Theological Blind Spots: Paul Hiebert’s suggestion for an international hermeneutic

Paul HiebertYesterday I wrote about blind spots in our individual lives. It is difficult to see them and just as challenging to address them.

The same thing is true in our theology. We often have blind spots that are evident to others but hard for us to see ourselves. Many years ago, I came across Paul Hiebert’s suggestion that we need the input of many people to save us from theological blind spots. Hiebert envisions an international hermeneutical community, who helps one another read, interpret, and live out Scripture beyond our cultural and personal blind spots for walking with Christ. He writes:

The goal of theology is not simply to apply the gospel in the diverse contexts of human life. Theology’s nature also revolves around the goal to understand the unchanging nature of the gospel—the absolutes that transcend time and cultural pluralism. If theology is to become more than a Rorschach inkblot into which we project our own cultural prejudices, we need a standard against which to test our theologies. Here again we can apply principles used by the Anabaptists to test the orthodoxy of theologies. One principle is that the primary test is the Scripture itself—the divinely superintended record of God’s acts in history. Another principle is that humility and the willingness to be led by the Spirit are vital to the reading of Scripture. The final principle is that the hermeneutical community checks interpretations and seeks consensus.

Just as believers in a local church must test their interpretations of Scriptures with their community of believers, so the churches in different cultural and historical contexts must test their theologies with the international community of churches and the church down through the ages. The priesthood of believers must be exercised within a hermeneutical community.

As the church in a given sociocultural setting seeks to contextualize the gospel, it is keenly aware of the needs the gospel must address within its setting and the foreignness of Christian forms that have been introduced from without. It is often unaware, however, of its own cultural biases, which it projects into its understanding of the Scriptures. Believers in other cultures are generally more aware of these. Consequently, churches in specific cultural settings need the check of the international community of churches to test where theologies are too strongly influenced by cultural assumptions.

Ironically, this metatheological process, carried out on the international level, may lead us to what Western theologians have long sought—a growing consensus on theological absolutes. It may bring us closer to the formulation of a truly supracultural theology. But such a formulation must be an ongoing process; for as the world and its cultures change, so do the problems theology must address.

[From Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 102-103.]

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