Biblical interpretation is a community business. In a previous post I drew on our need for each other (i.e., the whole people of God in all its multicultural wonder) to worship God wholly. I drew on the words of James Brownson who said, “no single culture has a monopoly on understanding or describing God. We, the multiethnic Church must try to understand and worship God together, embracing our cultural diversity rather than constantly seeking our common denominators” (p.485 of ‘Speaking the Truth in Love’, International Review of Mission, Vol 83, No. 330 (1994), pp.479-504).

A similar point is made by David Bosch in the context of theological interpretation, which I think could also be applied to biblical interpretation:

Instead of viewing my interpretation as absolutely correct and all others by definition as wrong, I recognize that different theological interpretations, including my own, reflect different contexts, perspectives, and biases. This is not to say, however, that I regard all theological positions as equally valid or that it does not matter what people believe; rather, I shall do my utmost to share my understanding of the faith with others while granting them the right to do the same. I realise that my theological approach is a “map”, and that a map is never actual “territory” (cf Hiebert 1985b:15; Martin 1987:373). Although I believe that my map is the best, I accept that there are other types of maps and also that, at least in theory, one of those may be better than mine since I can only know in part (cf 1 Cor 13:12).

For the Christian this means that any paradigm shift [this subject matter of Bosch’s current chapter] can only be carried out on the basis of the gospel and because of the gospel, never, however, against the gospel (cf. Küng 1987:194). Contrary to the natural sciences, theology relates not only to the present and the future, but also to the past, to tradition, to God’s primary witness to humans (:19f). Theology must undoubtedly always be relevant and contextual (:200-203), but this may never be pursued at the expense of God’s revelation in and through the history of Israel and, supremely, the event of Jesus Christ (:203-206). Christians take seriously the epistemological priority of their classical text, the Scriptures.

I realize that, in stating the above, I have hardly solved any problems. Scripture comes to us in the shape of human words, which are already “contextual” (in the sense of being written for very specific historical contexts) and are, moreover, open to different interpretations. In making the affirmation above I am, however, suggesting a “point of orientation” all Christians (should) share on the basis of which dialogue between them becomes possible. No individual or group has a monopoly here. So, the Christian church should function as an “international hermeneutical community” (Hiebert 1985b:16) in which Christians (and theologians) from different contexts challenge one another’s cultural, social and ideological biases. This presupposes, however, that we see fellow-Christians not as rivals or opponents but as partners (Küng 1987:198), even if we may be passionately convinced that their views are in need of major corrections.” (D. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991, p.187) 

I think this is very helpful because it avoids relativism and maintains a commitment to the Scriptures, yet acknowledges that our interpretations are just that, interpretations. We, the church, need each other to understand God and his Word together. And we, the church, are a multilingual, multicultural interpretive community.

So we need to do our theology together, as well as worship together. Which reminds me of J.I. Packer oft-quoted phrase, which I tweak here in the light of the above “The purpose of theology is doxology. We study [together] in order to praise [together].”

One thought on “David Bosch on the international hermeneutical community

  1. Certainly agree with your general drift; it’s also of course true that local culture may influence hermeneutics. Eg a delightful American preacher I was enjoying hearing last year (in UK) referred to James and John ‘lobbying’ to sit each side of Jesus (not the ‘pushy mother’ reading — which he accepted when we chatted). The connotations are obvious (Mom-culture de facto treated in its own separate ‘second arena’) — this kind of thing does seem to exemplify a particular culture (with its frontier politics tradition etc here) influencing hermeneutics. Admittedly this ‘lobbying’ reading doesn’t resonate too well with my own reformed baptist view of church, in which the church tends to be ‘the leading partner in the ecclesial dance’. I’ve tried to develop Critical Postliberalism (eg in SJT, late 2008) to approach this sensibly. (Fellow-travellers like the urban missionary/reformed baptist Tim Chester are on a parallel road.)

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