Monday, June 26, 2017

Revisionist Hermeneutics, Pt. 1

This post marks the first of a recurring series entitled "Revisionist Hermeneutics". I'll share with you briefly how I came up with this term.

Over the years, I have witnessed shifts in theology and practice that have led to controversial developments in "progressive" churches nationwide. Often I would hear that these developments were the result of a restudying of certain verses in a new light and with a fresh illumination. To put it in other words, "Churches have been doing it wrong all these years, so we looked at it again and have come away with a different understanding than before that makes us more relevant to society and contemporary." 

Some other issues, which have been long-held tenets in "conservative" churches for years are now being challenged by more balanced Biblical study. Sadly, these issues have calcified in these minds to where they will draw a line in the sand and fight to preserve "sound doctrine", when the question is whether there should be a fight at all...because true sound doctrine may not be the issue.

On either side, I find what I would like to call "revisionist hermeneutics": changing the Biblical narrative to suit past or present understanding in our construct of Christian theology and ecclesiology.

I have decided to critically and logically look at these developments and endeavor to apply a sensible and practical approach that should cause reflection on what Jesus would expect from His kingdom.

Having said this, here is the first installment...
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Roughly 18 years ago while attending a young adult conference, sat inside of a session that was being facilitated by a prominent, nationally-known evangelist. During this session, he stated that the following verse has traditionally been taken out of context: "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord..." (Ephesians 5.19, KJV)

His premise was that this verse has been used to advocate for the non-usage of musical instruments in the nascent first-century church and the contemporary church. Yet this verse, he asserts, was not written in a worship context, thus cannot be used to support the eschewing of musical instruments in worship services. I sat there first slightly amused in an intellectual way by the discourse, seeing that this evangelist is known for his academic pursuits in Biblical studies and makes no effort to conceal his erudite pedigree. But then I went from amused to puzzled because of his premise, which was a rather new idea to me at the time.

His take on using this verse as a worship text was tantamount to proof-texting, which for some context-driven junkies is a dirty word. He basically said that to run to this text to argue for musical instruments in worship is a huge mistake. Hidden under this layer of discourse was the implication that to advocate against musical instruments is a mistake because the New Testament doesn't categorically speak against it.

Suffice it to say that I am well-versed in all of the arguments for and against musical instruments in worship. I have taught, preached, and played the apologist. But THIS premise was new terrain. Over the years, I have seen this premise morph into a larger argument concerning the "contemporary" forms of worship, most notably the "praise team". For some congregations, the praise team is the farthest they will go in being "contemporary". For others, there is no boundary; put another way, musical instruments are not just in the conversation, they are already in the convocation. This post is not necessarily to advance an argument. This post is to address revisionist hermeneutics. This is what I mean.

Euclidian logic, widely used in the world of mathematics, states that things equal to the same thing are equal to each other. If A=C, and B=C, then A must logically be equal to B. If someone mentions Ephesians 5.19 as a proof-text, the implication is that this is not an arguable point for musical instruments in worship. However, in my experiences what I have found is that the person who dismisses Ephesians 5.19 tries to make a case for instruments (and praise teams, by extension) almost invariably cites 2 Chronicles 29:
And he set the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, with psalteries, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, and of Gad the king's seer, and Nathan the prophet: for so was the commandment of the Lord by his prophets. 
And the Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. And Hezekiah commanded to offer the burnt offering upon the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song of the Lord began also with the trumpets, and with the instruments ordained by David king of Israel. And all the congregation worshipped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded: and all this continued until the burnt offering was finished. (2 Chron 29.25-29)
Here is the revisionist logic: one cannot use Ephesians 5.19 to deny the usage of musical instruments because the passage was not written in a worship context. That also put any other alleged proof-text for non-instrumental worship music (e.g., Colossians 3.16) in serious question. Consequently, since there is no clear New Testament prohibition against  musical instruments, it paves the way for their introduction. It also will, by extension, grease the skids for other "contemporary" developments.

And...if there isn't any Biblical support for these "progressive" nuances from a New Testament basis, one can invoke the Romans 15.4 Clause and reach back into Jewish antiquity for Biblical examples of musical instruments, as well as other choice contemporary practices, utilized by God's people. And 2 Chronicles 29.25-29 conveniently fits the bill.

This begs a question: is the overwhelming theological application behind the passage in 2 Chronicles that Christians are at liberty to have musical instruments and/or other contemporary worship practices? If it isn't, then why would there be a need to run to it when the argument swings in the balance and there is a rush to secure additional Biblical leverage? To the healthy hermeneutical mind, this has a feel of "the pot calling the kettle black", and that simply is not kosher (pun intended). Oh yeah...it's also hypocritical.

At this point, I'm sure that someone with ultra-progressive tendencies may be getting a little warm. Don't misunderstand the point of this post. All I am trying to do is expose revisionist hermeneutics, which is the approach that some individuals use to support the practices and methodology they wish to employ. And this brand of hermeneutics is practiced on both sides of the sanctuary.

My point is NOT to advocate for or against anything. It is to simply state that proof-texting as a Biblically interpretive method and doing so in a reckless or irresponsible way is as dangerous as ambulating across a half-frozen Lake Superior. You might get a mile or two out from shore, but at some point the Omnipotent-generated forces of nature and physics that He put in place will take over. Ultra-progressives and ultra-conservatives tend to do the same ice dancing, yet without true Biblical traction the outcomes for both are identical: becoming frozen in their logic, often to their own dismay and wrath.

When anchoring themselves to proof-texts, purveyors of revisionist hermeneutics also tend to portray a brand of arrogant hypocrisy that is packaged and sold as spiritual or scriptural enlightenment. Once they are equipped with a BCV (Book, Chapter, and Verse) grenade, the irresistible desire to lob it across the aisle into a group of unsuspecting (read: uninformed, backwards, or not "studied up") Christians grows. Or maybe they are armed with other ecclesio-military ammo, such as a WLI-21 (We Live In the 21st Century) tank. This delicious temptation almost always has that Gnostic aftertaste to it.

So beware. Just know that revisionist hermeneutics has been around for eons and is not going away anytime soon. And hypocritical attempts to fortify a progressive argument against conservative minds or vice versa using proof-texts only tell us that this movement is sadly, and in a chilling way, picking up momentum.

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