One of the skills needed to make Christian decisions is called "hermeneutics," which means "interpretation." The word is used to describe the branch of theology devoted to the interpretation of Scripture. Some principles of Hermeneutics are:
1. An attempt to understand the type of writing. Is it to be taken literally or is it a "parable" (a story with one essential meaning) or an "allegory" (a story with multiple meanings)? Or is it a metaphor (a figure of speech in which some image is used to convey a larger meaning) or perhaps a "myth" (a story that carries a meaning but is not necessarily a story of something that really happened)? All these forms and others are found in the Bible.
2. Seeking to interpret a passage in its proper context as opposed to simply pulling a text (perhaps a verse) that cannot be properly understood without understanding the larger context. This could perhaps be a paragraph or a chapter (sometimes referred to as "proof-texting").
3. What was the speaker or writer attempting to convey or communicate with his hearers/readers? And particularly, what does the passage have to say to the church?
Some persons claim that the Bible is to be taken literally. But the minute one asks, "What does it mean?", he gets into the area of "interpretation" and thus does not take it literally. Much of the scripture, if taken literally, has no real value. If one takes a parable literally, as for instance in Luke 15, you only have "a man who lost a sheep and went out to find it," "a woman who lost a coin and searched for it until she found it," and "a wayward son who lives a sinful life but ultimately comes back home." In these cases, one might very well say, "So what!"
Reflecting theologically involves certain disciplines. We are dealing here with "doing theology" rather than "studying theology." In doing theology we do not start "de novo," rather we start from Scripture and the long Tradition of the Church, ie. what has the church believed and taught? For United Methodists, we start with the Bible and then bring into our consideration the Articles of Religion, Wesley's Standard Sermons, and the General Rules of The Methodist Societies. The scripture and these three documents give us a starting point for doing theology (and thus ethics).
For United Methodists, we utilize a four-fold source for doing theology, sometimes called the Wesley Quadralateral. These four sources are Scripture (the primary source), Tradition, Experience and Reason. We share with all Christians the conviction that Scripture is the primary source and guideline for Christian doctrine.
But it is interesting to observe that Christians of all 'stripes," some 250-300 denominations in the USA, would claim to base their doctrines on Scripture. The Bible is a unique testimony to God's self-disclosure and the guide to our redemption. We believe that Jesus is the incarnate Word of God (John 1:1-18). If we immerse ourselves in Scripture and open our minds and hearts to the Holy Spirit, we will be better equipped to make Christian decisions. Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests in his book, ETHICS, we will better discern "the will of God," which, after all, is what Christian ethics is all about.
The second source of our theology (and thus our ethics) is the Tradition of the church, not the "little traditions" of one denomination, but the cumulative understanding and beliefs of the whole Christian movement. There are three ways to think about Tradition. The above definition is the Noun. But, what about "traditionalism"? Or to deal with another way, a person may consider him/herself a "traditionalist" (adjective). But, as Dr. Albert Outler, one of the outstanding theologians of the 20th century, was wont to say, as Christians we are always "traditioning" (verb). What he meant by that was, each generation is involved in handing down to the next generation new thoughts, new ways of doing things, new ways of interpreting reality, etc. In doing so, we are "traditioning" with a small " t " and thus adding our part to the cumulative wisdom and experience so that the Tradition of the church will be somewhat different 25-50 years from now.
The third part of this four-fold approach to doing theology is Experience. That has do to with both the individual Christian's experience and the experience of the church (God's people). Experience is to the individual as tradition is to the church as a whole. "All religious experience affects all human experience, all human experience affects our understanding of religious experience." When someone makes a comment about the meaning of God to them, one can hardly dispute that reality. I may not agree that God has worked that way in my life, but who am I to say to another human being, " I am sorry but you could not have experienced God that way."
The fourth part of this quadralateral is Reason. "Christian doctrines which are developed from Scripture, tradition and experience must be submitted to critical analysis so that they may commend themselves to 'thoughtful' persons as valid. This means that they must avoid self-contradiction and take due account of scientific and empirical knowledge -- and yet we realize that revelation and experience may transcend the scope of reason." I would put it this way, when you go to church, do not park your "brain" outside the door. God made us thinking, rational beings, and we are to "Love God with heart, MIND, soul and strength." (Cf. THE DISCIPLINE OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH)
Test these two Old Testament stories by these four guidelines and see where you come out on them: (1) Noah's Ark and (2) Jonah in the belly of a big fish. I am not suggesting what you "ought" to think, simply see if they will stand the test of cogency and credibility.
When it comes to ethical reflection, I find three Ethicists who have been especially helpful to me. One is Paul Lehmann, in his book, ETHICS IN A CHRISTIAN CONTEXT. He believes that the best interpretation of Scripture and theology is to be found when Christians together study, pray and reflect. Thus, when we are struggling with ethical issues, it is better to seek ethical responses in community with other Christians. I am trying to model this type of ethic in the course I am teaching. In any given session, there are 12-14 people in the group, all committed Christians. I believe that the answers we come up with will be closer to "the will of God" than if I simply do it on my own. I might be more comfortable doing it on my own, but I am quite sure that the insights of other Christian people will help me reach an even better decision. The question in this type of "contextual ethics" is, "What am I, as a Christian believer and a member of the church, to do?"
I mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer above, as well as in last week's essay. His book, ETHICS, published after his death, emphasizes the need for Christians to always seek "the will of God." He certainly struggled with that issue as he joined in a group dedicated to assassinate Hitler.
My third theologian/ethicists is Reinhold Niebuhr. Two of his books have been particularly helpful, AN INTERPRETATION OF CHRISTIAN ETHICS, and MORAL MAN AND IMMORAL SOCIETY.
I am quite taken with his notion of "responsibility." In addition to the question, "What is the responsible thing to do?", Niebuhr also posits another question, "What is the appropriate thing to do?" Each of these questions take into account the situation. Some people are afraid to use the term "situation" and "ethics" in the same sentence. I am not. Those who have an "absolutist" view would call such a person a "relativist" (or perhaps a "humanist"). I have been called both! Frankly, it does not bother me too much. If one truly understands Joseph Fletcher's "situation ethics," it is very much akin to the approaches listed above. His book, MORAL RESPONSIBILITY is quite close to Niebuhr's responsibility ethic and not too different from Lehmann's Contextual Ethics.
The following case study might help you see this approach more clearly:
You are at home minding your own business and a neighbor drops by for a cup of coffee. You are enjoying visiting with him when the doorbell rings. You answer the door and discover a very irate man who demands to know, "Is So-and-So" (which happens to be your neighbor) in your house?" He makes verbal threats toward your neighbor and seems angry enough to bring harm to him.
What action is called for? Have you been taught you should always tell the truth? (Absolutist view -- you must tell him because you cannot tell a lie.) Or do you act on the Contextual or Situational view (sometimes a lie is more responsible or appropriate than the truth)? Doesn't the Bible teach that "you should love your neighbor as yourself"? Therefore, you would not want to bring harm to your neighbor.
The remaining essays will deal with one or more specific "hot-button" issues. During the next 4-5 sessions we will deal with abortion, war and peace, criminal justice (particularly capital punishment), stem-cell research, assisted suicide, immigration. et.al We will attempt to use the ethical reflection models we have written about here.