Hermeneutics – the method of interpreting texts – is an unfairly neglected element of popular Christian theology. So much of what the Bible says (or doesn’t say) depends on how you read it. And in the popular imagination there are two hermeneutics: the “literalist” or “conservative” hermeneutic and the “liberal” hermeneutic. That’s it.
And this is unfortunate for two reasons. The first is that the “liberal” hermeneutic encompasses a broad variety of wildly differing approaches ranging from post-modern to paleo-orthodox. Given the unique perspective that each of these approaches brings to the faith – in both theory and practice – interested readers deserve to know and understand the differences among them.
The second is that the “literalist” / “conservative” hermeneutic is neither literalist nor conservative. A literalist hermeneutic first requires a literate reader. And even the slowest of literate persons will recognize enough depth and subtlety in the Bible to preclude a literal reading.
It is for this reason that fundamentalist theologians and educators studiously avoid the “L” word. They instead prefer to call the Bible “inerrant” and “authoritative.” A typical formulation of this doctrine is that of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS: “the Bible is absolutely and finally authoritative as the inerrant Word of God.”
And most Christians will agree, as a general principle, that the Bible is without error. The scholar will even point out that it is, in fact, ontologically quite difficult to find concrete errors in a spiritual text. However, to paraphrase Spanish philosopher Inigo Montoya, fundamentalists keep using this word to mean something more than we think it means.
It is therefore in the practical application that the “inerrancy” hermeneutic goes awry. The fundamentalist will, often imperceptibly, sneak in the (truly unbiblical) notion that the Bible’s inerrancy somehow extends to the reader. Accordingly, when a fundamentalist pastor uses the Bible to come to any conclusion, no matter how absurd or inconsistent with observable reality, he must be right. Because the Bible is never wrong. And this is where the fallacious appeal to “literalism” comes into play. Through the backdoor (all apologies to Martin Ssempa). The “literal” interpretation of any individual passage removes the possiblity of reader error, thus sustaining the transfer of inerrancy. The authority of God becomes the authority of man.
And literalism, as it is commonly understood, has nothing to with it. In fact, one of the key points of modern fundamentalist theology – premillenialist eschatology (aka “the rapture”) stems from one of the least literal interpretations you are likely to encounter. These fundamentalist “prophecies” jump between the trippiest bits of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation using highly extended and (to put it charitably) imaginative metaphors. A warrior on a white horse becomes the Secretary General of the UN (or Barack Obama!) who is also the Antichrist and a seven-headed beast that rises out of the sea becomes his one world government. Bows and arrows become nuclear weapons. An obscure reference to the “east” clearly refers to communist China. And so it goes.
And, as you might suspect, the “inerrant authority” hermeneutic is not very conservative either. A conservative approach is, by definition, one that conserves. And the ability of a pastor to alter millenia of Christian tradition by fiat does not lend itself well to conservation. The Church got along just fine for almost 1900 years without such new-fangled fundamentalist inventions as the rapture, “advanced revelation,” charismatic faith healers, and the repugnant “Gospel of Prosperity.”
The true conservative hermeneutic (for any text) is the faithful adherence to the original intent of the author. There is (literally) nothing more conservative than that. But for something as old as the Bible, determining original intent (to say nothing of the application of that intent to modern phenomena) is really hard. It requires the knowledge of languages, history, and social and political context. It takes effort. Effort the fundamentalists seem unwilling or unable to give to their faith.
And that effort is worth it. Conservation is an important part of our faith — it sustains the eternal bond that unites us as part of a larger whole. That transcends boundaries, linking us together across cultures, across individual circumstances, and across time.
And it is, sadly, in this sense that the fundamentalists are winning. Their hermeneutic, in the popular imagination at least, is synonymous with conservativism. Adherence to the “literal” teachings of the Bible has become the widely accepted standard for devotion to the Christian faith and fidelity to the Christian tradition.
So when former tugboat captain Hal Lindsay goes off on one of his psychedelic rapture fantasies, or his buddy Beverly LaHaye on one of her gay-bashing crusades, don’t tell me they’re “just doing what the Bible says.” Or worse yet, “you can’t help it if some people want to take the Bible literally.”
But whatever you do, please, please do not call them theological conservatives.