Saturday, March 14, 2009

Anyone for Meta-hermeneutics?

All men adopted by God into the company of his people since the beginning of the world were covenanted to him by the same law and by the bond of the same doctrine as obtains among us. It is very important to make this point. – John Calvin

Hermeneutics is the study of the interpretation of a document or documents, including the study of the interpretation of the Bible. It has to do with language, context, genre, the situation, purpose and intention of the writer, and so on. Very necessary. However, it must not be confused with hermeneutics in the modern, post-Enlightenment sense, which has to do with theories of understanding in terms of which an ancient document might be understood in terms of what David Hume called ‘these enlightened ages’, and theological or spiritual application drawn for modern man from such ancient documents. Not necessary, and very destabilising.

But whatever is meta-hermeneutics? This is my ugly phrase for an approach to the Bible that is (in a fashion) deeper or more basic and harder to handle than those matters covered by classical hermeneutics, hard as some of these are. In fact as far as I can see there is only one meta-hermeneutical issue. This has to do with the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. The one meta-theological issue is: in studying the Bible as a broadly Reformed theologian or expositor, does one stress or emphasise the element of continuity between the two, or the discontinuity? Does the onset of the New Testament era, the Incarnation and the work of the Incarnate One, the coming of Christ’s Spirit at Pentecost, and so forth, indicate a step change, or simply a further segment of an upwardly sloping smooth curve?

It is apparent that those who think that there is one covenant of grace, one way of salvation, one way of salvation throughout the eras encompassed by the two Testaments and so forth, may nevertheless answer these questions differently. They thus have different meta-hermeneutical approaches. Further, the progressiveness of the revelation, its incremental, augmenting pattern, its doctrinal unity, are not in question. Yet even with this much general agreement about the character and relationship of Old and New, the meta-hermeneutical issue is not laid to rest.

Those of a (broadly) credobaptistic inclination stress discontinuity, that the New Testament is a different epoch or era or ‘dispensation’ of the one covenant of grace, stressing the release of the church from the one nation of Israel and the ‘internationalising’ of the church. In addition, there is the New Testament emphasis on the Spirit of liberty as he who brings the fruit of union with Christ which expresses itself in a delight in the law of God understood (perhaps) not so much in a set of commands as in a set of norms or virtues – ‘fruit’ – which ideally express themselves in behaviour which is very close to that enjoined in the Decalogue. The old law is (to be) kept in the newness of the Spirit.

Those of a (broadly) paedobaptistic inclination stress continuity, the one covenant of grace dominating and leading to a smooth transition to the coming of the Saviour. The NT church is continuous with OT Israel, and so it follows that there is continuity of the moral law within OT and NT, and with it the importance of duty, and so on. It is important, I believe, to understand that in these different emphases neither denies what the other affirms. For example those of a credobaptistic disposition generally stress that the material content of the moral law does not change in the NT, only the manner of its reception and expression. There is of course the vexed and vexing question of the Sabbath, but this difference should not be exaggerated. For those of a baptistic disposition may nonetheless be sabbatarians, and those of a paedobaptistic disposition not.

The meta-hermeneutical question is, how may such divergencies in the similarities and differences between the Testaments be adjudicated? In what terms can they be addressed? For the difference is not about this passage or that, or this verse or that, but about the entire Old Testament and the entire New Testament, and how they relate. The problem is that there is a strong tendency for verses and passages to be understood with the meta-hermeneutical question already settled in the mind of the interpreter. And so, despite much theological overlap, there is no meeting of minds on this central question

Where the differences express themselves are in the different practices that arise from the application of the different emphases , in the formation and life of individual congregations. Paedobaptism , the parallel of circumcision, is a sign of continuity; credobaptism, the parallel of the circumcision of the heart and the ‘inwardness’ of he who is a true Jew, is a sign of discontinuity. Willingness to have a positive church-state relation would usually be indicative of continuity (though note the position of historic Independency).

Much is made of these differences, and there is a danger of exaggerating their importance. If you have a scar on your backside then you alone are troubled by it. But if it is on your face then others will be troubled as well. It’s rather like that (I suggest) with differences over baptism and those elements of church order that surround the respective attitudes to the rite. For these differences, though perhaps small in relation to the vast areas of agreement, and as small as many other differences, even as small as differences within the two tendencies, invariably show themselves. For they at once affect the organisation of the church and of the families who comprise it.

Of course, people do change their minds. Some who once stressed discontinuity now stress continuity. And there is traffic the other way. But the changes don’t seem to occur because of the impress of particular texts. The texts might be the occasion of such a change. But the change itself has to do with a more basic change in orientation, a gestalt shift, as they say.

So what can be done? Perhaps the only thing is to recognise the meta-hermeneutical source of such differences on the next occasion when, for example, baptism, or the Sunday-Sabbath question, come up for discussion, and to keep a sense of proportion.