Hermeneutic of Humility?

Daniel Henderson, “Keys to a Fruitful Life,” preached at Grace Church, Eden Prairie, Minnesota, November 5, 2006. Available here:

“Friends, it’s not an easy world in which to stand up for truth, is it? We’re in a society that doesn’t even believe that truth exists: ‘Ah, well, if it works for you, it’s true for you; if it works for me, it’s true for me. Let’s just all find our own way’…Within Christianity today there’s a big movement—it has some good and some bad to it—called the ‘emergent movement.’ One of the great dangers of this movement is what they call a ‘hermeneutic of humility.’ ‘Hermeneutic’ is the science of interpreting scripture, and, of course, the idea of humility. And the basic idea is, ‘Let’s not be too clear, too dogmatic, too strong about what we believe. I mean, how do we know we’re really right, you know?’ And in a sense, it’s giving into the conflict of society, giving in to the pressure of the culture to say, ‘Well, you know, absolute truth, we’re not sure, so let’s just be really humble about the way we communicate it.’

“That is a complete, dramatic antithesis to what you read in this passage.[1]

“Friends, I wanna tell you, how many of you raised successful kids by telling them only what they wanted to hear their entire life? Anybody? I didn’t think so. It doesn’t work that way, does it? ‘I want Lucky Charms for dinner!’ ‘No, you’ve got to eat your spinach,’ you know. ‘I don’t feel like going to school.’ ‘Well, just stay home, it’s no big deal; you know, education’s overblown…’

“You know, that’s not how you raise successful kids, is it? You tell them not what they want to hear but what they [pause] need to hear.”

“Friends, it’s the same in all of our lives…If you wanna to be a person of influence, you’ve got to stand for something.”


[1] He’s talking, at this stage in the sermon, about 1 Thessalonians 2:2b, “but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition.”

  • Anonymous

    Tony, I would say this is both the strength and weakness of the emergent conversation. I mentioned that same feeling over on josh brown’s blog as he wrestles with whether the teachings of Jesus were as concrete as modern interpretors have made them out to be or would be more properly interpreted as ideas…meant to engage the layers of a person rather than simple assent or disagreement. I think it’s gotta be a both/and situation there, just like here.It’s obvious this Daniel Henderson uncritically (and, I would add, unfaithfully) swept a broad brush across the emergent approach simply for the sake of arousing folks: he didn’t address content at all. And content is what this is all about (at least it seems so to me!)The modern church simply needs to be aware that some of its concrete stances were never meant to be concrete, and some of its quibblings and justifications need to be “concretized,” so to speak. I see the emergent conversation as questioning all of these things (with some folks going too far, just like every other movement in the history of humankind); asking tough questions, and breeding a healthy sense of dis-ease (NOT disease!) in the larger church. It’s now given legitimacy by the larger church’s talking about it…whether the talk is polemic and baseless or engaging. And THAT’S a great thing!And WHAT a horrible misconstrual of the hermeneutic of humility!!! Almost sickening. It’s just obvious to me that I do not embody absolute truth…it’s just as obvious to me that some of the historical interpretive stances of the church don’t embody absolute truth. All all this is because we’re human. Flawed. Intensely and irretrievably subjective. This is just obvious to me.So the hermeneutic of humility, properly engaged in (as I see it), is a recognizance that as I pursue God and let Him begin to reshape my life according to my created purpose, I not only come to conclusions through personal pursuit (Bible reading, prayer), but I endeavor to give your opinion a fair shake, because God may be speaking clearer through you. And the “you” in this case may not be a Christfollower, but truth can be revealed through them that causes us to rethink and reshape the approach of disciples of Jesus.Fundamental in this discussion would be knowing where different folks come from: I’m willing to listen and consider other opinions…but I will ultimately see if they fit into or smash head-on into the loose structure of the Bible that has a position of primacy and authority to point us toward God. That’s where I start and finish…but there’s a whole lot of gray in the midst there. Emergent folks are pushing that; as well we should.

  • Chris Enstad

    First of all, that pastor is setting up a classic straw man argument and that is disingenous and unfaithful to his pulpit. Secondly, why is he scrapping for a fight no-one else is asking for? Third, does he understand the irony of the statement that emergent doesn’t stand for anything when his whole sermon is premised on the idea that emergent stands for humility? I cannot believe that he, as their pastor, believes that the problem lies elsewhere (with emergent) isn’t sitting right in front of him (the sinful creatures wed to their own power, money, and status looking for someone to tell them that THEY are all right, it’s everyone else who’s crazy). I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again… shake the dust from your sandle my friend, the future of emergent does not lie within the walls of Grace Church, Eden Prairie.

  • Fajita

    My six year old son would just call him a poopoo-head and be done with it. This is just evidence to prove that some people have it so good in their lives that they simply don’t know what to do with all the blessing God has done for them. When will the witch hunts ever end?Furthermore, sermons from the pulpits of opulance are not what stops moves of God. In fact, prominent opposers make for good contrast and make the appealing work of God even moreso.

  • sam andress

    Yo Tony…I’m sitting in a John Goldingay class at Fuller. We’re discussing Ecclesiastes. Sounds to me like this guy is ignorant that the Bible is filled with complexity and tension. No doubt we should have confidence in truth…and my experience with the emerging gatherings is that nobody is saying there is no truth. I think Miroslav said at last years theological conversation that, we point to the One who Is Absolute Truth and our hope is that we are held by this One. We don’t own absolute truth as if we could rattle off a few dogmatic timeless statements and know all that is true.I think Newbigin’s “Proper Confidence” sort of gets at a hermeneutic of humility. Hope to see some time out here in So Cal or next time I get back to MN.Peace.

  • Anonymous

    As a teacher, TELLING my kids what they need to hear only gets me so far.. and even that would not tend to last if they were not engaged in the conversation. He sounds like a student who always wants to have the right answer. I am always more encouraged by students who ask more creative questions.

  • Anonymous

    it is sad when arrogance is blostered by ignorance.ironically, the tinny din of this man’s words seem to make his prophetic accusations come true in the speaking of them:”…by telling them only what they wanted to hear…”

  • sam andress

    creative questions, now we’re on to something.any fool can give answers that are wall papered over the issues. it takes a wise person to ask the risky and uncertain questions with an imagination of what could be in the future.

  • chase

    So is he wrong, or right?

  • Anonymous

    wrong, with a grain of right. ;) He somehow inadvertently caused me to consider whether said “hermeneutic of humility” is in fact more “I don’t know what I stand for” than “I’m willing to admit I’m not the standard for absolute truth.” That should be an active question for all of us.The problem was, the way he presented it wouldn’t lead most people who were present at his message (I think) to come to that conclusion. They might be tempted to think: “I’m right. I carry the truth. And if you disagree with me, I’m consigning you to the bowels of hell.” That seems to be the basic understanding he was trying to transfer.The problem is, nobody else in all the universe is in lockstep with everything he believes, no matter how charismatic (or uncharismatic) a teacher he is. Every single person that was sitting there that morning is different than him in beliefs and embodiment. So his calling to them was not to unity, but ultimately uniformity…”let’s all pretend like we believe the same things.” Which is inherently incomprehensible. Which demands humility. Which he refuses to adopt. It’s a vicious circle, this man is a part of…and a hopelessly fragmented system that he refuses to acknowledge.

  • chase

    Great answer, Nate. Along these lines, are there some topics on which Christ-followers must have uniformity? What would examples of these be?

  • Anonymous

    Are there some topics on which Christ-followers must have uniformity?Chase, don’t push me too hard. I don’t know what I believe. haha!Yes, I would say so. The important one, obviously, would be ascribing to the Bible highest authority as a arrow pointing towards God, and Jesus’ words as the pinnacle and fullest representation of the will of God. I’m talking about the whole of the Bible having a certain authority and Jesus holding a place of primacy within that authority structure. In other words, we interpret the rest of the Bible in light of Jesus.I’d say that’s a great place to start.

  • Chase

    Thanks Nate, Funny!-This really helps me hear where you are and I can understand your trouble with the above quotes. I would love to hear the whole sermon to better grasp all that this brother is saying.

  • Jim Krill

    I would say that Christians should have uniformity, and should begin with the belief in One God – and go on from there. As Rob Bell puts it in his book, Velvet Elvis, “all truth is God’s truth.” If we believe there is one God, and that he created all that exists, and all truth that might exist in the world (and we believe truth exists) then it belongs to the One God. I don’t think anyone who is a part of Emergent believes in multiple God’s, or a God different from that in the bible: but it always feels like opponents of Emergent think this about those having the conversation. People, like this Daniel Henderson guy, misunderstand Emergent’s attempt to find truth (God’s truth) ALL OVER as a weak “hermeneutic of Humility” where we just buy into everything (i.e. all religions, all beliefs on God, whatever you believe is fine) and don’t stick up for “absolute truth” – which in the end is just that persons version of what they think is right…. it seems like it always comes down to the fact that people want answers… easy, complete, exaustive answers… but as was already mentioned, sometimes the best we can hope for are creative questions. God can not be put in a box. (See Peter Rollins book, How (not) to speak of God, which offers a great explanation on concealment and revelation and how God is a mystery and always has been… good stuff.)PEACE!

  • Chris

    Unity not uniformity. Uniformity finds its foundation in De Deo Uno, the Greek philosophical God. Unity amidst diversity is what the Christian church seeks to live out, as it finds its origin in the revelation of a God who is never anything but Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the eternal periochertic dance of love. Unity based around the revelation of God as three persons.I have nothing really to add other than the church seeks unity in love,not uniformity. Uniformity is the weapon of a hierarchical structure that retrogresses its anthropocentric view of power and authority onto God.Probably just a different use of the word. But words do tend to matter.Grace and peace.

  • chase

    Jim, with due respect, I think Bart Campolo would put himself in the emergent conversation and he recently published an article showing great disregard for the God of the Bible.

  • Chris

    A word of caution: There are members of every movement/conversation/denomination regardless of intention or lack-there-of deny the “God of the biblical narrative.” Speaking as one who does not consider himself a direct member of any group – there is reason to beware in every group, and every group comes up short. I have been in prominent SBC churches and witnessed the preaching of Sabbelianism. I know prominent, and I mean prominent Evangelical pastors/teachers who are intentionally reintroducing another ancient heresy. They are proposing the eternal, not just economic subordiation of the Son to the Father. This was declared heresy at Nicea. I have been at Emergent churches that have been so determined to be relevant, and to critique the “old gaurd” that the sermons said nothing other than, “Man they just don’t get it. They do it wrong.” Most of the problem stems from the desire to control. If we say Emergent, or the SBC, or Evangelicals, or Mainliners are wrong that means, “We” are right. Run to us, be right like us. “They” are bad. “We” are good. I simply would like to encourage each of us to find the giant log in our eyes, before we point out anything in anyone else’s eye.May the Grace of Christ, that forgives even its persecutors, guide us.

  • Chase

    Chris,I would agree, In each and every group there are those who do exactly as you have described.

  • Jim Krill

    Chase,I’ve read Bart’s article… very interesting.”God of the bible” – Upon thinking about this term… I realize that there are MANY God’s of the bible… in other words, people have created many different God’s from what they find in the bible – and yet I think that “most” emergents – and christians in general – would agree that through all the discrepencies of descriptions of God in the bible, there is One God and He is the one we seek, worship, love, and are trying to believe in. Of course, this point solves very little as it is the details that people seem to kill over…

  • chase

    Jim, I agree that we are all seeking the one God, Bart stated basically that if the God of the Bible is the one who sends people to hell, he is not worshipping that one God. I was simply responding to your statement. Some in each “camp” indeed will not worship the God of the Bible.

  • Chris Enstad

    Well, and then there is always the problem with folks who worship the Bible instead of the God found within the Bible… Bibliolotry.Ok, my problem with the hermeneutic of arrogance stems from the fact that I just don’t like the one guy in my group of friends who always has an answer for EVERYTHING… I don’t think anyone has an endless supply of patience for the “know-it-all” in the group… so why do Christians have to pretend to be the know-it-alls… what happened to the beauty of mystery and the freedom of being able to say “i don’t know” once in awhile?

  • Anonymous

    Chris did you really just say “periochertic” and “Sabbelianism”?I think it’d be helpful for folks involved in the Emergent Conversation to show the dynamic quality of recognizing there ARE some set-in-stone truths we can hold to as Christfollowers while seeking to push into the gray issues that should’ve never been black and white in the first place.And I know people involved in the conversation who DO show that dynamic quality. Tony being one of them.Brian McLaren always speaks of the danger of comparing the worst of another approach with the best of ours. That same wisdom would apply in conversations taking place over what it means to be disciples of Jesus. Avoid generalizations, seek truth, be generous in dialogue, stand up for who you are and what you believe in…without painting broad brushes over the approaches of those who disagree with you.Enstad has a good word here above me.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you gentlemen for your comments on Bart. I had not heard him before. I just listened to one of the teachings on his site. Amazing.

  • Anonymous

    With all that’s been said, I think there IS a place for uniformity rather than unity in diversity. I think we just have to agree that there are some things that are non-negotiable for followers of Jesus…so to some degree those who have committed their lives to the kingdom will have uniformity.Unity in diversity, while important, if employed as an overarching philosophical approach is just another flavor of individualism ruling the day (in my opinion). Clearly if we’re serious about this thing God is doing and our role in it, we should agree first that God knows better than we do and go by that. We can have conversations on what that looks like, but contesting that base assumption makes the picture more than a bit murky.

  • chase

    Man that is well worded, Nate!

  • Chris

    One last attempt.There seems to be some forced misunderstandings (they could be only my own)1. Unity in diversity is a idea finding its basis in the Godhead. God is the One God only as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each is different from the other in person, but connected in self-giving love. The divine nature itself is unity in the midst of divine diversity.2. Unity in diversity is not a strand of individualism. It can be, but not attempting to probe deeper into the single usage of it is setting up a straw man to knock down. Unity is diversity is simply my attempt to give some creedence to the various Christian traditions. To say there is only one is false. Do Roman Catholics, or Easter Orthodoxy, or Methodism, or Baptist life, or Pentacostalism have nothing to offer. To looks at a singular doctrine, for example the atonement we see that there are valid (if to different degrees) interpretations of the same doctrine. Paul says a number of things about what happened with Christ on the cross, but his basic assertion was that “while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” That has been interpreted as ransom, satisfaction, penal substitution, etc. etc. Each of these is accepted as The legitimate interpretation of the atonement. The baisc truth that brings unity though is that humanity is broken, in need of redemption, and Christ died on the cross for us (or for God’s glory, whichever makes us happiest). The idea is a communal idea that allows for dialogue between various traditional groupings within Christianity. It is not about what “I” the individual thinks is best. It is possible that uniformity, which some groups use to say their interpretation of core Scriptural ideas are the only correct ones does more damage to the corporate nature of Chrsitianity. It may be read in some situations as “individualism” as well.3. Uniformity. As total adherence to the precise “yod and tittle” is an eschatological category anyway. We will not find absolute uniformity as long as we are in the fluxes of time, and in the human condition of being simultaneously justified and sinner. It is a recognition that there may indeed be something I do not know. That others from differing legitimate Christian confessions may indeed know better than my own.4. Why the comments about the use of legitimate theological terms?

  • Anonymous

    1 & 2. Chris, I don’t take issue with your definition of unity in diversity existing in the Godhead, but I think our understanding of the concept differs.It seems obvious to me that the phrase “unity in diversity” in reference to the Godhead is an entirely different animal than “unity in diversity” in reference to yours and my subjective, flawed understandings.God’s “unity in diversity” is not contradictory and unpredictable…because God is not a loose cannon firing in all directions; our human “unity in diversity” is irretrievably fragmented and untrustworthy, because we “see through a glass darkly”. Does the concept hold some water for our human approach? Some…but as an overarching principle, it creates a group lacking firm foundation if there are no agreed-upon cornerstones.And that is where my beef with your approach to the traditions takes shape. The Roman Catholic, EO, Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal traditions only have legitimacy insofar as they line up with the will of God as expressed through the his Word (both written and continually creative). That realization enables us to point a finger at some element of another tradition and take issue with it (exhibiting generosity and humility in doing so, obviously) in the interest of angling in on the truth.I like how Charlie Peacock said it, “It’s time for Christians to recover from the illusion of personal objectivity and the posture of unflinching certainty in every regard. These are untenable positions. What we can say and do is hold to the Word of God as objective and absolute while confessing that our reflections on the Word are, by their very nature, relative and subjective. This is honest orthodoxy.”So, while we don’t hold the truth, we don’t pretend like it’s not out there or we’re not in pursuit of it…knowing God has revealed himself primarily through Jesus and secondarily through the written Word (revelation) gives us confidence that objective truth exists, and that uniformity in some beliefs is necessary to live within the guidelines of the community with God at its head.You stated, “The basic truth that brings unity though is that humanity is broken, in need of redemption, and Christ died on the cross for us (or for God’s glory, whichever makes us happiest).”So what you’re suggesting is a uniformity in belief on these matters…what say you if I choose to disagree with any or all of those three? With “unity in diversity” as an overarching philosophical concept, you can’t legimitately say to me, “I think you’re off-base here in this or that,” because how would you dare to make the claim that you’re closer to the truth than I? It’s the ultimate free-for-all system. Jesus is whoever I make him to be, and God is whoever I make him to be, and the Holy Spirit is whoever I make him to be, and the God-life is whatever I make it to be.There HAS to be a center to progress towards that’s more specific than “I’m broken, in need of redemption, and Christ died for me.” 3. Beware of setting up straw men when you specifically warned against doing so. I never suggested “total adherence” to the principle of uniformity…I only suggested there are some beliefs and lifestyles we should hold to as uniform expectations for followers of Jesus. Conversations can play with the rest, and “unity in diversity” works for non-essential issues…the rub is in the fact that I might think something is non-essential while you might think it essential. I recognize that creates a situation of complexity, but we are called to link up with those we consider to be exemplifying the path of discipleship in the most complete manner. Is that inherently exclusionary and elitist? Yes, on some level…but so is my individualistic refusal to join such a group or a decision instead to link up with others with the same subjective, flawed understanding of life.4. I mentioned those two terms because they seemed unnecessary…theological terms being what they are, massive words often end up making you look more like a vocab dropper than someone who honestly wants to talk through an issue…because really, is periochertic THAT necessary in a blog conversation? This isn’t Regent University, and isn’t a systematic theology class at Yale, and periochertic’s not even in the dictionary! Just sayin’.


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