The Difference Between a Hermeneutical Study and a Confessional Conversation


As the debate over same-sex marriage and LGBTQ inclusion in the church rages a strange word you will often hear is “hermeneutics”. It surfaced yesterday in the RCA Synod.

rca scripture

You can see in the struck-out text “hermeneutical methods” replaced by “a Reformed Understanding”

Why does this word come up? 

It comes up because one group says “the Bible says same sex relationships and sexual acts are immoral and God is against them. It says so right here in the Bible which is the Word of God.”

Another group says “these are God’s beloved children just as they are, fearfully and wonderfully made by Him!” (see RCA Synod floor debate about 1:15)

So in a “Bible believing” church the groups go to the Bible to battle it out. Each group will turn to the other and say “you’re not reading it right!”

Well, since this kind of thing has happened for centuries rules were developed for how to read it and how to interpret it. These rules are called “hermeneutics”. The idea is that if you can get the rules right then you will have certainty that you are reading right and that you are hearing God right and that you and God are on the same page and your rivals, friendly or otherwise are wrong.

Fashionable Skepticism Frustrating Politics

This “hermeneutics” idea sounds great in theory, but in practice it never quite pans out as either side would like. What tends to happen is that you get something like a jury trial where both sides are making their arguments in front of the public who will decide for themselves. What usually happens is that other sociology of knowledge factors seem to govern people’s opinions more strongly than arguments. If they were raised in sociologically traditional or progressive context their judgments mirror their communities and so the fight spreads into multiple fronts of the religious and political culture wars.

This is a disappointment for those who want to imagine hermeneutics as a sort of mathematical algorithm like how you learned long division when you were in grade school. We should be able to ask the question “Does God approve or disapprove of same sex relationships, sex acts and marriage?” and with your algorithm plus the Bible you will get the right answer just like math. Then everyone will have to say “yep, 24 divided by 6 is 4, every time. Clear for us all to see.” If it isn’t clear to someone then they don’t believe in math and don’t deserve a spot at the table.

The promise of a mathy approach to hermeneutics hasn’t panned out. People experience this all the time and when someone refers to the Bible the other person will say “well that’s your interpretation” meaning “I’m not bound to that. I don’t believe that. I will believe how I will interpret the Bible myself.”

  • Alister McGrath calls this “Christianity’s dangerous idea” because in the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther declared that the Roman Catholic church doesn’t have the authority or right to interpret Scriptures for everyone else. Believers must interpret for themselves by the light of the Holy Spirit.
  • Christian Smith, a sociologist at Notre Dame has written about Biblicism in the Bible made Impossible noting “massive interpretive pluralism” when it comes to this idea that with right rules we can find unity and agreement on Biblical interpretation. This assumption has failed and the evidence for its failure is denominations.
  • Skepticism itself has become fashionable and many authors have pointed out that certainty itself can become a idolatrous replacement for faith. So why bother with any of this?

Yesterday at the RCA Synod after frustration and exhaustion at the impasse the denomination has experienced over this issue there was a moment on the floor when people expressed the fact that although they were pointing to the same Bible they were coming out with opposing conclusions and it was all coming down to vote counting.

I heard in the speeches yesterday a hope that the two sides might be able to talk about confessions, what it means to be Reformed, and explore this together. That spirit was crushed when it came down to voting and one side one and the other lost. The losing side walks away wondering “Do I belong here? Why do I try?”

Report 44 and Reformed Hermeneutics

With all of the admonitions recently to “live in the moment” I’d like to advice that we pay some attention to the past. These are not new issues. The CRC and others have been wrestling with differences over issues of Biblical interpretation since the time of the New Testament and before. The reason you find all kinds of attention to miracles on the Sabbath and sinners and tax collectors in the Gospel stories is because these were the interpretive fights of their day. Jesus doesn’t so much offer a hermeneutic but sees himself as the confession. “If you really knew Moses you would recognize me.” Jesus is the interpretive key, and by him the Old Testament is re-interpreted.  

When I was at Calvin Seminary in the 80s there was a lot of talk about “Report 44“. We would do well to take a look at it again. The fighting then was over how to interpret Genesis and the CRC Synod together with other Reformed denominations were wrestling with these issues. The report dealt with the nature and authority of Scripture. If you jump to page 504 you’ll see III point A “A Confessional Stance”.

We cannot talk about “Reformed Hermeneutics” without talking about confessions. Our rules for interpreting scripture actually arise from our confessions. Why? Doesn’t this sound post-modern?

“Hermeneutics” and the Promise of Science

Part of our culture today is skepticism regarding all things except material sciences and basic math. During the rise of  science as a method for establishing public certainty and therefore agreement around it fashion in Biblical interpretation began to mimic these assumptions. The Bible was the data and all we needed to do was interpret the data correctly in order to have certainty about what God thought. So when it came to the question of how does God feel about same sex marriage just look at the data and you’ll get your answer. Right? Why hasn’t this worked? Is it just that progressives are hard hearted or rebellious?

Credo baptists feel the same way about infant baptism. Right? Do we baptize infants because we are lost in our emotional feelings for our kids and therefore bend Scripture to say what we want it to?


Implicit Confessions

People’s beliefs about the Bible are also shaped by their experience and assumptions about the Bible. Here is a very common one.

“The Bible tells us God’s rules. If you live by God’s rules you’ll be blessed materially in this life and rewarded with heaven in the next”

This is an implicit confession for many, many people inside and outside the church. If you believe this confession you can point to a lot of Bible passages that seem to confirm it.

  • God tells Israel if they keep his commandments then he’ll protect them from enemies, their crops will grow, their flocks will multiply, and they’ll have many children.
  • God punishes Adam and Eve for breaking the tree rule, he punishes Cain for killing his brother, he punishes humanity for their wickedness with Noah’s flood, etc.
  • The Bible says “what you sow you will also reap”

Someone reading the Bible will find this theme over and over again and come to the very reasonable conclusion that this is how God works and this is what the Bible is for.

Making Implicit Confessions Explicit

Let’s say I sit down with someone to talk about the Bible. They tell me “the Bible is God’s rule book. Do right and you’ll be blessed. Do wrong and you’ll be punished.”

I can say, “yes, that is often true, but have you considered God’s servant Job, or the book of Jonah, or the life of Jesus, or the lives of the apostles? Have you read 2 Corinthians and what Paul said about the shape of his ministry? These are all important test cases that don’t follow your rule. We need to understand some Bible verses in the light of the larger story.”

Now we’re beginning to have a confessional conversation. We are looking at particular texts in the light of larger themes. We are going to try to look for a way to read, interpret, and honor those individual texts that make God look like karma in the light of other texts and themes that make the Gospel look like a gracious alternative to karma.

Hermeneutics and Confessions

  • Hermeneutics are dependent upon confessions. They arise from confessions.
  • Hermeneutics ask “what does this text mean?”. Confessions ask “how does the message on this issue of subject fit into the larger story?”
  • In a confessional church we have a context where hopefully we already agree on some basic things so that we can not talk past ourselves. When we have conflicting, implicit confessions we can never really agree on hermeneutics because we are dealing with two different sets of rules. We must first get our confessions explicit before we really get specific on individual texts.
  • Unless we find agreement on confessions we will not be able to agree on practice.

When I watch the debates about same sex marriage I hear a lot of implicit confessions sneaking in on both sides.

  • From the traditional side I hear a lot of “This is God’s book of rules. If don’t live by God’s rules you’ll be punished and if we as a church accept sin like this we’ll be punished and not blessed.”

That’s an important point, but our confessions have things to say about this. In debating other issues we might point this out and condemn this for a sort of works-righteousness.

  • From the affirming side I hear “God wants people to flourish. It is unfair and unrealistic for LGBTQ persons to flourish with your hetero-normative rules. We are seeing that the assumed gender binary is not as assumable as we thought. We are already selective about what rules we interpret as binding and which we disregard. Maybe God is doing a new thing by his Spirit like he did with setting aside circumcision and Old Testament dietary laws. These people love Jesus. How can you exclude them from membership, leadership and blessing their loving, covenantal relationships?”

This is a strong argument, but there are some implicit confessions sneaking in here too. There is actually an implicit agreement between the karmic assumptions of the works-righteousness implicit traditional confession and the observational-flourishing argument by the implicit affirming one. You could engage both implicit confessions in a very interesting conversation in the light of Job, the life of Jesus and Paul’s teachings in 2 Corinthians. Both are too easily associating practice and external flourishing and not engaging larger, important themes about the nature of our fallen world and the need of our hearts to secure shalom for ourselves.

In both implicit confessions there are soteriologies, doctrines of salvation at work and our present confessions, and the New Testament have a great deal to say about this.

Confessional Conversation

  • A confessional conversation invites us to make our implicit confessions explicit.
  • A confessional conversation invites us to examine our assumptions against the full canon of Scripture and the long conversation the church has had through it.
  • A confessional conversation asks us to expose the assumptions we bring to Scripture and especially the ones that are sneaking into our interpretations.
  • A confessional conversation invites us to push back from simplistic rule-keeping standards or observational flourishing standards and ask deeper questions about how issues engage with the range of theological loci: anthropology, soteriology, eschatology, ecclesiology, prolegomena, etc.
  • Hermeneutics asks “what does this passage say?” Confessions ask “how does this passage fit and into what?”
  • A confessional conversation informs our structures of unity. With whom may we share what and how?


About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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1 Response to The Difference Between a Hermeneutical Study and a Confessional Conversation

  1. Karl Westerhof says:

    Paul, I think I’m beginning (finally) to get a glimpse of what you are after, and it’s starting to make sense to me. I long for such a conversation — if and only if we could have it in a well-paced, gracious, prayer-soaked, safe, loving, participative, deeply thorough way. How would we accomplish that? By God’s grace and miraculous leading is the only way I know. And that’s not even the BEGINNING of an answer to HOW…. My heart is broken over this dialog among us, and now it comes to another key point at synod. I want to add a note to your list of questions at the end of your blog – I want to assume that “examining our assumptions” leaves open the possibility of discovering that something in our confessions, or in our assumptions, needs to change.
    Thanks for your continued pondering, out loud and in the presence of your community.

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