So how can we let the Word shine full strength, not shading it to fit what we want but opening ourselves up to it in faith and love?
As we lead up to our seminar on Christian ethics which begins in April, I would like to share some examples of those who have attempted to answer this question. These examples are not all created equal. Some are stronger and some are weaker. Some are richer and some are poorer. Yet through engaging with these thinkers, we can gain wisdom about how we use the Word.
The first example is Richard B. Hays in his weighty tome, The Moral Vision of the New Testament. Hays helpfully gives a "diagnostic checklist" to assess how Scripture is used to answer the ethical questions we all face. Here is his list in outline form.
- Descriptive - How accurate/adequate is the exegesis of texts used?
- Range: How comprehensive is the scope of texts employed?
- Selection: Which biblical texts are used and not used? Is there a canon within the canon? How is the selection determined?
- How does the interpreter handle texts that are in tension with his or her position?
- What focal images are employed?
- What is the mode of appeal to the text? What sort of work does the Scripture do? What sorts of proposals does it authorize?
- Symbolic world
- The human condition
- The character of God
- What other sources of authority do the interpreters rely on?
- Pragmatic - The fruits test: How is the vision embodied in a living community? Does the community manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23)?
This list is quite substantial and worthwhile. Even though I am convinced that there are serious weaknesses in the way Hays puts this list into practice (see some critique here), the list itself is challenging in a good way. It definitely challenges us to go beyond simplistic proof-texting, which amounts to finding what we want in the Bible and ignoring the rest.
Importantly, this list also challenges us to go beyond simplistic principalizing. Principalizing, or the process of abstracting general truths from specific circumstances in the Bible, is not wrong in principle (pun intended). Yet it is also quite easy for us to mute the authority of Scripture in this way. We naturally find the principles in the Bible that fit with our preconceived notions and filter out as impossible those principles which clash with what we think of as normal. In fact, I believe that naive principalizing may be the most common current strategy by which American evangelicals tame the Bible. Hays won't let us get away with that!
More to come later. I'm looking forward to this seminar, and covet your prayers as I prepare.