This review originally appeared in Themelios Volume 35, Issue 3, November 2010.
In line with other volumes in the Counterpoints series, each of the primary proponents in Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology —Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Daniel M. Doriani, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and William J. Webb—sets forth his view on how Christians ought to move beyond the Bible to theology and responds to the other contributors. This volumes also adds a series of “Reflections” written by three further scholars—Mark L. Strauss, Al Wolters, and Christopher J. H. Wright—who have not participated in the primary four-way discussion. The title of the volume is not accidental: the writers have been asked how Christians ought to move beyond the Bible to theology. Transparently all of us go beyond the Bible in some sense whenever we apply biblical data or reasoning to cultures far removed from those found in the Bible, or relate biblical truth to, say, bioengineering. As the editor comments in his introduction, “When you shake someone’s hand at church rather than greeting him or her with a holy kiss (1 Thess. 5:26), you have gone ‘beyond the Bible’” (9). It is easy to conjure up other examples. What, then, warrants the move beyond the Bible to theology? How should we go about it?
Kaiser offers “a principlizing model.” Because so much of the Bible is given in specific cultural elements and locations, priority must be given to finding the principles found in Scripture. The principle of “principlizing” is found within the Scripture itself, Kaiser avers. Thus in the case of incest found in 1 Cor 5, the prohibition of incest carries on from OT moral law (that is the principle), but the sanction demanded by the law of Moses, viz. stoning, has been replaced by excommunication, which may be temporary if it leads to genuine repentance. “Principles, then, must be given priority over accompanying cultural elements, especially when directed to the times and settings in which that text was written—times now different and separate from the contemporary manner of expressing that same principle” (21). Kaiser then attempts to apply his “model” to such diverse topics as euthanasia, the roles of women in the church, and slavery.
While the respondents express gratitude for many of the thrusts of Kaiser’s work, they do not hesitate to raise a variety of questions. They suggest that Kaiser tends to elevate the principles he finds in Scripture above what the Scripture actually says. Moreover, is it so very easy to extract a-cultural principles, not least when we recall that we, the interpreters, are ourselves enculturated? Moreover, although Kaiser strongly affirms the progress of redemption in Scripture (the earlier texts not being imperfect but immature), at the same time he hunts for timeless principles: how does one reconcile this pair of stances? One critic (Vanhoozer) notes that all of Kaiser’s case studies focus on moral or ethical issues; there is no case study on how one develops beyond Scripture in doctrinal areas (e.g., the Trinity, atonement theology). Another critic (Webb) interacts primarily with Kaiser’s handling of slavery.
Doriani offers “a redemptive-historical model.” His first emphasis is the importance of diligent exegesis of text after text, bringing all resources to the task. This includes narrative texts and other passages that are less commonly mined. Above all we must maintain the unity of Scripture in its development toward the centrality of Christ. Certainly we must learn caution and submission when the Bible challenges our own cherished cultural icons and commitments: God has the right to correct and reform us, so we must be on our guard against domesticating Scripture. The next step is to “take our culture’s questions and objections to Scripture, looking for biblical and theological resources that make it easier for people to understand and accept it. Thus we go beyond the page by hearing the questions people raise and by engaging in theological reflection, perhaps not so tightly tied to Scripture, so as to advance biblical ideas in a new setting” (99). Doriani devotes space to undermining dangerous forms of casuistry while cautiously supporting the meditative and explorative casuistry of the Puritans. Ethical matters ought to begin with the appropriate imitation of patterns of living found within the biblical narratives, and especially in the imitation of Christ. Like all the contributors to this volume, Doriani includes examples of the practical outworking of his views—rather briefly on the atonement, gambling, and church architecture, at greater length on women in ministry, scarcely at all on slavery.
Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology
Gary T. Meadors
The Bible has long served as the standard for Christian practice, yet believers still disagree on how biblical passages should be interpreted and applied. Only when readers fully understand the constructs that inform their process of moving from Scripture to theology―and those of others―can Christians fully evaluate teachings that claim to be “biblical.” Here, scholars who affirm an inspired Bible, relevant and authoritative for every era, present models they consider most faithful to Scripture.
The respondents are more scattered in their critiques of Doriani than they are for Kaiser. Kaiser mostly approves what Doriani writes, but criticizes him on his handling of specific texts, especially with respect to women’s ministry. Vanhoozer applauds Doriani’s essay, but thinks that he is partly “tone-deaf” to insight from the broad history of interpretation (though he finds Doriani less tone-deaf than Kaiser and Webb). Vanhoozer encourages Doriani “to explore the potential of a distinctly redemptive-historical casuistry rather than viewing casuistry as an appeal to principles abstracted from the history of redemption” (130). Webb thinks that Doriani’s approach reflects a merely “static understanding of Scripture” (133) that actually diminishes Scripture’s authority because it does not allow interpreters to create the trajectories that Webb himself judges to be crucially important.
Vanhoozer’s chapter supports “a drama-of-redemption model”—a “theodrama” (his coinage, of course, as readers of his earlier books will know). When he emphasizes the Bible’s “story,” he is not thinking so much of a literary genre “as a series of events that, when taken together as a unified drama, serve as a lens or interpretative framework through which Christians think, make sense of their experience, and decide what to do and how to do it” (155). He holds that his approach goes beyond the “history of redemption” approach, in that the latter does not really tell interpreters how to move beyond the Bible. By contrast,
the drama-of-redemption approach affirms God’s actions in history, preserves the emphasis on story, and incorporates a canonically attuned, wisdom-oriented “chastened” principlizing, while better integrating the interpreters into action. The superiority of theodrama as a model for thinking about biblical authority and interpretation thus consists in its awareness that understanding is a matter not only of cognition but of action; moreover, it insists that there are biblical texts whose meanings are only fully “realized” as something is done with them or on their basis. (159)
Vanhoozer sticks with his theodramatic terminology: script, performance, achieving the dramatic vision, and so on. This means he frequently has to explain how his “model” relates to suggestions put forth by others (e.g., see his comparison of his approach with that of Richard Hays, 171). Relying on Paul Ricoeur, Vanhoozer argues that understanding comes not by processing information, but by “inhabiting” the world the text projects. At one point he proposes three imperatives for developing “canon sense” that then serve as “guidelines for determining theodramatic fittingness” (179), and three more for “catholic sensibility,” i.e., fittingness to the situation. When he works out his model in examples, he treats Mary theologically, beginning with the “Mother of God” language as it was coined and understood in the fifth century and then developed into something quite different, and issues in transsexuality (especially sex-change operations).
Kaiser challenges Vanhoozer’s reliance on Paul Ricoeur, in part by attempting a Ricoeurian reading of Vanhoozer’s own text. As for the two applications (viz., Mary and transsexuality), Kaiser does not think that Vanhoozer is drawing his conclusions out of theodrama in any distinctive way, but is in fact engaging in the principlizing that Kaiser himself espouses. Doriani declares his admiring agreement with almost everything Vanhoozer has written, but voices two reservations: first, although the Scripture is constantly in the background for Vanhoozer, Vanhoozer rarely works out of Scripture or provides substantive scriptural warrant for things like “theodramatic fittingness,” and his position would be greatly strengthened if he closed this gap; and second, Vanhoozer’s work would be stronger and more convincing if he abandoned the jargon-a fault that Doriani traces to little experience in the work of preaching and teaching in the church. Webb applauds Vanhoozer’s work primarily because he thinks he can accommodate his own approach within it. If he has a criticism of Vanhoozer’s practical outworkings, it is this: Vanhoozer should be open to the possibility of genetic deviation behind transsexuality.
Webb offers “a redemptive-movement model.” He contrasts his approach with “a more static or stationary appropriation of Scripture” (217). He argues that Scripture itself warrants a grasp of the movement of redemption, a “redemptive spirit appropriation” that encourages interpreters to move beyond the application of Scripture in the ancient world. This requires a kind of trajectory from Scripture beyond the time it was written, such that illumination allows us to make applications not envisaged in the static text of Scripture that are nevertheless in line with the direction Scripture points. Webb devotes most of his space to concrete challenges such as the slavery texts and texts that deal with corporal punishment and the extent to which they do (or, in fact, do not) align very well with modern “spanking.” Webb ends his chapter by seeking to debunk various misconceptions about his “model,” including the charge that the redemptive-movement model is new.
Kaiser offers a robust critique, primarily in a variety of specific charges that Webb’s “model” is too little tethered to the text and that Webb’s own treatment of slavery and other matters distorts biblical texts in various ways. Kaiser acknowledges that this approach is not new, but insists that it has always been a mere sub-component or augmentation of grammatical-historical hermeneutics, not the controlling model that Webb advocates. Similarly, Doriani asserts that the question for Webb’s proposed paradigm is not “Is it [ever] true?” but “Is it the best tool for interpretation?” (256). In particular, he argues that Webb’s approach so focuses on ethical issues that he “neglects the redemptive-historical character of the Bible and the capacity of Scripture to lead us to Christ” (260). The details of his interaction with Webb often focus on aspects of the corporal punishment debate. Perhaps Vanhoozer’s strongest criticism of Webb is that judging by Webb’s own writings he is motivated to address certain “disturbing” texts of the Bible and thus wants to create a sort of “bibliodicy.” Yet rarely does he actually handle those texts as discourse, to probe deeply as to what they actually mean in the Bible and find out how they “work.” And in typical Vanhoozer word-play, he asks, “How. .. does the trajectory approach guard against the temptation to mistake the Heilige (Holy) Spirit for a Hegelian (Enlightenment) imposter?” (267).
The concluding three chapters reflect on the work of the principal authors, and they emphasize quite different things. Strauss devotes much of his space to summary and then concludes with some reflections on how disciplined thought on the nature of contextualization might play into the discussion. Wolters begins with the shrewd observation that the four authors understand what moving beyond the Bible to theology means in at least four overlapping but distinguishable ways:
(1) bringing the authority of Scripture to bear on issues that Scripture itself does not directly address (e.g., in contemporary bioethics); (2) dealing with ethically troubling biblical injunctions or assumptions (e.g., gender hierarchy or harsh punishments); (3) forging theological categories that, though not themselves explicitly taught in Scripture, systematize and develop explicit biblical teaching (e.g., in understanding Mary as theotokos); (4) focusing on the reception history and exegesis of a biblical theme (e.g., gender hierarchy). (p. 300)
Wolters then interacts with the four authors in various ways, rejecting Webb’s model (he accepts the validity of the questions Webb poses but thinks he has the answers wrong) and tweaking the other contributors in various ways—all in the self-acknowledged framework of his own Dooyeweerdian heritage. Wright argues that none of the four models is to be accepted as the “right” one, but that they are mutually complementary and actually need one another.
Like other books in the Counterpoints series, this one admirably serves its purpose in helping readers come to grips with some of the divergences of opinion on these matters. Frankly, I also find this format for discussion rather frustratingly predictable. I would happily recommend it to those students who by reading it are likely to develop their own critical thinking, and would equally happily not recommend it to those students who like to think that by talking endlessly of the hermeneutical options they can remain above the fray as the most wonderfully inclusive of them all. One transparent weakness in this book leaps out from the earliest pages and never goes away. In the pursuit of how one moves beyond the Bible to theology, there is no serious discussion as to what theology is. What does it mean to move from the Bible to theology? Or is there some sense in which all theology moves beyond the Bible? If so, isn’t the framework of discussion in this book far too narrow—i.e., if all theology moves beyond the Bible in some sense, then do we not need to set that stage before tackling the topics addressed here? To put this another way, under these assumptions aren’t we really asking how we ought to do theology?