Sunday, July 22, 2012

4.4 The Theology of the Gospel Writers

Apart from the conclusion, I'll wrap up my hermeneutical biography with this post.  This last clump of posts has roughly been on the subject of "Sources behind the Bible" and has included thus far:

a. Splicing the Gospels Together
b. Harmonizing not Advisable
c. Creativity in Telling the Story

I'm calling this last post, "The Theology of the Gospel Writers."
... I want to end with the question of the theological point of view of biblical narratives.  If we are focused on the theology of the gospel writers, then we get back what fundamentalism took away from us in the twentieth century and more. Before the rise of historical criticism, Christians largely read the gospels theologically.  True, they assumed precise historicity too, but it was not the focus.  The truth, the theology of the text was the focus.

The rise of historical criticism forced the issue. Arguably, it was usually pushed in a way that was unhelpful, even hostile to faith.  The assumption was--this is not historical, it's false.  It is no surprise that fundamentalism responded in kind--this is historical, it's true. Neo-evangelicalism has been more sophisticated in its response, but often has still not freed itself from this dichotomy.

A more helpful response would have been that the standard "historical=true" was wrongheaded in the first place. The fundamentalist, like the modernist, both assumed that truth was a matter of history and that the goal was to get back to the original history. Again, I am not denying the fundamental historicity of the gospel story. If Jesus did not perform miracles, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, those would be serious issues.

But truth is not always a matter of "it happened exactly this way." For example, we have no reason to believe that the Parable of the Prodigal Son or the Parable of the Good Samaritan ever actually happened.  They are parables, not historical stories. Yet they are as true as any history book.

No one would ever criticize Charles Dickens for making up The Christmas Story. Can you imagine someone telling you in anger, "I can't believe it.  There never was a Tiny Tim!  What a liar that Dickens was!!!"  We would think this person was rather weird. I'm not suggesting that the biblical stories are novels. I'm suggesting that truth is not limited to history.

In fact, I have come to see both the fundamentalist and modernist view of history as two-dimensional and impoverished.  What a richness to the gospels is missed! These stories were told for a reason. They were told in the way they were told for a reason.

I was privileged to begin serious study of the New Testament in the 80s.  Biblical studies at this point was at an interesting juncture.  First, the wave of trends was just leaving something called "redaction criticism."  Redaction criticism in itself was a move in the right direction.

For about 100 years, biblical studies had been obsessed with "getting back" to the historical Jesus. It was a little like the man who first excavated Jericho.  He was so preoccupied with getting back to the ruins of Jericho in Joshua's day that he plowed through layer after layer of earth. We now know that the ruins he finally got to were way older than Joshua's day and he had not too tidily discarded the relative layers in what I believe now is a huge pile off to the side.

So it had been for about 100 years.  John was discarded early on because it was so symbolic.  Matthew and Luke were boiled down to Mark and a hypothetical sayings source.  Then Mark was recognized as having a theology, so it was discarded.  Then a search started to piece together some picture of Jesus from individual sayings.  In all this quest, Jesus evaporated into a handful of unusual sayings that we knew Jesus had to say because they were so bizarre (e.g., "let the dead bury their dead").

Now don't get me wrong, there were a lot of discoveries that were part of this 100 year quest for the historical Jesus.  I dare anyone to go head to head with someone who knows their stuff on some of these things. To the point, my biggest problem with this quest is that it has a "got to get back" mentality that sees all as lost until we can get back to the history. Then, so the idea goes, we'll hit pay dirt.  It throws away what we have in lieu of some speculative thing we don't have.

Again, I'm not discounting the legitimacy of pursuing history nor am I denying the essential historicity of the gospels. I'm saying that truth is not limited to historical events.  In the 70s, even secular scholars were tired of the search for scraps of historical certainty. They began to ask a different question.  If Luke has used Mark as a source, then how does the way he has edited Mark reflect his theology? How does the way Matthew has edited Mark reflect his theology?

So Luke has a tendency to emphasize Jesus' good news to the poor.  For example, it is possible that he has taken Jesus' appearance in the synagogue of Nazareth in Mark 6:1-6 and creatively moved it to become something like an inaugural address (Luke 4:14-30).  He arguably makes it the frontispiece of Jesus' ministry.

What does this tell us about Luke's theology, if this is true?  It would tell us that Luke wanted to highlight Jesus' ministry to the poor, the enslaved, the disempowered as a key focus of his earthly ministry.  Is this true?  Absolutely. Is it historical--yes, even though Luke may show some creative licence in the way he presents and emphasizes it.

Now I'm not going to die for this interpretation.  I'm only saying it is a perfectly reasonable reconstruction given the overwhelming likelihood that Luke used Mark as a source. And I am saying that we gain a better understanding of truth by it rather than losing truth or, worse yet, thinking this would be an error of some kind.

Still, one of the potential problems with redaction criticism, such as in what I just mentioned, is that it is still somewhat speculative.  The 80s thus saw the rise in biblical studies of "narrative criticism." Narrative criticism leaves the question of sources behind almost altogether and asks, "What is the meaning of the text as we have it?"

Narrative criticism was a great boon for evangelicals getting their PhD's in the 80s.  Prior to the 70s, a lot of evangelicals ended up doing strange dissertations because they believed in the essential historicity of the Bible. So they might do a PhD on some aspect of Greek or Hebrew grammar, or they might study the history of how a text had been interpreted.

But with narrative criticism, it didn't matter whether you believed the text was historical or not.  The focus was the text as it stands.  So your PhD advisor might not believe any of the story actually happened and you could believe it all happened and it didn't matter, because you were both interpreting the text as it stands.

The only rule here is that you can't mix the gospels.  You have to interpret Mark's world as Mark's world and not let Matthew or Luke interfere with it.  But this is just good inductive Bible study anyway. So Matthew emphasizes Jesus as an apocalyptic teacher.  Mark emphasizes the hiddenness of who Jesus is and the centrality of his suffering.  Luke emphasizes Jesus ministry to the poor and downtrodden.  John gives us Jesus the Word and the importance of faith in him.

None of this takes away whatever was legitimate about the historical criticism that came before. What it does is that it puts the focus on the text as we have it.  Its goal is the truth of the text, not some quest for the truth hidden in the history buried within it. We are able to hear God in the text as it stands.

Postmodernism in the 90s only clarified and extended our sense of now as the moment of meaning.  No matter what the text has meant in the past, the only meaning it has for me is the meaning it has for me now.  I am not back then.  I am only here now.

Again, don't get me wrong. I believe the text had a meaning.  I believe that is a meaning not only worthy but important to try to identify.  But I can only understand that meaning--any meaning--from where I sit inside my head today, now.

In my final post(s) next weekend, I'll suggest some ultimate take-aways from this hermeneutical pilgrimage and how the Bible might best form us as Christians today.


Scott F said...

"The Christmas Story?"

I think that is a different tale from A Christmas Carol but every bit as "true"!

Scott F said...

This quite brilliant. I especially love the characterization of the historical Jesus research expecting to "hit pay dirt." I must admit it stung me a bit because it is true - and a little laughable.

I have given a lot of thought of late about the promises of Christianity vs the reality. For instance, we have the commandment to love our enemy but we know in our hearts that it is humanely impossible. We have the promise of healing but we continue to fall prey to disease and age. We have the promise of God's Kingdom but we still seek it it 2000 years later. In all these cases, the linchpin to join the two seemingly irreconcilable sides appears to be the Holy Spirit. Does the entire enterprise rest on an intervention of God's will to lift up and make clear.

In your piece, we have "scripture" and the promise of God's truth juxtaposed against a bunch of authors trying to interpret and give meaning to the stories they have been handed down. When you read these works "theologically", do you extract the central meaning by identify the over-arching patterns? Do you apply historical and literary techniques to conjecture the intent of the authors? Or do you rely to some extent on inspiration to point you toward the trans-historical Truth?

Again, great series that is plugging into many of the themes that I am chewing on these days.

Scott F said...

Wow! My last comment was a mess. Sorry!

Martin LaBar said...

". . . we have no reason to believe that the Parable of the Prodigal Son or the Parable of the Good Samaritan ever actually happened. They are parables, not historical stories. Yet they are as true as any history book." Thanks.