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Too Familiar and a Hermeneutic of Humility

Embarking Blog

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Too Familiar and a Hermeneutic of Humility

Tom Elenbaas

Dallas Willard - one of my favorite writers in spiritual formation - passed away last year, a great loss to Christian leadership. Several of his books have been instrumental and meaningful in my life. His friend Gary Black, Jr. recently published the follow-up to Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God called The Divine Conspiracy Continued: fulfilling God's Kingdom on Earth. This is the book that Willard was working on before his death, and I'm grateful to Black for completing the project. 

While reading this, I found in one of the footnotes that Black has published what he calls a Willardian Theology. This book, The Theology of Dallas Willard: discovery protoevangelical faith is one I'm reading right now and finding to be very enjoyable. Although I'm not far in, I was particularly thankful for chapter one, in which Black gives a historical theological sketch of fundamentalism, liberalism, evangelicalism, and the emergent and emerging church in a way that is super helpful to get after things I've talked about in other blog posts and hope to return to soon (including post-evangelicalism, the nature of being an evangelical and its definitions, Bebbington's quadrilateral, etc.) Call me a geek, but those things are fascinating, particularly reading that chapter while also reading the first part of James KA Smith's Who's Afraid of Relativism (which feels like a review of the content of some of my Sophomore and Junior years studying in college).

Anyway, to the point. Here is what Black says in chapter 2, The Willardian Adaptation as he speaks about Willard's approach to Scripture:

Willard also admonishes against a mindless, routinized reading of the Bible. Methodological consistency alone will not overwhelm or transform the will. One’s expectations imputed onto the Scriptural texts, whether liberal or conservative, are rarely overcome or significantly altered through ritually reading the Bible. More commonly, one’s perusal of Scripture becomes an act seeking to justify a pre-existing expectation of the text or condone a preferred behavior. Such an approach routinely re-entrenches the self-appropriated hermeneutical lens with every subsequent engagement of the text. Ironically, the ability of the Scriptures to then break through these biases decreases the more “devout” one becomes. Willard recognizes this conundrum and recalls how such biblicism has been used over the centuries to catastrophic effects. [Black Jr., Gary (2013-08-06). The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith, p. 63. Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Emphasis mine.]

What Willard via Black is saying here is that merely reading the Bible routinely - even devoutly - will not necessarily yield a change in our expectations, beliefs, underlying presuppositions or hermeneutics, and that a mere regular and devout reading of scripture could in fact reinforce an entrenchment in our already established belief systems or preconceived narratives and webs of understanding. Willard is agreeing with some postmodern thinking here that our motives and webs of belief need regularly to be deconstructed or at least laid aside in order to be affected by the things we don't see because of the lenses through which we look.

This week, I was reading Luke 19 verses 11-27 with some friends. This is the parable of the minas, or pounds, in which the king requires and investment of the money he gives. I'm more familiar with Matthew's version in his 25th chapter called the Parable of the Talents, or bags of gold. I've read Luke's version before, but I know that I've approached it from some pretty strong places in my belief about multiplication, responsibility for stewardship, and even rewards in the Kingdom. So, this time, with my guard down for whatever reason, I read Luke 19 and was shocked by what it says. I was particularly shocked by verse 26 (this partly because I had taught two days earlier on listening to the "plain reading of the text," particularly in the hard to hear places). I had never seen some of the things in this parable - like the ongoing language about a king, about the connection between the king in this story and Archelaus, and the different point of the parable in Luke 19 than in Matthew 25. (Since then, I've read up on it, and many scholars would say that Jesus tells two different parables on two different occasions for two very different reasons.) In any case, has this ever happened to you? Life has changed, or the lenses of presupposition you wear have changed over time, and suddenly the Scripture says something you never saw before? Your eyes have quite literally been opened?

What is a hermeneutic of humility? Well, a hermeneutic deals with how you interpret something. If you or I approach something with a hermeneutic of suspicion, a hermeneutic of preknowledge, a hermeneutic or learning, a hermeneutic of skepticism, or a hermeneutic of humility, we will find that we hear very different things. Here is Black on Willard again:

Willard advocates the application of an epistemic humility to Scripture in order to interrupt this dynamic. His advice in overcoming this tendency is to allow the Scripture to set its own intents and purposes. One must come to the Scriptures and let its values and agenda set the tone, not vice versa. This assumes some degree of intentional and renewable naïveté when approaching the Scriptures. Anything less threatens to devolve into a method of justifying anthropocentric aims and overwhelming divine communion altogether. Humbly approaching the Bible creates a disposition capable of apprehending its prophetic and corrective intents to “teach, correct, rebuke and train in righteousness (dikaiosune).” [Black Jr., Gary (2013-08-06). The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith (pp. 63-64). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Emphasis mine.] 

A hermeneutic, or as Black says, an epistemic humility (referring to knowledge, or not being a "know-it-all") is a key way to submit ourselves to the Scriptures rather than having it submit to us, our will, our narratives or webs of belief, our presuppositions, or our epistemic pride. This again shows the importance of a healthy bit of deconstruction of our own as we approach the Bible to be able to listen well to what God is trying to say through it. As a friend of mine has said, "I try to first let the scripture work on me before I try to work on it." Too often I know that I am guilty of approaching the scripture to get something I'm looking for, to find proof of something I already believe, or to devoutly devour my daily dose like a simple vitamin. 

My wife and I were having a conversation tonight on this passage in Black and about how this happens between people. We too often have a preconceived notion of what another person thinks, means, or will say based on either our history with them or our presuppositions about them. This is what psychologists talk about when they say we "listen" but aren't "hearing." When we listen through our grids of meaning and allocate judgment to what we hear, we do not hear at all. I watched a conspiracy movie about 911 this week on the recommendation of two friends, and could see it here. If you approach anything with a hermeneutic of suspicion, it is suspicious things you will find (or any other hermeneutic for that matter).

So, if God as person(s) wants to communicate to you and I and he does so through the use of his written word to help us encounter the living Word, his Son Jesus, through the speaking voice of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, isn't it very possible we do not really hear Him even as we devoutly imagine we are listening? Isn't that the purpose of a prayer or song of illumination? ("Open the eyes of my heart, Lord. I want to see you." "God as we read your word, give us eyes to see and ears to hear."

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