Interpretative Community

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

The interpretative problem in ethics arises because every observer of an action may potentially explain the event differently. While pastoral training normally includes instruction in biblical interpretation, the ethical problem is seldom openly discussed and formal training, if provided, is handled as an apprentice activity. Biblical interpretation is, in some sense, easier because the interpretative context is fixed and, given enough effort, can usually be described. Ethical interpretation is harder because the context of an action may differ between observers and may be fluid in a society in philosophical transition.

Shooting Example

Let’s return for a moment to our shooting example.

The interpretative problem in ethics is complex enough that even experienced judges can get it wrong and books are written whose plot hangs on the interpretation. Suppose one man shoots another. Immediately, everyone wants to know details of what happened. Consider these questions:

  • Who were the men? 
  • What were their ethnicities? 
  • What was their relationship? 
  • What roles did they play? 
  • What was going on at the time of the shooting?
  • Has this happened before?
  • What was the motivation for the shooting?

Suppose a judge officiates the trial and a jury finds the shooter innocent (or guilty). What happens if the community riots when the decision is announced? In the case of a shooting, emotions may run wild, but every action is potentially subject to a similar conflict in interpretations.

The Church is an Interpretative Community

While the example of a shooting is pretty extreme, it makes the point that ethical interpretation is less a question of philosophy or individual accountability and more a case where the community plays an important role in interpretation. For Christians, the pertinent community is the church, but the church’s interpretative role arises primarily in teaching; the final word in interpreting events rests mostly with the state. When the church abdicates its interpretative role, state both determines and polices morality.

Key Role of the Bible

the Bible is a book written by adults for adults, yet as biblical illiteracy grows it is increasing obvious that the modern church treats the Bible as a book written primarily for kids. No one would actually say such a thing, but actions speak louder than words. Consider these observations:

  • Sunday school attendance is weak, particularly among adults, and books other than the Bible are often featured in small group study.
  • Even when Bible study is offered, video studies take the burden off leaders and participants to engage scripture deeply.
  • Churches often recruit young pastors with little life experience or biblical awareness with the primary entry point to ministry in many churches being youth group leadership.
  • Sermons have grown shorter to keep worship services no longer than an hour, often feature feel-good topics—God is love—rather than serving to teach biblical awareness or interpretation, and seldom ask listeners to do or remember anything.
  • When the Bible is neglected, spiritual disciplines tend to emphasize spiritual experiences rather than opening us up to receive God’s word for our lives and acting on it.

As biblical illiteracy within the church grows, the church increasingly serves as an interpretative community for particular ethnic groups, economic classes, or gender identities.

Interpretative Community

Also See:

Value Of Life

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