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. 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.