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Scripture and Moral Discernment

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“It all comes down to hermeneutics!”

It was a seminary prof, many years ago, who uttered those words. I had probably heard the word “hermeneutics” for the very first time only a month or so earlier, so it seemed like a sweeping and startling statement.  Hermeneutics?  It all comes down to hermeneutics?

Apparently, the Reformed Church General Synod of 2010 agreed with my professor—more or less.  After the other “Formula of Agreement” partner churches—the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), and the United Church of Christ—took more progressive steps on issues of human sexuality, especially same-sex inclusivity, the RCA invited the partners to an ecumenical conversation about “Scripture and Moral Discernment.” 

Instead of discussing the presenting issues, maybe they could even be considered surface issues, why not take a step back?  Somehow, try to get at what is behind these differences on moral issues, especially sexuality. The answer, it seems, is hermeneutics—from the Greek messenger god, Hermes. Interpretation.  Theories and methods of interpreting, especially texts.  For Christians, particularly the interpretation of scripture. 

For the past couple years, I’ve had the joyful privilege of representing the RCA in this ecumenical conversation. (The other RCA reps were Jim Brownson of Western Seminary, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, former General Secretary and now ecumenical officer, and Taylor Holbrook of Hopewell Reformed Church in Hopewell Junction, New York.) The four “Formula” churches widened the invitation to include the Moravian Church in North America, the Christian Church (Disciples), and the Christian Reformed Church. (Laura Smit of Calvin College represented the CRC.)

When hastily departing for one of our meetings, a church member asked me where I was heading.  “I’m going off to discuss scripture and moral discernment.”  A face of puzzlement and concern conveyed that I wasn’t being understood.  “We’re for it!” I added to ease the confusion.  Indeed we are. 

After our first gathering, in the autumn of 2011, I blogged here about the experience. At that point, we were all taken by the energy, esprit-de-corps and warmth among those who were there.  If we were supposed to be suspicious and fight, that wasn’t the case. The group’s desire to serve and write for the Church of Jesus Christ, even and especially for the person in the pew, was clear and compelling.

A year and a half later our group has completed its work.  “Scripture and Moral Discernment” is now available.  It is, I believe, a good, strong statement.  I hope that it shines with our mutual discovery of the “great depth and richness (of) the bonds that unite us.”  It will, I trust, “strengthen the capacity of churches to walk together in relationships of mutual affirmation and admonition.”

The paper has three parts.  The first section focuses on our unity; our commonality in the assertion that “Jesus is Lord.”  Perhaps originally this sprouted out of the group’s sense of commonality.  Quickly, however, it went deeper than simply enjoying one another.  Our commonality is found in our common Lord.  Because Jesus is Lord, he has claims upon every part of life—morality, sexuality, and more. While Jesus’s lordship pushes us to moral living, it also reminds us that our Christian unity is never found in moral living but in Jesus. “Jesus is Lord” asserts that what unites us is always much greater than whatever moral disagreements divide us. 

The second section is my personal favorite.  It explores our common understanding of what scripture is and how it functions in our life together.  It includes some pithy and provocative statement such as 

  • Scripture does not always shed direct light on contemporary questions, but it…shapes and forms our identity, our imagination, our language, and our moral development.
  • Scripture is best read and understood in community, in conversation with other followers of Jesus across time and around the world. While disagreement in interpretation sometimes requires loving critique and dialogue as the church moves toward greater clarity, diversity in interpretation is often a gift from the Holy Spirit.
  • Scripture is always and necessarily interpreted. Whenever anyone reads the Bible, he or she always brings a framework of interpretation, whether recognized fully or not…At the same time, to say that we all always interpret the Bible does not imply that all interpretations are equally valid.
  • Rarely does a single verse, phrase, or passage from the Bible constitute an adequate guide for moral discernment…Rather, every passage and phrase stands within the entire wisdom and arc of Scripture
  • We affirm that the sciences and other contemporary sources of wisdom can illuminate our reading of Scripture. We affirm that scriptural interpretation occurs in the flow of human experience.
    (italics are my emphases)

As I tell my college students, “When someone claims they are simply ‘reading’ scripture, while you are mistakenly ‘interpreting’ it, don’t listen to them—unless they are missing a hand and have no possessions.”  Debates about the moral life of Christians are not debates between “Bible-believing” Christians and those who ignore scripture.  On questions of sexuality and other moral issues, all sides look to scripture for guidance and formation. 

The third section focuses on the often neglected role of how scripture functions.  It isn’t just what we say about scripture.  It is also about how we use and read scripture together.  This section might be considered a catalog of “best practices,” a compendium of “how-to.”  It includes things like trust, repentance, prayer, worship, and developing ground rules for disagreement. Hermeneutics is not simply ethereal interpretive principles.  It is also about concrete community.  The experience of this FOA group together is a case in point.

As pleased as I am with the document, no one is under the illusion that it will make biblical interpretation simple and clear cut, let alone end disagreement among Christians over moral issues.  You’re invited to read it, interpret and deliberate, and then respond. 

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

2 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    What's remarkable about this is how basically Reformed it all is. Thanks for this, I'm looking forward to reading it and even sharing it with my congregation.

  • Steve MVW says:

    Thanks, Daniel. That's helpful. Maybe you put your finger on it–the affinity the group felt. A deep and basic agreement, a common, although perhaps unspoken, heritage. One person responded to this post by asking me if the RCA should remain in the Formula of Agreement, despite our differences with the other groups. I hope it is obvious that I do. Your comment caused me to think of it this way. The other FOA churches are like "family." With my own relatives, I've learned pretty much not to talk about politics or hot button issues. Nonetheless, I share with them a deep history, a thick bond. Some in the RCA might wish we would talk more with the Nazarenes or Assembly of God, or other groups likes that, who today we seem to have more in common with them than the FOA churches. Maybe these groups are more like "friends" but not family. I talk politics and controversial topics with my friends, but I still don't have that longer, deeper commonality and heritage. Not sure this holds up completely. But that FOA churches come up a "Reformed" sounding document makes sense and is a sign of health.

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