A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

One More Time: An Ecclesial Hermeneutic

If the religious right and the left want to get the target of their hermeneutic correct, they need to understand that the commands of Scripture in the Old Testament are, by and large, directed toward the people of God Israel, and in the New Testament it is the church. It is the people of God that is to embody the prophets' concern for justice and the Torah's concern for morality and purity. And it is by that biblically based way of life that the church engages in the politics of witness that it is God and not the nations who rules the world. The church by its example bears witness to the nations what God wants of them as well. The church by its witness is not a prop for the state, but its alternative.


Once the nation becomes the primary hermeneutical target of Scripture, the primary community of faith becomes the state. The church is eclipsed in this world and so is the kingdom of God. And once the state becomes the primary community of faith because the Scriptures are applied primarily to the state, civil religion is at hand; and such a hermeneutic is promoted by both the religious right and the religious left. The church no longer plays the role of prophet to the nation; it becomes a puppet of the state.

This is not to say that God will not hold the nations accountable and that there are some harsh words from God to them (Amos 1:2-2:3). But when admonitions, which are clearly directed to God's people, are interpreted primarily as referring to the nations, one cannot avoid the conclusion that such a hermeneutic assumes the nation state to be primarily God's people, while the true people of God, the church, are left as nothing more than cheerleaders to support the state's agenda with the goal of being power-brokers on Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill.

Thus, the hermeneutical posture the church must take is to understand that the admonitions of the prophets and the Sermon on the Mount (just two examples) are directed to the people of God and we the church must embody in our corporate worship and service and in our individual discipleship, lives that witness to the nations what God wants. In other words, the church's first task is not to work to coerce the state to take care of the poor. The church's first task is to live lives of simplicity and generosity and take care of the poor ourselves. In so doing we will be witnessing to the nation that it would be a better state if it took care of the poor as well. The church's first task is not to coerce the state into outlawing abortions. The church's first task is to reject abortion as a Christian option and live in such a way that we welcome all children into the world. In so doing we will be witnessing to the nation (as Tertullian stated to the Roman Empire) that it would be a better state if it didn't kill its children.

"If my people, which are called by my name" should not be read in church on the Fourth of July; it should be referred to instead on Ash Wednesday. "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" should not be employed when Christians argue over whom to vote for; it should be called to remind Christians of how their materialism leads to injustice for others.

If God's people can embody Scripture in their lives and avoid the faulty hermeneutic that marginalizes the church as the center of God's politics replacing it with the state, then we can recover the politics of witness to the powers that surround us.

But the politics of witness can only be recovered with a renewed and robust political ecclesiology and a hermeneutic that does justice to the place of the church in the world.
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Allan R. Bevere, The Politics of Witness: The Character of the Church in the World.

7 comments:

dkrto said...

Very well said... and this is why as Christians we should support and promote the secularization between the church and state. It doesn't go against religious freedom, but it protects them.

Allan Bevere said...

dkrto,

Thanks for your comments.

I would draw somewhat different conclusions from yours. The idea of separation of church and state which separates life into different spheres is not known to the biblical witness. I am not arguing for Christians not to be involved in politics, instead I am suggesting that Christians should be political in a different way because church is our politic.

Also, I disagree with your belief that secularism is somehow neutral when it comes to religion. Secularism is actually anti-religious because it assumes that the natural state of things is to be non-religious

PamBG said...

Here's what I can't get my head around and it's probably because I'm coming out of a British Methodist worldview.

I do not believe that the State represents the people of God. I believe that, given that we have the State and it is the State that is ruling us, that the people of God are called to vote in the way that their consciences dictate is the most Godly.

I expect you'll simply say that I have no faith, but I'm not willing to live in survival-of-the-fittest anarchy and to call for the elimination of the State until the Parousia.

The church as it is currently constituted cannot the services of the State. When we try on the small scale, we get to a politically conservative philosophy of "charity (agape) begins with the cheerful giving of the haves to the have-nots." If the church ever gets to a point where all the world's population is motivated by the light of Christ, we will be somewhere more in a politically liberal stance of "charity begins with the needs of the have-nots."

Allan Bevere said...

Pam,

Yes, I believe people should vote as long as Caesar allows us to do so.

Second, why would you assume that I would say you have no faith?

Third, as I have indicated, God has expectations of the state to act justly, and the church should model those expectations. I am saying that the church's primary political task is to bear witness as to how that is done. The church's current Christendom model proceeds on the unacknowledged assumption that Jesus' the way of the cross is a failure and Caesar was right after all. Thus we use power and coercion as the primary tools for achieving the will of God. As I have said before if the religious right and the left were with Jesus when Satan offered him all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for a little devil worship, they would have taken it all in the name of the good that could be done with Jesus at the Imperial helm.

Fourth, I am also saying that it is hypocritical of the religious left to critique the hermeneutic of the religious right while they employ the very same hermeneutic themselves. Jim Wallis', book God's Politics is a case in point.

Allan Bevere said...

Pam,

One other point. I am not calling for the elimination of the state. How could you even get that from my writing? Again, I think the problem is that we are so locked into our Christendom context, that it is difficult to imagine what I am suggesting. In my years of arguing that the church is God's politic, I understand why John Howard Yoder and others have been so misinterpreted.

PamBG said...

The church's current Christendom model proceeds on the unacknowledged assumption that Jesus' the way of the cross is a failure and Caesar was right after all. Thus we use power and coercion as the primary tools for achieving the will of God.

Absolutely. And the church also does this internally in it's institutional processes. So, as you say, we don't have anything to model to "the world."

As I have said before if the religious right and the left were with Jesus when Satan offered him all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for a little devil worship, they would have taken it all in the name of the good that could be done with Jesus at the Imperial helm.

And so would the UMC, the PCUSA, the ELCA, the Catholic Church and the British Methodists.

So how can we be an alternative to the state?

Fourth, I am also saying that it is hypocritical of the religious left to critique the hermeneutic of the religious right while they employ the very same hermeneutic themselves.

What hermeneutic? The hermeneutic of power? (This is not a rhetorical question. I'm still not understanding what you're saying.)

I am not calling for the elimination of the state. How could you even get that from my writing?

Because you wrote that the church is to be an alternative to the state. I have been trying to understand these many months whether you think that the church should take over the functions of the state and this post seemed to indicate that you are.

I freely admit that I don't understand what you're getting at here although the "hermeneutics of power" idea gives me something of a clue.

Allan Bevere said...

Pam,

You latest comments have helped me separate out some issues here. Thanks.

In reference to #1 and #2 quotes-- I am glad we agree, and you are indeed correct in what you say.

When I say that the church is an alternative to the nations, I do not mean replacement. The church as an alternative bears witness to the state what God desires of it. We do this primarily and centrally through witness-- doing it. We live sacrificial lies taking care of the poor and in so doing we say to the nation, "You would be a better nation if you took care of the poor too."

That does not mean that there is no room for having some involvement in hands-on politics, but what I object to is that most Christians see the latter as the church's main political function. I think the job descriptions have gotten reversed.

In reference to hermeneutics, simply put-- Jim Wallis has complained that the religious right has used Scripture to impose their views on others, and yet he freely quotes Scripture in the same way. We can continue that discussion in a more detailed way, if you desire.