Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Lamentations and Hermeneutics

It's a melancholy day for me. The unspeakable terror and tragedy on the campus of Virginia Tech has combined with a couple of lesser-known stories that are sad news in my small world. "Man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble." My only-but-great consolation, and joy even, is that God in Christ gets the last word.

On a slightly-related note, and at the risk of oversimplification . . .

It seems to me that over the last few decades, people in the Churches of Christ have increasingly rejected the "constitution view" of the Bible. These Christians no longer construe the Scriptures as a set of divine laws and gospel facts to be discerned, understood, and applied to exterior forms of the church (like terms of membership, items of worship, qualifications of officers, etc.). This approach, by the way, always favored the New Testament to the virtual exclusion of the Old.

Instead, it seems to me that people in Churches of Christ have moved in the direction of seeing the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) as a collection of writings which are, at the same time, (1) unified in their intent to reveal but (2) diverse in their forms and in their ways of revealing the heart and the mind of God. This view naturally requires a reader of a particular book in Scripture to be aware of and sensitive to the type of literature he's reading, to the specific intentions of the author, etc.

Not so long ago, any number of spokesmen in the Churches of Christ were railing against what they called "the new hermeneutics" among us. That is, they were speaking against what they perceived to be a new way of understanding what the Scriptures are and how they should be interpreted. What they were talking about then is what I'm talking about here. And regardless of where a person comes out on that traditional-versus-the-new debate, those who said the objections were much ado about nothing were wrong. Our hermeneutic (the singular here refers to the basic approach) was and is shifting. And it makes a huge difference.

One of those differences (and here's the tie-in to my present affect) is that the more-recent approach to Scripture among us has opened up many new possibilities; the possibility, for example, of actually using a book like Lamentations as a model and as a source for appropriate lament in the lives of individual Christians and even whole congregations (say, in the aftermath of 9/11). Compare that to the older approach in which the Book of Lamentations wasn't much more than a historical footnote.

Anyway, my questions to insiders, and to outsiders who know something about my group, are these:

1. From what you can tell, is my description of hermeneutical shift in the Churches of Christ accurate?

2. If so, what were/are the sources of such change?

3. Again if "yes" to number 1, then how is such change currently playing out? And what, according to your forecast, might be the long-term ramifications?


Matt said...

1. This shift has taken place with a great number of ministers due to better education and better literature being widely available but I am not so sure this shift has translated to the members. It seems to me that many of them still read the scriptures in the traditional/flat way with little understanding of the differences between books.

A few weeks ago, I simply explained to one class about the order and placement of the OT books and they were amazed that no one had explained that to them before. They had never thought about the fact that you might actually read one book through a different lens than another. I am sure this class is not alone.

2. The sources of change would seem to me to be far better resources and education being readily available to ministers and Bible class teachers than the old J.W. Shepherd commentaries. The B.S.F. Bible studies are spreading this some as well.

3. This will continue to try to play out in the pulpit and Bible classes taught mostly by ministers. I think it will take a LONG time before this really impacts the views of a great number of "people in the pews."

I am not certain what your group is but I hope that helps.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Matt, thanks for your comments. It's always nice to get candid reports from places I don't know very well.

By "my group" I mean basically a capella Churches of Christ in the U.S.

I'm curious. What did you mean by B.S.F.?

Matt said...

Ah, okay. We are on the same page then. That is the same framework I am speaking from. B.S.F. stands for Bible Study Fellowship and is an international, non-denominational (although probably mostly baptist) group that does some pretty serious Bible study. They pick a book and work through it with some very high expectations of the students. It is mandatory that you study before coming each week otherwise you are not allowed to comment (at least that is my understanding).

Messianic Gentile said...


First time commentor. Found you through the Valentine blog scandal of a week or ten days ago...

I say yes to question 1, but it is not all black and white though. I have certainly come to a new approach, though it is not exactly like you have described. At the same time, I live and work in the shadow of Sunset Church of Christ and SIBI, which still uses Ed Wharton's The Church of Christ regularly as a text book. That book promotes a constitution style scripture interpretation, and there have been hundreds of students use it in the last five years that I have worked as one of their key book sellers.

I did not become a serious bible student myself until after the change (of Q2) was well underway. I do not know what caused the change per se. But I personally am heavily influenced by N.T. Wright (and thus R Horsley etc etc). The whole Postmodern concept of scripture is meaningful to me, probably as a generational thing. But Wright has captured my imagination particularly with Horsley's emphasis on empire, but as filtered through Wright.

I also am influence by Leonard Allen and Richard Hughes as far as in house thinkers are concerned. But Wright blows them all away in my estimation.

I look at scripture as a 5 act play/drama. I appreciate various genre of writings, but the unity of the over arching metanarrative guides me especially.

As for the future, I am not a good predicter really. A wisher, though, is another thing.

I wish that as some of these meta trends begin to filter into various denominations, that our churches would begin to join together and share resources. I also hope that attention to the poor and marginalized will froth to the surface as bigger agendas than music or lack thereof in worship. I think it would be great if Vandelia CoC, where I attend, would merge with Oakwood Methodist (about 4 blocks away) and then worship in their facility while converting ours into a multi-family housing and community center.

This kind of thing would require a loosing of traditional intradenominational fetters while at the same time firming up our ecumenical efforts -effecting tradition, doctrine, routine and imagination at the least. A great challenge. But if the traditional church (and by that I mean the church at large and not just our segment) is going to continue to fall on hard times in the future, surely we will find ourselves more likeminded and ready to share resources across lines that used to be tight boundary markers more readily.

But that is pretty vague and far adrift from your hermeneutic topic at this point.

Thanks for the thoughtful post.

Jesus is Lord!

Frank Bellizzi said...

MG convertible: Thanks for stopping by and for adding insight. I'm always glad when I get to "meet" new friends here.

Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

Lam was on my mind just the other day as I reflected on VT. I also found it cathartic after 9/11.

Echoing Matt there has been some of a shift but not nearly enough in my opinion. I still get plenty of flak when using the Hebrew Bible. Thanks for an excellent post.

Bobby Valentine

Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

Lam was on my mind just the other day as I reflected on VT. I also found it cathartic after 9/11.

Echoing Matt there has been some of a shift but not nearly enough in my opinion. I still get plenty of flak when using the Hebrew Bible. Thanks for an excellent post.

Valentine Blog scandal ?

Bobby Valentine

Ed Dodds said...


A helpful metric for folks to add may be the rurality/urbanity of their congregation's geo location, size and adoption or lackof small groups. This kind of question has affetced Campbell-Stone folks from several "groups." The World Convention of Churches of Christ national profile pages may offer an indirect record of how hermaneutics have worked out in a variety of situations. http://www.worldconvention.org