The Rules of Scriptural Reasoning

William Wesley Elkins
The Theological Drew and The Casperson School of Graduate Studies
Drew University

Following Peter Ochs’ Rules for Scriptural Reasoning, I suggest the following rules for reading and interpreting scripture in the context of preaching. It must be noted, however, these rules are not universal. They derive from and reflect the practice of a Christian (United Methodist) theologian, who teaches pastoral theology and who, as a pastor, reads and interprets scripture in the context of weekly communion. In addition, following Josiah Royce 1 who follows Peirce, these rules reflect my philosophic commitment to the reconstruction and reformation of communities of inquiry and practical activity. My understanding of the work of the Society of Scriptural Reasoning and Peter Ochs’ paper have been shaped by the tensions that develop between the reformative practices that shape and are shaped by these theoretical and practical commitments.

Rule #1: As a matter of practice, read scripture. Scripture is not a repair manual. We should not read the text only when we have a problem that we need to fix. Scripture is to be read before the sermon and certainly before the day before the Sabbath. Reading scripture is a matter of practice and involves the cultivation of certain virtues. 2 Part of the practice of reading scripture involves discerning the relevance of scripture to the “signs of the times.” 3

Rule #2: Read the text intertextually. Scripture is not a phone book or a chronicle, a listing of names and events that may or may not be connected. In reading intertextually, we assume that everything can be connected and that different interconnections determine different patterns of interpretation. Therefore, there is no one, unique, interpretation of a text. Different traditions of interpretation approach but do not encompass the truth. This is as much a matter of pragmatics as it is a matter of revelation. As a matter of pragmatics, following Royce interpreting Peirce, truth is a matter of comparative interpretation. 4 Judgments are triadic comparisons that “yield” the truth over time. Truth is what, in the long run, yields fruit. This is a pragmatic and postcritical definition of truth. The problem is, however, that this definition legitimates comparing apples to apples, given a mediating third; and apples to oranges, where a mediating third may be more problematic if not irrelevant or irreverent. The value of Ochs’ suggestion that “claims can be judged only with respect to [their] success or failure in resolving the problem or suffering that originally gave rise to [them]” (5) is that it limits the range of comparisons. Our attention is drawn from the academic minutia to the practical miseries of human existence and action in our different communities. Moreover, it connects to a central pattern of revelation: God’s response to the suffering of Israel. (We might ask, at this point, if this pattern is the same for the churches and the Qu’anic communities?) For Israel one aspect of revelation is that God’s ways are not our ways, yet God responds to our needs in liberation and salvation, in Law and Grace. So, what we know of God and the ways we know God are not absolutely equivalent to who God is and what God is doing in and about the world and yet God “hears” and responds to the suffering of Israel (Ex. 3).

Rule #3: Read scripture in order to interpret a text. The doctrine that all that is sufficient for salvation is in scripture is, as a rule of reading, true. But not everything in scripture is relevant to the needs of a particular time. It is necessary, therefore, to select a text from scripture. This is, however, more complicated than it seems. Even if we follow some form of lectionary that requires reading a particular passage at a particular time, any intertextual reading/interpretation involves us in a complex dialectic in which the different genres that constitute scripture shape different possibilities of interpretation. Even a simplified list: narratives, laws, prophecies, psalms, wisdom, poetry, parables, and sayings suggest the possibility of an undetermined number of different interpretations. 5 Moreover, if, as Ricoeur notes, the shape of the text shapes the faith of the interpreter, 6 then in intertextual interpretation there will develop a polysemic faith.

Rule #4: Read the text in order to redeem the signs of the times. The scriptures are not the New York Times “all the news that’s fit to print” on a particular day. Neither are they history. Scripture is, as history is, an interpretation. Scripture, however, is not self-contained. Scripture is, in some larger way, for others in a particular time and place. Scripture, as Calvin suggests, gives us eyes to see the ways things are with God, the world and humanity. 7 Scripture, as George Lindbeck notes, “absorbs the world.” 8 Scripture requires a translation of our world into its world, so that we may discover what our lives really mean. This translation is not, however, straightforward. In some sense the shape of our lives and times have their own texture. 9 There are patterns and promising passages, breaks and gaps; there are incomplete, mysterious and suppressed passages. Translation, therefore, requires interpretation of the connection between the shape of scripture and the texture of our lives. In the final analysis we do not know the true shape of our own lives until we know the texture of the connection between God our lives and God s people. 10 In this sense, Paul is right: “we do not even know how to pray as we ought” (Rm. 8:26). So, when scripture absorbs our world, the translation of our world into the world of the scripture redeems us: ” . . . that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is in the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rm. 8:26-27).

Scriptural translation is a redemptive translation. This is as much a matter of pragmatics as revelation. Royce notes that comparisons are interpretations and interpretations, in the long run, yield the truth. However, for Royce, a good translation/interpretation is governed by an ethical standard. This standard is a pattern of loyalty that redeems the purpose of the text. For Royce, every life, every text or tradition, in some way or other betrays it highest ideal. 11 A good interpretation of a text/life is a translation loyal to the ideal that constitutes the good of the text. A good translation/interpretation is the interpretation that makes the best sense of the text by discovering the best possibilities for the good in the text. Ultimately, for Royce, redemptive interpretation leads to redemptive action and redemption action to the restoration of the community in and through the Spirit that brings/promises the “kingdom of God.” The value of Ochs’ rule for scriptural reasoning “The pragmatic reasoning of SR is a redemptive reasoning” (5) is that it sharply concentrates the biblical and pragmatic traditions in a rule of interpretation that connects scriptural reasoning to conditions (suffering-redemption-resurrection) that call/cry for patterns of holy living.

Rule #5: Read the text in order to interpret the signs of the times. What we “see” through scripture is not just a scripture-shaped world. Scripture is not like opaque stained glass which, if it can be seen through at all, represents the world only in scriptural forms and hues. If, following Eberhard Jungel’s interpretation of Luther, all words are redeemed in Jesus Christ, 12 then the words that are redeemed have their own meaning, values, and implications. 13 Scripture is not a self-referential code that requires a one way translation of an incomprehensible social text into the sacred, secret world of religious practice. Scripture absorbs the world in order to interpret it as the world . This includes polo and politics, world war and the world cup. The world contains signs of God s first blessing; it is “good” and thus the world, in some ways, despite incredible evils, is “very good.” The world will be redeemed, however, (as a creation), as the world transformed, by God’s continuing prophetic action: ” I am doing a new thing” (Is. 43:19) and final blessing: “See I am making all things new (Rev. 21:5).”

Rule #6: Read the text in order to bring people into community, into communion “to magnify the name of God.” In the Episcopal-Methodist tradition, a prayer for purity is often read before the reading of scripture. One version, from The Book of Common Prayer reads:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love Thee, and worthily magnify Thy Holy Name through Christ our Lord. Amen .

In another context, as a Christian pastor, I would focus on the final prepositional phrase in this prayer: ” through Christ our Lord.” As theologian and philosopher, I am interested in what praying this prayer might imply for the interpretation of scripture. This might not preach, but reflections of this type are vitally important for the interpretation of scripture in the church tradition that forms my community of faith. As Ochs notes, however, we all face the same problem. The problem that we face as readers/interpreters of scripture is that we have removed the scripture from its context of interpretation: communities that sustain a connection to the “logic” of the scripture and the practices of reading and action that reflect the ways scripture promises to shape our lives to the will of God. This situation and the suffering it represents permits a simplified, common sense interpretation of the “Prayer for Purity” in terms of what it implies for the practice of scriptural reasoning and other faith practices that support this activity.

So, the following rules are suggested as ways of renewing the reading and interpretation of scripture in the context of worship. A detailed contextual and semiotic explication of a range of Christian practices would indicate how these rules recover and renew what is, at least for Protestants, a problematic practice. This is necessary for a complete justification of these rules. However, simply stating these rules in the context of the practice of praying “the prayer for purity” may be sufficient to give a sense of their significance and implications.

Pray: The Prayer for Purity

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love Thee, and worthily magnify Thy Holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Read: Rules for Reading Scripture in the Context of Worship :

  • Rule #1 : Read scripture with an open heart;
  • Rule #2 : Read scripture so that it opens the heart to its own desires and the desires of God;
  • Rule #3 : Read scripture so that it opens the heart to all that it desires and all that God desires of us;
  • Rule #4 : Read scripture so that the Spirit of God cleanses the desires of our hearts;
  • Rule #5 : Read scripture so that the Spirit of God makes the heart holy;
  • Rule #6 : Read scripture so that what we do magnifies the Name of God;
  • Rule #7 : Magnify the Name of God by making it possible for the world to become holy to God.

These rules are, of course, confessional. As interpretations of prayer they could not be anything else. But having begun with confession, we need not end there. Metaphors help: Theology and Philosophy are second-order practices that hover over the depths of confession, while confession resonates with the “deeper codes and currents” of scripture. For philosophers, however, metaphors call for conceptual clarification.

Paul Ricoeur offers some help at this point. In Fallible Man , 14 Ricoeur notes that the most vulnerable point in human existence is the ” fragile heart” of humanity: our desire for the desire of the other. Fragility becomes “fault” when the other refuses to recognize our desire for value (our need for their valuing us) and we substitute a desire for the possession of and or power over the other for our desire for their recognition of us. All this is, of course, simplified, but it connects to the meaning of the “Prayer for Purity.”

The “Prayer for Purity” recognizes that the telos of the prayer is the transformation of the human heart through our response to a way (prayer) of encountering “the heart of God.” The purpose of reading scripture is to put ourselves in a relation to a revelation that refuses to allow us to substitute fault-filled desires of our heart for the desire of God to make our lives holy. This prayer is recognition that a value of a rule of prayer is pragmatically constituted by being specified by a rule of holy reading. Following Ochs, the prayer for purity as specified by Rules for Reading Scripture reflects the logic of the new creation and resurrection that is the logic of scripture. It exemplifies, as Ochs notes, one of the patterns of redemption possible through the reading of scripture: “The redemptive activity of reading is more that just reception. It is to receive the words of scripture as directives to us: that we should heal the burdens of modernity and that we should heal them in certain ways” (E) . Praying The Prayer of Purity and reading scripture in ways that are shaped by rules that embody this prayer is a way of healing the brokenness of modernity and the human heart.

But what then are the burdens and brokenness of modernity? What are the desires of our hearts that must be opened to and cleansed by the desires of God so that “we may delight in [God’s] will, and walk in [God’s] ways, to the glory of [God’s ] name?” 15 To simplify and conclude, for Ochs, the sin of modernity may be that we desire a community of free individual subjects without the interpersonal, covenantal relations that constitute the communion that makes possible a community of persons. 16 Stating things boldly, if we take the connection between modern liberalism and possessive individualism as an example, in this form of polity there is little possibility that any a person would care enough for another (whether that person be the same, the similar, the stranger, the other, The Wholly Other) to become faithful or loyal enough to help anyone through anything but the most minimal suffering. The prevalence of this form of sociality constitutes a break in the communal constitution of persons that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the Christian church to realize Paul`s vision of the body of Christ: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it, if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1Cor. 12:26). In the final analysis, the rules recommended above (Rules for Reading 1-7) are an attempt to establish a practice that would shape a church towards the model Paul s vision of the body of Christ.

In conclusion, the virtue of Ochs’ account of the redemptive relations that develop between “B-reasonings” (the cries of suffering) and “A-reasonings” (the logic of scripture) is that it reminds us of the scriptural depths that shape the task to reconstruct a community of inquiry that reestablishes the logic of social relations in the depths of mercy. Peirce’s logic of relations, exemplified in the redemptive relations of scriptural reasoning, represents a logic of loyalty that seeks patterns of redemption from and for different communities. For Royce redemption comes through loyalty to loyalty. Following Peirce through Ochs interpretation of “the rules of scriptural reasoning,” redemption requires the precision of a scriptural and relational logic that incorporates the other in a community of faith shaped by a scripturally informed response to her deep sufferings and deeper longings for redemptive and liberating relations. In Ochs’ argument, this is as much a matter of pragmatics as it is of revelation. If comparison yields truth, and loyalty yields the good, then when the lost are “raised up” 17 into the light of the “new thing” or new creation of God we experience, here and now, for a moment, the glory of God. Raising up the other to the glory of God, the beauty of the lilies, the light of revelation, in ways that are particular to different traditions, is a metaphor for the relation of “A-reasonings” to “B-reasonings.” The scriptural depths that raise us towards God repair our failures. This is the logic of the Law of Love. This is “A” rule of scriptural reasoning for our “B-nighted” times. 18

1. Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity , introduced by John E. Smith (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1968).?

2. See Stephen Fowl’s previously published works: Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones, Reading in Communion: Scripture and Ethics in the Christian Life (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Press, 1991) and Engaging Scripture (Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 1998).?

3. Cf. rules 3 & 4.?

4. A rough but not inaccurate way to characterize this relation is: A B C, where B interprets A to C. For Royce the significance of this interpretative triad is that it is a model of the time process. As such there is no unique (B) interpreting the past (A) to the future (C).?

5. See the analysis of Paul Ricoeur in Toward of Hermeneutic of Revelation in Essays on Biblical Interpretation, edited by Lewis S. Mudge (Philadelphia, Fortress Press), 1980 and Manifestation and Proclamation in Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative and Imagination, Edited by Mark I. Wallace, Translated by David Pellauer (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1995).?

6. Paul Ricoeur, Philosophical and Biblical Hermeneutics in Paul Ricoeur, From Text to Action : Essays in Hermeneutics II, translated by Kathleen Blamey and John B. Thompson (Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1991) p. 90.?

7. This might be the sense of Christian’s occasion comprehensive use of scripture, as James Buckley contends in his response.?

8. George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminister, 1984), p.118)?

9. This metaphor is derived from the detailed analysis of Paul Ricoeur in The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text in Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation , edited J.P Thompson (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1981).?

10. In the context of a discussion of the rules of scriptural reasoning Jean Calvin s assertion: Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. Jean Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion , translated by Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Press, 1989).?

11. Royce, The Problem of Christianity .?

12. This is a simple but not inaccurate way of summarizing Jungel’s analysis of Luther on metaphorical truth. See Theological Essays , translated and edited by J.B. Webster (Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1989) pp. 50-52.?

13. This may be, according to James Buckley, a Christian’s occasion specific use of scripture.?

14. Translated (revised) by Charles A. Kelbley (New York, Fordham University Press, 1986) section 4.?

15. Confession of Sins, The Book of Common Prayer. ?

16. See John Macmurray, The Form of the Personal, volume II: Persons in Relation, introduction by Frank G. Kirkpatrick (London, Faber and Faber, 1995).?

17. God raises up prophets to call, constitute and save Israel. Christ is raised up to call, constitute and save the church.?

18. This is, of course, a metaphoric way of summarizing the detailed analysis of Ochs paper. A full analysis of the relation of A and B reasonings as an aspect of Scriptural Pragmatism is detailed in Ochs Peirce, Pragmatism and the Logic of Scripture (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998) See in particular the section Christain Pragmatism , pp 305-316.?


© 2002, Society for Scriptural Reasoning