Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Biblical Hermeneutics and Practical Theology: Method and Truth in Context

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Biblical Hermeneutics and Practical Theology: Method and Truth in Context

Article excerpt

The link between biblical studies and Christian theology has always been a matter of some debate, even when one limits the inquiry to those who pursue one or the other academic focus in the service of the church. Now biblical studies has another disciplinary dialogue partner to contend with: practical theology. Arguably it is a certain dissatisfaction with some familiar academic theological options that has been one key factor in the rise of practical theology as a separate theological sub-discipline in its own right. This is not the place to debate or even rehearse this development. Rather, I intend to pursue the following thesis: that the kinds of contextual and self-reflexive awareness that practical theology brings to the pursuit of Christian theological inquiry overlap in certain key ways with the similar contextual and self-reflexive awareness that biblical hermeneutics brings (or should bring) to biblical studies. A secondary thesis then addresses the question of how, if this is so, the Bible might speak into the kinds of questions pursued by practical theologians.

In the interests of full disclosure, and in that spirit of reflexive self-awareness, I admit that I address this topic as both a practitioner and an outsider. I am one who engages with scripture in what I hope to be a practical and indeed theological manner, but I am not, by training nor particularly by temperament, a practical theologian. I have tried to write in a narrative voice that attempts to acknowledge my own embodied and experiential location, accepting that my own account of hermeneutical practices is one possible account among others. In this I am conscious of stepping outside the normal conventions of biblical studies, even under stress as these may be.

However, even such a bald contrast between two disciplines invites a certain amount of self-critique. One might say that hermeneutics as it relates to the handling of scripture is itself a form of practical theology; that hermeneutics might rightly be located in the area of the theological syllabus we now call "practical theology"; and thus that my self-designation as a scripture reader who is not a practical theologian simply reflects the prejudices of a bygone age. Even if that were true in principle, however, it seems that in practice the disciplinary lion and lamb have not yet lain down together (leaving to the reader the discernment of which is which). There remains merit in addressing the topic of how scripture is handled in practical theology, bringing to bear some perspectives that are not perhaps commonly found in the work of practical theologians.

But is such a distinction true in principle? Hermeneutics and practical theology do clearly overlap-this much may be granted. The necessity and inevitability of what Clifford Geertz so felicitously called "thick description" is near the heart of both.1 Both rightly expend effort in navigating the considerable gravitational pull exerted by one's presuppositions before, during, and after one's enquiry. Certainly when one talks of the observer as "the situated self," one is talking the language of both hermeneutics and practical theology. Hence there is clearly much scope, both potential and in practice, for assessing the overlap between the two disciplines.

They remain at present, however, two largely separate disciplines, for at least a couple of reasons. One reason, speaking theoretically, is that hermeneutics urges us to be cautious (some would say suspicious) of method, which tends to loom large in the considerations of practical theologians, as indeed it does in quite a lot of biblical studies too. Another reason is simply that a good deal of practical theology appears in practice to sit quite light to any sort of substantive appeal to Christian scripture.2 The present piece is intended in part to start to address that second reason by showing how it might be done. However, the burden of the argument will have to address the concerns of the first point, concerning method, and in particular hermeneutical method. …

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