By The Rev. Thomas Eoyang, Jr. '03
I scowl every time I hear someone say that what we learned in seminary—and especially those of us from EDS—is irrelevant to practical ministry. Nothing I learned at EDS—whether in the classroom or outside of it—has gone to waste. Everything has turned out to have an application: Scripture, of course, but also church history, pastoral theology, ethical reasoning, liturgical planning, all of it—and most especially what we learned about resisting oppression.
Even building issues. It only took a passing comment from the Rev. Canon Fred Williams, as we passed the scaffolding surrounding the chapel, to clue me in.
Pointing up to the roof he said, “Pay attention to that. That’s what you’ll be doing.” And so I immediately knew that part of my job as a parish priest would be to oversee the maintenance and stewardship of a queer, beautiful, and antiquated building that was built for another time, another economy, and another understanding of church.
Well, perhaps one little thing has proved less than useful: not once since graduation have I said the word “hermeneutic” to any parishioner.
In seminary we learned to use this word frequently and properly and to say “the hermeneutic of suspicion” with that knowing tone that marked us if not as one of Christ’s own forever, at least as a provisional member of the fellowship of the theologically learned. (For those without a seminary or literature degree, or who have blissfully forgotten, hermeneutics is the study of the theory and practice of interpretation.)
It’s a difficult word to work into a conversation or a sermon unless one’s parish happens to be across the street from a major university. To most people in the “real world” the word hermeneutic must sound, as it did to one of my classmates, like a household appliance.
Yet, though I don’t use the word, I use the concept many times a day. In the Episcopal Church, and in many other branches of God’s church, good Christian folk have been engaged in a remarkably uncivil conversation claiming to be about Scripture—its sanctity, inerrancy, truth, accuracy, whatever word you wish to use. Of course what we’ve mainly been discussing are a few verses of Scripture, the ones that have to do with sexual expression between two men or two women. Our conversation drones on about what authority those few verses should have when two men or two women develop deep bonds of love and faithfulness, bonds of joyful, life-giving mutual flourishing.
The question of Scripture’s inerrancy seems only to apply to those few verses. We are certainly not discussing the plain sense much less the present-day applicability of, for instance, this verse from Leviticus: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Who’s arguing about taking this divine commandment “literally?”
How we choose which fragments of Scripture are binding and authoritative and which ones are not is a principal result of our chosen (ahem) hermeneutic.
As lay and ordained ministers, our membership in the fellowship of the theologically learned means that part of our job is to explain how we read Scripture, how we come to understand the word of God through it, how we hear what we hear and know what we know. We are called to model for others how faith—based on a deep, serious and nuanced dialogue with Scripture—is a viable way of knowing in an age where scientific understanding can be trivialized into materialistic reductionism. In short, we are all called to explain to others our choice of hermeneutic as it informs our life of faith.
And just as important is our responsibility to lead others to understand that they themselves are using a particular hermeneutic when they make choices about which Scripture verses to take seriously and which to ignore. We must remind people (without using the word, of course) that there is such a thing as a hermeneutic of oppression, and that Scripture has often been misused as an instrument of oppression.
These conversations are not, of course, primarily exegetical, but rather pastoral. Discussing thorny passages of Scripture with other people, we hear behind their concerns and opinions the struggle of another wayfarer on the journey of faith, another follower of Christ trying to know God in the best way he or she can.
In listening to that faith narrative, just as in our reading of Scripture, we are called by our baptism and by our superb training at EDS to avoid using a hermeneutic of oppression ourselves and to choose instead to model and to teach a hermeneutic of grace, a hermeneutic of compassion, a hermeneutic of justice, a hermeneutic of love. I can’t think of anything I could have been taught that is more important, more relevant, or more empowering.
Thomas Eoyang, Jr. is the third rector of Grace Epiphany Church, in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He received his MDiv from Episcopal Divinity School and holds an AB from Harvard College in history and literature, as well as an MA in comparative literature from Stanford University.