Sunday, January 27, 2008

Why I don't believe in "timeless truth" or "eternal principles"

The following picture, scanned from page 24 of J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays's textbook, Grasping God's Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting and Applying the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), nicely illustrates one of the most common evangelical approaches to applying Scripture:Their method, like the picture, is simple: 1) Find out what the text meant in its original context; 2) consider differences between the biblical context and our own; 3) "Cross the principlizing bridge. What is the theological principle in this text?"; 4) Consider how contemporary Christians should apply the theological principle in their own context.

Hays and Duvall add that theological principles should be "reflected in the text", "timeless and not tied to a specific situation", and not "culturally bound"; they should also "correspond to the teaching of the rest of Scripture" and be relevant to both original and contemporary audiences.

For help distinguishing between timeless and culturally bound principles, one may consult William J. Webb's image of the "Ladder of Abstraction" (or--for much more detail--the monograph from which it is taken):

(Chart scanned from page 53 of William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis [Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity, 2001])

Webb explains: "[H]ow high one climbs on the ladder of abstraction to form a principle depends upon the similarities and the differences between the ancient and modern worlds. Differences push one up the ladder; similarities push one down" (54). If we lived in an agrarian society the command not to gather the gleanings of the harvest would still apply today. Since we don't, we need to translate the rule in Lev 23:22 into a principle--such as "feed the poor" or "love your neighbour" that will suit our very different context. For an appreciative review of Webb's approach see this post (the first in a series) on Scot McKnight's blog.

The model has the advantage of being memorable and simple, even mechanical. I like how the first picture highlights the differences between the biblical world and our own. What I don't like is the assumption shared by Duvall, J. Daniel Hays and Webb, that one crosses the "bridge" by abstracting a transcultural principle from the particularities of the text. Not only does the attempt do violence to Scripture, the goal is unattainable. As Richard B. Hays declares in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperCollins, 1996), “It is impossible to distinguish ‘timeless truth’ from ‘culturally conditioned elements’ in the New Testament" (300).

Hays's point is that the biblical text is inextricably bound to its context. We don't notice this all the time because in some passages our worlds overlap enough with the world of the text that the process of developing analogies (not principles!) between the two is relatively straightforward. When we do notice differences, the attempt to bridge them by abstracting principles blunts the force of the text. If we read the Sermon on the Mount as advocating the ideal of love, we don’t have to be disturbed by its concrete demands. Here's Hays again:

  • “If we read the New Testament and find only timeless moral principles, we are probably guilty . . . of evading Scripture’s specific claims upon our lives” (294).
  • “Let there be a moratorium on such preaching [that refers to the underlying principle of a text]! The New Testament’s ethical imperatives are either normative at the level of their own claim, or they are invalid” (294).
  • “One would think that the intellectual climate of the late twentieth century would have exposed the futility of such a project, but one still encounters the distinction, perhaps most often and most astoundingly among Christians who imagine that it will somehow enable them to hold on to the authority of Scripture: authority is tacitly transferred from the historically conditioned text to the suprahistorical truth that is somehow packaged in a historical wrapper. The difficulty with this way of conceptualizing Scripture is evident: once we have the truth, we no longer need the wrapper” (300).
So I reject the idea of "eternal principles" and "timeless truth" precisely because I want to hold onto the authority of Scripture, to let it speak on its own terms.

I also like Richard B. Hays's suggestions about method, as long as it is recognized that the process of reading ourselves into the story cannot finally be reduced to a series of mechanical steps:

Like Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Richard B. Hays says work on NT ethics (the subject of his book) should begin with careful exegesis of historical, literary, and intertextual contexts. Part of this process involves identifying whether a passage speaks in the mode of rule, principle, paradigm or "world formation." "We should not override the witness of the New Testament in one mode by appealing to another mode." However, “The New Testament is fundamentally the story of God’s redemptive action; thus, the paradigmatic mode has theological primacy, and narrative texts are fundamental resources for normative ethics” (303). Hays also agrees that Scripture should be read canonically, but he resists harmonization, arguing that we should let "substantive tensions" within the canonical text remain. As a way of synthesizing the Scriptural teaching, it should be viewed through the focal images of community, cross, and new creation. Hays suggests that this is a way to keep from placing too much emphasis on one type of text to the exclusion of others. If there is no room for the cross (or the new creation) in our hermeneutic, then something is missing (292-3).

In the end, says Hays, “The use of the New Testament in normative ethics requires an integrative act of the imagination; thus, whenever we appeal to the authority of the New Testament, we are necessarily engaged in metaphor-making....Metaphors are incongruous conjunctions of two images . . . that turn out, upon reflection, to be like one another in ways not ordinarily recognized. They shock us into thought by positing unexpected analogies—analogies that could not be discerned within conventional categories of knowledge” (300).

“The fundamental task of New Testament ethics is to call us again and again to see our lives shattered and shaped anew by ‘reading’ them in metaphorical juxtaposition with this story” (302).


Nate Wall said...

This is so helpful. I've been thinking similar things the last couple of years, but not quite in this direction. It confirms all the more that I need to sit down and work through all of "The Moral Vision of the New Testament."

In thinking through hermeneutics with Wes, I became increasingly uncomfortable with even our typical language of "application." It seemed to me to be too convenient: we so often end up positioning ourselves as final arbiters of what "carries over," rather than recognizing that these texts were designed to ellicit a response from their readers. "Application" isn't something we do after figuring out the "what" of the text - it is inherent to the texts as they stand. (That could be more clear, but I hope you'll understand my sense.)

If I remember correctly, you first mentioned this in relation to certain passages which we often set aside as "culturally-conditioned." Would you still make any sort of distinction between a command given to, say, Paul's readers, and the way we (in our context) might obey that command? Again, if I'm being less than clear, you may tell me as much.

ErinOrtlund said...

This is a great post, David. I completely agree with you that finding the "eternal principle" and then applying it works against the very grain of Scripture itself; you don't find any hint there that we are supposed to take away eternal principles from the narrative of the onward advance of Yahweh's redemption of creation.

It's really just another form of allegory: look for the abstract principle behind the text; then discard the outward dress of the abstract principle. Particularly in the OT, doing this means ignoring Jesus as the pinnacle and perfect revelation of everything God was doing all along; and it means we're reduced to talking about "principles" when we could be continually saying, "Good as the OT was, look at how much more God gives us in Jesus." -Eric O.

J. K. Gayle said...

Great post (with the helpful illustrations too)!

Webb has done us a great thing by helping us see variation in and towards redemption. (Thanks for McKnight's review too).

But R. B. Hays has, as you point out, a very important insight: “It is impossible to distinguish ‘timeless truth’ from ‘culturally conditioned elements’ in the New Testament."

So doesn't this make listening (and study) all the more important? And (I hate to make you read something you weren't looking for but) would you say that "an integrative act of the imagination" actually changes us? I've tried to show that here (in the last section), in a way.

d. miller said...

Nate: thanks for your comment. Does it work to suggest that the difference between Paul's readers and ourselves is that we always receive Paul's commands indirectly because they are always appropriated by analogy? Why, by the way, do we place so much emphasis on commands? Why do we think of them first when we consider biblical ethics?

Eric: I suppose you are right--given John 1:17 and all--but I would want to guard carefully against any negative view of the OT as God's revelation.

J.K., thanks for the link. I like the image of throwing stories beside stories.