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Beyond the Bible: Biblical principles

Living in new circumstances means going beyond the Bible, biblically.

In his first two lectures Marshall set the scene for the need and possibility of “going beyond the Bible”. In particular he established that we have in fact felt the need to go beyond Scripture, and so showed the need for principled and understood ways of doing this. He also showed that there is within the Bible a development of doctrine in differing contexts.

In the third lecture he begins to really get to grips with how we may biblically go beyond the Bible. Here he shows that when doctrine develops within Scripture we can identify not merely “diversity” but also “greater maturity”1 (though he resists equating this as an evolution in which later texts are always more advanced).

He also shows that Scripture is in some ways “incomplete” both because the teaching is occasional (that is addressed to specific circumstances) and because far future circumstances are not directly addressed. In showing this he also shows that there is continuity in these changes. Thus, speaking of change and of continuity in change, he is very close to the metaphor of a trajectory (which requires both change and continuity). Marshall uses this metaphor in describing the development of Christology into the Pastoral Epistles as an example of such development within Scripture.2

Finally he claims that “[d]evelopments in doctrine and new understandings after the closing of the canon are inevitable.”3 But in order to affirm the authority of Scripture these must be in continuity with teaching in the Bible and must be discerned in accordance with “the mind of Christ”.

  1. For this language see notably his conclusion, I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004, 78. []
  2. Ibid, 73. []
  3. Ibid, 78. []

Beyond the Bible? Howard Marshall’s proposed Evangelical hermeneutics (part 2)

In the second lecture, Howard Marshall continues to set the scene. First sketching a dichotomy of ways in which Christians have “gone beyond the Bible” in responding to challenges of ethics, worship, and most strikingly doctrine. Unless the importance of his dichotomous classification of these becomes clearer later, my take is that the fact of such “going beyond” is more important than his particular classification of differing ways of doing so.

By far more interesting, to me at least, is his rehearsal of the ways in which the Biblical authors, in the New Testament already model such “going beyond”. Firstly and perhaps to no one’s surprise, they go beyond the Old Testament (their Scriptures) in a number of ways. Much more striking (if only because most modern Christians have fairly Marcionite attitudes to the Old Testament) is his demonstration that the writers of the New Testament in a number of ways “go beyond” the teaching of Jesus. He begins by noting that the New Testament goes beyond presenting the teaching of Jesus to “proclaiming him as crucified, risen, and returning Saviour and Lord”.1 Strikingly for such an icon of Evangelical scholarship, Marshall then points to the four quite different portraits of Jesus in the four gospels as evidence for this.2 Marshall concludes this point saying:

It is evident that the evangelists worked creatively, either on a common pool of tradition or on a mixture of sources both oral and written, in such ways they made different selections of material to include and edited what they did include in different ways, The result is that we have for readily distinguishable portraits of Jesus that can be regarded as developments of whatever lay behind them. This is not to say that the developments are incompatible with one another, but that they are written from four different perspectives.3

Marshall’s conclusion to this lecture also seems to me important:

The church, under divine guidance, has established the Canon, and I will assume that it cannot be changed. The church believes that it’s faith and practice rest upon that collection of books and that no others can have that function. Yet the closing of the cannon did not bring the process of doctrinal development to an end. Thus, the question of the interpretation of scripture remains open.4

That openness seems to me precisely the point at issue today. Is Marshall correct or not? If he is not correct, then how might one account for the evidence he offers? But if he is correct, then by what right do some choose to announce that interpretation on particular issues that concern them is now “closed”?

  1. I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004, 51. []
  2. Here he relies quite heavily on Blomberg’s discussion of John’s presentation of Jesus. []
  3. I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004, 51-52. []
  4. I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004, 54. []

Act Four

Yet another interesting Vanhoozer quote. Here he makes very helpful corrections to N.T. Wright’s much quoted five act play (in which the fifth act is missing):

[E]ach of the five acts of the theodrama [is] set in motion by a divine act. Hence: creation, election of Israel, Christ, Pentecost and the church, consummation. On my dramatic reckoning, the church does not have to work out the ending so much as to live in its light.

Kevin Vanhoozer in Gary T. Meadors, Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology. Harper Collins, 2009, 174.

Disciples of the Way performing the script: Vanhoozer again

When disciples find themselves in strange new territory, they Will spontaneously extend the pattern. It is but a small step from the notions of performing the world implied by the text and extending the pattern of Jesus Christ to that of improvising with a script.

Kevin Vanhoozer in Gary T. Meadors, Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology. Harper Collins, 2009, 172.

Vanhoozer is rapidly convincing me that his performing the text metaphor, when mixed creatively with his disciples on the Way metaphor, captures much of what is best about talk of trajectories while (perhaps) avoiding the problems with that metaphor, and also (largely) avoiding the knee-jerk responses talk of trajectories seems to provoke.

More on Vanhoozer and metaphors of the hermeneutic task

Vanhoozer and dramatic interpretation

I confess. Around the turn of the century I used Kevin Vanhoozer’s brilliant Is There a Meaning in this Text? as a textbook in teaching a postgraduate course on hermeneutics. The book addresses complex ideas, but is written in such complex language that it is almost impossible to read. I have not paid the attention I should to his more recent work. (My excuse is that I have not taught hermeneutics at that level since that time.)

Yesterday I posted a brilliant two sentence quote. It not only shows that he has available a totally different writing style, but really resonates with me. As Jerry Shepherd  pointed out on Facebook Vanhoozer uses the quoted sentences in introducing his preferred metaphor, interpretation as the performance of a drama. This is a powerful and useful metaphor. Like all metaphors it fails as a complete analogy. It captures the communal nature of interpretation well, so long as each of us accepts being an actor and not the director! It also reflects the given nature of the text. It expresses really well the way in which faithful; interpretation in the 21stC must be different from a performance in the “author’s day”. However, on my early reading it fails to capture one essential aspect of faithful biblical interpretation.

Community and individuality

Faithful reading of the Bible is (almost) never an individual pursuit. Vanhoozer’s performance of a drama gives this powerful play, suggesting the distinct contribution to the whole each player is called to make. In doing this it also suggests a model for recognising when one player’s performance has become too different from the overall interpretation offered by the company that that player is failing.

The metaphor of a play, suggests also that only one performance is ‘correct’ for this company of players. This pictures nicely our experience of a Church divided (the Presbyterians form a different company from the Baptists…). Yet it suggests such companies of players are competitors.

The metaphor of the pilgrimage

Vanhoozer, at least in the little introduction focused on going ‘beyond the Bible’1 also used (in passing) the metaphor of a pilgrimage. I cited yesterday two sentences in which he encapsulates this understanding.

Having talked of the early description of the church as ‘followers of the way’, he wrote

The process of biblical interpretation is itself a means of discipleship. One cannot follow the way without following the way the words go.

This pilgrimage image has similar, but different, affordances. On a pilgrimage each group of pilgrims must follow a particular route. There may however be different routes that lead to the same destination. Just as there are different performances that are true to both play and the players’ context. On a pilgrimage there are routes that lead away from the destination, one should not follow these. Just as there are performances that are not true to the script-writer’s intentions. Though notice that in the drama model the standard is the script, while in the pilgrimage model the standard is the destination.

  1. Gary T. Meadors, Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology. Harper Collins, 2009. []

Trajectory hermeneutics in two sentences

The process of biblical interpretation is itself a means of discipleship. One cannot follow the way without following the way the words go.

Kevin Vanhoozer in Gary T. Meadors, Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology. Harper Collins, 2009, 154.

Beyond the Bible? Howard Marshall’s proposed Evangelical hermeneutics (part 1)

Howard Marshall’s little book (see previous post)1 is really important. Yet it seems little-known in the circles in which I move. I decided to postpone my promised second post and to do a series briefly summarising Marshall’s work and seeking to persuade more people to read it :)

In the first chapter Marshall provides a quick neat and authoritative summary of developments in biblical exegesis and hermeneutics among Evangelicals across the span of his career and a little beyond.2

This summary account is directed to two goals, distinguishing what makes Evangelical hermeneutics Evangelical, and presenting what he sees a the need to develop a common understanding of the proper ways to “go beyond the Bible” in ways that are faithful to the Bible. He sees the recognition of the need for this as something fresh in Evangelical hermeneutics. It might be more accurate to say that making this need conscious is the new thing, for it is a need that has been resisted. Such resistance is understandable, for talk of going beyond the Bible sounds like establishing ourselves in control. Indeed, Vanhoozer, in the same volume criticises Marshall’s proposal as risking “lording it over the Bible”!

Next Marshall discusses Packer’s3 proposals of understanding Evangelical hermeneutics he finds them good, yet also lacking in several ways. The most important of these is that they make it difficult or impossible for someone following the proposals closely to address issues that the Bible’s human authors could and did not address.

This point is a key one and I wish Marshall had developed it further rather than assuming everyone would see the need for and importance of recognising this requirement on us to live by Scripture by going beyond Scripture in addressing issues the Bible does not address.

Marshall then points to the need to avoid the Scylla of “liberalism” (meaning “peeling off of those aspects of biblical teaching about Christian faith and ethics that are held by many people today to be incompatible with a so-called scientific worldview and an “enlightened” understanding of morality) and the Charybdis of “Fundamentalism”. The latter temptation being more natural to most Evangelicals he spends longer explaining why it should be resisted.

Thus this the first lecture sets up the context and need for a hermeneutic that allows us faithfully to “go beyond” the Bible, that is to address issues that were not part of the world the Bible’s human authors addressed.

  1. Marshall, I. Howard, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004. []
  2. Basically from the 1960s till today. The emphasis is on the UK rather than the USA, which is refreshing since some issues that weigh heavily on American Evangelicals sit lighter or are even not really significant in the British context and the result is a more spacious treatment. []
  3. James I Packer, “Understanding the Bible: Evangelical Hermeneutics,” Melvin Tinker, ed., Restoring the Vision: Anglican Evangelicals Speak Out. Eastbourne: Monarch Publications, 1990, 39-58. []

Trajectory hermeneutics: Trajectories and biblical theology

The concept of a trajectory, though the word is a technical one from the science of mechanics, is simple enough. In mechanics it describes the path that an object (like a ball that is thrown or hit) takes. As a metaphor for a hermeneutic process it draws on the way in which if we know the direction and speed of start of the path and the forces (like gravity and air resistance) the point at which the ball will touch down can be calculated. Of course, hermeneutics is not a mathematical science, yet the metaphor is an interesting one.

Trajectories in Scripture

Biblical scholars have begun using this picture language for two reasons.

Firstly, within the Scriptures we find examples of developing understanding. So, there are passages which reflect the beliefs of early Israelites that the gods of surrounding (polytheistic) peoples had some sort of reality and power. Psalm 82 is an example.1 Moses’ song of God the Rock in Deuteronomy 32 offers another example (Dt 32:8). Even v.12 which denies the role of any foreign ‘god’ in guiding Israel through the desert seems to allow these ‘gods’ some possibility of existence. Yet alongside, and by far overwhelming, such passages are others that proclaim that God is alone and only, denying existence to all beings claimed as divine. Between these points other passages seem to suggest the beings worshiped in error as ‘gods’ are really demons (Lev 17:7; Dt 32:16-17; perhaps 1 Cor 10:20-22).

There are two main ways for Evangelicals to handle such examples. The traditional conservative approach has been to harmonise the ‘odd’ cases to the predominant view. The tradition rendering ‘god’ in Ps 82 as ‘ruler’ is an example. The advantage of this approach is that it fits neatly and easily with the modern US touchstone of Evangelical approaches to Scripture that it is ‘inerrant’. The disadvantage is that one risks seeming to twist some Scripture passages in ways that contort either the words or the sense. The other approach makes use of the metaphor of trajectory. It recognises that God’s self revelation in Scripture was progressive. Not all of the truth was revealed at once. In the revelation of God through covenant and law to Moses on Sinai some truth about God (e.g. the gospel of grace through the redeeming sacrifice of God incarnate in Jesus Christ) is only present as seeds or hints. These fuller and more complete aspects of God’s nature and work are revealed fully later in Scripture.

Trajectories from Scripture

There is a further area where such trajectory thinking is needed. We live in a world which is different from that inhabited by the writers of Scripture. In many ways the issues that face us were unimaginable to them. Yet, God chose to inspire the dozens of writers with messages that were (with perhaps a few notable exceptions) comprehensible to the writers and their audiences. How can we respond biblically to the challenges of life in the 21st C? Often the answer is simple. The principles the Bible teaches can be applied to our issues. The Bible contains many warnings against becoming intoxicated. Most of these point clearly to the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption. This principle that intoxication is to be avoided can clearly and simply be extended to suggest that the use of P or LSD or other drugs developed in recent times in order to become intoxicated should likewise be avoided. Note that in such cases some Christians push the argument a stage further and suggest (following the trajectory of the biblical teaching) that all consumption of such drugs (like wine and beer) might be better avoided.

Thinking not merely of the principles taught in Scripture but of the direction they point (their trajectory) has evidently been necessary in some cases. All churches today teach that slavery is wrong. No one would argue that slave owning is proper for a Christian seeking to follow the Bible. Yet in Scripture slavery as an institution is not condemned. Indeed in an extreme case (where a partner in ministry of Paul, Onesimus, is the escaped slave of one of Paul’s converts, Philemon) Paul attempts to convince Philemon to forgive and perhaps even set Onesimus free. Paul does not declare slavery itself to be wrong! However, after much bitter argument which pitted those who defended the plain and simple teaching of the Bible against others with ‘weaker’ arguments, we decided that the direction in which Paul’s (and the rest of the Bible’s) teaching was headed made clear that slavery is wrong. This position also coheres well with other core biblical teaching (thus confirming our conclusions). God is the creator of all, Jesus died to save us all, the Holy Spirit fills us all (potential slave and potential slave owner) alike!

In this post I have sought to explain the desirability, even the necessity of a trajectory hermeneutic as one interpretative tool. In the next I plan to consider some of the objections to trajectory hermeneutics (what some have called ‘trajectory theology’). Perhaps the best place to start for an Evangelical thinking about such issues is the book I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004.

 

  1. At least it is when the text is translated and read in its plain meaning. Both the Hebrew and the LXX seem to understand the picture in v.1 speaking of Yahweh as the king with the gods as his ministers. One translation tradition, more recent than the LXX understands the ‘gods’ (‘el and ‘elohim, or in Greek the singular and plural of theos) here uniquely as ‘rulers’. []