Ten Principles for the Use of Scripture in Theology

Using Scripture

The following is minor paper completed in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the course ST 7505 Use of Scripture and Theology taught by Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL in December, 2015. Please note that the focus of this paper (and the class) is not hermeneutics, but the use of scripture in making dogmatic and moral theological proposals.


  1. One’s use of scripture for dogmatic and moral theology must be in keeping with the nature (ontology) and purpose (teleology) of scripture itself.[1]
  1. One’s use of scripture for dogmatic and ethical theology must share the very aims of scripture itself (and, by extension, theology), lest it distort and subvert the very nature of theology. This means that a proper use of scripture—in line with the very equipping-aims of scripture itself—must be, for example:
    • Theological (directed towards knowledge of and relationship with God), answering, “How does this text enhance knowledge of God and foster appropriate relationship with God?”
    • Doxological (directed towards the worship of God), answering, “How does this text fuel the worship of God?”
    • Mathetesical (directed towards Christian living), answering, “How does this text form disciples (mathetes)?”
    • Ecclesiological (directed towards the life of the church), answering, “How does this text shape God’s people to realize its calling?”
    • Missiological (directed towards equipping for mission), answering, “How does this text equip God’s people for mission?”
  1. If one’s use of scripture to authorize theological proposals is actually going to authorize those proposals with the authority of scripture itself (a derivative authority), one’s use must be born out of the very claims—which, one must remember, are communicated in a variety of ways through a variety of discourse forms[2]—of scripture itself (the locus of authority). Consequently, one’s appropriation of scripture for dogmatic and moral theological proposals must be based on the purpose, intent, or underlying reasoning of Biblical content, not its accidental, attendant, or purely descriptive features.[3]

  1. One’s use of scripture for dogmatic and moral theological proposals must neither neglect the forms, particularity, and diversity that characterizes scripture nor treat its forms, particularity, and diversity as hurdles to, temporary scaffolding for, or things to be “pealed away” in order to get to “what really matters” (e.g., principles). Rather, proper use of scripture must respect the human-authorial character, cultural embeddedness, historical situatedness, literary forms, and diverse voices of scripture, embracing the fact that divine discourse is not only expressed but also enhanced in and through such divinely intended forms, particularity, and diversity.[4]
  1. One’s use of scripture must correspond to the canonical nature of scripture. This means, among other things, that one’s use of scripture must consider not only (a) all relevant Biblical texts on a given subject when making dogmatic and moral theological proposals on that subject (in other words, an interpretation or use of a specific passage of scripture is not “Biblical” if it does not consider and do justice to the entire Biblical witness),[5] but also (b) the unity of scripture and how each of its various parts relates to, informs, enhances, and bears on one another (in other words, the canon is more than the sum of its parts).
  1. One’s use of scripture must attend to the redemptive-historical nature of scripture. This means that one’s use of particular Biblical texts must take into account that text’s place within redemptive-history and its relation to the movements, progressions, developments, typologies, meta-themes, meta-narratives (e.g., a text’s relationship to Christ and the Gospel), alterations in situations (i.e., discontinuities), and potential eschatological provisionalities (e.g., divine accommodations) that make up and occur across redemptive history.
  1. One’s use of scripture must implement the regula fidei principle (analogy of faith; i.e., that “scripture interprets scripture”), namely, that those texts which deal most clearly, directly, and precisely with a given subject must be given primary influence in formulating dogmatic and moral theological proposals on that subject.
  1. Although, as God’s word, scripture serves as the ultimate authoritative source of truth, it is, nonetheless, not an exhaustive authoritative source of truth. Consequently, other sources of authority and knowledge—such as tradition, reason, experience, and the sciences—should be considered alongside (but in subordination to) scripture, especially with regards to domains into which scripture does not directly speak.
  2. At least three parameters exist with regards to doctrinal development (i.e., making theological proposals that go beyond the express statements of scripture, e.g., formulating the doctrine of the Trinity):
    • Although subjective development of divine revelation (i.e., growth in understanding of divine revelation) is to be acknowledged, objective development (i.e., actual growth in the deposit of divine revelation) is to be rejected.
    • For any doctrinal developments to be both authorized by scripture and legitimately scriptural, it must not merely be coherent or consistent with scripture, but actually entailed or implicated by scripture.
    • Although doctrinal developments may be communicated through different categories and concepts than those used by scripture (e.g., homoousion), to be authorized as “Biblical” they must preserve and express the same (i.e., non-identical equivalent) judgments as scripture.
  1. Finally, because right use of scripture essentially involves making right use of scripture’s judgments, right users of scriptures must be the sort of people who appropriate such judgments fittingly. This means, among other things, that users of scripture must…
    • Have an appropriate disposition to scripture—one of full-hearted trusting embrace and submission to its claims, despite one’s personal preferences or sense of correctness.
    • Exercise self-critical-awareness of influences that affect one’s interpretation or use of scripture (e.g., tradition, cultural assumptions, biases, limited understanding or perspective, etc.)
    • And enact or embody the judgments of scripture (= a “virtue hermeneutics,” if you will)[6] since embodiment—specifically in the context of the Christian community (i.e., the church), and not merely as isolated individuals[7]—creates a hermeneutical feedback loop that in turn stimulates increased understanding of scripture.

Notes:

[1] This principle receives logical priority because one must first know what scripture is (ontology) and what it is for (teleology) before one can know how it might be rightly and appropriately used. Furthermore, this principle serves as the core principle from which all of the following principles spring:

  • It leads to sensitivity to the aims of scripture (#2), the form, particularities, and diversity of scripture (#4), the canonical form of scripture (#5), and redemptive-historical character of scripture (#6), since these all make up the nature of what scripture
  • It also leads to reflection on the role of extra-biblical sources (#8) because of what scripture is
  • It leads to attentiveness to the intent of scriptural texts (#3), the “analogy of faith” (#7), and parameters for doctrinal development (#9), because of how scripture “works,” i.e., how scripture authorizes and comes to bear on theological proposals.
  • And, finally, it leads to consideration of the user of scripture (#10), so that the user’s use of scripture might in fact be in keeping with scripture’s nature (ontology) and ends (teleology).

[2] This is significant because different types of discourse exercise authority in different ways over different domains. And, as such, being Biblical means recognizing that proper use of scripture is not uniform (e.g., limited to appropriation of propositional truth), but, rather, that a latitude of different types of uses exist, corresponding to the different types of Biblical discourse.

[3] A precondition of this principle is then, of course, the need for sound exegesis. Uses of scripture can only be proper if they are based on a proper interpretation and understanding of scripture.

[4] Respecting the diversity of scripture, for example, means refusing to distort a text’s meaning through forced harmonization when it (at least appear) to stands in tension with another (or other) Biblical text(s).

[5] This principle flows out of the reality that, since scripture has one ultimate author (God), it must be interpreted in light of that whole author’s work (the canon).

[6] Note: True understanding of a Biblical text entails the ability to make proper use of that text—its natural end being embodiment.

[7] This implies that hermeneutics and determining proper use of scripture is necessarily a communal (better: ecclesial) activity.

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2 thoughts on “Ten Principles for the Use of Scripture in Theology

  1. Good Morning Kirk, This is a very interesting paper. I am nit-picking, but review #3, 5 sentences down, it refers to “locus of authority” Do you mean “focus” ? Thank you for giving me an opportunity to read your writings. Very well written and quite interesting.

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