Spring 2021 · Vol. 50 No. 1 · pp. 2–4 

From the Editor: Biblical Hermeneutics II

Andrew Dyck

This issue of Direction is the second in a two-part series on biblical hermeneutics. The previous issue provided keynote presentations from the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches’ 2019 Equip Study Conference titled “Interpreting Scripture Today.” This issue’s articles have nearly all been written in response to that conference, and particularly to the Interpretive Model and Method presented by Doug Heidebrecht and Mark Wessner. (Their accompanying diagrams are reprinted on page 5 of this issue.)

The authors responding to that conference identify much that is commendable in the Model and Method. Yet they are also unanimous in recognizing that interpreting Scripture is complex and fraught with pitfalls. Agreeing on a model and method of hermeneutics does not lead directly to agreement, or even unity. These authors therefore each provide additional insights for the hermeneutical task so that the church will be strengthened—not weakened—when it reads the Bible.

In addition, I propose that Christians should expect not only unity but also joy and freedom when they interpret the Scriptures together. Two biblical stories about interpreting Scripture—one from each Testament—illustrate this proposal.

The first is in Nehemiah 8, a chapter famous for verse 10c: “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (NRSV). After returning from exile in Babylon, the people of Israel have rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and resettled their towns. They then gather in Jerusalem to hear the Bible scholar Ezra read from the law of Moses. Before he reads, everyone blesses and worships the Lord. Then Ezra reads, and thirteen Levites “helped the people to understand the law. . . . So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (8:7b-8). But the hermeneutical task is not yet completed. Having heard and understood the Scriptures, the people weep and mourn with grief. But Nehemiah (the governor), Ezra, and the Levites quiet the people and instruct them in the correct response to the Scriptures: go home, enjoy your best food and wine, and share your meal with all those who have nothing prepared. And the people obey “with great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (8:12b).

In this ancient story of biblical hermeneutics—complete with a worshipful posture, listening, teaching, communal participation, conversation, discernment, and application for living—the outcome is joy and generosity. The people experience freedom from faulty interpretation, from crippling grief, and from social inequity. Their joy is contagious. {3}

The second story, from Luke 24, is familiar as The Road to Emmaus.* Two grieving disciples are walking home after witnessing Jesus’s crucifixion. Jesus joins them (his identity is hidden from them), listens to their account and disappointment, and then challenges their expectations about the Messiah. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (24:27). Only later—once these disciples had recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread—do they realize that their gradual turn from grief to joy began “while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us.”

Here too, biblical hermeneutics are on display. (Interestingly, the Greek word used by Luke for “interpret”—diermeneuo—has hermeneuo within it.) Jesus is both the subject of the interpreting and the one who provides the interpreting: the Word of God is interpreting the word of God. And, like the returned exiles, the disciples experience a paradigm shift from grief and disillusionment to astonishment and joy. And that joy overcomes their paralyzing fears so that they become eager witnesses to their companions back in Jerusalem.

I tell these stories because I suspect that it’s not enough to get our interpretive model and method right, or even to rightly interpret the word of truth (1 Tim 2:15). Recently, a friend of mine kindly suggested that Mennonite Brethren are obsessed with “being right.” That pursuit can feel serious and heavy. The sober tone of academic writing can easily amplify that feeling. Is it possible that we as Mennonite Brethren can become so concerned with guarding the good theological treasures entrusted to us (cf. 1 Tim 6:20, 2 Tim 1:14) that we fail to allow the Spirit of Jesus to reorient us with God’s life-altering freedom and contagious joy?

The first two articles in this issue challenge interpreters of Scripture to be attuned to the Holy Spirit. Sherri Guenther Trautwein points out that whereas the Interpretive Model and Method focus on interpreting Scripture, Mennonite Brethren now need to give focused attention to the role of the Holy Spirit and the community of faith—the other two sides of the Method triangle. David Cramer argues that, when it comes to topics on which Christians cannot agree (e.g., pacifism), fidelity to biblicism will not overcome the impasse. Instead, attention needs to shift to Spirit-led experiences.

The next two authors draw on resources from the academic study of biblical hermeneutics to offer positive and negative assessments of the Model and Method. Gordon Matties proposes that Mennonite Brethren {4} need to give greater attention to what they believe the Bible is. That construal needs to be clear before one can speak about how the Bible is to be used—that is, how the Bible has authority. Robert Hiebert draws his assessments together with the reminder that the Bible’s purpose is to point its hearers to the logos/wisdom of God—that is, to Jesus.

Instead of engaging the Model and Method directly, the next articles—each featuring a musical motif—propose theological frameworks by which to navigate the complexities and inevitable disagreements that are experienced by interpreters of Scripture. Brian Cooper proposes six theological commitments for bringing harmony. Ken Esau invites readers to hear a unifying melody in all of Scripture—a melody of the Shalom Kingdom of God.

Randy Wollf addresses a related topic: discernment. He offers five instructions for leaders and communities seeking to make major decisions as a group.

Rod Schellenberg concludes these two issues on biblical hermeneutics with a sermon from Hepburn MB Church’s conversation about being shaped by the Bible. He not only helps the congregants think personally about hermeneutics but shows how Jesus turns the Interpretive Method on its head.

While the papers in this issue of Direction may seem to sound discordant notes as they critique the Interpretative Model and Method, I invite you to read this issue’s articles with an ear for God’s melody of joy instead.

* In Acts 15 Luke provides another story about the early church’s hermeneutics—the story of the Jerusalem Council. Mennonite Brethren often refer to this story when they speak about interpreting Scripture.

Andrew Dyck