Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology By Walter C. Kaiser, Daniel M. Doriani, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and William J. Webb (Zondervan, 2009)

Four Views on Moving beyond the Bible to Theology (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Paperback)

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Readers will no doubt be familiar with Zondervan’s Counterpoint series, a debate in print between adherents of differing views on topics of biblical and theological importance and interest. This volume provides a much-needed discussion of “Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology.” The contributors are Walter Kaiser, Daniel Doriani, Kevin Vanhoozer, and William Webb, each propounding his own model for this move; every chapter concludes with responses from each of the other three authors. Additional “reflections” are provided by Mark Strauss, Al Wolters, and Christopher Wright.

Upon glimpsing the title, the first thing I wondered about was what kind of “theology” this discussion was all about. Biblical? Systematic? Canonical? What destination were the authors attempting to arrive at in this move “beyond the Bible”? Theology for ethics seems to have been the terminus of all the contributors, probably by editorial diktat. However, this reviewer found himself wishing someone would have provided more help to the one person in evangelicalism struggling—nay, agonizing!—week after week, pericope by pericope, with the issue of “moving beyond the Bible”: the homiletician.

Kaiser’s “Principlizing Model.” According to Kaiser, “[t]o ‘principlize’ is to [re]state the author’s propositions, arguments, narrations, and illustrations in timeless abiding truths.” And “we must receive only those meanings authoritatively stated by the authors themselves” (22). While Kaiser seems to assume that these “principles” are “authoritatively stated by the authors themselves,” I am not convinced that the Bible is a compendium of “timeless” principles, awaiting a time-transcending person perched upon an Archimedean point to unearth them.

How does one go from text to principle? Kaiser’s answer is the “Ladder of Abstraction,” “a continuous sequence of categorizations from a low level of specificity up to a high point of generality in a principle and down again to a specific application in the contemporary culture” (24). Paul’s employment of Deut 25:4 in 1 Cor 9:9–12 and 1 Tim 5:18 is cited as an example of this ascent and descent. “[F]rom the ancient specific situation (oxen that tread out grain) we move up the ladder to the institutional or personal norm (animals are God’s gifts to humanity and should be treated kindly), to the top of the ladder, which gives us the general principle (giving engenders gentleness and graciousness …). As we descend the ladder on the other side, we meet the theological and moral principle behind our general principle (‘love your neighbor’ …), to the contemporary or New Testament specific situation (pay those pastors ministering to you …)” (25). Kaiser fails to explain where all these various principles are located. Presumably, behind the text.

For Kaiser, cultural issues “intrude” on the text, seemingly a distraction from the principle in (behind?) the text. “Principles … must be given priority over accompanying cultural elements” (21). Doriani, in his response to Kaiser, rightly criticizes the latter’s implicit understanding of the God-given text as a husk that must be stripped away to extract the all-important kernel (principle) hidden therein (54). One would also have to wonder at God’s wisdom in giving the bulk of his Scripture in non-propositional form. Perhaps God would have served himself and his people better had he just stuck to a list of propositions (timeless, of course) rather than messy stories and arcane prophecies and sentimental poetry, all of which turn out to be merely illustrations of underlying principles (behind the text). Vanhoozer is right when he responds to Kaiser: “Kaiser may not go beyond the sacred page, but he certainly goes behind it” (59).

Doriani’s “Redemptive-Historical Model.” Doriani asserts that while “the Bible is not a legal code that minutely prescribes the proper action” even in moral issues, it “does provide sufficient direction” (78–79). He offers a method for the redemptive-historical model: close, accurate interpretation; synthesis of biblical data (“God’s plan of redemption for the nations … is the unifying theme of Scripture” [85]); and application of Scripture, including the imitation of individuals portrayed as paradigms in its narratives (84–89). Having labeled his method “redemptive-historical,” it was quite surprising that Doriani had hardly anything in the essay redolent of that transaction, at least as it is commonly practiced by its major proponents. In fact, he seemed to be at pains to distance himself from this camp: “Unlike a few members of my school, I maintain that the imitation of God / imitation of Christ motif pervades Scripture and is a leading source of ethical guidance” (86). And, Doriani adds, some in this league “so stress the centrality of God and redemption that any move to draw moral lessons from biblical narratives is viewed as moralism and a betrayal of the principle of God-centered reading” (86 n. 23). I am relieved Doriani disagrees with this company, but I am at a loss, then, as to why his method is particularly “redemptive-historical.”

For some reason, Doriani decided to tackle the question of what the Bible says about celebrating weddings. While weddings appear “tangentially” several times in Scripture, Doriani thinks certain principles may be deduced from them: celebration in weddings is valid, excess ought to be shunned, etc. (90–92). Doriani prefers to call this operation “casuistry”—“the ‘art of resolving particular cases of conscience through appeal to higher general principles’” (100; emphasis added). Doriani also addresses the hypothetical question of Christian architects seeking theological consultation on what the Bible says about building projects! In answer, he appeals to Deut 22:8 (the requirement for parapets on roofs) and adduces the “principle” of safety (105). All of this sounds suspiciously like “principlization” to me … and to Kaiser, who responds, “So where did we go beyond the surface of what the Bible expects of us? Nowhere, as far as I can see. The method seems to be identical to my method of principlization” (123). 

Vanhoozer’s “Drama-of-Redemption Model.” This reviewer considers Vanhoozer’s proposal the most promising of the four. In his response to Kaiser, Vanhoozer asserts: “Instead of isolating a principle that we have then to make relevant to our situation, we need to explicate the main theodramatic action and implicate our contemporary situation in it. In short, the task is not to transform the Bible (i.e., into timeless principles) so that it can enter our world, but to transform ourselves (i.e., our habits of vision) so that we can enter into the world implied by the Bible” (62). In his article, borrowing from Ricoeur, Vanhoozer notes that a biblical author projects a possible, eschatological world, a divine world. Into this world, the disciple of Christ is invited to enter. “To understand a text, then, is to engage the world ‘in front of’ it, the world it dangles in front of the reader’s wondering eyes,” and “‘inhabiting’ the world it projects” (166). This might be a very profitable approach for the homiletician for the move from Bible to theology. One can conceive of each pericope of Scripture displaying a small slice of that larger canonical world—a world that God opens for inhabitation by his people, as they abide by its priorities, principles, and practices. This is a world that would be and could be, were the people of God to align themselves to it. It might well be that projecting this world-segment is what the author is doing with what he is saying: “To understand a discourse is to grasp what an author is doing with his or her discourse” (166). How would one determine this vision of the pericopal world from the text—a theology (pericopal theology?) that would “help the church creatively and faithfully to continue the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus Christ” (161)? Unfortunately, no answers are provided.

Vanhoozer asserts that “Scripture is not merely a vehicle for conveying information. It is rather a medium of divine communicative action whose purpose is not only to inform but to transform: to nurture right vision, right attitudes, right actions” (170–171). That is exactly what homileticians and pastors are all about: helping the body of Christ apply the text of Scripture, changing lives, creating dispositions, and forming Christlike character, all for the glory of God. I wish there were more specifics on how to go about accomplishing this world-habitation, particularly pericope by pericope—the weekly burden of the preacher. Vanhoozer, to his credit, recognizes he is undertaking more speculation than specification. But that makes it nigh impossible for the reader to employ these concepts in any practical way. Kaiser, in his response to Vanhoozer, confesses his own perplexity: “After reading and rereading Kevin’s chapter many times over, for the life of me I cannot explain to anyone else, much less myself, how the ‘drama-of-redemption approach’ works” (204). Doriani is more critical, suggesting that Vanhoozer spend time teaching, preaching, and leading in the church. He asks: “[h]ow might his work differ if he, like many seminary professors, had been a pastor or even an interim preacher for an extended period?” (209). Webb agrees: “Vanoozer’s approach is just a little too much in the clouds—the theological stratosphere” (213). Ouch!

Webb’s “Redemptive-Movement Model.” In his response to Doriani’s essay, Webb notes that the “redemptive-movement method … takes its cue from a movement dimension of meaning in the concrete particulars of the biblical text … in order to discover another aspect of abstracted meaning that also resides within the text” (143–144). Therefore, according to Webb, “we must be willing to venture beyond simply an isolated or static understanding of the Bible” (215). It is quite a challenge, at least for this reviewer, to conceive of a static text as having a non-static meaning. Webb’s interpretive “movement” looks like this: X (original culture) → Y (Scripture) → Z (“ultimate ethic”) (218). For example, considering Deut 21:10–14 that talks about capturing women in war for wives, Webb would compare that command, Y (Scripture), with what was going on in the original culture, X. Noticing that Y was an improvement over X, Webb would extrapolate to an “ultimate ethic,” Z. Current readers, chronologically located between Y and Z, are then supposed to do all they can to get to Z (218–221). That scheme seems to be fraught with problems. Apart from the fact that “original culture” was hardly monolithic, the critical issue is how one arrives at this “ultimate ethic” (Z). Is it simply the subjective opinion of the observer? And, by seeking an “ultimate ethic” outside the Scriptural text, does that mean that no text of the Bible ever articulates a terminus, an ultima Thule? Are we always to be seeking a “Z” outside the Bible? One wonders why one needs the Bible at all, in that case.

“Movement” seems to be the “crucial” element of Webb’s hermeneutic: “Movement is (crucial) meaning. … movement provides absolutely crucial meaning …” (221); “[m]ovement … is an extremely crucial component of textual meaning” (221 n. 8). Strauss, in his reflection, wonders about movement within the biblical text itself, the kinetics of which Webb does not consider. For instance, there appears to be a chronological development (movement?) of Paul’s ideas on women’s issues from his earliest letter to the Galatians to his later missives to the Corinthians and to Timothy (289). And what about “movement” from the Old to the New Testament, absent from Webb’s model? Vanhoozer, in his response to Webb, puts it well: “In short it is not clear to me how the redemptive genie … once let out of the bottle, is canonically contained or regulated” (268).

I must say the book made great reading, providing much grist for thought and collegial discussion. However, this homiletician, as mention has already been made, yearns to see a method for “Moving Beyond the Bible to [Pericopal] Theology,” for the sake of the weekly proclamatory event of the church, the sermon. Perhaps this book will further thought along those lines. May the discussion (debate?) continue! 

Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53 (2010): 191–194

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