Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Question of Abstraction

As I recently read The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, I was reminded of an issue with hermeneutics. Namely, to what extent are the words of the prophets and apostles to be abstracted from their original context when deriving doctrine?

This example may demonstrate the point, however the question of abstraction is general and I'm not necessarily concerned with this particular application. We read in 1 Corinthians 5:11

But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.

It's obvious how the Corinthians to whom this letter was sent were intended to understand the statement. But how is everyone else intended to understand this statement (or any statement from the Scriptures). In answer to the question For whom is Paul's statement proscriptive? there is a seemingly infinite continuum from concrete to abstract:

  • only the Church of God which is at Corinth (see 1:2) which received the original epistle

  • all saints of Paul's time regardless of geography

  • all saints facing problems of fornication, idolatry, etc (see 5:1) regardless of geography or time

  • all saints with or without such problems regardless of geography or time

  • all persons regardless of religion, geography or time

These are but a few conclusions that could be drawn about the applicability of this particular statement. The problem arises in that a strictly concrete application of Paul's statement makes the Scriptures purely an historical document with little use for modern application. However, abstracting Paul's statement to apply to every circumstance certainly loses some of the context the author originally intended and in this case even condemns our Lord himself for associating with publicans and sinners. Whatever one's particular view on the matter, it's clear that practically any doctrine could be reasonably supported by appealing to a convenient location and the concrete-abstract spectrum.

I have a solution to these issues, but that will wait for another entry ... (I'd make Fermat proud).

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