I take the title of this post from one of the books that changed my life — The Trouble With Principle by Stanley Fish.
Although, that’s only part of the story. While I draw inspiration from Fish, I particularly want to take aim at one of the favoured strategies we evangelicals typically deploy for making ethical mileage out of a Bible passage — something Walter Kaiser dubbed ‘principlizing’.
According to Kaiser, if you want to apply a biblical text that’s not straight up and down didactic, you need to distil what is timeless and abiding in it, paying special attention to how it addresses current needs (Towards An Exegetical Theology, pp 150-152).
One of the most well-worn examples of this strategy is on display almost every time someone preaches on the instructions to slaves and masters in the household codes that crop up regularly in the New Testament. Have you ever heard the principle extracted from what Paul or Peter says to slaves and transferred directly across to today’s employees? Yep. Well, that’s ‘principlizing’ in action.
It’s not necessarily a totally illegitimate strategy. And a case could probably be made that Paul himself paves the way for it when he lays out the rationale for his instructions to slaves in Ephesians 6.5-8.
But at every point I fear we risk falling into the trap John Howard Yoder highlights (The Politics of Jesus, p 25):
[M]odern ethicists … have assumed that the only way to get from the gospel story to ethics, from Bethlehem to Rome or to Washington or Saigon, was to leave the story behind.
Which is a long way of saying that I agree with Mike: ‘We know God by reading a story. We need to just read the story more.’ The same goes for how God wants us to live in response.