CKB on Theological Presuppositions

CKB on Theological Presuppositions March 5, 2024

A lecture given at the Catholic College at Ushaw outside Durham on 1/15/85.  That college closed in 2011 due to lack of seminary students.

Auditur et altera pars. This will bring us near to the point. Fridensaal at Munster: Treaty of Westphalia ends the 30 years war between Catholics and Protestant.  How should they treat each other– ‘Listening’ is a much better way.  I was asked by your superior– What difference does it make to a non-Catholic lecturer like me when a group of Catholic ordinands were added to my class.  My answer— no problem!  Well except for the abandonment of one joke about Papias.  The reason is clear. I teach the NT, and the study of the NT includes 1) Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic. Here there is no problem.  Languages and their grammar are the same for all.  We can talk about weak and strong aorists but not Catholic and Protestant aorists.    I use Zerwick, you use Moulton and B.D. Words may be a problem but this arises later, e.g ‘dikaioun’.  2) Background history– Alexander and his successors Hellenized  Palestine. The Roman emperors and R. Akiba and Zakkai are the same for all.  So also the background of ‘logos’ in the history of thought. 3)  Exegesis, involving literary analysis and historical reconstruction leading to NT theology. Here indeed, with exegesis, problem may arise, but there is an objective basis in the text itself which is common to all. And I had no problem teaching those Catholic students because I was not trying to do ‘Methodist’ exegesis. If the exegesis contradicts Methodist doctrine then I must try to change Methodist teaching. Ecclesia semper Reformanda . Perhaps there is a difference here but it did not affect my job. I previously and have continued to have one aim only– to get at what the text meant. What did Paul etc. wish to convey, and primarily in his own context?

Systematicians and dogmaticians are in a different position. Here the semper Reformanda comes into the picture (it must in its own way with Catholics or no new systematic theology could be written.  They must take into account 1900 years and the present too; so also church historians, who will not interpret events  in the same way my Biblical colleagues would do today differently and much more interestingly.

But you will say, you are making this much too easy. You are a Methodist, and however good your intentions, you have subconscious presuppositions and we have subconscious Catholic presuppositions.   This is quite true. I’m the son of a Methodist minister (and you can’t draw a parallel with that). No one denies it.  The thing that matters is to be aware of that fact. Neutestamentlers have been pretty good at that. Check out what goes on at the SNTS meetings.  And as Bultmann said, we can and must avoid prejudice. And on the whole we do.  But as Bultmann goes on to ask– Can we avoid presuppositions? A narrow and sectarian kind we can avoid.   But what of deeper presuppositions? We may follow Bultmann’s argument: a) we assume that the NT points us to historical events of great significance, therefore, b) therefore the NT must be studied historically, and c) and history means an observable sequence of causes and effects, so d) historical exegesis must exclude the supernatural. Hence we should conclude that miracles do not occur— there is no Virgin Birth, no bodily resurrection— these myths must be demythologized.

This is not a Catholic/Protestant divide, but it is the most important question regarding presuppositions and worth more than a moments consideration. Is Bultmann’s argument watertight?  No, for he agrees that the story of Jesus means God’s intervention in history and is unique. This does not mean every recorded miracle happened, but opens up possibilities.

We are still left asking– What does resurrection for example mean? And we shall get no answer for there are no comparable data. All this is fundamental for both Catholics and Protestants, though Bultmann is easier for Protestants because he emphasizes the Word– Jesus is message rather than substance.

We can note more characteristic divergences–sacramental interest  cf. 1 Cor. 11,14; John 6. or ministerial interest cf. Acts 8.  In such cases is there a way of determining who is right?  Hardly. We go on recognizing that we do have presuppositions and prejudices and allowing for them. And if your generation advances as fast and as far as mine (especially the Catholics) you may when you are as old as I am, not understand how how a series of this kind could be held.

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