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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

4 Sources Every Christian's Hermeneutic Needs

Everyone has a hermeneutic. A hermeneutic is simply your way of interpreting Reality or God's presence in texts, creation, religion, science, and so on.

Before you buck at the idea and think, "I don't do that! I don't do anything as subjective as interpreting God myself," it's wise to keep in mind that all religion, all churches and pastors and creeds, use a hermeneutic. If you've ever asked, "What is this biblical passage saying to me personally," then you've engaged in interpretation, too. And that's okay.

Although hermeneutics can be bad or good (or somewhere in between), simply having a hermeneutic is neutral and natural. It's how we're able to grasp anything from God at all. All language—even the "original" Latin, Greek, or Hebrew—is a form of interpreting and making the inexpressible somehow expressible. Interpretation isn't bad, it's a necessity.

The four elements below are what every Christian must balance. I call the hermeneutic, "REST," which is an acronym that is self-explanatory below. But "REST" also connotes the place that such a hermeneutic should lead us: a place of tranquility, openness, and freedom. These four are a way of knowing truth, and "the truth will set you free" (John 8:32).

  • Reason
    I've written before about the use of reason in faith. There is nothing wrong with being logical in your faith. The trick is simply knowing where its limits our. Logic and reason produce questions. Questions are good. Questions can lead you to God. You cannot love a question. Cardinal Edwin O'Brien says that someone will give their life for a mystery but not for a question mark. Reason has limits but it is still invaluable. You cannot have a faith that does not use reason. If you're open to truth in all its forms (even logical and scientific truth), than you're view of God will be more holistic and therefore more true.

  • Experience
    My own experiences have proved vital to my faith, and I really couldn't have maintained faith without making room for them to inform what I think about God, myself, and life. Experience does the hard work of growth for us. Many Christians view experience as something dangerous or a subjective challenge to other authorities like the Bible. That's not always the case (and probably not even most of the time). Experience is subjective but it's also a way for God to speak to you. It may teach you things you can't learn anywhere else. There's a difference between reading about the Good Samaritan and actually being a Good Samaritan.

  • Scripture
    This is probably the biggest common denominator that Christians as a group share. Yes, there are differences of preference, of what's given authority. There are even different versions of the Bible and different books or words. But for the most part, we recognize the Bible as a complex but ultimately true text with Christ at its center. I do think that Scripture can be called the authority in Christianity. But for me, this does not outweigh the other three sources, and it certainly doesn't outweigh the value of Christian tradition. You can take a Catholic or a Protestant view of Scripture but its best to remember that Scripture's authority does not exclude other authorities.

  • Tradition
    I suggest that all Christians recognize some authority when it comes to tradition. This is why we quote Augustine or Francis of Assisi regardless of our individual creeds. There is power in the 2000 years of history our faith has had since Christ's death and resurrection. If you still need convincing, the authority of Scripture was determined by Christian leaders, meeting, praying, and weighing tradition in order to determine what texts were authentically the Word of God and should be included in the Bible. That simple realization can open us up to accepting that our vast faith history has something true to say when it comes to informing our own hermeneutic.

REST - Now, how you actually weight each of these elements will be something unique to you and also something you will continue to change but the point is that they harmonize. I do think Scripture and Tradition form the basis on top of which (and through which) you can understand your own views of Experience and Reason but it would be a mistake to think everything works in one direction. Reason can help us understand Scripture and Experience can inform Tradition, and on and on, even if they don't all hold equal authority. There's a lot of nuance here but the general idea should be clear. If some thought of yours appears to be true, you can measure it against the other authorities in your life to test its harmony. If it's false, you'll find yourself twisting everything else to meet this new interpretation and your hermeneutic will be obviously disjointed.

Related Posts:
Abraham, Isaac, and the Heresy of Reason
4 Things Evangelicals Can Learn From Catholicism

God in Evolution

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