While I am in substantial agreement with Joel Gn on his analysis of the problem with Evangelicalism and Rev. Kong’s hermeneutical posture of reducing theology to pure praxis and reading themselves into the text, however, I wish to address two further points raised by him.
(1) The question of engaging a plurality of interpretations
(2) The necessity of a “community of interpretation” as the context where this engagement occurs.
I shall to begin first with a critique of the second point before giving an account of how we can approach the question of the first.
Community of Interpretation? Which Community?
A renewed emphasis upon the “Christian Community” has virtually become the norm in contemporary theological thinking, an emphasis so pervasive that even in denominations and churches where once a “personal relationship with God” dominated by a this-is-just-between-me-and-God mantra has been radically qualified by exhortations to serve and participate in the “Christian community” and fellowship.
However, the call to return to the “Christian community” cannot help but have a slight phony ring to it, especially as it comes from the mouths of Protestants, who of course are the par excellence L’Enfant Terrible against the established “Church” or “Christian community” of Rome.
First, when Joel uses the word “community of interpretation”, the natural question should be which community? Presumably, he does not mean the community of just City Harvest Church, or the Roman Magisterium in communion with the Pope. He cites John Behr who makes references to the apostles and the “early Christians”, but yet who these “early Christians” are remains undefined. As Behr’s an Eastern Orthodox, presumably “early” means something like the first millennium with the seven ecumenical councils. Ask a high church Anglican and he would probably cite Lancelot Andrewes formula of the first five centuries.
There is an ironic use of “community” to critique Evangelicalism in that the emphasis on community as the context of the Christian life and theology has been the distinctive hallmark of fundamentalism and the more rigorous Evangelicalism of old. Against the “corrupt” world out there living in the darkness of ignorance of Christian truth, the pure Christian doctrine and practices are to be found in the “local community”, safe inside here. Thus, Rev Kong could agree to the formula of the “community of interpretation” as the context of theological activity, provided it means his community.
The vital point being that there is an either-or which “high church” advocates must face before they subcontract the entire hermeneutical task to the “community of interpretation”. Does theology precede or proceed from the community? As Theo Hobson puts it in his objection to Hauerwas’s “high churchism”,
…The most serious theological question of our time is whether theology exceeds ecclesiology. Can theology legitimately seek to stand outside of any community, any institution, in order to think Christianity through? If the attempt is futile, then authentic theology is that which is done in the service of an institution; its authenticity is a function of the intrinsic authority of a certain institution. This is the either-or of contemporary theology.
Without specifying exactly what is this “community of interpretation” where we are supposed to do theology, the call to do theology in the context of such “community” remains unreal, phony, if not a little hypocritical. While one seems to humbly subject’s one interpretation to the “community of interpretation”, he retains the right to define the boundaries of this “community”. With sufficient gerrymandering, one’s “community of interpretation” would miraculously converge with one’s predetermined theological conclusions or interpretation.
The only other real alternative is to declare and state exactly where is this community of interpretation to be found, which substance and meaning must necessarily be anterior to one’s interpretation and precede one’s theological conclusion, and then submit and commend one’s theological interpretation to this “community of interpretation”.
However, this is by definition impossible for the Protestant. We are not Roman Catholics, we cannot simply gesture vaguely at the “community” and expect everyone to know what we are talking about. We cannot make references to the “Christian community” as the context of theological activity, while evading the glaring fact that for the Protestant, theological activity is anterior to the community, as theology identifies the Christian community. No Protestant (except for radical Anabaptists or congregationist Baptists), can accept the “Christian community” as theologically self-evident, for it goes against Luther’s dictum that there is something prior to the Church or community, that is, the Word of God, and the Church is but the daughter of the Word. No Protestant can accept any community or institution as self-justifying and a source of divine revelation or meaning in itself. The Protestant answers without hesitation that theology, or Christian truth, necessarily precedes ecclesiology, and that correct doctrine identifies the Church, not the other way.
In this Joel Gn’s critique of Kong, and Evangelicalism at large, fails to address the question of theology itself. It does not actually tell us, or at least point to direction of what is the task of theology, what is theology or hermeneutics for? It simply subcontracts and defers the task to a “community of interpretation”, while remaining silent about to what this “community” is, or worse, dishonestly seeking the safety and authenticity of doing theology in a “community”, while retaining the Protestant privilege of being free to select which community one accepts after one’s theological conclusions.
Before we move to address the point of theology per se, let us make some further observations upon the “Christian community” which is the subject of much contemporary theological interest. We must remember that even high church denominations, when they are not polemicising against Protestants at least, knows that there is no mythical ready-made “community of interpretation” neatly dropped from heaven to provide the space for us to do theology. Who is in and out of a community, etc were burning questions throughout the history of the Church from its very beginnings, and obviously when the boundaries of the community were in themselves in dispute, you cannot appeal to them as the context for engaging disputes! Whatever the wisdom of the Councils or the insights of the Fathers, or the riches of tradition, not a single one of them were self-referential, but have always urged their hearers to search the Scriptures to confirm their own words.
Have thou in thy mind this seal, which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures. For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.
-Cyril of Jerusalem [c. 318-386], Catechetical Lectures, NPNF2: Vol.VII, Lecture IV:17.
Perhaps I should qualify my critique by noting that for many contemporary Evangelicals and Protestants, puzzled by the superficiality of their Sunday School education or preaching, would be astounded by the depth and breadth of the patristic writings, of catholic tradition, etc. One becomes convinced that the salvation to the contemporary aridity and lunacy of Evangelicalism and Protestantism is to run into the arms of the “community”, etc. But we must be wary that we do not romanticise this “community”, imbuing it with more substance and reality than the facts allow, acknowledging the ambiguities and difficulties of drawing the borders of the community and defining who’s in and who’s out. In place of idolatry of worship of a charismatic leader, one simply substitutes it with an idealised community of one’s invention, swapping one idol for another.
The failure of Kong’s theology, and the failure of the Protestant Church at large to regulate Kong’s theology, does not call for a “beefing up” of the Church or Christian community with extra ecclesiastical muscles. Not only does this go against the heart of Protestantism to make the church self-justifying, but it is also fundamentally unrealistic, unworkable, and even hypocritical, in that most of the contemporary Protestant “high church” advocates would hardly be keen on the idea of the revival of ecclesiastical tribunals or a magisterium of baptist or fundamentalist elders policing the theology of their members.
The solution to bad theology is not a robust “Christian community” but good theology. There can be no artificial escape from the necessity of the theological task, to attempt to bypass the difficulties of theology by foreclosing the conclusions via positivistic considerations external to it, i.e. an empirically identifiable Christian community.
Rather, like the Reformers, we must read the early Christians respectfully, but not turn them into oracles. Most of the Reformers, Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, etc, had an excellent command of the Fathers and were extremely respectful and considerate of their opinions (Calvin’s knowledge of the patristics were legendary, able to cite references down to the very placement in the book!), but they always submitted their words to the Scriptures. A good theologian reads the Fathers in the same way in which philosophers read past philosophers. We cite their good arguments, try to represent them fairly, but ultimately, we do not do philosophy based on the authority of the philosopher; something isn’t true simply because Plato said it. Rather, we acknowledge their insights and read from them who have already considered and formulated the issues in the times past, often in brilliant and ingenious ways, but we are not beholden to all their conclusions which must be assessed on its own merits.
An Assembly Around the Externally Preached Word, Not a Self-Justifying Community
In place of “communal interpretation”, we must understand that the preaching precedes the community, and it is the preaching which creates the community. Luther himself explicitly rejected the term “community” or gemeinschaft , in favour of gemeinde, or “assembly”. The Church is not a “community” with socio-economic or institutional bonds, but it is an “assembly”, simply a gathering of people around the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments whereby the Holy Ghost works to create faith in the hearts of its hearers and from this faith arises the communion of saints, sharing in the same faith, the same hope and the same Lord. The “community” is not self-justifying or self-sustaining, but lives only from the preaching of the Word.
Thus, for the Protestant, question hinges upon on the Word from which the Church derives its life, and the solution to the problem of Pastor Kong reading himself and his own experience into the text has already been formulated by Luther in his Smalcald Articles: the doctrine of the External Word and Sacraments. It is external because it is the Word which is anterior, precedes and prior to any human community, interpretation, experience and institution. through which alone God communicates his grace and divine revelation and nowhere else. It would be useful to reiterate what Luther said in connection to this,
…And in those things which concern the spoken, external Word, we must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one, except through or with the preceding external Word, in order that we may [thus] be protected against the enthusiasts, i.e., spirits who boast that they have the Spirit without and before the Word, and accordingly judge Scripture or the spoken Word, and explain and stretch it at their pleasure… All this is the old devil and old serpent, who also converted Adam and Eve into enthusiasts, and led them from the external Word of God to spiritualizing and self-conceit, and nevertheless he accomplished this through other external words… Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments.
As Joel has already noted, what Pastor Kong said about God saying sorry to his Son is simply a piece of pure fiction. It can be found nowhere in the Scriptures itself. Therefore we do not require a “community of interpretation” to be able make such a point. The External Word is anterior to human experiences and imaginations and is itself the judge of it.
Thus as an External Word, the Scriptures possesses its own meaning, its own integrity anterior and independently of any human phenomenon and simply cannot be reduced or dependent upon our human experience or communities. In this we must affirm the Scriptures or the Word of God capacity to communicate without intermediaries, whether clerical, ecclesiastical or experiential. Traditionally the capacity of the Scriptures to be understood is known as the doctrine of the “perspicuity” of the Scriptures, that is, the Scriptures with regards to matters of salvation are clear enough to be understood by anyone. This is why Protestants traditionally had a very high view of reason and its ability to discern Scripture’s meaning. They maintain this confidence in the inherent intelligibility of the text against all who would negate it for apologetic reasons, e.g. to drive people into the arms of some positivistic ecclesiastical entity claiming some special gnostic insight into esoteric theological facts. Firmly we must affirm and maintain that the meaning and interpretation of the Word is not mediated through a body of clerics or a Christian community or charismatic experience, but it is “immediately” communicable.
In this there are two types of “difficulties” with regards to interpreting the Scriptures. One, I could call the technical difficulties, to do with ambiguities of semantics, philology and historico-grammatical contexts. These types of difficulties simply requires empirical scholarly work, the business of linguists, historians, and grammarians. These sort of difficulties are simply empirical questions of a scholarly nature which no ecclesiastical community, no matter how exalted, possess any special insight. The Pope maybe infallible when he speaks ex cathedra of faith and morals, but presumably his infallibility does not make him an expert in Greek linguistics.
The other type of difficulty has to do with the difficulty of the subject matter or the contents of the Scriptures itself. As a saying attributed to Mark Twain once puts it, “Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.” Thus, while granting the legitimacy of the technical difficulties, but in most cases, the difficulties of “interpreting” Scripture are simply the difficulties of accepting what is actually clearly said, whereby because of our corrupt desires and our fallen flesh, we will not accept what the Scriptures does say about demanding commandments of God or the acts of God which transcends human comprehension, and simply go back to the drawing board to keep juggling its meaning until it is more palatable to our tastes. Naturally the only cure for sinful resistance to the revealed will of God is the work of the Holy Ghost, which is subject to the will of God alone. No community or magical hermeneutic principle can overcome the fundamental intractability of sin. and that to make unregenerate heart willing is not a human work of philosophy or hermeneutics but the putting to death of the flesh and the bringing to life by the Holy Ghost.
Therefore, whatever difficulties there maybe in interpreting a Biblical text is the same difficulty which any other texts share, and the task of interpretation is not somehow miraculously resolved by appealing to another community or even the “early Christians” or patristics, for unless the early Christians or Christian community communicates telepathically, they must also set their insights down unto text, and texts, whether biblical, ecclesiastical, or patristic, must be interpreted, and the task of interpretation is not advanced by appealing to another set of texts equally in need of interpretation.
The Task of Protestant Hermeneutics
It is now necessary for us to ask, what is the point of interpretation? What is interpretation for? Joel’s appeal to the community as the context of interpretation cannot help but collapse the hermeneutical task into a task in service of an institution, a task subservient to the ends of a community.
In this, we need to recover a robust theology of the Word, a theology which explicates the hermeneutical task, the goal of theological activity. This is especially vital for Protestants who have always had exalted the unique role and place of the Bible in the life of the Church. The problem as I see it is basically a demise of the theology of the Word. In short, we aren’t exactly sure how does the Bible as a fixed text, redeem and grace its varied different hearers with salvation. How does the written Word as a fixed text become the living Word, putting sin to death and rising to life all the different people who hear it in real time?
The unfortunate history of the Reformation has been the failure to come to grips with problem of translating a fixed Word into the living Word. What has happened in the history of Protestantism is two tendencies. One is that of rationalism, whereby the Bible prescribes a system of eternally true propositions which we are simply to subscribe and assent. This system of eternally true propositions, by virtue of its atemporal character, never truly enters into our spatio-temporal world to actually address us in all our historic particularity, thus, it ceases to be meaningful to us. It becomes true of everyone in general but of no one in particular. The other pole which Evangelicalism in particular has swung is that of emotionalism, whereby the fixed text is divested of all its meaning and simply becomes a vehicle or means to some other subjective experiential ends or the meeting of emotional needs, which is the true and only goal of interpretation or preaching. Thus, in the case of Kong Hee, the hermeneutical task is subjected to individual ends and interests, the Word is just as divested of any meaning as the rationalistic alternative, the Word simply becomes a religious ornament to colour some human experience or serve some human ends and changes as the Zeitgeist blows.
In this, the Lutheran dialectic between the extra nos of Scripture, or the Scripture which meaning is external to us, and the pro nobis or the message which is “for us” and for our salvation, must be maintained at all cost. How does the two come together? The Protestant answer has always been in the Ministry of Preaching and the Administration of the Sacraments, whereby on the basis of the Word is thereby proclaimed to its hearers that this was done for you and from third-person objective truths and events, the preacher moves to second person address of a particular hearer, whether of absolution, “In the name of Christ, your sins are forgiven”, or of the sacraments, “This is my Body which is broken for you“, or in the preaching of the Law, “You shall have no other gods before me”, the task of hermeneutics is to bridge the gap between the objective external truths and events of the Bible anterior to us, and our subjective particular situation, and address that external Word to us.
Thus, Protestant theology has always understood its task in service of preaching, it is unashamedly rhetorical, it is a speech act, the performance of the Word, whether in commanding, absolving or baptising, etc. Luther never sought to be a better Aquinas, he was never bothered by the highly paradoxical and dialectical nature of his theology, even to the point of inconsistency. The Protestant theologian is always a preacher first, and a systematiser second. The rhetorical performance precedes the system formation, the preacher imitates the preaching found in the Scriptures and he reflects upon the preaching to figure out how to fit it all together rationally, to articulate and develop its meaning and its significance, etc, and regulate it under the authority of the Scriptures. And after reflection upon the preached Word and development and correction of that preaching under the Scriptures, they go back and preach again and the cycle continues.
Thus the task of Protestant theology is to both regulate the preaching and shape its performance. Or to use much more traditional Protestant categories, theology is concerned with rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel, to learn how to both command by divine authority repentance, and to declare in the name of Christ forgiveness of sins and the Good News of salvation, In short, Protestant theology is simply reflection upon the preached Word, in submission to the Scriptures, in service of the Ministry of Preaching, to provide the words to command the Law and to proclaim the Gospel, to both baptise and teach the disciples all that the Lord has commanded us.
Of course, there remains the question as to how exactly are we to go about this. We must acknowledge the existence of the plurality of interpretations, different messages and words which have been preached through history and across different environments. How exactly are we to engage the question of the different interpretations? If the preaching results in many particularised messages, how can we be sure that it is the same Word which is being preached, the same Gospel, the same Message?
In this we can appeal to a familiar distinction in analytic philosophy, between that of meaning and naming. Quine gave an example about a certain astronomical phenomena where the ancients noticed two seemingly different stars in the sky, “The Morning Star” and the “Evening Star”, but then deduced that it was the same star but merely looked different. While the term “Morning Star” does not have the same meaning as “Evening Star”, that is they are not definitionally equivalent, but they both refer to the same entity.
Thus, interwar Protestant theology developed the concept of “Salvation History”, or Heilsgeschichte. Scripture is first and foremost a witness. It points and testifies to a set of events. These events or divine action of God in history, from the creation of Adam to the calling of Abraham, to Christ’s death and resurrection, etc, are the events of salvation history, historical acts of God for us and for our salvation. Thus Scripture first and foremost refers or points to those events and all preaching, to be the preaching of the same Word, makes reference and has its basis firmly upon those events, which Scripture is the inspired witness. But Scripture does not only provide a record of a series of events, it also provides an interpretation of those events. It is the difference between the Gospel and St Paul’s letters. The Gospel testifies to the events of Christ’s life, St Paul epistles and other writings reflect upon those events and provides the interpretation for it.
Thus, the preaching is always first and foremost, a proclamation of the events of salvation history. It is always a testimony or witness to the veracity of those events. Secondly, preaching then builds upon those events to “perform the Word”, that is, to command sanctification and good works on the basis of what the Lord hath said, and to absolve from sin or comfort and console by the preaching of the Gospel or events of Christ’s life. Thus, theology is concerned with how to connect the line from Salvation History, to what we are commanded to do or to trust in. The task of discerning what a preacher is to command or promise its particular hearers living in our particular spatio-temporal situation, in short, the task of finding the words to preach, is the task of interpretation.
St Paul’s interpretation, which is the inspired form of preaching to the various cities, as well as the other apostolic letters, remains the authoritative interpretation, it norms all our interpretations, and our preaching must be “derived” from it and demonstrated to be consistent with it. But it is unnecessary, if not irresponsible, for us to simply repeat what St Paul said, that would be an abdication of the task of teaching and preaching to our hearers which God has given to the Church. We might as well just have a lectionary and remove the preaching! We are not called to preach to Rome or Ephesus or Corinth, we are called to preach to Singapore, China, Malaysia, etc. The Church throughout the ages have always found it necessary to adopt new words, new languages, as the situation demands, to enter into the world and comprehension of the hearers. The Western Church would adopt concepts like “merit”, “satisfaction”, etc, to articulate the meaning of the atonement. It remains the task of theology to testify to the same events of Salvation History, and to perform that Testimony to our hearers.
Conclusion: Speaking a Divine Word to Worldly Ears
The account here is basically that of theology as rhetorical performance, this conception of theological exists in a dialectical relationship between two poles: On the one hand, we speak of a unique set of divine events, a wholly other alien intervention into our fallen world, unparalleled and utterly distinct from anything in this world, the extra nos or outside of us side. Yet, it is precisely an alien intervention into our world, for us and for our salvation whereby the divine act and word is becomes intelligible and we, in all our particularity, are reconciled to that salvic act, the pro nobis side.
Thus, if preaching is preaching the same events to a particular time. It cannot simply repeat the same thing which the church has said in the past, otherwise that is not communicating or speaking to our time, but to another time. But it also cannot simply say what the world is already saying, then it is no longer testifying to a unique set of events with an otherworldly divine message not of this world or external to it, but is simply clothing the current fashions of this world with Christian words.
The dialectic is not easy to engage, but engage we must, and we do so in both fear and trembling and confidence, fear and trembling, because this is what the Lord have commanded us, and we dare not do otherwise, confidence, because we know that it is not by our own wisdom, insight or rhetorical skills, whereby the Word is communicated, but it is the Holy Ghost who both enlightens our minds and loosens our tongues to speak forth his Word.
Therefore to end off with the words of the Bethel Confession:
Because the foundation of the church is solely the presence of Jesus Christ, who has entered into history in Word and sacrament, the outward forms of the church’s usage and its constitution are not part of its essence as church. They make it possible for the church to fulfil its duty to bring the Gospel to all nations. The church enters with its preaching and its outward forms into the various cultures and into every age. Following the example of the apostles, it can become “to the Jews as a Jew, to the Greeks, as a Greek”, to the Germans, as a German, to the Chinese, as a Chinese, “so that I might by any means save some”. The manner and extent of such entering into time can be determined only based on the commission of the church. This adaptability to different cultures finds its parameters in the content of the proclamation. This content alone, from the church’s very essence, determines the ways and forms through which churches enter into history. The proclamation of the church always remains the alien grain of seed that is planted in the ground. Where the content of a specific time becomes the content of the proclamation the gospel is betrayed, because it is no longer said to the time, but absorbed by it.
The proclamation of the message concerning Christ is equally accessible and equally inaccessible for all nations. This proclamation is always good news and offense at the same time. God’s Holy Spirit alone works faith in man. He alone creates the fellowship of confessing rightly.