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Spring 2021 · Vol. 50 No. 1 · pp. 6–13 

The Other Two Thirds: A Response to Doug Heidebrecht and Mark Wessner

Sherri Guenther Trautwein

Doug Heidebrecht and Mark Wessner’s paper, “Interpreting Scripture Today: A Mennonite Brethren Model and Method,” opens with a discussion of three key elements involved in reading the Bible in MB contexts today—Bible, Spirit, and Community. 1 A visual representation of the model, a triangle with these three elements located at three equidistant points, is held together by identifying the relationships that emerge when any two of the three points are taken together: Bible + Community = Understanding, Community + Spirit = Discernment, Spirit + Bible = Authority. 2

Similar projects that center on Community and the Spirit need to be added to our conversation.

The model is centered on one word: Jesus. A cursory discussion of these three elements and their relational connections puts some meat on the bones of the model and the interpretive possibilities and opportunities that arise when approaching the Bible with these elements and relationships in {7} mind. In the course of their discussion, Heidebrecht and Wessner caution against potential pitfalls of the interpretive exercise when only one or two of the elements are considered, resulting in an imbalanced triangle that compromises the integrity of the model and its fruit. This discussion of the interpretive model is followed by a methodological one: How does one go about engaging the model in a meaningful way? Heidebrecht and Wessner propose a four-step pathway 3—Posture, Interpret, Apply, Live—that invites the reader(s) to consider questions of attitude, meaning, application, and practice. These steps, taken together, work to transform the life of the reader(s) in their interpretation of the Bible and, ultimately, their following of Jesus.

The broader context that houses this interpretive model and method is brought into view in Doug Heidebrecht’s paper, “Community Hermeneutics in Practice: Following the Interpretive Path Together.” Heidebrecht considers the historical priority and practice of communal interpretation of the Bible in the MB denominational family, identifying some of the challenges that have complicated or compromised the exercise of this value in the past. He points to struggles around achieving “shared interpretations,” questions surrounding “culture” and “biblical authority,” and concerns connected to the lack of achievable consensus on certain key issues. 4 He goes on to explore the method outlined in “Interpreting Scripture Today” in greater depth, linking it more specifically to the MB story and proposing ways in which this interpretive pathway might support the practice of a community hermeneutic for MBs going forward.

My response will consider the content of these two papers together under three headings: (1) Reconsidering the Model, (2) Interrogating the Details of the Method, and (3) Re-engaging a Community Hermeneutic.

RECONSIDERING THE MODEL

How do we interpret the Bible well today? This was the central question of the 2019 Study Conference, and it emerges as the central concern in both papers. How do all these many and various elements and relationships come together to help Christians generally, and MBs specifically, read the Bible carefully? How might this careful reading lead us towards sound interpretation and faithful practice in our present time?

These are fine questions, and they deserve careful consideration. The two articles tease out some key opportunities and complications of undertaking this task. It strikes me, though, that if we (Mennonite Brethren) take the model presented by Heidebrecht and Wessner seriously and consider all its parts, we are only a third of the way towards our goal. “Bible” is represented as an equal partner with both “Community” and “Spirit.” It is one of three distinct points on the triangle—one element {8} in relationship to the other two. If we engage what is visualized here in a straight-forward way, two more Study Conferences followed by two more volumes of papers on “Community” and “Spirit” are required to maintain the balance highlighted by the authors. 5 Furthermore, the center of the triangle is not “Interpreting Scripture” but “Jesus,” which suggests the goal of applying the model is not interpreting Scripture but Jesus-centeredness—or Christ-likeness—a process, practice, and state of being that relies on meaningful engagement with all three elements to have integrity.

The Bible is the written word, the documentary source, through which God is revealed to humankind. This tangible revelation that we can read with our eyes, hear with our ears, and touch with our hands carries with it a comfort and a security that appeals to us. It is a common reference, an anchor. Its physical presence among us, whether by leather-bound volumes or digital phone apps, calls us back, time and again, to a shared source. We have needed this throughout the history of the church to be reminded of the story of God and God’s people. We still need this today. But is it all we need?

The Community and the Spirit, also identified in the model, play critical roles in the life of the believer and the church, and not simply passive or supporting roles. This quickly becomes complicated, however, because the wind of the Spirit blows where and when the Spirit chooses (John 3:8), and the identity of the community is constantly expanding and changing as it has since the earliest days of the church (Acts 2:47). These are much less tangible, less controllable elements, and yet, they also share in, and are integral to, the process of being transformed into the likeness of Christ. Community and Spirit are made known to us through the witness of the Bible, but conversely, the Bible is revealed to us only when these two elements are considered equal partners in revelation. Without the Community, the text of the Bible is not preserved, studied, or practiced. Without the Spirit, the text is bound to ancient society—a stylized history book that dabbles in poetry and hymnody from time to time. All three are necessary for the formation of a people who pursue transformation into the likeness of Christ if the model is to be implemented to its full extent.

The rebuttal to my suggestion that we are only one third of the way there might be that throughout both papers the need to attend to the interaction between Bible, Community, and Spirit is identified. In fact, the authors state this clearly: “Bible, Spirit, and community cannot be sharply separated as the diagram of the Interpretive Model may suggest. An intentional engagement with all three elements is necessary because attention to only one or two elements will create an imbalance in the interpretive process that will diminish the dynamic relationship between {9} them.” 6 In this statement, the goal of proper use of the model finds fulfillment in the “interpretive process,” not in “Jesus” or “following Jesus” (as the model visualizes and the method leads us towards). So, yes, there is intentional reference to how the three elements work together, but even the titles of both papers indicate that the model is in the service of “Interpreting Scripture” or “Following the Interpretive Path.” To stop here over-privileges one element (Scripture) in relation to the other two, if in fact we are working with a triangle with equidistant angles as our visual guide. To give equal treatment to the other two angles, similar projects that center on Community and Spirit need to be added to our conversation. There is more work to be done—work that would benefit our MB denominational family tremendously.

INTERROGATING THE DETAILS OF THE METHOD

The method that accompanies the model does so with the assumption that it is the Bible and Interpreting Scripture that is being centered (rather than following Jesus). It would be an interesting exercise to see where this method leads us when applied equally to the other two elements in the model. 7 For now, an interrogation of a few details of the method as it relates to the Bible will suffice.

Posture—This first step emphasizes that the Bible is read from our current location. It is an acknowledgement of the attitude and the bias we bring to the text. Heidebrecht writes, “We always read the Bible from within a particular vantage point or context (either as individuals or as a community) which has been shaped by our culture, history, traditions, experiences, and current situations.” 8 His extended treatment of this point suggests that it has not been easy—or customary—for MBs to acknowledge this step in the interpretive process. He goes on to say that even our “tradition” (in this case, the MB family) must be included in our location, and subject to critical evaluation. This is a vital point in the interpretation of the Bible within the MB church today.

Interpret—This second step focuses on the question of meaning in the biblical text—author, audience, circumstance—with a particular emphasis on how surfacing authorial intention influences our understanding of texts. However, authorial intention is a far more slippery concept than we would like to acknowledge. What we (Christians today) “know” about authorial intention, what we “know” about the audience receiving the text and about the circumstances in which these audiences find themselves, is predicated entirely on our interrogation of the text itself. People have engaged in careful readings for many years, and in so doing, have reconstructed all sorts of things. This is legitimate, important, scholarly work. It is also very easy to lose sight that—in its essence—exegesis represents our best {10} efforts at reconstruction and understanding. What we identify as author, audience, and circumstance is more accurately described as “implied author” and “implied audience” and “implied circumstance.” These are identities and situations implied by the text that we have gathered from our reading of the text. Additionally, the biblical text as we have it has been pieced together through a textual tradition that is unnervingly vague. These technical terms and historical realities are not raised to cast aspersions, but to invite a pause when it comes to pursuing “authorial intention,” the meaning of the text, and how that meaning is brought to bear on our exegetical process once we think we’ve uncovered it. Any authority that resides in the text or our reading and application of it, depends not only on our reading and acquisition of the “the original meaning of the text,” but requires the revelatory elements of both Community and Spirit—not in secondary or supportive roles, but in primary and active ones, here today. Furthermore, if the Community and the Spirit are necessarily active in our exegesis of the Bible, then we must be prepared to receive not only revelation of what was, but also what is today—an anticipation of the next step.

Apply—This third step highlights a repeated emphasis on the work of the Spirit within the Community to move the teaching of the Bible from then to now—these two elements working together creating the bridge. A notable point surfaces, however, about how the Spirit speaks, and relates back to the challenge of distilling meaning as raised above. Heidebrecht writes, “Our openness to hear the Spirit speak afresh through the text affirms that the Spirit’s leading will always be consistent with the meaning of the written Word [sic] as he [sic] brings the text to bear on our questions and in our lives.” 9 Assuming the “written Word” is the documentary source we identify as the Bible, we once again come face-to-face with the power of authorial intention—the “meaning” behind the text. I concur that the Spirit is the Spirit of truth, and the Spirit’s leading will always be consistent. What I question is the extent to which readers—even faithful, earnest readers—ever arrive at definitive meanings of what the text meant, and the subsequent implication that we must be on guard when it comes to changing the definitive meaning of the Bible by carelessly invoking the Spirit. If we have a robust theology of the active roles of the Spirit and the Community in carrying the Bible forward throughout the history of the church as one source of revelation, then that theology demands that we work at an equally clear and careful understanding of the work of the Spirit and the responsibility of the Community. What if a perceived “inconsistency” relates to a long history of misreading that is now being corrected by the Spirit in the context of Community—as opposed to the current assumption that, the longer something is read one {11} way, the more likely it is that this is the most faithful way to read it and must be guarded as such? Here again the dynamic relationship between Bible, Community, and Spirit for discerning what it means to faithfully follow Jesus comes to the fore.

Live—This final step considers “how then do we live” and identifies the true center of the hermeneutical method. Heidebrecht writes, “The goal of interpreting and applying Scripture is not only knowledge and understanding about God but also following Jesus in all of life as disciples who are being transformed into his image.” 10 Yes! Amen!! But what do we do when we disagree on what the interpretation and application look like? How do we go about examining our posture and location, our exegetical tools and assumptions, our discerned applications, and our daily practice in shared, accessible, accountable ways? How do we live this out together? This leads to the larger conversation around a community hermeneutic.

RE-ENGAGING A COMMUNITY HERMENEUTIC

Heidebrecht acknowledges that while the practice of community hermeneutics has been a value for MBs, it has not been exercised without complication. He writes, “Despite these affirmations and the longstanding recognition of the need to engage in the practice of community hermeneutics, Mennonite Brethren have struggled to participate well together, particularly when facing divisive issues.” 11 This observation is borne out of Heidebrecht’s familiarity with the long and complex struggle over the question of women in ministry leadership. There is not time to treat this struggle in any significant way here. Instead, I will raise two points that may contribute to ways forward in the quest to clarify and re-engage the practice of community hermeneutics within the MB family.

The first relates to the role of leadership with respect to the practice of community hermeneutics. In arguing for the conviction that God reveals Godself through Scripture to people by the Spirit, Heidebrecht argues, “The alternative is a stark individualism, presuming the objectivity of its own perceptions.” 12 Where and in what ways does this “stark individualism” come into play? Is it only where this congregant or that congregant raises an “outside the box” question for the community to discuss? Is it when this church or that church proposes a topic for discernment? What is leadership’s role when it comes to the question of “stark individualism,” and how do leaders facilitate community hermeneutics without inadvertently stepping into the trap of presumed objectivity by virtue of their location within the community? Yes, “stark individualism” is one alternative to community hermeneutic, but what about a second alternative—authoritarianism or gatekeeping? It seems these frontiers are less commonly interrogated, but no less threatening. Heidebrecht writes, “For the Word [sic] of God {12} to be understood within the community, leaders must also seek to invite the whole community into the actual process of interpreting Scripture.” 13 This type of leadership requires courage, trust, skill, humility, and a robust theological sensibility that perceives the life and work of the church to be derived not only from a particular interpretation of the Bible, but also from the discernment of the Community and the guidance of the Spirit.

Which brings me to my final and concluding point. At the end of his paper, Heidebrecht suggests,

While Mennonite Brethren have struggled in their practice of community hermeneutics, a clear interpretive method—posture, interpret, apply, and live—offers a pathway for understanding and discerning the Scriptures together. This journey can facilitate Mennonite Brethren’s experience of the Spirit’s illuminating, guiding, and transforming work among them as they listen to and study the Scriptures in community. The challenge of community hermeneutics centers around Mennonite Brethren’s active participation as a community in the practice of interpreting, applying, and living out God’s Word to us. 14

Yes! And let us not neglect the remaining two thirds of the work. Heidebrecht’s concluding paragraph, taken on its own, could lead us to imagine that the purpose of the Spirit and the Community is to help us interpret the Bible, rather than to work with the Bible to help us follow Jesus. Pursuit of a fully developed engagement with all three elements and relationships in the model proposed by Heidebrecht and Wessner—a pursuit that takes seriously the interpretation of the Bible, the illumination of the Spirit, and the active discernment and practice of the Community—would go a long way toward reengaging a community hermeneutic within the MB denominational family, and ultimately in our collective calling to follow Jesus.

NOTES

  1. Throughout this response, I will capitalize these three words as reminders of their position within the model. Doug Heidebrecht and Mark Wessner, “Interpreting Scripture Today: A Mennonite Brethren Model and Method,” Direction 49 (Fall 2020): 115-22.
  2. Heidebrecht and Wessner, 117.
  3. They also make passing reference to the “hermeneutical circle” (a related, but distinct visualization), Heidebrecht and Wessner, 119. See also Doug Heidebrecht, “Community Hermeneutic in Practice: Following the Interpretive Path Together,” Direction 40 (Fall 2020): 127. {13}
  4. Heidebrecht, “Community Hermeneutics in Practice,” 125.
  5. Heidebrecht and Wessner, “Interpreting Scripture Today,” 119.
  6. Heidebrecht and Wessner, 119.
  7. Methodological integrity requires that the “how we do it” either holds up on all three fronts, or identifies methodological equivalents that relate directly to each element with appropriate adjustments taken into account.
  8. Heidebrecht, “Community Hermeneutics in Practice,” 127.
  9. Heidebrecht, 133.
  10. Heidebrecht, 134.
  11. Heidebrecht, 124.
  12. Heidebrecht, 126.
  13. Heidebrecht, 131.
  14. Heidebrecht, 136.
Sherri Guenther Trautwein is lead pastor at the Lendrum Mennonite Church in Edmonton, Alberta. She is also a PhD candidate at Wycliffe College (Toronto School of Theology).

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