Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology – Kaiser’s Principlizing Model

How do you get from the ancient sacred text to modern life and how to live it ‘according to the Bible’?  This is one of the main questions that the contributors to Zondervan’s Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology had to address.  First up is Walt Kaiser on the ‘principlizing model’.

To “principlize” is to [re]state the author’s propositions, arguments, narrations, and illustrations in timeless abiding truths with special focus on the application of those truths to the current needs of the Church’ (p. 22).

This involves, firstly, finding the ‘focal point of that passage’ (p. 22).  Look for repetition, emphasis, use of conjunctions, etc… Then generalize into propositional principles.  He uses the example of the “ladder of abstraction’ where one takes a story or situation from the Bible and move up the ladder to the abstract principles.  Then move back down the other side to the modern situation.

This method, according to Kaiser, never goes beyond the Bible – otherwise (he says) we would be devaluing sola Scriptura (p. 27).  All we need to know ethically is in the Bible already in the form of principles.  We don’t need to work outside the text theologically.

The difficult example is slavery.  He argues that what we have in the Bible not normal pagan slavery (usually) but biblical debt slavery.  Thus, one became a slave by debt or by criminal action.  This is not the same as modern slavery.  When he turns to Philemon, he argues that v. 16 should be understood to mean that he is no longer a slave.  Kaiser seems to be skating on some thin ice here, I think (see Webb’s rebuttal).

Kaiser is generally afraid that those approaches that go beyond the Bible will cease to look for ethical answers through exegesis.  However, he tends to solve modern ethical problems by minimizing the complexity of the relevant passages and also by coming up with some unusual methods of exposing the meaning in a text (like in the issue on women in ministry).  I do appreciate that his view does not directly translate into: just do what the Bible says.

Kaiser essentially treats all the parts of the Bible the same (as he is intent on not privileging the NT over the OT per se).  So, he is not as interested in a redemptive movement, though he does not deny this.  However, some of his case studies seem like he is forcing the evidence to fit one neat picture.

Of the various views presented in this book, this one is most common among all Christians as it makes a lot of sense and takes little explaining.  However, the danger is that many people try to do the principlizing and come to opposite conclusions (like on women).  Also, who decides how far to go up the ladder?  What is interpretation and what is application?

Many academic readers will demean Kaiser’s position, I think, but the reality is that his is most intepreters’ default position – and most seminaries teach his kind of position.  However, as you read on in the book, the other views also make good points.  Next up is Doriani on the redemptive-historical method.

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