Towards a Biblical Theology— Part Three

(This is the last pre-Christmas post in this series. We will pick up the thread again on Dec. 26th).

In a provocative essay, Leander Keck suggests that tracing a history of ideas and their development is not really doing theology. He puts it this way:

NT theology as theology cannot be pursued simply by extending, correcting or refining the history of early Christian theologies even when limited to those in the NT. Rather, NT theology proper is a historically informed theological discipline that asks its own questions and answers them in its own way. Appropriately the historian of early Christian thought looks for origins (especially the origin of Christology) and sequences, infers influences, and emphasizes differences in order to reconstruct the past, the historically informed NT theologian looks for logical relationships between the ideas generated by root premises in order to grasp the subject matter of the NT. Each discipline has its own integrity and value, each complements the other. …NT theology makes explicit the rationale of the Gospel (the salvific import of the Jesus-event) and its various expressed logical, moral and communal entailments in the NT as a whole. Moreover, because the theology of the NT is not simply ‘there’ waiting to be exposed like a vein of ore, every statement of NT theology is an interpretive construct by an interpreter who is as historically conditioned as the texts.”

It is interesting that in fact Rudolph Bultmann critiqued the history of religions sort of approach a long time ago. He tells us that the great mistake of the history of religions school, and indeed of historical criticism in his day was “tearing apart the act of thinking from the act of living and hence… [there was] a failure to recognize the intent of theological utterances.” It is not that often that I find myself agreeing with Bultmann, but he is absolutely right that it is a mistake to divide history and social context on the one hand from theology and ethics on the other. This is why we have insisted on calling what is happening in the NT theologizing and ethicizing into particular historical contexts, speaking in particular ways. The incarnational nature of the expressions and thoughts must not be avoided or ignored. When Paul says “if Christ is not raised, your faith is futile, you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15) it is perfectly clear that he believes that historical events are what generate much of the Gospel theology, and properly interpreting those events is what theologizing is all about in fact.

If Keck were right, then only a minority of the material in these two volumes could be said to involve the task of doing NT theology. Even when we have compared and synthesized data in this study, showing harmonic convergences and the like what we have not done is a task I would think actually belongs to a systematician, not a NT theologian—namely making explicit the rationale of the Gospel, or for that matter comparing concepts like the virginal conception and the incarnation and asking about their relationship to each other. We did not look for logical relationships between such ideas, though we were certainly interested in the ideas themselves.

NT theology, as described by Keck is not a matter of pursuing the historical task of simply presenting the various theologizing efforts in the NT texts. It is an after the fact, indeed an after the canonical fact, enterprise which the NT writers did not and could not have undertaken in their own day, because of course they did not have a NT staring them in the face. Ours was an examination of the theologizing and ethicizing in the texts with some comparing and contrasting. Ours was not a study engaging in doing a theology of the NT texts collectively after the fact and trying to figure out rationales and logic and the like.

Furthermore, there is a difference between showing the compatibility or convergences between discreet witnesses, and creating a whole called ‘NT theology’ out of all the witnesses. The latter is always an after the fact product and will perhaps most reflect the emphases and tendencies of the compiler and synthesizer of the project, at least more so than an attempt to allow the various NT writers to speak for themselves. There is nothing wrong with such an enterprise, but what we have done in this study should be seen as the sort of pre-requisite before undertaking such a task.

This brings us to some concluding thoughts about language theory. One of the effects of reader-response criticism, and the radical epistemology and hermeneutics that often undergird it, is that it is perfectly possible to severe the nexus between what a text meant back there and back then, and what it means now, and never feel the pain. What happens is that ‘the meaning of the text today’, say a theological or ethical meaning, becomes something that the text could not possibly have meant in its original historical setting, and this is not seen as a problem. A meaning is read into the text with impunity, because it is assumed that ‘meaning is in the eye of the beholder’.

As we saw earlier in our study, Philip Esler was quite right to criticize the fallacy of overplaying the notion of ‘intentional fallacy’, and I would stress that it is deadly to the enterprise of doing NT theology or ethics, or theology or ethics on the basis of the NT. If one no longer much cares what the original author’s had in mind and meant in their original historical settings then one is just using the NT as a springboard for one’s own ideas. With such an a-historical approach and set of presuppositions there is no control over the ways the Bible can be used, and the result is often a sort of strip mining of the text to serve all sorts of modern agendas and notions.

And here as well is where a high view of the revelatory character of Scripture ought to play a role. If you believe the Bible is the living Word of God, and as such something that a believer should submit to the authority of, and if you believe that it was possible for God to clearly and faithfully reveal his truth through the writers of the NT in those ancient languages and cultures, then surely you cannot place yourself as a meaning creator or interpreter on the same plane with the writers of the NT, much less assume that what they originally said and meant is somehow irrelevant to your quest to find your own personal meaning in these texts for yourself. Surely, it ought to be a matter of conforming one’s own thoughts and ideas to the normative ones found in the text of Scripture itself, and this necessarily implies that the text has a latent and inherent meaning that is making a claim on us. Perhaps part of the problem is that when NT theology is severed from NT ethics, then the voice of the ethical claims of the text on us, which ought to guide our conduct as Christian interpreters, is muted if not completely silenced.

I would stress the dictum—what the text meant is still what it means today, though it may have various different significances and applications for us than it did for the original writers and hears of the text. It is not our job to tell the text what it does or ought to mean today. It is our job to listen, learn, and apply God’s truth to our lives with as little intrusion as possible from our own modern and non-Biblical assumptions and concepts and with no intrusion from anti-Biblical ideas and concepts, such as some of the Gnostic ones. All of this then implies that the careful historical study of the text in its original contexts is not merely a necessary pre-requisite to understanding the theologizing and ethicizing of the NT writers. It must be part and parcel of making sense of, and then doing theologizing or ethicizing, in dependency on the spirit of the NT text.

On various of these matters, I have discovered that George Caird said a long time ago and in much better prose, some of the things I have been trying to say in the last few paragraphs, so it will be well to let him speak for himself:

[I]f God speaks through the writers of Scripture, He speaks not only through their lips but through their minds. He does not indulge in double talk, allowing Isaiah or Paul to mean one thing by what they say, while He Himself means another. If there is anything that distinguishes Christianity from all other religions and philosophies it is this: Christianity in the first instance is neither a set of doctrines nor a way of life, but a gospel; and a gospel means news about historical events, attested by reliable witnesses, and having at its centre a historical person. Whenever Christians have attempted to give to the scriptures a sense other than the plain sense intended by those who wrote them, Christianity has been in danger of running out into the sands of Gnosticism. And the danger is at its greatest when dogma or philosophical presuppositions are allowed to take control of exegesis.

One example may be given. In recent years theologians have been much tempted to welcome the attempts by literary critics and structuralists to persuade us that a text, once launched into the world, attains an existence of its own and can accumulate new meanings which are quite independent of the original intention of the author. Every verse of Scripture must yield some sense acceptable to the reader. For many this is the hope of the future. But against all such Gadarene precipitations into the Dark Ages it must be asserted that such critics, whether they are studying a literary masterpiece or a book of the Bible, ought to be aware that perhaps they are in touch with a creative mind considerably more profound and percipient than their own. What right have they to assume that the glimpses of meaning which have occurred to them were hidden from the author?….Only in so far as we are able to suppress our temptations to intellectual and spiritual superiority are we likely to be able to listen accurately to what [a Biblical writer] …has to say.

Language is in essence a medium of communication. If the hearer takes words in a sense not intended by the speaker, that is not an enlargement of meaning but a breakdown of communication. This claim applies to all uses of language, but it is especially apposite where a claim of revelation is involved. Certainly anyone, when reading a text of Scripture, may have a bright idea which is independent of the author’s intention, but which comes upon the reader with all the force and persuasiveness of revealed truth. But when that happens it is the reader’s idea, not the meaning of what he or she was reading; and any authority which we may attach to the text is irrelevant to the question of the truth or validity of the reader’s idea.

To all of this I am inclined to simply add a hearty Amen! Interpreting the NT is not like taking a Rorschach test where one is looking into an ink blot hoping some form or meaning will emerge. Were the Bible like that it would not be like looking at a revelation at all. It would like frantically peering into a dark cloud of unknowing.

Perhaps in the end the whole problem has to do with looking without first listening. Jesus it was who urged “let those with two good ears, hear”. Listening and learning requires silence, it requires the stilling of the active mind, it requires concentration, and it requires allowing the speaker to have his say, and then pondering the meaning of it. It doesn’t in the first instance require looking intently into texts with one’s own modern predilections and prejudices and presuppositions firmly in place and thus clearly in the way of hearing someone else’s point of view, especially an ancient one.

If the Bible is, as I believe, the living Word of God, then when we conjure with the meaning of this text we are not merely in touch with the writings of a bunch of long dead saints with whom we may still have some koinonia. We are in touch with the very mind of the living God who in fact is still around to define and defend the meaning of the text by means of his Holy Spirit, who not incidentally is said to lead the believer into all truth. Between listening intently to the text and listening to the still small voice of the Spirit who is still speaking to the churches, there is a better than average chance of hearing at least some of the meaning of the text. And what we may well hear in the first instance is– “what I said, is still what I am saying, and what I meant is still what I mean.” There is a reason for this—God in Christ told the truth in the first place, and it requires no improving on. What it requires then is the recognition that historical study is the incarnational door into theological and ethical understanding. What it requires is learning and applying the truth to our own lives, and in that context doing theology and ethics on the basis of those still potent Biblical witnesses. What is requires is not merely a spirit of inquiry and curiosity, but a posture of submission. And if we can manage to do that, we may hope to hear the final approbation—“well done good and faithful servant, inherit the Kingdom.”

The fine theologian from St. Andrews, Trevor Hart. helps us to see how in our encounter with the Word, we can be taken up into the grand narrative of redemption, and allow our own story to be decisively shaped by that narrative:

“It is precisely here that moral conviction of the truth of this story, and hence its authority, is rooted. God speaks. He convinces us that things between himself and the human race are in reality much as they are in the [Biblical] story. We are drawn into the world of the text precisely as we are drawn into a relationship with its central character. As this happens, we find ourselves confronted by many of the same realities and experiences as are narrated in the text. Suddenly, sin, grace, reconciliation, the power of God’s Spirit, the risen Christ and so on are not mere elements in a narrative world, but constituent parts of our own world, players and factors to be taken into consideration in our daily living and in our attempts to make sense of our situation.”

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