The "Uniform Pattern" and Theological Measurement

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When answering theological questions, one of the thorniest problems that we face is deciding what counts as evidence. To be sure, we affirm the absolute authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures and, in the case of questions about the church, the finality of the New Testament in all matters of faith and order. Simply believing in the Bible’s authority and sufficiency, however, does not tell us how the text ought to be brought to bear upon our questions.

One very common way of using the Bible is to look for examples of the kind of thing that we are asking about. These examples are then treated as permanently binding. Theological literature abounds with references to the examples or even the “uniform pattern” of Scripture.

The argument is a weak one. Scripture contains examples of all sorts of things, some good and some bad. The mere fact that someone did something is no indication that God wants that thing to be done by others at another time. Even when the example is viewed positively in the text, it may be an isolated instance. One would not appeal to Abraham’s treatment of Isaac in Genesis 22 as a universal pattern for relationships between fathers and sons.

An “is” never constitutes an “ought.” Sound theological method draws a sharp distinction between historical narrative and didactic requirement.

This distinction does not render the examples of Scripture irrelevant. When the Bible communicates a didactic principle, then we may legitimately observe the examples in the text to see how the principle looks in practice. By studying the examples we may also discover something about the rewards of obedience or the consequences of disobedience. By themselves, however, the examples of Scripture are not binding. Historical narrative always needs to be interpreted and applied by didactic discourse.

Even a “uniform pattern” is not binding by itself. The churches of the New Testament adopted many patterns, not as a matter of faith and order, but simply as a matter of their cultural location. Congregations uniformly read the New Testament documents in Greek. They always met in rented or borrowed facilities, never erecting their own buildings. They expected the men of the church to wear garments other than trousers, and the garments were always made from natural fibers.

No serious theologian would take these patterns as binding today. When we consider these examples, we begin to see just how weak the appeal to the “uniform pattern” of the Scriptures or of the New Testament is. Unless it is illustrating some principle that has been clearly articulated in a didactic passage, the uniform pattern is not binding at all.

When we do theology, good answers depend upon good method. Three measurements will help us to judge the strength of the evidence for any particular theological proposal.

First, we must rely upon biblical teachings rather than examples. In other words, we look for didactic texts rather than historical narratives. Our evidence should aim to be normative rather than descriptive (we should base our theology on ought statements rather than is statements).

Second, we must support our theology from clear passages rather than obscure ones. Of course, we may debate which passages are really clearest. Too often we assume that a passage is clear if it supports our preconceived notions, but it is obscure if it appears to contradict them. A better way of understanding clarity is this: a clear passage is one that permits only one likely interpretation, while an obscure passage might permit two or more plausible interpretations. When evaluating evidence, we must grant decisive weight to the former kind of passage rather than the latter.

Third, we must look for evidence that aims to address the question we are asking rather than evidence that is marginal or tangential. It is poor practice to base our theology upon passages that merely address our question incidentally. Rather, we should locate the passages that aim to deal with the topic in which we are interested.

The strongest theological proposals are built upon biblical evidence that meets all three of these criteria. The passages to which we appeal should be didactic rather than historical. They should display a single, clear interpretation rather than a multiplicity of possible interpretations. They should aim to address the topic in which we are interested. To the degree that our evidence meets these criteria, our proposal will be stronger and better supported. As we begin to depart from these criteria, however, the support for our theology grows weaker by degrees.

We may still draw theological conclusions based upon weak evidence. Sometimes we will be forced to do just that, because Scripture will offer no evidence that meets all three criteria. Conclusions based upon weaker evidence, however, are less probable and ought to be expressed more hesitantly.

The theological task is not simply a matter of gathering the evidence that supports our conclusions. Theology should not begin with a conclusion; it should begin with a question. When we do theology, we are responsible to gather all of the evidence that helps us to answer our question. All of the evidence should be evaluated and compared before we reach any conclusion. Once we are able to draw a conclusion, it should be weighted according to the strength of the evidence.

For virtually every theological proposal, the evidence will fall into two classes. Some of the evidence will support and explain the conclusion. Other evidence will have to be explained—or even explained away—by the conclusion. It is very rare for all of the evidence to point in a single direction and to support a single conclusion in an obvious way. Experienced theologians are accustomed to this phenomenon, and it teaches them to hold their conclusions with a measure of humility.

One of the least ethical ways of doing theology is to point out only that evidence that seems to fit our conclusion or to contradict our opponent’s, while ignoring or even suppressing the evidence that seems to fit our opponent’s position or to contradict ours. Simple honesty demands that we be forthcoming with all of the evidence. It also places upon us the obligation to show how and why we weigh the evidence as we do.

Theology is not a matter of listing proof texts. It is a matter of comparing and weighing evidence. The theological task involves measuring, and measuring requires an accurate scale. This discussion has articulated criteria that function as three beams on the theological balance. Skillfully employed, these criteria go far toward giving us the correct weight of the biblical evidence.

I Will Arise
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

Weary and weak,—accept my weariness;
          Weary and weak and downcast in my soul,
With hope growing less and less,
     And with the goal
Distant and dim,—accept my sore distress.
I thought to reach the goal so long ago,
     At outset of the race I dreamed of rest,
Not knowing what now I know
     Of breathless haste,
     Of long-drawn straining effort across the waste.

One only thing I knew, Thy love of me;
     One only thing I know, Thy sacred same
Love of me full and free,
     A craving flame
Of selfless love of me which burns in Thee.
How can I think of thee, and yet grow chill;
     Of Thee, and yet grow cold and nigh to death?
Re-energize my will,
     Rebuild my faith;
     I will arise and run, Thou giving me breath.

I will arise, repenting and in pain;
     I will arise, and smite upon my breast
And turn to Thee again;
     Thou choosest best,
Lead me along the road Thou makest plain.
Lead me a little way, and carry me
     A little way, and listen to my sighs,
And store my tears with Thee,
     And deign replies
     To feeble prayers;—O Lord, I will arise.

[node:bio/kevin-t-bauder body]

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There are 14 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Not sure how comments got closed on this one but they're open now.

Solid stuff here, much appreciated. I more often hear the "pattern" argument put in terms of "the biblical pattern is..." or "there is a clear biblical pattern that..." etc. People use it all the time.

Related post some might find interesting: " http://sharperiron.org/article/shall-we-cast-lots-identifying-biblical-p... ]Shall We Cast Lots? Identifying 'Biblical Patterns '"
(Though much of the discussion on that really missed the point! Hint: it's really not about lots at all.... it's about how we derive positions on things)

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

The previous thread on Biblical patterns came to mind when I was reading this. It is hard work to 'rightly divide', but it's much more fun to wave a theological magic wand and make Scriptures fit our POV.

I'm amazed and chagrined by the pastors that constantly rely on OT examples to support their teachings, but completely ignore the imperatives in 1Tim. 3 and Titus 2.

Caleb S's picture

This is very timely for my own study at the moment. This issue of deriving an "ought" from the "is" in the book of Acts has been very intriguing. How much are we to take Paul's missionary journeys and method as the way that missions "should" be done?

That issue is somewhat broad, so here is a passage that is often argued for as an "ought". 2 Corinthians 5:20 states that we are ambassadors. People will often taken the Christian's ambassadorship and state that therefore we are to look like ambassadors. We are representatives of king, so we are supposed to wear suits and ties to church. We are supposed to appear the part. However, the passage is simply saying that an ambassador is a Christian making an appeal to the world through the gospel. This is what the text is actually describing. The ADDITION of cultural elements, and especially the addition of cultural elements as something that "should" be done is no where in the text. Is this an example of an illegitimate creation of an "ought" from an "is"?

Further complicating the issue for me is the consistent appeal by the NT authors by means of the indicative/imperative pattern. Because you are "X" in Christ, the you should do "Y".

Also, is the consistent appeal to the coming of Christ. Jesus "is" coming. That is the reality. Therefore, one "should" be ready, and he should have a steadfast hope.

I hope to learn here, so fire away at my examples if you would like. Thanks.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Charlie said:

Quote:
That issue is somewhat broad, so here is a passage that is often argued for as an "ought". 2 Corinthians 5:20 states that we are ambassadors. People will often taken the Christian's ambassadorship and state that therefore we are to look like ambassadors.

Wow, that is amazing logic. So, just how does an ambassador look? That's crazy, Charlie.

I like the "is" and "ought" contrast. I picked up the "descriptions vs. prescription" terminology, and I love using it.

I have seen so many violations of the principles that Dr. Bauder advocates. One guy I know (educated at a good seminary) stood against birth control, and part of his argument was the Bible terminology that someone "knew" a woman and she conceived, thus the possibility for conception is required for the act to take place.

People who violate Dr. Bauder's principles might be candidates for "Popular Legalism" magazine.

"The Midrash Detective"

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I also like to the terms 'prescriptive' and 'descriptive', as I think they are very basic and helpful, but I think somewhere in there is room for 'prudent'. Which is IMO where the weighing of cultural practices comes in.

Lee's picture

Caleb S wrote:
...That issue is somewhat broad, so here is a passage that is often argued for as an "ought". 2 Corinthians 5:20 states that we are ambassadors. People will often taken the Christian's ambassadorship and state that therefore we are to look like ambassadors. We are representatives of king, so we are supposed to wear suits and ties to church. We are supposed to appear the part. However, the passage is simply saying that an ambassador is a Christian making an appeal to the world through the gospel. This is what the text is actually describing. The ADDITION of cultural elements, and especially the addition of cultural elements as something that "should" be done is no where in the text. Is this an example of an illegitimate creation of an "ought" from an "is"?...

It is always a mistake to draw general conclusions on a theological paradigm from the abuses of that paradigm.

As I read Bauder's argument it could almost be concluded that he is stating that Scripture does not communicate objective truth via the narrative/historical formula that makes up so much of Scripture (a bit under half, perhaps?). If that is his perspective, which I trust it isn't, then someone is skating pretty close to the line of making general applications based on some abuses.

Christ's utilization of Scripture throughout the 4 Gospels, and the Apostles' utilization of Scripture throughout Acts and the Epistles, indicate that Scripture communicates truth, objective truth, in at least 5 ways: by doctrine; by command; by principle; through precedent; and by illustration. Though different, each is equal truth with equal authority--a command properly applied is not more true than a principle properly applied; neither is a precedent properly applied less true than a command; etc.

There is a problem in approaching Scripture with the very cavalier attitude that what is recorded is not all objective truth, that it is merely recorded at a certain time and place, and we need to sift through to see what is pertinent in our culture and generation, in essence elevating one portion of perfectly inspired truth above another.

A word of caution, my friend, that is all.

Lee

Dan B.'s picture

Don't have time (or probably knowledge, for that matter) for a more complete response, but here's a quick thought: I don't think the issue is objective/non-objective here. Instead, it's our ability (or inability!) to correctly "extract" teaching from genres such as narrative.

Caleb S's picture

Lee wrote:
Caleb S wrote:
...That issue is somewhat broad, so here is a passage that is often argued for as an "ought". 2 Corinthians 5:20 states that we are ambassadors. People will often taken the Christian's ambassadorship and state that therefore we are to look like ambassadors. We are representatives of king, so we are supposed to wear suits and ties to church. We are supposed to appear the part. However, the passage is simply saying that an ambassador is a Christian making an appeal to the world through the gospel. This is what the text is actually describing. The ADDITION of cultural elements, and especially the addition of cultural elements as something that "should" be done is no where in the text. Is this an example of an illegitimate creation of an "ought" from an "is"?...

It is always a mistake to draw general conclusions on a theological paradigm from the abuses of that paradigm.

I appreciate the fact that you have taken the time to comment; however, unfortunately I have to wonder at what you are really responding. Who is making the mistake of drawing general conclusions on a theological paradigm from the abuses of that paradigm? All that I did was give a few examples of what I thought that the opening post was seeking to address, and then I was hoping that people would comment on the issues. I struggle to see how your comment is relevant to what was actually at issue.
Quote:
As I read Bauder's argument it could almost be concluded that he is stating that Scripture does not communicate objective truth via the narrative/historical formula that makes up so much of Scripture (a bit under half, perhaps?). If that is his perspective, which I trust it isn't, then someone is skating pretty close to the line of making general applications based on some abuses.
The words "could almost be concluded" appear to be missing the boat. Bauder is not at all depreciating the reality that the Bible is communicating objective truth. He is actually addressing how people glean from that truth to construct their theologies. And he is specifically addressing the issue of making "is" statements into non-authorially intended "ought" statements, which then become the standard by which Christains "ought" to behave. My example from 2 Corinthians 5:20 sought to give this a concrete example.
Quote:
Christ's utilization of Scripture throughout the 4 Gospels, and the Apostles' utilization of Scripture throughout Acts and the Epistles, indicate that Scripture communicates truth, objective truth, in at least 5 ways: by doctrine; by command; by principle; through precedent; and by illustration. Though different, each is equal truth with equal authority--a command properly applied is not more true than a principle properly applied; neither is a precedent properly applied less true than a command; etc.
That Scripture communicates objective truth is not at issue; it is a given. However, what kind of objective truth is being communicated is at issue. Again, your categories are different than Bauder's, so you may not be addressing the same issue. He is not advocating that Scripture does not communicate objective truth. Specifically, he has limited himself to the categories: "is" and "ought" statements. In other words, he is working with the categories of "the way things are/exist" and "the way that things should be done". Your categories of "principle, precedent, and illustration" have to be validated by clear "ought" passages (where there is an imperative) otherwise we will be following the "precedent" of Sampson in getting a wife. How would that go over in the youth group if the youth pastor preached that sermon?! Again, the issue is not a matter of something being more true than something else. It is a matter of whether something is clearly an "ought," or if something is simply what happened. The command that comes from a command is more authoritative than a human's speculation about how to apply an "is" scenario.

Quote:
There is a problem in approaching Scripture with the very cavalier attitude that what is recorded is not all objective truth, that it is merely recorded at a certain time and place, and we need to sift through to see what is pertinent in our culture and generation, in essence elevating one portion of perfectly inspired truth above another.

A word of caution, my friend, that is all.

Straw man: No one is saying that portions of Scripture are not objective truth. The essence is that one portion is more specifically geared toward governing what we ought to do; namely, the commands that are given. Other elements can certainly be used as you described earlier, but they are much more subjective to the person interpreting Scripture. At the very least those other elements should be taken and expressed in a much more humble and hesitant manner as compared to something like a clear command to be holy. Also, because you did not give examples, then we may very well be talking past one another.

On account of these considerations, I respectfully submit to you that you may not be understanding Bauder correctly.

Caleb S's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:
Charlie said:
Quote:
That issue is somewhat broad, so here is a passage that is often argued for as an "ought". 2 Corinthians 5:20 states that we are ambassadors. People will often taken the Christian's ambassadorship and state that therefore we are to look like ambassadors.

Wow, that is amazing logic. So, just how does an ambassador look? That's crazy, Charlie.

I like the "is" and "ought" contrast. I picked up the "descriptions vs. prescription" terminology, and I love using it.

I have seen so many violations of the principles that Dr. Bauder advocates. One guy I know (educated at a good seminary) stood against birth control, and part of his argument was the Bible terminology that someone "knew" a woman and she conceived, thus the possibility for conception is required for the act to take place.

People who violate Dr. Bauder's principles might be candidates for "Popular Legalism" magazine.


Thanks for the comment. My only issue with your post is that I'm not Charlie!

Charlie's picture

Caleb S wrote:
Your categories of "principle, precedent, and illustration" have to be validated by clear "ought" passages (where there is an imperative) otherwise we will be following the "precedent" of Sampson in getting a wife.

In general, I appreciated Bauder's post. But if this is really what he meant, that we should be dividing Scripture into "is" portions and "ought" portions, then I too am uneasy. Surely there must be a more nuanced way for deciding what is binding for us vs. what is not binding for us.

For one thing, many "ought" passages do not actually tell us what we "ought" to do. Whole sections of OT law are not carried over into our practice, even though they are clearly of the didactic genre. Other considerations come into play. Even some NT passages don't make it. "Greet one another with a holy kiss" is an imperative in an epistle. So are "he woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head" and "Forbid not to speak in tongues." Some dispensationalists ruled out the Sermon on the Mount as for the millennial Jews, and most agree that at least some of Jesus' commands are not directed directed to modern believers.

For another, the whole Bible is "descriptive" in the sense of being historically conditioned. It's difficult to establish what passages are truly prescriptive without any possible "descriptive" quality. A lot of good discussion has gone on here regarding church polity, particularly about how the church elects, selects, or otherwise installs elders. But all of the Acts passages could be dismissed as descriptive. Furthermore, so could the pastoral epistles, since they are instructions from an apostle (not around today) to apostolic representatives (not around today) about how to get elders into churches established by the apostles (not today) that already exist but don't have any elders (not usually our problem). Someone could easily make the argument that unless you're an apostolic representative, those instructions aren't for you.

Moreover, I'm wary of taking a large chunk of Scripture and moving it into a provisional status, simply because it is "descriptive" (narrative?) in genre. The Bible itself does not seem to act that way. 1 Cor. 10:6 tells us that the OT stories are examples from which we learn. The epistles regularly argue from the actions of OT persons to establish points. Paul argues that since Abraham was justified by faith before his circumcision, we too are justified by faith apart from any work, even a sacramental one. At the very least, then, the doctrinal interplay must be reciprocal.

So, do people need to recognize that they should not do every single thing that Bible characters did? Yes. But the way to do that is not to divide the Scripture arbitrarily into "is" and "ought" passages and to privilege one class over the other. A more nuanced and Scripturally sensitive way must be found.

BTW, Caleb, don't take it too hard. "Charlie" is a title that Ed uses for anyone who provides information he regards as simultaneously interesting and absurd. Wink

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Caleb S's picture

Charlie,

In my defense, I was thinking in terms of wicked precedents being set in Scripture. Yet, somehow we evaluate them as wicked (and thus not good for a Christian to follow) by some means. My suggestion, which was certainly stated probably a little too mater of factly, was that it should be evaluated by a clear ought passage. In general, the kings of Israel set a precedent; however, they generally set the wrong kind. And this is known by a certain moral standard. Also, these comments are tempered with the excesses of "Cultural Fundamentalism" in mind, where the culture is inserted into Scripture, "principles" are drawn, and judgments are made that just plainly are not the authorial intended point of the passage. That is what gets me the most. The commandments of men are preached as if they were from God.

Also, inspired authors can use the OT and make connections that I would strongly hesitate over if a modern person were to do.

Also, thanks for pointing out that things are not as simple as my post made them seem; I appreciate the correction.

Lee's picture

Caleb S wrote:
...On account of these considerations, I respectfully submit to you that you may not be understanding Bauder correctly.

And I respectfully submit that I trust you to be correct in your assessment.

Lee

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