Sunday, June 03, 2007

Theology Sundays

1. A Christian Biblical Theology?
At first glance, the idea of a biblical theology might seem pretty obvious. You just collect the teachings of the Bible and there you have it. Many Christians today use this kind of language. They speak as if the biblical teaching on so many subjects is a fairly straightforward thing--the "biblical perspective."

However, it does not take long to realize that a good deal of what passes as a "biblical" perspective is really a "Christian" perspective. For example, there is no "biblical" perspective on abortion. The topic is never mentioned anywhere in the Bible. And the virgin birth plays no role in the writings of Paul, John, or the vast majority of the New Testament. But it is immensely important for Christian theology.

During the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers drove us back to the Bible, even to "Scripture alone," in their attempt to prune Christianity of beliefs like purgatory and practices like the celibacy of the clergy. But they apparently did not realize how much of fundamental Christian belief crystallized after the New Testament period. Like so many Protestants today, they did not realize how much of what they called "biblical" was really "Christian."

Another feature of the Reformation was Luther and Calvin's insistance that we read the words of the Bible literally. [N] From the very beginning, many Christian thinkers had interpreted Scripture in other ways as well. From Paul to Augustine to the medieval church, Christian thinkers often found meaning in Scripture through allegorical interpretations. But when the Reformers insisted on literal interpretation, they opened a can of worms they scarcely could have imagined.

Reading the words of the Bible literally eventually led Christian interpreters to read them in their original contexts. The biblical books say they were written to ancient audiences. Reading them literally requires us to ask what those words meant in their original settings in history. So it is not at all likely that any ancient Israelite would understand the "we" of Genesis 1:26 as a reference to the Trinity, a doctrine that was not solidified until AD325 and even then only officially. The "literal" context of the "we" in Genesis is the ancient near east, where something like the divine council of Psalm 82 would be far more likely.

The end consequence of the Reformation drive to Scripture alone, read only literally, was ultimately the divorce of the Bible and Christian theology. [N] Bible scholars came to study the original meaning of the varied books of the Bible. We might have a book on Pauline theology, assuming that his theology was consistent on some basic level. We might have a "Deuteronomistic theology" of the book of Deuteronomy, perhaps also including the so called "Deuteronomistic history" of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. But finding a unified theology of the Old Testament or an extensive unity in the theology of the New Testament has proved more difficult than the Reformers ever imagined--at least when you follow their charge to literalism through to its logical conclusions.

But all is not lost. We have seen in recent days a slow hedging on the insistence of a fully literal approach to biblical theology. [N] It is not that we must forget what the literal meaning of the biblical books is. But the onset of postmodernity has allowed for greater freedom to organize and appropriate those literal meanings in ways that actually go well beyond the biblical texts themselves.

For example, it is perfectly legitimate for a biblical theology to assume that the canonical books of Christendom are the group of books on which a biblical theology is based. This may seem obvious to those who are Christians, but there is nothing about the Bible itself that demands we focus on these particular books. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that we should look at the entire religious context of early Christianity even beyond these books, arguing that the very notion of a biblical theology is incoherent. [N] The time is ripe for us to acknowledge that our focus on these biblical books is a Christian approach, a focus that is perfectly legitimate for a Christian, even though it does not derive from the Bible alone.

Once we have acknowledged that we are constructing a Christian biblical theology, we have little reason to worry about the eccentricities and overreactions of the Reformation. Why not approach the biblical material from a systematic perspective, even though such a perspective is not intrinsic to the biblical texts themselves? We would not thereby ignore the literal, original meanings of these texts. But we would be free to organize them in a Christian way that is not the way they organize their own thought.

Finally, there are a number of issues where the biblical texts themselves have not reached a final answer on an issue, at least when they are each read literally in terms of their original meanings. The Trinity would be a case in point. Arius was quite able to argue from the biblical texts for an understanding of Christ that we now consider to be heretical. Even today, many splinter Christian groups with off center beliefs sometimes make ingenious arguments for their ideas from the biblical texts themselves.

Why not organize the biblical material on the presumption of basic Christian orthodoxy? In our exploration of God in the biblical texts, why not assume him to be omniscient, even when Genesis does not always portray him this way? Again, we need not skew the original meaning even though we are organizing and prioritizing the biblical thinking from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy.

For our purposes, a Christian biblical theology is a systematic presentation of biblical thought organized and synthesized from the standpoint of orthodox Christian belief. It is a biblical theology in the sense that the materials are the actual meanings of the biblical texts. But it is Christian in the sense that it 1) limits itself to the books of the Christian canon, 2) organizes that material according to the categories of systematic Christian theology, and 3) prioritizes and synthesizes that material from a standpoint of Christian orthodoxy.

2. The Christian Canon
Before we begin to systematize biblical thought, the first question we must ask is what books constitute the Bible. From a Christian standpoint, the answer with regard to the New Testament is fairly straightforward. Since the fifth century after Christ, it has been the overwhelming consensus of all Christendom that the books of the New Testament include the following: four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), the book of Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1-2-3 John, Jude, and Revelation. We accept these as the New Testament canonical basis for a Christian biblical theology, believing by faith that the Holy Spirit led the Church to consider these books the canon.

The matter of the Old Testament is more complicated, since there is no consensus on the precise boundaries. Certainly there is agreement on sixty-six of these books. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant would all accept Genesis through Deuteronomy as the Law. In the Christian partitioning of the Old Testament, Joshua through Esther we might call "historical books." [N] Christians often refer to Job through Song of Solomon as "poetic books," although of course there is much poetry in the prophets. [N] Then Christians generally refer to Isaiah through Malachi as "prophetic writings." [N]

Roman Catholics and Orthodox of course agree that all of the above are in the canon, although they would include as well books Protestants commonly call the Apocrypha. For Roman Catholics, these include Greek expansions to Esther, additions to Daniel, Tobit, Sirach, Wisdom, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and Judith. The Orthodox would add 1 Esdras. Here we have debate. On the one hand, there seems little doubt but that the consensus of Christendom for a thousand years was that these books were at least "deutero" canonical. [N] In other words, they were viewed to have at least a secondary level authority to the "proto" canonical books we mentioned above.

For this reason, it appears that both Luther's excision of them completely from the canon, as well as the "promotion" of them by the Roman Catholics at the Council of Trent in 1545, were both modifications of the prior position of the Church. A number of Protestant arguments against any relevance at all for them seem disingenuous. For example, although the Jewish canon at the time of Luther may not have included them, it seems quite possible that more than one Jewish canon existed at the time of Christ. Thus Jude seems to consider 1 Enoch, probably part of the Essene canon, as Scripture. [N] The canon that we currently call the Jewish canon, may very well have been more the canon of the Pharisees and their heirs than the definitive canon of Judaism at the time of the New Testament.

Similarly, a number of New Testament books seem to engage these books in the Roman Catholic canon, even if they do not cite them as Scripture. Matthew 11 seems to draw on material from Sirach 24 and 51. Romans 1 and Hebrews 1:3 both seem to draw on the book of Wisdom. Hebrews 11 probably alludes to a story that is most clearly told in 2 Maccabees 7. In short, Luther's concerns about these books seem anachronistic from a historical perspective. A more appropriate Christian perspective would be to consider these books deuterocanonical. They may provide generative ideas for Christian thinking, while not being fully authoritative.

So it seems appropriately Christian to focus primarily on the books commonly agreed on by all, Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox. Yet it also seems appropriately Christian to engage with the deuterocanonical books as well. With the limits of the canon identified, we are ready to address the actual content of the Bible.


Keith Drury said...

Do I sense a book proposal being born here?

JohnLDrury said...

Good seed thoughts. I look forward especially to seeing what kind of topical outline/structure you would use.

Ken Schenck said...

Keith, you might remember I had a grandiose outline on my private writing blog. I thought I might blog out a little lulu or Triangle booklein. Who knows?

John, since you'll be enjoying Turkey (insert mumblings of irritation), I don't plan to be very creative and probably won't finish, but the general order I have in mind is something like...

God as a unity
God's classical attributes
Father and Son
Father, Son, and Spirit
God as Creator
The Fall
The Promise
The Law and First Covenant
The Incarnation and Virgin Birth
The Earthly Jesus
The Resurrected Jesus

Scott Hendricks said...

. . . followed by the Spirit and the Church, and the Eschaton.