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An Emerging Theological Method

Evangelicals are people of the Bible. We use the Bible for any number of reasons, one of which is to construct our thoughts on God (i.e., our theology). But we often don’t think about how we use the Bible to construct our theology, we “just do it.” Alister McGrath says “evangelicals have not paid adequate attention to the issue of theological method” (Evangelical Futures, 15). To top it all off, some within the Emerging Church Movement have been telling us that we’ve done it all wrong! So what is an evangelical to do?

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately reading Kevin Vanhoozer. He’s been recommended as one who brings out the best of “modern”and “postmodern” theological methods. I’m intrigued, but I don’t understand it all. Maybe you can help. Here is a summary of Vanhoozer’s 2004 ETS address as found in Whatever Happened to Truth?. Help me figure out this whole theological method thing…

The Traditional Situation

Vanhoozer believes that the traditional evangelical theological method is best represented by the “H-H hypothesis” (referring to the method of Charles Hodge and followed by Carl F.H. Henry). According to this method, “the task of theology consisted in mining propositional nuggets from the biblical deposit of truth” (100). In this case, Henry defines a proposition as “a verbal statement that is either true or false” (101). Therefore, if the Bible is propositional, then the language of the Bible is primarily concerned with stating truth. In other words, “biblical meaning and truth are functions of historical reference and empirical actuality” (105). An example of this is the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics which reads, “We…affirm that a statement is true if it represents matters as they actually are but is an error if it misrepresents the facts.”

This concerns Vanhoozer because it seems to make everything a “true or false” statement, rather than searching for the intended meaning of the author. He prefers the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy which reads, “We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose.” This, Vanhoozer claims, is more helpful for texts that use a variety of styles and figures of speech (which may not correspond to reality) to communicate its message. On this point, Vanhoozer seems to agree with most in the Emerging Church Movement who rail against the propositional method of theology.

The Current Situation

Vanhoozer believes the postmodern turn has ushered in many new thoughts on theological method. In typical postmodern thinking, the interpreter is now key. Postmoderns emphasizes people as “situated, limited, contingent, and have a disposition toward idolatry” (97). Therefore, all of our interpretations are based upon our race, gender, class, etc and it is not possible to achieve neutral objectivity. Some view this as an opportunity to reclaim the Reformation calls to sola fide and sola scriptura (Raschke) while others view this as an opportunity to emphasize faith and lifestyle over doctrine (Emerging).

This concerns Vanhoozer because it leads to three potentially dangerous theological methods: 1) hermeneutical relativism, 2) simply going with the majority, 3) join a church where “right” is determined by that local community. On this point, Vanhoozer seems to agree with most opponents of the Emerging Church Movement who believe that ECM has taken the path of relativism.

Vanhoozer’s Proposed Theological Method

Vanhoozer firmly believes that “the future of evangelical theology” depends upon our theological method (99). Here is my attempt at simplifying his proposal:

  1. The Bible is more than propositions: “To interpret the Bible truly, then, we must do more than string together individual propositions like beads on a string…Information alone is insufficient for spiritual formation” (108).
  2. The Bible is theodrama: “What the Bible as a whole is literally about is theodrama – the words and deeds of God on the stage of world history that climax in Jesus Christ” (109). This theodrama is ultimately about “the creative and redemptive work of the triune God” (109).
  3. We participate in the drama: “What God is doing in Christ is not simply something past but ongoing. Genuinely to understand the theodram, then, means participating in it now” (111).
  4. Doctrine is theodramatic correspondence: “Doctrinal truth thus becomes a matter of theodramatic correspondence between our words and deeds and God’s words and deeds. Theodramatic correspondence means life and language is in accord with the gospel and according to the Scriptures. We speak and do the truth when our words and actions display theodramatic “fittingness.”” (111).

Here Vanhoozer likens the Bible to a map. Maps correspond to reality, but not as a picture or mirror corresponds to reality (for example, train tracks are not actually purple or red!). “The Bible is composed of different kinds of literature, each of which maps the theodrama in a distinctive way. Yet all the maps are reliable: they correspond – in different ways! – to this or that aspect of what is really the case” (113-114).

So how do we interpret the Bible?

  1. Use history as a truth-bearer. This involves using Hebrew, Greek, our knowledge of ANE and Greco-Roman culture to understand what the text is saying.
  2. Use literature as a truth-bearer. This involves understanding the different genres/literary devices the authors used to communicate truth. This also involves distinguishing between locutions (the act of saying something with words) and illocutions (what one does by means of locution). For example, in Joshua 9 the locutions are the words: “sun,” “standing,” “still.” But the illocution is what God does with the words: in this case, convey how God makes good on his promise to deliver. Therefore, we need not make every locution a propositional truth because there is an illocution behind it.
  3. Use the reader as a truth-bearer. “God’s word is both personal and propositional: the Bible is a book of speech acts through which the divine authorial agent personally relates to readers precisely by doing things with propositions (e.g., commanding, asserting, promising)…Jesus Christ is the truth because he is God-keeping-his-word” (124). Therefore, Vanhoozer believes there is an aspect of subjectivity to truth. This is not relativism, but involves “calling for individuals to commit themselves passionately to the truth” (123). In other words, “the correspondence that ultimately counts in biblical interpretation is not simply that of sentences but of oneself. The truth of the Bible lays claim not only to our heads but to our hearts and our hands” (123).

Vanhoozer concludes: “When properly interpreted, the Scriptures are utterly reliable because they are infallible – not liable to fail – no matter what God is doing in them…The ultimate purpose of Scripture is to draw us into the drama of redemption, into the life and action of the triune God, so that we can be faithful yet creative actors who glorify God in all that we say and do. I trust that emergent and conservative evangelicals can agree on that!” (128).

So there it is. I like the fact that Vanhoozer makes theological method both about understanding the objective truth of Scripture but also applying it subjectively to ourselves. Only then have we truly understood the text. Not bad. What do you think?

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