Why theology is of no use to us now

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Stephen Fowl thinks that it’s impossible to get from history to theology—to start with historical-criticism and arrive at an account of the being and intentions of the Triune God and of the various beliefs and practices that derive from that core Christian doctrine.

So we have to start at the other end: we believe in the Triune God who reveals himself through the historical text of scripture for the purpose of bringing us into ever deeper fellowship with God. This is how he expresses it in his little book Theological Interpretation of Scripture:

This claim has presumed what I take to be the relatively uncontroversial assertion that the end or telos of the Christian life is ever deeper communion with God and each other. Although various Christian groups may characterize this in terms of “friendship with God” (Aquinas), theosis (Orthodoxy), glorifying God and enjoying God forever (Westminster Confession), or simply using the word “salvation,” Christians can all recognize that, at the least, “ever deeper communion with God and neighbor” suitably characterizes God’s purposes for humanity. (13)

Fowl is right to warn that it is not at all easy to get from historical analysis of the biblical texts to theological tradition. That transition happened in the early centuries but only by way of an abrupt disjunction or refraction between the first century Jewish-Christian movement and the later Greek church.

A seismology of Christian thought

“History” and “theology” as good as name the beginning and end of this journey.

The New Testament consistently aims at outcomes in historical time, in direct continuation of Old Testament expectations—judgment on Jerusalem, conversion of the nations, the vindication of the prophets and apostles.

The consolidation of the church in the Greek-Roman world was the fulfilment of the historical aims, and in that respect with the conversion of the empire came the replacement of history with theology, the dynamic and contingent with the static and transcendent.

So there is no smooth, unbroken hermeneutical path either from history to theology—as Fowl observes—or in the reverse direction, from theology to history. These are different worlds, and the light is rather sharply refracted across the boundary between them. That’s why historical criticism won’t give the theologians what they want.

Arguably, further such disjunctions or refractions or fault lines—to change the metaphor—have occurred since the end of Christendom, returning the church with a seismic jolt to the uncomfortable passage of history, even perhaps to geology.

The Enlightenment was one such fault line, the multiple revolts of the post-war period against the hegemony of the Western tradition add up to another; and we are slowly coming to grasp the likely catastrophic impact of the current transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene, for which the only biblical precedent is the flood. That may shift our thinking to a different level altogether.

So Fowl starts from a reductivist theological presupposition—that the Triune God desires communion with humanity.

The Bible is then understood to be a providentially ordered outworking of that presupposition, the revelation of the divine purpose and of the means of achieving it. The fact that the Bible was written over a long period of time, under changing historical circumstances, is incidental: the theological paradigm is synchronic, static, unchanging, timeless, universally relevant, supra-historical.

Not the God of creation and history

Fowl takes the theological premise to be self-evident and “relatively uncontroversial,” but it seems to me that it fundamentally misrepresents the content of scripture and has become a quite serious handicap as the church struggles to keep its head above water in a changing world. So actually, I would suggest that it is very controversial.

By excluding history from the hermeneutical paradigm, theological interpretation has rejected just that part of the biblical witness that enabled the people of God in both the Old Testament and the New Testament to react with foresight and faith to large-scale historical challenges.

The starting point for a biblical hermeneutic, it seems to me, must be the decision of the God who created the heavens and the earth to bring into existence a new creation and priestly people in the midst of the nations.

To call this God “Triune” has two damaging effects.

First, it marginalises the creation theme, which in fact is central to the key controversies in scripture, from the opening chapters of Genesis to Isaiah to Paul’s address in Athens to Romans 1 to Revelation. As a result, we have poor theological resources for dealing with the current creation crisis.

Secondly, it discounts the entire historical grounding of the New Testament, it removes the story of Jesus from the story of Israel; and it leaves us with visions of the future which make no connection with historical reality, a largely pointless eschatology.

So the sort of theological interpretation of scripture that Fowl describes presents us with a God of spiritual communion, who is not the God who created the heavens and the earth and not the God of history.

The promise to Abraham

The far more relevant and more useful biblical premise, I would argue, is the faithfulness of the God of creation, who is the God of history, to the promises made to the patriarchs. The descendants of Abraham will live out a credible new creation existence in an unrighteous and Godless world, and they will serve the interests of the living God as a priestly people, representing God to the nations and the nations to God.

And when history gets difficult, as it inevitably does, the God of history will intervene to judge, rescue, reform, and restore in order to preserve the life and witness of his people.

So Isaiah declares to those Judeans who “pursue righteousness”:

Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. For the LORD comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD. (Is. 51:2–3)

Paul says that Abraham was justified by his belief in the promise of God that he would have future descendants (Rom. 4; Gal. 3:7-9). What is at stake in his theology of justification by faith is not the individual’s communion with God but the future of the people at a time of historical crisis—a dimension to Paul’s thought that is entirely lost if we begin with the theological conclusions reached by the post-Jewish, post-eschatological church in the Greek world.

It is not the individual Christian who has an “end” or telos, it is the historical community of the people of God, whose purpose very simply is, on the one hand, to be an obedient and righteous new creation, and on the other, to serve corporately as clearly identifiable priests of the living God in a world that struggles to acknowledge and know him. When this two-fold vocation becomes historically difficult, as it is now, we rely on the God who made the promise to Abraham to intervene and put us back on track.