Could Theological/Ethical Reasoning Be Like Jazz?

I would like to suggest that there are multiple faithful communities of Christian understanding and practice who prioritize adherence to biblical instruction, although they emphasize varying aspects of it. All of these communities might be described as “faithful,” even though they are all also to some degree “faithless,” again in a variety of ways. Recognizing that this reality has persisted across history, I propose that the Bible may serve faith and mission best when it generates a dialogue among faithful readers from varying perspectives.

What if interpretation were understood to function in light of relational fact: all who call upon Jesus as Savior/Messiah share a single identity and primary purpose, but reflect a different utility within the over-arching Body of Christ?[1] Thus conceived, interpretation would provoke a lively interchange among interpreters who speak from the particularities of their unique gifts and experiences, and we might begin to celebrate the contribution of each distinct community. None of whom might be said to faithfully reflect the infinite image of God on their own, but all of whom may highlight a particular facet of His image, which the world is certain to be in desperate need of observing and experiencing.

Old Testament scholar, Daniel Hawk, writes:

“As in the musical work, so in interpretation. Strongly held convictions may be fervently expressed, not as a means of bending other voices to a single, agreed-upon melody, but rather as an expression of distinct voices in a complex conversation that becomes greater than the sum of its parts….

Decisions about how the Bible guides … will always have to be made and lived out by individuals and Christian communities. Contrapuntal reading would allow for conclusions to be clarified and nuanced by insights gained from an ongoing conversation with other faithful followers who respect each other….

Christian interpretation, in other words, is both determined and improvisational, not unlike jazz. Jazz integrates diverse melodies into a holistic musical experience that values the voice of each musician as a necessary component of the unified musical enterprise. Jazz requires that musicians listen carefully to the other musicians in the ensemble and follow the flow of the musical conversation. When this is done well, the result is a unified musical work, which nevertheless preserves the distinct voices in the ensemble….

Debates about the rightness and wrongness of interpretations perpetuate the antagonistic character of modern society, abet a smug assurance that one occupies the biblical high ground, and maintain divisions between Christian confessions. Conversations among disparate Christian parties, as an ongoing corporate exercise in discernment, however, underscore the relational bond that all followers of Jesus share, remind participants of the complexity of ethical decision-making in a sinful world, and may even yield new, Spirit-inspired insights. Interpretive jazz ensembles would allow all perspectives to be heard but would not demand that anyone change one’s views—only that one listens actively, with respect, and with the sense that one’s understanding of the biblical witness and its relevance for contemporary problems is enriched by the conversation.”[2]

Undoubtedly, this way of walking might be (and has been) abused and taken too far. However, it seems to me that this practice, if held in conjunction with the foundational conviction that the Word of God expressed in all of Scripture functions as the primary expression of God’s ultimate authority continuing to instruct the redeemed of every generation, will yield abundant fruit in the lives of God’s people.

While the Bible points to God’s ideals, it also describes Christlike accommodations to sinful brokenness.[3] And, indeed, as Elmer Martens has reminded us,[4] Christ empowered the Christian community to “bind” or “loose” (Matt. 18:15-20), which means that any given Christian community may be more restrictive or more permissive than the straightforward teaching of Scripture itself. Given that the Holy Spirit has been given to the entire body of Christ, not all community decisions will be universally adopted by all other communities of faith.[5] May we be a people shaped by God’s Word, and committed to relational exegesis and application in concert with other communities of God’s people across history and geography.

As we forge colonies of heaven in the midst of the surrounding cultures of despair, may God’s word guide us in the shaping of a biblical culture for our time and place. May the watching world say, “What kind of god is this, who gives these people in our midst such wisdom and joy?”[6] And may they discover that it is not a god, but the God who inhabits us and is our Wisdom.


[1] 1 Corinthians 12

[2] L. Daniel Hawk, The Violence of the Biblical God: Canonical Narrative and Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019), 201-203.

[3] Exodus. 21:1-6; Deuteronomy 15:11-18; Mark 14:7

[4] Elmer A. Martens, “Moving from Scripture to Doctrine,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 15.1 (2005): 77–103.

[5] this is one reason why reason must precede tradition in the interpretational hierarchy of scripture, reason, and tradition

[6] Cf., Deuteronomy 4:5-8

The Three-Legged Stool

Anglicanism was given a profound gift in the reflections of Richard Hooker (d. 1600), who articulated a threefold cord that must underlie all informed reflection on the Christian faith: Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. Finding here a hierarchical triumvirate of authority, the Anglican Way has mostly avoided identifying itself with specific theological systems and focused instead on grounding “its judgements in the authority of Scripture and reason illumined by tradition.” [1]

In so doing, the Anglican Way has preserved the primacy of Scripture as the word of God—not man—and of the necessity of semper reformanda in subjecting tradition to evaluation by Scripture-ruled reason. While it is not difficult to find broad agreement on the inclusion of all three legs of the so-called “three-legged stool,” ever since the Oxford Movement there has been a perpetual challenge to the requisite hierarchical ordo of these three authorities, despite the fact that Hooker himself was crystal clear:

“What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto, is what any man can necessarily conclude by force of Reason; after these, the voice of the Church succeedeth.”

– Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V, 8.2 (London, 1597)

I’ll continue to stand with Hooker on this topic, although not primarily because he said it, but because it is congruent with reason so to hold. It is, however, significant that a voice of tradition backs up the exercise of reason, as it must always do or the tradition is to be rejected.

“[continuing from the above quote]… That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgments whatsoever.” [2]

Ultimately, I hold that reason must precede tradition in the hierarchy because of the impossibility of the contrary. The expression of the judgement of tradition is itself an exercise of reason in the application of Scripture’s authoritative voice to a specific time and place.

No voice of tradition may exert an authority prior to reason or it becomes Scripture, which alone expresses the reason of God rather than of man, and so speaks in a universal and timeless manner; to be accepted as in accordance with faith and reason, but not established by faith or human reason: the reason of God being transcendent, the reason of man being derivative. To reason otherwise is 1) to be irrational, 2) to accept the place of the Magisterium, and 3) to obliterate the possibility of the validity and necessity of the Reformation. I think you can see, therefore, why I’ll be rather inflexible on this point.

“Primary authority, that is to say, belongs to Scripture as ‘God’s Word written’; but whatever may be deduced from Scripture by the proper use of reason carries a derivative authority with it. As for ‘the voice of the Church’, which is certainly one form of tradition, that was placed by Hooker on the third level of authority, but it carries real authority when it is agreeable to Scripture and not contrary to reason.” [3]


[1] Sykes, Stephen, John E. Booty, and Jonathan Knight. The Study of Anglicanism. London: SPCK/Fortress Press, 1998. p. 11.

[2] Richard Hooker, The Works of That Learned and Judicious Divine, Mr. Richard Hooker, ed. John Keble, vol. 2, book 5, 8.2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1874), 34.

[3] F. F. Bruce, “Scripture in Relation to Tradition and Reason,” in Scripture, Tradition, and Reason: A Study in the Criteria of Christian Doctrine : Essays in Honour of Richard P.C. Hanson, ed. Richard Bauckham and Benjamin Drewery (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 35–36.

Theology

Theology is first the activity of thinking and speaking about God (theologizing), and second the product of that activity…. As an activity, theology is a cat’s cradle of interrelated though distinct disciplines: elucidating texts (exegesis), synthesizing what they say on the things they deal with (biblical theology), seeing how the faith was stated in the past (historical theology), formulating it for today (systematic theology), finding its implications for conduct (ethics), commending and defending it as truth and wisdom (apologetics), defining the Christian task in the world (missiology), stockpiling resources for life in Christ (spirituality) and corporate worship (liturgy), and exploring ministry (practical theology).

J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), xi–xii.

As usual, Packer is so on point and so clear, but there may be slight room for improvement here. I can accept many of these helpful definitions as written, but a few I would seek to improve slightly.

Here’s my take:

  • Theology: thinking and speaking about God
  • Exegesis: elucidating texts
  • Biblical theology: synthesizing what the Bible says about theology on its own terms, by noting its own order, identifying its own center, and distilling its own story
  • Historical theology: seeing how the faith was stated in the past
  • Systematic theology: formulating and organizing the faith for today
  • Ethics: finding the Bible’s implications for conduct
  • Apologetics: commending and defending the Bible as truth and wisdom
  • Missiology: defining the Christian task in the world
  • Spirituality: stockpiling resources for life in Christ
  • Liturgy: articulating and arranging the Bible for corporate worship
  • Practical theology: exploring ministry as a way of life