1997-3-2 Biblical, Theological Interpretation

Biblical, Theological Interpretation

Eric Lemonholm

March 2, 1997

I must start by naming my standpoint, giving a sense of my space in relation to the Bible and to other readers.  The “Holm” in my name is from my Swedish and Norwegian heritage; the “Lemons” is from my wife Mindy’s French, English, Russian, Native American, etc., heritage.  We were raised in Duluth, Minnesota, in the Evangelical Covenant Church, a pietistic denomination that broke off of the Swedish Lutheran Church over a century ago. 

For many years, I have had an ambivalent relationship with my Covenant background.  On the one hand, I value my pietistic roots.  Pietists take their faith seriously.  From a young age, I was given leadership roles in church and at summer camp.  I was nurtured and mentored by Christians who genuinely cared for my spiritual well-being.  There is a strenuous nature to evangelical pietism that I do not wish to lose: I wish to take prayer, discipleship, the Bible, and service seriously.  In fact, part of my current struggle (and my wife’s struggle, our struggle) is to recover that element of our pietistic heritage.

But that heritage is seriously limited.  There has always been a more open, ecumenical, almost progressive element in the Covenant Church, one which kept alive connections with the Lutheran and other Christian traditions.  But that element is small, and it is shrinking.  The dominant element in the Covenant is mostly white, conservative, fundamentalist/inerrantist, dispensationalist, American evangelicalism.  It is that element in the Covenant which I reject, and which in turn rejects me.  Merely attending P.T.S. disqualifies me from serving in most Covenant churches, while my relatively liberal theological and socio-politico-economic views would make remaining in the Covenant Church difficult.  An important element in naming my space, therefore, is my intimate lifelong involvement in the Covenant, as well as my estrangement from it.

My ambivalent relationship with my heritage is exemplified by my relationship to the theologian Paul Holmer.  Both of our families go back generations in the same church; he and my grandfather are lifelong best friends.  Holmer’s theological perspective has been important in my journey; while his insights are important for me, I must go beyond them and move toward an interventionist perspective. 

Holmer’s basic perspective, as I understand it, is this.  While acknowledging the value of critical approaches for increasing our understanding of Scripture, Holmer calls into question a reductionistic view of the Bible which focuses only on one aspect of its truth value.  The importance of God’s word is not so much its historical or literary content, but the form of life which it reveals.  This makes a difference for the Christian:

One suspects that it is far more important than most historical material to learn to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to learn to love a neighbor, and to achieve a high degree of self-concern, in order to understand the religious themes of the New Testament….  These forms of human consciousness are closer to the prerequisites for a Christian’s understanding than is most knowledge provided by other scholars.[1]

Theology, Holmer argues, is too often worked out apart from the traditions and life of the church.  Building on Wittgenstein, Holmer speaks of theology as the grammar of faith.  Theology is not something above Scripture, corporate worship, and action in the world, the life of faith.  Rather, theology is what one does when one reflects on and talks about faith.  Theology makes explicit what is implicit in the faithful life, it gives us “the order and priorities, the structure and morphology, of the Christian faith.”[2]  Christian theology is done properly when one is a disciple of Jesus Christ, when one daily kneads the yeast of God’s word into one’s otherwise flat life.  The point is not so much to have knowledge about God as it is to know God through Jesus Christ, and, as Holmer states, “One knows God in fearing and loving him.”[3]  What is needed is not a new content of faith, but rather a changed heart, so that Scripture connects with the life of the learner.  As Holmer says,

Nothing whatsoever is wrong with that old knowledge of God.  We do not have to make it new.  It is the recipient who has to be revivified and converted…  Thus it behooves us to use what gifts we have, not to change the story, but rather to say it with freshness and with its plenteous attractiveness.[4]

My interest in feminist and liberation theologies distanced me from Holmer for several years.  For example, Holmer sees theologies of liberation as “fashions” or “journalistic theology.”[5]  This was obviously narrow to me in 1992, and it still is: If the life of faith includes radical solidarity with the poor, oppressed, and marginalized, then theology as a grammar of faith (however tentative and open to revision) must include reflection on liberation.  What caused me to return to Holmer this semester was the discovery of a review of Holmer’s book by Cornel West.[6]   West applauds Holmer’s concentration on the life of faith in community as the locus of theology, but he challenges Holmer to be “more radically Wittgensteinian, more radically Kierkegaardian, and more open to change and innovation of the tradition– especially its ethical and political practices.”[7]  Holmer ignores his own space and its limitations in his approach to the Bible and the Christian tradition(s).  Racism, sexism, and classism must be recognized and rejected in Scripture, in the Christian tradition, in the contemporary church, and in one’s own heart.  That is not a matter of fashion, but deeply ingrained sin.

I have learned two exegetical methods in two courses here at P.T.S.  Interestingly, both methods get one into and behind the biblical text, but mostly ignore the world in front of the text, the standpoint of the reader(s).  Neither method explicitly recognizes God’s option for the poor.  Since the methods are similar, and since I have used both to compose sermons, I will conflate them slightly in narrating my rough method of interpretation.

In choosing a text, I try to be guided by the lectionary.  Which passage I focus on, however, is based on personal preference (which text would I be most comfortable with?) and congregational needs or concerns, as I perceive them.  I then go straight to the “original text,” in Hebrew or Greek.  I like to struggle with it for awhile, just me, the text, and the grammars and dictionaries by dead white men.  One has to be careful at this point: there is plenty of sexism and racism (especially anti-Semitism) in those old tools.  They tend to obscure liberating textual possibilities.  This, of course, is not explicit in the exegetical guides.

At this point, one of my professors wisely advised us to “converse with the text, asking question upon question.”  This opens the possibility for reflecting on one’s context and the needs of the congregation, as well as God’s option for the oppressed.  Since this is not spelled out explicitly, however, one’s conversation with the text is not necessarily guided by a liberation perspective, but rather can be individualistic and arbitrary.  I know that this is not this professor’s objective, but it is a limit of the method.  In my limited preaching experiences, I have endeavored to give explicit attention to the liberating qualities of the text, not always successfully.

Back to the text.  I must put the text in its wider literary context: What is this passage’s place in the section, book, etc.?  I must also explore the socio-politico-historical context(s) of the passage.  These both became important last year, for example, when I wrote a paper on I Cor. 11:2-16.  It was important to look at other passages in I Cor. and Paul’s other letters, where he talks about women and their role in the church.  It was also helpful to learn that, in first century Roman Corinth, both men and women worshipped the (pagan) gods with their heads covered.  This passage (in part) reveals Paul’s prejudice for the more Jewish and Greek custom of only women covering their heads in worship.  A liberating word for women in regards to this passage is to note both that Paul makes a bad argument from custom and (a twisted use of) Scripture, and that included within the passage is the assumption that women were indeed able to “pray” and “prophesy” in church.

I should tentatively outline the flow of the passage, and determine “the principal issues,” “the main focus,” and “the meaning” of the passage (I am quoting from one of the exegetical guides).  At this point, I should then check my results with a few reliable commentaries.  This is an important step: good commentators undoubtedly know more of the grammatical, literary, and socio-historical issues than I.  It is especially useful to check a database for references in journal articles for the passage: they tend to be more up to date than the commentaries on the shelf, especially on the social or archaeological issues (for example, none of the commentaries I found knew about the common Roman and Corinthian practice of ritual head covering I referred to previously, but several articles had documented it– the complaint of one writer was that most NT scholars do not pay attention to the readily available archaeological and textual data from outside the biblical text). 

The danger in commentary use, of course, is the likelihood that most commentaries are written by white Western (and boring) men.  One needs to search for other voices in the conversation, voices from beyond the reference section of the Speer Library.  That takes disciplined reading, listening to, conversing with, and acting in solidarity with marginal(ized) people.  More than an exegetical step, this must be a daily practice of ministry.  I hope to be a pastor some day, probably in the Lutheran Church.  A challenge in my ministry will be to keep a vital daily connection with the reality of the poor.  I hope to be either in an inner-city or rural church.

Interestingly, it is at this point in each method that I am supposed to state the claim(s) of the passage on the congregation and write the sermon.  According to the methods I have used, I have explored in and behind the text.  What I have not done (if I merely followed the methods) is explored in front of the text.  Where am I standing?  What questions do I bring to the text?  How about the congregation?  What is their standpoint?  What are they struggling with?  What is the word of challenge, the word of comfort, that God wants to communicate to them?  This is hopefully the stage in exegesis where both the Spirit and the pre-understanding and artistry of the preacher will come into play.  The best exegetical gymnastics will not produce a good sermon, one which speaks a word or words from God to the people in the congregation.  The Spirit has her own work to do in this process.  What is the job of the preacher?

The preacher needs to be immersed in the teaching and spiritual guidance of the people of the congregation.  The preacher needs to be a person of prayer.  The preacher needs to be connected with/involved in God’s work among her people, the poor, especially in the church’s wider community.  Given that I will realistically only be able to spend about ten hours each week preparing a sermon, I will have to trust that, if I do my part in sermon preparation, prayer, and the weekly praxis of a disciple of Christ, then the sermon I produce will be faithful to the biblical text, will be meaningful to (at least some in) the congregation, and will be a clay vessel through which the Holy Spirit can speak to the hearts of the laity (and myself). 

[1] Paul L. Holmer, The Grammar of Faith, New York: Harper, 1978, p. 8.

[2] Ibid., p. 20.

[3] Ibid., p. 25.

[4] Ibid., p. 36.

[5] Ibid., pp 10-11.

[6]  Cornel West, “On Paul Holmer’s The Grammar of Faith,” reprinted in Prophetic Fragments, Trenton: Africa World Press, 1988, pp. 226-233.

[7] Ibid., p. 233.

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