Toward A Hermeneutic For Discerning Universal Moral Absolutes -- By: Terrance Tiessen

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 36:2 (Jun 1993)
Article: Toward A Hermeneutic For Discerning Universal Moral Absolutes
Author: Terrance Tiessen


Toward A Hermeneutic For Discerning
Universal Moral Absolutes

Terrance Tiessen*

There is a common recognition that God revealed himself in a form that was meaningful to the original recipients in their particular context in order to communicate his truth effectively. Biblical interpreters are not all agreed, however, concerning the method for discerning the timeless, supracultural truth in Scripture in order to obey God in our own time. This becomes particularly obvious when one attempts to discern God’s will concerning the place of women in church leadership. In defining principles for discerning universal moral absolutes, this issue will therefore be a frequent point of reference.

It would be nice to think that if we could simply agree on the hermeneutical principles we would all arrive at the same conclusions. Unfortunately that is not the case, for reasons that are probably found primarily in the preconceptions of the interpreter. In this regard one might consider, for instance, the stated preunderstanding of feminist interpreters enunciated by Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza1 and the comments on that stance by Kenneth Himes.2 Also of interest are the warnings of William Larkin,3 J. I. Packer4 and David Scholer,5 all of whom perceive a dangerous subjectivity at work in the interpretation of Scripture relative to the role of women, though they differ in their assessment of how subjectivity is incorrectly influencing interpretations of the Biblical passages.

I. The Possibility Of Identifying Universal Moral Absolutes

Richard J. Mouw has observed that “talk about divine moral commands is extremely unpopular.”6 Fallen humans do not like to be told what to do,

* Terrance Tiessen is professor of theological studies at Providence College and Seminary, Otterburne, Manitoba ROA 1GO, Canada.

by God or by anyone else. Furthermore, at the theological level not all Christian theologians are convinced that it is possible or legitimate to identify universal moral absolutes in Scripture. In a recent survey of literature dealing with Scripture and ethics one scholar has concluded that “most of those who write on the topic of the Bible and ethics see the Scriptures as illumination, not prescription.”7

Donald Bloesch contends that “the divine commandment can not be reduced...

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