Brian LePort, who regularly takes the trouble to highlight posts on this blog, for which I am very grateful, has posted a great list of the “ten most difficult doctrinal/theological subjects that contemporary Christians must address”. I don’t agree with everything on the list, probably because I am not American. The question of whether Adam and Eve were historical figures is topical but seems a non-issue to me, unless perhaps it is reckoned to stand for a much broader debate about the relation between scripture and science; and the two items addressing political allegiance and ethnicity in relation to ecclesiastical unity clearly reflect an American perspective. I’m also a bit surprised that “gospel” and “kingdom” don’t get a mention until a long way into the comments. Have a look. See what you think.
The first two items, however, certainly chime with my own stubborn, narrow-minded agenda, and I think that the prominence Brian gives to Christian-Muslim relations at number three is far-sighted.
(1) The “ontology” of Scripture:
It seems that many of the subsequent controversies are influenced by how one addresses this one. There has been intensified debate in evangelical circles over the meaning of Scripture. I think it has impacted even broader circles though. Words like “inerrancy,” “infallibility,” and “authority” are enough to divide churches and academic institutions.
I think evangelicalism should take the bull by the horns and reclassify its scriptures from the genre of sacred text to the genre of historical text. This is the only way to resolve not only the hermeneutical tension but also quite possibly the whole stand-off between Reformed and narrative-historical theologies, which is another major difficulty that didn’t quite make it on Brian’s list.
The dogmatic defence of the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture is required only because we believe that we are theologically obligated to preserve its status as sacred text. We are not. Our God is a God of history. He acts in history and he speaks in history. All attempts to elevate scripture above the contingencies and messiness of history are ultimately idolatrous. Scripture derives its authority for the people of God from its engagement with history.
There is, admittedly, a problem with historical-critical reductionism, but the solution to the problem is not to stick our heads in the sands of dogmatism. (See Kenton Sparks on why evangelicals should appropriate critical biblical scholarship.) The solution, I would suggest, is to bring into the foreground scripture as the narrated history of a people.
Scripture is historical in two directions: in its relation to what actually happened or what actually is (the historical-critical question); and in its relation to the community that told its story by means of these texts (the narrative-historical question). Both aspects are important, but for the ongoing community scripture is authoritative primarily in the latter sense. We are the descendants of a people—family to Abraham—which during a long formative phase of its existence, culminating in the victory of the followers of Jesus over Greek-Roman paganism, told this story about itself. This whole story is authoritative for our continuing life and witness.
(2) The historical Jesus in relation to creedal Christology:
While historical Jesus research seems to be waning in some circles there remains a tension between talking about Jesus of Nazareth who walked this earth in the first century and Jesus the Second Person of the Trinity who is worshiped every Sunday and exalted in the language of the creeds. One area that will continue to be hotly debated is whether or not Jesus talked about himself in ways that indicated he thought of himself as one with God in a meaningful way.
This is currently the big one for me, though I would frame it a little differently. The main tension, as I see it, is not between the earthly Jesus and Jesus as Second Person of the Trinity but between the apocalyptic narrative of Jesus as the one who becomes exalted Son of God, Israel’s king, judge of the nations, as a consequence of his obedience, and the intricate ontologies of Trinitarianism, according to which Jesus is eternally God the Son. It seems to me that the New Testament as a whole does a very good job of resolving the tension between the earthly Jesus and the exalted Lord who is worshipped in the churches. But whether statements pointing to pre-existence provide a sufficient bridge to the later philosophical formulations is not so clear.
(3) Christian/Muslim relations:
Since both Christianity and Islam are monotheistic religions there has been intensified discussion over whether or not the Allah of Islam is the same the God of Christianity. Of course, there are important differences, especially Christianity’s language regarding God as Trinity and Jesus’ relation to the one God. As the two largest religions in the world the relationship between Christians and Muslims has serious geopolitical implications.
I have occasionally been accused of trying to minimize the offence of the doctrine of Christ’s divinity because I have spent a lot of time in the Muslim world. I honestly don’t think that’s the case. But there is a fascinating, and probably enlightening, dialogue to be had about Jesus if only both sides could get themselves out of the deep theological trenches from which they have long fought each other. I don’t expect Muslims and Christians to agree over who Jesus was, but I wonder whether a properly New Testament Trinitarianism—that is, one that prioritizes the apocalyptic narrative—might not in the long run prove something of a game-changer.