Hermeneutics and Praxis: Two Wrongs and a Right

Recently Christian Piatt made a couple of provocative posts on the Sojourners “God’s Politics” blog concerning Christian cliches that should not be used.  Here’s one of them that’s a little tricky though:

The cliche was: “The Bible clearly says…”  And here’s why Piatt said we should drop it:

First, unless you’re a Biblical scholar who knows the historical and cultural contexts of the scriptures and can read them in their original languages, the Bible isn’t “clear” about much. Yes, we can pick and choose verses that say one thing or another, but by whom was it originally said, and to whom? Cherry-picking scripture to make a point is called proof-texting, and it’s a theological no-no. Second, the Bible can be used to make nearly any point we care to (anyone want to justify slavery?), so let’s not use it as a billy club against each other.

I think this is a good point, but he kinda leaves us wondering what the heck we’re supposed to do if we’re not biblical scholars… which I’m not, so we may need more instruction on how to approach reading the Bible and truly beginning to understand its applicability for our present situations.  And obviously, the degree of interpretative difficulty varies from passage to passage — as does perhaps the usefulness and even the authority of different passages for contemporary contexts — but here Peter C. Phan explains what the well-known Brazilian-Catholic theologian Clodovis Boff has said on this front.  I’ve copied part of his explanation below.  It might seem a little bit technical at first, but I believe its worth reading through:

Clodovis Boff’s Correspondence of Relationship Model for Interpretation of Scripture

As to the process of correlating the Scripture to our social location, Clodovis Boff warns us against two unacceptable common practices which he terms the “gospel/politics model” and the “correspondence of terms model.” The “gospel/politics model” sees the gospel as a code of norms to be directly applied to the present situation. Such application is carried out in a mechanical, automatic, and nondialectical manner; it completely ignores the differences in the historical contexts of each of the two terms of the relationship.

The “correspondence of terms model” sets up two ratios which it regards as mutually equivalent and transfers the sense of the first ratio to the second by a sort of hermeneutical switch. For instance, an attempt is made to establish an equivalency (the equal sign) between the ratio of the first part of terms and that of the second pair of terms: Scripture: its political context; theology of the political: our political context; exodus: enslavement of the Hebrews; liberation: oppression of the poor; Babylon: Israel; captivity: people of Latin America; Jesus: his political context; Christian community: its current political context.  Although better than the “gospel/politics model” in so far as it takes into account the historical context of each situation, the “correspondence of terms model” is still unacceptable because it assumes a perfect parallel between the first ratio and the second.

In contrast to these two models, Clodovis Boff proposes what he calls the “correspondence of relationships model” which he claims is in conformity with the practice of the early Church and the Christian communities in general. In schematic form this model looks as follows: Jesus of Nazareth: his context; Christ and Church: context of Church; Church tradition: historical context;  ourselves: our context. In reduced form, it looks as follows: Scripture: its context; ourselves: our context.

In this model the Christian communities (represented by the Church, church tradition, and ourselves) seek to apply the gospel to their particular situations. But contrary to the other two models, this model takes both the Bible and the situation to which the Bible is applied in their respective autonomy. It does not identify Jesus with the Church, church tradition, and ourselves on the one hand, nor does it identify Jesus’ context with the context of the Church, the historical context of church tradition, and our context on the other. The equal sign (:) does not refer to the equivalency among the terms of the hermeneutical equation but to the equality among the respective relationships between the pairs of terms. As Boff puts it, “The equal sign refers neither to the oral, nor the textual, nor to the transmitted words of the message, nor even to the situations that correspond to them. It refers to the relationship between them. We are dealing with a relationship of relationships. An identity of senses, then, is not to be sought on the level of context, nor, consequently, on the level of the message as such—but rather on the level of the relationship between context and message on each side [Scripture and ourselves in the reduced schema] respectively.” This focus on the relationship between the terms of each pair and the equivalency among these relationships rather than on a particular text of the Scripture to be applied allows both creative freedom in biblical interpretation (not “hermeneutic positivism”) and basic continuity with the meaning of the Bible (not “improvisation ad libitum”): “The Christian writings offer us not a what, but a how—a manner, a style, a spirit.”

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