By the end of the second century, as we have seen, the New Testament had become the chief source book for Christian doctrine, but the varied character of its contents does not naturally equip it for that function and leads to distortions. That there are four Gospels, despite Paul's assertion that there could only ever be one Gospel (Gal. 1:6) already constitutes a difficulty. Marcion selected and expurgated Luke's Gospel. Tatian ran them all together into a composite narrative, the Diatessaron. Gnostic sects took their cue from the plurality, and composed even more of their own. Irenaeus defended the traditional four by, among other arguments, finding the evangelists in disguise as the four beasts around the throne of God in the book of Revelation (Rev. 4:6-8). There was some hesitation about which beast represented which evangelist, but they made a complete set, perfectly complementary with each other; they were full of insight (with eyes inside and out) and, suspended in mid-heaven, contemplated only the worship of God. But the Gospels are generically more varied than this theory suggests. Matthew was probably a revised and expanded version of Mark which was intended to replace its predecessor. Luke's Gospel is only one half of a two-volume work, Luke-Acts. John prefaces his narrative of the Passion with a selection of signs and discourses that may not have been intended or received by its first audience simply as historical reportage. John may therefore lend itself more to doctrinal and devotional reading, as Clement of Alexandria recognized when he dubbed it 'the spiritual Gospel'. But the Synoptics are more biographical in form, narratives interspersed with wisdom and apocalyptic teaching; and this genre is not particularly conducive to doctrinal construction. They are unified by the narrative flow, not by theological consistency. And it is very difficult to extract theory from narrative without severely injuring it. In any case, several different theories can be deduced from the same story: for example, the various episodes in the Passion, the parable of the wicked tenants, the words at the Last Supper, the prayer in Gethsemane and the cry of Dereliction each invite very different understandings of the Atonement. Traditional interpretation, by contrast, has ignored differences, and worked on the principle that the Gospels are all the same kind of thing and their contents all doctrinally homogeneous.

The epistles of Paul and others and the account of the early missionary preaching in Acts are in some ways easier to use for the purposes of Christian doctrine, since they address theological and moral issues explicitly. But in another sense they are even more problematic since they include material highly specific to particular situations, and are less generalized than the Gospels.

Marginal interests

There are several ideas which are marginal or unrepresentative in the New Testament, which become central or even controlling features of later Christian doctrine. Some cannot be found at all except by reading them into the text. Many of these became topics of heated controversy at the Reformation such as prayers for the dead and the doctrine of Purgatory, or Mariology and the cult of the saints. But it is open to question whether accretions like these are necessarily distortions. The impression of fairness and generosity in the New Testament picture of divine Judgement might be argued as justifying the former; and its distinct interest (rare among Jewish writings of the first century) in contemporary heroic personalities (see the Acts of the Apostles) lays the ground for the latter. More central to the edifice of Christian doctrine, however, is something like the doctrine of Original Sin. It is well known that the New Testament basis for the Augustinian doctrine is meagre, namely Romans 5:12 in the Vulgate translation, and a great deal even then has to be assumed. One might have expected the Reformers to point this out, but they were not prepared to discard the Western account of the human plight on which the call to repentance and the offer of forgiveness rested. The Fall of Adam sets the whole stage for the redemption wrought by Christ. It is less often acknowledged that the Fall story itself is marginal in the New Testament, even in the letters of Paul. Apart from Romans 5, the New Testament ignores it and prefers the view current in first-century Judaism that there is not one single catastrophic event which brought about the corrupt state of the human race, but a cumulative history of moral decline, exacerbated by malign demonic forces. It was the fall of the 'sons of God', the rebellious angels of Genesis 6, producing hordes of unclean spirits, that was the really crucial event for soteriology.

Central omissions

Conversely, there are some points of doctrine deeply rooted in the New Testament, which are muted or neglected in orthodox doctrine. To take the most obvious example, the Synoptic Gospels' teaching of Jesus on the kingdom is not even mentioned in the second paragraph of the Creed. One might reply that its content, the Fatherhood and Sovereignty of God have simply been transferred to the first paragraph, but to move straight from the virginal conception to the crucifixion is a distortion of the Gospel narratives. Of course, the parables and sayings of Jesus have been immensely influential in spiritual reading and in moral preaching on the Gospels, but their impact on doctrine has been slight, because they seem out of tune with classical christology.

Other neglected features, like the emphasis in the New Testament on evil spirits, the gifts of miracles and speaking in tongues, and imminent expectation of the End fail to find a place or are sidelined in constructive theologies, only then to be 'rediscovered' and made central by radical dissenting groups. In each of these cases the problem arises, at least in part, from the ambiguity of the New Testament itself. For example, the voluntarist analysis of sin as deliberate disobedience is accompanied by a determinist element in which sin is a demonic force beyond human control or responsibility. Both of these are found, alongside each other, in the Jesus tradition and in Paul. Similarly, miracles are both used to prove the messiahship of Jesus and denied any probative value; speaking in tongues is commended and also relativized by Paul. Hope for the imminent coming of the Son of Man is counterbalanced by the injunction to patient agnosticism about the timing of its arrival, and the assertion of the presence already of the powers of the Age to Come. The imperious demand for logic and consistency in doctrine has made traditional interpretation unwilling, by and large, to admit the possibility that truth may sometimes be expressed in the form of a dialectic.


One of the causes of internal Christian division down the centuries has probably been the New Testament itself. I do not mean this in the sense propounded by some modern critics that the New Testament contains a variety of conflicting views. For traditional interpretation has been blind to such differences, possibly justifiably. The extent of the conflicts may well have been exaggerated by modern criticism: the New Testament is theologically much more 'compact' and unanimous than, say, the Old Testament. But the New Testament is a collection of highly polemical writings. In almost every book, warnings about deviants within the community are issued. Christians are put on the alert for 'false apostles', 'antichrists', 'grievous wolves' and so forth. Even the attacks on 'the Jews' and 'the scribes and Pharisees' are taken, on the principle of the continuing relevance of Scripture, to be symbolic for later heretics, contaminated by Jewish unbelief. The atmosphere of suspicion and inquisition thus engendered has had a lasting effect, and dramatically raised the stakes in later theological controversies in the Church.

Traditional interpretation, nevertheless, regularly fails to draw the appropriate conclusion from the polemical side to the New Testament, namely that its doctrine may sometimes be intended as the correction of an alternative, rather than the balanced statement of the case, and that other less polemical ways of making the point should be given preference. The interpretation of Galatians and Romans is one illustration of this. Paul's exaggerated attacks on the Law, bringing only condemnation, a curse, death and provocation to sinful desire, should not have been taken as calm statements of the Christian position and allowed to override the rest of the New Testament. The effect of this has been to make opposition to Jewish legalism, so-called, practically constitutive of Christian orthodoxy and to plant the theoretical seed for centuries of Christian anti-Semitism in Europe.


Traditional interpretation has often inadvertently mistranslated the New Testament, not only in the medieval West by using the Latin as its starting point, but even when it has turned back to the original Greek. For translation is not simply a matter of language but also of cultural presuppositions and context. Out of a vast array of possibilities, two examples may suffice. The whole debate about the doctrine of grace, whether conducted in Greek or in Latin, could be said to be built on such a mistranslation. For grace in the New Testament (charis, gratia) takes its sense from the Jewish tradition; it is the elective favour of God, essentially corporate and historical. It has little or nothing to do with individual conversion or sanctification, with 'means of grace' or divine assistance for the frailty of the human will. When and if such ideas appear, they are denoted by 'the Holy Spirit poured into the heart', which is spoken of far more frequently in the New Testament in this way than as a separate person of the Godhead.

To take a more precise example. At Ephesians 5:32 the author comments on the 'two shall become one flesh' of Genesis 2:24 as follows 'This is a great mystery (Latin sacramentum) and I take it to mean Christ and the Church, but let husbands love their wives.' This text is the main basis for the doctrine of the sacramentality of marriage, a doctrine with wide-ranging implications. If marriage is a sacrament, then it comes under direct hierarchical control like other sacraments, i.e. under canon, not civil, law; and its significance is promoted above all practical considerations, despite the very practical tone of the New Testament on the subject, this passage included. Furthermore, the sacramentality of marriage and the sacramentality of holy orders are treated as parallel and mutually exclusive; one either marries a wife, or becomes a priest (or a nun) and marries the Church. The Reformers rejected clerical celibacy and the sacramentality of marriage; and took the 'mystery' in this text to refer to the Church as the bride of Christ, indeed, to the pure, reformed and invisible Church in opposition to the corrupt, sacerdotal, visible institution. Both interpretations are probably based on mistranslations; the 'great puzzle' is neither marriage nor the Church but the text of Genesis!

Trinity and christology

We have left until last the two issues that most preoccupy traditional interpretation, in Patristic, Scholastic and Reformation periods alike, namely Trinity and christology, that God is three persons in one substance and that Christ has two natures, the human and the divine. Traditional interpreters were well aware that the varied terminology in which they discussed these issues was not drawn from Scripture itself but from philosophy and law, but they believed that this was necessary to contradict heresy and safeguard the truth of the doctrine implied less formally in the New Testament. That is not an unreasonable defence. But to summarize the doctrine of the New Testament as consisting principally in belief in the threefold Godhead and the divinity of Christ is a distortion of emphasis. Triadic formulae do occur in the New Testament, such as the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19 or the doxology of 2 Corinthians 13:14. And it is possible to claim that this is but the tip of an iceberg, and that the Gospel and epistle writers would not have dissented from the doctrine. But while the Fathers were concerned to defend the idea of three and only three divine persons, the New Testament writers were more concerned, against Jewish emphasis on the singularity of God, to establish the 'plurifocal' divine activity. Thus, binitarian formulae, as in the opening greetings of most New Testament letters, are much more common and achieve this end equally well. The book of Revelation speaks of the One on the Throne and of the Lamb but adds the seven spirits of God and the Bride, the Heavenly Jerusalem to its pantheon. Mark 13:32 refers to the Father, the Son and the angels in similar vein. Furthermore, while the Fathers, especially the Cappadocians and Augustine, dwelt on the 'substantive Trinity'—God in himself in the communion between the three persons—the emphasis in the New Testament, and the Bible generally, is on the 'economy' of God, the diverse forms of the divine activity in Creation and Salvation. When the hieroglyph of the Trinity replaces the vivid sense of a loving, forgiving personal God, as it does in classical doctrine, if not in Christian spirituality, it distorts the emphasis of the New Testament.

In the same way, the New Testament contains explicit assertions of the divinity of Christ (John 1:1; 20:28, and even perhaps Rom. 9:5), but overall it rests content with less provocative claims, that Jesus is Lord, Son of God and Christ. In fact the latter, by far the most frequent designation in the New Testament, receives scant attention in traditional interpretation. The fact of Jesus' messiahship, refuting Jewish denials, is emphasized frequently enough; but the content of the title and role, relating as it does to the destiny of Israel in the purposes of God, is almost entirely ignored. This is a further example, in addition to those we have already mentioned, Covenant and Law, of the way traditional interpretation, so anxious to fit the Old Testament in with the New, is reluctant to admit the relation works also the other way round.

Second, when the 'two natures' doctrine is not merely maintained as the logical outworking of the implications of the Gospel, but is applied as an hermeneutical principle in reading the Gospels, its effect is thoroughly distortive. When he is attributed with divine omnipotence and omniscience, impassi-bility and foreknowledge, the human reality of Jesus' life and death are eclipsed; incarnation becomes a form of theatrical accommodation, or disintegrates into intolerable paradoxes. That the Jesus of the Gospels, not least the fourth Gospel, who is so single-minded to do the will of the Father, should be supposed to have possessed two wills, one human and the other divine, illustrates the main pitfall of traditional exegesis, that the pressure of the doctrinal system may override the evidence of the text and even common sense.

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