Formal and Material Norms — Lessons on Biblical Interpretation from … Aristotle?

There is a tension in evangelical theology between two principles. One the one hand, there is the right/responsibility of each Christian to read and interpret the Bible personally. On the other hand, there is the call for Christians to collectively interpret Scripture in accordance with sound doctrine (Paul uses this term in a few places in his NT letters) in order to follow a faithful and steady course.

The tension between these two is not actually as difficult as it might appear. But because we North Americans tend to be so individually-minded, we magnify the problem by placing undue emphasis on the former principle to the neglect of the latter. What skews our conversations is the idea that each one of us needs to interpret the Bible uniquely, which people usually take to mean “in consideration of the fact that there is no one in the world like me, and there is no one else who understands me and my context.” People often use this a lever to excuse strange and possibly unorthodox interpretations that give either great liberty or special consideration to the interpreter.

Now to be sure, I recognize that everyone is unique, and loved by God in a special way. But that does not mean we are all that different from one another. Each person’s obligation to interpret Scripture is an obligation to interpret it personally – i.e., to apply it to the details of my being and activity – not so much an acknowledgment of me as a unique case meriting special consideration.

The flip-side of my biblical interpretation is that the application I grasp most strongly is probably applicable only to me, because others may not have the same combination of variables in their lives. So I may interpret the injunction not to be drunk with wine as an absolute prohibition to drink alcohol because I know I have troubles with drinking to excess any time I start. But another person who does not share that problem will not be bound by my application, and my attempt to hold him/her to my standard is simply legalism.

But not all is relative. I like to think of biblical teaching in terms of formal norms and material norms. When we interpret Scripture (best done in a group; I’ll come back to that), we discern what the writer is trying to convey in a principled way. So, for example, when Paul says not to be drunk with wine, we generally recognize that Paul is trying to make a point about things that interfere with the work of the Spirit in us – i.e., there is a formal norm, a principle being given. And because Paul is speaking to particular people at a particular time, he couches that formal norm in material terms. To the degree to which my context is the same as that of Paul’s readers, I will apply Paul’s formal norm in the same material way. But when contexts diverge, the application may be different. And the material norm (the application) may differ between two people, as I mentioned. In all of this, however, the formal norm remains, because we believe Scripture is authoritative.

The challenge, then, is to a) make sure that material applications of the formal principle are legitimate and do not contradict it, and b) to make sure that people are able to live harmoniously even where there are different material norms at play in a group (e.g., some who drink – in moderation – and some who do not at all).

The formal norms are the truths — the sound doctine — to which we cling. The material norms are how we incarnate them. When we understand this, I believe we are able to live in unity and diversity.

4 thoughts on “Formal and Material Norms — Lessons on Biblical Interpretation from … Aristotle?

  1. Hello Brian,
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. As I read the article, the question that came to my mind was “what does it mean to ‘interpret’ Scripture?” I think clarifying this term will prevent us from mis-interpreting (pun intended) someone’s position.
    For example, is interpretation exegesis or is it hermeneutics? Those of us with an Anabaptist heritage have a tendency to confuse these two terms. We like to use the mantra “hermeneutics in community.” However, what tends to often happen is that we are doing ‘exegesis in community.’
    In my opinion, formal norms (to use your terms) flow out of sound exegesis; material norms are the result of hermeneutics.
    If this is the case, there are two immediate question that flows out your article for me: A) Is exegesis a public domain exercise, or should it be reserved for those in academia? B) Can or should exegesis happen individually?

    1. Denis, very briefly, hermeneutics is what one uses to do the work of exegesis. And next week’s post will be about hermeneutical principles. Stay tuned…

      1. Brian, thanks for the clarification. You are right, of course. The terms I should have used are ‘interpretation’ and ‘application.’ Looking forward to reading your next post.

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