How Healthy is Adventist Hermeneutics? The Hypertrophy of the Interpreting Church (Part 5)

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May 9, 2019

We have been considering the importance and centrality of the “Hermeneutic Circle” in our reading of the Bible in order to really understand the nature and reach of biblical interpretation. Every reading of the Bible is legitimate and brings some blessing, but not every reading represents the Bible fully. We can’t be satisfied with a proximate, minimal, and even less with an ideological and biased biblical reading. It’s helpful and healthy to remember that anyone can easily be biblically biased. We should continually learn to be aware and admit that we all – particularly those who highly cherish the Bible – will inevitably have some biased biblical readings. And we will struggle to correct them because, on that imperfect basis, God has nevertheless blessed us. Even more difficult will be to admit that we’ll likely never be able to completely discard some important biases. It is possible to read the bible with coherence and conviction while avoiding the disturbing but healing power of an interpreting wisdom. In so doing we then maintain and perpetuate our biases. Coherence and conviction without wisdom, whose main characteristic is precisely the search for interpretation, easily become destructive “virtues”.

History shows how diligently coherent and well-intended Christians (Adventists included), using the Bible, have and still support: labor exploitation, racial discrimination, gender stigmatization, asymmetrical professional recognition, hierarchical authoritarianism and self-destructive religious attitudes. Just as eating is not only a pleasure but also includes a long list of disorders, Bible reading is not only a blessing but unfortunately also includes a long list of hermeneutical dysfunctions and pathologies.

It’s not enough to pretend to be biblical. It’s necessary to become “biblical enough”. And being “biblical enough” is not a status but a pilgrimage. Having been biblical in the past doesn’t guarantee being biblical in the present or the future. So pretending to “be biblical” can paradoxically be a sophisticated way of being idolatrous and religiously static. And affirming the “Sola Scriptura” principle is only tangentially linked to faithful Bible reading. The Bible is more concerned with our becoming than with what we are or read. The goal is to reach toward the full transforming biblical meaning to make it effective in correcting and orienting our reality and existence today. And that’s possible only with Interpretation (big I), by accepting the challenge of the “Hermeneutic Circle”. If our Bible reading only confirms our preconceived convictions, personal or communitarian, this is enough to get worried. And a beneficial and even irreverent spirit of renewal can exist only in interpreting, and not in just reading or applying – even faithfully – what the Bible apparently says.

Only a reading which is ready to become Interpretation can aspire to this, and only then can it bring full blessing. And there is Interpretation only when we respect, welcome and safeguard a healthy articulation of the “Hermeneutic Circle”, i.e. the fruitful, yet tension-filled and fragile co-existence of the “Text” and the “Reader”. The transforming and renewing meaning, strictly speaking, doesn’t emerge from the Text or Reader alone but in-between – in the tension these two poles create together and which is irreducible to either of them. There is no Interpretation without tension and risk. And not accepting the dynamic and creative risk of interpreting, can condemn us to the worst of risks – being stuck in a repetitive, static and unfruitful reading exercise. Interpretation, with all its risks, rescues the Bible from being an irrelevant sacred oracle.

We also must recognize that the two poles of the Hermeneutic Circle, Text and Reader, are not linear or homogeneous. They are complex, multi-layered and internally differentiated entities that continually re-configure and update themselves in relation to the surrounding cultural settings, even before we become fully aware of them. What Text and Reader are today doesn’t correspond necessarily to what they used to be in, say, the 16th century or the New Testament era. Our understanding today is markedly constructivist regarding the Text, and individualistic in relation to the Reader. That’s neither better or worse. It’s just the way it is. Just as it’s not better or worse to be born modern, post-modern, medieval, pre-christian or Babylonian.

Each cultural and historical period has its pros and cons. And our specific cultural configuration is already diffusely present in our way of life, secular or religious, because the deep cultural patterns, like our mother language, are not objects of rational election. In pretending to choose them, as many militant and naive Adventists would like to do, they actually confirm them even when they try to critically reject them. We humans cannot situate ourselves outside of our culture. An a-cultural or culturally neutral Adventism just doesn’t exist. It is a pious and dangerous illusion because what then is proposed as biblically binding is already culturally biased. What the Bible says is always mediated through our contemporary culture whether we are progressive or traditionalist Adventists. Linguistically we can criticize our mother language only by using it, just as as we can criticize our culture only by using it – through the categories we receive from it. And it isn’t different for our reading and interpreting contemporary texts, including the Bible. Our contemporary hermeneutics, whether Protestant, Catholic, Adventist or secular, share a common cultural horizon and a set of presuppositions. It is on them that our hermeneutical reflection should focus.

Consider first the “pole” of the Text.  Here there are three intra-biblical hermeneutics: the “Hermeneutics of the Fact”, the “Hermeneutics of the Principle” and the “Hermeneutics of the Paradox”, which was described in last month’s article. These three Hermeneutics should co-exist together, remembering that only the third one, “Hermeneutics of the Paradox” reflects at best the richness of the Bible. To define hermeneutics as just this group of three is already a concession, because full hermeneutics exists only when we go beyond the Bible to interact with external reality. And including external reality means to seriously consider the biblical message in context with the questions and the needs of the Reader.

Next then is the “pole” of the Reader.  Herein is what we could call the three extra-intra biblical hermeneutics. There is the: “Hermeneutics of the Reader”, the “Hermeneutics of the Church” and the “Hermeneutics of the Reality”. Reader, Church and Reality are the external territories the biblical map references and without which the intra-biblical message would become irrelevant, incomplete and sometimes even biased. This pole of the Reader will be now the target of our analysis. We have already dedicated some thoughts to the first component of this pole. Let’s consider now the second: “Hermeneutics of the Church”, focusing on what could be labeled “Ecclesiological Positivism”, as presupposed and nurtured by our biblical hermeneutics.

1. Adventist Ecclesiological Positivism

When we speak of the Church in the hermeneutical context, we should be thinking and reinforcing the Reader pole, because the Church is supposed to be the community of true Readers. But this is actually rare within Adventism. Our ecclesiology is not on the side of the reader, of the existentially and historically rooted Reader. The presupposed Reader, in Adventist hermeneutics, is a standardized and disincarnate reader. A reader who doesn’t exist in any context. Our hermeneutics frequently fears a real Reader and substitutes an inoffensive and uniform reader. But this weakness is sold as strength. Our apparently strong and dynamic ecclesiology is in fact a sublimation. It hides our incapacity to really connect with a community of true Readers. Adventism too often presupposes submissive, mechanistic and unimaginative readers.

Our ecclesiology is in fact structurally “ecclesio-centric”. It perceives and understands the reader and his/her humanity only in relation to the church, and only in envisioning their coming into the “center of salvation”, i.e. church membership. Cyprian of Carthage’s Latin phrase “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” ("outside the Church there is no salvation") is perfectly applicable to Adventist ecclessiology. Our Church is not missional, just missionary. It too often doesn’t meet people where they really are, only invites them to come in. This is what I label: Adventist Ecclesiological Positivism.

Adventists were weaned on radically criticizing the rigid Catholic ecclesiocentrism, without granting them any biblical or historical extenuating circumstances. But we have paradoxically become like them. The imperial, hierarchic and non-dialogical Ecclesiastical Adventism has mimicked the Catholic one. And it seems nobody is able to reverse course. Anyone attempting to criticize or even mention it, is immediately labeled as disaffected. This is a typical stigmatizing mechanism of dictatorial and paternalistic bodies. Such top-down models presuppose and defend the religious and psychological minority of the believer, as a model we should copy in our religious experience. But how is this ecclesiological drift related to hermeneutics?  

2. Adventist Ecclesiological and Biblical Positivism

This ecclesiological drift is directly related to hermeneutics because, in contrast to the “Sociological Ecclesiocentrism” of Catholicism, ours is a thoroughly “Biblical Ecclesiocentrism”. In this sense our ecclesiocentrism is more dangerous because it pretends to have a direct divine/biblical endorsement – above any critical consideration. Based on this we have created a “fundamentalist chain” made not only of a fundamentalist reading of the bible but also integrated by a fundamentalist ecclesiology and ethics.

Our “Ecclesiological Bible-based Positivism” appears as a classical expression of a hypertrophic disorder, which in medicine involves an organ thickening and becoming stiffer. But a strong and an efficient church doesn’t necessarily mean a better church. A “Hypertrophic body” is big but dysfunctional. Impressive but, in the end, nearly useless because it is unable to adequately address the disparate, unique situations which often are not immediately visible, and don’t create clear consensus. And finally, our conception of the church as a natural extension of the Bible, has led us to attribute to the Church the same holy characteristics of the Bible, immunizing it from common sense critical considerations.

 

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/hanz-gutierrez

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

 

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