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More on the Journey and How to Determine Theological Principles

Earlier in the course we introduced you to the Interpretive Journey and to the concept of theological principles (Step 3). Now, close on the heels of our discussion on the importance of trying to find the author’s intended meaning, we want to expand on Step 3 of the Journey and give some additional guidelines, explanations, and helps for how to determine an author’s intended theological principles.

First of all, it is important to understand the relationship between generaluniversal theological truths and context-specifictheological truths. Context-specific theological truths are based on the general, universal theological truths, yet are more narrowly focused into a specific setting. That is, undergirding the specific theological truths that we see in biblical passages playing out in the lives (context) of specific people are basic, general, and universal truths about God, his character, and his actions.

For example, one of the most foundational general and universal theological truths is that God is holy. This is a broad and universal theological principle. Furthermore, as God reveals himself to people and as he enters into close relationship with them, he wants them to understand and to respect his holiness as well as to grasp the implications of his holiness. Throughout the biblical story, however, the specific context of how people relate to God and his holiness is not always the same. This is particularly true as we move from the Old Testament, where God’s holiness is manifested in his Presence dwelling in Israel’s midst in the tabernacle or temple, into the New Testament, where God’s holiness is manifested through the indwelling Presence of the Holy Spirit within believers’ lives.

Thus, as God takes this general and universal principle (his holiness) and begins teaching it to his people, this generalized theological truth (God is holy) will take on different concrete and context-specific expressions, depending on the situation. When the river of differences is wide, the difference in the context-specific expression will be more significant. When the river of differences is narrow, the differences of the context-specific expression will be small. We have attempted to illustrate this in the diagram below:

So as you can see, behind (or above) each context-specific theological truth that we find in Step 1 (what did it mean in their town?) lies a more general theological truth or even a series of theological truths that becomes more general as we move away from the specific context and closer toward the basic character of God that lies behind that truth.

It is in Step 2 (define the river of differences) that we identify how far from the context-specific theological truth (what it meant for them) we need to move. That is, in Step 2 we not only identify the differences between their context and ours but also the similarities. For example, regarding the food laws and separation laws in Leviticus, the differences are that we are not the Israelites, and we are not living under the old Mosaic covenant with God’s Presence residing in the tabernacle right down the street from us. The similarities are that we are still God’s people, he is still holy, he still demands holiness (and separation from sin) from his people, and we still enjoy his Presence (now through the Holy Spirit).

So with the differences from Step 2 in mind, in Step 3 we then seek to identify the more general and universal theological truths that lie behind the context specific truth of Step 1, looking for that level where the similarities let us know that the truth is now general enough to apply to us as well as to them.

When we explained the Interpretive Journey to you in unit 2, we presented the steps as sequential actions, suggesting that after you finish one step, you then proceed to the next step. As we fine-tune the process, it is important to recognize that in reality Steps 2, 3, and 4 are closely interrelated and need to happen somewhat concurrently. That is, the differences and similarities in Step 2 are critical in helping us identify valid theological principles in Step 3. Likewise, as we move away from context-specific meaning toward more generalized universal truths, we will be fudging over into Step 4, because our determination of general theological truth comes from our understanding of God as revealed in the rest of the Bible.

Another important factor to explore as we seek to determine theological principles is that of purpose. As we identify the meaning for the biblical audience in Step 1, we need to ask “why?” That is, what is the purpose of the truth in Step 1? Identifying the purpose is often instrumental in helping us move from context-specific theological meaning to more general theological meaning (principles). Leviticus 11 defined specifically what Israel (now under the Mosaic covenant) could eat and what they could not eat (Step 1). As we probe into the purpose, we realize that these food laws (as well as other laws of separation) have to do with God’s holiness and his insistence that Israel incorporate the implications of his holiness into all aspects of their lives. It is this purpose that helps us develop the theological principle that lies behind Leviticus 11, but one that also connects to our similarities (as the people of God still coming to grips with his Presence and the demands of holiness).

The criteria we gave you in unit 2 for determining principles are still valid:

  • The principle should be reflected in the text.
  • The principle should be timeless and not tied to a specific situation.
  • The principle should not be culturally bound.
  • The principle should correspond to the teaching of the rest of Scripture.
  • The principle should be relevant to both the biblical and the contemporary audience.

To these criteria we now want to add some additional and complementary guidelines and helps:

  1. As part of Step 1 (what did it mean to them?), be sure to identify where this passage fits within the large, overarching story of the Bible. This will help with identifying similarities and differences in Step 2.
  2. Related to question 1, as you move from Step 1 to Steps 2 and 3, be sure to identify the purpose of the passage. That is, what is the purpose of the context-specific meaning you identified in Step 1?
  3. With the similarities and the differences in your hand, use the purpose as a guide to move from the context-specific meaning to the less context-specific and more general theological truths from that passage. As in the example above, identify several possibilities, moving from mildly context-specific to broadly general and universal. At the most general and most universal level you are usually identifying basic characteristics of God (God is love; God is holy and just; God is a God who saves and delivers, etc.). Right below this are usually general statements about the implications of these truths for God’s people in general. Then these general truths take on more specific form as they are applied in the Scriptures to specific people in specific contexts.
  4. Select the theological principle that is as specific as possible while still general enough to apply to us as New Testament believers.

 


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