Formal Model For Theology

Houlden proceeds to ask the following question:

Is there not then freedom for other Christians, receiving the impact of Jesus in their own time and place, to form their own identity by seeing past and future, and indeed the wider present, in terms drawn naturally from present circumstances?

(Houlden 1986:90)

The answer can only be yes. The contribution of historical study to theology could well consist in liberating the religious quest from false expectations concerning the Bible.

Indeed, biblical criticism may provide a formal model for theology. It shows that the formation of biblical (as of any other) tradition can be viewed as a process of interaction between tradition, experience and reinterpretation. Here especially the redaction-critical and sociological approaches are helpful. The New Testament is full of traces of experiences, not all of them 'religious'; social experience actually looms large in the development of Christian thought, e.g. the experience of being rejected by the majority of the Jewish community. These experiences have been interpreted and reinterpreted in the light of the tradition of the interpreter (see Raisanen 1990a: 122-36). This process has always been going on: before, in and after the Bible. One has of course not always been conscious of it; one has pretended simply to exegete the Bible when one has in fact presented a strong reinterpretation. This should encourage theologians to engage in conscious and admitted reinterpretation of their theological tradition in the light of their experience as modern persons. Hanson and Kehl are not necessarily wrong in interpreting eschatology, but it should be admitted that their constructions are far less 'biblical' than they themselves suggest. There should be no pressure necessarily to agree with this or that biblical strand; one should, in fact, feel free, in the spirit of ideological criticism, to decide against all biblical options, if need be. A modern attitude to the New Testament might perhaps resemble the attitude taken by early Christians like Paul towards the Old Testament—with the significant difference that the radical re-application of Scripture should take place consciously, not in a hidden or unreflective manner. We might then take the New Testament in a radically typological sense: we use its words and symbols, but we use them as foreshadowings of something new which is demanded by our very different global situation.

The diversity will remain, and has to be respected or even appreciated-made canonical, if you like. The New Testament could be seen as a discussion in the style of Talmud: open-ended, introducing endless debates. Christians should learn to read the canon of the New Testament 'in a living conversation with all the writings in all their diversity and divergence' (Johnson 1986:548).

In the process of selective and conscious reinterpretation, biblical ideas and concepts may well turn into 'symbols' (a more elusive notion). Whether or not 'kingdom of God' was, for Jesus, a 'tensive symbol' as Norman Perrin (1976:29-32) held, it can be interpreted as such a symbol for us. 'Kingdom of God', 'resurrection', 'redemption', even 'Christ' and 'God' may be thoroughly problematic as concepts or ideas, but can still serve as evocative and challenging symbols (we recall how Kehl wants to retain the 'millennium' as a 'real-symbol' with an ethical meaning and hortatory force). Symbols, values and stories can be freely moulded and used by theologians in the light of their experience and sense of reality and responsibility. Reflecting on the history of a central Christian doctrine, Maurice Wiles comments:

If what held Christians together were seen as the use of the same myths rather than the holding of the same beliefs, it might be easier for Christians to accept the measure of variety that there both should and will be between them.

(Wiles 1977:164)

An impressive early example of a 'symbolic' theology is provided by Johannes Weiss (1892). He realized that the kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus (a supramundane future reality) was quite different from the 'kingdom' as interpreted by Ritschl (a community of morally acting people). Still, he found the notion as used by Ritschlians theologically helpful. The point is that he knew what he was doing in using the concept (we might say: the symbol) in a different sense than it had been used in the beginning.

Originally, Christianity is not a 'biblical' religion in the sense that its doctrines were based directly on the Bible (Carroll 1991:68ff.). In this sense, freedom with regard to the Bible is nothing very novel (it is more like a return to pre-Reformation Christianity). But of course there is no return to a non-biblical authoritarian theology either. Critical study of the Bible has alerted scholars with ears to hear to use the same canons of criticism in the study of any documents, including formulations of doctrines. Experience gained in biblical studies does not tend to produce trust in set doctrines.

This approach appeals to imagination. Conceivably the literary-rhetorical methods, whose contribution to historical issues is of limited value, could help here, on the level of application, at least when particular texts are being applied. Biblical study could, then, provide theology with stimuli and challenges, with symbols and values. Or, in the words of liberation theologian Clodovis Boff (1991:30), it could offer 'something like orientations, models, types, directives, principles, inspirations', 'not a what, but a how—a manner, a style, a spirit'.

The experience-reinterpretation model is of some ecumenical relevance: it allows everybody to start where he or she stands, working with his or her own tradition. It should be helpful to recognize for example that not only both Catholics and Protestants can appeal to certain strands respectively in the New Testament, and that certain parts are difficult to both, but that the same also applies to the 'conservatives' and the 'liberals' of the various confessions. The New Testament itself amounts to a story of an ongoing battle between 'conservatives' and 'liberals' in the early Church. Contextual hermeneutics becomes all the more relevant.

The model is also of inter-religious relevance. The realization that many early Christian theological statements have functioned as legitimating strategies in a battle with non-Christian Jews over a common biblical heritage helps one not to absolutize them. It is easy to understand that mainstream Judaism emphasized other experiences and other interpretations of the biblical tradition than did the emerging Church. Significantly, some of the difficulties Jews and Muslims have had with Christian doctrine are today shared by many biblical scholars and Christian theologians (witness the debate on the myth of incarnation).

The proposed model is a purely formal one. Exegesis cannot provide theology with criteria that could determine the content of contemporary theological affirmations. It can of course establish which are majority views in the New Testament, but this information is of historical interest only. The content and meaning given to the inherited symbols must depend on extra-biblical (philosophical, theological and ethical) criteria for which the theologian himself or herself must take responsibility. Systematic theologian Gordon Kaufman makes the point well:

However important biblical and historical materials are to the reflection of the theologian, they never can function as final authorities. In every generation it is the theologian herself or himself who makes the final decision about what contours the notion of God will have on the pages being written.

(Kaufman 1981:273f.)

The model implies that prepositional theology in the old style will be discouraged. Theology can be understood as an attempt to make sense of our experience of reality with the aid of our tradition (which includes a strong religious, partly biblical element) as our starting point, and as making sense of our tradition in the light of our interpreted experience of reality. This kind of theology does not presuppose any predetermined results. What is encouraged is theology as 'seeing as...', as a sort of poetry. John Hick makes the point well in connection with incarnation (1977: ix): the (later) conception of Jesus 'as God Incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity living a human life, is a mythological or poetic way of expressing his significance for us' (though it must be kept in mind that this was probably not the intention of those who created the doctrines of trinity and incarnation; it is a conscious reinterpretation of our own which, in this case, comes closer to the earlier strata than the established doctrines do). The preponderance of ethics and action over dogmatics seems a natural consequence too.

Is such a model not highly subjective? Of course; but then theology always was a subjective undertaking, though this was seldom admitted. Kaufman makes it clear that theology 'can no longer take it for granted that there is a fixed body of belief which is simply to be interpreted and explained'. He continues:

On the contrary, the central task of theology in the present situation is to ascertain just what beliefs or concepts inherited from the tradition are still viable, and to determine in what ways they should be reconstructed so that they will continue to serve human intellectual and religious needs.

(Kaufman 1981:179f.)

The inevitable subjectivism can be reduced, however, by paying attention to the rule that a tree will be known by its fruits. An appreciation of the effects of the New Testament on the lives of women and men could serve as an important link between historical analysis and theological contemporization. As assessment of these effects from the point of view of ideological criticism could lead to an ethical criticism of the New Testament itself. Unfortunately, the actual 'effective history' of the Bible (which is not identical with the history of its exegetical interpretation) has not yet been the subject of systematic study; here a vast area of research awaits workers (Raisanen 1992b). What effects has the Bible had as Scripture? Obviously it has had both salutary and detrimental effects, and these should be carefully sorted out. An unbiased 'effective history' of the Bible, coupled with ideological criticism, could function as a realistic prelude to a reflective use of the Bible in theology. It does set one thinking that some of the darkest sides of the biblical influence are linked with quite central points of traditional Christian faith: precisely the notion of the absoluteness of Christ has contributed to the annihilation of those who disagreed, trusting their own traditions.

The critical reading of the Bible has often been seen as hostile to theology. On the contrary, it is perhaps the first stage in the development of a seriously critical theology. If criticism and theology appear to be at loggerheads it can only be because theology is trying to shore up pre-scientific ways of doing theology by utilizing uncritical methods of reading the Bible.If half the energy which some theologians devote to reconciling (integrating?) modern science with religion were put to integrating biblical criticism and theology, intelligent critical theology might be in better shape today. Both [i.e. theology and Bible] would have to make serious concessions to each other, and the developing consensus—if such were possible—would probably look nothing like earlier and more traditional forms of theology.

(Carroll 1991:145f.)

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