Towards a Biblical Theology– Part Four

Towards a Biblical Theology– Part Four December 26, 2011

(We continue to offer here excerpts from near the end of Vol. Two of The Indelible Image).


This in turn brings us to another and rather daunting topic. What about going beyond the Bible? What about the incomplete ideas in the NT canon which point us beyond themselves? This question will always be raised somewhat tentatively by those who have taken seriously the Reformation notion of ‘sola Scriptura’. But even the strongest advocates of that position in the end agreed that this notion allowed for the spinning out of the logical implications of nodal ideas in the NT and the pursuing of trajectories already embarked upon in the NT. And this enterprise, in my view, must be undertaken. A few examples must suffice.

There is no full-blown ‘doctrine’ of the Trinity worked out in the NT itself. The ideas are there in numerous places (Jesus is called God in a variety of witnesses, the Spirit and Christ like the Father are said to speak as God in Hebrews, there are various doxologies and baptismal formulae and brief credos which are Trinitarian in character), but the full spelling out of the idea of the Trinity is not to be found in the NT. Yet so important is the idea of God to the symbol system inaugurated in the NT era that it seems not only inevitable but required that more be said. Of course this ‘more’ needs to comport with what is said or implied in the Biblical text. And sometimes that did not happen.
In the Nicaean and Chalcedonian formulae much of worth is hammered out, but there was also unfortunately the importing in of ideas from Greek philosophy that needed more scrutiny than they got—for example the ideas of immutability and impassability. It must be remembered that the Nicaean Council transpired before there was a canon of the NT, and so the ideas in that creed were not normed at the time by the measuring rod of the NT. For example, a closer examination of what the NT means by statements like ‘Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever’ could have helped those discussions.
The NT does not affirm there was no change which happened to God at the juncture of the Incarnation. It affirms that a human nature was added to the divine nature of the pre-existent Son of God. This is certainly not a negligible change. Indeed, it is so important that one could say there was no Jesus (the name of a human being), before the Incarnation, though the Son of God of course existed before then. ‘Immutability’ as it applies to God in the NT simply means that God’s character is constant and does not change, and so is reliable. This is the sense of the ‘Jesus Christ the same…’ remark in Hebrews. And as for impassability something similar can be said. The God of the Bible does have emotions, and they do vary from time to time. The God of the Bible is not the God of Stoicism, though I would hasten to add that the NT does not suggest that God has ‘irrational passions’ or is controlled by some sort of merely emotive state. Nevertheless, the love and righteous anger of the Biblical God must be accounted for, and a strict notion of impassability does not help in such an endeavor.
A second example has to do with what the NT says about men and women in the order of redemption, which is not viewed as simply a perfecting of the flaws incurred from the Fall. It is clear enough in the household code texts in the NT that Paul and Peter, and presumably other NT writers are pursuing a trajectory of change in the way women were viewed and treated, change from the dominant patriarchal system which was everywhere in place. The theologizing about the headship of the husband, for example in 1 Cor. 11 as well as in the household codes was not intended to assert the husband’s authority against liberationist tendencies, but rather to restrict and Christianize the use of that already existing system of authority in relationship to all the subordinate members of the household, including wives.
This is especially clear in 1 Cor. 11 where Paul’s elaborate argument has the function of authorizing women to pray and prophesy in worship so long as the ‘head’ issue is properly addressed. As I have pointed out earlier in this volume, the failure to recognize the levels of ethical discourse especially in Paul’s letters has led to all sorts of erroneous conclusions about his views on both women and slaves. Philemon shows clearly where the Pauline logic is heading—towards the liberation of slaves for the very good reason that once one becomes a brother, one should no longer be viewed or treated by other Christians as a slave.
Similarly Ephes. 5.21 quite deliberately goes beyond what we find in Col. 3-4 by urging mutual submission of all Christians to each other. In that context, the submission of wives to husbands, and the self-sacrificial love of the wife by husbands simply illustrate the broader principle enunciated in Ephes. 5.21, a principle which is not gender specific. In short, it is not enough to assess the position of Paul’s remarks, for one must also take into account the direction of the remarks—which is counter cultural and going against the flow of the patriarchal world view which was regnant in those ancient cultures.
The third example the most obvious one, but it must be hiding in plain sight, because many theologians never refer to it. It is not possible to talk about NT theology or ethics at all without a clearly delineated concept of the NT and its limits. This of course means that while we can begin to see the preservation of sacred apostolic texts and the first steps of the canonizing process during the NT era, we apparently do not have such a defined collection in that era. The cry ‘sola Scriptura’ presupposes a canon, but that in turn requires that one allow the apostolic developments to play out to their conclusion well beyond the apostolic era.
It is likewise not possible to talk about a doctrine of Holy Scripture without a canon, but that too requires we take into account the historical processes set in motion in the NT but not coming to a climax until several centuries later. In other words, not only are the lines between sacred tradition and Scripture rather fuzzy during the period of the first through fourth centuries A.D., (not least because what counted as apostolic and authoritative was still being debated in this period), but also the doctrine of the inspiration and authority and truth claims of those sources had yet to be fully fleshed out, though, as I have argued at length elsewhere, we have NT texts which begin to discuss the matter. In other words, development beyond the teachings in the books written in the NT era was not merely inevitable— it was necessary.
This means in turn that any sort of ‘sola Scriptura’ doctrine that does not take into account the trajectories of change and development already set in motion in books written by NT authors is ignoring or resisting the meaning and direction of the remarks in the texts of what was to become the NT. This being the case, Evangelicals would do well to tone down the rhetoric about how the Bible is the final authority for Protestants whilst tradition seems to be the final authority for Catholics. Both must reckon with some combination of Scripture and tradition, and de facto do so anyway.
The question then becomes—Is there enough guidance and providing of examples in the NT books to help us to know what orthodoxy and orthopraxy ought to look like? My answer to this question is yes. There is already a concept, call it proto-orthodoxy or proto-orthopraxy that is in play and defining boundaries in the NT era, already before there is a NT canon. Orthodoxy didn’t wait on, nor was it initially dependent on the existence of a NT canon to define and defend itself. Indeed, Christological orthodoxy in an apostolic vein was hammered out before the closing of the NT canon. There was a ‘regula fidei’ before there was a ‘regula canona’.
And this brings me to another critical point. The final authority at councils like Nicaea lay with the logical out-workings of apostolic truth, in this case mainly about Jesus. It was the job of the council to articulate and make plain what the apostles had in mind. The genuine apostolic witness had authority because it told the truth about Jesus. It did not in the first case have authority either because it was found in an authorized collection of books, or because it came from what one group or another deemed the proper church. Neither canon nor the church were the final authority—the true apostolic witness which led to the formation of them both played that role. Put another way, the buck stopped with the Gospel. It had the final authority over church and council and creed alike, and it led to the recognition, not the formation of the NT canon—a process of discerning what preserved the original and true apostolic witness and what did not.
In a recent helpful study entitled Beyond the Bible, Howard Marshall, in dialogue with Stanley Porter and Kevin Vanhoozer, discusses at length the whole issue enshrined in the book title. We will dialogue with them in the following paragraphs. Early on in the study, Marshall raises the issue of what I will call the ethical basis of NT theology—that is the necessity of truth telling for a text to have authority over its audience. He puts it this way ‘What makes the Bible different from other books for us, of course is that it is Scripture, which signifies (among other things) that it possesses authority over its readers, speaking in the language of truth and command.”
The authority of the text comes from its truth-telling about the nature of reality, what is the case about reality, and also what it means and signifies. Marshall stresses in addition that the apostles claimed an authority for what they said and also wrote, not just for the specific audience for whom they spoke and wrote and for the specific occasion into which they spoke and wrote, but more widely. He suggests that at least some of them, such as Paul or Luke, seem to have been clearly conscious of producing something akin to Scripture. I would put the matter a bit differently. They were cognizant of producing the living Word of God, which in due course was to become canonical Scripture. This is very clear in a text like 1 Cor. 14 where Paul not only says that he is passing on a mandate which is also a mandate ‘in all the churches’ (which may mean all his churches), but he stresses at the end of the chapter that he has the Spirit of God and is speaking God’s Word on this subject.
As I have stressed in another study, the concept of inspiration and authority is not something applied to the texts after the fact because they are canonical. Rather they become part of the Bible because they are inspired and are telling the truth about something. Marshall goes on to plead that it is especially incumbent on those who have a high view of Scripture, such as Evangelicals, to provide some kind of reasoned, careful, principled approach to the development of doctrine from, but going beyond Scripture. He then adds that he has looked in vain to find such an approach. Each seems to do what is right in his own eyes. One could perhaps point to the Catholic magesterium as an example of how such a thing could be done in a disciplined way, but there is no Protestant equivalent to that group, and even if Evangelicals formed such a group, it is unlikely in the extreme that it would ever be allowed to have some sort of authority over various differing Protestant denominations when it comes to doctrine or ethics.
Marshall then suggests that we can look to the NT itself for some guidelines as to how doctrine can and should be developed out of and going beyond the NT itself. For example, he points to what happens to the Jesus tradition in the Fourth Gospel, which he agrees is a faithful representation of what Jesus really meant and taught, but it is written up freely in the Evangelist’s own distinctive manner. This suggests a freedom in regard to the form of the way Biblical truth is conveyed, while care must be taken in regard to the substance of that truth, lest the new form distort, misrepresent, or betray the original content.
Marshall then asks what happens to the process of the development of doctrine and praxis initiated in the NT books themselves, once there is a canon, a measuring rod in place? “Here an important distinction must be made between the production of further Scriptures, which is ruled out by the creation of a canon as a closed list, and the development of doctrine and practice on the basis of those canonical writings. The closing of the canon is not incompatible with the non-closing of the interpretation of that canon.” While I agree with this in principle, I would want to stress that the need for further interpretation of the text is always there, but interpretation and the development of doctrine or praxis are not the same thing.
Marshall then proceeds to helpfully suggest that the development of doctrine and praxis beyond the canon requires three things: 1) a clear and profound grasp of the apostolic deposit and its meaning; 2) a mind so nurtured on Scripture and in Christ that one thinks in ways that are naturally coherent with what Scripture teaches; and 3) a submission to and a regularly seeking and listening to the Spirit’s (and that of God in general) guidance. Marshall suggests that is precisely these three things that we find working in the lives of the NT authors themselves, and presumably we would require the same sort of things at work if we are to faithfully develop doctrine and praxis.
Marshall rightly sees getting Christology right as perhaps the most essential part of the discerning process. He proposes three principles of guidance for interpretation, and then draws seven conclusions. The principles are these: 1) the early Christian reading of the OT took place in light of the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus, and so Christians ever since should be reading the OT in a similar way; 2) the teaching of Jesus must be understood in light of his death, resurrection, and the later apostolic teaching; and 3) the teachings of the apostles took place on the basis of a combination of interpreting the Word (in light of the Christ event) and on the basis of insights given by the Spirit.
The seven points Marshall believes he has established are: 1) that the later documents (in the canon) need not necessarily be more mature than the earlier, even though in general there is a development in doctrine throughout the Bible which leads to greater diversity and maturity of expression. For example, the high Christology in Paul is early, whereas the Christology we find in some post-Pauline writings does not reflect as high a Christology (e.g. the Christology in Luke-Acts); 2) there is an incompleteness in Scripture, seen for example in its failure to deal with later questions (e.g. modes and recipients of baptism) which means that doctrine can and must develop beyond Scripture; 3) one needs to have a concept of both progressive revelation and in addition the fact of the totality of revelation so that the meaning of texts will be seen in light of the larger context, and particularly the earlier texts must be read in light of the later ones in the NT; 4) Nevertheless there is a continuity throughout the process because the God of the OT is the same as the God of the NT, and the teaching of Jesus stands in continuity with both OT teaching and the later apostolic teachings; 5) the development is controlled (and in fact prompted) by the shift from the old to the new covenant, and from the limnal period during Jesus’ ministry to the period of the early church, and by the facing of new situations and new errors; 6) development in doctrine and praxis is inevitable after the closing of the canon and must be in continuity with the faith once given to God’s people and be in accord with ‘the mind of Christ’ and 7) the supreme authority of Scripture must continue to be affirmed while recognizing Scripture continually needs fresh interpretation and application. There is much to commend in all these conclusions, and I find myself in fundamental agreement with them.
In his response to what he humorously calls ‘the Marshall plan’, Kevin Vanhoozer makes various helpful suggestions and critiques. First of all, Vanhoozer stresses that the quest for meaning precedes the assessment of a statement’s truth. “One cannot make a judgment as to a text’s truth until one has first determined what it is saying/claiming.” This is precisely why he stresses that understanding the genre of Scripture is crucial to determining its meaning, and thus assessing its truth content. He adds that he thinks Marshall’s intuition to look for principles of development within Scripture as a basis or model for doing the development of theology and praxis beyond Scripture is helpful. In my view Vanhoozer is right in calling into question a loose use of the phrase ‘going beyond’ Scripture. The question becomes what does this phrase exactly mean? ‘More than’ need not mean ‘other than’, and a change of wording does not necessarily connote a value added to a nodal concept in Scripture. How does one go beyond without going against Scripture? Some will cautiously say that one should be able to make explicit what is implicit in Scripture. This amounts to little more than clarification of what is said or implied in Scripture. Few would object to this concept of going beyond Scripture.
But then Vanhoozer takes up the issue of pursuing redemptive trajectories thought to be found in Scripture, and pursuing them beyond the bounds that Scripture takes such trajectories. He rightly queries whether we have the right to just assume that we are further down the track along the trajectory and hence can see better where it was going than the Biblical writers did. “Can one decide what counts as redemptive movement without pretending to stand at the end of the process, without claiming to know what kind of eschatological world the Spirit is creating?’ While recognizing that Vanhoozer has put his finger on a potential problem, here is where I would say that if there are clear intimations or statements in Scripture itself as to where things ought to go in a best case scenario, then we have an obligation to do our best to see them through to that end. Two examples must suffice.
There are plenty of texts, like Gal. 3.28 or Ephes. 5.21 or 1 Cor. 7 and 11 where it becomes readily apparently that Paul is pushing the envelope when it comes to balancing or equalizing male-female relationships in Christ, while affirming the reality and goodness of gender differences. There is also a text like Philemon which provides a serious critique of the institution of slavery within the context of the Christian community. What do we make of these sorts of texts, which clearly go beyond other NT texts such as the household codes in Col. 3-4?
Firstly, some degree of sophistication about recognizing levels of moral discourse needs to be developed. Colossians is Paul’s opening salvo with an audience he did not convert, and in this regard it is rather like Romans. Ephesians is second order moral discourse, written to some of the same audience in the same region as an encyclical and taking certain things in the Colossian household code a step further. Philemon is third order moral discourse, a discussion between friends or intimates and it pushes the envelope when it comes to slavery even further. If there is clear evidence of a trajectory within the canon itself, then it should be evident that Paul, in this case, would be best pleased if we were to follow this trajectory on to its logical conclusions. The trajectory of discussion within Scripture norms and guides how to pursue the trajectory beyond Scripture. Indeed, I would say that the evidence of a trajectory within Scripture requires of us that we must pursue the implications of the fullest or furthest developments of the concepts and praxis we find there.
Vanhoozer goes on to argue that doctrine “directs the church to speak and act in new situations (e.g. beyond the Bible) biblically by cultivating what I will call ‘the mind of the canon’. That to which theologians must attend in Scripture is not the words and concepts so much as the patterns of judgment. Christian doctrine describes a pattern of judgment present in the biblical texts…the same judgment can be rendered in a variety of conceptual terms.” “We move from Bible to doctrine not by systematizing Scripture’s concepts, nor by extracting (e.g. decontextualizing) principles, but rather by discerning and continuing a pattern of judgment rendered in a variety of linguistic, literary, and conceptual forms.”
This is very helpful, but then when Vanhoozer turns around and says that what is predicated about Christ in the Nicaean formula is the same as what is predicated of Christ in Phil. 2.5-11 I am frankly puzzled. No, Nicaea goes well beyond, and perhaps in some limited respects, against the conception of Christ in that Christ hymn. That Vanhoozer does not see this is disturbing. I would like to have heard more from him on his concepts of covenant, of progressive revelation, and of canonical Christ-centered interpretation, but that is a conversation for another day. What is said here is only meant to further the ongoing discussion, not draw definitive conclusions.
Where does this leave us then in the discussion of the relationship of NT theology and ethics to that found in patristic sources, and to the later canonical and Biblical theology of various sorts, and finally to much later systematic theology ranging from Aquinas to Barth and beyond? My answer would be that NT theology and ethics should take pride of place in evaluating the validity of all subsequent theologizing and ethicizing of whatever sort. Stated negatively, the NT must be allowed to dictate the proper terms of the discussion about apostolic truth, not some later theological construct or category. This is why I have resisted using systematic categories for the grouping of the data in this study (e.g. justification, sanctification etc.).
The categories for the discussion of the NT data should, if at all possible, arise from the texts of the NT themselves, and later theological systems, be they Protestant or Catholic, need to be constantly checked against and normed by the apostolic witness. The later systems should not be allowed to define what orthodoxy or orthopraxy must look like, and how we must approach the NT. Rather such systems must be put through the refiner’s fire of the apostolic witness found in the NT over and over again. If their substance cannot be either found in the NT documents or be shown to be a clear and logical development thereof, so much the worse for their substance. If even the earliest creeds should be constantly checked against the NT witnesses, all the more so should later confessions (Westminster, Augsburg, Trent, Dordt) however noble in diction and character.
Confessions, for good or ill, seem often to major in ideas, or at least feature as distinctive ideas things which can be debated as to whether one can even find them in the Bible or not. Several examples would be: 1) not merely the fallenness of all human beings but their ‘total depravity’ outside the saving grace of Christ; 2) the pre-determination by God of some to be lost for all eternity, come what may, do what they will; 3) the ‘perfection’ of the Christian in this lifetime and prior to the return of Christ; 4) the perpetual virginity of Mary, and I could go on.
When these sorts of distinctive ideas are used as a grid through which one reads the NT and by which one determines what is orthodoxy or orthopraxy, much less who is a true Christian and who is not, we are clearly a long way from the substance and the spirit of the NT witnesses themselves who wanted us to focus on Christ, him crucified and raised, and the salvation message to be spread abroad to the world. I do not say that confessions are inherently a bad thing. I do say that they need to be far better grounded in the substance of the NT itself than they have been heretofore.
It was the great merit of Karl Barth’s work that he truly and profoundly wrestled with the details in the NT text in order to come to exegetical and theological and ethical conclusions. Any Christian systematic theology ought to do so. But herein lies the problem– few systematicians are also able exegetes of the NT (and the converse is certainly also true). Who is sufficient for such a cross- disciplinary task? And perhaps equally problematic, systematicians are generally speaking not historians either. They have difficulties dealing with the historical givenness of the NT texts without reducing them into a pile of doctrines or principles or proposition or the like.
Alas, the same could be said of many Biblical theologians as well, who in order to synthesize the necessary data reduce it to a-historical categories time and again. And then we have the further problems with canonical theologians who want to treat the OT in such an a-historical manner that it becomes a sort of second Christian source of information about Christ and other subjects which are actually not much, or not directly, addressed before the NT period itself. How do we remedy these problems?
My suggestion, while it may seem overly simplistic, is the best one I know of. Exegetes and systematicians and canonical and Biblical theologians need to do a better job of spending time together and talking to each other, and even working together on scholarly projects. Can it be done? In fact it can, as the recent conferences at St. Andrews University where both exegetes and theologians have been invited to study John and Hebrews with interesting results, has demonstrated. We live in an age of over-specialization, which results in all scholars being rather lopsided, with over developed skills and knowledge in their own fields, and under-developed understanding of other disciplines and the relationship of NT studies to them. We have miles to go before we understand each other, never mind miles to go before we can truly work together on understanding Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

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