And the drumbeat carries on (would you just give the poor guy his nickel back?)

My continued exposure to the Old Testament of God’s Word this semester has further built upon my previous knowledge and appropriation of the text.  It has also reinforced and refined several personal theses which shape my life and theology.  First, a hermeneutic that seeks to be affected by scripture is more helpful than one which seeks only to exegete the content of the text (though I readily admit that these methods are not mutually exclusive).  Second, (as I have argued in a separate paper for James Grier [posted below in April]) if texts are affective, then hermeneutics necessarily involves an ethical relationship between the reader and author (summarized in the command to love our neighbor/the other/‘the author’).  Thirdly, it is impossible to take scripture seriously as God’s Word (at anything more than a level of cognitive assent) and simultaneously ignore the plight of the oppressed and poor in our localized and global community.
These theses are particularly related to two concerns regarding my personal observations (as opposed to researched conclusions) regarding the (general) condition of evangelical churches in America today.  On the one hand, many evangelicals enjoy a level of affluence unknown to other Christians throughout history and throughout the world, yet their political and social engagement tends to support public figures and positions whose rhetoric consistently attributes higher moral value to the rich (supposedly productive), upper classes while diminishing the concerns of the poor (supposedly lazy and parasitic), lower classes.  Stated more directly, Christians seem to actively defend greed and oppression.  On the other hand, evangelicals in America seem to have embraced a ‘hyper-Lutheran’ understanding of the relationship between the Law and Grace which leads them to not only abdicate their ethical responsibility to Old Testament instructions but also to restrict many New Testament imperatives to the level of Christian liberty.  This is not a new phenomenon, and it closely reflects the doctrine described by Bonhoeffer as “Cheap Grace”.  Here is not the place to define the relationship between these two observations, except to note that attachment to material possessions requires Christians to adjust their theology to insulate their vice from Biblical critique, while a theology that ignores the ethical responsibility of believers permits Greed to fester unhindered.
While this may appear to have diverted far from the task of summarizing how we must interpret and apply the Old Testament, I turn now to my first thesis that hermeneutics requires experiencing the affect of texts—keeping in mind my conclusion that claiming biblical faith while neglecting to care for the poor is evil hypocrisy.  Wright warns that many churches have adopted practical Marcionism, rejecting the relevance of the older Testament.[1]  This is often manifested when the comment, “Well that’s Old Testament,” is regarded as a sufficient rebuttal of an otherwise cogent argument.   Alternatively, Wright (presupposing, as do I, the importance of 2 Tim 3:15-17) argues we must wrestle with the question of how the Old Testament applies to us today.  He suggests this can be done by exegeting the social structures of the Ancient Near East and determining the objectives of the Law of Moses.  The interpreter then discerns similarities and differences in our contemporary society and retains the original objectives.  While this project seems to emphasize the application of the original meaning of the text to new “surfaces” (so to speak), his approach is easily complemented by the growing interest in how God’s Words are ‘speech-acts’.  He poses the rhetorical question, “whether the Old Testament carries, for Christians, an authority which requires us to hear and respond to its texts as the word of God.”[2]  I suggest that any text is an action which necessarily results in a reaction; in the case of Scripture, the reaction demanded is obedience.  Therefore the exegetical task of discerning what the text says must be accompanied by the hermeneutical task of responding to what the text has done to its reader(s).  While there are legitimate questions to be asked of ‘Reader-Response’ hermeneutics regarding the ongoing authority of the author, I think Kaiser’s objections are overstated.[3]
I will not belabor my second thesis that “a reader must not simply apprehend the embedded content of a text, but must lovingly react to any text with honesty, humility, and empathy.”[4]  However, it is worth explaining its logic and noting how the Old Testament continues to emphasize the significance of this conclusion.   The thesis follows from the above point that texts are acts (of an Author) upon a reader who then reacts.  If (as consistently commanded in all of Scripture) we are to love our neighbor, then when we react to a speech-act of an other (placing a high regard for the personality of texts) we must always do so in love, whether or not we agree with the content of that text.  The repeated biblical warnings that hearing God’s Word is useless if not done righteously (cf. Ps 135:17; Jer 5:21; Ezek 12:2; Mark 4:12, 8:28; James 1:22) strongly support my claim that hermeneutics is an ethical and not merely intellectual project.
Finally, and most significantly related to the content of the Old Testament, is my conclusion that serious regard for scripture necessarily implies serious regard for the needs of the poor.  Wright, along with countless others,[5] has argued that there is no actual competition between social action and gospel proclamation.[6]  Jesus Himself, when preaching from the Old Testament announce that He had come to preach Good News, freedom, health care, and the end of oppression (Luke 4:18, cf. Isa 61:1).  Wright also notes that self-centered political bias has also played a significant role in the way the Old Testament has been understood.[7]  It seems then that questionable theological convictions and exegetical methods for understanding the relationship of Law and Grace (which have been convincingly challenged by the ongoing work of N. T. Wright and James Dunn) have been used to justify the open disobedience of the permeating Old Testament message that God preferentially cares for the poor and expects His people to do the same.  (Christopher) Wright focuses primarily on how the Torah shaped a society committed “to the protection of the weakest, the poorest and the threatened – and not to the interests of a wealthy, land-owning elite minority.”[8]  Yet the psalmic, sapiential, and especially the prophetic literature reveal that God’s heart is intimately concerned with those the world ignores (at best) and exploits (more frequently).[9]  This open rebellion to the heart of God revealed in the Old Testament enables American preachers to use passages such as 2 Corinthians 8-9, which Wright describes as the “clearest exposition” of New Testament concern for economic equality,[10] to justify lavish building programs in the center of affluent suburbs even when vocally aware of the needs of Christians around the world.  However, based on the objectives of the Old Testament imperatives, and supported by the contention that Biblical interpretation is itself an ethical project, the ongoing application of the Old Testament demonstrates that anyone who claims to take the Scripture seriously and does not submit to its socioeconomic demands is hypocritically rebelling against the God they claim to worship (See Hos 6:6; Isa 1:10-17; Matt 7:21-23, 9:13, 25:41-46; 1 John 3:17, etc.).

               [1] Wright, 72.

               [2] Wright, 89, (italics original) see also 111.

               [3] As described by Wright, 92.

               [4] In “Ethical Hermeneutics” Submitted to James Grier, (April, 2011).

               [5] Including Lasore, Hubbard, and Bush, 249; Dewi Hughes, Power and Poverty, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009); Leslie Hoppe, There Shall be no Poor Among You, (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004).

               [6] Wright, 41.

               [7] Wright, 106.

               [8] Wright, 155. [If you are searching for Hunger Games, this page has nothing to do with the book of movie.]

               [9] Cf. Wright, 165.

               [10] Wright, 169.

               [11] Citation would be libelous.


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