By Elmer John Thiessen.
This post is prompted by a column in my own denominational paper, entitled, “Hermeneutic of Suspicion,” by Melissa Miller (Canadian Mennonite, Oct. 23, 2017). The column is a remarkably forthright statement on a widespread view of Scripture in the Mennonite Church of North America, and it goes a long way to explaining why there are growing divisions between conservative “lovers of the Bible” and the liberal/progressive wing of the Mennonite Church and beyond.
Miller begins her column by recounting Paul’s teaching about all Scripture being inspired by God, which she, along with “many of you,” have “imbibed” in earlier years. It would seem that she has moved beyond this naïve position, as she goes on to give a brief history of the power struggles that led to the formation of our canon of Scripture, and that are thought to undermine their authority. Later in the column she expresses sympathies with an atheist friend of hers who simply cannot understand how an ancient book can be an adequate guide to contemporary ethical problems. And then Miller articulates her own “hermeneutic of suspicion” which she learned in seminary and from feminist and liberation scholars. The Old Testament, we are told, was written by writers who were male and privileged, and this will have shaped the stories that they wrote. All this is seen as casting some doubt on the authority of Scripture.
Miller concludes her column by suggesting that perhaps “suspicion” is too strong a word for “some lovers of the Bible,” and so perhaps “caution and curiosity” would be “more fitting” for those who have not advanced to a more enlightened view of Scripture. There is a condescending tone here, and indeed throughout her column, that I find troublesome. I also want to raise a question about Miller’s choice of “curiosity” as a more fitting substitute for “suspicion.” I fail to see the relation between these two concepts. Curiosity has a positive connotation, while suspicion has negative overtones. I am all for curiosity, and there is nothing to stop someone holding a high view of the authority of Scripture from being curious.
Miller goes on to claim that a hermeneutic of suspicion has led her to “a broadened appreciation for the Bible’s powerful message, particularly when interpreted by those who are weak, oppressed and marginalized.” I fail to see how a hermeneutic of suspicion can have these positive results. Curiosity can certainly lead to new insights, but not a hermeneutic of suspicion. Suspicion can only cast doubt on what we read, and in the end it undermines all meaning. This might not be entirely fair to Miller because she is drawing on a particular meaning of a “hermeneutic of suspicion” which has some currency in the theological world. Theologians use this expression to refer to a critical understanding of the motivation of biblical writers and the contexts of dissension and dispute out of which their texts arose. But, caution is in order when dealing with motivation. I quite agree that coming to understand a text within its context and trying to understand what problems biblical writers were trying to address can help us to better understand what a text is saying, and what it might have to say to us today. But I fail to see why this needs to be seen as a critical task associated with suspicion. Trying to understand the context and problems that biblical writers were trying to address is a constructive task, and one that curious lovers of the Bible can take with utmost seriousness.
One of the central problems with a hermeneutic of suspicion is that it fails to be suspicious about its own methods. A hermeneutic of suspicion is self-defeating. It should be suspicious about its own method of suspicion. Further, as Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us long ago, doubt can only come after belief. We all need to start with belief and trust before we can practice doubt and suspicion. Indeed, a careful analysis of speech acts will reveal that trust must and most often does precede suspicion. I would encourage Miller to ask herself if she would ground her own communication with her friends, spouse, and children in a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” I am quite sure that she would advise against it. I’m confident she would say that such a foundation would lead to the destruction of the very relationships that she holds dear. What she fails to see is that a hermeneutic of suspicion applied to the Scriptures does the very same thing. What is needed is a hermeneutic of trust.
Sadly, Miller and other liberal biblical scholars have “imbibed” too much of a secular, postmodern, historicist, and deconstructionist approach to literary texts. Here it should be noted that this “school of suspicion” is no longer in vogue in the field of literary criticism. Perhaps Miller, along with other liberal biblical scholars should do some reading in the latest developments in the field of literary criticism.
Miller is also indebted to the writings of feminists and liberation theology. We are reminded that the writers of the Old Testament were male and privileged, and thus again what they have to say needs to be viewed with suspicion. Here again Miller fails to subject her sympathies with feminist ideology to critical scrutiny. To question what someone says because he is a male is not only a failure in logic, but also a betrayal of Christian faith and love. It is a failure in logic because it commits the ad hominem fallacy – attacking persons instead of their arguments. As Christians we are called to love, even our enemies, and we must also be very careful not to create artificial and unnecessary divisions. In the church there is neither male nor female, because we are all one in Jesus Christ, Paul reminds us (Gal 3:28). So let’s be careful here. I as a male would like to join hands with Melissa Miller in our common search for truth, also with regard to a proper approach to Scripture.
Then there is the problem of privilege and power with regard to the writers of the Old Testament. Here Miller’s thinking reflects the spirit of the influential writings of Michel Foucault who claimed that all knowledge claims are rooted in privilege and power. The fundamental problem with reducing knowledge claims to power is that such reductionism is again self-refuting. If all claims to knowledge are merely (or even mainly) expressions of power, then Foucault’s own analysis of knowledge is just another expression of power. So, why bother listening to him? By the same token, Miller’s analysis of the Bible is also merely (or even mainly) an expression of modern feminist power, and so must be questioned as suspicious.
Miller also expresses some sympathies with her atheist friend who thinks that “an ancient book is woefully inadequate as a guide to ethics today.” I am convinced that much of the skepticism regarding the Bible within the Mennonite Church today has to do with its being ancient and outdated. But there are several problems with such a dismissal of the relevance of the Bible to our time. This approach falls prey to what I call “the fallacy of newness.” The old is seen as necessarily outdated and the new is seen as progressive. But old ideas might just be true! Further, many of us continue to find the Bible very relevant to our time. I enjoy teaching the ancient philosophers and find them amazingly relevant to contemporary society. Just last year I taught a course entitled, “Plato’s Republic: Then and Now.” My students and I found that Plato had a lot to say about the political problems we are facing today. Why then shouldn’t the Bible be able to speak to us today? Jesus repeatedly quotes from the Old Testament, obviously seeing it as authoritative and relevant to his time. We can and should do the same.
The Bible’s relevance also extends to the area of ethics. The God of the Bible is the creator of everything, including the ethical norms that he built into creation and which apply to all individuals and all societies for all time. We ignore or disobey these ethical norms at our peril. Many of the commandments of the Bible need to be seen as having universal and timeless application. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus clearly reaffirmed some of the commandments of the Old Testament and went on to say that “anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19). Pretty strong words!
Many Christians, including Mennonites, like to believe that the New Testament emphasis on love supersedes the law of the Old Testament. But they forget that the admonition to love is itself a commandment, and Jesus links love with obeying his commandments (John 15:9-17). John bluntly says that anyone who does not do what Jesus commands is “a liar and the truth is not in him.” (1 John 2:4). And lest anyone gets confused on what this means, John continues: “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands” (2 John 6). Paul also reminds us that the rule of love is in fact fulfilled in keeping the commandments (Rom 13:8-10). We are simply wrong in trying to create a disjunction between Jesus’ ethic of love and the ten commandments of the Old Testament. And both have relevance to our time. “Your word, O Lord, is eternal… Your laws endure to this day, for all things serve you” (Ps. 119:91).
Thankfully, there is a more positive note in Miller’s column. Sadly this more constructive emphasis is undermined by the overall skeptical stance taken with regard to Scripture. Indeed, it is rather hard to reconcile Miller’s adoption of a hermeneutic of suspicion with her hints of a more positive approach to Scripture. But positive hints there are, and I want to focus on these for a while and see how they can contribute to a more coherent and constructive approach to Scripture. Miller identifies herself as one of those “who value Scripture,” and who “trust the God-breath that worked through human hands and motivations to produce them and to guide us today.” Indeed! Here we have at least a partial acknowledgement of the Scripture as “inspired by God” and “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and training in righteousness” (II Tim 3:16). It would seem that Miller treats this verse as something that she not only “imbibed” in the past, but that is still a current conviction of hers. So, why all the negativism? Yes, there is a human component to the writing of Scripture, but we must never forget the divine component. The writers of the books of the bible were somehow inspired by God.
Miller also points to Jesus, “whose self-giving love ethic is magnificently compelling, timeless and exactly the model needed for the world in any age.” Here Miller is recognizing that Jesus’ words which are in fact recorded in Scripture are in some way self-authenticating. Those who read the Bible with open hearts and minds will find it to be most compelling. But the self-authenticating nature of the Bible extends beyond Jesus’ love-ethic. Jesus also gave us a penetrating analysis of the human soul. “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils comes from inside and make a man unclean” (Mark 7:21-2). I find this to be a very accurate analysis of the recurring sinful inclinations of my own heart, and I need to be reminded of these words again and again. The writer to the Hebrews describes the word of God as “living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword,” and very much able to judge the “thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb 4:12-13). Again, Miller seems to acknowledge all this when she says that the teachings of Jesus “inspire, guide and disturb.” Indeed!
So there are at least the beginnings of a more positive and constructive view of the Bible in Miller’s analysis. Building on this, we need to start with a hermeneutic of trust rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion. Does this mean that we should entirely ignore a careful understanding of how the Scriptures came to us? Does this mean that we should ignore any critical approaches to Scripture? Not at all. But we need to maintain proper proportions. We need to engage in careful and critical analysis of the Bible at the right time and in the right place and in a proper manner. We also need to make sure that we build up the faith of others. Let’s recognize the dangers of hurting others when we engage in an indiscriminate over-emphasis on a hermeneutic of suspicion. With Paul Ricour, we need to move from a pre-critical to a critical to a post-critical hermeneutic when we read the Bible. We need to start with a hermeneutic of trust, move on to a hermeneutic of curious, careful and even critical study, and then move on again to a hermeneutic of trust and reorientation.
I am sure that I will be dismissed by some as a narrow-minded fundamentalist, but let me assure the reader that I am not. As a philosopher, I love to think critically, and I am very much aware of the complexities of language. I, for one, do not accept the inerrancy of Scripture. This doctrine is itself an artificial construct of fallible human beings, developed at a particular time in history as a response to certain modernist tendencies in theology. As such it bears all the marks of an over-reaction. I reject the doctrine of inerrancy because its approach to the language of the Bible is too mechanical and too simplistic. I like to think of my approach to the authority of Scripture as being even higher than that of inerrancy. So I believe that all Scripture, though written by human beings, is “inspired by God” and is therefore eminently useful “for teaching, for reproof, for correction and training in righteousness.” I believe that God has revealed himself in our Scriptures, and in Jesus Christ, who is in fact described in our Scriptures. We must not separate these two aspects of God’s revelation. And let’s not forget the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of truth” who continues to “teach you all things and will remind you of everything I (Jesus) have said to you” (John 14:17, 26).
Of course, there is much more that needs to be said by way of developing a theology of God’s revelation, and then spelling out how God’s word should be interpreted and applied to the contemporary world. But my main concern in this blog has been to critique skeptical approaches to Scripture that rely on hasty generalizations and simplistic slogans. Such an approach to Scripture cannot feed the soul. Instead of sitting in judgement over the Word we need to humbly place ourselves under the Word and let it judge us and also nourish us.
I conclude with some words from a prophet who warned about the coming of a famine, “not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.” Then follows a description of men and women staggering from sea to sea, and wandering from north to south, “searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.” What is especially poignant about this desperate and hopeless search for an authoritative word of the Lord is that it is “the lovely young women and strong young men” who are fainting because of thirst (Amos 9: 11-13). I want to suggest that it is not only the young but also the middle-aged and older generations who are suffering from a famine of hearing the words of the Lord because of the widespread adoption of a hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to our Scriptures. May God help us to move towards a more defensible and constructive appreciation of the word of the Lord as revealed in the Bible and in Jesus.
Elmer John Thiessen now lives in Waterloo, Ontario following thirty-six years of teaching philosophy at Medicine Hat College. He is a member with Waterloo North Mennonite Church, where he is involved teaching and preaching.
He received a B.Th. degree from the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, in Winnipeg, a B.A. degree from the University of Saskatchewan, with a major in physics and philosophy, and an M.A. in philosophy from McMaster University. While working on his M.A., he spent a year of study in Germany. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Waterloo in 1980, writing his dissertation on the problem of indoctrination.
Elmer’s most recent book entitled, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defence of Proselytizing and Persuasion, was published by Paternoster Press (UK) and by IVP Academic (USA) in 2011. This book won the Word Guild Canadian Christian Writers Award in two categories: Apologetics/Evangelism and Culture.
Click here to find Elmer’s blog and here for a more complete bio.