The Principle of the Thing: one method of understanding scripture’

Reposting from May 12, 2006

Rebecca Groothuis
Discerning biblical truth consists of more than stringing together a series of prooftexts. We must encourage Christians to think theologically, systematically, and holistically, asking questions of plain logic, such as, “Does this make sense? Does it cohere?” All truth is God’s truth, and a logical contradiction is not truth.

Exegesis of scripture, discovering an understanding of what God’s message to us means, consists of many aspects of study.

People tend to favor their own methods, but there is a synergistic working together of things that will highlight the truth. In the knottiest of questions I like using an overview approach that I have called “the principle method”. If broken down into its essence I might say this is based on finding God’s revelations of Himself and applying that as a test, or key, to our understanding of the meaning in individual parts of scripture. I would structure this as the pivotal fulcrum between conflicting ideas of scripture’s direction, thus creating a balance of understanding.

And lest anyone think this is a subjective and … by inference… unproven method of arriving at the truth of God’s message I found a very ancient and reliable illustration: the Nicene council and the influential arguments of Athanasius.

In pursuing reading relative to the gender debate within the Church an intriguing avenue opened. Kevin Giles has written a book which connects the issues of how we view the Godhead and how we view male and female interpersonal relationship. Within the first part of the book dealing with views of the Trinity, the Nicene council… and resulting creeds … is prominent. In the debates over doctrines the usual pattern of conflicting scriptures and their individual exegesis evidences do battle. This is a familiar territory for everyone who finds themselves trying to negotiate their way between theological conflicts. Calvinism/ Arminianism… works vs. faith…. cessationism vs continualism…. and here, trinitarianism vs subordinationalism. Too many ism’s don’t you think? Some people just tune it out, it makes their heads swim; others are into their ( dare I say it?) anal element.

But the truth is out there somewhere, and that is what we are aiming toward, it is something worth the time and effort for many of us. Some of us are pearl connoisseurs, looking for that big T Truth. Principles are the stepping stone bridge over the troubled waters of seemingly unresolvable dispute. I think, personally, this is because principles are usually grounded somewhere in the nature of God Himself, as He has revealed Himself. Jesus, in His perfect simplicity stated it this way: I Am the Truth. This is why this method of scripture study works. There is overarching truth, not a multiplicity of it, but there is overarching truth to be found, and it provides structure and parameters for the rest of the understanding.

I think there are several terms that are used for this same concept. At times I have expressed this as “presuppositions”, because to use the principles in discussion, there has to be an agreement that these are indeed true.

Athanasius is quoted as speaking of “the scope of scripture”, “the overall drift”. and “the theological center”1 in forming his concept of “homoousios”. This line of thought resulted in the acceptance of our present ideas of the Trinity as defined and confessed within the Nicene Creed. It is one of the presuppositions that many orthodox Christians work from. Giles, in his book, “The Trinity and Subordinationism The Doctrine of God & the Gender Debate”, submits that we in Evangelical Christianity are reworking the old debate, for self-invested reasons of our own. Although he gives the benefit of the doubt to Evangelicals on the basis that their grasp of history is lacking. He chalks this up directly to the idea that todays Evangelical theologians are vested in their determination to prove the subordination of women, and thus “read back” into the doctrine of the Trinity and threaten to subvert the whole trinitarian doctrine that was previously established as a result of the Nicene council.

What Giles argument here does not do is establish anything concerning the gender debate – that is dealt with later in the book, but he makes a very cogent observation about the blind spots of today’s manner of theology in our own stream of Evangelicalism. And how important it is to not be reactionaries. Using the full connotation of the word.

But what I am saying here concerning “principles” is that this overview is as important to contextual reading as specific textural reading, context on the smaller scale of singular scriptures and even books of the Bible. There is an entirety to the Bible that cannot be ignored, and there are times when we must establish the basic principles and then go on from there. This is Paul’s contention in the book of Hebrews,”not laying again the foundation”.

For an example of how I use this way of discovering the reconciliation between seemingly contradictory passages of scripture, is a webpage that includes some of my basic thoughts on Biblestudy. In that article I stated that I keep some

Christian presuppositions in mind:

* God is good
* He wants to give wisdom to those who ask
* That He is a person who can be known

What I termed my “presuppositions” are ideas based upon Bibilical principles. I find that understanding principles gives a short hand way of being able to cut right to the heart of many difficult concepts. It gives an important overview of God’s message and purposes.

In deciphering the so-called contradiction of salvation by faith vs. works, Ephesians 2:8-9 and James 2:24, I put this to use using Romans chapter 3 verse 28 to represent the pivotal point within the balance, with the two contrasting verses on either side. One accentuating the means of attainment [of salvation], the other one the assurance of its reality.

1 pg. 46 “The Trinity and Subordinationism The Doctrine of God & the Gender Debate” Kevin Giles, 2002

2 thoughts on “The Principle of the Thing: one method of understanding scripture’”

  1. Trinitarianism vs. subordinationism? It’s those who deny the subordinationism of I Corinthians 15 who are denying the implications of the Trinitarian teaching of John 13-17.

  2. Before I answer you, I want to say how very much I admire your ability and intellect. On this matter I will have to disagree, however. You have not made enough distinctions here, but I am sure I can find a better outline of your thinking on your site. I do think that you seem to be saying something that does not differentiate between Christ’s subordination to the Father while in his earthly manifestation and the relationship which is His nature in the eternal Godhead.

    I am not ready to throw away the entire concept of hierarchy, but I am ready to defend the immanent Trinity concept against ideas of subordinationism.

    I haven’t gone into this idea yet, but I believe, in my ‘principle’ manner of thinking, that this is represented by the great Jewish confession: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.

    This is the idea that is defended in the Nicene Creedal debates. Subordination of the Son within the Trinity collapses this down…which is why one must be so careful. Actually, this is what is helping me to understand the reason Jesus so adamantly emphasized Himself as Son of Man.

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