the trouble with ‘principlizing’

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.


  1. Chris,

    You might like to read Peter Leithart’s new book: Defending Constantine, The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (IVP Academic). In such he takes to task both John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, as to this great history and personage.

  2. Hi Chris, thanks for this.

    I’ve been facing some challenges in preaching 1 Corinthians recently which seems to intersect with this. The challenge is in how to preach to a church that actually seems pretty different from the one in Corinth. We are a struggling little congregation which seems very ‘weak’ and with few obvious claims to power or wisdom and no obvious divisions or allegiances to human leaders (cf. our city context which seems to resonate quite strongly with the context in Corinth). I’ve been struck by how much this letter is first of all God’s word to the Corinthians. Though it is not any less God’s word to us, this is Paul applying the gospel ‘story’ to them in their context. Thus, the disconnect between their context and ours is not so obvious as in slave/masters passages – and yet perhaps just as profound. It would be easy to assume that all of what Paul is saying to the Corinthians is what God is saying directly to us – Don’t be divided! Stop squabbling! Don’t adopt allegiances to your human leaders! etc etc.

    Any of these things may be very pertinent in some church contexts but to preach them in my context… well at the very least they don’t seem to be speaking to us where we are at…and at the very worst to preach these messages as though they do apply directly to us could be discouraging and destructive.

    None of this is to say that nothing Paul says to the Corinthians applies to anyone in my church at any time. Just that I don’t think it speaks to our context – I doubt it is exactly what Paul would write to us!

    So thanks for your blog. It’s good to be reminded to keep going back to the gospel ‘story’ in working out how these passages speak to us.

    1. @Matt: Thanks for sharing that! It sounds like a pretty tough gig. I remember Richard Hays saying some helpful stuff about the tension between (i) reading Paul’s words as interpretations of Scripture for his original readers and (ii) as Scripture addressed directly to us (it was in the last chapter of Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, I think).

      @Fr Robert: I’d definitely like to have a look at that book. When I was reading Nate Kerr’s book Christ, History and Apocalyptic (which, among other things, tries to free Yoder from Hauerwas’s reading of him) I kept thinking about The Desire of The Nations by Oliver O’Donovan. There, O’Donovan doesn’t so much defend Constantine — and the whole project of Christendom — as try to explain it as an attempt to faithfully respond to the gospel’s mission imperative in a changed context.

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