Theology on the Way to Emmaus: Hermeneutics, Doctrine and Meaning

We continue our look at Nicholas Lash’s book by picking up his chapter, “What Might Martyrdom Mean?” To set the stage, I will let Lash speak for himself:

There is a received account, in this country, both of the character of these enterprises, and of the relationship between them, which goes something like this. Christian hermeneutics is principally concerned with negotiating the ‘gap’ between what was once said and what might appropriately be said today. The biblical scholar, and the historian of doctrine, are expected to recover, today, what the text meant; the systematic theologian is supposed to transpose the recovered meanings into contemporary idiom; and Christian living is conceived as the practical application…In this essay I propose to indicate some of the reasons why I regard this hermeneutical model as profoundly unsatisfactory” (75).

Lash is allergic to building one’s exposition around what the text “meant” towards what it “means,” and offers a series of responses to Stendahl. First, Lash is concerned about the positivist account that this kind of analysis will bring. What does it mean to exposit what the text meant – apart from what it means? Is this somehow to believe that historical work exists pre-interpretation? Second, Lash is concerned about the meaning of the concept…well…”meaning.” Is the concern Paul’s intent or the Corinthian audience’s reception? Translation, Lash fears, is then pushed to the systematic analysis, and is somehow after the historical task. Furthermore, the theologian’s task is then always the second half of a larger task, the first completed by the biblical scholars. This is, of course, never actually completed, and therefore the theologian’s project is never able to get off the ground. This Lash, argues, is the model used by many, and it is defective.

In contrast, Lash claims that the two enterprises, say, New Testament scholarship and systematic theology, are dialectical – a relation of mutual dependence. Lash states, “There is thus a sense in which the articulation of what the text might ‘mean’ today, is a necessary condition of hearing what that text ‘originally meant.’…I am only concerned to insist, as a matter of general hermeneutical principle, that understanding what an ancient text ‘originally meant’, in the circumstances in which it was originally produced, and understanding what that text might mean today, are mutually interdependent and not merely successive enterprises” (81). Furthermore, if New Testament scholars followed this line, they would never be able to utter: “This is what the texts means,” or even, “This is what Paul means.” They would only be able to claim, “It seems probable that Paul might have meant this.”

After further analysis, Lash provides a resting point before moving on to further exposition, stating,

The practice of Christian faith is not, in the last resort, a matter of interpreting, in our time and place, an ancient text. It is, or seeks to be, the faithful ‘rendering’ of those events, of those patterns of human action, decision and suffering, to which the texts bear original witness” (90).

The hermeneutical “gap” therefore, does not lie between what the text meant and what it means, but rather, “between what was once achieved, intended, or ‘shown’, and what might be achieved, intended, or ‘shown’ today” (90-91). Instead of poles between “meant” and “means,” the poles are between what Jesus accomplished and testified to on the one hand, and what kind of testimony to Jesus does that call us to on the other. The question, therefore, “What might martyrdom mean today?” is a question concerning fidelity to the Jesus whose own life and death were the martyrdom of God – God’s self-witnessing. The gap therefore, is between that action with the meaning of that action, and God’s action in the world today with our performative interpretation of that textual reality.

Any thoughts about this? Could it be said that Lash is the only real theologian?!?!


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