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]

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The Hermeneutical Element of Godly Character

Athanasius

At the very end of his book, On the Incarnation, Athanasius makes a very interesting comment that has always stuck out to me.

But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so. Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God….

~ Athanasius, On the Incarnation, chapter 9, section 57.

Illustration

Grant Osborne has popularized an idea known as the ‘hermeneutical spiral’ according to which various elements like exegesis of the text, biblical theology, systematic theology, historic theology, etc. create a ‘hermeneutical spiral’ something like the following admittedly simplistic explanation:

Theological food for the hungry vs. theological food for the connoisseur (Miroslav Volf)

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Miroslav Volf uses the metaphor of food, chefs, and connoisseurs as he refers to the difference between theology applied for everyday life and mere theological speculation done by the highly trained theologians.

Are not these same issues surfacing everywhere in the world today? Am I not offering staple foods that can be found anywhere? My answer is yes, probably. But then as a theological chef I do not think this should bother me. My responsibility is not to tickle the palates of Wester theological connoisseurs dulled by abundance and variety, but to fill the empty stomachs of people engaged in a bloody conflict [reference to literal conflict]. I have to prepare the food they need. Opinions of connoisseurs might be interesting and instructive, but nutritious value for the hungry is what matters. This is what it means to do contextualized theology.

~ A Spacious Heart, 34-35.

Application and the Authority of Scripture

One of the areas of study that I find absolutely fascinating is what I call “hermeneutics of application.” Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation; it’s the discipline of study related to the methodology and principles of interpretation. So when I say, “hermeneutics of application” I mean the study of how one properly moves from interpretation of the text to application of the text.

Hence, when I read this quote many years ago, I’ve never been able to forget it:

Every time we derive an interpretation and application from a text that is not consistent with its contextual sense—no matter how biblical the truth itself may be–we rob that text of the meaning and application that God intended when He gave it. In the process, we rob ourselves and others of that text’s truth from God. … Worst of all, we rob God of His voice in that verse. – Layton Talbert, unknown source.

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“Okay, So What Does This Have to Do with My Life?

Hear me out. I full heartedly believe that practical application is important. And I also believe that every portion of Scripture has practical implications for our lives because every text has theological significance and all theology is practical; don’t misunderstand me. But, over the past few days I’ve been thinking…

Currently I am in the middle of writing a sermon on Acts 1:15-26 for a class. This passage was assigned to me; I don’t have choice. It’s not an easy passage on which to write a sermon (which is why they assigned it). It’s about the 11 apostles casting lots for the 12th apostle to replace Judas after his suicide. This passage does not provide any direct or explicit application for our lives today. It does not tell us to do something, to do anything! That’s not to say it lacks practical implications. Luke puts this section in his book for a reason. Therefore, through this literary purpose, it communicates theology at some level. And since all theology has practical implications, the text is practical.

But the passage isn’t directly about me. It’s not about you. It wasn’t written for this reason–to be about us. And I’m okay with that. “Devotional literature” is not the Bible’s overarching genre. Contrary to the common cliche, the Bible’s genre is not “love letter to Kirk Miller.”

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