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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.

Summary

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.

Assessment

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.

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Don’t Let Something Else Do Your Thinking For You: Discipleship and Biblical Interpretation

Does one need to be a Christian in order to understand the Bible? Do you need seminary training, and an advanced education to make sense out of God’s book? Or, conversely, is the Bible so clear that “even a caveman” can read and grasp it?

Some, motivated by a clear sense of the Bible’s “for everyone-ness” downplay or deny the importance of formal academic study of the Bible. Others, motivated by a clear sense of the Bible’s complexity, present Scripture as something better off left to the scholars, the new priesthood of the academy. Now, in truth, most Christians are probably willing to see some truth in both positions, yet also recognize the there are dangers in either extreme.

This is how I would, and intend, to argue.

In response to these questions, we should shy away from quick yes or no answers. A straight-forward yes or no, with no additional nuance or clarification, will distort the richness of the Bible’s teaching on this issue.

Bible Translations and Theological Language

One discussion closely tied to the issues above is that of Bible translation. Just how literal and formal should translations be? A commonly cited reason people prefer dynamic equivalent translations (like the NIV, the NLT, and others) is because some biblical words are weird, or unusual for the modern reader. Words like ‘justification,’ ‘expiation,’ and ‘propitiation’ aren’t words most people use in their everyday conversations. And for that reason some think that phrases like “sacrifice of atonement” (propitiation), made right with God (justification) and others are better inserted in contemporary Bible translations.

Generally speaking, I don’t think this is a good idea and here’s why: Biblical understanding flourishes in the soil of discipleship. Sometimes I fear people want a Bible translation to do the work of discipleship. I’ve become increasingly convinced that it is good and healthy and right for Christians both to speak the language of their native culture as well as to have a uniquely Christian dialect. Words like ‘atonement’ and ‘justification’ are ways in which God has chosen to reveal to us precious truths. These terms are the vehicles for personal transformation. Postmoderns are correct in this right; language shapes a people. Very rarely have I met one with a thick theological and biblical accent who also despises theology. Without both a knowledge and love of “theological” language I simply do not know how to grasp a passage like this from Romans 3:21-26:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26 ESV)

The same passage as it appears in The Message just doesn’t seem to me to have the same punch:

But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ. God sacrificed Jesus on the altar of the world to clear that world of sin. Having faith in him sets us in the clear. God decided on this course of action in full view of the public – to set the world in the clear with himself through the sacrifice of Jesus, finally taking care of the sins he had so patiently endured. This is not only clear, but it’s now – this is current history! God sets things right. He also makes it possible for us to live in his rightness.

To my mind, The Message has done the thinking for the Christ-disciple. As the Westminster Confession (I.VII) puts it:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

What are the “due use of ordinary means”? These means are the ordinary ways we would determine the meaning of any written document. This includes studying the words of the document itself, its intended audience, grammar, syntax, word studies, and backgrounds (cultural, theological literary, political, etc.). It means picking up a commentary written by those who have done that level of research for us. Both believer and unbeliever.

Part of Christian discipleship is doing the work of wrestling with God’s word. So is an advanced education in theological and biblical studies necessary to understand Scripture? No, though it certainly can help! God have often used long, sustained periods of reflection under the guidance and direction of godly teachers to help so many in grasping the rich unity-in-diversity of the Bible. Such study helps us to understand how doctrines were historically formulated, how the Spirit has lead his Church, and often to apply God’s word to our modern challenges.

The Role of the Church

The chief environment for this study is not the library, apart from the fellowship of other like-minded Christians. That is a helpful means of getting in the content, but not the final context for Christian discipleship. We learn truths and facts in books. But we experience their life transforming power in the laboratory of lived experience.

The truths we wrestle with in our study come to life (or, rather, bring us to life) when we  “instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14), are“devoted to one another” (Rom. 12:10), honor one another (Rom. 12:10), accept one another (Rom.15:7), “Have equal concern for each other” (I Corinthians 12:25), “serve one another” (Gal. 5:13), are patient with one another  (Eph. 4:2), “bear with each other…” (Col. 3:13), “encourage one another” (I Thess. 4:18, 5:11), and love another another (1 Jn. 3:11; 3:23; 4:7, 11, 12).

Ultimately, the church, in its worship and work is the place for Christian discipleship. It is the fellowship of God’s gathered people, and the context in which we learn to observe all that Jesus commanded us.