Hermeneutical trump cards

In order to produce a ‘normative’ statement out of the New Testament it is practically inevitable that one will emphasize one part of the text at the expense of the rest. This functions, at both a scholarly and a popular level, by means of elevating certain parts of the theology of the New Testament…into a ‘canon within the canon’…. This is not to say that one should not operate with some sort of inner canon: all interpreters do, whether they admit it or not, in that all come to the text with some set of questions that begin the encounter. The question then is: what should we do with this starting-point? Should we use it simply as a way in to the material, remaining conscious of its implicit bias? Or will it be used as a Procrustean bed by which to measure, and condemn, the other bits that do not fit? (N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 21-22.)

Hermeneutics is not just a question of what we do with the text. It is also about recognizing what we each bring to the text or impose on the text.

One of my papers for my hermeneutics class last semester was on the subject of infant baptism. The assignment was to take an issue that has divided our church (or the church in general) and examine the hermeneutical questions and challenges of each position. What made this paper particularly interesting and useful was that we were not to take a side on the issue, not to argue for one or the other, but simply to present the respective arguments and then examine and critique the hermeneutical issues at hand.

I chose infant baptism because I grew up in a believer baptism setting. That is, the denominations in which I participated did not practice infant baptism, but only baptized adults (or individuals beyond a certain age) who have made a personal decision to follow Christ. The denomination of which we are now a member and in which I hope to be ordained practices both infant and believer baptism.  What this means is that the child of believing parents is not automatically baptized. Instead, parents choose whether they want their child baptized or simply dedicated so that they can choose to be baptized on their own when they are older. After writing this paper, this conscience-based position seems like the sensible thing. However, pastors in our denomination are required to do both. If the parents want their child baptized, the pastor has to be willing to administer it. So this paper was a useful exercise for me.

There are a number of issues at stake in this issue, but I won’t get into all of them now, but one hermeneutical issue in particular stood out to me: giving certain verses or passages precedence over others. Among the various arguments for or against this position, there is one significant place where both sides use the same passages to argue for opposing positions: the household baptisms in Acts. The text is technically silent on the presence of infants in these household baptisms. The believer’s baptism-only side (credobaptists) argues that since infants are not specifically mentioned, they must not have been included. The infant baptism side (paedobaptists) will say that while infants are not specifically mentioned in the text, a household would by definition and in all likelihood have included infants.  In this instance, both sides are using the silence of the text to argue for their position. In other words, the Bible itself nowhere else explicitly states whether there were or were not infants included in these household baptisms. The interpreter has to make a hermeneutical decision as to how to approach these texts and “outside” (that is, from other parts of scripture or theology) influences inevitably come into play.

Of course, both sides have ways of supporting their position by drawing on other Biblical texts which indirectly relate. The credobaptist, however, will say something like this: “Every instance of individual baptism in Acts is preceded by belief/decision, so it follows that the same happened in the household baptisms.”  This is where it gets interesting. Here’s how I put it in my paper:

The question must be asked…whether the cases of believer baptism and the cases of household baptism are to be understood in the same way.  Is it reasonable to set a pattern for baptism that runs straight through both individual baptisms and household baptisms? Should the clear cases of individual believer baptism be given hermeneutical precedence so [that] they define the parameters of the more ambiguous household baptism passages? The believer’s baptisms are clearly dealing with adults, so it is not clear how they apply to the baptism of infants…

We do this sort of thing all the time, of course.  We use the passages that support our current position to smother the passages that seem to suggest something else. We are not comfortable living with the tensions of scripture. We like everything to be smooth and unambiguous, so we either overpower contrary texts  with the texts that support our position or ignore the contrary texts altogether.

But there’s no good reason that I can see for doing this sort of thing.  This is an example of what Wright calls “a canon within the canon”. We give certain texts more heremeneutical power than others, and it’s usually the passages which support our current position.  It looks kind of like this:

Paedobaptist: I think the household baptisms may at the very least allow for the possibility of infant baptisms.

Credobaptist: Every instance of an individual getting baptized in Acts shows clear personal commitment to the way of Christ.  So, I don’t think so.

Somehow, we think that simply naming the supporting texts is enough to deal with the contrary texts. But there’s no real reason for this.  The same thing will happen with many other issues. Christian universalism is a subject that I keep returning to.  It seems to me that the “hell passages” have been given trump powers over passages which may hint at something else or beyond.  So the conversation may look like this:

Universalism: I think the New Testament certainly allows for the possibility for universal reconciliation. Take, for instance, Paul’s writing about Christ dying once for all and Christ being the new Adam who does the sin of the first Adam.

Exclusivism: Yeah, but the New Testament has all sorts of references to hell and judgement.  So, I don’t think so.

End of discussion. But this kind of trump move is hermeneutical dishonesty.

5 thoughts on “Hermeneutical trump cards

  1. Toni

    A little. It seems an awful lot of words to say “we all come to scripture having already decided how we’re going to understand it” unless it was for the pleasure of positioning the names Credobaptist and Pedobaptist side by side.

    So I wondered what you were really trying to say. Despite the length of some of my blogposts, I don’t do this kind of discussion well.

    *edit*

    I kept re-reading it after each time I typed a couple of lines here, and I *think* I’ve found your meaning, hidden across 4 paragraphs of text. But who knows?

  2. Marc

    My point was not so much about preconceived ideas that we bring to scripture (although that’s part of it), but about our tendency to use one scripture to overpower another.

    I wrote this post a couple of weeks ago but didn’t publish. Then I read that Wright post, which I thought would go well with it and so I published it without a great deal of editing from its original writing.

    Hu-hum. It may work for some and not for others…

  3. Toni

    This post of your is interesting in a way, since I seem to have become a little embroiled in discussion with a lesbian couple I know in meatspace. I have to try to step back and ask “what does this mean” rather than what can I make it mean as a tool in the argument.

    I’d say (to answer your last comment) that when one starts playing one scripture off against another one has already failed to understand the bible. There is always harmony, even under tension, and I would suggest that if we cannot find the harmony then we do not yet understand what we have read.

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