Where you start determines where you go . . . and something else.

A thought occurred to me yesterday as I was walking from my office to the student centre at Providence to have lunch (funny how ‘revelations’ often hit us during ordinary or even mundane activities – walking, taking a shower, etc.!) It’s not so much a new and profound insight, as it is a better realization and articulation of something I already, tacitly, felt.

The thought is an extension of the insight that where one starts often determines where one ends up. I’m thinking here especially of our views or positions on matters of faith, doctrine, or ethics. On one level, this is an obvious statement, well demonstrated by any good introduction to hermeneutics (theory of interpretation) or ethics. Take textual interpretation. Hermeneutical theory demonstrates that we do not read texts as purely objective, detached observers, but as human beings with interests, views, biases, presuppositions, and pre-understandings already in place that we bring with us as we read the text. This situatedness is just part of being embodied, finite, and creaturely beings shaped by our family, cultural, and institutional (faith-based or otherwise) roots. Note that both helps and hinders interpretation. Without any previous understanding of anything, we simply could not understand a text that is before us. Of course, the danger is that we remain unconscious of our biases and read them into the text without realizing it. But, simply having pre-understandings and biases is not the problem (indeed growth would not be possible without them) . . . having the wrong pre-understandings and biases is the problem, especially if we remain epistemically closed to having them challenged by the ‘otherness’ of the text in front of us.

Applied to theological or ethical views, our biases and pre-understandings in terms of our prior theological commitments influence the way we read texts. The process seems a bit circular, since we believe that the theologies and views we hold, which determine to some degree what we see and look for when we read the Bible, are themselves dependent on the Bible for their existence! Are we trapped in hopeless circularity? I don’t think so. We can come to genuinely new insights in a variety of ways, especially when we begin to get a gnawing sense that something about our views seems to be less than fully satisfying . . . something seems amiss. We then face a choice: to open ourselves to thinking it through, to checking our evidences anew, to dialoguing with others about how they see things—or—to look the other way, plug our ears, and pretend the problem isn’t there. If we choose the former, we can test our biases through dialogue with others, through reading more broadly and deeply, and by asking good questions (where did this idea come from anyway? Is it necessary? Does it fit what we see of lived practice, not just ideal theory? Etc.) After entering into such a process, we may find that we come to read texts differently than we had before. Relationships and experiences change us. Hopefully they mature us. And a more mature reader is going to produce a more mature reading of a text (experience isn’t the only factor, of course, but all other things begin equal it certainly is A factor!).

All of this, I hope, is helpful. But it’s not the insight that occurred to me. What occurred to me is an extension of this. Not only does ‘where we start’ determine ‘where we go’ (at least partially, leaving aside dramatic, ‘crises’ of new insight or even divine intervention) . . . but it also determines how we rank various other questions and issues within our overall worldview. Let me give an example to explain this – it’s actually the issue I was thinking about when this insight occurred to me. Every so often the debate between Calvinists and Arminians comes into my purview and I enter into some extended reflection of the issues involved. Most of the time, however, the Calvinist-Arminian debate is not at the top of my list of theological priorities. In recent years, over the past decade or so, I have adopted a broad, missional hermeneutic. As does any hermeneutic, the missional perspective is both based on my reading of Scripture and Christian theology (especially Trinitarian theology, anthropology, and missiology) AND determines, at least in part, how I read the Bible and how I rank the relative importance of various other theological topics. Applied to the Calvinist-Arminian debate: If I begin with (in other words, if the starting point of my thinking is grounded in) the debates about human depravity versus innate capacity for godliness and freewill in the fourth century (i.e., Augustine vs. Pelagius) OR in the debates about the nature of grace and predestination in the 16th and 17th centuries), I place myself on a certain theological trajectory that prioritizes certain questions over others. These questions, and my answers to them, affect not only how I read the Bible, but also the ranking of which texts and books I find most interesting and important (most germane to the metanarrative of Scripture). We end up deadlocked in the Calvinist-Arminian debate.

If, however, I am grounded in a missional hermeneutic, beginning with God’s election of Abraham for the sake of the world (“through you all of the nations of the earth will be blessed,” Gen. 18:18; 22:18) and oriented and directed now by the already-present-but-not-yet-consummated Kingdom of God that Jesus preached and embodied, . . . that places the whole discussion on a different kind of trajectory that ranks questions of election, predestination, grace, freewill, etc., differently. Not that these become irrelevant or unimportant, just understood to be situated within a different kind of metanarrative. At the very least, my focus shifts from abstract discussions about who is in and who is out, how God can foreknow the future (or not) and in what sense, etc., . . . to a focus on God’s heart and redemptive purposes for humanity. If our theologies cannot adequately represent or account for the heart and character of God, most clearly and authoritatively revealed in the incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and ongoing presence (by the Holy Spirit) of Jesus Christ (the fulfillment of Abraham/Israel), then what good are they?

Of course, we’ll still have Calvinists and we’ll still have Arminians within the missional movement. But, I suggest, these would cease to be divisive categories that some use to classify people as better or worse Christians. More important things are at stake. Assuming, of course, a missional hermeneutic with its consequences for where we are going and how we rank the pertinent questions and issues that determine how we are getting there.

BTW – if you’re interested in learning more about a missional hermeneutic, you might with Chris Wright’s book The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. There are many other good resources, but his one is very readable and grounded in a broad reading of the entire Bible.

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One Response to Where you start determines where you go . . . and something else.

  1. jwheels says:

    This immediately makes me think of Red Letter Christians, a group of Christian thinkers who have deliberately started from the vantage point of the person and teachings of Jesus Christ, a seemingly obvious starting point that has a surprising amount of influence on their interpretation!

    I say that this starting place is obvious because, after all, we’re CHRISTians; but most of the time we start reading the Bible in Genesis (generally a good practice), and by the time we get to Jesus we’ve become entrenched in a particular interpretational framework that we then apply to Jesus. I like the little I know of the missional stance you’re talking about, but many other Christians (particularly in the US) have an Abrahamic faith that is much more concerned with receiving that blessing than with being it; other Christians get caught up in the Law, and make that the primary framework through which they read all scripture (which lends itself very well to substitutionary atonement theories, but not so well to Christus Victor!); others still are drawn to the kingship narratives, which emphasizes something yet again different in the life of Jesus.

    All of these approaches are good, and tell us something profoundly true about Jesus. But if we begin with the thought that Jesus changed everything, and that maybe we should be reading all of those other narratives in light of Jesus (perhaps alongside reading it the other way around, perhaps instead of it), we’ll get a very different view. Hermeneutically speaking, I’m always a little hesitant to read early works in light of later works, as influences run the other way; but when I look at the outcome, at the concerns of those Red Letter Christians, I can’t help but think that by making Jesus their starting place, they’ve somehow become more like Jesus as well.

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