Traditional Uses Of The Bible Become Unviable

The late eighteenth and especially the nineteenth century saw a paradigm shift in theology, in particular as regards the role of biblical study. From divine revelation, usable as a string of proof texts for doctrines, the Bible was turned into materials for historical reconstruction. Since then, scholars have developed a set of historical-critical techniques, each of which has produced remarkable results.

Source criticism showed for example that the Fourth Gospel could no longer be assessed as an historical account of the life of Jesus (though bits of historical information are dispersed in it). To this day, the significance of this step has not been fully recognized; it has severed the link which traditional christology was supposed to have with the Jesus of history. In our century, form criticism made the supposedly solid Synoptic sources (Matthew, Mark and Luke) for the history of Jesus evaporate into a fluid oral tradition. Redaction criticism demonstrated that the Gospels were not innocent collections of traditions, but tendentious constructions by their authors, even the Synoptics differing markedly among themselves in scope and content. The Gospel authors could now be seen to be in competition with each other.

New methods informed by social sciences have sharpened the focus, but they have not really changed the paradigm. Scholars are learning to pay increased attention to the different social contexts in which New Testament authors operate. The net effect has been to emphasize the cultural gap which separates our societies from those in which the New Testament writings arose.

The direct impact of this development on theology may seem negative. For it seems obvious that if biblical studies are taken really seriously, traditional ways of using the Bible in theology, even in modified forms, become unviable. This is due to the recognition by biblical scholarship of the wide diversity of beliefs within the New Testament itself, the non-historicity of crucial 'events'

and of the inherently problematic nature of many New Testament beliefs which presuppose an antiquated world-view.

It does not take exegetical training to perceive such problematic points. One needs only some common sense to realize that, for example, what is said about prayer in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:7-11: whatever you ask will be given to you) is unrealistic, or that the 'God who acts', glorified by an influential school of 'biblical theology' a generation ago, becomes a problem, if few or none of the events celebrated as God's mighty acts ever took place in real history. Problems connected with world-view likewise impose themselves on any attentive reader. The contribution of exegetical study is to sharpen the focus in locating the texts in their socio-historical contexts, and in providing the investigator with the linguistic and other tools necessary for a closer study of the problems.

Contrary to a common prejudice, mainstream exegesis has no esoteric doctrines to which only initiates could have access. There have been some major shortcomings, to be sure, but these are of a different kind. The canonical New Testament is a tiny body of texts for a 'guild' of thousands of specialist scholars to cover again and again. One result has been that people have tried to reconstruct the New Testament world with much greater accuracy than is really possible on the basis of the extant sources. This has led to attempts to refine to an extreme degree methods which are in themselves sound. Abuse, however, does not annul proper use. Thus, the uneven and disjointed character of many Gospel texts strongly indicates that many texts have a pre-history. Different traditions or different sources have been conflated, for some of the seams still show. This general fact, true of many of the biblical books, in itself casts light on the nature of the Bible which is important to theology. It is another question, however, to what extent the materials used in the making of a Gospel can still be retrieved; too much energy and ingenuity have indeed been devoted to the construction of possible sources which are impossible to verify. Probably the exegetes should cast their nets much wider, abandoning the distinction between biblical exegesis and early Church history which, from a scientific point of view, is artificial anyway.

Another inherent problem has been the intertwining of exegesis with religious proclamation which has in some schools of thought given to a supposedly exegetical exposition a pronouncedly theological—philosophical slant. A case in point is Rudolf Bultmann's explication of Paul's teaching about the human condition. This problem has followed the historical study of the Bible throughout its history, for it did not start as unbiased reconstruction of the past, but as an attempt to glean from the biblical record whatever was useful for modern thought. In the Enlightenment when it all began, it was hoped to distinguish the eternal moral-religious truths of the Bible from its time-bound notions; in a slightly different guise the same concern has been operative till Bultmann and beyond. Today there seems to exist a methodological gap between 'everyday exegesis' and theological syntheses

('New Testament theologies') or programmatic statements on what the discipline is all about. (Relatively) unbiased history is the (of course, unattainable) ideal in the former area, but presentations belonging to the latter category incline to harmonization and proclamation (witness the difference of tone between Bultmann's History of the Synoptic Tradition and his Theology of the New Testament). Theology would gain from a distinction between historical exegesis and contemporizing theological interpretation; otherwise it runs the risk of only getting back from exegesis what it has first put into it.

It is seldom realized how vast a difference it would make if critical points made by common sense and careful exegesis were really taken seriously. Biblical scholars themselves are to be blamed: they have seldom tried hard enough to make themselves heard in their own terms. It is questionable whether very many scholars have drawn even for themselves adequate conclusions from their own work. Exegetes have acted also as systematic theologians, as if their historical findings were relatively easy to translate into viable present-day theological idiom. This has tended to water down many of their findings at the outset.

The New Testament has turned out to be filled with theological contradictions, many of them by no means peripheral. There are different expectations of the future and different notions of salvation. For some parts of the New Testament, Jesus' death, interpreted in vicarious terms, is an indispensable part of God's plan for human salvation; to others, it is the typical fate of a prophet brought about by men's iniquity but not invested with soteriological significance. There are different perceptions of the person and work of Christ. Some regard his divine sonship as based on the raising by God of the man Jesus from the dead, others on his eternal pre-existence.

It takes no 'radical', but only a 'moderately critical' reading of the New Testament to reach such conclusions. Ernst Kasemann's dictum that 'the New Testament canon does not, as such, constitute the foundation of the unity of the Church', but 'the basis for the multiplicity of the confessions' (Kasemann 1964:103) is explicitly endorsed by James Dunn (Dunn 1990:376f), though the latter pays lip service to unity by never using the word 'contradiction' (only 'diversity': Dunn 1990: xxi). Of course there are also constant features (many of which, like monotheism, are not 'specifically Christian') but they are not very impressive. Thus, what Dunn finds to be the unifying factor between all the different writings and strands is the conviction of the 'unity between the historical Jesus and the exalted Christ'—a thin and elusive bond and moreover hardly in harmony with Dunn's own findings. For his claim that the 'adoptionist' christology of the early Jerusalem Church is 'ultimately one and the same' as John's incarnational theology stretches the reader's imagination to the breaking point: to hold that Jesus received his high status after his death is different from the belief that it was his from all eternity.

Exegesis discloses the contradictory diversity of the New Testament. It is bound to end up by pointing out that the New Testament lacks that uniqueness on which some generations of biblical scholars used to put a lot of stress. In the words of Gerd Theissen, historical-critical scholarship shows that the religious traditions were made by humans, that historically everything hangs together with everything, that Christianity was a somewhat blown-up heresy of Judaism and that Judaism was an outstanding phenomenon of the history of oriental religion. In other words, there are no isolated events.

He continues, 'In short, historical-critical study shows, independently of the aims of individual scholars, that religious traditions are very earthly, very relative, very questionable.' Theissen rightly deems this 'an irreversible insight' (Theissen 1978:3f).

All this should have consequences for notions of 'revelation', 'inspiration' or 'word of God'. Add the discontinuity of large segments of the New Testament with much of the (supposed) Old Testament 'revelation', most palpable in Paul's comments on the Torah: at times, this (in classical biblical terms) divine gift to Israel is even relegated to the status of a demonic trap designed to mislead (cf. Gal. 4:1-3; 8-11). Where such contradictions are involved, talk of 'revelation' seems empty of content.

Rather than try once again to find some 'method' of applying the Bible, the simplest and most plausible solution is to admit that there is no direct path from historical study to present-day application.

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