Review: Four Views of Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology
Four Views of Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology is the 2008 addition to Zondervan’s Counterpoints series. The focus of this volume is to explore four models for taking the historically embedded revelation of Scripture and applying it to challenges, answer questions, and to instruct on issues never explicitly covered in the Bible itself. Veteran Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser defends the Principalizing method. Theologian and pastor Daniel Doriani defends the Redemptive-Historical Method. Systematic Theologian Kevin J. Vanhoozer put forth his Drama-of-Redemption approach. Finally, William J. Webb represents the Redemptive-Movement model. In addition to the primary articles and their respective responses, this volume includes three additional essays of reflection from Mark Strauss, Albert Wolters, and Christopher J. H. Wright.
Dr. Walter Kaiser’s principalizing method argues that, strictly speaking, we do not have to move beyond the Bible in order to apply its teachings to contemporary challenges. Biblical authority comes to bear on modern questions by the application of its universal principles to new concrete situations. This is done by asking what is the general teaching behind specific biblical injunctions. He actually boils this down to a four-step method. First, we must determine the central point of any text we are studying. Second, we should exegetically determine the internal reasoning process of the passage (noting links between phrases, clauses, and sentences). Third, the interpreter moves to see how each “paragraph (in prose genres), scene (in narratives), or strophe (in poetical passages) can be expressed in propositional principles” (23). This means also removing all proper names/nouns in the process to make the principle truly universal. Fourth and finally, we should present our principles and imperatives in present tense verbs. He then applies this method to studies cases on euthanasia, gender roles in the church, homosexual, and several other ethical issues.
Doriani’s Redemptive-Historical approach is one that fits with the thought of Reformed thinkers such as Gerhardus Vos, Herman Ridderbos, and Richard Gaffin. Its emphasis is on the Bible as the unfolding redemptive story of God in Christ. It rightfully warns against an interpretive flattening of Scripture that ignores different redemptive periods. Doriani also advocates a sensitivity towards genre. How Scripture communicates is just as important as what Scripture communicates. Therefore, unlike some in the Redemptive-Historical camp, Doriani advocates receiving instruction from biblical portraits and character studies (where the actions of the character receive God’s blessing and implicit approval). Like Kaiser, he offers steps for implementation. Step one is close accurate interpretation of his text. Step two is a synthesis of biblical data, “paying close attention to it place in redemptive history” (85). Step three is application with a special emphasis on the principle of imitation of Christ. Finally, step four is “adjusting a tradition application” but focusing on narrative communication. How do we find a bridge to cross from text to application? Doriani advocates as return to casuistry, “the art of resolving particular cases of conscience through appeal to higher general principles” (100). His chapter closes with case studies on architecture, gambling, and the issue of woman in ministry.
Kevin Vanhoozer’s chapter on the Drama-of-Redemption model of interpretation six to bridge the divide between theology, ethics, and the pastoral application. His goal is to fundamentally reorient his reader’s perspective on the view task of “using” the Bible. God is the divine director, with the Bible as the chief script. We are performers of the text, and moving “beyond the Bible” is akin to improvisation. The goal is the development of godly wisdom, knowing how to live in a way that is “fitting” with God plan for creation in Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the most controversial contribution is the Redemptive Movement method set forth by Webb. According to this view, Scripture at times does not present to us God’s final or ultimate ethic. Webb’s chief case study is the issue of slavery. Christians rightly, Webb argues, embrace an abolitionist ethic – though Scripture does not finally command the abolition of the institution of slavery. So how do we rightly and biblically ground this conviction? Webb says Scripture points us there through “movement meeting.” We determine this movement by observing a twofold movement. First, how Scripture’s ethic moves (in a humanizing direction) from its Ancient Near Eastern context (in the Old Testament) or it’s Greco-Roman context (in the New Testament). The second movement is the intra-scriptural development from the Old to the New covenant. Returning to the subject the slavery, we find the great humanizing contrast between Old testament slavery and it’s Ancient Near Eastern counterpart, and likewise once we move to the New Testament we read “…there is neither slave nor free… in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Webb clarifies that this is not a meeting over in against God’s intention, but rather the meaning implicit in the Scripture itself.
As I read through each of the essays, I was struck by the fact that they were all so different and, as Wolters notes in his reflection essay, sometimes talking about very different things. In fact, I found it reassuring that nearly all of my questions, concerns, or critiques were voiced at one point or another by any one of the contributors. Furthermore, the reflection essays by Strauss, Wolters, and Wright were especially rich and added much to the discussion.
The greatest strength of Kaiser’s approach is that, by direct or indirect admission from the other contributors, principalizing is unavoidable. Unless we have grown comfortable with the idea of imposing extra biblical commands on the consciences of God’s people, there is to one degree or another no alternative sent to the principalizing impulse. But a looming danger to Kaiser’s particular brand of principalizing is its emphasis on propositionalizing, its narrow focus on ethics, and the danger of devaluing the diverse genres of Scripture. In what is perhaps an overreaction to the excesses of some of his colleagues, Doriani devotes too much time to what his approach is against, almost as much is what it is for. Furthermore, Doriani’s seven-page discussion on the attributes of Scripture, while appreciated, was simply too long in an essay that missed opportunities to positively develop his approach and clarify how his model is distinct and superior to the others. At times I found myself asking, “how is his approach more than a mere nuancing of Kaiser’s approach?” The quality of Wright’s reflection essay what such that I found myself wondering why he didn’t right the Redemptive-Historical essay, since it was a richer positive presentation than Doriani’s. The Drama-of-Redemption model was a reminder of what a fun read Vanhoozer can be, but I his essay was heavy on theory with little practical emphasis. His theological and moral applications (on a theology of Mary and a response to transgenderism) relied little on his model. His applications were generically Protestant and Evangelical with minor theatrical analogies almost ornamentally thrown in. If this were the time for Vanhoozer’s model to shine (when he is given an unlimited range of topics to demonstrate the applicability of his model), the examples he chose fell flat and worked against him. Furthermore, his approach is too dependent on the dramatic analogy. It runs the danger of implying that the fullest use of Scripture demands a mastery of the analogy itself, with all of its points of correspondence (a proposition I am confident Vanhoozer himself would strongly reject).
Finally, Webb’s article was both fascinating and stimulating, though a number of concerns still plague me. First, and this is hard to completely capture in words, but several times Webb’s comments sound a lot of like the liberal disparagement of the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura. Second, Webb appears to be too dependent on the values of most Western democracy, functionally putting them close to God’s ideal ethic than the inscripturated words themselves. Lastly, there appears to be inconsistency within Webb’s model. That is to say, given his views of “movement meaning” it would seem that writings closer to the closing of the canon would be further along the ethical trajectory than earlier portions of revelation. But Paul’s more egalitarian sound passage in Galatians 3:28, was written before his more gender restrictive language in 1 Tim. 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet”). This is potentially devastating for his hermeneutic, but Webb leaves this objection untreated.
As many in the work note, this book is hardly the final work on the subject, and it is clear to me that each view would do well to heed the cautions and warning offered by the other camps. There is no clear “winner” is this kind of discussion, but the conversation itself is a rising tide that raises all ships.