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Theology Thursday: The pragmatic evangelical

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Posted by John Percival, 2 Jun 2016

It has been said that evangelicals are pragmatists: what works usually prevails. However, when it comes to reading the Bible, should we be pragmatists?

Ben Sargent, in our most recent edition of Churchman, considers the philosophical influence of pragmatism in contemporary debates about the interpretation of Scripture. Under pragmatism, “Good readings are those which are useful and support the community in its understood identity.” Or, at more length:

“scriptural interpretation ought to reflect the needs, values and ends of the local church. A good interpretation […] is one which fosters virtue: which promotes the good of the community. Because of this, the mind or ethos of the Christian community has complete control over what readings can be accepted as good.”

There are, of course, some positive contributions such a reading strategy supplies. Sargent writes:
“pragmatic interpretation with its focus on the interpretive community has something to teach us about biblical interpretation for the local church, especially for those of us who are preachers. Whilst the interpretative community is all important in the pragmatic hermeneutics of Fish and Fowl, preachers face the danger of not making enough of the community in and for which the Bible is interpreted: the people of God. How much does preaching reflect the actual needs of the local church? To what extent do preachers simply try to copy teaching heard at conferences or festivals, or on the websites of large flagship churches? Do we really know what the needs of those we teach are? If we spend our whole time in the study we might not do. And yet the Bible offers an exalted picture of the people of God about whose needs God cares.”

Yet there are also dangers:

“Pragmatic interpretation is exploitative: it sees texts purely as a means to an end and forces a particular agenda upon them. It comes to the text knowing already what it wishes to find there and seeking the text’s blessing upon the interpretive community. Because of this, it is like any other type of biblical interpretation which uses a fixed rule of faith: the meaning of the text is heavily policed. But who decides what that rule of faith is? Who decides what constitutes a reading which benefits the community? The trouble is that the perceived good of the community could be anything and not necessarily something others might regard as Christian. In Holgate and Starr’s version of pragmatic theological hermeneutics, it is perhaps obvious that the marginalised includes homosexual Christians barred from church leadership because of active homosexual sex lives, but how, one wonders, does this hermeneutic apply to the issue of abortion? Who is the marginalised victim in this case? It would be difficult to argue that the unborn child was not the most marginalised and voiceless in this situation, unless some sort of diminished humanity was claimed for the child, making her of less significance than the marginalised mother. Hermeneutics determined by human desire for the text to mean a certain thing are at great risk of straying into some very dark places indeed.”

Sargent examines a book that is popular in ministerial training in the Church of England to highlight the pervasive influence of pragmatism, and the implications for our current debates about the nature of marriage.

If that has whet your appetite, why not take out a subscription to Churchman to get the full article and many more articles and reviews delivered to your door.

Sargent, Ben. “Using or Abusing the Bible? The Hermeneutics of American Pragmatism,” Churchman 130, no. 1 (2016):11–20.

Rev. John Percival is a student based in Cambridge.

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