Is the hermeneutical move from Scripture to application a “Texas Two-Step” or something else?
Two or Three?
By “Texas Two-Step” I do not mean the country/western dance that moves in sync with 4/4 time. I am referring to the basic hermeneutical practice of moving from Scripture to application in “two steps.”
- Step One: The text says “X”
- Step Two: Therefore, we do “X”
This hermeneutic serves a form of restorationism that seeks to reduplicate the New Testament church just as it appears in the New Testament. Do what they did; it is the “safe” way to restore the church. They did “X” (the text says), and therefore we must do “X” (according to hermeneutical and patternistic assumptions). I regard this as a kind of naive primitivism which no one really practices but is nevertheless the rhetoric of Churches of Christ in the 20th century.
But it was never that simple. As we saw with Baconian induction/deduction, it has been far more complicated than that within the heritage of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Indeed, J. D. Thomas’ We Be Brethren laid out the principles for generic/specific, inclusion/exclusion, etc. The rules for understanding the nature of prohibitive silence, laws of exclusion, binding examples, implied commands, etc. are not explicit in the text itself but involve a process of discernment by which we decide in which cases we will do “X” just like Corinth (or Rome or Jerusalem, etc.) did “X” and where we will not do “X” just as they did (e.g., covered heads). In other words, there was always an intermediate third step.
- Step One: The text says “X1” and “X2”
- Step Two: “X1” is something intended for the church universal but “X2” is not.
- Step Three: Therefore, we must do “X1” but “X2” is optional.
Step two is the essence of “theological hermeneutics.” It is a theological step. It is a process by which contemporary readers of Scripture discern the normativity of ethics and ecclesial practices in order to become the community God intended in creation and will bring to fullness in the Eschaton. Step two is about theology, that is, the substance that arises out of the metanarrative that forms us into the image of Christ.
Within Stone-Campbell hermeneutics this middle step is often hidden and sometimes even denied. Nevertheless, it is present in every hermeneutical conclusion. For example, Churches of Christ have concluded that Scripture mandates that the Lord’s Supper be eaten every first day of the week and only on the first day of the week. But Scripture never explicitly says this. Rather, we proceed with a multi-step method to get there.
- Step One: The church in Troas ate the Supper on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).
- Step Two: Assumptions–(a) Troas did this every first day of the week [Paul waited seven days, right?–and certainly not because that is when the ship left. right?]; (b) the text functions to exclude other times because it records this occasion [what it does not include it excludes]; (c) there are no other texts which indicate a specific time for eating the Supper [denying Acts 2:46 or the Lord’s on institution of the Supper on Thursday evening apply to the question]; (d) Troas’ eating assumes an implied command to eat on the first day of the week [though no such command appears anywhere in the New Testament]; (e) since the Supper is commanded, there must be somewhere in Scripture where we are told when to eat [thus dictating what Scripture must tell us, and if it must tell us, then we will find it!], etc.
- Step Three: Therefore, faithful churches eat the Supper only on the first day of the week and every first day of the week.
It is important to note the nature of Step Two in this example. Here Step Two applies legal reasoning as if the text is a legal genre. It does not involve a theological reflection on the fact that Troas ate the Supper on the first day of the week and neither does it read Acts 20:7 within the Luke-Acts narrative. Rather, it treats the event as a legal precedent and thus Step Two functions as a legal rationale with a legal hermeneutic. But Acts is not a legal document; it is a narrative. Step Two, in this case, violates the simple reading of the text in straight-forward grammatical-historical fashion as a narrative. The traditional hermeneutic actually complicates the text rather than simplifying it. The complexity of the traditional hermeneutic is actually quite astonding once one engages the discussions that have surrounded CEI and its applications (how many cups at the table? are Bible classes authorized? the complexities of the instrumental music discussion in terms of generic/specific and expedience/element distinctions, etc.).
This does not mean that all intermediate steps within Churches of Christ were purely legal. Sometimes there is theological reflection and sometimes there is cultural discernment (e.g., most Churches of Christ don’t require covered heads when women [silently] pray in the assembly). But when it comes to ecclesial practices, it usually is a matter of legal reasoning based on hidden hermeneutical and theological assumptions about the role of positive law in the Christian faith, the nature of Scripture as a legal (constitutional) document, and the function of Scripture to provide “legal authority.”
An Alternative Second Step
When approaching a particular text in Scripture, I suggest an explicit and self-aware “three-step” hermeneutical method. Again, “steps” are pedagogical devices and not timeless rules. And the number “three” is not sacred either (except in terms of Trinity!). In fact, we can make the three steps into fifty, I suppose. Yet, I think there are two basic moves: from (1) text to (2) theology, and then (2) theology to (3)application. Below I proffer a possible way of thinking through a text theologically along with a simple example (which could be pursued in much greater depth than I do here) that dovetails with my previous post on methodology.
Example Text: 1 Timothy 2:9-10.
Step 1: The Affirmations of the Text: Exegesis.
Contextualized Significance: What did the text call them to do? Women should dress with “decency and propriety” which means they should not wear clothing that is ostentatious or reflects their noble status. The context is probably a worship assembly, or at least, the lifestyle of the Christian community.
Contextualized Meaning: Why did the text call for this behavior? Women ought to give evidence of their piety (theosebeian) through good works rather than through their social standing.
Step 2: Normative Substance of the Text: Theology.
Theological Substance: What theological substance inheres within the text’s meaning? The substance is humility/service as the proper evidence of one’s piety.
Redemptive-History: How is this substance reflected within the theodrama? The problem is not expensive clothing per se, or attention to beauty, but the attitude which divides people according to class and social status. The principles of redemptive-history reflect the union of God’s people in humility rather than along the lines of social standing (cf. Amos 4:1-3; 6:1-7). Arrogance translates into social injustice and luxurious lifestyles (Ezek. 16:49-50; James 5:5).
Theological Center: How does it cohere with the theological centers of the theodrama? Fear of God and humility are paired in Scripture (cf. Prov. 15:33; 22:4). Humility versus pride is a dominant theme in Scripture (Prov. 3:34; 11:1; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5). The basic attitude of worship is humility (Is. 66:2; James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:6). It is the recognition that we creatures rather than the Creator, and as creatures we share the task of imaging God in the world. We see in Jesus himself the display of humility and service rather than pride and luxury.
Step 3: Application of Meaning to Modern Audience: Homiletics.
Meaning Recontextualized: How does this substance translate into contemporary culture? The Christian lifestyle must be a humble one (shall we say “simple” one?), and in the context of the worship assembly humble dress is demanded. Issues of economic lifestyle and modest dress are culturally relative. The theological substance, however, rejects pride and extravagance among God’s people.
Significance Recontextualized: What does the theology of the text call us to do? It calls us to dress and live humbly in whatever cultural setting in which we find ourselves. What does this mean for American churches and Christians? Anyone dare go there in their leadership within a church? Can we really hear the call of this text in our own setting? Dare we obey it?
This is a fairly simple illlustration though it is not without questions itself. For example, is the theological principle really about humility/service where the problem was the ostentatious dress of women in Ephesus or is the problem more about seductive dress (the accessories of prostitutes)? Perhaps we don’t have to choose since either flows from the fundamental notion of “modesty.”
More importantly, this text illustrates that our modern applications do not always reproduce the Pauline application. Paul’s application excluded gold and braided hair from godly female dress, but we certainly don’t exclude such today (e.g., wedding rings). I don’t think this is a problem. Rather, it reflects the point that what we apply to the modern believer is not the text itself (“don’t wear gold”) but what we apply is the theological substance of the text (e.g., modesty, humility, service). The applications may vary according to circumstances, cultures and time, but the substance remains the same. And the substance remains the same because it is rooted in the theological reality of God himself revealed within in the theodrama.
What’s the Point?
If, in practice, everyone does at least a three-step, is not everyone following the same hermeneutical method?
Actually, no. For my purpose, the significant difference between the traditional Stone-Campbell hermeneutic (the “hidden” three-step) and what I have proposed above is the substance of the second step. While the traditional hermeneutic basically construes the second step as a legal maneuver in order to discern legal authority through a legal hermeneutical lens, I suggest we see the second step with a theodramatic lens. In other words, instead of seeking “legal authority,” we are seeking how to participate in the theodrama in ways that embody the divine intent and goal.
In essence, I am suggesting metanarrative theology is the substance of the second step rather than constitutional law. The theological hermeneutic is to discern the character and mission of God through the theodrama as it culminates in the Christ Event. This discernment, then, enables us to recontextualize that theological substance for our contemporary world.
Why Such a Long Series?
My intent is not to be original. Indeed, I have learned much from others, and I believe that in many ways this is how Paul himself, for example, read Scripture. He read it with the lens of theological substance through the prism of Christ. [Perhaps I need a series on that to illustrate my point?]
I have often heard the critical barb that while many spend their time in deconstructing the traditional hermeneutic (CEI), nothing is ever offered in its place. I don’t think this is accurate. What it reflects is that the only hermeneutic that is deemed legitimate is the one the critics already practice or will reach the same conclusions that they cherish (e.g., any hermeneutic which does not conclude that instrumental music is sinful can’t be right). Anything else, of course, is not as simple, not as coherent, not as practical, etc. Anything else is not a hermeneutic at all.
This is unfortunate. I believe many writers such as Tom Olbricht (cf. Hearing God’s Voice) or C. Leonard Allen (Cruciform Church, especially the new edition) have offered hermeneutical alternatives. They are not CEI–and that is the problem in the eyes of critics–but they do offer a way of reading Scripture that moves away from the Baconian assumptions of CEI as taught and practiced by traditional Churches of Christ.
So, my point in this series as been to offer an alternative–a way to read Scripture theologically. My formulation is not set in stone; I’m still thinking about parts of it. I have written this rather hurriedly as a daily discipline. It is not perfect. But it is, I think, suggestive of a better alternative.
Shall we read Scripture as constitutional law through legal hermeneutical criteria for Step Two? Or, shall we read Scripture as a theodrama which calls us to participate in the story in ways that image God? Which, in fact, is more coherent with the nature of Scripture itself, Scripture’s own self-description, and its own language? Which one is more biblical? Which one is more faithful to the nature of Scripture itself?
I’ve given you my answer. You will have to answer for yourself.
In my concluding hermeneutical series–to come shortly after I take a break from this topic–I will attempt to illustrate the method that I have advocated in this series. In other words, finally, I will get practical.