8

This "gripe" is not unfamiliar to contributors to biblical hermeneutics beta, and frankly it is probably as old as the hills. Ages ago when I was taking undergraduate courses in theology, I was introduced to the modus operandi of the so-called "higher critics" in biblical studies. These folks believed that a "new" approach to textual criticism was needed, an approach which divested itself of faith baggage. They insisted on approaching the biblical text as if it were just another text, leaving--they thought--those pesky faith-based presuppositions behind and going about their task of interpreting the Bible as they would, say, a sociology text, a 16th-century English poem, or Heroditus’s Histories.

I'm speaking, of course, of the "Fundamentalist-Modernist" debate which took America by storm early in the last century, though its roots can be traced back at least centuries to differing reactions of scholars to the supposedly "new" paradigms coming out of the Enlightenment, which spawned an increasingly polarizing distinction between sacred and secular.

Luminaries in the early 20th-century fray included on the one hand the great preacher and founder of the interdenominational Riverside Church in New York City, Harry Emerson Fosdick, who acted as a spokesman and popularizer for "liberal" theology, and on the other hand, a Presbyterian theologian and New Testament scholar at Princeton (and later, Westminster Theological Seminary, which he founded), J. Gresham Machen, who was a spokesman for conservative--destined to become epithetically "fundamentalist"--theology.

Ever since the great "modernist-fundamentalist divide," many theological scholars who claim to be Christians but who also subscribe to such modernist notions as macroevolution and to the ideals of higher criticism have in essence (and artfully) bracketed faith-claims in favor of a supposedly presupposition-free approach to theology, biblical hermeneutics, and truth--at least with a capital T.

Even scholars within non-theological academic disciplines and fields of study who claimed to be Christians jumped on the bandwagon of modernist ideals and either downplayed (or were virtually silent about) their religious beliefs, or who, like sociologist Peter Berger (co-author of The Social Construction of Reality), bracketed--but not jettisoned, he would likely insist--his Christian beliefs, so as to make his theories more palatable and less offensive to his non-religious or anti-religious peers within academia.

That said, my complaint concerns the assumption on the part of some contributors to this website that there must of necessity be a dichotomy between "faith-based hermeneutics" and--for want of a better word--"non-faith-based hermeneutics." To them, the former brand of hermeneutics is simply too "truth-based" and biased (if not blinded) by assumptions which serve only to cloud empirical, neutral, and academic pursuits with its theological baggage. Instead, they favor bracketing truth claims in favor of their ostensibly non-presuppositional, historical-critical approach to all texts, including the Bible.

(This is the penultimate paragraph before asking my question.) Some of the contributors to this website--perhaps even a majority of contributors--are perfectly comfortable with their faith-based biblical hermeneutics and in good conscience believe that faith does not ipso facto make them guilty of poor hermeneutics simply because they happen to believe in, say, biblical inerrancy, or miracles, or Truth with a capital T. On the other hand, some other contributors to this website are perfectly comfortable with an approach to biblical hermeneutics which treats the Bible, in part, like any other book. They of course respect its uniqueness and consequently approach the Bible fully cognizant of the complexity of the task at hand, given the Bible's having come originally from three ancient--and dead--languages, and its coming to us in numerous genres (e.g., history, poetry and songs, aphorisms, narrative, apocalyptic writings, letters, sermons and other hortatory content, and so on).

My central question, I guess, is as follows:

Since both of the above "camps" (and I realize I use the term camps somewhat loosely, imprecisely, and perhaps even inaccurately!) operate from at least partially diametrically opposed and partially mutually exclusive sets of strong first principles about the nature of Scripture, is it realistically possible for this site to be "all things to all people" (or perhaps all things to both camps) so to speak, and in so doing not show bias--whether intentionally or not intentionally--toward the non-faith-based hermeneutists?

Over and over again in the comments sections underneath each OP's question, I read moderators' comments about how BHB is a "secular" site, how it is not a Christian site, and how it is open to all comers, whatever their first principles happen to be. Yet, if BHB is in fact a "secular" site, doesn't it, ergo, default to the non-faith-based approach to hermeneutics?

The central irony of this situation, as I see it, is that some of the non-faith-based hermeneutists who tend quite naturally to hew to the traditional principles of higher (i.e., historical) criticism seem to assume that things such as "first principles," "presuppositions," and prima facie assumptions are the province of only faith-based hermeneutists. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Having read recently Paul Copan's book True For You, But Not For Me: Deflating the Slogans that Leave Christians Speechless, I've become extra-sensitive, I guess, to the tendency of non-faith-based hermeneutists, scientists, philosophers, theologians, and just plain people to assume their perspective is in some way superior to the faith-based perspective by virtue of its being more neutral, less biased, more fact-driven, and generally less baggage-laden. Again, nothing could be further from the truth, at least not in any inherent sense.

Now I know there are kooks in both camps. Neither camp has a corner on kooks. By the same token (believe it or not) I know there are great scholars in both camps. Goodness knows, both camps should be grateful for the good work the good people in both camps have done over the years in such areas historiography, the study of ancient cultures, papyrology, textual criticism, biblical archeology (or just plain archeology), biblical languages, and on and on and on.

Moreover, for every gadfly and blatant provocateur such as David Barash, Carl Sagan, and Clinton Richard Dawkins in the non-faith camp there are at least three other (or more!) blatant provocateurs in the faith-based camp. As the saying goes, "There is none so blind as he who will not see." In other words, close-mindedness is not proprietary to either liberals or conservatives, macroevolutionists or proponents of intelligent-design, and rabid materialists or other-worldly mystics. The truth is, they (and we) all are fundamentalists, each in his or her own way. To act as if one is somehow immune to fundamentalism is to be self-deceived.

So again, my question:

Since both of the above "camps" as I've described them operate from at least partially diametrically opposed and partially mutually exclusive sets of strong first principles about the nature of Scripture, is it realistically possible for this site to be "all things to all people" (or perhaps all things to both camps) so to speak, and in so doing not show bias--whether intentionally or not intentionally--toward the non-faith-based hermeneutists?

Furthermore, isn't the person who assumes we must bracket the sacred from the secular in fact simply tipping his or her hat towards the ones who define secular instead of towards the ones who--like me--consider this bracketing tantamount to creating a false dichotomy between sacred and secular? As if sacred truth and secular truth could never possibly be happily married?

| |
  • 3
    I've removed the "bug" tag; while I suspect this is an important community discussion, the "bug" tag is used internally for system error tracking and reporting (hence how I got here) – Marc Gravell Jan 7 '15 at 10:58
  • @MarcGravell: Thanks, Marc. Not having contributed to Meta very much, I'm a bit ignorant of how it works. Don – rhetorician Jan 7 '15 at 17:04
  • 2
    @rhetorician Hi Don! This is as eloquent a question as I ever heard stated; with no easy answer(except Jack's..;>)) I disagree w/Dan on 1 key point, and that is truth must be our main focus. Whether it's 'your' truth or 'my' truth, our hermeneutics must take it in that direction, or we have crossed the bridge into intellectual dishonesty; availing ourselves of a 'plausible lie' to achieve what purpose? To satisfy a professor? Or to satisfy a community of which we want to garner support? On Dan's other points I totally agree, and have stated as much in other Meta posts. – Tau Jan 8 '15 at 17:25
  • @Tau: Thanks for your support. I'm with you about the "truth thing." One of the most famous quotations from "secular" sources in Jesus' time, came from the lips of procurator Pontius Pilate; namely, "What is truth?" Here he is in the presence of Truth, the one who said quite succinctly, "I AM THE TRUTH," and Pilate asks Jesus, "What is truth?" Evidently Pilate wouldn't recognize truth if it came up and bit him on the a**! (Jesus wasn't big on biting; he chose instead to be silent on many occasions.) Perhaps Christians are not being diplomatic when they insist on such a thing as absolute – rhetorician Jan 8 '15 at 18:35
  • truth, with a capital T. When I think about it, perhaps the only time the word "truth" should be capitalized is in John 14:6! Faith-based and non-faith-based hermeneutists are really after the truth, as you pointed out. The NFBHs may prefer to use the terms knowledge, facts, paradigms, and the like, but hey, those words, as well as the word "truth," are all part of the same family, est-ce pas? Now I realize that facts, knowledge, and paradigms change. Who knows, maybe even the "laws" of nature are subject to change. Scientific-types sure act as if they aren't, however! – rhetorician Jan 8 '15 at 18:44
  • @MarcGravell: the presupposition that the (post)modernist agenda in biblical studies is not itself a faith position has fallen on bad times. Reading the meta discussions for first time it seems like I have inadvertently wandered back on the biblical greek (b-greek) forum which has been fighting this battle for decades. – C. Stirling Bartholomew May 10 '15 at 23:22
  • @C.StirlingBartholomew: If you would be so kind, please give me a couple of links to some specific battles in which faith-based, biblical Greek scholars have emerged victors. Thanks! You can send 'em directly to me at drlarter@yahoo.com. – rhetorician May 11 '15 at 2:45
  • @rhetorician, Mike Licona vs. Stormin Norman Geisler. Who won? Nobody won. Licona tried to beat the secular boys at their own game according their rules. He was widely applauded for his efforts by a broad spectrum of evangelical scholars. On the other hand some people don't like his methods. – C. Stirling Bartholomew May 12 '15 at 4:52
  • @C.StirlingBartholomew: Thanks for the information. I'll do some research on it. There's a big difference between defending the faith and attacking the "faith" of the secular boys. Motive is key. Christians are to defend the faith with "meekness and fear." Our goal as apologists isn't to beat and berate the other guy, but to win 'em to Christ. True enough, Jesus on occasion came on strong with his opponents, but he was God among them. We, on the other hand, are but servants of Jesus, who need to be guided by him regarding what to say and how to say it. It's a tricky business. Motive is key. – rhetorician May 12 '15 at 10:46
10

This is an important question, and I think it has been asked before under different guises.

is it realistically possible for this site to be "all things to all people"

My short answer is that we don't have to try. If we stick with widely understood rules and guidelines that avoid the kind of words that mean very different things to different people, then we can have a site where different (and diametrically opposed) interpretive techniques can co-exist and even cross-pollinate (in that answers from a different hermeneutic can still be useful - you don't have to buy into the entire framework to benefit from them).

I like this simple 3-step guideline because there is very little disagreement on terms - we may debate exactly where to draw the line, but we don't have fundamentally incompatible understandings of the words used (so we fine-tune how much 'joining the dots' is required, but we don't disagree on what 'joining the dots means', unlike 'application', 'doctrine', 'religion', 'neutral' etc etc etc):

  1. Respect the text
  2. Start from the text
  3. Work upwards from the text joining the dots
| |
  • 4
    Upvote. A neat and succinct answer in précis mode and format. Thanks, Jack. Don – rhetorician Jan 7 '15 at 18:30
  • I was especially interested and agree (in the link) that "what the text meant" is on-topic, and "what the text means" is off-topic. The second is opinion, although opinion can become doctrine and should be respected. – Dick Harfield Jan 8 '15 at 22:28
9

In addition to Jack's excellent response, I wanted to throw my own two cents in. While I know that some folks insist on a purely neutral, objective perspective free from bias (I saw that comment thread), many of us recognize that we all bring assumptions to the text. If literary criticism has taught us nothing in the last hundred years—it's just that.

Early on in this site's history, we had many debates back and forth between such positivist and phenomenalist camps. At one point I had even recommended a 'pseudo-neutrality' perspective, in recognition of the fact that there is no truly neutral position (I no longer stand behind this position 100%, FYI—although I still find some aspects of it helpful).

In 2011 (before I was even a user of this site), the community voted very clearly on a meta post answer entitled "Having extended hermeneutics to exegesis, where do we draw the line?". The answer made some clarifications in our approach to the text here at BH.SE in questions and answers:

However, Hermeneutics.SE should work forwards from a given text but stop short of application and doctrine...

Questions that start with a word or passage and ask for an analysis of it should be asked on Hermeneutics.SE. "What does word mean in Verse X:Y?" should be approached from a hermeneutical background that examines the text in context. Other verses and texts may be referenced in so far as they aid the understanding of the language and context of a passage, but not specifically to make an extended doctrinal point or provide application not derivable from the passage in question. A textual or hermeneutical relationship between passages should be shown rather than just theological.

Questions about a point of doctrine and what Scriptures support them should be off-topic. "Practical theology" or extended application beyond explaining the text should be discouraged.

This was upvoted heavily by the community early on. It's not about the underlying philosophy of participants, it focuses solely on behavior and limiting specific aspects/types of content. Site scope was the primary concern. These ideas have always been controversial, but community vote has shown time and time again that BH.SE is a place where we avoid certain aspects of exegesis, despite however philosophically skewed or cognitively dissonant this may be (trust me, sometimes the dissonance here makes me want to pull my hair out and give up on this site as being un-viable).

Much later, I clarified BH.SE's distinctives and the community again showed that this was the direction it wanted to proceed in by voting. Much of that post merely cites or summarizes other meta posts, the ideas weren't novel to that particular post (you can follow all of the links to see). That post made several things clearer (I won't cite the entire thing, although readers not familiar should read it in its entirety):

...we don't fully exegete the text in the religious sense of the practice....

Different users bring multiple perspectives concerning the Biblical texts. This is to be expected, but we try to minimize unstated presuppositions in questions and answers. For this reason, we expect good questions and answers to lay out a logical argument beginning from the Biblical text. This is like mathematics homework: you shouldn't give an answer without showing how you derived it....

Writing descriptively—"such-and-such source says X", as opposed to "X is true"—dovetails nicely with "show your work". If you do this you're most of the way to showing your work.... Answers should show sensitivity to other users of the site. This may include an extra explanation when later texts are applied to earlier texts (e.g. ones that read Jesus into the Hebrew Bible). Claims that could reasonably be seen as controversial or offensive must be relevant and supported from the text. "Supported" means an explicit link or citation of text, or clear logical reasoning starting from a cited text. Sometimes the text will be offensive, which we have to accept. The aim should be [to] add no further offence to the the offence of the text....

Imagine being observed by a bunch of professors who know the Bible, but don't necessarily believe it (at least not in the same way that you do). That is your audience—even if many of us are adherents of a religion. In a university setting (such as a rigorously academic seminary), truth is often less important than how you arrive at it....

That is not to say that truth isn't important (indeed, those of us who adhere to religious beliefs and practices are very concerned about truth in our lives)—it's just secondary to scholarship in this context. We make the Internet a better place by bringing rigorous scholarship to bear on the real questions people have about the Biblical texts and the process of understanding them (stopping short of the application of these texts)....

Questions aren't asking what 'you think' (or feel) about a given topic or text. They are looking for answers that 'show their work.' We want to know what and how experts think—not what you found interesting. If you know the difference between eisegesis and exegesis, you will understand why we don't particularly care about novel hermeneutics. We're more interested in facts than opinions....

It's OK to a degree for an answer to include personal anecdotes and other tangents, where this adds flavour and character, so long as the main line of an answer is supported, connecting the dots starting from the text. It's also ok to include opinions so long as they are relevant and labelled as your opinion or belief. Opinions and tangents should be garnishes, not the entire meal. If a post is essentially an opinion-based argument or testimony, it doesn't fit and will need to be removed or edited....

Going from a question about the original context of a passage (i.e. discussing an exhortation made to the audience of antiquity) to what you should personally do in your life is a shift from description to prescription....

We can describe the original author's intent, even passionately—but we must not cross the line into preaching to BH.SE readers.

Philosophically this is somewhat maddening and it is certainly epistemologically inconsistent. I've argued as such numerous times, even questioning the site's viability. But the focus here is not on creating a philosophically-sound systematic approach to the text. The community has instead chosen to focus on undesirable behaviors for this site. That's really the issue, regardless of whether it makes sense or is even philosophically coherent: we welcome all approaches to the biblical texts that avoid the stated undesirable behaviors in questions and answers. Another user clarified our 'modes of discourse' (which was also highly upvoted by the community) which I found helpful:

We desire consistency and clarity in our "mode of discourse"

Every interpretative approach, or means of analysis, or hermeneutical method, etc., brings with it its own set of criteria for (a) what it calls upon as evidence; (b) how that evidence is evaluated; and (c) how arguments/discussions about that evidence and its evaluation are framed and conducted. Each of (a), (b), and (c) needs to be consistent and commensurate.

BH.SE works best when there is self-conscious awareness and consistency in the language used in its Q&As:

  • historical questions require historical responses
  • linguistic questions require linguistic responses
  • literary questions require literary responses

[Other] aspects need to be handled as facets of the biblical texts studied by participants of BH.SE in historical, linguistic, and literary terms, and not as aspects of personal conviction, or the belief and praxis of historic and contemporary faith communities (for which see the Mi Yodeya and Christianity Stack Exchange sites).

The good news is, one can often state any of their perspectives just fine here, so long as they show their work and share such perspectives descriptively (i.e. not prescriptively). The issue is when folks make unsupported leaps (such as quoting other texts immediately by different authors in different time periods without justifying such a connection nor explaining the text in question in its original context within our accepted 'modes of discourse' before adding in lots of later theological ideas from the belief and praxis of historic and contemporary faith communities).

This has to do with site scope and the community's stated preferences. Such odd divisions in site scope are not uncommon on the SE network. Regardless of whether it is right or wrong, this approach here at BH.SE just is. It's a foreign approach to all of us, both academics and devotional readers of the biblical texts. But the community has made it clear that it believes this is how we can best welcome all perspectives—even if it means that we all have to adapt our preferred style of communication.

In the end, it goes back to Jack's simple 3-step guidelines:

  1. Respect the text
  2. Start from the text
  3. Work upwards from the text joining the dots
| |
  • Upvote from me, Dan. Your answer has sparked a number of things in my mind. I'll probably just provide my own answer to my own question, using some of your concepts as a foil, of sorts, for my own answer and then respond to your answer the way I think you'd want me to--as if I'm paraphrasing your answer. Feel free to correct or clarify my paraphrase as you see fit. Clear as mud? – rhetorician Jan 7 '15 at 18:29
  • 1
    @rhetorician no prob, I upvoted your "question"/meta post as well. Honestly, I think about 'quitting' this site at least once a month. The dissonance is maddening. – Dan Jan 7 '15 at 19:00
  • 4
    As the young people say nowadays, "I feel you, man." Dissonance is something we all feel; some people simply have a higher threshold for it than others. The challenge for me as a Christian is not to allow my dissonance to interfere with the flow of grace from my life. Agreeing to disagree agreeably with non-faith-based hermeneutists can be a challenge for me at times, but I need to keep reminding myself of verses such as Colossians 4:6: "Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person." Don – rhetorician Jan 7 '15 at 19:28

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .