First lesson of 2015—where does the time go?
As Ben said, I’m an exegete, and I teach scripture for both general education and religion majors. Since the latter will go on to study broader topics in religion, including systematics and spirituality, I push into a bit of theology to help prepare them for other classes in the Christian tradition.
I think I will blog along with the GD lessons, at least as I have the time or energy to do so. However, I don’t intend to really blog the lessons themselves. Instead, I am going to work through the chosen selections (pericope) from the perspective of biblical theology rather than exegesis. Why? Mostly for me, to work out some things as I go – writing to learn, as they say. So I don’t know that it will be all that interesting but perhaps the occasional visitor who is also a GD teacher will see something curious or thought-provoking. And, as I said, I can’t promise to hit it every week – the paying job and other writing projects have to come first.
So, well, what is biblical theology? That’s a good question but for my purposes I’m going to treat it like an attempt to make sense of what God has done, is doing, and will do in the future, which is sometimes also called pastoral theology. In addition, I will be using the standard broad traditions of the NT to organize my thoughts:
SYNOPTICS: Mark, Matthew, and Luke-Acts
PAULINE: under this heading are both the letters generally attributed to Paul and those for which Pauline authorship is sometimes questioned. The latter will be treated as a viable extension or interpretation of the former since they are part of the canon
JOHANNINE: John and the three letters of John
OTHERS: In addition to these three great traditions there are other significant voices, primarily Hebrews, James, the Petrine letters, and Revelation.
At various points perhaps I’ll also try to integrate elements of the LDS tradition as a fifth source once I catch my stride.
In any case, this sort of an organization implies that there are genuine differences between these traditions. I think this is so, indeed, I think it is a natural part of a human life lived in relationship with God. It’s not that God is “variable,” but that I think we experience the Transcendent differently, just as no two human persons have the same relationship with a third human, no matter how close. And I think that’s the case with the authorial figures behind the great traditions of the NT: they wrote about what they (or their community) experienced as a relationship with God. For our purposes this means that harmonization, defined as an attempt to show that all are saying the same thing, would be an unfortunate choice as an interpretive strategy. But, behind all of this there is one God, and so under all this diversity there is also a transcendent unity. It is the challenge of finding this—without harmonizing–that motivates me.
Having said all that, I’m going to read along with the GD lessons looking at how various NT authors seem to address the following six questions:
What is wrong with human life? Because if there was/is nothing wrong with the human condition then it’s hard to see why Jesus came/went and is still proclaimed by the church
What does God intend to do about it? Well, God sends Jesus. But each great NT tradition has something of a different take, corresponding perhaps to how they experienced God’s intervention.
Who is Jesus that he can bring God’s plans into fruition? Here again I think there is some profound diversity. Diversity because there are some real differences and profound because the church holds that each is inspired and important.
What sort of a community is gathered around Jesus? Here the issue is probably identifying how those who respond to Jesus tend to think of themselves WRT to God, Jesus, and the rest of the world.
What sort of behaviors are expected of this community? One important part of each community is what they consider to be right behaviors, attitudes, etc.
What does this community expect in the future? Here we might include both the immediate and the definite (eschatological or final) future.
These questions roughly correspond to the traditional theological categories of Christian anthropology, soteriology (salvation), Christology, ecclesiology (church), ethics, and eschatology (last things). Alas, a mile wide and an inch deep, but that is how blogging usually goes. Never time to really cover a topic well.
Synoptic Tradition (Luke 3:3-11)
In this first lesson, elements of two NT traditions, the Synoptic (Luke 3:3-11; John the Baptist) and the Johannine (John 1:1-14; 20:31) are in play. For now, we’ll work with the Synoptic narrative in Luke:
3 [John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
This pericope is dominated by the narrator and the character of John the Baptist, both of whom may be assumed to have a point of view aligned with that of Luke and God, and thus reliable in their speech, actions, values and judgments. The narrator declares that John’s purpose is to “prepare the way of the Lord,” a goal that assumes as a backstory the prophetic traditions of the Hebrew Bible. When this new character arrives, the eschatological (final) reversal will begin as God re-orders human affairs to what they should be and makes the high low, the rough smooth, etc., etc., evening things out, so to speak.
John himself faces off against a group character identified as “the crowds.” These are Jews whose behavior is not, in John’s reliable judgment, well-aligned with their covenant status. Thus, he addresses them harshly as a “brood of vipers” and threatens them with eschatological judgment, also presumably associated with the arrival of “the Lord.” The image he uses is that of axes being swung at the foot of trees, creating anticipation of a rather complete and devastating change of affairs. At this, some seem to realize their peril and ask John what they “must do.” His reply is simple: they must share.
What is the human condition? In this story, the human condition is portrayed by the crowds. Rather than being the worthy (children) of Abraham that they might claim to be, they face destruction because of their sins. They need forgiveness and a re-ordering of their lives (repentance), but seem to be unsure how to do this. Probing a bit deeper, the society in which they live has no adequate response to economic inequalities, that is, they do not know how to rightly order their money and property.
What is God going to do about this? The remedy is a decisive intervention in history, depicted as the future arrival of a third character identified as “the Lord” in a prophecy from Isaiah. John’s proclamation, therefore, signals a new age, that is, an age of salvation that will dawn with the coming of “the Lord” and is drawn from the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible. As this is very early in the narrative, however, the details remain unclear except that repentance precedes salvation. One also finds that Luke alone among the Synoptics quotes from the LXX (Septuagint) of Isa 40:3-5 to the effect that the salvation brought by the Lord will be available to all, rather than just the Jews.
Who is Christ, that he can accomplish God’s intent? In the designated section the focus is on what Jesus will do, not who he is, except that he is to be identified with “the Lord” in Isa 40:3. Reading a bit beyond the present passage, he will be the Spirit-filled leader who will bring to pass God’s plans – the Messiah – but consistent with the fundamental Christology of the Synoptics, he will do this as the Son of Man who must suffer and then be vindicated by God. Thus, “the Lord” is not going to be quite what many were expecting…
What is the nature of the community that responds to this? This community is first represented as that part of “the crowds” that responds positively to John’s message. Therefore, the most basic definition is that these are people who have experienced a forgiveness of sins. At this early point in the narrative, they are John’s disciples, but this will change. In the following chapters of Luke’s Gospel the community will still be identified as disciples, but now as the disciples of Jesus, and since Jesus is Israel’s messiah, the disciples will become the new Israel. When the presentation shifts to Acts, the word “church” will begin to appear, while the disciples will become themselves Spirit-filled leaders who offer salvation to both Jews and Gentiles. Thus, the work of the church is a continuation of the work of Christ.
What behaviors are incumbent on this community, and why? John’s answer is simple and an early indication of where the larger narrative will go: Disciples should behave in a fashion appropriate to a person who has received God’s mercy, that is, they should share. This ethical precept is woven deeply into Luke’s narrative. For example, in the early chapters of Acts, the Jerusalem disciples will sell their goods and give the proceeds to the poor. At the end, Paul’s reason for visiting Jerusalem has to do with sharing, as well. He is bringing contributions from his Gentile churches to share with the church in Jerusalem. The most striking example of the consequences of a failure to properly share is that of Ananias and Sapphira, whose attempt to deceive ended rather fatally.
What does this community anticipate in the future? The broad details may be identified with the covenant promises of the Hebrew Bible, including the establishment of God’s justice and the end of evil. The community forming first around John can look to escape “the wrath of God” and “see the salvation of all flesh.” Just what his means and how it will happen, however, must await the revelation of God’s plan in the coming of the Lord.
And that’s enough (too much!?!) for now — more later and eventually some comparison. Thanks for reading!