Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible

Written by Dr. John Mark Hicks, Searching for the Pattern is the self-proclaimed journey that Professor Hicks takes in interpreting the Bible. The work is an overview of the moves make by Prof. Hicks thru the years as his understanding and use of the Scriptures has developed. Throughout the work there is certainly a reminiscent quality but not to the autobiographical level of Thomas H. Olbricht’s Hearing God’s Voice. As Prof. Hicks moves from one level of hermeneutical understanding to another, the move is not accompanied by personal anecdotes as much as announced as having occurred and the resulting new interpretive stance explained. The work contains several responses from readers at the beginning and the typical “Table of Contents,” but this edition does not contain a scripture or subject index, regrettably. The work is approximately 57,500 words in length so reading at 175-200 wpm the book may be finished in 5 to 6 hours; but, due to the importance of the material the reader would be well advised to read and re-read sections so that a fuller understanding of the topic may be (hopefully) achieved.

Overview

From the beginning, Prof. Hicks makes it clear that he was raised in an environment that engaged the Scriptures from a traditional command, approved example, and necessary inference (CENI) hermeneutical method. This method was put to the test early when Prof. Hicks encountered another member of the Church, of similar age, that came from a more conservative hermeneutical stance. This began a long-term conversation examining the hermeneutical legitimacy of an Institutional verses a Non-institutional position. For those unfamiliar with this debate Prof. Hicks makes some helpful remarks (JMH; pp.40-48)[i], but the inner workings of this complex debate are not as important as understanding that the difference between the two positions create a vehicle by which Prof. Hicks puts the traditional CENI hermeneutic to the test. As the work progresses, the main points of contention in the I/NI debate (as seen by Prof. Hicks) are examined in enough detail that the efficacy of the CENI hermeneutic is increasingly found wanting and a theological hermeneutic begins to take shape as a preferred method.

Prof. Hicks is advocating a theological hermeneutical method over a CENI method by which Christians find authority for their actions. The theological hermeneutic, as described by Prof. Hicks, is not used in “an academic or technical sense but only in its basic import” (JMH; p.112). This is translated as meaning that the Scriptures are read in a fashion as to learn about the “heart, nature, and work of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit” (JMH; p.112). By reading the Scriptures in this fashion Prof. Hicks sees the child of God learning what is the wisdom, guidance, and direction indicated by the Godhead thru the story of the Scripture. Prof. Hicks notes that as a young preacher his hermeneutic “did not embrace any theological rationale but only looked for commands, example, and necessary inferences” (emp. JMH; p.113). Prof. Hicks, up to this point in the work, presented the hermeneutical process in three steps, and it is the bridge step between the text and application where the theological hermeneutic is applied and where, ultimately, a CENI hermeneutic is seen as failing to provide the necessary wisdom, guidance, and direction.

As an important aside, it should not be understood that Prof. Hicks denies or completely rejects the fact that there are commands and examples in the Scriptures; nor does Prof. Hicks deny that there is a pattern. Commands, as seen by Prof. Hicks, should be addressed with the question, “Are commands fundamentally legal tests of loyalty or are they modes of transformation?” (emp. JMH; p.175). In the first appendix to the work the third case study to be addressed is “Baptism.” Prof. Hicks starts with noting that Jesus the Messiah was himself baptized, practiced baptism in his ministry, and even “commissioned his followers to make disciples by baptizing them (Matthew 28:18-19)” (emp. JMH; p.220). At this point, intentionally or not, Prof. Hicks identifies Jesus as a source of example and a source of command. In the words of Prof. Hicks, “Jesus is the pattern. Jesus is the Word of God – our pattern, the speech of God. And the incarnated Word of God embodies who God is and what God desires” (emp. JMH; p.181).

The three-step process noted above is given in an outline form, and subsequent questions that accompany each step, from pp.228-232. Prof. Hicks rightly notes that between the text (Step 1) and practice (Step 3), there is a second step composed of a hermeneutical decision-making process, and this is where a theological hermeneutic is applied. It is by application of this hermeneutical reflection that “we discern how to participate in the mission of God.” Although not explicit in the work, Step 1 would certainly include a typical historical-critical-grammatical method to decide what the text is modeling, and the actions indicated for the original recipients. Also, the meaning of the text in its original context and the original recipient’s behavior is considered as a foundational part of the interpretive process. Step 2 consists of determining the “Normative Substance of the Text: Theological Hermeneutics.” It is here that the individual considers the impact of God’s values, story, identity, and Messiah on the process. It is important to notice in both the short outline and the questions that accompany each step, a key word or thought is “principle.” Indeed, In the question section related to Step 2 and Step 3, the ideas of either determining, identifying, or applying a “principle” is present in 24 of 25 questions. Regarding Step 3: Application to Contemporary Disciples: Homiletics/Pastoral Direction, Prof. Hicks presents the application as a re-contextualization of both meaning and significance so that the principles that have been identified may be appropriately applied in both doctrine and praxis.

General Impressions

As a work that discusses hermeneutics, one should not expect a discussion or identification of hermeneutical principles that accompany the works of some contemporary writers such as Duvall & Hayes, Mickelson, Osborne, Fee & Stuart, or Vanhoozer. Where these have written works that discuss the various tools that lead to an ability to form accurate exegetical interpretations of the Biblical texts, Prof. Hicks is discussing a hermeneutical method without explicitly engaging a discussion of genre, figures of speech, typology, or lexicographical considerations. Prof. Hicks does not appear to be attempting a comprehensive examination of these considerations; but, “(I)nstead of constructing hermeneutical rules about commands, examples, and inferences in order to discover an implicit blueprint-like pattern within Scripture, it is better to read Scripture with a pair of glasses that confesses the Faith itself” (JMH; p.193).

In truth, the application of a theological hermeneutic without an accompanying consideration of the “nuts and bolts” of interpretation such as application of specific commands, seeking approved examples, and the determination of necessary inferences may prove problematic. Osborne, when speaking about the use of theological models in interpretation, makes the point that “theological models are primarily ‘reality depicting’ in purpose and only secondarily evocating or action-guiding.”[ii] This is because a theological model certainly does show forth the heart, nature, and work of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit but proves difficult to put into concrete actions. Smith also addresses the application of a theological hermeneutic and decides “… at worst, it provides a subtle basis for unbridled subjectivism.”[iii] One feels confident that when considering the questions that accompany the Three-Step Process, specifically Step 2 & 3, the answers would be as varied as those answering. There is a built-in preunderstanding to any theological hermeneutic that is directly related to the sacred and secular background of the interpreter. One finds agreement to many of Prof. Hicks’ theological conclusions, but one is also associated with a similar theological and ecclesiastic background, so those points of agreement are not surprising.

Further, regarding the discussion of inferences, one was not surprised to find Prof. Hicks quoting Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address Proposition #6 where the final sentence notes … “Hence it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the church’s confession” (emp. JMH; p.82). Inferences are often the easiest part of the CENI hermeneutic to attack since many do confuse what is merely inferential with what is a logically necessary inference. Prof. Hicks notes that Campbell’s statement cast a shadow of suspicion over the traditional approach “because almost everything in step two of the blueprint hermeneutic, which was necessary to determine what was required, was inferential” (emp. JMH; p.83). Two points should be noticed about this statement.

First, as already noted, using a theological hermeneutic in step two of the process of Biblical interpretation involves the same, if not more, inferences by the individual. Principles are indeed part of the fundamental understanding of the Scriptures, but the identification of specific principles can be fraught with individualized preunderstanding. Mickelsen agrees with the usefulness of valid and relevant principles, but states that an individual “must recognize that ideas belong to person, and that the personal factor inevitable introduces an element of subjectivity.”[iv] Second, there is a difference between what is merely inferential and what is a necessary inference. In discussing what is a logical implication (a necessary inference), Beals notes that an implication occurs when “(S)tatement A implies statement B when it is impossible for statement A to be true and for statement B to be false. If this guaranteed connection is not there, there is no implication.”[v] John 3:16 is the perfect example of a logical implication (or necessary inference). It is impossible for John 3:16 to be true and for the statement “God so loved ___________ (insert your name) that He gave His only begotten Son” to be false. John 3:16 implies that you are so loved by God that He was willing to sacrifice Jesus. One certainly believes that Prof. Hicks is not simply a deluded erudite applying knowledge without discrimination, but one also believes that even Prof. Hicks must recognize that replacing one system which (as he appears to suggest) is embedded with human inferences with another system that has the same, if not more, capacity for subjectivism is a zero-sum game.

Concluding Remarks

Sadly, one feels that Prof. Hicks missed a golden opportunity to build a bridge between two methods of thought that should not be adversarial as much as complementary. Prof. Hicks notes that at one point he was “struggling with the difference between a theological hermeneutic and a blueprint hermeneutic” (emp. JMH; p.111). Again on p.147 Prof. Hicks discusses the presence of two hermeneutics and notes that the blueprint hermeneutic “authorizes a strict and precise demand, which is not part of the story itself” and that the theological hermeneutic “reveals the heart of God.” Then, in a section that presents several passages that are used to note the heart of God, Matthew 23:23 is presented – note specifically where Prof. Hicks places the emphasis:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.

By placing the emphasis on “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith,” Prof. Hicks is obviously using this as a text that proves his point – that a theological hermeneutic is better than a blueprint hermeneutic. One certainly can agree that justice, mercy, and faith are the weighty matters of the law (and yes, the Christian law, too), but in Matthew 23:23 Jesus does not place these virtues above the tithing of mint, dill, and cumin to their exclusion. On the contrary, Jesus says explicitly that justice, mercy, and faith should have been practiced along with the practice of tithing dill, mint, and cumin. Both the practice and the theological underpinning are presented as important; the two avenues work together to produce the desired result. One unconditionally agrees with Prof. Hicks that an understanding of the theological component of a hermeneutical method can produce a more informed and properly motivated Christian, but the importance of knowing the blueprint cannot be denied:

And Samuel said, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king” (1 Sam. 15:22-23, RSV).

The truth of obeying the commands that are presented in the Scriptures is further established in such verses as Matthew 7:24; Luke 6:46; John 14:15, 21-24; Romans 1:32; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15; 1 John 5:3; 2 John 6, 9; and Revelation 22:14. The commands, approved examples, and necessary inferences that have a bearing on our Christian walk may indeed be like rocks strewn across a field, but as noted by Smith when discussing the need to restore the identical forms or only the underlying functions of the 1st century church:

The immediate point is that both of these questions – however we might answer them – bring us back full circle to pattern theology. Or apostolic practice. Or biblical Christianity. However you wish to put it, we simply have no other way to know the will of God but to follow in the footsteps of our Christ-centered, Spirit-led, apostle-taught forebears in the faith.[vi]

There is much to be commended in Prof. Hicks’ work, but it is the opinion of this writer that setting up an adversarial condition between a blueprint and a theological hermeneutic is completely unwarranted and in the end positions a purely theological hermeneutic for as many flaws, misconceptions, and outright errors because of individual subjectivity as a purely blueprint hermeneutic. There is place for both in a well-rounded hermeneutic, and wisdom demands that the Christian seek both a practice that is rationally and concretely defined within the will of God as well as finding the theological motivation that reflects those principles revealed from the heart of God in the great redemptive story of humanity.


[i] References labeled “(JMH; p.xx)” are from Hicks, John Mark. Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible. Independently Published, 2019.

[ii] Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 304.

[iii] F. LaGard Smith, The Cultural Church (Nashville: 20th Century Christian, 1992), 186.

[iv] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1963), 19.

[v] George F. Beals, How Implication Binds and Silence Forbids: Studies in Biblical Hermeneutics (Ann Arbor: PC Publications, 1998), 7.

[vi] F. LaGard Smith, Radical Restoration (Nashville: Cotswold Publishing, 2001), 80.

 

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