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THE RULE OF FAITH
SCRIPTURE, CANON, AND CREED IN A CRITICAL AGE
By Ephraim Radner, George Sumner
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 1998 Ephraim Radner and George Sumner
All rights reserved.
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The Character of the Divine Christ
Jesus Christ the Lord and the Scriptures of the Church The Reverend Dr. Brevard S. Childs
The Sources of the Present Confusion
It is not my intention to review in detail the many recent attempts to reconstruct a new portrait of Jesus. These efforts of creating a new understanding in accord with modern cultural norms are not new. In Albert Schweitzer's classic volume, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), he has given an exhaustive account of the history of various proposals from the late eighteenth through the nineteenth centuries.
What characterized the nineteenth-century effort was the confidence that by using the correct historical-critical method one could penetrate through the canonical Gospels and recover a more rational and appealing figure. It was first thought that if one simply removed the supernatural elements, an accessible portrait matching ordinary human experience would emerge. Then a proposal was developed contending that if the different literary strands were critically rearranged—Mark being the earliest gospel and John designated as late and unreliable—a very new historical figure would emerge. Then, in 1835, a dramatic shift took place in the field of New Testament with the publication of David Friedrich Strauss's book, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. Strauss argued that all the sources of the New Testament were affected by a mythical consciousness through which the gospel material had been filtered, and that this consciousness largely absorbed all historical memory into a tendentious human construct. By the end of the nineteenth century it had become evident that the quest for a critically reconstructed Jesus of history had been a failure and that the subjective and philosophically prejudicial dimension had increased rather than diminished.
Yet, in all fairness, it would be wrong to conclude that the whole effort had been a total loss. The intense scrutiny of the Gospels did point out the strikingly different voices of the four evangelists, which up to that time had not been sufficiently recognized. In addition, the critical effort did much to destroy the traditional method of easy harmonization of the gospels, which often had been equally as rationalistic as the nineteenth-century liberal critics.
The nineteenth-century critical approaches continued to be represented well into the twentieth century, especially in the English-speaking world. For example, in 1927 Shirley Jackson Case, a professor of New Testament at Chicago, wrote a new biography of Jesus that exploited recent sociological theories of religion and society. Also, in some respects, Rudolf Bultmann's early 1929 volume on Jesus, which was published in a popular series titled "The Immortals," was a continuation of the nineteenth century's literary critical reductionism. The effect of the philosophical dissolution stemming from World War I was already evident in Bultmann's move from the lovable, idealistic figure of Harnack to that of an existentialist who called for concrete decisions in the face of life's tragic imponderables. In the decades following World War II most of Bultmann's students avoided writing lives of Jesus. The few tentative probes of Bornkamm, Kasemann, and Conzelmann were pale and hesitant attempts to escape the nineteenth-century critical legacy with all of its obvious failures.
In light of this brief review, how then is one to explain the recent explosion of new interest in a so-called "Third Quest for the Historical Jesus"? It is not by accident that the movement is strongest in the English-speaking world, especially in the United States. I have been struck by the fact that many of its proponents—E. P. Sanders, Marcus Borg, and John Shelby Spong, to name a few—have come out of conservative, even fundamentalist, backgrounds. In his several books on the search which come across as quite pious in tone, Borg genuinely tries to encourage a type of religious faith by creating a more politically correct, mystical Jesus that immediately resonates with a certain segment of American culture. Even the radical, avant-garde Roman Catholic scholar J. D. Crossan cannot be construed as antiecclesiastical, but rather as one who is offering a very different option as a substitute for traditional Christianity. None of these scholars are out to trash the importance of religion as a cultural phenomenon. Rather, the adversary is always traditional Christian orthodoxy, both catholic and evangelical.
A variety of factors are involved that have shaped the new quest. First, the appeal to sociological forces as a dominant influence in determining the form of the Christian religion is everywhere presupposed. This approach seeks to determine the cultural roots of Jewish, Hellenistic, and sectarian groups out of which Christianity arose and from which its religious experience was shaped. Moreover, the modern discoveries at Qumran and Nag Hammadi have encouraged this emphasis as sharper profiles of gnostic, ecstatic, and apocalyptic groups have been constructed. A frequent corollary of this interest, which goes back to Reimarus and Lessing, is that these creative forces have been layered over and constrained by a later ecclesiastical construct, largely self-serving, that has increasingly misunderstood the true significance of Jesus. According to this model, a major goal is to replace the early Church's misunderstanding by a more accurate, sociological picture. Discursive speech is understood largely as the formation of images, whose function is construed as identity-building in nature. This move allows the interpreter to seek modern analogies to communal functions without normative doctrinal ballast. Thus, Wayne Meeks can translate the Pauline language of justification and eschatology into a process of resocialization within the context of friendship.
A second major influence has joined the sociological approach with a more radical, postmodern philosophical understanding of textual meaning as indeterminate, a never-ending pursuit of open-ended tropes. Meaning does not cohere to any determinate form of a text, but is acquired only through the reading process that produces literary sense. There is no privileged context assigned to the apostolic witness of the New Testament, but the context of the reader shapes a meaning within certain communal restraints. This hermeneutical theory accounts for the endless variety of diverse readings: Marxist, ethnic, feminist, and psychological.
Another factor is the influence of so-called "narrative theology." Much good and illuminating has come from some of its advocates. The recovery of the Bible as a coherent story served to overcome the nineteenth-century fragmentation of the texts into bits and pieces. Narrative theology was also very helpful in forcing the interpreter to seek to hear all the nuances of each text in its own right, within a larger literary whole without concentrating immediately on academic questions of historicity. Hans Frei's famous book, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (1974), freed an entire scholarly generation from its preoccupation with questions of external referentiality by showing the great variety within the Bible's own rendering of theological intertextuality.
Yet, almost immediately scholars began to understand the Bible as a story in purely literary categories, without any serious concern for its theological content. When Karl Barth first spoke about the "strange new world of the Bible," he was speaking of the world of God. In modern narrative theology the Bible has increasingly become a story by which every form of human aspiration and alternative visions of an ideal society are projected through creative imagination. God's story was replaced with "our story" as once again theology was turned into anthropology.
Recently, viewers had the chance to watch the numerous television programs chaired by Bill Moyers on the book of Genesis. On initially hearing of this project, I had a very positive reaction and greeted with expectation the discussions of a battery of serious and educated readers. I assumed, rather naively, that any reading of the Bible must be of value. I quickly became deeply disappointed as week after week the participants raised, in my judgment, all the wrong questions, immediately becoming mired in the murky waters of skepticism, personal alienation, and psychological paralysis. The clear witness of God's many ways of dealing with his rebellious creation turned into a cacophony of misunderstanding and human hubris. It reminded me of the Garden of Eden and the serpent's query: "Did God really say ...?" In the end, I felt that all the deep problems of the modern quest for God in American society were writ large for all to see in their painful confusion.
The Role of the Bible as Sacred Scripture
The present confusion regarding Jesus Christ is derived in large measure from the failure to understand the nature of the Scripture that bears testimony to him. How one conceives the Bible directly affects how one views the Christ. If Scripture is not regarded as a vehicle of truthful witness, but instead as a faulty filtering prism through which the person of Jesus has been impaired or severely distorted, then by necessity one must find another access to this figure. This assumption, I submit, ultimately lies at the heart of the present confusion as different proposals regarding Jesus are articulated: the ascetic mystic, the political radical, the eschatological fanatic, or the cool Kissinger-like sage, expounding wise aphorisms or expedient counsel.
The question of the Church's understanding of Scripture entails a variety of both historical and theological issues. Among the central points in this understanding and shaping of Scripture is that Jesus' first disciples were all Jews. They were loyal to the God of Israel, whom they worshiped in the temple and in their synagogues. They lived from the revelation of God to his chosen people, as contained in the Hebrew Scriptures. During their lives with Jesus they were constantly being instructed in the divine word: "Search the Scriptures for they speak of me" (John 6:39).
For at least one hundred years after the resurrection, the Jewish Scriptures served as the only Bible of the Church. Yet it was clear from the beginning that the early Christians shared a different approach than their Jewish contemporaries to these sacred writings. The Church's language of faith was not tied to the Hebrew language as was rabbinic Judaism, but almost immediately the Greek, Latin, and Coptic languages were used to communicate the gospel. Certainly the biblical text was considered sacred, but this was because of the divine content to which it bore witness. The biblical text in itself was not a reality-creating entity, but rather the Holy Spirit brought life to the word to reveal its living testimony to Jesus as the Christ. In spite of Bishop Spong's recent discovery of Jewish midrash as holding the key to the New Testament, in point of fact, midrashic exegesis was at best a peripheral phenomenon within Christianity. The issue for the church was that of theological substance and not of literary techniques. Second Peter states this conviction succinctly, "We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty ... and we have the prophetic word made sure" (1:16–19).
Very shortly, along with the written Jewish Scriptures, the stories from and about Jesus were collected and, within thirty years, were formed into written gospels. For a time, both oral and written forms of the gospel coexisted. This was made clear when attacks on the Church's teaching arose from the Gnostics, who constructed a very different, esoteric portrait of Jesus. In the second century the Catholic Church, under the leadership of men like Irenaeus, responded by appealing to a rule of faith (regula fidei). This was not simply a baptismal formula, as thought in the nineteenth century, but it was a core of Christian belief on which the Christian faith was grounded, the one catholic tradition expressed in both oral and written form. There was only one Gospel, but it was testified to by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It is important to emphasize that when the four Gospels were deemed canonical—authoritative for faith and practice—they were not rendered normative by an ecclesial power imposed from the top down. Rather, in their use by diverse Christian congregations and from the coercion of the evangelical witness itself, their authority was recognized and acknowledged as from God.
One of the earliest crises of the Church came in the middle of the second century when it became increasingly evident that the Scriptures of the Old Testament, even when read as the law of Christ, were not adequate or complete without being supplemented by a written evangelical witness—the New Testament. One can sense even from the shape of the Gospels the impending crisis that ultimately led to the formation of the second testament. Luke's prologue uses language reflecting the consciousness that the form of the witness to the gospel was no longer that of original eyewitnesses, but was being set down in written form by later traditions. A new medium for truthful proclamation was called for as the first generation of eyewitnesses began to die. Using the literary conventions of Hellenistic rhetoric, Luke expresses his intention to write an orderly account "that you may know the truth concerning the things you have heard" (1:4).
What finally emerged was a Christian Bible that consisted of an Old Testament and a New Testament, both witnessing to Jesus Christ, the old testifying in terms of prophecy, and the new of fulfillment. Yet both speak of the future eschatological rule of God. The Christian Bible was formed from two different collections, each having its discrete traditional history, but together comprising the one unified testimony to God in Jesus Christ.
The precise date the New Testament took a definitive shape has been much discussed. The term New Testament appears in Irenaeus and becomes common soon thereafter. The present reigning hypothesis, first established in the late nineteenth century by patristic giants such as Zahn and Harnack, argues that the formation of the completed New Testament was the result of a long and rather tortuous process extending over several centuries. It was thought that there was a basic canonical corpus by the end of the second century that consisted of the four Gospels and most of the letters of Paul. However, only by the end of the fourth century did the other parts of the New Testament—Acts, General Epistles, and Revelation—assume canonical status. This position was essentially the view I defended in my book The New Testament as Canon, which was written twelve years ago.
Recently there have been some exciting new studies on the subject. I mention, above all, the brilliant book of David Trobisch, titled The Final Redaction of the New Testament: An Investigation of the Formation of the Christian Bible, which is to appear in an English translation from Oxford University Press. Trobisch is convinced that there is new evidence to show that there already was a definitive edition of the entire New Testament by the end of the second century. He makes his case on the following evidence.
First, a study of all the manuscript evidence through the seventh century shows the presence of a peculiar system of abbreviating a series of divine names: God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, Spirit, Father, and Son. (Trobisch calls these nomina sacra.) He argues that these abbreviations are unique to the Christian Bible and that they show the early dating of an actual literary publication of an edition of the entire New Testament in codex form, whether written in capital or minuscule letters.
Furthermore, the titles of authorship assigned to each of the writings—those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter, and Jude—are consciously intertwined throughout the entire New Testament to show an inner-referentiality, and thus to form a unified authoritative whole. For example, Mark is linked in Acts with both Paul and Peter and he also is greeted in the letter of 1 Peter. Luke likewise is referred to in the Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline collection, and is linked with Mark. John is named in the Fourth Gospel, the synoptics, Acts, and Revelation. Similarly, the General Epistles are consciously linked through cross-referencing to James, Peter, and John. The effect is that a knowledge of the whole New Testament corpus emerges as an actual literary force in shaping once independent writings into a unified composition.
Excerpted from THE RULE OF FAITH by Ephraim Radner, George Sumner. Copyright © 1998 Ephraim Radner and George Sumner. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Section One: The Character of the Divine Christ
Section Two: The Historical Reality of Jesus the Christ
Section Three: The Lordship of Jesus in Human History
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This is an exciting and important book that runs against the grain of current 'orthodoxies' and for that very reason deserves careful consideration by the whole Church