Theological heresy and narrative-historical heresy

In his Christian Theology: An Introduction Alister McGrath discusses the taxonomy of “natural heresies” outlined by Schleiermacher in The Christian Faith (147-49). Here is the gist of the argument.

1. The essence or basic principle of Christianity is that God has redeemed us through Jesus Christ.

2. The rejection of this principle is the rejection of Christianity itself. “In other words, to deny that God has redeemed us through Jesus Christ is to deny the most fundamental truth claim which the Christian faith dares to make.”

Blessed are the narrative-historical interpreters: preaching the Beatitudes

We had a very good sermon on the Beatitudes yesterday. It did not sentimentalise the passage. It paid attention to the literary form. It was sensitive to language. It warned against careless application to our own context. But it made the assumption that this was generally relevant ethical-religious teaching: some care needs to be taken over translation, but Jesus is speaking as much to us as to his first century audience. I don’t think we should make that assumption.

Theology and history: on totally different wave lengths

I have had quite a lengthy conversation here with Bobby Grow following on from my random review posts about Samuel V. Adams’ book The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N. T. Wright. The conversation was basically a dispute, a little testy in places, about whether the interpretation of scripture needs to be predetermined by theological ideas about the epistemologically prior revelation of God in Christ developed by the later church.

Grow has reached the conclusion—rightly I think—that we are “on totally different wave lengths” and appears to have withdrawn from the conversation; and who can blame him? I express my thanks for his substantial contribution. But I thought it might be worth reviewing and summarising briefly what appear to me to have been the main areas of disagreement.

Samuel V. Adams and Paul’s “apocalypse of Jesus Christ”

I think I’m getting to the bottom of Samuel V. Adams’ excellent, invigorating, complex, stimulating and—in my view—flawed critique of N.T. Wright’s historical methodology.

History and theology have given us two different ways of understanding “apocalyptic”. When historians such as Wright use the term, what they have in mind principally is a body of literature, mostly of Palestinian Jewish origin, dating from roughly 300 BC to the early second century AD, which furnished, among other things, supernaturally revealed narratives of hope for Jews suffering Greek and Roman oppression. The corpus consists of texts such as Daniel, Jubilees, 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, the Sibylline Oracles, the Testament of Levi, or parts thereof. Some of the Qumran literature has a distinctly apocalyptic colouring.

Two stories about Jesus

I taught a module on the historical Jesus recently for church leaders. My starting point was the suggestion that there are two basic ways of telling the story about Jesus. Traditionally the church has told a vertical story: Jesus comes into the world from heaven to die for our sins and then returns to the Father, and that’s about it. There is a beginning (creation and fall) and an end (Jesus returns, final judgment), but what happens in history before and after the “Christ event” is a matter of only secondary theological interest. The traditional model, however, is coming under increasing pressure from what is essentially a historical reading of the New Testament. According to this paradigm, which is horizontal rather than vertical, diachronic rather than synchronic, Jesus plays a decisive part in the history of Israel, and his meaning for the world cannot be dissociated from that narrative.

Adams and Wright: beyond worldviews?

Samuel Adams argues—continuing my piecemeal critical review of his stimulating and exasperating book The Reality of God and Historical Method—that Wright’s historical method cannot deal adequately with the reality of God. Wright’s is not a thoroughgoing “methodological naturalism” because he ‘allows the “supernatural” as part of the worldview of the people who claim such an event to have happened’ (209). As a historian Wright evaluates the super-natural aspects of the New Testament witness not according to an Enlightenment worldview (Reimarus, Paulus, et al.) but according to a first century Jewish worldview (Jesus, Paul, et al.). That’s an improvement on a lot of historical Jesus research, but it remains an essentially naturalistic enterprise. It is a development of the Enlightenment framework, not a departure from it. So here, according to Adams, is the heart of the question…

Theological hermeneutics and the meaning of “Immanuel”

Here’s another example of how a theological reading can drive a coach and horses through historical exegesis. At the heart of the “theological doctrine of the incarnation,” Adams writes, “is the union of the divine and human in Jesus the Messiah”. Keeping in mind Wright’s historical method and critique, however, he insists that this is not an abstraction from scripture….

Adams, Wright, Barth, theology, history, time, eternity, and Paul’s letter to the Romans

The fault line between theology and history is pervasive, persistent and profound. Samuel Adams argues in The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N.T. Wright for a theological hermeneutics at the heart of which is the “apocalyptic event” of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ (122). This event is “historical” only in the general and abstract sense that it happened in time and space; it has very little to do with the particular history of Israel under the political-religious conditions of the late second temple period. I suggest, in fact, that the phrase “Christ event” should be consigned to the dustbin of a-history.

Explicit and implicit christologies in Mark

The explicit testimony concerning Jesus throughout Mark’s Gospel is that he is the beloved Son, empowered by the Spirit, who will serve the purposes of YHWH, who will suffer, who will be vindicated by his resurrection from the dead, and who will be seated at the right hand of YHWH, having received from YHWH authority to judge and rule over Israel and, potentially at least, the nations.

Can evangelicalism hitch the wagon of church and mission to the horse of historical narrative?

The cluttered mega-chart below (click for an enlarged version) combines yesterday’s schematic overview of Samuel Adams’ concise and lucid summary of Wright’s account of the relation between theology and history with my earlier attempt to show how the narrative-historical method goes back to the blessed Albert Schweitzer’s insistence that both Jesus and Paul need to be understood within the frame of apocalyptic Judaism.


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