Numerous complementarians have critiqued my last book, saying that I use egalitarian hermeneutics. It made me raise an eyebrow, wondering what they meant exactly. I think the charge is that I’m reading/interpreting Scripture with the presupposed lens of the tenets of egalitarianism. Maybe they are claiming that I read Scripture with some of the same hermeneutical methods as egalitarians. The former is not accurate; the latter could be partially true, as I’m sure there are some intersections. Although, egalitarians do not all use the same hermeneutical methods. I figure it is time to address this and share what framework I use in my hermeneutical toolbox. So here goes. These are very brief descriptions that could each have a chapter in a book to unpack:
Trinitarian hermeneutic: The Scriptures are a communication from the triune God to his people. There is an ecclesial reception, then, that faithfully works as an interpretive community of his living word. Knowing the triune God and his redemptive purpose in communicating to us shapes our reading of Scripture. The Bible isn’t like any other book. Moses or Paul’s authority is not granted autonomously. Scripture is God-breathed. We must always read Scripture with the Divine Author in mind. This does not take from the human element of authorship and the reasons why we would want to study their literary styles and context. But the human authors of Scripture are authorized to write parts of Scripture by the inspiration of the Spirit. So even as we look at the literary sense and the intent of the human author, from our perspective we need to explore the divine intent within it. We see Jesus and the apostles using this hermeneutic when interpreting the Old Testament. There’s other fun stuff to explore here, like allegory, typology, or prosopological exegesis, but I am trying to be basic and brief. The rest of these methods could all fall under this overarching method of trinitarian hermeneutics.
Canonical hermeneutic: Verses are not isolated, chapters are not isolated, books do not stand alone. They are woven into a whole canonical corpus. We read Scripture with what Richard Hays calls a “portable library” of all of the Scriptures in mind. So, to get more specific on a complicated and contentious text, when we read 1 Tim. 2:12, we need to wrestle with what that means in the context of Paul’s writing to Timothy as he is pastoring the church in Ephesus, his appeal to the creation narrative, as well as how this restriction jives with all the other exhortations to men and women to teach such as Col. 3:16, Heb. 5:12, Rom. 12:6-8, 1 Cor. 12:31, 1 Cor. 14:1 & 26. We also need to consider examples where women are exercising authority with men such as Huldah and Deborah, and why this verse in 2 Timothy is the only instance in Scripture where that specific Greek word is used. A canonical hermeneutic will also consider the nature of revelation in Scripture and along with that, any intertextual references, allusions, or echoes that activate other verses and enhance how we read them.
Theological hermeneutic: In reading canonically, we need to recognize that there is a metanarrative being told in the whole corpus of Scripture. Revelation of that unfolds for us, book by book. This is what Jesus explains to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Like the disciples on the road, we can have the word of Christ and miss the Word himself. And we can also know all the verses addressing men and women and miss the beautiful typology we represent—the true beauty of complementarity.
Eschatological hermeneutic: Scripture is dynamic, moving us forward to its teleological aim: eternal communion with the triune God and one another. The metanarrative in its pages tell the story of the gift of a bride that the Father gave to the Son, the spousal love of God, and his work to usher his people behind the veil to the spice laden mountains of Zion. Beauty itself is eschatological. As Robert Jenson says: “beauty is realized eschatology, the present glow of the sheer goodness that will be at the end” (Song of Songs, 46). Don’t miss the beauty in interpretation! And don’t miss the dynamism.
Faith-filled hermeneutic: The Bible is a spiritual book, written to God’s people. It must be spiritually discerned. Jeremiah 33:3 is quite a wonderful invitation: “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and incomprehensible things you do not know.” God’s word is filled with incomprehensible things that we need to know. Things that we could never imagine on our own. Things that we need the new life of the Spirit to begin to understand. And so a faith-filled hermeneutic recognizes this dependance on the Spirit and is prayerful.
Confessional hermeneutic: The Holy Spirit wasn’t only working in the human authors of Scripture. He works in the reader as well. While he works in individual readers, his word is addressed to the whole church and is meant to be read as a church. He has been working in his church in preserving an orthodox confession of the faith. And so we have the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, more popularly known, and the Chalcedonian and Athanasian Creeds as well, that play an active part in our hermeneutics as teachers to us. They inform our approach to the word. They help us to understand, giving us categories to frame our reading. Furthermore, speaking as a presbyterian, the Westminster Standards also help the church in guiding our reading and understanding of the word and can even function as guard rails to keep us on the highway of biblical understanding. There are of course other good denominational confessions offered to the church.
Imaginative hermeneutic: God doesn’t spell it all out for us. He gives us imaginations and he evokes them in the narratives, prophets, wisdom writings, poetry, psalms, gospels, epistles, etc. Since we are aided by a confessional hermeneutic, we are free to explore the backroads and look for all kinds of treasures in the word. Let’s not lose our wonder and read Scripture as if it is merely made up of sentences that can all be parsed and diagramed for flatfooted meaning. There’s meaning all over the place! Sadly, many Christians read Scripture with no imagination—like there are no heavenly realities concretely working through the text in our lives today. They read with modern metaphysical and critical methods, believing they are being faithful to the plain sense of the text. We surely do not want to incorporate meaning into the authoritative text of Scripture that is not there, but our good intentions have not taken into account the providence of God in divine authorship. In this we not only consider what the text means, but what it is doing.
Humble hermeneutic: We need to consider our posture in hermeneutics. While we have the first order doctrines of orthodoxy upheld and confessed in our creeds, the church has gotten it wrong on other hermeneutical issues. Remember when Galileo was charged as a heretic? Remember when not long ago, slavery was considered “biblical”? Sometimes we are very wrong about what “biblical” means. And so we need to read with humility, recognizing that we don’t always read rightly. We read with cultural goggles and don’t even realize it. Therefore, we need to take other interpretive voices in the church into consideration, seek them out even, as our eyes only see from our own perspective.
None of these hermeneutical tools are brought up in the critique of my book. I’m sure that there can be some profitable critique of my writing as we consider them. But it is revealing to me that the one thing brought up over and over as a concerning indictment is that I am employing an egalitarian hermeneutic. That just isn’t a primary interpretive framework for me. It is rather frustrating.
I want to ask if those saying this are recognizing that a so-called complementarian hermeneutic isn’t such a great framework either, whether it is working from the historical, Aristotelian framework of male superiority or the novel repackaging by CBMW over the last 30 years or so. This complementarian hermeneutic then charges anyone who finds different meaning or possibilities of meaning in a text beyond male authority and female submission guilty of an “egalitarian hermeneutic.” All these other important factors in hermeneutics above are ignored; it must be an egalitarian hermeneutic if it is not theirs. And that is bad. Very, very bad. Maybe this is the case because the unnamed complementarian hermeneutic is a Biblicist hermeneutic. I talk about this in RFBMW:
Biblicists rightly uphold the authority of Scripture but often read the Bible with a narrow, flat lens of interpretation, zooming in on the words in the texts themselves while missing the history, context, and confessing tradition of the faith. Biblicists emphasize proof texting over a comprehensive biblical theology. What often happens unintentionally is that the Biblicist readers become their own authority, since they often don’t notice they are also looking through their own lens of preconceived theological assumptions. Indeed, this is something we all need to be aware of in our Bible interpretation. The troubling teaching of biblical manhood and womanhood has thrived under this rubric of popular Biblicist interpretive methods.
Complementarian hermeneutical methods have led to some serious interpretative errors, such as Eternal Subordination of the Son (or EFS, or ERAS) and denying eternal generation. Or, even changing the name of Junia to make her a man. Or, changing the woman’s desire for or toward her husband to translate as contrary to. I could go on. And yet, somehow the bigger threat to the church is supposedly egalitarian hermeneutics. There needs to be some self-examination. My book in a sense is revealing what is lacking in the way complementarians read Scripture and is a plea to stop using interpretive methods based on movements. Calling that egalitarian hermeneutics just assumes there are these two methods. It also appeals to the good-guy/bad-guy mentality that is so popular in discourse today.
So, I cannot help but see this accusation as slapping an unfounded bad-guy label on me to dismiss my work and all the actual hermeneutical methods described above that I try to use as a guide. It’s a boogeyman accusation. And there is nothing helpful about it.