The house of Restoration Movement hermeneutics has toppled into ruins. Many in Churches of Christ (and similarly Enlightenment-born denominations) have chosen to live among the rubble, because vagabondage seems the only alternative. Others carry on, by denial or by obliviousness, heedless of their interpretive home’s plight. Still others contemplate leaving the family’s ancestral lands to build a different kind of house, though where and how it might accommodate the family is uncertain.
In congregations where these perspectives cohabit, confusion and disorientation afflict biblical interpretation. This is an intensely practical problem. At issue are forms of life—life together—because our ancestral lands are a place where the construction of a way of life must be “according to the Scriptures.” Yet, the practical outworking of this commitment is stymied. We know where we are committed to live, but we don’t know how to rebuild a home.
At this point, the allegory might seem to commend the Scripture-as-blueprint analogy typical of Restoration Movement hermeneutics. Confusing Scripture with a blueprint is, however, what led to our current dilemma. Scripture is instead the story about who we are and where we are. It explains our habitat. It tells us that we are in a tumultuous land and that we are a people who do not fear even when the earth moves beneath us; it does not tell us exactly how to build for earthquakes.
The Restoration Movement generally conflated Scripture and interpretation. By treating the text as the interpretation, restorationists took the Protestant belief in the perspicuity of Scripture to its devastating logical conclusion. The expression of this assumption was the interpretive formula Command, Example, and Necessary Inference (CEI). In it, the complex processes of determining how to infer and what is necessary became reductionistic and mechanistic. Scripture, rather than serving as the story, was made to function as a blueprint for building in the Enlightenment story, which falsely narrated a habitat of enduring stability. Furthermore, the story of Scripture naturally failed to provide instructions for building an earthquake-ready house. Much as pictures of a house cannot replace blueprints for building a similar house in a different part of the world, Scripture could not play the part that hermeneutics should have. When the ground shifted, the house collapsed around us.
Yet, as one of my graduate professors asked a group of MDiv students who were vigorously deriding CEI hermeneutics, “What is the alternative?” It is inadequate merely to point out that Scripture is not supposed to function this way or that: the congregation needs a practical approach to the authority of God in the text. Though the idea of an authoritative story has proven groundbreaking for theologians, it has remained vague for Christians in search of ways to be obedient to God in particular decisions. But granting that Scripture is best understood as narrative (rather than legal text, blueprint, or instruction manual), the burden to meet the need for interpretive practices shifts to hermeneutics. In other words, if my allegory is apt, the construction of concrete ethical and liturgical forms of life according to Scripture does require architectural design. The application of this discipline need not produce a single blueprint for all times; it must skillfully design a house for the present generation in light of the biblical narrative about where and who we are. This is the role of biblical hermeneutics: it provides specific approaches to the construction of a home for a family with particular goals, priorities, traditions, and rhythms inhabiting a particular climate, geography, and ecosystem. While the biblical narrative reveals a great deal about those particulars, it is hermeneutics that renders forms appropriate to them.
The essential claim of missional hermeneutics is that mission signals a way forward for those living among the rubble. This issue of Missio Dei documents some dimensions of missional hermeneutics that I believe to be especially important for Restoration Movement churches, because they reflect the foundational insight of missional hermeneutics: the lessons learned in mission must feed back to the whole church’s reading of Scripture. Anglican missionary Lesslie Newbigin is probably the greatest catalyst of missional hermeneutics. Having returned to Britain after mission work in India, he did a simple but revolutionary thing: he looked at his native Western culture with the eyes of a cross-cultural missionary. He was hardly the first missionary to do so, but as an articulate theologian he made his case in a way that became widely influential.
The point is this: the practices of mission should become key hermeneutical resources for the renewal of Restoration Movement hermeneutics. In fact, mission is the corner of the house that is still standing. Practices such as translation and contextualization are already what we do in one corner of the Restoration tradition. As we regroup and rebuild, these approaches need to become paradigmatic for the whole house, which requires two crucial design changes. One, participation in the mission of God must be the foundation of the whole house. This is the essence of the hermeneutics arising from the missional church movement, inspired largely by Newbigin. Congregations that understand their identities (goals, priorities, traditions, and rhythms) in terms of God’s mission inhabit the story differently than those who do not, which necessarily transforms their engagement with Scripture. Two, the insights of missiology must be applied to the design of the whole house. Congregations that rightly ask what can functionally replace traditional hermeneutics need only turn to their own missionaries’ and translators’ practices for concrete alternatives. These practices do not constitute a comprehensive hermeneutic, but they are already our practices and therefore offer an indispensable starting point for congregations that come to view their own climate, geography, and ecosystem as missionaries.
I commend to the reader these articles from the keyboards of missional leaders, missionaries, translators, and biblical scholars. Each one contributes to the formation of a hermeneutic built upon the mission of God. May God restore God’s household as a light to the nations. Soli Deo gloria.