Not only do we work to apply the scriptures, but the scriptures do their work on us. So how do we foster a disposition and habit of regularly subjecting ourselves to the scripture’s slow, ordinary, but supernaturally transformative work?
Each of us inevitably approaches scripture with a set of preconceived ideas, beliefs, outlooks, and assumptions. These can be theological convictions, social-political sensibilities, cultural baggage, or even experiences that have shaped us. How do we make sure we let scripture speak on its own terms and challenge these frameworks, and avoid imposing ideas onto the text?
Although a passage of scripture’s message doesn’t change and is located in the author’s intent, its application will be manifold, not only as we tease out its various implications, but also as it comes to bear on different contexts, settings, times, and peoples.
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.
- One’s use of scripture for dogmatic and moral theology must be in keeping with the nature (ontology) and purpose (teleology) of scripture itself.
- 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?”
- 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—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.
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.
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: