Richard Bauckham and the Western Christian tradition (briefly)

Reading through the London School of Theology’s Open Learning module on Hermeneutics, I came across a good quotation from Richard Bauckham regarding the potential that time-honoured interpretive traditions have for creating an illusion of permanence and absoluteness:

The sheer length and continuity of the Western Christian tradition – which actually results from contextualization in a long series of more or less overlapping contexts – can create the illusion that long-standing features of it are so because they are appropriate to the human condition as such and so can be transferred to any context. Of course, the arrogance of European cultural imperialism since the nineteenth century has aided and abetted this, and the discovery of the relativity of the Western Christian tradition has been somewhat painfully combined with the need to repent of the colonial mentality.1

This is a standard postmodern insight: the meta-narrative of the Western Christian tradition is deconstructed by recognizing that it is the product of what is in the end a particular, coherent cultural and intellectual context; and it is not least the trauma of the post-colonial realignment that has opened our eyes to the relativity and transience of the theological and ecclesiastical tradition that has so thoroughly shaped the Western Christian worldview.

Well, Bauckham mentions ‘relativity’ but not ‘transience’. His point would appear to be primarily that in a global, post-colonial context we can no longer assume that the Western Christian tradition has exclusive rights over the formulation of Christian ‘truth’. We have to acknowledge that there are non-Western traditions whose perspective and interpretive capacity is not less valid than our own; it is sheer arrogance to think that we can simply transfer our own contextualization of Christian faith to other contexts.

But there is also a temporal dimension that needs to be reckoned with, which in the long run may prove of far greater significance than the cultural relativization – particularly in view of the fact that non-Western Christian traditions are, in any case, essentially Western exports that have only to a limited degree adapted to their alien environments. The Western Christian tradition, which is the contextualization of the biblical narrative under the conditions of European imperialism and rationalism, is disintegrating rapidly. We are having to repent not only of a geographical imperialism but also of a historical complacency; and we are having to ask just how much of what have taken to be self-evidently true is really just the final clamshell packaged consumer product at the end of a long Christendom manufacturing process.

This is why it is so important right now to go back and look at the unprocessed raw material again. What did the ‘faith’ of the re-emerging people of God look and feel and taste like before it got funneled into the Christendom machine? What were the large imaginative structures of their worldview, what were their memories, what were their hopes and fears, before they all got mangled or stripped away or burnt off by a system that could only process refined doctrinal matter? It seems to me that any new paradigm, if it is to claim to be authentically biblical, must begin here with the act of intense, critical, blinkered, dis-illusioned, historical re-imagining.

  • 1. Bauckham, R.J., ‘Tradition in Relation to Scripture and Reason’ in Bauckham and Drewery (eds.), Scripture, Tradition and Reason (T&T Clark, 1988), 143.