Theological Hermeneutics X — “Texas Two-Step” or What?

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.”

  1. Step One:  The text says “X”
  2. 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.

  1. Step One:  The text says “X1” and “X2”
  2. Step Two:  “X1” is something intended for the church universal but “X2” is not.
  3. 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.

  1. Step One:  The church in Troas ate the Supper on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


Three-Step Method


         Step 1:  The Affirmations of the Text:  Exegesis.

                  Contextualized Significance:  What did the text call them to do?

                  Contextualized Meaning:  Why did the text call for this behavior?


         Step 2:  Normative Substance of the Text:  Theology.

                  Theological Substance:  What theological substance inheres within the text’s meaning?

                  Redemptive-History:  How is this substance reflected within the theodrama?

                  Theological Center:  How does it cohere with the theological centers of the theodrama?


         Step 3:  Application of Meaning to Modern Audience:  Homiletics.

                  Recontextualized Meaning:  How does this substance translate into contemporary culture?

                  Recontextualized Significance:  What does the theology of the text call us to do?


Example Text:  1 Timothy 2:9-10.

            I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.


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.  🙂


John Mark

17 Responses to “Theological Hermeneutics X — “Texas Two-Step” or What?”

  1.   Carisse Says:

    I wonder, dear friend, why the term “narrative” doesn’t worry me, but the term “drama” is a little jarring. I speak as someone with graduate training in dramatistic analysis of rhetoric, as described by Kenneth Burke; but still, I think I would like to hear you say why the term “theodrama” is better for your method of working than, say, “sacred history.”

  2.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    To some extent, Carisse, it may be in the “eye of the beholder.” I see “sacred history” and “theodrama” as overlapping synonymns and would not want to deny the rationale for naming it “sacred history.”

    I suppose I see the value of “theodrama” (which is actually Kevin Vanhoozer’s language, as well as drama language of Michael Horton among others) is the emphasis on theos and the inherent notions of plot, intentionality and development that are part of dramas. It is real drama; a dramatic history.

    I also think “theodrama” has a kind of evocative function–it is vocational; it calls us to participate in the drama. “Sacred history” might be misused to think in terms of observers or scientific historians. So, this is something of why I prefer “theodrama” as metaphor for the narratival function of the sacred history.

    Thanks for raising the point; it is an important one.

  3.   rich constant Says:

    In some respects the church came about the only way that it could through legal means, although anyone with half a brain can see what the fruits of this legal form of hermeneutical stance has brought about within the church.
    All of the intrinsic characteristics of the Lord put into practice, in one aspect or another, whether by debate, commentaries by way of justification through argumentation, to the demeaning of other organizational structures of hermeneutics.
    Have been abandoned at some point or another.
    All in the sake of discipleship, which becomes almost laughable, when looked at through the lens of the true God being worshiped by the true Israel Christ, and his method of discipling, The fallin Israel that had taken on the legal structure instead of the faithful structure.
    I would like anyone to check out the end of Romans nine through 10:21.
    What I like to say to my brothers is what I had to say to myself. Which was told to me any number of times by my wife. You’re Mean and nasty.when it comes to talking to other people about the most important thing in anyone’s life.
    God is our moral center.
    Christ is our ethical center.
    The moral and ethical center are both the same,
    just from a different point of view.
    They trust each other they love each other and interact together through one spirit to bring about the goal of the divine intent, bringing many sons to glory.
    It would seem that we don’t want this very much.
    We have our imperative we have are indicative.
    Cry shows us our moral center and our ethical center.
    We have taken this and screwed it up so bad.
    That we’ve taken our cultural imperative of hermeneutics, and our cultural indicative of hermeneutics.
    Thought that it must be so because we did it in such a precise and thorough way, that somewhere along the line, but cultural indicative became more important, than even the cultural imperative.
    So what we have done to me is that we have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, because we think that Fellowship should be based a cultural indicative of hermeneutics based in necessary inference.
    What’s what is the lie I am speaking of it is the lie of conceit.
    There’s only one way fellowship with God, whether I like it or not, that is to love my brother as myself, as Christ did he believed God and obeyed God.
    Because he and he alone that God would be faithful to his word the redemption of his body for us through his faithfulness.
    This did not come about through litigation.
    Blessings rich in California happy Fourth of July

  4.   Mac Says:

    Yes, John Mark, I’d like to see a series on how Paul utilizes a performative hermeneutic. How he applies the theology of the Christ-event to the siuations of his churches, and how we can take our cues from his reading style and strategy. I’d like to hear you rehearse again Paul’s kanon (Gal. 6). I also appreciate how your proposal is plainly self-aware. I find its forthright spirit refreshing.

  5.   rich constant Says:

    The legal rational one plus one equals 2.
    2 plus two equals four.
    God maintains his righteous standing and expects to be worshiped for always being consistent, true to his word.
    The Scripture attests to this.

    The only thing I see that this rational legal hermeneutic brings us to is a belief in God. And I don’t mean to say that lightly, from every aspect of the human condition, God has expressed himself and proven himself worthy of worship.

    I I believe in God because it is so perfectly clear it is of a sound mind Paul expresses this so clearly, through the first 12 chapters of Romans.

    Once we establish a basis for belief and of course we will will always be adding to this system of belief as each and every one of us apply ourselves the structure that has been established.
    This is God’s gospel God’s gospel establishes his Christ.
    Now we can start a hermeneutical narrative of Luke and the apostles and the reasons for them acting in the they way that they acted.
    What were they do they were establishing the gospel of Christ based upon the gospel of God.
    What is the hermeneutic imperative of this gospel of Christ.
    Matthew 28 all power and authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth…
    there seems to be a couple of things that are required in understanding the hermeneutics of the gospel of Christ.

    Good and evil
    believe and unbelief
    faithfulness and faith
    the works of the spirit and the flesh.
    As we understand this in ourselves through the word we are able to corporately come together to the glory of God through the gospel of Christ.
    The perfect law of liberty

    Rich in California

  6.   Keith Brenton Says:

    I think your hermeneutic is a considerable improvement over the traditional CEI (that’s Command, Example, Inference for the folks who have just tuned in) – and especially over the brand of CEI which has lapses in its logic.

    You know,

    “Apples are red.
    This object is red.
    Therefore I must eat it.”

  7.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Well, Keith, I don’t know if the lapses are that obvious. 🙂

    Affirming the consequent is a common fallacy, introduction of a new element in the conclusion that is not explicitly in the premise though perhaps assumed (eating), and the injection of necessity in the conclusion that is not present in the premises (“must”).

    That is a very bad argument. 🙂 I hope a red fire engine is not in front of you.

    I wish all our fallacies were as obvious as your example. 🙂

  8.   rich constant Says:

    Another comment on CEI
    love your brother as yourself
    Paul’s ministry of the gospel of Christ
    necessary inference
    it’s okay to be sarcastic to someone in the “Lord’s” church you don’t agree with.

    Boy oh boy Keith

    Blessings rich in California

  9.   Chris Stewart Says:

    I just discovered your blog and this series. Good stuff. Thanks. I plan to go back and read the first nine posts.

    I’m reminded, however, of walking out of your “Basic Christian Doctrine” class in Memphis as a toddler in Christ. I was only a few years old in Christ and came out rubbing my temples, trying to process all that I’d seen you spread over four dry erase boards.

    Thanks for shaping (and jarring!) my perspective of the “theodrama.”

  10.   John Mark Hicks Says:


    Good to hear from you, my friend. And I thought you “took it all in” and understood every word and diagram! 🙂

  11.   Frank Says:

    A fine overview and series. Much to think about here.

    Regarding the sentiment, “any hermeneutic which does not conclude that instrumental music is sinful can’t be right”:

    Years ago, in a forum at Harding Graduate School, Guy N. Woods explicitly said as much. I always understood that that was an implicit given. But I was astonished to hear it stated outright.

  12.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I have heard it on several occasions but I don’t remember any specific public forms other than I have general memories of similar statements in the Open Forum at FHU in my younger days. But I could not give specifics on that.

    Guy N. Woods at a Harding Graduate School forum? Do you mean Freed-Hardeman? I don’t recall Woods at HUGSR, but he may have been at some point which I don’t remember.

  13.   Frank Says:

    Okay, major memory test here. Short-term is more the problem these days for me, so maybe I’ll get close:

    I heard the statement of Woods by way of one of those old cassettes in the HUGSR library. As I recall, it was a recording of a Preacher’s Forum at the Graduate School. The topic was the authority of elders. A fellow participant was one Marvin Phillips.

  14.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Your memory is very good, my friend. I believe I do recall something of that now…a discussion between Phillips and Woods on the authority of elders. I bow in humility before your younger and more powerful memory. Thanks–I needed some humility. 🙂

  15.   Matthew Says:

    Just a little clarification, narrative is reading the Bible as story, so meta-narrative is_________. What do you mean by metararrative. Is it the story behind the story? Just needing a little help.

  16.   John Mark Hicks Says:


    Narrative can refer to the genre of the material itself as in Geneis is a narrative.

    Narrative can also refer, at times, to the idea that we should understand theology as a narrative of God’s mighty acts in relation to the covenant community. In this sense it is used as a descriptor of a theological methodology. Theology is narratival rather than Baconian, for example. It is a way of conceiving the theological project as a whole. It does not refer to genre in this context but to the nature of God’s relationship with human as one of “story” or “drama” or “narrative.”

    Metanarrative refers to the content of the story–the results of a narrative theological methodology. It is what emerges as the theological substance of reading Scripture through the lens of narrative methodology.

    I hope that helps clarify a bit.

  17.   Justin Says:

    I happened upon this blog post today and was blessed by it. I suggest it as a required reading for those reading your fuller work/book on the same subject.


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