Monday, February 6, 2012

"Congregational hermeneutics" and the Christian scholar

Paul Fiddes
Late last month I made a presentation on the program of a conference on Christian Life and Witness: From the Academy to the Church sponsored by the Center for Christian Discernment and Academic Leadership at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky (January 23-24, 2012). As member of a three-person panel that addressed the theme "Academic Witness to the Church," I spoke on "Academic Witness Within the Church: 'Excluding No Light from Any Source.'" In the course of that presentation I suggested that the “gathering church” ecclesiology of my own Baptist tradition has a helpful way of making ecclesiological sense of how the academy has a place in the church’s contestation of the Christian tradition--in particular, the contribution that the Christian scholar has to make as a voice that the community of the church ought to hear and weigh and not silence in the community's effort to discern the mind of Christ and bring its life together under the rule of Christ.

As part of the proceedings of the conference, Paul Fiddes, Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Oxford and former Principal of Regent's Park College there (the portrait above left hangs in Helwys Hall, the dining hall of Regent's Park College), delivered a Georgetown College Founders' Day Address titled "A Citizen of Athens and Jerusalem: The Place of the Christian Scholar in the Life of the Church." In a subsection on "The Congregation as a Place for Interpretation" in his address, Professor Fiddes articulated a similar Baptist ecclesiological rationale for the contribution of Christian academics of all disciplines to the church's efforts to discern the mind of Christ. The following excerpt is from the prepared text of Professor Fiddes' address:

In Baptist thinking the church meeting searches for the purpose of Christ; Christ alone rules in the congregation, and the task of the local church gathered in covenant community together is to find his mind for their life and mission. Finding the mind of Christ relies on a corporate interpretation of scripture, or exegesis by the community of the church. Baptists prize the individual reading of scripture, and look for the leading of God’s spirit to understand it, but it would be wrong to say that private interpretation of scripture or ‘private judgement’ is the primary mode of reading scripture in the Baptist tradition. The interpretation of individuals is always subject to ‘congregational hermeneutics’, to the mind of the whole community, gathered in the presence of Christ....Here is one place for the Christian scholar. Professional theologians from the academy will have helped the pastor in his or her initial formation to gain this vision. And such scholars, and scholars in other disciplines of the academy too, have an ongoing contribution to make to the ‘congregational hermeneutics’ of the church.


  1. When John Robinson declared that “the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word," he referred the Pilgrim church to their church covenant, “whereby wee promise and covenant with God and one with another, to receive whatsoever light or truth shall be made known to us from his written Word: but withall exhorted us to take heed what we received for truth, and well to examine and compare, and weigh it with other Scriptures of truth, before we received it.”

    (That church gathered by covenant was led by John Smyth, later the first Baptist, who maintained this covenant theology, as did subsequent generations of Baptists.)

    Reading in communion, as Fiddes rightly points out, allows for, indeed encourages individual engagement with Scripture. But the early Baptists, understood that walking together under the rule of Christ meant bringing these insights into the Word back into the community for conversation and testing, to see if it is more light or not. Individualism on the right and the left has turned the Bible into a private book and limited our insight. It's time to try to retrieve this practice from our Baptist heritage.

  2. Thanks, Curtis--and John Robinson. Well-said!