Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

95 Theses, #36-37: Interpreting the New Testament

To see the introduction and disclaimers for my 95 Theses, first go to: 95-Theses-Introduction

Prerequisites: Theses #2829, and 31

 

("The Four Evangelists," by Abraham Bloemart, c.1615, oil on canvas)


    
36.) Biblical Interpretation: the Gospels - Although the Gospels are narratives of true historical events, we must still remember that "historical reliability" in the modern sense was not the main point of texts such as the NT within the culture in which they were written. Significant freedom was given to historical writing: to bring in theological interpretations of events that probably reflect the later, "post-Easter" experience of the church rather than simply relating the "at-that-time" historical significance of the events; to rearrange the sequence of events for theological purposes; perhaps even to add in certain allegorical details; and to be faithful to the general remembrance of what was said and done within the historical acts portrayed. (The Bible scholar James D. G. Dunn gives a very good and lengthy breakdown of how the Gospels follow more of the ancient genre of oral history than of our modern historical methods in his book Jesus Remembered--I would highly recommend it.) This makes many of us uncomfortable, because we in our culture are immediately trained to doubt any kind of "history" that doesn't make blunt historical accuracy, in every single detail, its most relevant aim. But that's our problem, not the Bible's--we need to accommodate ourselves to Scripture, not force Scripture into the mold of our limited cultural presuppositions. Ironically, those people who go to great lengths to find defenses for the smallest of discrepancies in the Gospel accounts claim they are doing so in order to honor Scripture; this is ironic, because they have failed to honor the sort of books the Gospels intend to be. And this sometimes has tragic results. Too often, we hear stories of smart Christians deciding to give up the faith because they become convinced that, for instance, the Christmas narratives can only be harmonized historically by going to dubious lengths, or that Jesus contradicts himself in the parallel passages of Mark 6:8-9 and Luke 9:3 (are you supposed to take a staff on your mission trip or not?), or that Jesus gets historical details wrong in Mark 2:26 (Abiathar was not, in fact, the high priest during the story he relates). So what do we do with things like this? Can we trust anything in the Gospels if it's possible that minor historical details are misaligned? The answer, of course, is yes. There are many reasons for this answer (I'll recommend another book here, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, by Craig Blomberg), but I'll just give you two. The first is based on genre. Even from the point of view that would regard the New Testament as a human document, we have to recognize that the histories of the first century, though perhaps not as interested in historical purity and down-to-the-detail accuracy as we now are, was still a genre that committed itself to truth-telling at the most basic level. Otherwise, it would have been a nonsensical genre, and no one would have ever bothered reading any history, whether the Gospels or Thucydides or Josephus or Livy. The Gospels, though they might diverge on small details, are unanimous as to the big picture of the life of Christ (and actually show markedly more in-the-details agreement with one another than any other set of histories on the same sequence of events from different authors in the ancient world)--the accounts of the resurrection are still one of the biggest weapons in the apologist's arsenal, for the very simple reason that it continues to be historically compelling. Further, the Gospels are remarkably harmonious regarding the ultimate theological meaning of these histories. If the first reason for trusting the Gospels comes from a respect for the genre in which they were written, the second reason is because the Christian tradition has always believed that the New Testament is not merely a human document alone; it is a document that is inspired by God. The Holy Spirit was active in the speaking forth of the oral traditions about Jesus after Easter; he was active in the processes of collating those oral traditions into the Gospels; and he still speaks through those same Gospels today.


37.) Biblical Interpretation: How Then Should We Read the New Testament? - Since Jesus Christ is the full revelation of God’s nature, since he is the Logos (the Word of God), we cannot regard the Bible as equivalent to that full revelation. Rather, it is a Spirit-inspired-but-still-human recounting of the self-revelation of God. The Gospels, then, are inspired in the same way as the OT—they are the memoirs of people in relationship with God, reflecting, with the guidance and help of the Holy Spirit, on the story of that relationship. The NT is a depiction of a divine in-breaking into history, and it is that divine act itself that demands our primary allegiance. The Gospels can be thought of as an “icon” of Christ (in the Eastern Orthodox sense of icons--see this post for more)—a human-fashioned depiction of historical and spiritual truths, through which the Holy Spirit has chosen to teach, instruct, and build up the church; the Gospel accounts themselves connect us directly to the spiritual person of Christ and to the events of his life. The NT, then, is to be read sacramentally, as a means of meeting God and being transformed by him. It brings us into actual spiritual contact with the person of Christ and the events that wrought our redemption. If we are getting bogged down into details about whether or not Jesus told his disciples to bring a staff with them, then we are missing the forest for the trees, and we are failing to appreciate the New Testament for what it truly can be--a place to experience Jesus Christ himself.

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