Posted by: Alex | May 20, 2011

The Younger Evangelicals: Hermeneutics

A few announcements before we really get underway in discussing some of the themes of Robert E. Webber’s The Younger Evangelicals.  First is that I am traveling at the moment.  Flew yesterday from New Haven to Nashville to visit my family in Tennessee.  Flying Saturday to Nevada to meet with family there for the memorial of my grandfather.  While I’m staying on top of the reading for this project (greatly aided by the time spent in airports and on planes), the writing and in particular posting may occasionally be tricky over the next couple of weeks until I’m back in New Haven.  So if I disappear for a bit, it is not because I have abandoned this.  Fear not!

Second announcement has to do with a way to help with the recovery efforts in Alabama after the severe storms and tornadoes a couple weeks ago.  About a week ago a group of local musicians, mostly from Birmingham, released an album to raise money for the relief efforts.  I’ve been listening to it for the last week and it is really a fantastic album!  Please consider visiting the link below and donating $10 to help others in need.

The Wind Will Carry the Voice of the People by Music for Alabama

Now, onto our main task, discussing this book.  I have to say that reading many parts of this book, I feel as though Webber is describing me… in other places, however, I do not identify at all with his descriptions of “postmodern evangelicalism.”  I think that those exceptions actually prove the point that Webber wants to make in many ways, as we will discuss in more detail as we go along.

Given that this book is more systematic than the last, we are going take a somewhat more systematic approach and discuss four major themes Webber uses to describe the “Emerging” movement and its postmodern context.

The first theme we want to discuss is “hermeneutics.”  Reading Webber’s discussion of this theme caused me to realize that I may be more postmodern than I sometimes think I am (assuming Webber is accurately describing postmodernism).  There are two things driving this concern in the “Emerging” movement- the first is a recognition of our own subjectivity and the second is a recognition that we are all shaped by a historical and cultural context.  To give an illustrative passage from the book:

Oral communication reached its peak in the oral/visual society of the medieval era… Catholic historian Joseph Jungman argues that Catholics of that period learned “the Christian faith in the same way they learned their mother tongue, without systematic teaching.”  It was a time of “extraordinary religious practices.”  Because culture was through and through shaped by a Christian consciousness, one became a Christian through lived experience…  Everything proceeded from the church- architecture, art, music, literature, law, education, town planning.  In other words, “the whole of life was bathed in a religious climate.”  Think of the opposite: the whole of life bathed in a secular climate.  The concept of immersion into culture as a form of communication is illustrated not only by the example of medieval culture but by the example of our current totally secularized culture…  The central feature of cultural transmission is participation, belonging, immersion… Modernity shifted from communication through an immersion in culture to communication through didactic methods.  Spiritual formation shifted from participating in a community to learning doctrine from printed material that could be examined analytically and affirmed intellectually… But by the sixties a reversal had begun taking the culture back to the oral/visual/communal, back to cultural transmission . By 2000 this reversal was in full swing.  Communication specialists did not deny the power of the word, but it was clear that the younger generation was persuaded by their immersion in culture.  (63-64).

This lengthy quotation actually touches on nearly every theme we are going to discuss from Webber’s book, but its primary focus on communication is what I am interested in here.  Communication, from the perspective of postmoderns, is not an analytic or systematic task but instead one that happens via the mediums of culture, be they art, architecture, music, political discourse, history, etc.  This “hermeneutical” perspective means that approaching the Christian faith becomes more than an intellectual task but also an emotional one and a communal one.  At least to some extent, this means that “communication has to do with the effect it produces in me” (65, emphasis his).  I think Webber is hinting at a kind of “reader-response” hermeneutic, but he never spells this out completely, probably because such hermeneutics are still extremely controversial in the evangelical academy.  To set aside Webber for a moment, in my opinion reader-response criticism is a reaction to the inadequacies of the “traditional” historical-critical method.  In many of their criticisms of the historical-critical method, I have a great deal of agreement with reader-response critics.  However, as many reactions tend to do, I think reader-response criticism often swings too far in the opposite direction and leads to a new set of problems.  Something in the middle is attainable, I believe, and this is part of what I tried to argue for a recent conference presentation on the hermeneutics of Augustine.  If you want to read more of my thoughts on this, look that this post from Musings and Philosophizings.

Webber also notes how this “hermeneutic” of the faith has led to an increased interest among young evangelicals in ancient liturgical practices and more “traditional” denominations like Anglicanism, Catholicism, or Orthodoxy (reading about all of this as I myself explore the Episcopal Church and its tradition led to several moments of better self-understanding).  He quotes favorable from David Ray Griffin at the beginning of a chapter titled “History”:

“Modernity, rather than being regarded as the norm for human society toward which all history has been aiming and into which all society should be ushered- forcibly, if necessary- is instead increasingly seen as an aberration.  A new respect for the wisdom of traditional societies is growing as we realize that they have endured for thousands of years and that, by contrast, the existence of modern society for even another century seems doubtful.”  (71)

A little while later, in a chapter titled “Theology,” Webber writes:

Classical Christianity knew nothing of the concept of propositionalism as held by Christians after the Enlightenment.  Classical Christianity interpreted the faith more as a story that swept from creation through the fall to the rescue by God through Jesus Christ and to the final outcome in the new heaven and the new earth…  The common hermeneutic of the early church fathers was to interpret the Bible through the story of creation, incarnation, and re-creation.  (84-85).

I think it is at least a bit of an overstatement on Webber’s part to claim that early Christians knew nothing of propositionalism.  Their writings are certainly full of propositional arguments.  However, he is right to point out that there is far more of an emphasis on story in the early church than was seen in the Christianity of the Modern era.  Again, this may be a point of reaction going to far and something of a balance may be what we should aim for in the end.

The interest in the ancient church is certainly apparent among the “Emerging” movement, and Webber points to a few other reasons for this.  One is that following the de-throning of the Church from its place of leadership in society, the Modern age, and especially now the postmodern age, is to some extent a simulation of the pre-Constantinian situation (“to some extent” may need to be emphasized there).  Another is that there is a growing recognition of the need for a community in performing “interpretation.”  This has been one of my major criticisms of the evangelical notion of scripture– that it assumes a view of scripture that is historically unsustainable.  Part of the consequence of that criticism, for me and many others, has been the felt need for a grounding in a larger tradition and by and large the ancient church has been seen as the most fruitful ground for finding that tradition.

At any rate these hermeneutical concerns are exceptionally interesting to me.  As best I understand it, the critique that would be levied from the other side is two-fold.  First, there would be a claim that the element of “reader-response” in this hermeneutical enterprise is relativistic and undermines Christian doctrine.  To some extent, I think that response is begging the question for a propositional understanding of the faith, which has already been rejected by this movement, but I also think that a more “moderate” hermeneutic can address this concern and allow the faith to be both narrative and propositional.  Second, there would be an argument that tradition must be subjected to the rule of scripture.  In my own studies I have found this untenable and think that there must be a dialogue between the two.  So while I think that some aspects of Webber’s argument need to be modified, on a whole I think I find his discussions of a kind of “hermeneutical” faith or theology compelling.

What do you think?  How important are hermeneutical concerns for theology?  How significant should the ancient faith be in the development of the modern faith?  Is “propositional theology” too modern of a concept?  Is “narrative theology” too relativistic to be truly Christian in character?



  1. Your interaction with the discussion of objectivity vs. subjectivity in hermeneutics reminds me of the benefits of the critical-realist model of epistemology. Wright does a good job of explaining his version of it in the opening section of NT and People of God. At heart it acknowledges the issue of subjectivity in both the sender and receiver of a communication as well as acknowledging the actuality of an absolute truth which is very much present, but difficult to understand at times due to biases.
    I have Kevin Vanhoozer’s “Is there someone in this text?” on my reading list for the summer so it should also make some interesting suggestions in the discussion.

    • Thanks for the comment, David! I think NT Wright is certainly on to something, though he has a bit more “objectivity” in him than postmoderns would allow for. Need to go back and reread his discussion and see what I think after doing more research since I read it last. And I also have Vanhoozer’s book on my shelf for possible reading this summer. If you get to it before I do I would love your thoughts on it.

  2. […] of Robert E. Webber’s book The Younger Evangelicals.  Yesterday we examined the theme of “hermeneutics” found in the book’s discussion of the “Emerging” movement of postmodern […]

  3. […] of Robert E. Webber’s book The Younger Evangelicals.  We have examined the themes of “hermeneutics,” “incarnation,” and “community” in Webber’s discussion of the “Emerging” movement […]

  4. […] community rather than a group which adheres to a clearly defined doctrinal statement.  As such, hermeneutics and authenticity become exceptionally important to this movement.  In so far as this goes, there […]

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