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Requirements of a Sound Theory

By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated:  Monday December 03, 2007

General Principles

Interpreting Texts

It is sometimes mistakenly thought that Metaphorical Gospel issues are matters of faith, or religion.  They certainly do have implications for religion, but they are first and foremost questions of historical fact.  Namely, "What did certain people (the New Testament authors/redactors) intend to convey when they wrote?"  More specifically, "Did the New Testament writers INTEND TO PORTRAY their material as metaphorically, not factually, true?"  The MG Theory says "YES" to this question.

And so we enter the world of "hermeneutics", the interpretation of texts. So, we ought to be clear about our principles of interpretation.

Representing the Theory

John Dominic Crossan rightly complains of a tendency to set up straw man arguments to knock down.  It's too often the case that the critic of some view simply does not take the time to understand it.  Or, having understood it, to caricature the view so as to make it ridiculous. 

It is, however, only a small part of the recent shift from academic argumentation (I willmake your case as accurate and strong as I can before I demolish it) topolitical argumentation (I will make your case as dumb and silly as I canbefore I demolish you). I am not too happy with that aspect of the recentJesus Wars.   (John Dominic Crossan, Mar 2000, HJMaterials/Methodology discussion group)

The two principles of charity and fidelity should prevail here.  We should try to be faithful to the writer's view (fidelity), while putting the best construction on it that we can (charity).  I would add that, if possible, it is a good idea to ask follow-up questions of the writer in question, in order to clear up misunderstandings and achieve the greatest clarity.


It is clear that the Metaphorical Gospel theory does not embrace an entirely subjective theory of interpretation.  Some theories maintain that texts mean whatever we think they mean, or whatever we want them to mean, in our own existential situation.   For such theories, it is impossible to be wrong when interpreting written material, because the texts themselves do not have an objective meaning outside of our interaction with them!

No, the MG theory doesn't say this.  On the contrary: its proponents specifically claim that the standard interpretation of the New Testament is wrong, and that this new interpretation is correct - that is, faithful to the original intent of the authors.

Therefore, we will agree that the New Testament writers were trying to convey something, that there is a true interpretation of their texts, and that this interpretation is discoverable.


What principles shall we use to do our exegesis? We immediately find ourselves in a peculiar position. We can't exactly appeal to "standard principles of New Testament interpretation", for these are the very things in question!

I propose that we start instead with the interpretive rules used in the "real world" of the legal profession. The following four principles are at the heart of these rules:

  1. The meaning of the text should be found in the document itself.  Insofar as possible, the document should be allowed to be self-interpreting.
  2. When ambiguities arise, the clear intention of the writing should prevail over particular words.
  3. The "plain" meaning should be accepted whenever possible.  Any novel interpretation must be supported by proof.
  4. The document must be construed as a whole.  Exegesis must be in context.

Burden of Proof

There are several common-sense legal rules for assigning the burden of proof. (McCormick, McCormick on Evidence: 785-6; McGuire, Evidence: Common Sense and Common Law, 179) The party having the burden of proof must overturn some initial presumption (in this case the results of  interpretation according to the rules stated above) by establishing the greater likelihood of its thesis.  The burden of proof is on:

On each of these points, the burden of proof is squarely on those who affirm the Metaphorical Gospel theory.  Because of the rules of interpretation, the presumption is that the text says what is seems to say.  The "unusual event" is the introduction of a novel interpretation; the MG theory proposes to overturn the norm.  And if the theory is implausible in the ways I've describe later, it incurs an additional burden of proof.

The scholars who affirm the MG theory claim to possess peculiar knowledge, hence the burden is made greater. And - while they do not accuse the "literalizers" of fraud - they do claim that a mistake of gigantic proportions has been made, and therefore must be made to prove their claim.


Analytic Philosophers, especially those such as Karl Popper who are concerned with the Philosophy of Science, have pointed out that one requirement for a meaningful theory is that it is theoretically "falsifiable."  Expressed in common-sense terms, this requirement says that I must be able to say not only what kind of evidence would support my theory, but what kind of evidence would count against it.

[When you realize that most scientific theories are of the "universal" form (e.g. "all x is y") rather than the "existential" form (e.g. "there exists an x which is y"), it becomes obvious that mountains of evidence confirming the theory cannot establish its truth with certainty, while only one counter-example is sufficient to disprove it. It follows that much scientific experimentation is designed to find such counter-examples.]

Let's say we have a theory which is so flexible that no possible state of affairs could count against it.  Let's say my theory says, for instance, "Everyone is plotting against me."  You can point out that many people actually like me, and are helpful to me, and that most people completely ignore me.  I respond by saying "Yes, that's all part of the plot.  They're trying to win my confidence, lull me into trusting them."  Any possible evidence that you present can be assimilated into my theory. It is bullet-proof - but at a cost. The cost is that the theory is technically meaningless.

And so, a sound theory must be falsifiable.

Requirements of a Sound Theory

There are various kinds of theories, and each kind may require a different degree of proof. The hierarchy of proof could plausibly go something like this, from weakest to strongest claim:

A mature theory is simply an established theory that has stood the test of time.  It has perhaps changed a bit in order to accommodate objections.  Its definition has been refined and perfected: we know not only what the theory says and doesn't say, but we also know precisely what counts for and against the theory.  And what specifically makes it a mature theory is that all remaining objections to the final theory have been considered and shown to be faulty - in fact, there are standard rebuttals to most objections.

Which type of theory is the Metaphorical Gospel theory?  I would assume from the way that it is affirmed that its proponents consider it to be at the very least an "established theory."  In fact, their zeal in recommending it and confidence in its truth actually indicates that they consider it to be a "mature theory."  So, let's expect the degree and type of proof suitable to a mature theory concerning the interpretation of the New Testament texts.  What would that be? 

Any sound theory should provide the following.  A mature theory should go beyond this and provide it in a rigorous manner.

Definiteness of Articulation

We should be clear as to what the theory is.

1.  The theory, first, should be clearly and explicitly spelled out.  The reader should easily be able to know which propositions are asserted by the theory, which are denied, and which are outside the scope of the theory.  If we are not clear about what the theory says, how can we know if it is true?

2.  Quite obviously, the theory must be internally consistent.

Definiteness of Warrant

We should be clear as to why the theory is held to be true.

1.  The theory should tell us exactly which kinds of events or facts count for the theory, which count against it (it must be falsifiable), and which are outside the scope of the theory. 

2.  The reasoning from evidence to conclusion must be clear, valid, and be explicitly spelled out, so we can all see why the theory is true.

Internal Evidence

What direct or indirect statements within the text confirm the theory?

1.  Direct.  Internal evidence, that is, statements within the body of the text, will often be difficult to evaluate, simply because they are the very statements at issue.  However, the careful reader may find "meta-textual" statements in the text:  statements that directly confirm or disconfirm the theory.  Any such statements should be brought forth and analyzed.

2.  Indirect.  Some statements within the text, while they do not directly address the issue at hand, support or undercut the theory in an indirect way.  For instance, a passage may assume or depend on something that constitutes evidence for or against the theory; or the passage may make better sense within one framework than another.

External Evidence

What direct or indirect statements outside the text confirm the theory?

1.  Direct.  Are there writings that show how the text was commonly understood by those in the best position to make that assessment?

2.  Indirect.  Are there writings that assume or depend on, or make better sense of, one interpretation?

Answers to Objections

Has the theory taken all the relevant facts and inferences into account?

1.  Coverage of the Intellectual Terrain.  One of the most important attributes of a sound theory is that it has considered the question from as many angles as possible.  The one presenting the theory, for instance, has not just considered one side of the question, but is conversant with all the issues involved.

2.  Answers to Common Objections.  Any significant theory will be tested by others.  Unless the theory is trivially true, somebody will come up with questions and objections, counter-examples, new inferences, etc.  A sound theory will have considered all such questions, and will in fact have anticipated new questions.  A mature theory will go beyond even this.  It will have become so adept at responding to such questions that it will have "stock" answers for the most common of them.