Reading Scripture in the Wake of Christ: the Church as a Hermeneutical Space

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2017

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Abstract

In this dissertation I offer a constructive account of the church’s role in the process of reading and understanding Scripture. This task has become especially relevant due to the recent popularity of “ecclesial hermeneutics.” In response to intellectual trends that sought, explicitly or implicitly, to remove Scripture from the sphere church and relocate it within a supposedly more hermeneutically salubrious environment (e.g., the academy), many ecclesial readers have endeavored to return Scripture to its proper home. As Bonhoeffer claimed in 1933, presaging contemporary trends, Scripture is “the book of the church” and must be “interpreted as such.” Drawing from various theological and philosophical developments that emerged during the latter half of the 20th century, Christian interpreters have felt emboldened to follow Bonhoeffer’s lead, not only tolerating but prioritizing and accentuating the particularity of their ecclesial vantage point and the unique form of thinking constituted by its language, traditions, and practices.

This dissertation enters the debate at just this point. Ecclesiology has obviously carried great weight in recent conversations about biblical interpretation, but rarely has ecclesiology itself become a direct object of theological focus within them. Ecclesial hermeneutics has remained ecclesially ambiguous. In this dissertation, therefore, I ask an ecclesiological question as a means of answering a hermeneutical one. I set out deliberately to consider what it means to read in, as, and for the church. What “church” is presupposed in theological interpretation? What practices come embedded within it? And how does this shape the ends of faithful interpretation? In short, how, precisely, does the church function as a hermeneutical space?

Beyond merely describing what others have offered, I put forward a constructive vision. I propose to understand the church as a confluence of four dynamics, each of which is marked by a particular relationship. Together, these four dynamics constitute the church as a hermeneutical space. In short, the church exists (1) in relationship to the risen Christ, (2) in relationship to its own historical-institutional past, (3) in relationship to a particular place and the concrete bodies gathered there, and (4) in relationship to the world. Each of this dissertation’s four parts focuses on one of these dimensions, showing how its particular aspects carry hermeneutical significance. Each part consists of two chapters. In these two chapters I first focus on the hermeneutical implications of a given dimension and then listen to Bonhoeffer as a means of complexifying and deepening this analysis. It thus becomes evident that the coherence of my project owes much to Bonhoeffer, whose voice serves as the keynote that allows me to draw diverse others into conversation.

Listening to Bonhoeffer, I hope to show that these four dimensions cohere to shape the church as one hermeneutical space. This coherence is important, for I argue that recent proposals within ecclesial hermeneutics have accentuated particular dimensions of the church, but have failed to do so comprehensively. In other words, explicitly ecclesial hermeneutics commonly display onesided tendencies by relying on a truncated account of the church in which only one dimension of ecclesiology carries hermeneutical significance. Beyond being theoretically deficient, this tendency exerts a distortive effect at the level of practice. What is needed, then, is a more complex ecclesiological imagination, the fruit of which will be a more complete and theologically robust account of what it means to read in, as, and for the church.

While this dissertation’s animating concerns are deeply theological, they are altogether practical. A properly theological account of hermeneutical faithfulness is impossible without attention to the actual activities involved in the reading process. Bonhoeffer understood this well, and he proves himself to be a pastoral theologian by the facility with which he moves from the theoretical to the practical realm. Following Bonhoeffer’s example, I hope to make a constructive claim not only about a theology of Scripture or scriptural hermeneutics but about the practices and habits that sustain faithful reading.

While my heavily Christological focus (Part One) may seem to perpetuate the same onesidedness I seek to correct, I hope to show that when properly construed, the Christological dimension of the church is capacious enough to include the others. By jointly imagining the church’s historical-institutional past (Part Two), life together (Part Three), and missionary relationship to the world (Part Four) in terms of Jesus’ ongoing presence and particularity, we will find the resources necessary to imagine the ecclesiology that serves as a space for faithful reading. What ultimately emerges from this account of Christ and the fourfold account of the church that corresponds to him is a hermeneutic of discipleship, a way of thinking vis-à-vis Scripture that takes place in the wake of Christ’s ongoing action and ultimately aims at participation in it.

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Doctor of Theology

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Taylor, Derek W. (2017). Reading Scripture in the Wake of Christ: the Church as a Hermeneutical Space. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/16432.

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