Today saw my copy of The "Plainly Revealed" Word of God? Baptist Hermeneutics in Theory and Practice edited by Simon Woodman and Helen Dare (Mercer, 2011), 312pp arrive. The book is the result of a 2009 colloquium which saw a group of international Baptist theologians (plus two non-Baptists) gather to discuss and explore what Baptist hermeneutics might look like. This is a unique and important book which deserves wide reading. Get your copy now. Simon and Helen kindly answered a few questions I sent them:
Why a book on Baptist hermeneutics?
Baptists have always been proud to declare our reliance on and commitment to scripture. We love reading scripture, praying through scripture and discerning what God is saying to us. We encourage each other to read it regularly. We insist that public worship includes not only the reading aloud of scripture but also sustained reflection on it through a sermon. Many of us belong to Bible study groups in which we seek to apply God’s word to our daily lives. In addition, we have produced many biblical theologians, who have had major influence on academic and pastoral contexts.
It seemed strange to us, however, that there has been very little intentional reflection on the process by which we interpret scripture in the Baptist community. Do we just read straight off the page or is it more complex than this? What happens when we disagree over the meaning of a particular passage of scripture? Is there anything distinctive about the way in which our particular community reads the Bible? This is the task of ‘hermeneutics’. So we set ourselves the objective of addressing this; primarily thinking of the British context, but also helped by Baptist contributors from the USA and Eastern Europe and two British non Baptists. The book is the result of a colloquium held at the South Wales Baptist College in January 2009, when over three days we presented papers and discussed ‘Baptist Hermeneutics in Theory and Practice’.
What surprised you? Is there such thing as Baptist hermeneutics?
Although we were asking what we thought was an interesting question, which as far as we were aware had not been asked by anyone else, we had no idea whether anyone else would share our concerns. Many have questioned whether there can be such a thing as Baptist hermeneutics because of the diversity represented by Baptists, or because of a reluctance to impose sectarian labels which might further divide the wider church. It quickly became clear that there was a wide range of approaches to Baptist hermeneutics represented, even within the small group that met in 2009. Some reviewed specific instances of Baptists using the Bible. A second group sought to explore the way in which the Bible is used within local churches as communities of Baptists gather to read scripture together. A third group addressed theoretical issues and the final group considered how Baptists might negotiate interpretative diversity. There was, however, a surprising degree of consensus that this was an important issue and that Baptist hermeneutics was most definitely something that existed and demanded further consideration.
We were also a little surprised (not unpleasantly) by the responses of the non Baptist contributors to our project. Both were positive about what Baptists could offer the wider Christian tradition and we were collectively challenged by one who observed the reluctance of such a group to speak prophetically concerning the issues under discussion. So if Baptists are ever to make progress in issues that threaten to divide us, it is essential for us to be self aware with regard to how we read the Bible. This is not just a topic for academics, conferences and books: it is an everyday reality for all Baptists in local churches. The responsibility of those of us who have spent time considering this in detail is to communicate it clearly and accessibly to those with whom we share our Baptist convictions.
What might a Baptist approach to hermeneutics offer other traditions?
What unites us as Baptists reading scripture is the centrality of Christ as the ‘sole and absolute authority’ (as the BUGB Declaration of Principle has it) and a deep commitment to one another in our engagement with scripture. It would be undesirable to make normative statements about the way in which biblical texts should be read by Baptists: we may still disagree over the meaning of texts. We do however have a common heritage that unites us, and with which we might all identify. It is this that may be offered to the wider church for consideration and conversation, This ecumenical engagement may be mutually enriching as the process of considering Baptist hermeneutics continues. We hope that others can learn from us, but also that we will be open to hearing their critique of us.
Where might this conversation go next? Or, what are your hopes for the book?
We hope that the volume represents the start of a conversation within the Baptist family rather than the final word on Baptist hermeneutics. We hope that future reflection on Baptist hermeneutics will represent a wider demographic: despite our best efforts, we (in common with most academic theological conferences) found ourselves with an underrepresentation of women, ethnic diversity, and varied socio-economic backgrounds.
We believe that if we are to maintain loving relationships as we struggle with the challenges of a rapidly changing society, it is crucial for Baptists to devote time to thinking together about how we read scripture: the process is as important as any conclusions we may draw about particular passages. Therefore our greatest hope is that the conversation we have started will make a difference to the life of both local churches and the wider Union. It is as we gather in community to encounter God in scripture that we are shaped and formed. Therefore we shy away from this issue at our peril!