Principalizing Scripture: A Hermeneutical Trend Away from the Gospel

Monday, June 06, 2005

Recently, I have sensed within my soul an increasing difficulty with one of the chief pillars of hermeneutics. I have been taught this step of Bible study ever since I was old enough to watch and listen to others interpeting the Bible. It is called 'principalizing the text,' and it's method is chiefly that of taking a biblical text and attempting to draw application from the text by searching for 'principles' which can be learned and followed. Generally these 'principles' are thought to offer wisdom on how to live godly, how to obey God, how to be Christ-like, etc.

On the positive side, assuming a godly motivation is behind this step of interpretation, there is the desire to see all in the text that one can see. Behind it is the presupposition that because every word of God is inspired by the Spirit, then there may be much more to learn than the surface of the text reveals. This step is most often performed on narrative texts, that is, texts which tell a story, recite history, etc. - books like Genesis, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Acts, and others. It is thought that if we can look at the story and see principles in the text that teach us how to live godly, then we can lift them from the text and give them to others. Matthew Henry, and some of the Puritans would be famous. If I want what I have come to perceive as a safely derived 'principle' from a text, I can usually (though not always) find it in Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible (though sometimes I have found that he sees more in a text than is really there).

On the negative side, assuming an ungodly motivation is behind this step, there is the desire to see more in the text (than is often really there) in order to impress others with one's keen insight and uncanny ability to think 'deeply' about the things of God. It is reflected in what I have come to call neo-gnosticism, the ability to gain 'deep' insights - called 'principles' from a text - that others would not normally be able to derive from their own personal studies. To be sure, we will always be learning more from others that we were unable to learn ourselves. But when 'famous' Bible teachers begin to see more in the text that no one has ever seen before, we must stop and question whether or not this 'principalizing' of the text has gone too far.

Now I am not going to question motivation when it comes to this latter side of one's 'principalizing' a text, but the abuse of it does raise questions as to why such a person would do this. Men like Bill Gothard come to mind, who has formulated so many principals that his teachings become tantamount to an evangelical talmud of sorts.

The Talmud is a collection of writings produced by rabbis over the centuries. It contains what we would call 'principals' which help the orthodox Jew obey the Law. They are rules to help one keep the commandments of God. But the problem is that Jewish teachers have elevated their 'principles' and rules to the same level and authority as the Law itself. That's called Pharisaism - requiring people to follow your own personal rules in addition to the Law, or putting more emphasis in obedience to man-made regulations and 'principles' than to the Word of God. This is definitely where I would put the teachings of Bill Gothard, for instance, or even Harold Camping (of Family Radio fame - whose 'principles' are actually taught as the true interpretation of a text, and whose interpretation many times contradicts not only the clearest meaning of a text, but also the clearest command and expectation of a text. In other words, in the case of Harold Camping, one could end up actually disobeying God by using his interpretative methods).

My Two Main Problems with Principalization

There are two main problems I have with 'principalizing' a text. I know it's taught in many good hermeneutics books, and I was taught it in Bible College and Seminary. But that doesn't mean it's right.

1. First, the Bible wasn't made to be 'principalized.' The desire to 'principalize' inevitably leads to a usage of the Bible that is more encyclopedic in nature rather than redemptive. The Bible is a history of God's redemption of mankind. It is first and foremost a divine and historical revelation of the redemption of God through Jesus Christ.

When we miss the purpose for any piece of literature, we are bound from the get-go to interpret it incorrectly. The purpose of a piece of literature drives the way we read it and understand it. Nobody reads fiction as if it were real (except perhaps for conspiracy-theory folks, and maybe Left Behind fanatics). So we should not read a piece of historical literature, in the Bible, and interpret it as if there are 'deeper' principals that God wants us to learn in order to be godly.

The driving point behind my first problem centers around what is referred to in theology as the 'perspecuity of Scripture.' Perspecuity refers to clarity, to easy of understanding, lucidity, clearness, etc. All of these adjectives are true of the Bible, though there are obviously some things in the Bible that are hard to understand (and this is due primarily to the gaps - cultural, language, historical, etc. - that separate us from the time and place of the biblical text).

God was clear, lucid, and overall relatively easy to understand when He spoke and revealed His truth. So when we go digging around for 'principles' in a text, we are essentially (1) saying God wasn't clear enough when He communicated that text to us, and (2) adding to what God originally intended which is sort of our own way of becoming a 'god' ourselves in interpretation - making authoritative determinations about what is in the text when The God has already made that determination. Thus, 'principalizing' the text often comes from arrogance, pride, and desire to be noticed by men, and desire to be original and novel, to impress others with our bible study skills, powers, prowess, and insights.

2. The second problem I have with 'principalizing' the text is that it supposedly helps people to seek out 'principles' from the text that help us live more godly. Now, this is more a practical problem than it is a theological one, but to be sure, it is a practical problem motivated by a theological problem. Let me ask you one simple question: Are you already familiar with and obedient to all of the commands of Jesus Christ that are in the New Testament? Obviously, the answer is a resounding and abounding "NO!"

You see, we already have a set of texts which teach us how to live godly, how to be holy, how to live like Christ, etc. They are called the didactic texts. These are texts that teach and instruct us how to live godly, like Christ, etc. The contain what we call the hortatory, the imperatives, the commands. And they are pretty clear cut ones like, "Don't be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit" (Eph. 5:18). And there are tons and tons of these clear-cut commands and teachings in Scripture. This is where the believer is to look in order to understand what God expects of him or her. These are the texts where God has communicated with perspecuity on what He requires of us. He did not communicate those things in narratives because that's not what narratives are for.

So then, if we already have so much to learn in those parts of the Bible that are already filled with commands and instruction, why burden ourselves with more stuff to do and follow and learn by searching for and digging out and preaching on 'principles.' They end up becoming a talmud to people, and just like the Pharisees, it becomes a burden on people which no one can lift a finger to relieve.

Let's Turn from Principalization to Gospelization

The gospel, I believe, is not just the scarlet thread which binds all of Scripture together. No, I heartily disagree with that. The gospel is the very fiber of the Scriptures. The revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ and the redemption accomplished by God ultimately through Jesus Christ - both of these are the fiber, the skeleton, the muscles, and the sinews of the Scriptures.

What this means is that any 'principles' that we do draw from a text must be see in its inseparable connection to God's historical purpose of redemption; and each application drawn through the sieve of the gospel as fully revealed in the NT in Jesus Christ.
    • Is it a story, a narrative, a historical account? Then study how that account reveals God's redemptive purposes in that day and time, and then study how it played into God's plan of progressively revealing His ultimate act of redemption in the person and work of Christ.

    • Is it a story about hero or a failure? If it is a story about a hero, then show how that hero foreshadows the Ultimate Hero, Jesus Christ, and how that OT person's act of deliverance or bravery pictures Christ's deliverance for us from sin. Is it about a failure? Then study how that person's failure is descriptive of all our failures and our need for a substitute to come and get it right and take our place.

    • Is it a Proverb? Then study how wisdom is related to the gospel, and how Christ, who is the wisdom of God (according to 1 Corinthians 1:30) fulfills that wisdom and enables us to live wisely.

    • Is it a prophecy? Then study why that prophecy was given at that point in time, and how it will ultimatel find its fufillment in the coming of Jesus Christ.


Listen carefully on this point. There's already so much in the Scriptures which we are not getting right that if we were to actually start seeing, reading, studying, learning and preaching the Scriptures out of its gospel fiber and through the sieve of the gospel, then we wouldn't have time to be worrying about 'principalizing' a text.

There's already so much beauty to behold in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and about the nature and person and attributes of God as He has revealed Himself in and through and by Christ, that if we are properly worshiping Him in these texts, our attention, our hearts, our souls and minds and intellects will be captured and enraptured by His beauty rather than the candy machine bubblegum balls which 'Bible principles' actually end up being.

They look all sweet and tasty and spiritual on the outside, but they are empty inside, and eventually they lose their taste to the point where you get disgusted with it and tired of chewing on it so you throw it away. That's pretty much what almost all 'principles' are like.

My encouragement is to pass by that candy machine. Don't even look at it. Don't read books that do this sort of thing, and don't listen to teachers and preachers who spend too much time on it.

Don't remember back on those 'good ole days' when you used to stick your little quarter in that machine and enjoy a quarter of an hour's sweetness or sourness. Those principalized pieces of 'biblical' bubble gum really aren't that good, I promise. Listen to experience here. They don't hold your taste near as long as Jesus Christ and His gospel message can.

The gospel remains sweet forever, always capturing the soul. Principles get dry, crusty, obligatory, and they suck the life and soul right out of a text. It takes years to recover an actual love for reading the Bible when a person has been seduced by this practice. I know, because I got sucked into it for years and still today find myself recovering as I revisit various texts which I mangled and mutilated.

But you know what? The crowds were impressed my 'insights' and abilities. And that empty flattery ended up pushing me further to discover more and more in every text I studied. But in the end, hardly any of it was what God actually intended to say through that text. And never was it seen in its inseparable connection to the gospel, to the redemptive saga of God in history, climaxing at the cross, the empty tomb, and the ascension.

But if impressing people is what you want, then keep on following this method. People will always follow a person who can see more than they can. The blind seem to follow the blind even after they have both fallen into the ditch!

However, if growing in the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ, and learning to love Him, relating to Him, and communing with Him are what your heart really desires, then dispense with 'principles,' and throw yourself into the ocean of the gospel.

Get lost in God's goodness, grace, mercy, redemption, rescue, salvation, power, and deliverance. Whatever you do, don't get lost in the forest of principles where every principle looks as important as the next, and you suddenly find yourself surrounded by unbearable, heavy burdens, while your soul is shielded from the light of the gospel because of the forest of principles. The gospel is too lovely and too beautiful a thing to be lost from or blinded to.

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