Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



Nobody Reads The Bible Literally

Nobody reads the Bible literally. We are all interpreting – and this is a good thing!

This admission allows us to say:

Since we are all interpreting, let’s talk about how we are interpreting.

I first realized this about the book of Revelation (apocalyptic literature). Then it became clear about other genres of scripture like wisdom literature (like Job) and the gospels (like Luke).

Here is a recent sermon that I gave on the subject. You can also listen to the full version of it (including a lot of joking at the beginning) on the VHUMC podcast.

I would love to hear your thoughts, questions, and concerns.

I will be saying more about the idea of ‘moving your application up to your interpretation’ in the months to come.

H is for Hermeneutics

You may know that I hail from an evangelical-charismatic background.  What you may not know is that I am continually challenged in conversations about the need to interpret our experiences and texts.H-Hermeneutics

We don’t just have experiences – like we don’t just read (and believe) the Bible – we interpret. We do it as second nature because to be human – and thus social – is to be thoroughly saturated in language and symbols. We speak, and indeed think, in language. It permeates every thing we do and are. It is part of what being human means.

Our pocket dictionary defines hermeneutics as:

Hermeneutics: The discipline that studies the principles and theories of how texts ought to be interpreted, particularly sacred texts such as the Scriptures. Hermeneutics also concerns itself with understanding the unique roles and relationships between the author, the text and the original or subsequent readers.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 638-640). Kindle Edition.
Hermeneutics is a massive and complex field. Since this an ABC’s series, there are two things that you need to know :

  1. The word has been in use since the 17th century even though the idea is an ancient one that can be traced all the way back to the Greek philosophers.
  2. Everything changed in past 90 years. With the publication of Heidegger’s Being and Time in 1927, philosophy (and then subsequently the human sciences) took a hermeneutical turn.

One of Heidegger’s most famous students was Hans-Georg Gadamer. His 1975 book about the world of interpretation called Truth and Method expanded what is called the hermeneutical circle.
The five elements are characterized as:

  • pre-understanding
  • the experience of being brought up short
  • dialogical interplay
  • fusion of horizons
  • application.

I could not possibly do this topic justice in a single blog post – If you want more info there are links at the bottom of the page. ?

I just wanted to share an example of how the hermeneutical circle is employed in my field of Practical Theology. I tend toward utilizing the work of Paul Ricoeur and his ‘second naivety’ myself, but the example I want share is from Richard Osmer who utilizes Gadamer as his framework.

These elements allow Osmer to transition into analyzing the role of the congregational leader along these lines.

  1. He first examines the idea of guiding the congregation as a community of interpretation.
  2. Secondly, he addresses the need to guide interpretation evoked by the experience of being brought up short.
  3. Lastly, guiding the dialogue between theology and other fields of knowledge. Leadership of this kind is defined as “the exercise of influence.”

This influence engages in different forms of communication and is a collaborative effort. These three elements factor in significantly for the spirituality required to carry out the leadership that Osmer envisions.

  • The Descriptive–Empirical Task is called Priestley Listening and finds great importance in the power of presence.

The author illustrates the spirituality of presence by addressing several levels of what is called attending which is then integrated into concepts introduced earlier such as the congregation as a community of interpretation.

  • The second task is the Interpretive Task called Sagely Wisdom.

The interpretive task draws off of thoughtfulness, theory, and wise judgment. Osmer appeals to Israel’s wisdom tradition and to Jesus being the hidden wisdom of God revealed.

  • The third task is the Normative Task, which is called Prophetic Discernment.

The author utilizes a familiar pattern in this chapter similar to the previous two. Weaving together narrative, theory, and scriptural illustration.

  • The final task is the Pragmatic Task, classified as Servant Leadership.

Osmer identifies the three forms of leadership as task competence, transactional leadership, and transforming leadership.
The motif of “deep change” is introduced through the writing of Robert Quinn and is woven together with Old Testament imagery in order to illustrate the type of leadership that is required in this task. Quinn’s Four-stage model of organizational change (called the transformational cycle) involves: Initiation, Uncertainty, Transformation, and Routinization.

You will find that in almost all hermeneutical addresses, there is a common two common themes:

  1. They form a cycle, a circle or a spiral – signifying an ongoing (continual) process.
  2. The second stage or step is one of negativity, negation or something negative (like Uncertainty). This is important because it is only after was pass through the unknowing that we come to see-know-engage-understand-assimilate-fuse in a new way.

In conclusion:
We all interpret. We think, experience and speak through this lens.
The past century has seen a hermeneutical turn in almost every area related to human behavior, belief and social understanding.

For Further Reading:

A nice article on Heidegger and Gadamer

A massive and heady article on Hermeneutics from the Stanford Dictionary

A quick article on Paul Ricoeur and the Second Naïveté

a 3rd way to read the Bible?

In an ongoing search for a hermeneutical practice that is both healthy and accountable (meaning lifegiving without being merely devotional and scholarly without being dry) I have written quite a bit about the journey. I had a multi-part post a while back  Part 1    Part 3 as well Moving Mountains Signs that make you Wonde

This is last week’s addition (posted at HBC) and it was so well received (by some) that I wanted to A) post it here to continue that conversation and B) will be working on another series for late March.  This clearly is something that matters to people.

I love reading the Bible. I grew up reading it, I am passionate about studying it, and delight to preach from it whenever I get the chance.
I also recognize that it is getting harder to do in our contemporary context. I am a loud critic of simple dualism (constantly contending with my Evangelical associates)  – but even I must concede when there are two main schools of thought that have set themselves up in opposition to each other.  I buck the ‘spectrum’ thinking like Liberal v. Conservative (as if those were the only two options) in almost every circumstance. However, when it comes to reading the Bible, it is tough to avoid the set of major trenches that have been dug on either side of this narrow road.
The first group reads the Bible in what is called a ‘straight forward’ way and while they spend a lot of time with the text, there is little acknowledgement of what is going on behind the text. This group reads the Bible primarily devotionally, preaches exegetically and views it as not just instructive but binding for all times and places.
In my interactions with this group, there is little awareness of hermeneutics (in may cases they may have never heard the word before) and even less willingness to engage in scholarship that does anything behind the text.
The second group engages in Historical-Critical methods. They are willing to look at things like redaction (later editing). They don’t harmonize the Gospels into one Gospel. They are willing to acknowledge that Matthew and Luke’s conception, birth and subsequent details do not line up. They understand that while the story of Daniel happens in the 5th century BC – it was not written in the 5th century BC. They joke about Moses writing the 1st five books of Bible (how did he write about his own death?).
 Lately I have been engaging books like :

  • How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now by James L. Kugel
  • To Each Its Own Meaning, Revised and Expanded: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application by Stephen R. Haynes
  • Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages by Jaroslav Pelikan
  • She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse by Elizabeth A. Johnson
  • Sexism and God Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology by Rosemary Radford Ruether

Over the last 4 years, it has become painfully clear to me that we have a problem when it comes to reading the Bible. Simply stated, those who spend the most time with the Bible know less about it but make greater claims for it than those who do more scholarship on it but may have little faith in it.
I was listening to a seminar on the Historical-Jesus and talking to several friends of mine who do Historical-Criticism, here are 3 sentences that no evangelical I know even have ears to hear:

  1. Paul didn’t even write that letter
  2. Jesus probably didn’t say that sentence
  3. The Bible is wrong about this

I get in trouble for saying much much milder things about the literary device of the virgin birth, the prophetic concern of Revelation which is limited to the first 2 centuries CE, and  Jesus being ironic about ‘bringing a sword’. Can you imagine what would happen if I thought that Paul didn’t write the letters that are attributed to him, that Jesus did not utter the red-letter words we have recorded in the gospels or that the Bible was wrong about something?  I can’t.
So how does a moderate engage Biblical scholarship without stumbling over Historical-Critical pitfalls and Historical Jesus land-mines?  The thing that I hear over and over is

“Just stick with N.T. Wright. He has navigated the gulf for you”

Now, I love N.T. Wright as much as the next emergent evangelical (especially his Everybody series) … but I am as unwilling, on one hand, to forego the best and most comprehensive stuff (like Dom Crossan’s work on Empire) as I am, on the other hand, to subscribe to the inane prerequisites of the Jesus Seminar.

What I would really like to see is a move within the emerging generation that is tenacious about engaging contemporary scholarship while fully embracing the kind of devotional passion that the innerant camp demonstrates  – all the while avoiding the fearful and intimidating chokehold that camp utilizes to squelch innovation & thought.
I want the next generation to both find life and direction in the scriptures and also to not have to read the tough parts with their fingers crossed behind their back.
a hopeful moderate – Rev. Bo C. Sanders

For those who do not want to scour the comments to find the links to other resources:
Daniel Kirk’s book  “Jesus have I loved but Paul?”
Ben Witherington’s  book list 

Reading Revelation Better (part 1)

A month ago I threw out some ideas about Reading the Bible Better. I loved the comments and questions that it generated. It led to a short discussion about the book of Revelation – which is one of my favorite topics. I had to take some time off for the Soularize conference and some other projects but now I am back. I thought is would be good to pick up were we left off.

I first heard about Ronald Farmer in an interview with Homebrewed Christianity. His take on different ways of reading the Bible (hermeneutics) was helpful and inspiring. He has a commentary on the book of Revelation in the Chalice series.

He breaks down the different ways of looking at the book of Revelation into 4 schools: Historicist, Futurist, Symbolic and Preterist.

The Historicist school thinks that Revelation is a forecast of Western history “from the 1st century until the consummation of time.”

The Futurist school is similar to the Historicist but thinks that most of the book (chapters 4-20) is yet to happen and will start after the ‘rapture’. Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, Hal Lindsey, as well as the Scofield and Ryrie study Bibles are in this camp.

The Symbolic school thinks that the main point is God’s ultimate triumph over evil in symbolic or poetic imagery. So the ‘Beast’ would be “neither the 1st century Roman empire nor a future end-time antichrist.” It represents tyranny wherever it is found. Continue reading “Reading Revelation Better (part 1)”

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