On the limits of method

I’m registered this semester for a course titled “The Theology of the Stone-Campbell Movement.” As you might expect, it focuses on Churches of Christ, beginning with Stone and the Campbells coming down to the end of the 20th century.

The course is arranged thematically: after a brief introduction to the facts of the Movement’s history (names, dates, etc.), the bulk of the course deals with major theological themes that emerge from that history: unity, restoration, democracy, millennialism, and so on. I’m charged, as part of this course, with contributing to a group presentation on the Movement’s hermeneutics. On my end of things, I’ll be looking at Alexander Campbell’s “Sermon on the Law” (1816) and how the approach taken in that sermon led, later on, to a comparative neglect of the Old Testament.


I enjoy reading David Bentley Hart. (I think I’ve professed my love on here before. If you’ve never heard of him, here’s enough to keep you busy for a while.) In one of his latest pieces for First Things, Hart writes:

The great danger that bedevils any powerful heuristic or interpretive discipline is the tendency to mistake method for ontology, and so to mistake a partial perspective on particular truths for a comprehensive vision of truth as such. In the modern world, this is an especially pronounced danger in the sciences, largely because of the exaggerated reverence scientists enjoy in the popular imagination, and also largely because of the incapacity of many in the scientific establishment to distinguish between scientific rigor and materialist ideology (or, better, materialist metaphysics).

This has two disagreeable results (well, actually, far more than two, but two that are relevant here): The lunatic self-assurance with which some scientists imagine that their training in, say, physics or zoology has somehow equipped them to address philosophical questions whose terms they have never even begun to master; and the inability of many scientists to recognize realities—even very obvious realities—that lie logically outside the reach of the methods their disciplines employ. The best example of the latter, I suppose, would be the inability of certain contemporary champions of “naturalism” to grasp that the question of existence is qualitatively infinitely distinct from the question of how one physical reality arises from another (for, inasmuch as physics can explore only the physical, and the physical by definition already exists, then existence as such is always “metaphysical,” or even “hyperphysical”—which is to say, “supernatural”).

It’s no accident that Hart should focus in on the methodological arrogance of some scientists. Naturalism has come to dominate thinking in many quarters: biology, neurology, etc. are believed to have the ability to explain just about any human characteristic. Diehard adherents of naturalism are also the ones writing the most dogmatically atheist volumes in our day — Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, among others. Often, it is the case that these writers have little interest in dialogue or conversation with Christians, and even less interest in how the Christian faith is actually practiced (Dawkins’ theological ignorance, for example, is the stuff of legend by now). Hart points out the obvious in this piece: every method, every explanatory model, scientific or otherwise, has its limits. This is so because all of these methods are human. The best methods recognize their limits, their humanity.

It’s also no accident, or so it seems to me, that a similar methodological arrogance has flowered in some quarters among Churches of Christ. A great deal of time has been spent in our circles over the past three decades or so — all across the spectrum from “progressive” to “conservative” — examining our received hermeneutic (i.e. the “common sense” hermeneutic that looks to direct divine commands, apostolic examples, and “necessary” inferences in order to establish authority).

Progressives attack this received hermeneutic, laying at its feet the blame for all of our present ills. It has, they say, been responsible for all of our major (and minor) divisions; it has sapped us of our spiritual vitality; it has left us stuck riding around in a modernist jalopy on superhighways made for sleeker postmodern hermeneutical models. All of this has led most (if not all of) them to advocate, directly or indirectly, for jettisoning it in favor of a “new hermeneutic.”*

It’s easy to see why they do this. A five-minute search of the Internet would turn up numerous, flagrantly bad applications of the “common sense” (ironic quote marks intended) hermeneutic. Not only that. Many of those advocating these bad applications have also broken fellowship with those who disagree with them. This is to be regretted lamented.

Conservatives, not surprisingly, loudly protest these criticisms. This way of reading Scripture, they argue, has given us a great many treasures: weekly communion, the leadership of elders in the local congregation, and so forth. But there is also a note of fear in their argumentation: if we were to jettison the received hermeneutic, what would be our source of authority? This is a legitimate question, one that progressives have thus far failed to answer satisfactorily. But for many conservatives, fear has taken over, leading them to retreat into an extreme dogmatism.

To some extent this is forgivable. Undoubtedly, it is motivated by love of the tradition (even if they wouldn’t use that term). But it’s unnecessary. The conservative critique is accurate to the extent that it gets at the issue of identity in a way that many progressives have blithely ignored. Conservatives rightly recognize (even if they can’t put it into words) that the received hermeneutic is at the heart of our identity as a theological tradition and cannot simply be jettisoned without extensive and painful surgery that might just take the life of the patient. But ignoring or downplaying the questions and problems raised by progressives is not the right approach.

In my next couple of posts, I want to do three things. First, I will suggest that maybe the common sense hermeneutic is not the problem…at least not the major problem. Second, I will point to what I see as the real problems, which are not the ones commonly identified by progressives.  Finally, I will suggest that the real problems dog “progressive” thinking just as much they do “conservative” thinking.

Every method, every hermeneutic, is of human origin and therefore fallible. “Progressives” are right to point this out. “Conservatives” would do well to heed the warning against methodological arrogance. But, on the other hand, our salvation does not come by hermeneutics. All too often, progressive projects to replace the received hermeneutic give off the same whiff of Enlightenment confidence (and, indeed, methodological arrogance) that attends their 19th century predecessors.

*I don’t, by the way, mean anything pejorative by using the phrase “new hermeneutic.” I simply use it because there is no commonly agreed upon descriptor currently in use for the various proposals to replace the “old” one.


5 responses to “On the limits of method

  1. ‘In my next couple of posts, I want to do three things. First, I will suggest that maybe the common sense hermeneutic is not the problem…at least not the major problem. Second, I will point to what I see as the real problems, which are not the ones commonly identified by progressives. Finally, I will suggest that the real problems dog “progressive” thinking just as much they do “conservative” thinking.’

    Yes, please! I’m very much looking forward to this.

  2. Look forward to it.

    I think there is a difference between promoting a kind of creedal “Common Sense Hermeneutic” (capitalized letters) and using our common sense (small letters) as much as possible to determine what God wants as we analyze the scriptures. So many of the problems progressives correctly complain about, come not from trying to apply common sense (little letters) but ignoring passages that talk about mercy, gentleness.

    A “common sense” application of such passages as 2 Tim. 2:24-26; Col. 3:12-14; Titus 3:9-11, etc. is the true antidote to such abuses and not a vague, postmodern aversion to anything that sounds authoritative.

  3. The problem with the method is that it’s really an approximation. The Bible is written in human terms to humans and meant to be understood as such. CENI is a good model of how we understand what we’re supposed to do; it’s basically the same way Christ explained and the early disciples understood interpretation.

    However, the model or approximation shouldn’t be confused with the actual thing. When we misunderstand or misuse the model, we err. When we distort it in order to justify ourselves, we err. When we turn it itself into a system of law rather than a way to understand God’s law, we err. In all these cases, though, it’s we who err, not the model itself.

  4. I am looking forward to this series very much.

    Jeff, just to clarify – is it your belief that Jesus and the early church used CENI?

  5. Matthew, sorry I didn’t see this sooner.

    It’s my finding that statements, commands, et al. are how humans understand instruction; the Bible, being written in human terms, uses these. It’s also my finding that Jesus and the early church used these.

    See http://bit.ly/vXIVmn and http://bit.ly/t2Sp65 for some further discussion.

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