The beautiful and problematic thing about modern biblical exegesis is that it has been molded, formed, beaten, and contorted so thoroughly into conformity with the principles of linear logic and scientific empiricism that there is little mystery left to the academic reader of the New Testament. Exegetical quibbles have been reduced to just that, largely meaningless arguments over the minutest points of grammar and syntax. One would think that with such substantial agreement on the original intent of the text among exegetes (that is those who think such an intent can even be determined with any degree of certainty) that unity would be the natural outgrowth of this uniformity.
Yet the weight of division has now shifted to hermeneutics, where the force of enduring meaning now lies. Where before the argument was “How can any rational man understand this any other way?” the problem now is “Given that we all see this the same way, how do we justify our differing applications of it?” The postmodern question is no longer “What does the Bible say about X?” but “How do we apply what it says about X?” (Or, from my admittedly cynical viewpoint, “How do we contort what it says about X so that it conforms to what we have already decided to do?”)
Growing up, the most common hermeneutical method I encountered (and shamefully even employed myself) was cultural particularism. What the Bible said had to be strained through the filter of culture to uncover the kernel of enduring truth. When Peter wrote about submission to one’s government, it was only his particular cultural catalyst that caused him to make the statement (i.e. the perception of Christians as treasonous promoters of civil unrest). When Jesus commanded the rich to sell their possessions and give them to the poor, this had to be understood primarily in terms of a culture where the rich became rich by unchecked exploitation of the poor (totally unlike today). It would be unconscionable to think that the American Revolution might have violated Peter’s injunction to submission or that rampant Western materialism was diametrically opposed to Jesus’ very strict teachings on earthly possessions. Somewhere in those cultural commands were glimmers of eternal principles that could be held to, if only nominally, without interfering with the progress of modern man.
This approach effectively made the Gospel socially and (to some degree) ethically impotent. Every command was a cultural command, and therefore could be explained away to some extent by the social milieu of the time. The socio-ethical demands of Jesus and the apostles had only as much force as could be retained if every cultural aspect was stripped away. The theology remained, but the practical implications of that theology were completely up for interpretation. As long as the Greco-Roman culture was never perfectly replicated, the plain sense of the New Testament had no command force for Christians. (Curiously, this led some to try to seize parallels between modern culture and Roman culture as a basis for simple interpretation of Scripture. This was something taught to me even still as an undergraduate, and while the ends are noble in my opinion, the means fall into the same specious logic they are trying to correct.)
I have noticed, however, a shift from this hermeneutic of cultural particularism to one of occasional particularism. The recognition (or dare I say over-recognition) of the ad hoc nature of biblical writings has caused the culture in which the documents were written has been reduced to secondary interpretive status and the occasion surrounding them made primary. Prohibitions against homosexuality which had been countered with references to a society that rejected the practice (something which is categorically false) are now ignored on the grounds that Paul was undoubtedly talking about rampant cult prostitution in the given church and therefore opposing paganism, not homosexuality. Regulation of women to subordinate roles in worship in 1 Timothy 2 which had previously been sneered at as vestiges of a lost, patriarchal time are now upheld as necessary – but nonetheless irrelevant – counters to a situations where the gynecocracy of the Artemis cult had spilled into the church. Now, it is no longer necessary to reproduce the entire culture of the Greco-Roman world in order to directly and plainly apply the Scriptures. Now only a similar occasion must arise for the text to once again have plain, normative force. Thus has the text of Scripture been saved for modern application.
Or has it…
As lacking as the system of cultural particularism was, it had one thing that occasional particularism does not: a solid common base for discussion. While the basic contours of Greco-Roman culture and history are more or less canonized in the minds of historians, the particular occasions of the New Testament documents are not. While there is objective grounds on which one can argue about the social perceptions of homosexuality in the first century, there is no consistent way to address what precisely comprised the Colossian heresy. Hermeneutics has moved from dismissing the normative force of Scripture on the basis of concrete historical facts to dismissing it on the basis of imaginative reconstructions of particular situations. The whole process is logically unsound. We use X (which we don’t understand by our own admission) to determine the content of Y (about which there is no concrete external evidence) so that we can use our theory of Y to understand X. If the mathematical analogy seems convoluted, it is because it is.
Let me propose something radical. A canonical Christianity (that is any Christianity which has respect for the normative force of the Bible as it stands) requires a belief in the enduring nature of its commands. While I respect and employ both methods of cultural and occasional interpretation, I recognize that the Bible was formed as such because it contained eternal commands normative for the church centuries after the documents were written. If the occasion is the defining hermeneutical principle, why did the church select these documents to represent their canon of faith centuries after these occasions were completely forgotten? If the culture is the defining hermeneutical principle, why did rural Gauls, urban Alexandrians, Judeans, Romans, and Greeks all unify around this corpus of literature in a time when its particular culture had been lost to the memories of their ancestors? If the Bible is defined primarily by its culture and occasion then it never exists (which I imagine is fine for those who use these hermeneutics to get out from under the Bible’s authority). Rather than saying “What was the culture or occasion of this document so that I can rightly apply it?” I propose the new question “How can I honestly apply this text in spite of the fact that I am not in that occasion or culture.”
The Bible has not acted as normative for two millenia in the Church because it has had a static culture (in any respect) or because there has been a convenient recycling of relevant occasions. It has endured because its lays out the eternal principles of faith and practice. A hermeneutic that embraces this fact is a hermeneutic I can embrace.