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April 1977 · Vol. 6 No. 2 · pp. 32–35 

Case Studies on Hermeneutics

Kenneth H. Berg

The term “hermeneutics” has an esoteric ring to it. It conveys to us the image of a scholar in his study, his desk strewn with books, as he attempts to make sense out of documents of a different place and time. In this context biblical hermeneutics denotes the interpretive theory which provides the rules by which a trained theologian seeks to read the minds of the biblical authors. 1 Thus defined, hermeneutics has a cognitive intention and belongs to the domain of the biblical specialist. 2

Recently, however, advocates of the New Hermeneutic have set forth an alternative to this traditional definition. 3 The New Hermeneutic, deriving as it does from the existentialist theology of Rudolf Bultmann and the philosophical investigations of Martin Heidegger, stresses the meaning of the text for answering the questions of existence. Hermeneutics in this context denotes the process by which the interpreter lets the understanding of existence in the text meet and shape his existence. Hermeneutics, therefore, has the goal of letting the text speak to one’s life with as much clarity and directiveness as it had when it spoke to the lives of those who first heard it.

This practical orientation breathes life into hermeneutics, which in the past has often been a stale, theological exercise. Rather than stressing the rational understanding of the text (“What does it say?”), the New Hermeneutic stresses the implications of the text for existence (“What does it mean?”). 4 As a musical performer interprets a work of music by expressing it anew, so the biblical reader interprets Scripture by expressing its meaning anew in his life.

In 1974 I wrote a thesis comparing Mennonite Brethren hermeneutics to that of the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century. 5 I found in the New Hermeneutic a useful philosophical framework for understanding Anabaptist hermeneutics. For I discovered in Anabaptist hermeneutics a similar practical orientation. The Anabaptists consciously rejected a purely cognitive reading of the Bible that should be performed essentially by experts. The Anabaptists believed the Bible belonged to the whole congregation; and any believer, educated or {33} uneducated, could read and hear God’s Word through it. The Bible spoke to the Anabaptists as God’s living Word, an Outer or objective Word that confirmed God’s speaking subjectively through His Spirit or Inner Word. 6 Through the Bible the Anabaptists heard God giving them directions for living. Their hermeneutics had an existential orientation: it constituted the process by which the obedient reader discovers God’s will.

However, this view of hermeneutics contrasts with the traditional understanding. How then could I overcome this ideological difference to discover the extent to which Mennonite Brethren have retained the characteristics of Anabaptist hermeneutics? The concept “hermeneutics” would likely convey an academic image, but my interest lay in whether the theologically untrained laity practiced Anabaptist interpretive principles.

As a solution I circulated among selected Mennonite Brethren churches a survey containing five case studies depicting realistic but fictitious events, persons, and places. Each case highlighted in a modern setting one or more of the hermeneutical issues and methods of the Anabaptists. A series of statements followed each case to which respondents were asked to agree, disagree, or express no opinion. Based on my analysis of Anabaptist hermeneutics I constructed a theoretical Anabaptist profile of responses to the statements. This enabled various statistical comparisons with Mennonite Brethren responses.

Scholars have achieved a consensus as to the nature of Anabaptist hermeneutics. 7 I ascertained five interrelated characteristics. One or more could have been considered primary or integrative for understanding the others, but the artificial division facilitated the research. I outlined the following characteristics of Anabaptist hermeneutics:

1. It was congregational. The domain for Anabaptist hermeneutics was the obedient, listening congregation within its authority to discipline.

2. It was obedient. The primary interpretive stance was that of obedience as both the goal and also a principle of interpretation.

3. It was spiritual. The Holy Spirit was considered the interpretive guide who directs the obedient reader to the proper interpretation and whose direct revelations must always conform to the revelations of God’s will in the Bible.

4. It was Christocentric. Jesus Christ as God’s final revelation was deemed the hermeneutical center of the Bible.

5. It was convenantal. Through Christocentrism the Anabaptists related the Old and New Testaments by historical progression.

The research methodology can be illustrated through an abridged version of the first case study. {34}

The Mennonite Brethren Church of Tidewater, Oklahoma, was without a pastor. Therefore, the pulpit committee requested a nearby seminary to send students as pulpit supply. One Sunday when Marty Mason arrived, the committee was shocked to discover that Marty was a woman! Yet, because of the high quality of her sermon they wanted her to preach again. Sam T. strongly protested. He had been a pillar in the church and one of its strongest financial supporters. Faced with such a formidable protest, the committee asked the congregation to decide whether Miss Mason could preach again.

The congregation studied the Bible and prayed. Finally consensus was reached: Miss Mason could be asked to preach because both Israel and the church had had prophetesses. Sam, however, asserted that the Bible taught that women could not preach, citing 1 Timothy 2:12. The congregation continued to pray and study the Bible. They decided that women could preach, since Paul was expressing his own, culturally conditioned opinion; hence, it was not binding today.

At this Sam denounced the congregation as unfaithful to Scripture. “I cannot worship with people who set aside the Word of God for the interpretations of men,” he shouted. “If you allow Miss Mason to preach, you’ll never see me in this church again!”

The shocked congregation asked Sam to reconsider, since they were certain they had discerned the Spirit’s will. But Sam adamantly refused. Not wishing to lose such a pillar of the church, the congregation decided that for the sake of unity they would not call Miss Mason to preach again.

This case deals with the congregation’s role in the hermeneutical process. Respondents were asked to indicate whether they agreed with the procedures used by the pulpit committee and the congregation. Or should these groups have followed traditional practices or called for arbitration by theological experts (the Board of Reference and Counsel)? What about the congregation’s handling of Sam? Did the respondents approve, or should the congregation have disciplined Sam and proceeded with its original decision?

The four other cases similarly dealt with the other characteristics of Anabaptist hermeneutics:

  • A pastor brought to his evangelism committee a plan he was convinced was Spirit-inspired. Discussion centered on how to confirm this, by prayer alone or by prayer plus Bible study. {35}
  • A discussion at a home Bible study focused on whether Jesus’ teachings on finances must be obeyed literally.
  • A young couple asked their pastor about biblical teaching. They submitted that the Bible is essentially a source of knowledge about God and Christ. The pastor argued that the Bible basically gives us God’s will to follow.
  • A church’s Board of Trustees debated whether the Christian’s freedom from the Law applied to the Old Testament teachings on the tithe.

My analysis showed that Mennonite Brethren have retained some of the characteristics of Anabaptist hermeneutics. However, an individualistic orientation and an emphasis on propositional theology has reduced the level of agreement. Mennonite Brethren today read the Bible for information about God and Christ, which diminishes the effect of reading it to know God by knowing and doing His will. The individualistic emphasis reduces the authority of the congregation to interpret. Today the congregation functions as an advisory board, but the individual possesses the ultimate hermeneutical authority. Mennonite Brethren have a strongly Anabaptist view of the relationship between the covenants, though they are somewhat confused about precisely how to interpret the Old Testament.

This study should not be considered definite due to limited sampling of the Mennonite Brethren population but to the extent that the principles outlined above ought to be our hermeneutic norm, the trends indicated by this research set us our agenda for recovery of the Anabaptist vision.

NOTES

  1. Cf. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1955 ed., s.v. “Interpretation,” III: 1489, and Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook for Conservative Protestants (Boston: W. A. Wilde, 1950), p. 6.
  2. Cf. Carl F. H. Henry, “The Interpretation of the Scriptures: Are We Doomed to Nihilism,” Review and Expositor 71 (Spring, 1974), 214.
  3. Cf. Paul J. Achtemeier, An Introduction to the New Hermeneutic (Philadelphia: The Westminister Press, 1969), and John B. Cobb Jr. and James M. Robinson, eds., The New Hermeneutic, New Frontiers in Theology, Vol. 11 (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).
  4. Merill Abbey, The Word Interprets Us (Nashville: Abingdon, 1967), p. 15.
  5. Kenneth H. Berg, “Mennonite Brethren Hermeneutics in Anabaptist Perspective” (M. Div. thesis, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, 1974).
  6. Walter Klaassen, “Word, Spirit, and Scripture in Early Anabaptist Thought” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oxford, 1960), pp. 369-370.
  7. For major studies on Anabaptist hermeneutics, cf. Walter Klaassen, (Ibid.); William Klassen, Covenant and Community: The Life, Writings, and Hermeneutics of Pilgram Marpeck (Eerdmans, 1968); Henry Poettcker, “Menno Simons’ Hermeneutical Approach to the Scriptures,” Proceedings of the Twelfth Conference on Mennonite Educational and Cultural Problems (Council of Mennonite and Affiliated Colleges, 1959), pp. 41-60; and John H. Yoder, “The Hermeneutics of the Anabaptists,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 41 (October 1967), 291-308.
Kenneth H. Berg teaches biblical languages at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

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