Hermeneutical Meanderings on Confession

Posted: February 28, 2013 in Hermeneutics
The Holy Spirit depicted as a dove, surrounded...

The Holy Spirit depicted as a dove, surrounded by angels, by Giaquinto, 1750s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m sitting here in my office on a snowy day tossing around a variety of ideas seemingly not related to each other. In one segment of my mind I’ve processing a conversation with some NuDunker folks regarding the hermeneutical and formative benefits of confessions of faith for the community of believers. At the same time I am thinking and reflecting on the notion of God’s call upon the Christian heart, how it’s discerned, how it is interpreted and acted upon. This one in particular is for a renewal series I am preaching on for a sister congregation in Ashland, OH (Maplegrove CoB). In still another segment I have been digesting and regurgitating Mitri Raheb’s edited work, The Biblical Text in the Context of Occupation, which sets out to develop a liberation theology to counter the effects of conservative evangelical theology for Palestinian Christians. So to say that I’m experiencing some mental fragmentation is understandable.

In light of these varying subjects there is a single strand that gives them commonality, namely, the Christian hermeneutics. Fundamentally interpretative processes serve as the fabric of reality for human beings. In other words, we cannot perceive or know anything except by means of hermeneutics. My NuDunker friends have begun asking if it would be helpful for Brethren to have a confession (quasi-creed) to provide some form of boundary for the purpose of guiding (hermeneutically and for identity formation) the community forward. The Church of the Brethren ethics paper and the Ministry paper were put forward as analogical examples of written interpretive texts that provide guidance for the church. Their presentation was quickly followed by an explanation of how it may be a stretch to use these as examples. But I understood the idea of what was being proposed.

Historically Brethren have been resistant to accepting an interpretive stated confession for the purpose of providing any guidance authoritatively. I note here also that Brethren are unable to agree on anything that might be counted authoritative (e.g., scripture). The reason for this, as it has been argued by many historians, is that creeds are mere human constructs and not scripture. Secondly, because established churches have a tendency to use such confessions as a means of forced belief, these Anabaptist-Pietists refuse to use them as such. And yet, Brethren emphasize “discerning God’s call” at every turn. You might ask how these are related. Confessions of faith are no more than articulated expressions of faithful discernment. They are written or oral statements which set out to describe how an individual or community has perceived God to be within that particular imaginary. Traditionally these confessions provide a variable guide for interpreting scripture. So the problem for those is two-fold, what the community believes and a boundary as to how it interprets the scriptures. In our conversation it is my understanding that it is not so much for guiding scriptural interpretation as much as for guiding faith formation. What my colleagues are wrestling with is whether such an articulation would be beneficial for the community both formatively and in terms of faith boundaries.

From a theo-philosophical perspective, I have serious questions as to the efficacy of such a statement. While it has been shown many times over that belief affects behavior, it is not as clear as to the effects of a community reciting or reading a confession of faith formative purposes. In fact, most recent academic work points in the direction of the formative efficacy of praxis. Secondly, such statements focus primarily upon the cognition within the modern paradigm. What I mean by this is that such statements place inequitable value upon the dissemination and acquisition of information affecting formation. This is quite simply an extension of modernity’s fallacy that education equals progress which results in the illusory utopia of modernity. Such evolutionary models are simply misleading. In the case of discerning God’s calling, such an articulation of this particular hermeneutical end does not result in the preparedness for any such call. It may be argued that the mere process of discernment is a formative practice which may lead to such preparation. To whatever extent this might be so, it merely contributes in a small way as spiritual formation and skill development must first take place.

Finally, it is my premise that any such efforts to constrain faith by means of written statements, regardless of the spirit by which they are written, find their end in imposing oppressive power over and against the other for the purpose of exclusion. Such attempts to guide faith development and formation must be validated by praxis. In the text The Biblical Text in the Context of Occupation, Fernando Segovia makes the point of arguing that regardless of the systematic theology, if the scriptures cease being gospel (good news) for the other, then it fails to be a valid interpretation. Therefore any such attempt must lead to appropriate liberation within the people’s context. Moreover, contrary to the modern paradigm, praxis is more efficacious toward faith formation. If this is the case, then it seems to me that a holistic approach to discipleship which incorporates practices that are rooted in the narrative tradition in conjunction with exercises of developing confessions would be more effective in the long run. It is necessary to qualify this statement with three conditions. First, confessions in this context are descriptive articulations of where a believer is theologically rather than prescriptive of where the believer hopes to be. Secondly, the process is a three way dialectic conversation between the believer in community, scripture and the Holy Spirit. Community is essential to a discipleship process that leads to the believer’s formation. Finally, in the midst of this process space must be allowed for the wrestling discernment of God’s work and direction and for critically engaging theological ontology within the context of the three-way dialectic relationship. I look forward to continuing our conversation regarding and developing these ideas in future conversations.

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