Interpreting “Faith” in Faith and Work: the next Challenge

The Oikonima Network (ON) continued its retreat on Saturday by addressing some of the real challenges of moving Christians to embrace faith and work as a part of whole life discipleship. The concern had been established the day prior when Amy Sherman noted recent research by the Barna Group. The research noted that people had indeed heard more preaching on this issue, but they still feel undervalued in how they see their role in the workplace. The reason for this may well rest with not only how they see work, but also their understanding of “faith” as taught in the church, including the way they understand scripture. To address this issue, the network turned to Paul S. Williams for additional understanding.

Paul S. Williams, research professor at Regent University possesses a “bilingual” pedigree by bringing a business and economics background while engaging in theology and church leadership. Williams began his research addressing the problem of interpreting scripture (our hermeneutic of Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 11.18.14 PMscripture) while working on the Reframe Curriculum, as he talked with church leaders, lay Christians, and international thinkers. Williams’ framework for the day expanded on these insights into hermeneutics, including scripture, audience, and context… all with economics in mind.

Williams outlined his presentation, reinforced by his work with pastors in the Made to Flourish project supported by the Kern Family Foundation

  • Problematic features within the current western paradigm as both scholastic and clerical
  • Review how the paradigm influences reading and interpreting scripture based our understanding of the text, the audience, and the context
  • Revisit biblical hermeneutics through ecclesial and missional paradigms

Beginning with the problem, Williams asserted that the current hermeneutic proves too scholastic, one that “apes” the values of the modern secular university, by focusing on hyper-specialization, individualism, and consumerism in course choice. Williams argues this approach tends to de-contextualize persons, contractualize educational delivery, and impoverish relationality in learning. Overall this approach encourages a “violent” pedagogy resulting in rationalized education factories in which learning becomes a tool for acquisition. While seminaries acknowledge the grief behind this process they deal with it nevertheless.

In addition, Williams argues that education remains too clerical. The “scholar-priest” remains the ideal, leaning heavily on biblical and theological content, yet with a limited range of practical training on preaching and teaching in the basic life of the congregation. In addition, many programs possess little to no experience with current efforts in church planting. Ultimately the clerical view assumes local congregants and church life provide the primary context for which scripture serves, a context of “tithe-believers” needing a “theologian in residence.”

In summary, Williams believes we currently have a Christendom paradigm, rooted in enlightenment modernity, assuming a cultural Christianity as the predominant civic religion,  perpetuating a world that no longer exists.

Williams turn to how we use these paradigms in how we view the Bible. Clericalism approaches the text as a pietistic tool, prone to over-spiritulizing so that (according to Anthony Thistelton) the text becomes a “docetic” system of signifiers (non-incarnational). So OT themes of salvation from slavery remain more than slavery to sin, but to the actual economic system of slavery. Scholasticism tends to detach the text from other bodies of knowledge (arts and humanities as well as sciences) which prevents theology from playing its proper integrating role as the Queen of the sciences. The text tends to serve as an autonomous object of study (a non-personal reference). The consequences of this approach is that lay Christians find the text disconnected from life and world. They then adopt various problematic strategies:

  • Spiritualizing the content (e.g. Zaccheus’s repentance actually includes repentant action in the world)
  • Hyper-subjectivity (what scripture means to “me”)
  • The Bible becomes a compendium of right answers (adjudicating whether the Bible favors capitalism or communism?)
  • Biblical authority remains understood as only evident in propositional statements (creating mistakes when scripture represents different literary genres)

The result? Church leaders find themselves chasing peripheral questions of biblical interpretation.

Williams then asked who is the audience? To Whom is the Bible addressed? Williams noted the problem that clericalism assumes the text remains focused only for Christians, attending to the inward life. Scholasticism focuses primarily on expert understanding. As a result, lay people feel disempowered (saying “I’m not an expert”) who struggle to relate the text outside the believing community. Often laity fail to see the relevance of the Bible to contemporary discourse (like the Bible and economics) and tend to privatize the Bible… which lends itself to a sacred-secular dualism. Unfortunately, Church leaders posture themselves as the “Bible-answer-man” but see little, deep transformation in congregants.

What is the context for reading scripture? Clericalism emphasizes reading in a devotional, personal manner to answer questions of church life. Scholasticism focuses on bible study groups, sermons, and seminary classes. As a consequence congregants think of the church as a private, reading, community with an interest in the text. Unfortunately, congregants do not see the church as a public witnessing community, people who “embody” the text. We become a learning community but not a missional community.

The outcome is that we adopt a pedagogy which places faith in our ability to interpret the Bible, rather than in the Holy Spirit’s ability to lead us into the truth by “listening well.” We tend to think the cultural distance between us and the text is insurmountable. We read the Bible but we don’t read the culture. Williams cautioned a fragmented Bible is easily absorbed by the competing narratives of our culture.

Williams’ responded to this problem from both an ecclesial and missional perspective. He began with Leslie Newbigin’s encounter with Hindu scholar (1989) in his book The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society p. 89. The Hindu scholar noted:

As I read the Bible I find in it a quite unique interpretation of universal history and, therefore, a unique understanding of the human person as a responsible actor in history. You Christian missionaries have talked of the Bible as if it were simply another book of religion. We have plenty of these already in India and we do not need another to add to our supply.

Williams continued with Goheen and Bartholomew’s The Drama of Scripture as a backdrop for understanding how scripture can serve both ecclesial and missional readings through the metanarrative of Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, Church and New Creation. He noted how many times he was surprised pastors and laity did not recognize the overarching narrative, nor engage it in their local life. Paul argued that the lack of a metanarrative emerged from the previous forms of hermeneutic. He asserted embracing this new approach radically changes peoples’ engagement of scripture and life, as well as opening questions about the nature of the church (ecclesiology) and mission of church (missional).

Williams then summarized how reading scripture with the perspective of the church (ecclesial) and world (missionally) changes our understanding of the text, the audience, and the context of reading.

Ecclesially reading scripture invokes a different perspective of community versus clerical readings:

Text: The Bible serves as the unique story that reveals the meaning of cosmic history, Creation and human agency that that has been entrusted to the Church, for the Academy (not the other way around), and the World that cannot be separated from its author (epistemic humility).

Audience: Scripture is “God’s love letter” to all humanity (generating epistemic confidence), one that has been entrusted to the whole People of God. The text is to be embodied by the Church gathered in corporate life, and the Church scattered in all walks of life.

Context: We must read ourselves and our context as well as the text. We must hear the text as some perspective different from ours. Church leaders ultimately focus on whole life discipleship.

Williams also offered a missional paradigm for reading scripture as well.

Text: Scripture reveals God’s intent for the world so theology remains Queen of the sciences by serving as the integrating center of all knowledge.

Audience: The Bible remains “God’s love letter” to all humanity, opening up a dialogue with all parts of Society and with all sub-cultures (creating a “redemptive pedagogy”) where everything and everyone ultimately find their place in this Story.

Context: The context dictates reading the text both in the church AND in the world. Christians need to become very adept in cross-cultural communication, especially in the culture where they live, guided by pastors trained for this encounter.

Williams summarized that we need to adopt a post-Christendom Paradigm, rooted in epistemic humility, but aslo with a “proper confidence” in how scripture speaks. This approach also assumes a Church that is in exile, yet also an alternative society, sent into the world, with THE STORY to tell, for the blessing of the nations.

Williams suggested one resource for change, noting Perry Shaw’s Transforming Theological Education provides a framework, stressing that theological education must be motivated to see their role operating from a “burning platform” for change.

In conversation with Williams’ presentation, three ON participants provided responses on Bringing Theology into Cultural Context.

  • Bruce Fields, of Trinity International University, offered reflections on his encounter with the Jubilee Summit/Fellowship where participants read scripture with the African-American church in mind. The movement focuses on “Image” Flourishing (as in Image of God) to ask what it means to be image-bearers of God.
  • Marty Harris, president of Latin American Bible Institute, discussed ministry in a Hispanic setting where evangelical influences grow resulting in a shift of demographic so that only 55% of Hispanics now have a catholic heritage. Harris emphasized the need to address the intersection of family and work ethic to provide a clear point of connection with the ON network.
  • Stephen Grabill, with the Acton Institute, discussed what the organization has been learning from their FLOW (For the Life of the World) Project. First, ON and Acton recognized they needed to develop a film that is Post-Christendom, Exilic, and Missional. Grabill asserted that “context is king,” and that effectiveness in communicating requires speaking it in a language and syntax that is the people’s voice. Ministry has to exercise a community-based hermeneutic. When it comes to engaging economics and work we still have to both investigate deeply and translate effectively that information with the context in mind. Second, Grabill noted that Acton is now engaging millennials through a “collaborative ethnography” so that they are learning both “from” and “about” millennials at one time. As a cohort, Grabill noted Acton has learned that millennials are carriers of a cultural transformation, but these young people are not becoming less spiritual. Grabill noted the question of the “nones” may be flawed, anchored in the research limitations based on assumptions of culture.  The challenge remains how to talk with millennials about orthodoxy and orthopraxy with a sense of epistemic humility so that the conversation becomes a dialog with on-ramps toward justice, stewardship, and care. Organizations more interested in boundary maintenance than missional engagement will fail to engage millennials.

Williams’ challenge to rethink our hermeneutics in light of context (both how we were formed and how we should adapt), undergirded by the panel presentation, proved helpful for participants. Members recognized that “faith” and work includes a particular engagement of the faith of people… in a particular context.

About Dean G. Blevins

Dr. Dean G. Blevins currently serves as Professor of Practical Theology and Christian Discipleship at Nazarene Theological Seminary. An ordained elder, Dean has ministered in diverse settings and currently also serves at the USA Regional Education Coordinator for the Church of the Nazarene. A prolific author, Dr. Blevins recently co-wrote the textbook Discovering Discipleship and edits Didache: Faithful Teaching, a journal for Wesleyan Education.
This entry was posted in Clergy, Culture, Economics, Practical Theology, Theological Education, Vocation, Work. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Interpreting “Faith” in Faith and Work: the next Challenge

  1. Dennis Clough says:

    What if the term “disciple” is not applicable to the church? Paul, guardian of the “secret hidden in God”, the church, never addresses believers as disciples, but rather as saints.

    Instead, we should by faith believe we are made righteous by Christ instantly upon belief in the Gospel. And this conversion includes a new person, able to discern and ingest spiritual food…the bread of life…scripture…the living Word. Herein is true spiritual growth unable to be sequestered but exploding into true, spiritual works The “old man” of our past is crucified with Christ so we may experience the joy of the Lord as the energizing, motivational impulse to continue being transformed by His Spirit as we see (apprehend by faith) Jesus. The Jesus of the Scriptures, the truth.

  2. Pingback: Integrating Work and Theology – Pilgrims Rest Stop

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