Friday, May 23, 2008

Individualism & Hermeneutics

According to Nathan Hatch that having cast off tradition, clergy, and trained theologians, early Americans “agreed to defer to only one source of authority, the rule and guide of scripture.” [1] Americans could now discover the literal and self evident message of scripture for themselves. I have already explored briefly the American populist hermeneutic premised on the inalienable right of every person to understand scripture for him or herself.[2] Perhaps it is our post-modern awareness of our cultural and social positions clearly evident as adding subjective distance and presuppositions into our interpretations. Should this naïve objectivity of the interpreter be traced back to Descartes’ desire to locate the self as the most basic element in knowing?

If individualism is our first language our scriptural interpretations will bear these marks as well. Individualism infects our view of the people we read about in scripture, our interpretation, and application.

Bruce Malina suggests that it is our tendency to read scripture as “unique persons, as individualistic selves, as personalities with opinions and conscience and feelings of guilt and anxiety.”[3] He also suggests,

Americans live in an individualistic culture that centers on the value of self-reliance. Individualism may be described as the belief that persons are each and singly an end in themselves, and as such ought to realize their “self” and cultivate their own judgment, not withstanding the push of pervasive social pressures in the direction of conformity. In individualist cultures most people’s social behavior is largely determined by personal goals that often overlap with collectives such as the family, the work group, the tribe, political allies, coreligionists, compatriots, and the state. When a conflict arises between personal and group goals, it is considered acceptable for the individual to place personal goals ahead of collective goals. Thus individualism gives priority to the goals of single persons rather than group goals. What enables this sort of priority is focus on self-reliance, in the sense of independence, separation from others, and personal competence.[4]

At this point, we can look to the social sciences to help see past our Western individualistic context and perhaps get a glimpse of 1st Century Mediterranean context. What happens without such a careful endeavor is to project our cultural values upon the texts. Individualism is a subtle but powerful eisegetical force. Where Westerners likely read individuals, social scientists encourage us to see collectives which are defined by family integrity, group goals, and group solidarity.[5] Identity is rooted in the collective and not constructed by the individual. Perception of oneself is based typically the central person of the collective and the collectives health.[6] Without seeing ones individualistic tendencies in reading scripture we cannot rightly interpret scripture.

Individualism also infects the framework for scriptural interpretation. Hatch has clearly shown how the lack of framework beyond the individual effects an individualistic interpretation. Sola Scriptura was essential to the Reformers task, yet this idea has been usurped by sovereignty of the individual. Many have readily shown the shortcomings of Luther’s principle from Hatch and Americans desire to create a “novus ordo seclorum”[7] to Stan Grenz’s critique of propositional systematics created by autonomous individuals.[8]

Theologically we see other problems start to arise. With the interpretive community dismissed as an impingement upon the autonomy of self, there is a personalizing of the Holy Spirit (the Holy Spirit revealed it to me) and decreased necessity of tradition and ecclesiology. In this light, Clark Pinnock rightly warns against interpretive individualism leading to uncontrolled subjectivity.[9] Interpreters need to be reminded that Spirit guides interpretation from within the community. Is it enough to locate hermeneutics within the community? Ecclesiology has faced and succumbed to the same individualizing tendency attested by the variety among American Protestantism. This raises a few questions about the extent of contextual theology. Grenz suggests, “our desire is to hear what the Spirit is saying to this particular congregation and these particular believers.”[10] How do we balance the particular needs and questions answered in local theology without devolving into an ecclesial particularism?

Without tradition and communal authority, interpretation is left to un-encombered individual persons and churches. Is tradition, the guiding principle? Does a community framed by tradition, guided by the Spirit offer the true interpretation within the particular? What is the correlation then between one particular community and that of another? Or between the particular and the larger whole? I think my tendency is to want or expect too much from the church which though guided by the Spirit, is still made of fallen humanity.

[1] Hatch, 43.
[2] Ibid., 71.
[3] Bruce J. Malina, “Understanding New Testament Persons,” in The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation, ed. Richard L. Rohrbaugh (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 41.
[4] Ibid., 46.
[5] Ibid, 47.
[6] Ibid, 45.
[7] Nathan O. Hatch, “Sola Scriptura and Novus Ordo Seclorum,” ed. Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Knoll, The Bible in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 59.
[8] Stanly J. Grenz, “Articulating the Christian Belief-Mosaic: Theological Method after the Demise of Foundationalism” ed. John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Evangelical Futures: A Conversation on Theological Method (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 124-125.
[9] Clark Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996), 234.
[10] Grenz, 126. Evangelical Futures