Hays and Duvall add that theological principles should be "reflected in the text", "timeless and not tied to a specific situation", and not "culturally bound"; they should also "correspond to the teaching of the rest of Scripture" and be relevant to both original and contemporary audiences.
For help distinguishing between timeless and culturally bound principles, one may consult William J. Webb's image of the "Ladder of Abstraction" (or--for much more detail--the monograph from which it is taken):
(Chart scanned from page 53 of William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis [Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity, 2001])
Webb explains: "[H]ow high one climbs on the ladder of abstraction to form a principle depends upon the similarities and the differences between the ancient and modern worlds. Differences push one up the ladder; similarities push one down" (54). If we lived in an agrarian society the command not to gather the gleanings of the harvest would still apply today. Since we don't, we need to translate the rule in Lev 23:22 into a principle--such as "feed the poor" or "love your neighbour" that will suit our very different context. For an appreciative review of Webb's approach see this post (the first in a series) on Scot McKnight's blog.
The model has the advantage of being memorable and simple, even mechanical. I like how the first picture highlights the differences between the biblical world and our own. What I don't like is the assumption shared by Duvall, J. Daniel Hays and Webb, that one crosses the "bridge" by abstracting a transcultural principle from the particularities of the text. Not only does the attempt do violence to Scripture, the goal is unattainable. As Richard B. Hays declares in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperCollins, 1996), “It is impossible to distinguish ‘timeless truth’ from ‘culturally conditioned elements’ in the New Testament" (300).
Hays's point is that the biblical text is inextricably bound to its context. We don't notice this all the time because in some passages our worlds overlap enough with the world of the text that the process of developing analogies (not principles!) between the two is relatively straightforward. When we do notice differences, the attempt to bridge them by abstracting principles blunts the force of the text. If we read the Sermon on the Mount as advocating the ideal of love, we don’t have to be disturbed by its concrete demands. Here's Hays again:
- “If we read the New Testament and find only timeless moral principles, we are probably guilty . . . of evading Scripture’s specific claims upon our lives” (294).
- “Let there be a moratorium on such preaching [that refers to the underlying principle of a text]! The New Testament’s ethical imperatives are either normative at the level of their own claim, or they are invalid” (294).
- “One would think that the intellectual climate of the late twentieth century would have exposed the futility of such a project, but one still encounters the distinction, perhaps most often and most astoundingly among Christians who imagine that it will somehow enable them to hold on to the authority of Scripture: authority is tacitly transferred from the historically conditioned text to the suprahistorical truth that is somehow packaged in a historical wrapper. The difficulty with this way of conceptualizing Scripture is evident: once we have the truth, we no longer need the wrapper” (300).
I also like Richard B. Hays's suggestions about method, as long as it is recognized that the process of reading ourselves into the story cannot finally be reduced to a series of mechanical steps:
Like Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Richard B. Hays says work on NT ethics (the subject of his book) should begin with careful exegesis of historical, literary, and intertextual contexts. Part of this process involves identifying whether a passage speaks in the mode of rule, principle, paradigm or "world formation." "We should not override the witness of the New Testament in one mode by appealing to another mode." However, “The New Testament is fundamentally the story of God’s redemptive action; thus, the paradigmatic mode has theological primacy, and narrative texts are fundamental resources for normative ethics” (303). Hays also agrees that Scripture should be read canonically, but he resists harmonization, arguing that we should let "substantive tensions" within the canonical text remain. As a way of synthesizing the Scriptural teaching, it should be viewed through the focal images of community, cross, and new creation. Hays suggests that this is a way to keep from placing too much emphasis on one type of text to the exclusion of others. If there is no room for the cross (or the new creation) in our hermeneutic, then something is missing (292-3).
In the end, says Hays, “The use of the New Testament in normative ethics requires an integrative act of the imagination; thus, whenever we appeal to the authority of the New Testament, we are necessarily engaged in metaphor-making....Metaphors are incongruous conjunctions of two images . . . that turn out, upon reflection, to be like one another in ways not ordinarily recognized. They shock us into thought by positing unexpected analogies—analogies that could not be discerned within conventional categories of knowledge” (300).
“The fundamental task of New Testament ethics is to call us again and again to see our lives shattered and shaped anew by ‘reading’ them in metaphorical juxtaposition with this story” (302).