Monday, February 09, 2009

Monday BCS: The New Testament as Christian Scripture (1.4)

This is the final part of the "first chapter" of the non-existent The Bible as Christian Scripture. I blogged a second chapter here as well, but it needs some serious reflection, I think.

Here are the other parts of the first chapter I've done.

1.1 The Problem of Christian Scripture
1.2 The Problem of Meaning
1.3 The Old Testament as Christian Scripture

I'll keep dabbling with this idea a few more weeks. I'm thinking chapter 7 next: "Law and Grace." Still haven't decided whether it's worth sending off somewhere.

1.4 The New Testament as Christian Scripture
The Christian reading of the New Testament story goes something like the following. The pre-existent Christ, the eternally begotten Son of God, took on human flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary. For three years he preached the good news of forgiveness for sins, of the reconciliation of the world, and accomplished the necessary atonement by dying on the cross.

Then he rose again on the third day and ascended to heaven, where he is waiting until the appointed time. Then he will return for a final judgment after which Christians will spend eternity in heaven, while the unsaved will spend it in hell. In the meantime, believers are charged to take the good news of salvation to the world, to love their neighbors and their enemies, and to live together as the church until he comes again.

We could no doubt debate my wording. Perhaps I should have used the language of the Nicene creed, which more or less covers the same ground. We could add some things. We could change the emphasis. But this is the basic Christian story, and we are a part of it.

This story, even more than a set of theological statements, provides the key basis for our integration of the individual New Testament books together as Scripture. In addition to the key events themselves, we have come as Christians to assign various significance to each event. At times, various Christian groups have assigned slightly different nuances to one or the other.

The first five books of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts provide much of the material for this story. But as we argued of the Old Testament, they are not identical to the story. The Christian story is bigger than any of these documents and we fit them into our overall story rather them providing us with any straightforward version of it. The overarching framework is thus as much a matter of something we bring with us to the text as a function of the text itself.

For example, the incarnation is a major element of the Christian story. It is anticipated before the creation of the world that God will send his Son to earth to die for the sins of the world. The eternally begotten Son takes on human flesh to atone for the sins of humanity and to liberate us.

However, from the standpoint of the New Testament books themselves, read in context, the pre-existence and incarnation of Jesus does not play such a major or overarching role. The pre-existence of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, for example, is not immediately clear, even if some have argued for it.[1] They have had to argue for it because it is not obviously mentioned. Even though Matthew and Luke present the virgin birth, they do not give any indication whether Jesus might have existed before that birth.

The pre-existence of Jesus in the rest of the New Testament is most obviously seen in the Philippian poem of Philippians 2:6-11. However, even here some have argued that we are reading later understandings into the poem when we see the phrase "although existing in the form of God" in this way.[2] In other places in Paul and Hebrews we find statements that in themselves might be taken one way or another (e.g., "though he was rich, for your sakes he became poor"--2 Cor. 8:9). As Christian readers, we are allowed to take them in terms of Christ's pre-existence without worrying about their precise original sense, because read this way they reflect a Christian reading of the text.

It is thus especially in John 1 and in scattered statements in John that we find a real emphasis on Jesus' pre-existence in the New Testament, not elsewhere. Elsewhere such sparse language might serve to compare Jesus to God's wisdom over the creation or His will for the creation. Colossians 1:15-17, for example, seems to draw on either Jewish wisdom or logos traditions to depict Christ was the agent of creation. They do not speak of the incarnation.

Similarly in John, Jesus' pre-existence does not seem connected to his ability to atone. We find no "that which is not assumed cannot be healed" in John in the manner of Gregory of Nazianzus. True, Hebrews 2:14, a fairly unique statement in the New Testament, comes close.[3] But those few texts that focus on pre-existence do not focus on atonement, and those few texts that focus on Jesus' embodiment as a mechanism of atonement do not focus on pre-existence. It is the Christian reading of the New Testament that connects these things in this way and assigns them the importance we give them.

The Christian reading of the New Testament thus elevates a minor element in two or three books (with the very imagery in these few instances even differing somewhat from one another) and unifies those elements together into a doctrine of some significance. The significance of the incarnation in a reading of the New Testament as Christian Scripture thus goes well beyond what we get from the biblical texts themselves. It is a valuation we have drawn from the life of the church beyond the pages of the Bible.

The same is even more dramatically so when it comes to the Virgin Birth. The idea that Jesus was born of Mary apart from human sex has been a major doctrine of the church. Indeed, one might argue that for the majority of Christian history, it has been emphasized more than the incarnation itself, tied as it became with Christ's sinlessness and the veneration of Mary. Augustine more than anyone else connected it to the idea that Jesus was born without original sin. Faith in the Virgin Birth remains one of the most important items of Christian faith.

It is thus significant to notice that this emphasis is a matter of the Christian reading of the New Testament. The significance of the Virgin Birth has to do with the way Christians throughout history have assigned value to the event and placed it within the overarching story. As far as the New Testament books themselves are concerned, the idea appears only in Matthew and Luke. Assuming that all the other New Testament authors knew of it, they never mention it. Even in Matthew and Luke, it seems to play no significance in these gospels after the first two chapters.

Further, neither Matthew nor Luke connect the virgin birth to Adam's sin in any way. Adam is a feature of Paul's writings in a couple instances. Luke only suggests uniquely that it is appropriate to think of Jesus as holy and as God's Son for this reason (Luke 1:35).

A Christian reading of the New Testament as Scripture thus integrates the New Testament texts together in a manner that derives from the life of the church after the books of the New Testament was written rather than straightforwardly from the texts themselves. A "thick" reading of these texts will not ignore their original meanings and functions, but the Christian prioritization of them is primary and post-biblical.

For example, from the standpoint of historical enquiry, New Testament scholarship has come to the predominant conclusion that John's presentation is more figurative than the Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Yet it is John's Christology that comes closest to normative Christian theology more than those of Matthew, Mark, or Luke. Similarly, the majority of scholars see Mark as a primary source behind Matthew and Luke. Yet throughout Christian history, Mark was largely overlooked, with Matthew being the favorite.

Some Christian traditions have managed to maintain an interest in the earthly ministry of Jesus in the Synoptic gospels. Luke, for example, does not use salvation language primarily in terms of spiritual salvation but of the healing and liberation of earthly people in relation to their concrete disempowerment and oppression. But for Protestants in particular, Paul has often overshadowed these parts of the story to where what is really significant about Jesus is his death and resurrection rather than his earthly teachings.

We thus find that different Christian traditions prioritize and emphasize different parts of the New Testament when they read it as Scripture. The biblical texts themselves do not, indeed cannot, tell us whether to give more priority to Paul or to Mark as we integrate these texts together. In this case, not even Christian tradition has left us with an absolute set of priorities. We are forced, beyond the Bible, to integrate these books together so that they become Christian Scripture.

Some Protestant traditions have highly developed senses of this integration. The Lutheran and Calvinist traditions, for example, have highly specific understandings of how Christ fulfills the Old Testament Law. Augustine's integration of the biblical material stands in the background of these understandings. Humanity was totally "depraved" after Adam's "transgression" and the subsequent "Fall." This is of course not exactly what Paul says. For Paul, all have sinned. All are under the power of Sin. But Paul never says in literal speech that human beings are unable to do any good whatsoever in their own power.

The details of the end of the story are not entirely clear across the books of the New Testament either. That Jesus Christ will return to the earth in judgment and salvation seems clear enough. Whether we will then spend eternity in heaven or on a renewed earth is not. Revelation seems to point to a renewed earth, but then John 1:2-3 speak of Jesus receiving his disciples to where he will be in heaven.

The question of hell is also more a matter of common Christian belief beyond the New Testament than of the New Testament books themselves. Paul never mentions hell or speaks of the eternal destiny of the wicked. John does not mention fire. Mark does, but is not clear that the wicked are consciously tormented forever in fire. We might say the same of the lake of fire in Revelation. It is Matthew more than any other part of the New Testament that may indicate eternal torment in fire for the wicked. The Christian sense of eternal punishment for the wicked thus again has much to do with the later Christian reading of the New Testament.

Apart from the Christian story, we have also inherited a "rule of faith" and a "law of love" from the church that helps us distinguish "clear" teaching from "unclear" teaching in the New Testament texts. When 1 Corinthans 15:29 speaks of baptism for the dead, the rule of faith tells us to move on. When 1 Peter 4:6 speaks of Jesus preaching to the dead, we note the verse as a curiosity but do not worry too much about it. We have no way of knowing how prevalent or significant such ideas and practices were in the early church historically, but they are not significant today for us as Christians.

How solid is this rule of faith that has developed beyond the pages of the New Testament? If we look at the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent changes even to the Roman Catholic Church, we should probably allow that the original meanings of Scripture can play a corrective role on the trajectory of the church. The celebacy of the clergy, for example, was at one time the clear preference of the vast majority of Christians. Yet it is clearly unwarranted in the biblical texts and significant portions of the church catholic now allow for marriage.

Might there be other areas where we have yet to see reformation as things commonly agreed unravel in the light of the foundations of the church? I would suggest that the empowerment of women to roles of leadership in the church is one such area. It is the trajectory of the kingdom, where women will not be given to men in marriage. The spiritual empowerment of women is also a New Testament reality in much of Paul and Acts.

I believe that Christendom at large will eventually come to read the New Testament in such a way that 1 Timothy 2:12 is read as a curiosity, just as 1 Corinthians 15:29 is today. This is not a departure from the way Christians read Scripture now. It is simply an application of the way we read Scripture on other topics to this particular topic. What we find clear and unclear is not so much a property of the biblical texts themselves as of us as Christians reading them in the flow of Christian history.

What then is a "thick" reading of the New Testament texts as Christian Scripture? As we have been arguing, it first and foremost of all comes to these texts with certain Christian understandings of the overall flow of the story. It assigns emphasis and significance to elements of particular books in accordance with later Christian understanding more than the significance those elements had in their original contexts.

It will not worry over the original meaning of certain texts whose meaning might be ambiguous from an original standpoint because the fuller Christian understanding takes primacy when the texts are read as Scripture. Did the Philippian poem originally presume Christ's literal pre-existence? This question is largely irrelevant from a Christian point of view. It is perfectly legitimate for Christians to read it in terms of Christ's pre-existence regardless of its original meaning.

The idea that Christ's death indicates an end to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament is not clearly articulated anywhere in the New Testament except Hebrews. Yet the flow of Christian history has led us to read the other biblical texts in this light. The idea of Christ being of the same substance as the Father is not clearly articulated in any book of the New Testament. Yet Christians will read the relevant texts in this way in the light of fuller Christian understanding.

Yet the original meanings are also part of salvation's history. In particular, there are aspects of the historical Jesus of Nazareth that seem essential for Christianity to be true beyond any theological reading we might give to the texts. He must have lived as a true historical personage, for example. It would seem necessary that he be without sin or, to put it another way, that he be thoroughly righteous. He needed to have died. And he needs to have risen from the dead in history, such that his bones could not be found. We are not saying that all of these things can be demonstrated by historical method, only that their historicity seems essential for Christian faith to be true in anything like its historic form.

We will similarly understand the individual books of the Bible as moments in the flow of revelation. It may be later Christian eyes that gives their content a particularly Christian form. But we can recognize in each one a moment in God's walking with humanity toward that Christian organization. Luke is not just a text that we incorporate into the Christian story, a narrative that is part of the overarching metanarrative. It is a book written at a moment in history to God's historical people.

A thick reading of the New Testament as Christian Scripture thus affirms the primary role of later Christian history in providing us with appropriate lens through which to understand, prioritize, and emphasize New Testament teaching. Yet it affirms the original meanings of these texts both as moments in the progress of revelation, in the journey of God's walk with humanity, and it affirms the potentially reforming power of the original meanings as the Holy Spirit leads.

The historical meaning of the central New Testament books is more significant by far than the historical meanings of the Old Testament books in their entirety. This is because the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus stands at the very turning point of the story. These documents witness the most foundational and distinctive moments in God's walk with humanity. If the Christian story is not historically grounded here, then historic Christianity will become something quite different, and we would expect God's speaking at this juncture to be more direct than we require of the Old Testament.

[1] E.g., Gathercole.

[2] E.g., Dunn, Murphy-O'Connor.

[3] We might also mention Romans 8:3. Neither of these verses, in themselves, however, need imply Christ's pre-existence, although as Christians we are quite justified to read them in this way.


Bob MacDonald said...

Ken - I find this a very helpful part of the chapter.

I think it is that you have written clearly what we were brought up to 'believe' and also how we can begin to distinguish that from perception - both ours and the perceptions of the writers of the NT.

Perhaps I was just ready to read it after so many years fighting with the bedclothes of theological history.

I wonder if you are using Word as your grammar checker - you have one phrase books of the New Testament with a singular verb. Word cannot figure this grammar out and puts a little green line under it.

Ken Schenck said...

Can I attribute them to lack of sleep?

Bob MacDonald said...

Sleep - what's that? I was up in the rafters at 5 am bleeding my heating system while it was off. Maybe that's why I enjoyed your post so much :)