Those of us who teach at universities with professional majors but a strong Liberal Arts focus know something about how students view the ‘core curriculum’. It is core in the sense that it is what everyone is supposed to take in common, alongside their courses for their majors. But rather than being viewed as ‘core’ in the usual sense, such courses are often despised as irrelevant, and at best regarded as tangential or peripheral to their majors.
If we think about the New Testament as Christianity’s earliest “curriculum”, I wonder what would be part of the “major” and what would be “tangential”. In many forms of Christianity that are popular today, something rather unusual has happened. Not only has the whole focus come to be on some of the “fringe” texts of the New Testament, the less mainstream expressions of less common views, but everything else has been reinterpreted or ignored in light of that. It is as though a pharmacist were to approach all their chemistry and medicine courses as though they were literature classes, viewing them through the lens of a core English class and reinterpreting them as such. But assuming that the purpose of a core curriculum is to ensure breadth and diversity in education, rather than to turn a pharmacist into a philosopher, then we may ask whether the same is true of the teachings of the New Testament.
I mentioned one example in a recent post (in fact, it was in the comments section), the dominance of the language, imagery and interpretation of Jesus’ death in Hebrews, so that all of the other metaphors for atonement are reduced to or constrained by this rather unusual author’s distinctive perspective. Here are a few other examples of the same phenomenon:
What You Do Matters
The New Testament speaks almost with one voice that what one does matters, and that one will be held accountable for one’s actions. In Revelation 20:12-13, judgment by works is clear. Matthew’s parable of the sheep and the goats communicates the same message, as does the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount (radically reinterpreted in children’s songs to refer to building one’s life on the Lord Jesus Christ, rather than putting his teachings into practice). Even Jude’s little postcard (vv14-16) gives the same impression – so it is there at the margins too, although who knows whether Jude represents a typical or atypical early Christian viewpoint?
At any rate, if Paul’s message about salvation “apart from the works of the Law” is rightly understood by traditional Protestant lines of interpretation, then this still leaves Paul as one divergent voice on a subject on which there is otherwise general agreement. Of course, I think that there are other ways of interpreting Paul that can make better sense of what he wrote, and do justice to passages like Romans 2:6-16, where Paul seems to express agreement with the rest of the New Testament authors, saying in v6 that God “will give to each one according to what he has done” (which is in fact a quotation, showing that Paul and early Christians in general accepted this Jewish teaching expressed in places like Psalm 62:12 and Proverbs 24:12).
But if Paul is rightly understood in the Lutheran tradition, then that does not mean either that we should ignore his voice as marginal, nor allow it to completely dominate the discussion. The important thing to learn here is a principal that is much more widely applicable: make sure you don’t mistake what the majority is saying, just because a minority is particularly vocal.
Paul, of course, is not alone, even if he is in the minority. The Gospel of John also has an unusual perspective on judgment. Probably in response to the “delay of the Parousia” (i.e. the fact that the “second coming” of Jesus did not occur as quickly as the earliest Christians had expected), the author of John brought many things that were expected at the end of history into the present. Rather than awaiting judgment and eternal life, these are made present realities, based on how one has responded to Jesus. Once again, we have a marginal viewpoint, in this case a reinterpretation of the earlier Christian viewpoint in light of new circumstances. But once we realize what the Gospel of John was doing in this instance, we need to ask whether the appropriate response is to allow John’s reinterpretation to dominate, or to follow John’s example by reinterpreting earlier traditions ourselves in light of all that has been learned and experienced by Christians in the intervening centuries.
There is no sense in which the incarnation can be viewed as a central teaching of the New Testament. If Paul uses the language of pre-existence at all, it is in passages that are poetic (and thus most likely metaphorical) in character. Philippians 2:6-11 and (if it is from Paul) Colossians 1:15-20. But it is noteworthy that Paul never speaks about Jesus in prose as though he pre-existed – indeed, he says things like the ‘spiritual’ Adam comes after the ‘natural’ (1 Corinthians 15:46). The language of Philippians 2 is most likely focused on comparing Jesus to Adam, and on Jesus being exalted to a status he did not have before, even to the point of being given the divine name.
The Gospel of John is unique among the Gospels in expressing such ideas, and is probably unique in the whole New Testament in applying such language to Jesus in a more literal fashion. In my book John’s Apologetic Christology I explain some of the reasons I think the author made these developments, so I won’t repeat those points here. In the present context, my point is that John is somewhat tangential (as he is on the subject of judgment). Here too, certain strands of Christianity take this marginal voice within the Bible as the Biblical voice.
In fact, the situation is even more complex. I recently responded to a book that contrasted “Jesusanity” with the “Biblical Christ”. But the incarnational Christmas story as usually told is in fact a story of the “canonical Christ” that exists only in the combination of the Gospels, and is not in any one of them. The Gospel of John, taken on its own or with the Johannine Epistles, seems to depict the incarnation as occurring when Jesus was baptized. The reference in the prologue to the Baptist’s activity before and after the incarnation (John 1:14), focuses on the Spirit descending on Jesus and remaining on him (John 1:33; Word and Spirit were not clearly distinguished in the Judaism of this period, or even in the earliest second century post-NT Christian writings), and the reference in 1 John 5:6 to Christ coming not only by water but also by blood (countering the view evidenced in other sources that the heavenly Christ came upon Jesus at his baptism but departed before the crucifixion).
It is only by lumping Matthew and Luke’s focus on the infancy with John’s incarnational emphasis that one ends up with the idea that the decisive moment in the incarnation was Jesus’ birth. In other words, the Christmas story that will be told in the vast majority of Churches this year is not Biblical in the sense that it tells a story that is in the Bible, but canonical because it tells a story that is concocted by combining details that are in various parts of the New Testament to create a story different from that which any individual author tells.
The New Testament is pretty consistent in recognizing that those outside of the “chosen people” can often evidence more faith than the people of God. In addition to Paul’s reference in Romans 2 to those Gentiles who do “by nature” what the Law requires, there is also the reference in John 1 to the Word as the Light that gives light to every human being, and Peter’s acknowledgment that God “accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:35). And let’s not forget Jesus’ pronouncement that he had not found such faith in all Israel as he found evidenced by certain Gentiles, whom he praises and sends away without instructing them in the Jewish Law or giving them a tract with four things God wants them to know.
In all these instances, there are forms of Christianity that allow a fringe voice in the Bible to drown out what the majority of texts are saying. The same is of course true when Christians focus on homosexuality and ignore issues of social justice. The question, ultimately, is whether what it means to be a Christian is determined by the majority’s emphases or by those who speak the loudest, an issue that does not only relate to Biblical interpretation, but also to the fringe and extreme voices that are often perceived as speaking for Christianity today (even though such voices really do not deserve to be in the same category with Paul and John).
This post arose in connection with a response to a book that opposed the “Biblical Christ” to the “Jesusanity” of popular culture. In fact, the historical Jesus was perhaps first known in first-century Galilean popular culture, which we have no access to (I’ve recently begun reading Christian Origins: A People’s History Of Christianity, Vol. 1, edited by Richard Horsley, which includes some problematic statements, but nevertheless rightly points out that we cannot discover the view of the majority of Jews or Christians in the first century by reading the texts written by the literate elite). We have no way of knowing for sure whether the voices we hear in the literature of the New Testament do not co-opt Jesus to line up more with certain understandings of Jewish “orthodoxy” than he really did, just as later Gnostics made his teachings line up with their distinctive intellectual perspective. Jesus bypassed the cities and academies and addressed illiterate peasants. It is this fact that causes the historian such difficulty – Jesus did not focus on leaving a record for posterity that the literate could access. Christianity has presumably always been for most people something other than what theologians and intellectuals (whether “liberal” or “conservative” have said it should be). If any scholars are making an impact on popular culture – and certainly Bock and Wallace do that in popular conservative Evangelical culture as much as Borg and Crossan do in popular mainline and liberal Christian culture), both are probably examples of how different our own situation is today to that of the earliest Christians.
In conclusion, it seems our two main options are to focus on the historical Jesus as our key source, or to focus on the Church’s teachings. To take the Church’s Bible, with the canon determined by its reflection and use, and ultimately approved by its authoritative decisions, and treat that canon as authoritative but the church as not, is intrinsically incoherent. The pure “Biblical” option that Bock and Wallace offer simply isn’t a real option, because the Bible did not drop down from heaven in a package (and when its separate parts were collected it was into a box labelled “some assembly required”). One can accept the Bible, and the traditions and authority of the Church that are responsible for its collection, and if one does so, I hope that this decision will not exclude the use of one’s own rational faculties. Or one can take a primarily critical historical approach, and accept that ultimately it is us who decide what to emphasize in the Bible’s diverse statements, and how to interpret and apply them.