‘Reading Scripture in Congregations: Towards an Ordinary Hermeneutics’

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I’ve belonged to ten evangelical churches so far, ranging from very charismatic to not-at-all (and still belong to the tenth). I’ve been hearing ‘what the Bible says’ for a long time. Studying biblical hermeneutics in an academic context made me curious about ‘how the Bible says’ for most of its readers. Eventually this led to research in a local charismatic evangelical church (‘The Fellowship’) looking at how members of that congregation came to understand the scriptures – what I’ve called ‘ordinary hermeneutics’. The chapter in the book includes a summary of ordinary hermeneutics in the Fellowship, and then draws out points of wider relevance for deep church.

The deep church issue that emerged from this case study was the role of church tradition in reading Scripture. For many evangelicals ‘tradition’ is a boo word. As a member of another congregation said to me ‘I choose scripture over tradition… we are trying to get rid of tradition here’. It doesn’t help that tradition is quite a slippery term and can mean many things. I use it in the essay to refer to a church’s body of beliefs (belief tradition) and a church’s hermeneutical characteristics (hermeneutical tradition).

The Fellowship understood the Bible through their existing belief tradition (to an extent). This was not particularly surprising, given the hermeneutical insight that there can be no traditionless reading of Scripture. Admittedly, some churches can be in denial about the role of their belief tradition, perhaps claiming to ‘just read’ the Bible. If a belief tradition is not acknowledged, there is a danger that authority will be shifted from the Scriptures to particular interpretations. Therefore making one’s belief tradition explicit is a matter of hermeneutical honesty for engagement with scripture. Such a move resonates with the ancient ‘Rule of Faith’, a point I develop further in the book. The Rule incorporated a scripture-shaped belief tradition agreed by the church to be used as a theological grid for reading scripture.

But… How can one be sure that a congregation’s belief tradition is scripture-shaped? Tradition has a habit of becoming fossilised – there needs to be a means of breaking open the belief tradition through transformative encounter with scripture. In hermeneutical terms, this is the power of distancing oneself from the text, of making the familiar text strange, so that the scriptures may arrest our current understandings and transform them. This is where a church’s hermeneutical tradition features. In the Fellowship, some of their hermeneutical characteristics aided a transformative encounter with scripture. Although explicit hermeneutical talk was unusual, hermeneutical practices did provide examples which could be emulated. For example, the pastor mediated an approach to Bible studies that included grammatical, historical and literary issues – enabling participants to distance themselves from the text a little.

In putting these two types of tradition together, I point out that the Rule of Faith consisted of not only beliefs but also hermeneutical guidance. So I conclude in the book that for a wise reading of scripture both a belief and hermeneutical tradition need to be ‘passed on’ together within a congregation, even as they were within the Rule of Faith. There is a need then to make both of these traditions explicit, hermeneutics especially so.

I read somewhere ‘A good preacher knows that exegesis is like underwear – the congregation would like you to have it, but they don’t want to see it’. If true, then I have been guilty of hermeneutical flashing on a number of occasions. A member of the Fellowship cautiously agreed with the aphorism for the case of preaching, but then asked ‘if we never see [hermeneutics], how do we learn to do it ourselves?’

Andrew considers other aspects of ordinary hermeneutics in the current issue of Bible in Transmission, available online at: http://www.biblesociety.org.uk/l3.php?id=311

Andrew Rogers is writing a PhD on hermaneutics in UK evangelicalism at Kings College, London.