The hermeneutical crisis in the Church of the Nazarene
By Rev. Dr. Bob Hunter
The interpretation of scripture in the Church of the Nazarene is far from uniform. There is a crisis brewing regarding the authority of the Scriptures, where some believe the Bible provides clear guidance for holy living on very particular matters and where others believe that significant parts of the scriptures are left open to principled discernment and interpretation in light of reason, tradition, and experience. That is not the only difference found amongst Nazarenes. Differences are present in how Nazarenes read the Old Testament scriptures leading some to theologically conclude God is wrathful and retributive. The adjective “biblical,” signaling superiority of interpretation, is used in some instances and a plurality of viewpoints on non-essential matters is scarce. There is a crisis unfolding in our midst.
Pastor “A” delivers a sermon at a local Nazarene church streamed on social medial. Pastor A’s sermon outlines several ways in which God is powerful and transcendent instead of love and grace. There were two texts cited, one from the Old Testament (Lev. 16) and another from Acts 5 where Ananias and Saphira were struck by the Holy Spirit. While Pastor A’s personal life and conduct exude holy love, his hermeneutics leave much to be desired. Pastor A’s tendency is to read the Old Testament as if the New Testament never occurred. Weekly sermons feature apocalyptic themes and what may be befall Christians should they be unfaithful to God’s will. Pastor A is a graduate of a Nazarene institution of higher education, but that is not an indictment on Nazarene educators, other influences likely prevailed.
Is Pastor A an anomaly? Perhaps, but there are other concerns found within the Church of the Nazarene and milder expressions of the above characterization. In this article I will give a brief overview of four existing tensions and how they might be resolved within the Wesleyan theological framework.
1) Plain reading vs. the larger context of the biblical story
2) A Christological hermeneutic vs. literal interpretation
3) Progressive revelation vs. static interpretation
4) Informational reading vs. formational reading
Many Nazarenes interpret scripture in the plain sense of reading it. “Why can’t we just take the Bible for what it says, at face value, “literally”? If what it says makes plain sense, can’t we assume we have the truth?” Yes, but…no! The task of biblical interpretation is never as easy as it sounds because scripture is read through modern eyes and exegetical research is needed in order to decipher authorial intent and original meaning. A “plain sense” of reading is not a sustainable hermeneutic and leads to endless debates over which interpretation of the biblical text is the plainest and the purest and according to whom. Moreover, “plain sense” reading debates often miss the bigger picture of God’s redemption story. A Wesleyan hermeneutic aims for meaning within the larger context of salvation going beyond the overly ambitious literal meanings of an individual text and creating the possibility of a wider more flexible meaning.
A Christological hermeneutic clears the way for a more meaningful reading of scripture. Christ-centric hermeneutics are grounded in the person of Christ and not just a set of principles. Too often, literalism and certainty about the meaning of a text obfuscate the person of Christ. That is not to say there aren’t literal meanings found in the bible, there are, but those meanings should strive for congruency with Christ’s spirit and resort to love when the layers of complexity cannot be unraveled. Reading scripture through the lens of the cross is one way to promote this idea. A “cruciform hermeneutic,” utilizes Jesus' life, death, and resurrection as a means of understanding every other biblical text, especially ones where God is portrayed as violent and retributive (see Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God).
In similar vein, Scot McKnight contends we must never make the mistake of exalting the paper on which the Bible is written over the person who puts the words on the paper; hence, a Christological hermeneutic (See Scot McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet & Jesus Creed). After all, Christ is the Living Word. In that sense, the person is always greater than the book. He is the final interpretative authority. Troubling Old Testament passages can be interpreted in light of New Testament developments. Put simply, we have a better revelation in Christ and we should interpret accordingly (Hebrews Ch. 1). No one should be reading the Old Testament apart from the New.
Consistent with Wesley’s soteriology and love emphasis, a Christ-centric hermeneutic can help the modern church address its many interpretative conundrums and contentions. Wesley went as far to say the Bible possibly contradicts itself, and when it does, he insisted love must come first. Furthermore, Wesley had no problem reading the Bible literally so long as it didn’t venture into the absurd or unreasonable at which point he once again defaulted to a love hermeneutic. Christological hermeneutics, Wesley’s soteriology, and the primacy of love flow together in a beautiful interpretative dance. The church of Wesley is at its best when these ideas are embraced; we are more focused, loving, and unified.
Progressive revelation is a stumbling block for some Nazarenes. They reason God is the same yesterday, today, and forever; therefore, the Bible’s message comes to us in two equal parts instead of one superseding the other in a massive paradigm shift. The Bible, however, according to itself, is not a static document containing two equal parts. It is a dynamic living document that evolved over a period of time. Progressive revelation asserts the very latest is the best. In other words, latter portions of scripture reveal an increasingly clear vision of God through the person of Jesus Christ. According to historians, Wesley is fundamentally committed to this principle. The question is: Are we? Does Pastor A embrace some version of progressive revelation? How the Old Testament is read in harmony with the New Testament determines a lot of outcomes. Much more discussion is needed on this topic, I hope this is a start.
Finally, reading the Bible for spiritual formation and not just information serves us well in the Wesleyan tradition. I have had the privilege of teaching formational reading to students enrolled at NBC for the last thirteen years. We use Robert Mulholland’s book, Invitation to Journey as a required text. Due to modernist ways of reading, an over-emphasis on information to the exclusion of formation has occurred. That is not to say informational reading is unimportant, it most certainly has its place and should not be discouraged. The danger is running to the extremes and as Wesleyans we should find a middle way that captures the benefits of both. Informational readers risk controlling the text and over-analyzing it at the expense of formation. Formational readers risk going to too far into their own piety and forsaking important informational aspects of the Christian faith, but in light of modernism’s stranglehold on our reading habits the formational approach is desperately needed.
In this article I have tried to outline several hermeneutical tensions that presently exist in the church of the Nazarene, I’m sure I have only scratched the surface. As long as there are Pastor A’s in the pulpit, debates about what is “biblical” and what is not, claims by one group to have a better reading of scripture than others, these tensions will likely persist. But there is always hope the people of Wesley will follow hermeneutical guidelines set forth by Wesley himself and if they were to do so, they might be surprised to find some of these tensions resolving themselves.