Hermeneutics and The Shape of the Future - Edited by Frank K. Flinn


This volume contains the proceedings of the Seminar on Hermeneutics sponsored by the Unification Theological Seminary and held on Grand Bahama Island, on February 20-24, 1980. The essays and following discussions cover the topics of hermeneutics in scripture, theology, history, society and eschatology.

Most, but not all, the essays address a hermeneutical question raised by the principal Unificationist enchiridion Divine Principle. One thing should be made abundantly clear, however. The inspiration for this seminar did not come from Rev. Moon or any other member of the Unification Church. It came from myself and other scholars who are not members of the Unification Church. The dialogue that resulted is, to say the least, lively and, at times, heated. The open-endedness of the discussion speaks, I believe, for the willingness of the Unification Church to hear out both friend and foe, including friends who are critics.

The reason I wanted to be involved in a seminar on hermeneutics that examined Divine Principle stems from a judgment by the National Council of Churches that "the Unification Church is not a Christian Church" and that "the claims of the Unification Church to Christian identity cannot be recognized." These quotes are taken from a report of the Faith and Order Commission of the NCC entitled 'A Critique of the Theology of the Unification Church As Set Forth in Divine Principle" (June, 1977). The report was written by Sr. Agnes Cunningham, a Roman Catholic, Drs. J. Robert Nelson and Jorge Laura-Braud, Presbyterians, and Dr. William L. Hendricks, a Southern Baptist. I find it mildly amusing that these theologians, whose respective churches not so long ago labeled one another as "heretics," are now united in designating still another religious group as heretical and even non-Christian. But I must avoid this sort of polemical irony!

The NCC report critiques Divine Principle on seven counts: dualism, secret revelations, a certain materialism, anti-Semitism, relativizing scripture, the triune God, and salvation-restoration-eschatology. Something could be said about each of these topics, but the section "Relativizing Scripture" is crucial to the context of this volume:

The Bible is frequently cited in Divine Principle, giving the initial impression to some readers that this work is in accord with the Scriptures. The use of biblical texts is arbitrary, however. They are more often cited to provide the names of actors in the drama of restoration than to serve as primal instances of revelation; or else, in the manner of many Christian literalists, the texts are adduced to prove the truth of teachings drawn from non-biblical sources. Yet of Christians who depend literalistically upon Scripture, Divine Principle says they are "captives to scriptural words" (p. 533). Divine Principle appeals to other revelations which contradict basic elements of the Christian faith.

Within the diverse communions and traditions of Christianity there are many ways of understanding scriptural authority and interpretation. Nevertheless, for Christians, the biblical witness remains the normative authority. This is not the case in Divine Principle, which acknowledges the higher authority of Sun Myung Moon.

I believe that the reader will find that nearly all of the objections raised by the NCC report are addressed in the course of this volume.

Now to the specific accusations. The report says that Divine Principle uses biblical texts arbitrarily. On this issue the reader is directed to the essays by Anthony Guerra, Kapp Johnson and Thomas Boslooper. I know of no theologian, ancient or modern, who can escape this kind of charge. Sometimes I think one of the functions of theologians is to quote scripture "out of context" in order to give the biblical scholars something to do! More seriously, this charge would have had some weight had the NCC report sought to uncover the hermeneutical perspective from which Divine Principle does indeed cite the Bible.

According to its own self-claim, Divine Principle is written from the hermeneutical stance of the "Last Days" (Divine Principle, pp. 10-16). Its viewpoint is eschatological. The essays by Dagfinn Aslid, Frank Flinn, and Klaus Lindner (on eschatology), Lorine Getz and Frederick Sontag are pertinent to this topic. In the manner of the early Church Fathers, Unification sees the Last Things as inherently related to the First Things. The Last Things will be the restitution, recapitulation -- or, to use the language of Divine Principle, the restoration -- of the First Things. Unification theology has a two Article framework (Creation/ Restoration) from which, admittedly, it selects the "text within the text" of the Bible. Personally, I think Divine Principle cites many texts out of context, but not so many as its harsher critics believe, given this hermeneutical framework. One might compare Divine Principle's two Article framework with the redemptocentric and even christomonistic framework of much contemporary neo-orthodox and liberal theology. O n this point I direct the reader's attention to the essays by Henry Vander Goot, Donald Detfner, Jonathan Wells and Durwood Foster.

The NCC report goes on to assert that Divine Principle cites the names of the actors in the drama of restoration rather than submitting to the biblical texts as "primal instances of revelation." Here we can note two further aspects of Divine Principles hermeneutical underpinning. Not only is it eschatological but also typological and dispensational as well. Typological exegesis has gone out of fashion, but it was the hermeneutical mode which shaped the first Christian exegetes' understanding of the Bible as a unity. The paramount typologist was Irenaeus who strove to hold together the two books of the Bible by a doctrine of real types. Presumably the dispensationalist aspect is what brings the NCC charge that Divine Principle interprets the Bible like certain Christian literalists. Per se dispensationalism hardly qualifies a religious group for the label "non-Christian." The real issue is whether dispensationalism broadly conceived is in consonance with the Bible's own self-understanding. Certainly the New Testament stress on the disparities between This Age and the Age to Come, as well as Paul's not infrequent references to the oikonomia tou theou, point in the direction of dispensationalist conception of history. In this regard, the reader is referred to the essays by Dagfinn Aslid and Klaus Lindner (on history), Stanley Johannesen and James Deotis Roberts for the wide variety of interpretation of history. In fact, I think a strong case can be made that liberal Christianity has scuttled the dispensationalist mind-set of early Christianity in favor of the Enlightenment idea of "progress."

A final objection of the NCC report is that Unification appeals to "other revelations" than the "normative authority" of the biblical witness. Specifically, one can indicate the revelation to Sun Myung Moon (Divine Principle, p. 16) as well as the numerous references to religious ideas of the East in Divine Principle. The essays by Andrew Wilson, Lloyd Eby, Stephen Post, David Kelly and Lonnie Kliever address various aspects of this issue. The problem is the question of the indigenization or contextualization of Christianity. Was the Nicene and Chalcedonian transposition of early Christian faith into the categories of Hellenistic philosophy a departure from the "normative authority" of the Bible? Theologoumena like homoousios are not exactly biblical in wording and conception. Admittedly, there are many Eastern concepts in Divine Principle such as yin/yang (Divine Principle, p. 26), the transmigration of the soul (p. 167), concepts which show affinity with the Prophet in Islam and the avatar in Hinduism (p. 188), a Confucian understanding of the family, etc. Sometimes the appeal to the "normative authority" of scripture is a disguised appeal for the normativity of the Western indigenization of the biblical witness. The real hermeneutical question about Eastern ideas in Divine Principle is whether the one Word of God can be addressed to concrete men and women in a way that dialectically preserves and reforms the cultural context in which they live, move and have their being. The Western pattern of evangelization, with few exceptions, has been not only to cancel out indigenous thought ("idolatry") but also the cultural wealth ("heathenism") with which all peoples meet the biblical message. To be sure, something different happens when the biblical message becomes incarnate in non-Western cultures, but, one may add, something different happened to the Divinity when God became enfleshed. Aside from these considerations, I think that Divine Principle assumes a covenantal model of time and space fundamentally different than most Eastern modes of thought. It claims that what God has done with Israel is paradigmatic for all other peoples, places and times. Its daring is to bring that paradigm up to date and to posit boldly the Kingdom of God on earth as the goal of the universal covenant.

In the following essays and dialogues, the reader will encounter not only discussion about the hermeneutic of Divine Principle but also sharp exchanges about the multifaceted directions which the field of hermeneutics in general is taking today. As editor, I found the process of sifting through this material a genuine learning experience on reading the Bible and letting it read me.

Frank K. Flinn
Feast of Francis of Assisi
October 4, 1981
St. Louis 

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