SBC Life Articles

The Problem with Postmodern Hermeneutics

On a cool mid-September evening in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, I sat across from two Anglican leaders: one, an orthodox theologian from the Church of England whom I have long respected, and the other, a national representative of the Episcopal Church of the USA (ECUSA). The ECUSA representative was the Right Reverend Douglas Theuner, retiring Bishop of New Hampshire. We were in the midst of an international conversation between Anglicans and Baptists.

Everybody's mind was on the rising indignation of conservative Anglicans over the impending consecration of the Reverend Vicky Gene Robinson, an open homosexual, as the successor of Bishop Theuner. While this crisis was certainly on everybody's mind, these very respectable (read "polite and non-confrontational") ecclesiastics and scholars would not broach the subject. Like many Southern Baptist conservatives (read "more confrontational") I could not let the issue pass. I introduced the subject in a public forum by noting Southern Baptists' affirmation of traditional biblical marriage values, but nobody would engage. The English evangelical at the table explicitly kept his opinion to himself.

The American bishop, however, was willing to speak, and speak as a proponent of Robinson. Bishop Theuner is an older man with a dashing flair and unusual candor. The bishop met Robinson seventeen years ago, shortly after his own Episcopal consecration. Robinson and his wife were then struggling with Robinson's resurgent homosexual desires. Theuner, impressed with this priest's attitude, invited him to become his assistant, a post Robinson held throughout Theuner's tenure. Robinson and his wife, Isabella McDaniel, agreed to a divorce, which Theuner described as very "Christian." The bishop knew of Robinson's subsequent same-sex relationship with Mark Andrew and described it as "more Christian than many heterosexual marriages" in its fidelity.

Assuming the bishop was confusing "Christian" with "sentimental," I asked him on what authority he based his support for Robinson's activities, including the impending consecration. Theuner believed it was a popular choice encouraged by Robinson's clerical demeanor.

I then moved to the crucial issue of the Word of God. Theuner said he did not believe the Bible really disallowed homosexuality. Instead, he believed the Bible's context must be read in light of the modern American context. According to Theuner, different communities read the Bible in different ways and the context determines the interpretation.

Conflicting Authorities

Theuner was advocating a post-liberal hermeneutic, which understands the Bible as conveying neither cognitive propositions nor expressive experiences but truths determined by a culture's linguistic conventions. Post-liberal hermeneutics cut very close to the destructive reader-response theory of some post-modern deconstructionists. In a recent letter to other Anglican primates, defending ECUSA's support for Robinson, the presiding bishop, Frank Griswold, argued similarly. According to Griswold, "the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God and contain all things necessary to salvation."

Most Anglicans (and Baptists) would wholeheartedly affirm Griswold's statement. However, that was not his final word. Griswold clarified his position, "How we have been shaped and formed as Christians and the context in which we live have a great deal to do with how we interpret various passages in the Bible and the weight we give them in making moral decisions …. There is no such thing as a neutral reading of Scripture."

Believing that the Bible cannot possibly be universally interpreted in a uniform manner, Griswold called on other Anglican primates "to appreciate the different contexts in which we minister" and to honor "our provincial realities and struggles."

Theuner and Griswold believe that the Bible has different meanings in different cultural contexts. These liberal bishops are supported by a number of theologians, as evidenced in a recent roundtable discussion on PBS. Harvey Cox, an American Baptist at Harvard, asserted that not only do Christians have "an evolving understanding of what Scripture says," but "our understanding of the nature of biblical authority [also] evolves over the years."

This hermeneutical tactic may give lip service to oneness in Christ, but it effectively leaves the churches without a common grounding in the inspiration and illumination of the Bible by the one Spirit of God. Under this view the Bible no longer possesses an overarching authority; rather, it is contextually subject to various conflicting authorities. Moreover, the Holy Spirit Who inspired the Bible appears impotent at best and self-contradictory at worst. These scholars and churchmen have rejected the truth that the eternal Spirit Who inspired the Word is the same eternal Spirit Who illumines the Word in a non-contradictory way across cultures and time.

The Real Issue

Theuner and Griswold might not admit to the highly atomistic and anthropocentric reading of Scripture that their position allows, but the logic is there. It is difficult to refute the conservative Anglican priest's response to such a tortured hermeneutical theory: "The gay issue is not the real issue. The real issue is: Does the Bible mean what it says, or can you make it mean whatever you want?" Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, agrees: "Once you accept the presupposition that the Bible is just a human book and that you have to separate the divine inspiration from the human element which is flawed because that element is bonded to the culture and time in which it was written, it is a short jump for the Episcopal communion to have its first openly gay bishop."

Dr. Land was giving ECUSA's leadership the benefit of the doubt as to whether they even believe that portions of the Bible are divinely inspired. Unfortunately, given one of Bishop Theuner's comments, it appears that his position on Scripture may simply be a patronizing attempt to mollify conservative Anglicans. After someone in the Canadian conference quoted Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 14 that everything must be done "decently and in order," Theuner incredibly attributed it to a recent Archbishop of Canterbury. My orthodox Anglican friend caught my eye and a liberal English Baptist whispered disbelief at the glaring faux pas. This lack of biblical literacy may reveal much about the spiritual state of ECUSA's leadership; it should certainly give one pause before accepting their hermeneutical approach.

Rather than depending on Scripture to justify their developing position on sexual ethics, ECUSA's liberals have instead appealed to the authority of the Spirit. In his recent letter to the other primates, Griswold warned against the "danger of neglecting the continuing unfolding of God's truth worked among us by the Holy Spirit." Boldly, he contended that if Robinson's election was "contrary to the leading of the Holy Spirit," then he would have resigned.

There was much talk at the end of the ECUSA synod about the Spirit leading the church to consecrate Robinson. Some said, "The Spirit of God is doing a new work." Robert Taylor, the first openly gay priest elected a cathedral dean, called Robinson's approval, "a Holy Spirit moment." Robinson himself declared, "I believe that God is doing a new thing in the world." Of course, the critical question of what type of spirit was doing this work in the church was conveniently ignored. One of the news services, probably unintentionally, put its finger on the real issue by reporting the quotation in the lowercase: the "spirit" was doing a new work.

Is this movement of the "Spirit" or of a "spirit?" Christians today must grow up and learn to discern both good and evil (Hebrews 5.14). The Bible describes God's Spirit as Holy and homosexuality as unholy: one is evil and the other is not. Any "spirit" which denies the biblical definitions of holiness must be condemned.

The Ramifications of Doctrine

Revelation, the doctrine of the Bible, and pneumatology, the doctrine of the Spirit, are thus integral to this crisis over homosexuality, a moral issue. This is a timely reminder for both Anglicans and Baptists that doctrine is the foundation for action; belief is the foundation for morality; theology is the foundation for ethics. If there is a shift in doctrine, it will ultimately impact the moral decisions that Christians make. We must also remember that not only does doctrine impact ethics, but ethical systems have a certain coherence which can be fragile. A shift in one arena of morality may have a seismic impact on an entire ethical system.

Two of the bishop's statements support this thesis. Toward the end of our conversation, I pressed Bishop Theuner to pontificate on the significance of ECUSA's recent decisions. He immediately downplayed the long-term impact of the election of Robinson as the new Bishop of New Hampshire. According to Theuner, the critical decision was made earlier in the twentieth century when ECUSA allowed for divorce among the clergy. Allowing homosexuality is only the next logical step after allowing divorce. Moreover, he noted that conservative voices also threatened schism when the church began ordaining women, but few left. In Theuner's eyes, the shift occurred years ago and the ordination of homosexuals is nothing earth shattering.

Then, after hearing Theuner speculate concerning the Archbishop of Canterbury's "endgame" in this whole matter, I wondered whether Theuner's doctrinal statements were politically tactical in nature, a common postmodern political move. Having appreciated some of the writing of the newly appointed archbishop, Rowan Williams, who served as my external dissertation examiner at Oxford University, I was surprised to hear Theuner speculate on a crass political move by Williams. On the one hand, although the reader could not always agree with Dr. Williams, he could always expect a careful and thought-provoking argument that sincerely sought to maintain theological integrity.

On the other hand, the political speculation told me that Theuner himself might be willing to make tactical moves that differed from his endgame. This raises a serious ethical question, a question about integrity in speech. Indeed, are their apparently heterodox doctrines of the Bible and the Spirit merely tactical moves in the hands of ECUSA's leadership? One would hope theology was not the mere tool of politics. One would also hope that Archbishop Williams would continue to show the integrity of his past in the decisions he makes about the future of the Anglican Communion.

Unfortunately, our conversation was cut short. The last question I had was if Bishop Theuner had a daily quiet time with God's Word, but time was up. I had other questions, too. Alas, there was no more time, but our conversation ended on a positive note. I promised to pray for Bishop Theuner and his church, and I have done so. I also pray that Jack Leo Iker — the Bishop of Fort Worth who has courageously called his own national church "an apostate church" — will continue to have wisdom and stamina in the coming storm. We Baptists should join in common prayer for the Anglicans that they will be led by the Spirit to affirm the eternal truth of God's Word. Baptists should also see in the Anglican crisis a warning that if we embrace postmodern hermeneutics, we will go down a similar path to apostasy.

Spiritus cum verbo: the Spirit works with the Word, never against it!

    About the Author

  • Malcolm B. Yarnell, III