A Case for Covenantal Ethnohermeneutics
The Theory Underpinning Christian Mission
Daniel V. Porter, May 2009
We are living in acute, possibly extraordinary, times. In the society at large, Americans are gripped by a weakened economy and weary at almost unrelenting international tensions: global Cold War fear of nuclear disaster has been replaced by unpredictable islamicized terrorism. People are reacting with anger, rudeness, indulgence (bingeing and sensuality), retrenchment.
Futurologists have been speculating for a few years that we appear to be approaching a “tipping point,” or paradigm shift. Certainly, people seem to be in a holding pattern, some expecting something to change, some answer. It can be argued that the desire for “change” won the recent American presidential election.
While God and His Word remain as promised, the Church acts as if it does not have answers. The Church seems to have lost its voice. Despite supposed gains in the Academy and invitations “to the table,” Evangelicals are increasingly marginalized-by-association with the fundamentalists they sought to eschew in an earlier generation. The situation can remind one of the period before the First Great Awakening.
To say that the Church should or needs to provide guidance appears facile and betrays certain presuppositions. Whatever “the Church” does, it should not continue to offer the human wisdom-plus-bookmarking the Bible and moralisms for which it is despised. A stance more akin to coaching than ruling also would be more helpful and certainly more palatable. In addition, believers might explore the approach of a “thousand lights” over the institutional model. More than anything, we need to start from the Bible as Reference Point. Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “What the church needs now are pastors and professors who can help others to understand what God is saying in Scripture in order to provide in-depth analyses of contemporary culture and to encourage effective and wise Christian witness and worship.” And, this leads me to the case for covenantal ethnohermeneutics.
Covenantal Ethnohermeneutics Defined
What, you may ask, is covenantal ethnohermeneutics? In order to focus this brief discussion, let me first define terms.
Hermeneutics: The theory or method of interpretation, usually of texts, also of cultures; from the Greek (hermeneutikos, hermeneuein interpret). The theory one brings to the text, to interpret the text in light of the context, or to interpret the text to the context. Hermeneutics is more context, or present environment-oriented than exegesis. It can be argued that every interpreter has a viewpoint, and is assumed in this paper.
Ethnohermeneutics: How differences in context, environment, worldview assumptions, affect understanding of the text or of other horizons. It is the interpreter becoming aware of her/his own glasses. The goal is that the audience, from its particular worldview assumptions, approximates an understanding of the original intent of the author for the original audience.
Covenant/al: According to the biblical account, the Covenant was first explicitly established by God with Abraham (Gen 12, 15), although it may have been present from the origin of creation. From biblical and Ancient Near Eastern examples it appears that the practice of covenant pervades on several levels. It is the basic way for non-related parties in the Old Testament to carry on relations (Mendenhall (1954; Kline 1968; Weinfeld 1973). For the people of God in Scripture, as for this study, covenant is God’s presence in the midst of His people. It is loyal commitment, a relationship with God. It is His plan and purpose for humankind.
Theory. Putting these all together, covenantal ethnohermeneutics is the body of theory that begins from Scripture to explain, or bring together, three horizons, the triadic relationship between (1) Scripture, (2) the people of God (Church), and (3) the unchurched/those who are not believers in the One God through Jesus Christ. Covenantal ethnohermeneutics is “theologizing” from concrete Scriptural example into the culture of the community of God’s people dispersed throughout human cultures, and into those human cultures. That is, covenantal ethnohermeneutics is a theory of the role of the Covenant in God’s mission to reach the world.
Source. These definitions are adapted from the author’s recent dissertation The Ten Words: Covenantal Hermeneutic of Worldview. In the study three bodies of literature are surveyed to triangulate usable theory. First, covenant (relational) theology, or more specifically, covenant theory in Scripture, is reexamined. Second, the literatures of ethnohermeneutics and worldview theory are compared. Finally, covenant theory is compared with integrative/qualitative research methodology theory. These related theories (plus historical and textual analysis) are then utilized to conduct two biblical case studies: the cultural scene at Mt. Sinai with the renewal of the Covenant under Moses, and Paul and the Ephesians, a critique of the Hellenistic worldview. Finally, a contemporary case study of 21st century Americans is conducted, using the findings from the biblical studies and integrative research methodology. Specifically, a “worldview self-test” based on the Ten Words (Commandments) is constructed and Google.docs utilized to develop a small pool of responses. In summary, similar issues and worldviews are found in ancient Middle-Easterners, first century Hellenists, twenty-first century Americans, and in the literature on worldview, ethnohermeneutics, covenant, and contemporary methodologies for uncovering these sorts of issues and worldviews.
In the research it was discovered that a body of literature on covenantal ethnohermeneutics does not exist per se. This, then, is a modest attempt to jumpstart this approach. The jumpstart is inevitably flawed. Nevertheless, the following appear to be some of the basic elements to such a theory.
Covenantal Ethnohermeneutics Developed
Givens: First of all, the life of all believers, the covenantal life, is based on biblical givens. A given is a known fact, object, something bestowed or enacted, or a real historical event. Biblical givens are different from how given/givens is most often used. Usually, givens are taken as inherent, and often a given is used as something axiomatic. Biblical givens, on the other hand, are gifts from a gracious Creator to His subjects, precisely because they otherwise do not inhere in, are not intrinsic to, reality. They are established by God as pillars of covenant faith and community. The “big three” givens are Creation, the Cross, and the Judgment, plus Scripture, spanning all of human history. Others include the Abrahamic Covenant, and the Mosaic and Davidic Covenant renewals. Other suggested givens are original sin in the Garden, the Flood, Pentecost, and other covenant renewals (Mat 28:18, Olthius, James. 1970, 107-125; Douma, quoted in Greidanus 1970, 43; De Graaf, S.J. 1977; Carson, D. A. 2000, 271-72; 1991). One implication is that while postmodernism can critique modernism for its foundationalism and positivism, it has no reasonable equivalent or meaning to offer its adherents. Another is that in contrast to biblical givens, other human worldviews arise out of assumptions or assertions, which turn out to be a mixed bag of truths, half-truths, and untruths.
Covenant: Second, the revelation through Creation, Scripture, and human conscience hints at the pervasive and character of covenant. Creation, if not God Himself, is the basis for all knowing. It is reasonable to conclude that there is a covenantal nature to God’s relationship with His Creation. The fact of Creation implies an ontological gap, that God was prior to and a different reality than the reality He created. The gap defeats the reasonableness of monism. And, the gap signifies separation from God, that whatever covenant there is/was, has been broken, leading to the ultimate human crisis (Horton 2006). A further implication of the ontological gap is that we cannot go to God. We are cut off, if He does not come to us—which He does.
Mediator: It can be argued that because there is a fundamental difference between God’s reality and created reality, a Mediator is necessary to bridge both the ontological and sin gaps. Scripture explains the incarnation: Jesus Christ is the basis for the Covenant between God and man; it can be said that He is the incarnate Covenant; His real life, death and resurrection established/renewed the Covenant “once for all” (Heb 9:15-10:18), and made possible a new way of life-in-relationship with God-who-came and continues to come. Christ’s atoning death was the fulfillment of God’s promise, another characteristic of covenant.
Relationship: Contrary to earlier theological tradition, covenant is not primarily about law, but about relationship. The covenant relationship with God and the people of God involves a prior willingness to hear and cooperate. These are only possible through God’s gifting. The human response to this gift is repentance (fundamental change of heart and turn from going our own way, to going God’s way). The covenant relationship is characterized by a mutual bond/commitment, ceding ultimate allegiance to God. The relationship involves continuing and growing love and loyalty.
Way of Life: The covenantal way of life is lived within the framework of God’s eternal purpose-plan. It is the way of righteousness. God’s plan is characterized by promise and fulfillment, in much the same pattern of creation, in which God spoke created reality into being, and each part of Creation responded by bringing forth that which was its nature to produce/provide. For those in the covenant community, we recognize the authority of the text God has spoken/written and we work, contribute our gifting, to fulfill. Living in the Covenant is a way of life, and covers every area of life.
Thus far we have been told, or are reasonably certain, from God speaking in Scripture. These brief descriptions describe how things really are. They are not exhaustive nor infallible. Rather, they are reasonable approximations of scriptural givens, particularly Creation, Scripture, the Covenant, and the Mediatorship of Jesus Christ. How do these work themselves out in the covenantal way of life?
Scriptural order: Biblical and church history are replete with notions trying to answer this question. Unfortunately, most reverse the creational order by starting from the problem, from within the situation, or from human wisdom, and then bookmark Scripture, rather than starting from Scripture, following the reformation assumption of perspicuity, that is that Scripture explains itself at least sufficiently for any problem humans will face, and particularly so regarding its agenda and areas of expertise. That said, it seems that we must necessarily pass through a period requiring some degree of “deconstruction” of older hermeneutic based on human reason, or human assumptions about what Scripture teaches, in order to begin to rediscover hermeneutical guidelines within Scripture itself for constructing our ethnohermeneutics, our approach to our varying horizons.
Creative Core: The findings from this dissertation indicate two pregnant lines of thought. The first is taken directly from textual exegesis and emerges from the case study methodology, that is, from within the text in context. This line of thought develops the reasoning within the Ten Words. The Ten Words (Exo 20 and Deu 5) given through Moses appear to express the creative core of the Covenant. In Ancient Middle Eastern context they serve as something like “instructional stipulations.” That is, the Children of Israel understood that in accepting the Covenant with God, they, as a group, were obligating themselves to strictly observe these stipulations. However, as the Sh’ma and many similar passages indicate, they were not intended as rules to follow rotely, but were instructional, that is, intended to grow them in understanding God and His gracious ways. The Ten Words appear to have a sevenfold creativity to them, similar to God’s creational words. They (1) are signs of God’s deity, (2) teach what God is like and not like, (3) test covenant members’ willingness to follow, (4) create promise of hope of what the covenantal way of life entails, (5) provide the parameters for covenantal living, (6) explicate what love God only and love your neighbor as yourself involves, and (7) are to be learned in order to teach others, principally the upcoming generation, but also the Gentiles.
Principles: The second line of thought is a recent attempt by Jewish and Covenant theologians to recreate a set of covenantal principles from Scripture (Fisch in Spolsky 1993; Davies 1997; Edmondson 2005). These should be considered provisional and to be developed. Covenantal ethnohermeneutics: (1) are revelational: only by knowing God can we know what is not God; (2) require the precondition of hearing, or willingness, which Luther says requires conversion; (3) are relational learning, that is, the Scriptures are best learned in a hermeneutical community (the unmarked Hebrew text practically requires it); (4) are covenantal: Jesus and the Apostles are in covenant with OT prophets, and we are in covenant with both; (5) are characterized by righteousness, rather than the classical virtues (good, beautiful, truth, etc.); (6) represent God’s blessing which is creational and broader than gifts, (7) require fulfillment: they assume textual authority and then work to fulfill their promise.
Developed in Community
The author has already experimented with applying this covenantal ethnohermeneutic in the following ways:
(1) my dissertation research methodology and reporting (three separate case studies from different periods of human history and cultures plus contemporary theory, all concurring on most points);
(2) a covenantal critique of hellenistic worldview;
(3) integrative research methodology;
(4) worldview consulting for workplace evangelists and church leadership;
(5) consulting for worldview transformation follow-up to short-term missions;
(6) consulting for worldview transformation in parenting;
(7) consulting for worldview transformation in grief/trauma counseling;
(8) a loose group of RTS doctoral students and faculty interested in covenantal ethnohermeneutics;
(9) ongoing study of biblical givens.
The potential for covenantal ethnohermeneutics is immense due to its reference point and because covenant pervades in so many areas of life:
-marriage and family; church membership;
-families and schools;
-God’s gifts and one’s work;
-work relations: suppliers/ buyers/clients, employer-employee;
-commercial transactions and other contracts;
-copyrights; family and schooling;
-church and presbytery/synod, seminary and NGOs, especially missions agencies;
-political: citizenry, government, diplomacy;
-and so on.
Please, consider interacting with me in hermeneutical community to study and develop this hermeneutic.
Averbeck, Richard E. 1995. Law. In D. Brent Sandy and Ronald L. Giese, Jr. Cracking Old Testament codes: A guide to interpreting Old Testament forms. Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers.
Carson, D. A. 1991. How long, oh Lord: Reflections on suffering and evil. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
________. 2000. Reflections on assurance. In Still sovereign: Contemporary perspectives on election, foreknowledge and grace. Ed., Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Davies, Lloyd. 1997. Covenantal hermeneutics and the redemption of theory. Christianity and Literature, 46, no. 3-4 (Spring): 357-397.
DeGraaf, S. D. 1977. Promise and deliverance, Vol 1. St. Catherines, ON, CN: Paideia Press.
Douma, J. Teacher’s Bible commentary.
Gilstrap, Michael R. 1988. The paradigm is shifting. Dispensationalism in transition Vol 1, no. 7; available on the Internet at www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/ a_pdfs/newslet/dt/8807.pdf
Greidanus, Sidney. 1970. Sola Scriptura: Problems and principles in preaching historical texts. Toronto: Wedge.
Barry Holtz, ed. 1984. Back to the sources: Reading the classic Jewish texts. NY: Simon & Schuster.
Olthius, James. 1970. Out of concern for the Church. Toronto: Wedge.
Porter, Daniel V. 2008. Covenantal hermeneutic of Hellenism. Unpublished Ph.D. Paper. Jackson, MS: Reformed Theological Seminary.