Outline

I. Christianity is not—and never has been—a "religion of the book" in the way of the other great Western religions.

A. In Judaism and Islam, revelation is a matter of God (Allah) disclosing his will through speaking and that speech recorded in writing (Tanak, Qur'an) that becomes the basis of extensive systems of law (Talmud, Shariah).

B. Christianity's fundamental moment of revelation is in the death and resurrection of a human person, Jesus of Nazareth, which is, at first, in direct conflict with the Scripture.

C. Christianity's relationship to Scripture is from the beginning tension filled and dialectical.

II. The writing of the New Testament compositions itself attests to the experiential basis of the Christian religion.

A. The first followers of Jesus—and Jesus himself—perceived reality in terms of the symbolic world of Torah.

B. As a "messiah" however, Jesus patently failed to meet the messianic expectations that Jews found in Torah.

1. Although messianic expectations in Judaism were diverse, the Messiah at least had to make things better for the Jewish people, which Jesus did not do.

2. His manner of life was one that, measured by most interpretations of Torah, could be called that of a sinner, and his manner of death was one that Torah declared cursed by God (Deut. 21:23).

C. Christians of the first generation experienced a state of cognitive dissonance that required resolution.

1. Their experience was that Jesus was powerfully alive as God's son and the source of the Holy Spirit that empowered them.

2. Their symbolic world, however, seemed to declare that Jesus could not be what their experience said.

3. Cognitive dissonance can be resolved in one of three ways: deny experience, deny the symbolic world, or reinterpret one in light of the other.

D. In all of the earliest Christian compositions, Torah is reinterpreted in light of the experience of Jesus the crucified and raised Messiah.

1. Already in the letters of Paul, James, and Peter and in Hebrews, we find the shift from "Christ or Torah," to "Torah as understood through Christ."

2. The Gospels show an even further stage in which the deeds and sayings and, above all, the death of Jesus are clothed in the garments of Torah, so that the narratives show this Messiah as "fulfilling" Scripture.

III. The disparate writings of the earliest Christians become the "New Testament" through an equally dialectical process of canonization.

A. The first stages are in the use, exchange, and collection of local writings in an organic process of fellowship, resulting in various "local collections" by the early second century.

B. In the mid-second century, two tendencies forced a more formal selection of writings to be read in the liturgy together with Torah:

1. The tendency toward contraction is represented by Tatian (who wanted to reduce the number of the Gospels) and Marcion (who wanted to eliminate Torah and reduce the New Testament to Paul).

2. The tendency toward expansion is represented by Gnosticism, which produced an extensive collection of new "revelatory" compositions.

C. The canonical decisions of the late second century, to include Torah and twenty-seven writings in "Old" and "New" Testaments is eventually ratified by official statements of the fourth cent.

IV. Biblical interpretation in the history of Christianity manifests a continuing and unresolved dialectic.

A. Theologically and liturgically, Scripture is treated as divinely inspired, harmonious, authoritative, and transforming.

B. Yet, the shape of the texts resists those same principles, showing human authorship, divergent perspectives, and all-too-human limitations.

1. The tension between Old and New Testaments reflects the church's ongoing struggle to define itself vis-a-vis Judaism.

2. The tension between Scripture and experience reflects Christianity's ongoing commitment to a living God rather than a dead letter.

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