Recently I interacted with Christian author Frank Viola,where he blogged about a hypothetical conversation between two Christians (Chris & Bill) who both value the Bible but disagree on how to arrive at its meaning.
Frank focuses on their differing “communication styles.” The one, Chris, uses what Frank calls the Charismatic Spiritual Conversation style (or CSC) and understands a biblical passage because “God showed me” or “the Spirit revealed to me” what it means. The other, Bill (no “style” is actually associated with Bill’s approach), understands the Bible exegetically and hermeneutically.
Viola believes that their communication is frustrated because they use different communication styles (CSC vs. not CSC).
I don’t think so.
Specifically, the issue is not different “styles” / approaches but two sides of the same, disjointed ideology: an ideology that I believe fails properly to integrate our humanity with our Christian faith. Let’s take a closer look.
What Frank refers to as “CSC” I would describe as the belief that we directly access biblical meaning through personal experience of God—knowing the Bible by knowing God. What Frank refers to as the “exegetical, hermeneutical” style means believing that we reliably access biblical meaning through exegesis—knowing the Bible (and so God) through proper reading method.
The one touts experience, the other touts method.
Yet despite their different starting points both have much in common. Further, rather than “running to excess,” both actually need to carry their emphases further. Let me suggest four ways that this is so.
First, both are hermeneutically oriented. So those who prize experience do actually maintain a hermeneutic (i.e., a lens, through which they read the Bible) that negates the necessity of exegesis because it denies that there is any distance between the text and the reader. It does so because the Bible’s ultimate ‘author’ is giving readers the “inside scoop” on what it means.
Second, both are experientially oriented. So those who prize proper reading method do actually emphasize their experience of God, particularly during discussions with non-Christians where they often use it as a ‘response of last resort’ against the claims of atheists / agnostics (“You just need to believe to understand”) or to curtail discussion (“We can only talk so far because we don’t have Christ in common”).
Third, however, rather than less emphasis on personal experience we need more. Specifically, humans understand experience by drawing conclusions on the existential events that we undergo and testing these conclusions over time. So reflecting on my experiences in my family of origin, marriage, etc., (i.e., how much and why I esteem them, and the outcome of doing so) can inform—and possibly correct—how much I esteem my experiences of God in understanding the Bible.
Fourth, and by extension, rather than less focus on exegesis we need more. Specifically, the “greatest commandment” (to love God entirely, in response to God’s deep love for us) is an invitation to a love relationship that is not only core to Christian experience, but the basis of Christian understanding. As such, being Christian involves not only applying proper method to Bible reading but also to ourselves: becoming skilled readers of our motives, intentions, etc.
These four points show how Chris & Bill’s approaches are not incompatibly different but are complimentary, yet incomplete because they are unintegrated.
In all areas of life, humans rely on explanations of how things work and then put these understandings in motion (such as understanding the Bible in order to know God). Likewise, we experience things working and then are able to explain—to ourselves and others—how this is so (such as experiencing God and, thereby, understanding the Bible).
And the relationship between these two opposite approaches is reciprocal and productive: sometimes experience generates understanding, sometimes understanding prompts (or recontextualizes) experience. And new experiences (and new understandings) prompt us to rework our understandings, or reconsider our interpretations of experience.
We need experience; we also need exegesis. And we do not need to choose between them but properly to understand them, and so, integrate them.