Theological Hermeneutics IX — Outline of a Method

Okay, maybe I’m not ready to go with the intensely practical as yet….my bad!  But I think the following methodological outline of a theological hermeneutic is a fairly simple one.   I will wait for the “rubber-meets-the-road” kind of ecclesiological discussions of the theological hermeneutic (which is, historically, what really interests the heirs of the Stone-Campbell Movement) for my next series.  But we are drawing closer to a fuller explanation of the kind of theological hermeneutic I have in mind.

In one sense I don’t like “steps” (except when climbing a steep slope) because they tend to oversimplify an integrated process or they mechanize a dynamic process. Nevertheless, they are useful as a pedagogical device (which is the origin of Walter Scott’s five-finger exercise: Believe, Repent, Be Baptized, Remission of Sins, Gift of the Holy Spirit). But, we must remember, the steps should not be disconnected but rather seen as an organic process; steps that reciprocally shape each other–more like a spiral than a staircase.

Step One: The Theological Drama Within Scripture

We read Scripture through the lens of its fundamental theological drama which, of course, we only know through reading Scripture, living within the community of faith, and listening to the story of the church’s faith (e.g., The Rule of Faith).

Thus, we begin with the basic metanarrative of Scripture–the drama of God creating his good cosmos, pursuing his rebellious people, redeeming his broken cosmos, and consummating his redemptive purpose in the Escahton through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is our theological frame for reading Scripture and it is the frame that has shaped our reading of Scripture through the consensus theology of the church summarized in the “Rule of Faith” (Irenaeus’ version is available in his Against Heresies 1.10.1) or “Apostle’s Creed.”

It is important to note that the Apostle’s Creed is little more than a summary of the baptismal confessions of early Christians in the second and third centuries. It is a credo(“I believe”) that acknowledges the Creator God, the divine presence in Israel through the prophets, the Christ Event (birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension), and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit to form a community of redeemed people awaiting the resurrection and eternal life. It is a summary of the biblical theodrama.

This metanarrative reveals the theocentric nature of the drama, the Christocentric means of its accomplishment, and the pneumatological mode of its application. In essence, it reveals the character of God and the involvement of God in the comos. These are the theological baselines for any reflection on the Christian faith with the intent of living out the story of God in our present world. The metanarrative is the ultimate commitment and criterion for ecclesial faith and practice.

Step Two: Textual Affirmation as Guide

What Scripture affirms is our guide. We certainly read it with theological commitments and a dramatic frame that we have received through the Rule of Faith, but it is also something we read with an eye toward deepening, adjusting, correcting, or interpreting that Rule of Faith. Scripture–as the original interpretation of God’s mighty acts–is the norming norm though we read it in continual dialogue with the Rule of Faith as well as the continuing tradition of the church.

A. Historical-Grammatical Exegesis.  This category covers lots of ground. It includes the simple reading of the text by children as well as the complex reading of the text by scholars of Hebrew and Greek. 

At one level, what the text affirms serves as an empirical boundary for understanding. There are elements in the text that are as “objectively there” as the tree in my front yard.  For example, Jesus of Nazareth lived and died. To deny the text affirms this is as unrealistic as to deny that there is a tree in my front yard. For more on this point, see my series “Created for Hermeneutics” on my Serial Index page, particularly post III.

At another level, what the text affirms is accessible to readers whether scholars or not. “The Rule of Faith,” for example, is something readers may discern as a summary of what the text affirms. “Scholarship” is unnecessary at this level.  It is a matter of reading the text, believing what it affirms and doing it. Believers through the ages have lived out the meaning of God’s story through spiritual and “common sense” readings of Scripture. “Scholarship”–in the sense of post-Enlightenment critical thought–is not necessary to believe and participate in the theodrama (as long as there is a translated text available 🙂 ).

At a further level, historical-grammatical exegesis as a “scholarly” discipline (with different levels of expertise or utilization; e.g., some know Greek and some do not, but they may all seek a “historical and grammatical” understanding of the text) helps us understand Scripture through the eyes of the original readers of the text. This gives us some guide for affirming what the text affirms and cuts away some of the accretions of tradition heaped on top of a text as well as recognizing how texts can be ripped from their context for the sake of polemics (e.g., “proof-texting”). The goal of this reading of Scripture is to focus on what the text actually affirms in its historical and grammatical setting rather than what it might appear to say if we read it as if it appeared in our daily newspaper in our own historical setting (e.g., “covered heads” in 1 Corinthians 11 would mean something entirely different in Roman Corinth than it would in Dearborn, Michigan).

A Baconian inductivist/deductivist reading, however, tends to read the Bible atomistically, flattens the text, and treats it more like a textbook than ancient history. In other words, it actually undermines a grammatical-historical reading of the text. This recontextualizes Scripture so that the text is made to affirm something it did not affirm and deduce “truths” which it never intended to teach. In essence, while clearly accessing biblical truth at one level, when it reconstitutes that truth by reading the text through the grid of its Baconian inductivist/deductivist reasoning, it sometimes denies what the text actually affirms.

B. Redemptive-Historical Reading.  This is a canonical reading of Scripture which recognizes the development and unity of themes throughout Scripture that is ultimately climaxed in Jesus the Messiah as one whose life and ministry embodies the in-breaking of the eschatological kingdom of God.

This reading assumes an organic unity within the story of God and within the canon itself; it is a canonical reading of the text.  It is not a unity that undermines diversity within the canon, but recognizes a unity that moves throughout the theodrama towards its climax. Practioners of the scholarly historical-grammatical method sometimes do not recognize this unity.  But reading Scripture in a redemptive-historical way unveils a Christological unity to the theodrama.

C. Forms of Theological Expression. Within the Reformed and Stone-Campbell traditions, CEI (command, example and inference) has often been the primary way of categorizing the modes by which Scripture “authorizes” something. It is the way “legal authority” is bestowed upon potential ecclesiological practices.

Categorizations are often helpful and CEI should not be dismissed simply because it is not found exactly in that form within the text of Scripture. What is crucial, however, is that we observe how biblical authors themselves utilize or assume these forms (or categories) for the purpose for which we ourselves claim to use them. This is when it becomes difficult. Without arguing the case in any detail here, I would suggest that there are multiple ways of categorizing such forms and the form “command, example and inference” is not necessarily a bad one in itself. There is no single way to do it and to some extent they all overlap with each other.  The primary issue is how we use them, for what purpose we use them, and the fundamental frame in which we use them.

Since the discussion of CEI is complex (and I have already commented on how it has been used in the Stone-Campbell heritage in previous posts), I will not attempt a comment here. Rather, I would suggest another–more helpful, in my opinion–way of categorizing these uses in Scripture or, as I call them in the heading, “forms of theological expression.”  I find Richard Hays’ four-fold category in his Moral Vision of the New Testament more sensitive to the historical and redemptive-historical setting of Scripture. 

  1. Rules — explicit, direct commands or regulations that particular expressions of a principle.  Examples: “Command those who are rich…to be generous and willing to share” (1 Timothy 6:17-18 ) or “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33a).
  2. Principles — general considerations by which particular decision are to be governed.  Example: “…work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need” (Ephesians 4:28).
  3. Paradigms — stories which model conduct or embody the principles in particular ways. Example: “All the believers were together and had everything in common.  Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had neeed” (Acts 2:44-45).
  4. Symbolic World –the metanarrative which creates the perceptual categories through which reality is interpreted. Example: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15).

When we read Scripture, I think it is legitimate to note these forms of expression as ways of guiding our application of the story of God in our own lives.  They provide guidelines for participating in the theodrama. They are not legal categories to be collated through the lens of a legal brief and then placed into syllogisms to construct a legal blueprint (which is the way CEI has often been used in the Stone-Campbell Movement). Rather, they are scripts of previous acts in the drama that give us direction for living out the script of God’s drama in the 21st century.

What is extremely significant is that each of these forms of theological expression are embedded in particular contexts and thus must be read in a grammatical-historical way.  Further, each of these forms are part of a canonical context (or, redemptive-historical context) and thus must be read in a way that reflects the dynamics of biblical theology. They must not be extracted from their literary and/or canonical contexts in order to construct an system that is extraneous to the metanarrative itself.

For example, commands exist within the nexus of redemptive-history (canonical flow), historical context and specific application. We do not usually think of the commands on a one-to-one equivalency with our own context. We do not practice everything the early church did in exactly the way they did (e.g., one loaf on the table). Rather, through these forms of theological expression we discern what is utilized within the theodrama that warrants a recontextualization of the command to our setting. Paradigms provide an illustration of the principles or an occasion for the implementation of the rule (command) while the Symbolic World provides the theological frame that gives meaning and significance to the rule, principle and paradigm.  Ultimately, it is the Symbolic World that suggests the normativity for recontextualization. The theodrama itself drives us to participation in the story as the rules, priniciples and paradigms guide us in living out that story.

By prioritizing the theodrama (metanarrative or Symbolic World), we provide a check against isolated and abstracted deductions (e.g., a church youth group cannot raise money for the poor through a car wash on church property) or the exaltation of rules to the level of a proof-text (e.g., footwashing in John 13). One way in which the metanarrative or Symbolic World should have regulated our incessant–and perhaps, given the hermeneutic used,  sound–inferences is the conclusion that churches cannot use money from their treasuries to help non-Christians. It seems to me, in light of the metanarrative, this is an absurd conclusion.  God gives to non-Christians all the time; he gave his Son for sinners. The whole theodrama is the gracious gift of God to his rebellious world, even while they were yet enemies.  The metanarrative should have, I think, checked our hermeneutic.  If our hermeneutic legitimately concludes that churches should not help non-Christian poor and the metanarrative shows God’s preference for the poor as well as his gifts to his enemies, then there is something seriously wrong with the hermeneutic itself!

The metanarrative or Symbolic World must judge our hermeneutical inferences, applications of commands (rules) and conclusions.

Step Three: Theological Centers as Normative.

At this point the call is to explore and reflect on what the text affirms, the redemptive-historical location and movement within the text, and the forms of theological expression present through the lens of the centers of biblical theology. Normativity, I believe, is located in these theological centers. In other words, how we live out the story of God in the present is guided by the centers of biblical theology as given to us in the textual affirmations, redemptive-historical locations, and forms of theological expression. It is the theological centers that ground our faith and practice in something more than ancient culture.

In the previous two posts in this series I have suggested that our fundamental lens for understanding and appropriating biblical theology is the Christ Event.  At this point, as a complementary but different angle on the same point, I want to suggest a four-fold lens. 

The function of the lens is to embrace a vision of the character of God revealed through the theodrama. Consequently, it is a theocentric focus–it is to the praise and glory of God.  At the same time, it is also Christocentric as the means for knowing God since he reveals himself in Jesus and the Incarnate One “exegetes” the Father (John 1:18). Jesus, as the image of God, is the embodiment of the character of God and  pursues the mission of God. The lens, then, points to the character and mission of God as it is revealed in the Christ Event. Another way of saying that is with a 4-Cs:  Creation, Community, Christ, and Consummation. There are, of course, other ways of saying this, but this is a good pedagogical handle for me–and the aliteration helps too. 🙂

  1. Creation-the divine intent. God created community, intended humanity represent (image) him in the world, and to fill the earth with his glory (humans who image him in caring for the cosmos).
  2. Community–whether in Israel or the Church, God intended a kind of community where there are no poor or needy; a community that shared life together and shared the task of imaging God in the world, a redemptive community in a fallen world. Through Scripture–through his messengers, prophets, etc.–God seels to shape his community into that redemptive community that bears his image.
  3. Christ–God entered the world as flesh and lived among us. He is the image of God; he is the true human just as he is truly (authentically) human. He is what humans are supposed to be in a fallen world. His ministry is the ministry of true humans. The incarnation answers the question what would God do if he were one of us.
  4. Consummation (New Creation)–the divine goal. What is God’s kingdom climax? This is the world that God will ultimately recreate. It is the kind of world that should intrude into the present–the eschatological reality should be present in the church. The church should be shaped by the divine eschatological goal.

At the center of these themes is imaging (imitating) God which we discern through following Jesus and practicing the kingdom of God which has already arrived in the community of disciples.


I know I have left this “hanging” a bit. I have not yet illustrated the method or brought it to bear on historic issues in the Stone-Campbell Movement.  But this post is already too long (over 2500 words) and so I will have to pursue the illustrations and applications in another post (or series).

Patience, my friends.  🙂  Besides, I have to figure where I have left myself in this mess.  If you’re confused, take heart–so am I.  🙂

5 Responses to “Theological Hermeneutics IX — Outline of a Method”

  1.   rich constant Says:

    When I always used to get confused, I always figured out the best thing to do was to get back to basics.
    But since were discussing this(basics), and you’re confused, reminds me of the Laurel and Hardy movie, this is a been another fine mess you’ve gotten me into John Mark.
    So what you’re saying here is where rabbit hole.
    Or were out on the lake in a rowboat and you just threw away the paddels.


  2.   Mac Says:

    ‘crash’ is one suggestion my students at ezell came up with to describe the fall. the fall is just under the surface in your four-fold scheme. its there in different ways, but its there nonetheless as one of the threads running from creation to eschaton.

    enjoying the series; take care friend.

  3.   rich constant Says:

    Exo 34:5-8

    something we all can count on.

    happy 4th.

    blessings all
    rich in calif.

  4.   rich constant Says:

    He learned obedience through the things he suffered.
    That seems like an interesting conceptual perspective coming out of the mind of God, also it seems that conceptual perspective, was a little bit easier than the act.
    Father all things are possible for you if it be your WILL…
    spirit is willing to flesh is weak…
    I’ll go any farther with this, although,
    when thinking about the wrath of God and the conceptual perspective.
    I sure don’t like thinking that.
    Just some thoughts
    in some ways what’s nice about not reading the whole bunch of books is you get to put this stuff together for yourself and truly make it yours.
    It’s probably been 10 books written on that.
    It’s just NEW to me

    Rich in California

  5.   John Mark Hicks Says:


    I like “crash”…or even “crisis” (McLaren’s term)..for the Fall. I sort of combine “Creation and Crash” as one movement in the story. It can be separated out, and I often do.

    In this list–in this post–I’m interested in the positive theological constructs that shape us into the image of God. The “Crash” is important as a contrast and it lies in the background as the negative of the all the 4 positives.

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