Friday, June 12, 2015

Theology is not in words.

At some point I underwent a paradigm shift to be able to read the Bible historically and literarily. I haven't found a great way to describe this shift other than a shift from a premodern reading. I have come up with some small statements that help point the way.

1. One of them is that theology is not in a word, but a word is in a text, which can be in a theology. There is a tendency from the pulpit for individuals to see rich and deep theology in words. So take the word love and what some people see in agapao, phileo, and eros. What they are really doing is constructing a kind of theology of love and mistakenly thinking that this theology is in these words or comes from these words.

But these words are in their theology. The theology is not in these words. I talk about doing a word study on the word impossible from Hebrews 6:18 which says it is impossible for God to lie. The result? The word means "not possible."

What the student who asked me to do this study wanted was a theology of what it might mean to say something was impossible for God. He was thinking that theology was in the word. But the theology is in the sentence and in Hebrews. The theology is not in the word. The word is in a text, which is in theology.

Similarly, the meaning of the word Satan is not "tempter," "accuser," etc. Those are theological descriptions of Satan. The word Satan can mean an "adversary" or it can mean the Satan. Again, the students confuse what the word means with a theology about the word. One is "in" the word, so to speak. The other is a much bigger perspective that is inevitably from outside the text looking on.

2. Another example of this shift is to recognize that Romans and Galatians are not in the same book, even though we by them that way. The warning in Revelation 22:18-19 was not about the whole Bible and 2 Timothy 3:16 wasn't either. Galatians is part of the historical context of Romans. Revelation 22 was about the scroll of Revelation, and 2 Timothy 3:16 was about the Old Testament, just as Psalm 119:105 was about the Pentateuch.

The books of Paul and the NT were not written in the order in which they appear. If you teach a NT Survey in historical order you could do Mark first to get at Jesus who came first, but 1 Thessalonians would probably be the first historically. All of Paul's letters would come before any of the Gospels. Mark would come first then Matthew and Luke, with John last.

3. Similarly, you would not only look at Matthew and Mark in terms of Jesus. You would look at them as moments in the history of the early church. Matthew is a moment in the story of the early Church every bit as much as it is the story of Jesus.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a both-and person when it comes to such things. But there is no debate that this is what historical consciousness looks like.

4. The premodern default goes to the Bible to get theology. But the Bible is a collection of sources for theology, "within" theology. The premodern thinks he or she is getting theology "out of" the biblical words, but the unity of understanding is imposed on the words.

This is why requiring OT and NT Survey in Christian curriculum is a reflection of premodernism. Those who put these requirements in the curriculum did so thinking that the students would thereby know what to think and how to live. The great switch-a-roo has always then been that those who teach these courses often teach history and literature. The course often has worked best when the professor is someone who is a master of the content of the biblical text but doesn't really understand it fully in context.

What Christian colleges should be requiring is a themes of the Bible course that is basically a theology course. Or they might require a theology course instead, especially if it is taught with a practical focus. That's what they actually thought they were getting when they put OT and NT Survey in the curriculum. The Bible is the most important source of theology, but the organizing principles of theology necessarily stand outside the biblical text, organizing the biblical source materials. It is impossible that it be any other way.

5. The premodern paradigm shift also relates to what Hans Frei has said about the stories of the Bible. The premodern does not see the stories of the Bible as stories in a book in history. He or she sees the stories as videotapes of a sort, transcripts. Yet these stories are not separate stories for the premodern. They are part of one big movie of which I am a part as well.

So two defining characteristics: it is one story whose individual scenes are thought to be something like exact videos. But both of these are unreflective readings. Genesis does not know that the serpent is Satan. Genesis knows nothing of Satan. Leviticus knows nothing of Hebrews. These are not only distinct stories with distinct historical and cultural assumptions. They are "perspectivized" portrayals within the literary and cultural forms of their time.

As Scripture, I think we best read them with a view to their theology, not their history. We read them to learn what they say about God and life from the perspective of God's people at a particular point in time, not for what they say about what happened in history, understood as the content of their stories.

6. These are both difficult paradigm shifts to grasp and yet they are inevitable and completely obvious once you understand. There is some loss of the Bible as a magical text with these understandings. But there is also the benefit of gaining a three-dimensional view of the text as a result rather than a flat view.

And there is a second naivete to be had after these first shifts. You can return to read the Bible as one book even after you are bitten by history.

1 comment:

Russ Gunsalus said...

Thank you Ken for once agaiin clearly and simply explaining a profound truth that is to often ignored.