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’Trajectories’ and all that

All of us Bible-believers go beyond the Bible, whether we realise it or not. Scripture has nothing at all to say, for example, about euthanasia or genetic modification, so to find a ‘biblical’ position on such issues we have to move beyond the Bible, while trying to keep our roots in it.

The process is not as simple as we might think, and this book outlines four different approaches. All the authors respect the Bible as God’s Word and fully inspired, but they reach different conclusions about how best to handle it in such situations. The book is Four Views On Moving Beyond The Bible To Theology by G.T. Meadors, ed. (Zondervan: Counterpoints series, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-310-27655-5).

All the authors, of course, insist on painstaking exegesis and on sincere efforts to grasp the original context of a passage. Once past that point, they offer alternatives for the best way forward. Of the four approaches, the first three conclude, ‘No, we can’t go beyond Scripture in any substantive sense.’ The fourth says, ‘Yes, we can—though with extreme caution!’ The four approaches are:

1. A principlising model (Walter Kaiser). This will be the default starting-position for the average thinking Christian. You look at the broad principle suggested by the culturally-bound context of the original, and apply that principle in appropriate ways to today’s context. The ‘holy kiss’ in Paul’s day expressed warmth and acceptance. Today, the handshake does just that, so we go with the handshake. The Bible, interpreted on this basis, is thus sufficient for every situation we may face in today’s world.

2. A redemptive-historical model (Daniel Doriani). This ‘face-value’ approach recognises movement and development of thought and practice within the Bible, particularly in the transition from the Old to the New Testament, but denies that it continues beyond the New. God made his will clear on all essential matters before the canon was closed. This model also insists that the narrative sections of Scripture are as important as the didactic ones in understanding his will.

3. A drama-of-redemption model (Kevin Vanhoozer). This sees ‘drama’ as the key paradigm to understanding Scripture. Like our biblical predecessors, we are caught up in the great ‘play’ of God’s purpose in history, and ‘theology is merely the shadow cast by the theodrama.’ We only truly understand God’s will as we take part in the play by living out God’s will for us; that alone is true ‘interpretation’. As we get into the spirit of the play we will know the right way to think, speak and act.

4. A redemptive-movement model (William Webb). This holds that the ‘trajectories’ of development of ideas and practices from OT to NT carry on beyond the NT. They point the way to an ‘ultimate ethic’ that lies outside the specifics of the biblical text. The ‘movement’ in the Bible towards better treatment of slaves, for example, compared with common practice outside of the people of God, hints at further developmental steps to be taken by later generations—ending in the total abolition of slavery, which itself is nowhere taught in Scripture.

Each author illustrates his approach with concrete examples. These, not surprisingly, include some of the issues currently the subject of fierce debate among evangelicals: slavery, hell, abortion, homosexuality, corporal punishment, transgender issues and the role of women. It is here that the sparks fly—though in the most gracious of ways!

All the authors respond to each other’s presentations, and the book concludes with three helpful ‘pastoral’ reflections on the topic by other writers. There’s much to think about. I know where my own sympathies lie; you must reach your own conclusions.

[Figures in brackets after the quotations are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers]

We look for answers and often walk away feeling that the Bible is like a dummy in the hands of a ventriloquist—you can make it teach just about anything you desire. (98)

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.” You have decided that the holy kiss was a cultural expression and have chosen your own society’s expression. (116)

When we were children we sang the song, “Every promise in the book is mine, every chapter, every verse, every line.” Now that we are adults, we know this is not true! (217)

“For Adam was formed first.” The Greek word for “formed” is eplasthē. Paul’s usual word for “to create” is ktizō, but here Paul used plassō, which can also refer “to shaping or molding educationally, spiritually.” If it is the latter, then instead of Paul basing his argument on the “orders of creation” (Adam came first, so by rights of primogenitor he must be over the woman), he bases it on the “orders of education” (Adam walked and talked with God in the garden before Eve was formed). Since the woman had not as yet been taught, she was all the more easily “tricked.” (530)

Revelation in Scripture can be true, eternal in its source, and organically or seminally perfect without its being complete in its statements, its history, fully developed in its supporting doctrines, or fully apprehended by all its readers or listeners. (745)

We cannot agree that we…can…“go beyond” the text based on an alleged apostolic example. Our interpretive contributions are not in the same stream as the revelatory words of God; we are but repeaters and appliers of what has already been communicated in Scripture. (784)

Is there not a tension between affirming progressive revelation on the one hand and timeless principles on the other? (945)

Does the letter [of Paul to Philemon] improve the relationship and status for one particular slave, Onesimus? Yes. Does it teach abolitionism as a required social ethic for Christians? No. Well, at least not in any immediate, direct, or explicit sense. (1016)

Scripture is sufficient in the sense that it accomplishes all that God intends, that his people should “love the Lord … and walk in all his ways” (Deut. 11:22; 30:16; 1 Kings 8:58; Pss. 86:11; 89:15; Rom. 4:12). It provides guidance sufficient for faithful living. Skeptical scholars explicitly deny this. But evangelicals who appeal to the “trajectory” of Scripture appear to deny it implicitly. (1311)

Commenting on Ephesians 5, Keener says Paul commanded women to submit to their husbands not because he genuinely advocated it, but “because he was smart.” He had to show his Greco-Roman readers that Christianity upholds the social order. (1346)

The Bible doesn’t have narratives, it is a narrative. Why then should narrative supply less data for theology or ethics than any other genre? (1426)

The principle is clear: Where a series of acts by the faithful create a pattern, and God or the narrator approves the pattern, it directs believers, even if no law spells out the lesson. (1462)

When a supplicant came to Jesus with a question or request, he gave a direct reply roughly half the time. The rest of the time, he bypassed or revised it and answered the question the petitioner should have asked (see, e.g., John 6:1–59). (1680)

We shudder today and acquiesce tomorrow. (1951)

A canonically centered, catholically bounded approach that hearkens to voices from past and present, North and South, East and West, corresponds to the vocal unity-in-diversity of the Bible itself, and speaks with a ministerial authority that merits the attention of future generations. (2093)

[Re the slavery issue]  It is extremely hard to reach an abolitionist conclusion using a face value reading of the biblical text. (2192)

The Bible, God’s Word written, is “a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Ps. 119:105), but there is some confusion over how to switch it on and some debate over how far ahead it shines. (2628)

The issue is not whether but how the Bible exercises its authority despite its historical and cultural distance. (2661)

Biblical interpretation is incomplete unless it issues in some kind of performance, for, as Calvin says, “All right knowledge of God is born of obedience.” (2760)

Jesus is able to answer the key questions—Who am I? What am I to do?—because he knows the answer to the prior question: Of what story do I find myself a part? (2923)

Living biblically is all about fittingness. Making judgments that are “meet” and “right” is ultimately a matter of discerning what best fits with our holy script and our secular situation. (3031)

The wise disciple is the one who discerns, deliberates, and does the truth, goodness, and beauty that is the love of God in Jesus Christ. (3155)

Lessons from the hermeneutics of the past and from what I like to call “more neutral” cases such as the slavery texts and other examples where the church has substantial agreement ought to guide us with methodological insights for our present interpretive struggles. From these more neutral cases we can derive a set of hermeneutical tools for discerning what are cultural or accommodated (sometimes, less-than-ultimate-ethic) components within the biblical text and what are transcultural components. (3531)

I encourage Christians to embrace the redemptive spirit of the text, which at times will mean that we must move beyond the concrete specificity of the Bible. Or, we must move beyond the time-restricted elements of the Bible. Or, we must be willing to venture beyond simply an isolated or static understanding of the Bible. Or, we must progress beyond the frozen-in-time aspects of the ethical portrait found within the Bible. (3815)

Scripture seems to gives us an ethic that needs in some ways to be developed and worked out over time. It would appear that many biblical texts were written within a cultural framework with limited or incremental movement toward an ultimate ethic. (3836)

As Christians read this text [Deut 21:10-14], it begins to dawn on them that the Bible contains a war ethic that includes “grabbing hot-looking women” as wives. This should rightly be a disturbing feature within the text as we read our Bibles today. (3864)

The idea of a redemptive-movement hermeneutic is not that God himself has somehow “moved” in his thinking or that Scripture is in any way less than God’s Word. Rather, it means that God in a pastoral sense accommodates himself to meeting people and society where they are in their existing social ethic, and (from there) he gently moves them with incremental steps toward something better. (3981)

Scripture clearly teaches corporal punishment for adults as well as children. So, what does it mean for Christians to be faithful to the corporal punishment teaching of Scripture today? (4064)

The biblical text moves the covenant people toward a kinder and gentler administration of justice and toward a greater dignity for the human being who is punished; that is the spirit of the Bible as it is read within its larger ancient social framework. (4185)

A redemptive-movement hermeneutic is actually a subcomponent (not replacement) of a good grammatical-historical hermeneutic. (4222)

The “better ethic” developed through a redemptive-movement hermeneutic is in fact the ethic of the OT (and NT) rightly understood and rightly applied. (4253)

Understanding the NT as final and definitive revelation does not automatically mean that the NT contains the final realization of social ethics in all of its concrete particulars. (4273)

Shall we go beyond the concrete specificity of the biblical text? Yes, most assuredly. For simply to read the text and do what it says on the page often misreads and misapplies the text. Such static methods produce museum-piece approaches to Christian ethics and an impoverished way of applying the Bible. (4301)

It’s not clear to me how the redemptive genie—the trajectory of social values such as equality and inclusivity—once let out of the bottle, is canonically contained or regulated. (4607)

There is no such thing as an “objective” biblical author—that is, one who speaks outside the limitations of human language and culture. All biblical truth is perspectival and contextual. Even if we speak of the divine Author, God still speaks through the limitations of language and culture. (4855)

Identifying trajectories is a tricky business. As products of our culture, we will always tend to view as a “better ethic” those things that our culture finds acceptable. (5129)

Ethical imperatives that remain unchanged throughout the Bible—in diverse cultural, social, and historical situations—are more likely to reflect God’s will for today than those that differ in times and places. The classic example is homosexual behavior, which receives universal condemnation throughout Scripture. (5239)

All the contributors refer to a key work that helped foster this debate: Beyond The Bible: Moving From Scripture To Theology by I. Howard Marshall. I have reviewed it here.