on fides quae but fides quae is also dependent on fides qua. A symbiotic relationship. But this cannot be, the process has to start somewhere, thou doth protest. That is another topic altogether and basically a “chicken or egg” riddle. Which came first? I cannot answer this riddle except to suggest the possibility that both may have come into existence simultaneously.

Things to ponder

If all this is true, then several questions are raised that are worth pondering. I will mention three:

  • How much emphasis do you place on the fides qua (faith action) as opposed to fides quae (faith knowledge)? In evangelical circles much focus is given to the fides qua. People are encouraged to make sacrifices, take a stand and be active on a number of issues. A ‘good’ Christian will act on his/her faith. The issues themselves are often given only cursory treatment. A quick reading of the bible or a short blurb from the last sermon or a quick prayer time suffice to supply the fides quae (knowledge) for the fides qua (action). Is not the fides quae also important?
  • Does God reward solely on the basis of fides qua? Is it not important what one believes? If only fides qua were important than doctrine becomes unimportant.
  • If a leap of faith is required even in the areas of knowledge, should we not engage differing opinions with humility? Where and how can we draw the line between differences in faiths?

Share

A bit of humor – The Most ‘Anti-Essential’ Christian Books

Posted from the Blogfeed of Faith Blogging:
A post about a post about a post. A funny take poking fun at popular theologians writings. The original Post from Eugene Cho can be read here.


Most ‘Anti-Essential’ Christian Books

Cho Eugene Cho prints a funny list of Christian books that don’t exist (yet.) The best ones:

There’s No ‘U’ in Ministry: A Woman’s Guide – Mark Driscoll
I’m Cool With Whatever (Featuring Enhanced Doodle Graphics) – Brian McLaren
This Book Looks Longer Than It Really Is – Rob Bell
10 Keys To The 8 Steps To The 3 Paths To The 1 Way to God (TM) – Rick Warren
God’s Most Glorified When We’re Most Calvified in Him – John Piper

Be sure to check out the whole list.

[Faith Blogging]

Share

Theophan the Recluse was one cool dude

Lately I have been listening quite a bit to Ancient Faith Radio. I know this makes me uncool, but I’m less concerned about being cool than having somthing help me keep in tune with God. They play music interspersed with readings from the Church Fathers among others. Today they had a few readings from St. Theophan the Recluse and one of them really impressed me becasue it spoke directly to some things I’ve been struggling with lately as if he was reading my mind.

I’ve scoured the internet to find the reading but have not found it yet.  But I did find some other cool quotes, you can find more here

You write that you are having trouble controlling your thoughts; they scatter easily, and praying does not proceed as you wish; and that, in the midst of the day, in the midst of toil and association with others, there is little remembrance of God. Instantaneous prayer life is impossible. You must make a strong effort to control your thoughts, at least to some degree. Prayer does not come about as you expect—by just wishing for it, and, suddenly, there it is. This does not happen.

There is a widely-accepted misconception among us that when one becomes involved in work at home or in business, immediately one steps out of the godly realm and away from God-pleasing activities. From this idea, it follows that once the desire to strive toward God germinates, and talk turns toward the spiritual life, then the idea inevitably surfaces: one must run from society, from the home—to the wilderness, to the forest. Both premises are erroneous! Homes and communities depend on concerns of daily life and society. These concerns are God-appointed obligations; fulfilling them is not a step toward the ungodly, but is a walking in the way of the Lord.

Share