Tuesday, January 05, 2010

hermeneutical woes: problems with a hard 'faith alone' reading

"Hermeneutics" is a big word. Or, at least, it's a funny looking word, which is just as threatening. "Hermeneutics" is also an important and prominent word in biblical studies, and it really has a simple meaning: hermeneutics deals with the way one interprets scripture.

Sunday I listened to a sermon by a pastor who is laboring under some hermeneutical woes. This burden, that probably weighs on his every sermon, this pastor would call 'the new covenant', but I think there's a little confusion here.

The sermon came from Colossians 1--they're doing a verse by verse study of the letter--particularly verses 19-23.

19 For in him [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.

I had few real complaints with the sermon, in fact it was quite good, until the last point. This point, as you might guess, dealt with the last verse, 23. The pastor had already given his hand away--he did not like verse 23. It was clear from the way he read the passage: he read slowly and with much emphasis the words of :19-22, and then paused a while to glory in the message of the text. Finally he continued, rushing through 23 without any of the previous care.

Why the disdain for Colossians 1:23?
Because, as he said, this verse suddenly makes it sound like 'it's all on us again', and this, apparently, will not do. In this pastor's mind, if it's 'all on us', then it's not all of Jesus, and it's not the gospel. He has a problem with the word 'work'. He feels that the New Testament has a problem with the word 'work'.
He's laboring under a hermeneutical woe.

What does this look like? When people try to read a strong doctrine of justification by grace through faith into every verse of the New Testament, as this man was doing, the woe often has a few consistent characteristics.
  1. Inserting 'earn' language. I've taught studies on James 2 many times now, and I'm often met with opposition from the students when I affirm James 2:24--"You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." James is quite clear on this point, an yet students are quite resistant on this point, and they will ask me 'do you mean that we have to do works to earn our salvation?' This question comes up every time. And of course the answer is no. I don't teach anything about 'earning' salvation. James doesn't write anything about 'earning' salvation. Yet this is how many receive the teaching. This is a misunderstanding of the message. We will always be trapped by interpretive pitfalls if we cannot let the text speak for itself. If you make assumptions about a teaching, you won't be able to understand it or proclaim it for what it actually is. Paul says nothing in Colossians 1:23 about earning salvation, but so long as you force that idea onto his message, you force yourself to ignore entirely what he is actually teaching about the Christian life.

  2. The interpretive contortionist. When one has decided to reject all talk of the necessity of works in the Christian life, they immediately find themselves face to face with quite an obstacle: the New Testament. Verses and passages like 1 Corinthians 9:27, James 2:14-26, 1 Peter 1:17, Revelation 20:12-13, and, apparently, Colossians 1:23 (among others) suddenly become very threatening. The only way to meet this threat is to do a bit a 'creative' interpreting, twisting the scripture into all sorts of shapes that it ought not to be in. "A person is justified by works" actually means 'if you are really saved then you are going to do some kind of work'. Whatever "disqualified" really means, it obviously does not mean what it seems to be communicating in 1 Cor. 9. Colossians 1:23, of course, doesn't actually mean to place any responsibility in our hands. Paul certainly would never suggest we must actually do something as followers of Christ. Such conclusions manage to contort the scripture into some really curious shapes and fit it into very odd, little boxes. Of course there is a prominent alternative to this feat: the disappearing act. Many teachers will rarely if ever address the passages that complicate their teaching. Problem solved.

  3. The dichotomy. All of this is necessary because of the great marker of this particular woe: the faith-works dichotomy. This is the subjection of scripture to, what the pastor I listened to Sunday would call, 'manly wisdom'. Readers assume that faith and works present us with an either/or, and we must choose which option to embrace, which to reject. Unfortunately, this flies in the face of scripture. They will quote Romans 3:28, even though Paul is not talking about works in general but "works of the law", which makes obvious reference to particular works understood within a particular system of Hebrew thought. They will quote James 2:24, even though James is not talking about faith in general but "faith alone", a 'dead faith'. The closest scripture ever comes to supporting this dichotomy is Ephesians 2:8-9 ("For by grace you have been saved..."), but even this passage is suggesting something other than the works described by James as 'justifying'. The fundamental problem of the dichotomy is that interpreters here try to say more than scripture says. When scripture makes an affirmation, the interpreter tries to go even further and infer a negation as well, even though it is not stated in the text. Of course you'll have difficulty 'reconciling' Paul to James when in fact you're misstating both sides' arguments.
I hope that these observations may prove edifying to someone. This is not only a danger when reading passages about justification--all of us reading and teaching scripture must constantly be on guard against bringing artificial suppositions to a passage. More than anything else we have to be able to see what is there.
Also, as I've written recently, we have to be able to accept apparent frictions. When we begin subjecting the text to our own 'reasoning' in hopes of ironing out some of the more unnerving wrinkles in the Bible's message, what we usually accomplish is simply destroying the delicate and necessary balances that scripture tries to maintain between different currents. Most of the great heresies in Church history arose from the emphasis of one such Biblical current to the exclusion of the other. We need the balance. We simply have to take the Bible for what it is.

In the last point of his sermon Sunday, this pastor pointed out that 'a lot of people get mad at me when I tell them that what they do doesn't matter.' He thought this was some kind win for the good guys. They get mad, he feels, because they'd like to think that they can earn their salvation.
Well, I was mad. Not because I want to teach the falsehood that one can do works that merit salvation. I was mad because the New Testament teaches that what we do matters immensely. And his congregation is never going to learn that truth in church, because his teaching is entombed in interpretive confusion.

A member of the congregation later told me that she felt the pastor never taught on obedience.
It seems that Christ's commission to 'teach them to observe all that I have commanded you' has been suffocated by hermeneutical woes.


Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Very nice post. I'm guessing there is some "Blue Paraketes" (spell?) in here?

This reminds me of how virtually every passage that had any serious sacramental theology was passed over in some churches I've been involved in - and when they were read, passages like Romans 6 had words like "symbolizes" inserted into the sentences that Paul ACTUALLY writes.

Of course, each denomination, even each preacher, probably has hermeneutical 'blind spots.'

When I was reading your post I was thinking of the ways that Justification by faith alone and the great Law-Grace dichotomy are used as primary hermeneutical tools in Lutheran (and therefore much Protestant) theology, though these tools may be artificial constructs to a degree.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Andrew said...

The best way i have heard it explained is that faith and obedience are two sides of the same coins. Our role in this life is to obey as God initiates by giving us faith. It's almost like Christ is our husband leading us and we are to respond with obedience. Its a dance, not a balancing act. right?

Nance said...

I think that's a helpful way of describing it, Andrew. One of, what I find to be, the most important parts of James's argument in 2:14-24 is simply the fact that James consistently refuses to separate belief from works--he distinguishes the two, as you have, but they must remain one coin. The alternative for James (and thus for us), the belief separate from works, is the faith of the demons: dead faith.

Nance said...

Sorry, that's 2:14-26*