Friday, September 26, 2014

Philosophical Roots of Ancient Christian Practice and its Current Potential for Well-being

Tim Seid, Associate Dean & Assistant Professor of New Testament Studies, Earlham School of Religion. Programmed worship, Sept. 25, 2014.

Early in my academic career I became excited by how the texts of early Christianity made more sense to me by interpreting them within the context of Greco-Roman language, rhetoric, and philosophy. Although I had considered doing an undergraduate or post-graduate degree in classical studies, I was always pulled back to focusing on early Christian studies and on how one is to live a Christian life. Whether it was the “New Testament Christianity” of my early years among evangelicals or the “primitive Christianity revived” of my later years among Quakers, I’ve always been interested in basing my faith in the experience and thought of those who wrote the texts of early Christianity.
I spend most of my time in administrative work at ESR, largely through the use of technology, but my passion has always been the study of the Bible and interpreting its texts. Most recently I’ve been challenged to look for ways that the outcome of my academic research might have practical benefit. To get to that point, I need to trace three concurrent developments that I am trying to bring together.1 As far as I know, no one else is working at this in quite the way I’m attempting to do it – which may mean I’m either really insightful or really ignorant.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

2014 Opening Convocation Message

On Thursday, August 28th, ESR and Bethany Theological Seminary shared their opening convocation in Bethany's Nicarry Chapel. Students, faculty and staff joined together to worship and listen to the message presented by ESR Ministry of Writing Professor Ben Brazil. A recording of the convocation can be found here.

Paul and the Corinthians:  A Creative Rearrangement

I give thanks to my God always for you, because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind.

It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.

When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.  What!?!?

 “When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints?

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans;

I do not want to seem as though I am trying to frighten you with my letters.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

But some of you, thinking that I am not coming to you, have become arrogant. … What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?

Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?  Fool!

“I have been a fool!  You forced me to it.  Indeed you should have been the ones commending me, for I am not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing.  The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, signs, and wonders and mighty works.  How have you been worse off than the other churches, except that I myself did not burden you? <<sarcasm>>Forgive me this wrong.  <<sarcasm>>

Even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it -- though I did regret it, for I see that I grieved you with that letter, though only briefly.  Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved but because your grief led to repentance.

Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up. 

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all of the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.


I would like to begin today with a confession, an explanation, and a warning.   First, the confession:  I put together the mash-up of first and second Corinthians you just heard.  Second, the explanation:  I used to be a journalist, and one of the skills I bring to Biblical interpretation is the ability to take quotes out of context and sensationalize conflict.  And First and Second Corinthians is like shooting fish in a barrel.  Headline for First Corinthians: “Corinth Scandal:  Love, Lawsuits, and Sexual Immorality worse than pagans.”   

You’d keep reading, right?

Third, a warning:  I suspect that if you try this in your Biblical studies or preaching classes you will fail to credit the course.   In my creative non-fiction class, you’d be fine.  There’s my pitch.

Before I try to explain, let me say the most important thing today:  Welcome.  To our returning students and faculty, welcome back.   To our new students, welcome to what I hope will be the most spiritually rich, intellectually thrilling, and personally transformative educational experience of your life.   I still remember what one professor said at my orientation at the Candler School of Theology at Emory.  “Theology,” he said, “is not just about God.  Theology is about everything.”   Let me say again, “Theology is not just about God.  Theology is about everything.”  I hope that’s as thrilling to you now as it was to me then.

But living in a community that’s about everything can be absolutely maddening.   That’s what I wanted to get at in the Corinthian mash-up – for better or for worse..  One moment, Paul is telling the Corinthians that they are not lacking in any spiritual gift.  A few chapters later he is threatening to come to Corinth with a stick.   No doubt, part of his style is simply the way people wrote letters and argued back then.  Still, it’s striking that Paul’s letters to the Corinthians can be so warm, generous, and loving, but also so sarcastic, wounded, and angry.  What’s more, he moves between these emotions with dizzying speed and frequent reversals.  It’s as if he’s in throes of love.

Which, of course, he is.  Paul loves God and Jesus, but he also loves the infant Christian community in Corinth.  He loves it too much to let conflicts destroy it, or to throw his hands up, cut his losses, and move on.   And it is Paul’s bull-headed dedication to the hard, holy work of Christian community that I want to hold up today.  I think it’s an important subject.  In my short time at ESR, I know that community – desires for it, frustrations with it – have been a frequent subject of conversation.  And here at Bethany, you’re launching a wonderful experiment in community with the Bethany neighborhood.  For those of you living there, as best I can tell there is no escaping each other, ever. 

May God have mercy on your souls.

So what can we learn about community from Corinth?  First, that community involves defining who we are together – of what makes us an “us” rather than a collection of I’s.  This may sound pretty basic, but it’s actually an extraordinary complex question -- not just for seminaries and churches, but for entire societies.  Sociology, political philosophy, and Christian social ethics are just a few of the disciplines that ask how diverse people should organize our collective life.  Good news – you can explore those questions here. 


For Paul, as I read him, the answer involved worship of the God of Israel and the new covenant of grace in Jesus.  But if that were enough to hold together communities, he wouldn't have needed to write all those letters.   Daily life brought other questions with theological implications:  Was it really a big deal to eat meat offered to idols, considering those gods didn't exist anyway?  If Christ’s return was imminent, as Paul believed it was, should unmarried Corinthians stay single and focus their energy on God?  Should churches bankroll their apostles? 

Want answers? Read the book.  Or take Dan Ulrich’s class.  As Nancy Bowen will tell you in her courses on the Really Long Testament, it’s complicated.

It’s also complicated in our time.   For example, denominations exist – and split – because people do not agree on how we should live together as church.  How should we understand communion?  How do we govern ourselves?  How, exactly, does one properly wash a foot - Brethren? More recently, may gay people marry or be ordained?   Do we need institutional churches at all? You are here, I suspect, because such questions matter to you.  I hope they do.  Theology is about everything.

The second lesson from Corinthians is trickier.  It goes like this: community involves an inescapable tension between loving openness and meaningful boundaries.   Let me say it again:  community involves an inescapable tension between loving openness and meaningful boundaries.

Here, I suspect that it’s the “boundaries” side of things that makes us most nervous.  We don’t want to exclude or hurt . Rightly so.  And – let’s be honest – Paul isn’t making us feel any better. In First Corinthians 5, Paul rips off a list of sinners – the sexually immoral, drunkards, idolaters, and more – and tells the church to “drive the wicked person from among you.”  When he notes the rich are getting drunk at the Lord’s supper while the poor go hungry, you can almost hear him slap his forehead. “What!”  he interjects.  “What?”  Or so reads my translation, anyway.  Then in First Corinthians 4:18, he asks if he should come with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness.”  Is that a trick question?

So Paul is not afraid to argue about boundaries.  He can be angry, bitter, and sarcastic.  I don’t think he even credited pastoral care.  

But that’s not the whole story. First Corinthians chapter 13 – the chapter that includes “Love is patient, love is kind” was not written for weddings, but for a community in conflict.  Paul is actually reminding the Corinthians that their many different gifts –tongues, prophecy, leadership, teaching – should not clash and compete.  Instead, they should merge in one diverse body, united by love.  So let’s hear the Corinthians 13:4-8 again:

“Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends. 

Look around you.  Those are words to us.  And I think we can all get behind them.  We celebrate our gifts!  We support each other in our struggles!  We study our traditions, deepen our faiths, strengthen our writing, and learn to be ministers together.

But I also want to insist that loving communities also require boundaries.  If we believe in peace, we draw the line at violence.  If we believe in equality, we oppose racist and sexist social structures.   This is really just another way of saying we try to be true to the values and traditions that make us who we are.  Brethren and Quaker seminaries will differ from Southern Baptist seminaries, Catholic seminaries, and, for that matter, Hindu Ashrams.   To say that is not to demonize the other or to say there’s no common ground.   But it is to own, to proclaim, the values that define us.   And no less important, it’s to respect others enough to believe them when they say that, no, they see things differently than we do.

But boundaries don’t exist only at the edges of our communities.  As Paul’s Corinthian letters show, communities have internal standards and expectations, too.  Here, some of these are obvious.  We expect students to read for class, think critically, use gender-inclusive language, and avoid plagiarism.  Look – it’s a review of orientation!  But these rules – these boundaries – are not arbitrary – they show that intellectual seriousness, gender equality, and academic integrity are essential to who we are as seminaries. 

We could stop there – with rules that will get you to graduation.  But we might also add more.   For example:  If we believe in kindness, we stand up to cruelty.  If we believe that forthrightness and integrity matter, we stand up to gossip and backbiting.   We care enough about the health of our community to lovingly confront what is toxic.  And we care enough about others to help them mature.  For example, at my house, we define “big boy” as someone who regularly and exclusively  uses a potty.  And trust me when I say it leads to conflict.

Which, conveniently, is the third thing I think we can learn from Paul’s letters to Corinth:  Community requires commitment to work through conflict.    A major part of First Corinthians is Paul’s attempts to mediate conflict.  We've already seen some of these conflicts, but there are even more! Corinthians worship services had become chaotic messes, with multiple people speaking in tongues and talking over each other.  People seem to be threatening lawsuits.  We know that a church member was openly sleeping with his step-mother.
            Man, Corinth had issues.
            But here’s the thing:  healthy, vital communities always have issues.  Healthy, vital communities always have conflict – they just get better at working through it.  Conflict is unavoidable because God made us gloriously different and because we all have limitations – we al. see through a glass darkly, as Paul puts it in I Corinthians 13:12.    It’s also unavoidable because, like the church in Corinth, we come from different places, social locations, and life experiences.   It’s not just that theology is about everything; it’s that everything about us affects our theology.

So let me say again – to commit to community, then, is to commit to working through conflict.  And, in spite of all highly questionable pastoral care, Paul excels here.  He doesn’t only write to mediate conflict.  He’s neck deep in it.  When he himself is so hurt, so wounded that he cancels plants for visit – as he mentions in 2 Corinthians 2 – he still writes a letter that he says is “out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.”  Whether or not Paul was giving himself too much credit,  I admire the sentiment.

Look: I don’t agree with all of Paul’s theology, especially when it comes to gender and sexuality.  Like other Christians of a peace-and-justice bent, I tend to prefer Jesus and the prophets.   But in an era when social media and cable news have led so many of us to live in echo chambers of the like minded, when its more common to shop for religious communities than to build them, I want to hold up Paul’s commitment to the hard, frustrating, holy work of building community and working through differences.  We often say we need prophets.  Guess what:  we also need Pauls.

So, as we open this new academic year – I want to begin with a call to all of us – faculty, students, staff -- to build the community we want.   For those already doing it – and there are many of you – keep up the good work, and invite others in.    Let’s not neglect the basics that are already here – shared worship and common meals.  No, you’re not going to make all of them.  Me either.  Have you seen how many worship services we have? But worship and shared meals were central to the Corinthian community, or else they wouldn't have been worth arguing about.  They can be foundations for our communities too, but only if we show up, and join in.

It doesn't require extroversion or perfection. Look at Paul - hat guy became a saint!?  The bar is low.

Community building matters.  Look around you.  Look at Israel and Palestine;  Look at Ferguson, Missouri;  Look at Congress:  do you see any evidence that our world suffers from too much community, from too much commitment to working through difference and conflict?
It seems hopeless.  It does.   But it might also be that building community matters now more than ever.  As peace churches, as seminaries full of people who teach and practice alternatives to violence and conflict resolution, perhaps we can be living witnesses to the fact that another way is possible.  If I pray and squint a little, I can even believe that Christian community can seed new social movements and nudge the arc of history toward justice. 

In the process, we may find ourselves transformed, too.   As the Quaker writer Phil Gulley writes, healthy communities are like a blacksmith’s forge – they permit us to be sharpened by the pressures of life, if we let them.

So, welcome to this forge.  Welcome to these seminaries.  Welcome to this semester of being together, of studying theology, of studying everything.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Reading the Bible for all its worth

ESR graduate Scot Miller is currently working to complete a Doctorate of Ministry at Western Theological Seminary. This is the third in a series of essays that are meant to contribute to that project. You can read the first essay, "Christian ethics from a biblical standpoint," here, and the second, "Christians and the problem of torture," here. You can learn more about Scot and his work here: and here:

It is time for communities of faith to read the Bible together as community. It is time for congregations to challenge the ghosts of the academy, and eschew a “hermeneutic of suspicion”  in favor of a hermeneutic of belief.[1] It is time to return to prioritizing the biblical text in the practice of Christian ethics. At the same time, congregations should recognize that Scripture is not a transcendent text, it cannot be authoritative for those who do not believe; and does not contain any hidden truths, plain meanings, or hold universal moral authority. It is a text in which understanding is contingent upon a belief that Jesus of Nazareth is  a focal point of God's acting in history. It is a text which can only have meaning that is given to it by its readers and interpreters. It is a text that can be interpreted in unlimited variety, and support the meanings given to it by a diverse collection of communities. Its chief paradox might be that it is an authoritative text without authority.[2] Finally, whatever the Bible might represent to one person or another, it cannot reasonable be ignored by those concerned with a specifically Christian moral vision.
One will argue that fundamentalists and conservative Christians will not only disagree with the above statements, but insist the Bible has unquestionable authority (sola scriptura) and that it is inerrant. The first response to such assertions is that the fact of Protestantism and its denominations indicate that the Bible is open to a variety of interpretations (all of which are socially contingent), and is authoritative in a variety of ways (but not universally so). Consider: there are not only never-ending disagreements over which kind of baptism is biblical, but over the biblical representation of creation, authorship of various books and epistles, the meaning of the Revelation to John, and the role of women in the church.
Secondly, the only matter of concern over fundamentalist and conservative interpretations of Scripture is that such readings have become politically conservative. Such interpretations become concerned with power and control, and are inherently oppressive when used as a propositional device. It is increasingly evident that conservative readings of the text are not, in reality, theologically conservative, but are instead politically conservative and motivated by the intellectual and emotional need to have the Bible underwrite political agendas. Such maladaptive exegesis is not limited to the political right. Christians who favor the politics of the left tend to view the Bible in much the same way as their counterparts, insisting on quasi-fundamentalist readings focused on the declaration that there are no virgin births, that Jesus could not have walked on water, and that there are no resurrections. It seems that “liberal” views of the text will use the hermeneutic of suspicion as the natural “literal” counterbalance to the supposed literal reading attributed to their political enemies.[3]
Consider that neither of the above illustrations of textual understanding are illegitimate. Instead, such interpretations are suspect because they are used to grasp hold of and maintain political power. The use of the text to control the behaviors and choices of others has made the Bible a weapon in the hands of Christians who are not so much stuck in the middle ages as they are stuck in the failed philosophical project of modernity.[4] Liberal Christians use the text for similar purposes. They may not be caught up in the downward spiral of modernity (though social sciences serve their criticisms well), but they are caught up in what appears to be a lack of faith in the God of the Bible, instead turning to a transcendent universalism that mocks the narrative with every proof-text used to buoy the call for social welfare programs, food pantries, and anti-war demonstrations.
Some have decided that the Bible, and all of its particularity, is an embarrassment, a technical document for moral discourse, or simply problematic.[5] The problem of the Bible as an informant of moral vision or ethics is not, in fact, a problem. The problem of Scripture can be located in the very real difficulty of how Americans in particular have come to view the construct of community, and the Bible can only be a meaningful text of faith when it is read together by congregations. It is best interpreted in community in a manner by which the biblical ethic is made credible by no other means than the embodiment of the biblical narrative in the lives of the interpretive community. Prioritizing individual growth over corporate faithfulness can only result in a lack of accountability for how one uses the text to his advantage, or to the disadvantage of others.
The Bible was not written by individuals, and is never about individuals; but instead describes the faith and faithfulness (or lack thereof) of a people and communities that have confessed that YHWH is the one true God, and that Jesus is the full representation of God. Yet, the Bible can only be interpreted properly within the context of community that has no concern for finding a universally held transcendent truth spelled out within the it. If we can take Derrida seriously enough to know that he has something to contribute to theology, then imagine, not so much a that there is no truth, but more aptly acknowledge that humans will construct a plethora of truths in order to suit their immediate and long-term needs. Derrida calls, not only for the liberation of humanity from all oppression by identifying many texts as oppressive by their very nature, but also, at times, calls for the liberation of the text. Much of the world must be liberated from bonds of Scripture that are as much shackles of the empire as representative of western truth.[6]
It is the Bible, however, that needs liberating as much as humanity does: liberated from the insistence of its constituents who insist it is an overarching arbiter of truth; liberated from dogma and systematics and the aggressive contentions that the text has absolute authority. Any authority given to the Bible can only be legitimized by its ability to produce positive outcomes resulting from the embodiment of the interpretive twists and turns of any community who comes together in the name of Jesus as Messiah.[7] There can be no a priori authority assumed, but instead an awareness of a hermeneutic circle that results in repeated readings, understandings, and actualizations that lead back to reading the text through fresh hermeneutical lenses; once again ready to be acted out and reviewed by others. Reading the Bible, as Fee says, “for all its worth,”[8] means that it must be read, not so much by every individual as much as it must be read together by individuals who are part of a community which prioritizes corporate faith. Otherwise, readings of the text, understandings of the messiah, and the mission of the church inevitably stagnate. The proof of such stagnancy, so to speak, is evident in the post-Enlightenment pudding that we call the contemporary church.
In the introductory piece of this project, I discussed the nature of twentieth-century liberal religion and the tendency of major theological thinkers to relegate the Bible to the periphery of Christian ethics. While Conservative preachers certainly enjoyed a significant amount of control, it does not appear that those thinkers contributed much to the contemporary discussions of American morality and ethics. However, an integral piece of the religious conservative political public face was a patriotism and  anti-communism. After WW II, a now legendary preacher named Billy Graham took the anti-communist concerns of religious conservatives and forged a new role for the church as a significant voting block. Jerry Falwell and others grabbed hold of Graham's coat-tails and launched their own, very public and politically aggressive, ministries. The effects on American politics were realized very quickly.[9]
During the 1980's, through political power struggles and emotional manipulation, political conservatives seemed to hijack Scripture as their own. They followed Rauschenbusch in an important and familiar way – that being an insistence that the Bible contained universal truths, and that Jesus could be fully represented in the realm of liberal democracy. Yet, there is also a difference. Political conservatives came to insist that they had special access to this truth and a divine mandate to legislate a universal moral vision, much of which was left over from the anti-communist crusades that served to counter anyone who might interpret the stories of Jesus in a manner that prioritized kenosis, sacrifice of privilege, and the eschewing of power as a reflection of the cross. Additionally, conservatives have relied upon a marginalization of those communities that understand the text to be saying something different by publicly questioning the legitimacy of that community's faith.[10]
Conservatives have commandeered biblical language to the point that many Christians avoid the any reference of central biblical themes such as sin and redemption; forgiveness and salvation. It is not only from embarrassment related to quasi-literal readings of the Bible that prevent many from prioritizing it as an informant of ethics, but an embarrassment that might be realized when ethics are discussed in biblical discourse. There are some who perhaps do not want to risk being confused with their political opponents and what they believe to be “magical thinking” about God and America.[11]
But consider this: there are very few groups or individuals who concern themselves with the lives of the Amish, the Bruderhof, the Hutterites, or most Pentecostal congregations. It is pertinent to the conversation that these groups do not vote or run for public office. Such Anabaptist or Radical Reformation groups practice an ethic that is closely bound to very conservative interpretations of the biblical text. However, not only do they not engage the world through ballot boxes, but they are generally known to be pacifist groups who self-marginalize. Because of their perceived harmless political status, or, their eschewing of the electoral process, these groups are rarely scrutinized for their religious beliefs. However, they are generally considered to be positive communities, if not somewhat enigmatic.[12]
However, conservative groups who work to elect politicians that will insist on ordering school texts that contain information on biblical “science” or teach that same-sex intimacy is sinful, or want to make access to abortion illegal; are not only viewed as political threats, but are indeed attacked because they hold very specific religious beliefs that are used to indict, with a broad stroke, the whole of Christianity as aggressive, oppositional, and oppressive constituency. I suggest that the failure of Christian ethics is related to Christianity's continuing quest for power as a political force, because it is perceived to be a coercive force in  peoples lives. Yoder wrote that the good news cannot be good unless it is perceived as such.[13]
The failure of Christian ethics is in fact the failure of the church to be Christ-like. The downfall of Christendom is its insistence upon maintaining political relevance at the expense of identifying the need to embody ethics in a manner that makes it credible to others. Human history shows that political power and the ethics of power are, if anything, in-credible. Such is the case for the contemporary church and it's insistence upon making universal claims of transcendent truth, biblical inerrancy, and divine right to rule (often, the right to rule and control social and economic expression politics). What can be done?
The answer to the problem of discredited Christian ethics is to deconstruct the church, yet not to some primeval state that wishes to return to a sort of first-century purity. Many might agree that Derrida goes too far in his assertions that all texts are inherently controlling and oppressive. A text will be oppressive if a group asserts that it is transcendent and universally authoritative. Writers such as Yoder, and Cartwright have rightly proposed that the text is liberating when it is read and interpreted by communities who eschew any stake in coercive political activity.[14] The focus on Matthew 18 and the nature of how a congregation practices binding and loosing is important to communities of interpretation as it allows the hermeneutical process to play itself out.[15]
Interpretations are always contingent, and so it follows that each community must interpret according to its historical and social place in time, then, within the greater context of a world community.[16] This is an ancient practice, and is evidenced in the four canonical gospels, each of which use the sayings of Jesus in a manner that suits the context of that community. For example, the gospels were written by members of a Jewish sect that insisted God's messiah had come and changed the nature of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. As such, messianic Jews interpreted the Hebrew texts in a manner that supporter their claim.[17]
There is much evidence of competing Jewish groups that contextualized the Hebrew narrative. Obviously, groups such as the Pharisees and Sadducees, interest groups like the Scribes and Hasmonians, and messianic pretenders on either side of the time Jesus ministry. And, there was a larger context. The Promised Land was occupied by the Romans, who propped up Herod's regime, which was considered illegitimate. The Romans demanded sacrifices to the emperor, and taxes were paid by the temple elites with the funds collected form Jews via the temple tax. Taxation  is claimed to have been around 30 to 40% of all earning, and there were no social services outside of slavery.[18]
There was also the context of Hellenistic philosophy and literature, the Hebrew and Greek texts of the faith, and all the other realities of first century life. In other words, the gospels are all a product of the first century, and are social, political, and religious documents intended to make sense of the times and legitimize the specific claims of a small community. The very same realities and contingencies apply to any community that reads the text and interprets them. All of a congregation's social baggage, positive and negative, is going to influence the way the Bible is understood, the way it is embodied, and the manner in which a congregation uses it as a “community rule.”
As the readers continue with the text, a few things become evident. Christian communities will read the Hebrew texts through messianic lenses. Whatever the understandings of Judaism might be, and that Jewish commentators will rightfully be cited to inform the interpretive maneuvers, Christ is necessarily at the center of this first-century hermeneutic. Contemporary Christian communities will also read the text through tinted lenses, by church history and tradition, the social and economic standing of the community, and the material resources that each congregation might have access to will be the baggage that it is necessary to unpack during the interpretive task. Primarily, the readers of the text will interpret it through the unshakable lens of the contingent though contemporary zeitgeist.
Two things are of primary importance. The first is the recognition that we can not interpret first- century texts with any understanding of the author's particular intention. We can assume general circumstances, but making more then general assumptions prioritizes academic exercises that are consistently evolving as new information comes to light. Academic advances should be used as critiques of a community's reading, but the reading cannot be dependent on such exercises. The second item of importance is a firm recognition that we can only interpret the text in light of our own understanding of what is real, what things are meaningful to us, and why they are meaningful. Considering the above few paragraphs, I now present one way of many to interpret the text and restoring the Bible to its rightful place as the authority of Christian ethics. Of course, according to all that has been written above, this cannot be the way, but a way. By this example, I hope to provide some insights to the notion that the Bible can be authoritative without having any claim to transcendence, or used to support propositional claims, which by default would  make the text a tool of oppression.

An important place to begin is back at the top. The concept of a “hermeneutic of suspicion” was introduced by Paul RicœurRicœur also introduced the concept of “second naivete.” In his book Symbolism of Evil, Ricœur suggests that it is not possible to properly interpret first-century texts because they concern themselves, for the most part, with particular and singular outcomes, and describe  this particularity in metaphor and symbols that cannot be interpreted because we cannot relive this past, or recreate the particulars. Ricœur believes that modern readers can only approximate first-century conditions, concerns, and possibilities. The concept of second naivete can be especially useful to moderate-to-liberal communities who get caught up in gospel narratives that include miracles, angels, satans, and virgin births.[19]
The main function of the hermeneutic becomes its place as the facilitator of belief, because we begin to interpret the text with an understanding that it is we who gives meaning to the text.  Ricœur writes that interpretation is belief. While those who lived within the historical and social place in time in which the text was first written and edited could perhaps exegete meanings that were in fact extensions of authorial intent, all the 21st century interpreter can do is read the Bible “as if.” A modern reader can interpret the text, despite a wealth of possible outcomes and multiple meanings, by practicing a re-enactment of the text that is in sympathy with the particular narratives.[20]
 While we cannot possibly know what Jesus meant when he claimed that if, he wished, twelve legions of angles could drive out the oppressors, we can sympathize with the text and understand it in a manner that suggests non-violence as the Christ-centered response to evil. Properly stated, a community can interpret the text in any manner that suits its own reality.[21] The key to second naivete is that an ethic held in sympathy with the text will lead to the performance of the interpretation. Interpretation becomes belief, which is then lived out in faith; a faith that  believes such activity will later be vindicated in a manner imagined by the interpretive community, regardless if that truth is represented by metaphor or literal belief in heaven, etc.[22] It is “as if” we access meaning in the text, and through our hermeneutical lenses, live the meaning out in the manner that makes it intelligible to ourselves and our contemporaries. We live as though, if we practice non-violence despite our privileged position to benefit from living within the safety of the empire, we will not make use of the strength of the empire, but empty ourselves of privilege in order to live in sympathy with the text, and no less in sympathy with Jesus. Of course, such an interpretation is contingent on any number of realities and truths that are manipulated to serve the goals of the interpretive community. Every interpretation will be – can only be, as much.
It must be stated that some interpretive twist, much like beliefs in general, will be deemed not credible, which is different than saying they are in-credible. An in-credible practice might suggest that the imagined outcomes are not realistic, or that the practices of a community are the result of magical thinking, misguided or unreasonable assertions of reality, or simply unrealistic according to the observable nature of human activity. Certainly, many liberal-to-moderate thinkers will deem the resurrection event in-credible. Other potential responses to an ethic as constructed by biblical interpreters, is that the public performance of interpretation by its believers prove to be unfruitful, oppressive, or destructive. Walking on water is in-credible, but such an event can be interpreted, and sympathetic performances can provide meaning to such a text that makes the belief productive and beneficial to the lives of others. It is a matter of a community interpreting the event at the Sea of Galilee and in some way applying Ricœur's “sympathetic imagination”[23] in order to make sense of it. Might walking on water indicate something greater than the sum total of the words on paper? Only an interpretive community can make that possible, then, credible.
On the other hand, if a community insists that walking on water is a literal miracle, indicative of Jesus as a divine being capable of altering physics, then uses this interpretation to underwrite militarism in the name of the divine – an observant public might be forced to consider whether such an ethic is credible. As Lindbeck wrote, it is incongruous to claim that God is love “while cleaving the skull of an infidel.”[24]   Militarism of this sort may be appropriate for nation states in the defense of citizenry or the  conquering of another people, but if a congregation claims that God is Love, they may be hard-pressed to use the Bible to underwrite such practices as being Christian, or biblical. To claim God is love while hating one's enemy is simply not a credible claim, for Jesus instructs disciples to love enemies and pray for persecutors. It can be deemed credible for the nation-state to use military force, but a government's claim that God is love would, in most every instance, have little credibility.
Liberation theologians and philosophical thinkers refer to the embodiment of beliefs as praxis.[25] The concept of praxis best describes the concept of biblical ethics. An ethic is the intentional behavior of a community whose public performance of particular texts are intended to define and make credible the claims about a specific moral vision. If a community of interpretation has a moral vision based on the theme that one should love God, and love their neighbors as themselves, the public performance would intentionally enact the drama of, say, feeding the hungry or visiting the prisoner. The stories of the Bible provide narratives that the congregation can re-enact with sympathetic imagination – like understanding the story of the good Samaritan as an indicator of what it means to love your neighbor, and, to love your enemies. Since these practices are public, they are both witness and drama to be observed by outsiders, thus, open to critique. Herein lays the hermeneutic circle.
Hermeneutics act as a community's pre-understanding of reality. It is through this understanding, perhaps prejudice is an apt word, that individuals, communities, and societies interpret events and the rest of the world. The hermeneutic is what one or more brings to the text to begin the interpretive process. All hermeneutics contain meanings that are socially and historically contingent meanings, they are inextricably linked to a person or community's time and place in history, their shared experiences, shared language, self-understanding, a corporate concepts of truth.
It is through the hermeneutic that individuals and congregations interact with the text, interpreting the text or historical events in accordance with their reality. This is the act of interpretation of text or event. Once the event occurs, or the interpretation of the biblical text has been engaged through the hermeneutic vision, a community will gain new understanding of truth, of self, and of “the other.” This interpretive move marks the beginning of Caputo's process of “repetition.”[26] With every opportunity to interpret comes an opportunity to develop deeper relationships with the text, and one another. Also, the repetitive act of interpreting facilitates a firmer grasp of old and present truths, and potentially, even a radical change in such understandings, such as understanding the life and death of Jesus, followed by resurrection, as events that were interpreted in a manner that Jesus became identified as the messiah of Israel. This was a radical change in understanding of truth that could have only been accomplished by a Jewish community of belief who used the Hebrew Scriptures to both understand the ministry of Jesus and his death, and then, witness to others how God had acted to change the world through resurrecting him. The matter of Jesus in history makes absolutely no sense when taken out if its ancient Jewish context.
The next aspect of the hermeneutic circle is praxis. This point of repetition depends upon a community's ability to experience new possibilities, and test these new understandings and possibilities through the process of sympathetic imagination. This is an important part of hermeneutical repetition because an community anticipates publicly performing new actualities as a means of testing and meaning-making. Also, it displays a witness to the public so that the matter of credibility may be established, and further self-reflection occurs. The last aspect of repetition is the re-inauguration of the circle, as new understandings of the text and truth become a interpretive group's new pre-understanding, discursive language, and understanding of truth. The process, as stated, is continuously repeated, and it is only through this repetition that that old narratives can be continued and passed down, and new understandings can develop. There can be no actualization of praxis without a process that allows for consistent re-evaluation.
It is now time for applying meaning to the hermeneutical process described above. Herein lays the possibility that the text cannot be universally authoritative due to the contingent nature of all understanding, but is still authoritative because it provides a community with textual discourse by which the world and truth claims can be evaluated in faith. One of Yoder's biggest fears is that others would interpret his work as sectarian to the point that it would be dismissed an anarchistic.[27] I contend that there is no hermeneutical catastrophe lurking behind dark interpretive corners if the understandings of the Bible as understood in community leads to both sectarian understandings, and even the sort of anarchy in which the community may understand that nation states claim authority, but the congregation is free to test and challenge laws and demands of the state through a hermeneutic process that is wholly contingent on the biblical narrative, and not upon the fear of consequences. Such praxis can sometime result in martyrdom or imprisonment, yet such are the consequences of maintaining a ethic that intends to make sense of reality in a manner that is dependent upon the interpretation of Scripture and believes that God is the final arbiter of history.
Returning to Derrida, an interpretive community must discard the need to make the Bible universally true, or universally authoritative. This begins the deconstructive process that allows for the hermeneutical theme of repetition to be fully engaged. The point of deconstruction of the text is “to expose limitations, to de-limit the authority of every assertion which sets itself up as authoritative.”[28] Removing any propositional claims about the contents of the biblical text reduces the opportunities for interpretations to become oppressive when embodied by believers. Yet, Derrida does not want to destroy all authority, as Yoder fears, but instead he wishes to eliminate absolute authority, and further suppose that all authority is suspect, being only as credible as the results they produce!
We then turn to Yoder to identify how the text can be authoritative. The practice of binding and loosing as delineated in Matthew 18:15-22. The text gains its authority through the meaning given to it by an interpretive community that reads the text together and corporately enacts the interpretation. The authority lays in the text as it provides a boundaried discourse through which church understandings are developed, dialogue takes place, and forgiveness for interpretive disagreements can be a priority. Discipline is not the primary result of the Matthean pericope, but rather a means of reconciling voluntary members of the congregations who have disagreements or hurt one another. Where two or three are gathered, the praxis of a community can be established through engagement with the hermeneutical circle. Whatever a community binds together becomes a new possibility, or a deeper understanding of tradition and ongoing praxis. Whatever is loosed by the community means the repetitive process has lead to the rejection of a particular interpretation, and the member of the community may choose to leave, or, continue with behaviors and be continuously forgiven upon repentance.
Caputo suggests that repetition and hermeneutics are important due to the following. The church, and its adherence to a truly biblical ethic, represents an attempt to “restore the difficulty of life, not to make it impossible.” Faithfulness is a difficult proposition. The difficulty lays in reading the text “for all its worth.” The impossible part may be using a text that has little meaning despite attempts to make it universally authoritative, so that any use of the text in the discussion of social, religious, or controlling narratives makes the text, and the Christian ethic, unintelligible. and a rather empty and in-credible witness at best.

[1]Lewis S. Mudge, Introduction to Paul Ricoeur, Essays on Biblical Interpretation, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1980), 5. Mudge writes: “any new articulation of faith must pass through and beyond the 'hermeneutics of suspicion,' not slide around it.” I interpret the following statement by John Caputo to compliment Mudge's assertion. :We are trying to restore the difficulty of life, not to make it impossible.” Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction and the Hermeneutic Project (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987), 209.
[2]Caputo, 161. Concerning the work of Jacques Derrida and textual authority: Derrida's “point is to expose the limitations, to delimit the authority of every assertion which does not set itself up as authoritative. And this is not that there are no authorities, but there are no absolute authorities, that authorities are always suspect, that they are only as good as the results they produce...” See also Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge,(Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). Lyotard is wary of any claims to universal or transcendent authority by a text and believes that we should no longer turn to “grand narratives” as a primary source of of a universal knowledge. “But,” he writes,” the little narrative remains the quintessential form of imaginative invention.” This coincides with Caputo's and Derrida's concern with claims of universalism and transcendent authority. Little narratives produce a valuable knowledge that values “open systems, local determination,” and is “anti-method.” Lyotard even questions the efficacy of consensus by referring it to a “tool of power.” 60. Gadamer states it most succinctly: “Meaning is not fixed.” Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 156.
[3]Alasdair MacIntryre, After Virtue, Second edition, (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1986), especially Chapters, 2-7. He states that moral discourse is competitive, won by the individual who “displays the greatest appearance of a clear, undoubting conviction” which in turn ends to the appearance of the victor's access to universal truth, and reflects a false sense of reasoned authority through an appeal to an objective and impersonal criterion but in reality is simply a display of rhetorical skill. 19.  He suggests that “the most striking feature” of modern argumentation is that, despite appeals to rationality and universal truths, the argument can never end. “There seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture.” 6. Regarding specifically Christian claims of universality, he points out the relationship between emotivism and evangelism. “The sole reality of distinctively moral discourse is the attempt of one will to align the attitudes, feelings, preferences, and choices of another with his own. Others are always a means, never ends.” 24.
[4]Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity, trans. by Geoffery W. Bromily (Grand Rapids, MI: William Eerdmans, 1991), writes “nothing is left. And this nothing is increasingly aggressive, totalitarian, and omnipresent.”, 22. Lyotard adds much to the discussion: “Scientific knowledge does not represent the totality of knowledge.”, 7. Consider the Bible as an authoritative text in our contemporary intellectual environment as related to Lyotard's proposal that emotivism is coincidental to the self-justifying nature of “reasoned” propositions. Lyotard understands bureaucracy to be a primary example of self-justifying reasoning, but it reflects the nature of denominational religious structures, and the political uses of the biblical text. The Bible must be declared the text of transcendent universal truth in order to justify the political desires of the individual or organization that relies upon it as a supportive, transcendent truth. Moral discourse in the Western democracies often depends on making truth claims that necessarily support the needs of an established economic, legal, or social class, “or it is dysfunctional.” Such “dysfunctional claims,” like the Bible teaches that participation in war in not a Christian behavior, is relegated to the status of “not-credible.” Credibility, according to Lyotard, is granted solely to those universalist propositions and the findings of hard sciences or well-reasoned outcomes within a boundaried moral discourse that promote the success and progress of the major stakeholders of a system, and maintain its stability and supremacy as an overarching regulatory structure. 12
[5]Michael G. Cartwright, Practices, Politics, and Performance: Toward a Communal Hermeneutic for Christian Ethics, Vol. 57 Princeton Theological Monograph  (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2006). Cartwright follows the use of the Bible in Christian ethics and draws a line from the rise of modernity to the present. “By 1965,” he writes, “the use of the Bible in Christian ethics was a problem to be solved.” He writes further that if the Bible was to be authoritative for Christian ethics “there is little agreement concerning how it is authoritative.” 40, citing Edward Leroy Long Jr., “The use of the Bible in Christian Ethics: A Look at Basic Options,” Interpretation, IXX, no. 2 (April, 1965) 149-142.
[6]Caputo, 156. He paraphrases Derrida by writing “we create as many truths as we require... It has to be liberated from the illusion of a single truth. It is to be liberated from dogmatism and hermeneutics and to adapt a strategy of writing...” I now add a disclaimer gleaned from the writing of Henry L.Ruf, Postmodern Rationality, Social Criticism, and Religion, in “Paragon Issues in Philosophy” edit. by John K. Roth and Frederich Sontag, (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2005). He writes: “One can only write for one's own rhetorical purposes in response to Derrida's writing.” 13. Steven Shakespeare, Derrida and Theology, (London: T&T Clark International, 2009).
[7]This claim is representative of the work of many Christian theologians and ethicists, beginning with MacIntyre, and including much of the work of Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983) and John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994). See also Yoder's  The Priestly Kingdom, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).
[8]Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All it's Worth, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981).
[9]  Greg Barker, Julie Powell, and David Espar, “Of God and Caesar” in God in America series, Episode 6;      (Boston: WGBH Public Broadcasting System, 2012), Transcript (accessed August 2, 2014).  See also: Vice-             president Dick Cheney sent out Christmas cards in 2003 that quoted, in handwriting, Benjamin      Franklin: “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire              can rise without His aid?” quoted by Timothy Noah, “The Imperial Vice Presidency: Dick Cheney Says          the E-Word” in Slate, (December 17, 2003), http:/, cited in Joerg Rieger,             Christ and Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 63.
[10]For an excellent example of populist-style writing that provides evidence to support my assumption, please see John Hawkins, “Seven Political Differences between Liberals and Conservatives,” in Townhall.Com,, (January 25, 2011) accessed on August 2, 2014. He writes: “Conservatives are better Christians than liberals: Certainly there are debates about social conservatism and Christianity on the conservative side of the fence, but Christian conservatism is considered to be a honorable and important part of the Republican base. People are going to hate to hear this, despite the fact it's absolutely true, but Christianity and liberalism have become largely incompatible. That's because there are so many liberals who are implacably hostile to Christianity that liberal Christians are left with one of two unpalatable choices. Either they can water their Christian beliefs down into thin gruel so as to be compatible with liberalism or liberal Christians can choose to be cringing dogs and keep their mouths shut while their beliefs are regularly insulted, demeaned, and attacked by their fellow liberals. Neither option should be acceptable to someone who has a strong Christian faith
[11]Mark Sandlin, “I Want My Religion Back – You Can Keep the Ugly Baggage,” in Patheos.Com, (July 27, 2014),; (Retrieved August 2, 2014).
[12]Compare Yoder's The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel, (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1984), Section III: “The Public Realm.” Yoder argues assertively for Christian participation in Democracy and the overcoming of “American civil religion” through the introduction of Christian commitment to reconciling democratic leadership to the gospel. Contra Ellul, who writes that Christian Anarchy is an “absolute rejection of violence. Should anarchists vote? For my part, like many anarchists, I think not.” Ellul also states that conscientious objection to militarism is an important witness, and states that anarchists should 'avoid taxes, and compulsory schooling...” 11. Ellul, in direct contrast to Yoder, believes that Christianity is the first form of anarchism, and suggests aggressively that the church should embody anarchy as its witness to the gospel message.
[13]Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, 55.
[14]Ibid. “The dominant moral views of any known world are oppressive, provincial, or (to say theologically) 'broken'.”  Also, Yoder suggest that there is no need to claim universal authority on behalf of Christ or the text, as faith is the key to biblical authority and understanding “for which there need not be claimed the coercion of evidence irrefutable by the historian's canons of uniformity or the scientists axioms of repeatability” which is also a form of epistemological violence, 40, 37. See Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: “Scientific knowledge does not represent the totality of knowledge,” 7. Henry Ruf, Postmodern Rationality, suggests “History is primarily a power struggle between historical agents.The metaphysical passion to find the ultimate justifications for belief, actions, and social institutions are not just the result of innocent philosophical curiosity. They are part of an effort to control people.” 66.
[15] Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, 116, and Cartwright, Practices, Politics, and Performance, 71.      
[16]MacIntyre, After Virtue, “The extraction of theological or philosophical statements from their contemporary context lends to a 'false independence' which in turn attempts to make such statements universal truths.” 11.Understandings and interpretations are also contingent upon the unescapable agenda of the interpreter. Ruf, Postmodern Rationality, 68f.
[17]N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Minneapolic, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 456.
[18]William R. Herzog II, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2000), 122.
[19]Paul Ricouer, Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan, (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 18. In his introduction to Ricoeur's Essays in Biblical Interpretation, Mudge writes this interpretive maneuver is necessary to read the text through modern lenses: “Any new articulation of faith must pass through and beyond the 'hermeneutics of suspicion,' and not slide around it.” 5.
[20]Mudge, Introduction to Ricoeur, Essays in Biblical Interpretation, 6-7.
[21]Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics, “We create as many truths as we require... it has to be liberated from the illusion” that there exists a single truth. 156.
[22]Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, “God's story is not merely told; it must be lived.” 45.  “By learning to 'imitate' Jesus we in fact become part of God's very life and therein find our true home. We become citizens in God's kingdom...” 67.
[23]Mudge, Introduction to Ricoeur, Essays in Biblical Interpretation, 6-7.
[24]George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, (Louisville KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1984), 64.
[25]Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, trans. and edit. by Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), xxx. Lindbeck, Intelligibility is a “matter of skill, not theory, and credibility comes from good performance, not adherence to independently formulated criteria.” 131.Wright, The New Testament, 233.
[26]Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics.
[27]Yoder, Priestly Kingdom, 25. Just one example of many where Yoder uses the theme of anarchism in a pejorative sense.
[28]Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics, 196.