The thing that has most jumped out at me in my study of the world of the New Testament (2nd temple Judaism, historical context of the Gospels, etc etc) is just how far the categories of modern theology are from the world of the NT. To take one example: were one to go back to, say, 30 AD and talk to a certain carpenter about the hypostatic union, or essence, nature and being and being cosubstantial with the father, said carpenter would probably look at you like you had matzo balls coming out of your ears.
Now, I’m absolutely not pulling that old ‘Greek philosophy’ criticism that seems to get thrown around a bunch. There’s nothing wrong with using concepts/grammar/categories that aren’t strictly ‘biblical’. Anyone who spends any time reading this blog will realize that I think that discussing the finer points of the hypostatic union is important.
I suppose my question then is at odds with my last paragraph. At what point does it cease to be productive to use foreign (non-biblical) categories in our understanding of Scripture, Jesus, God, etc? N.T. Wright has made some powerful points criticizing the use of terms like nature, substance, etc in (for example) Chalcedon and to an extent the Nicene Creed, though his criticism of the NC is that it screens out the Jewish narrative of Scripture. I’m somewhat inclined to agree with him when he makes these points. Should we be using categories of thought that would have been utterly foreign to Jesus?
The extent to which our questions are foreign to the biblical world has been most clearly illustrated (in my opinion) by the recent debates over justification. Wright has pretty much demonstrated that the questions which were being brought to the text not only were the wrong questions but the wrong concepts and frameworks of thought (and yes, I regard Wright correct, broadly, in that debate) altogether. This isn’t to debate over justification but rather to illustrate that when we impose our own thinking on Scripture instead of allowing the reality of God and the Word of God through Scripture to impose its reality upon our thinking we’re going to come up with things foreign to Scripture.
Anyway, I’ll end this incoherent coffee fueled rant.
I’m exploring the world of the New Testament with Ben Witherington III, and his book ‘New Testament History.’ It’s a fantastic book, a tad slow in the beginning but once he gets to the birth/passion narratives, it’s just great. I highly recommend it as both an intro text and an intermediate study text.
I was reading some N.T. Wright essays before I went to the library and got the book, and the two authors lead me to really think about Jesus’s self-understanding. Wright obviously done a lot of work in this area, but Witherington made just a few comments in his book that sparked my interest.
‘If indeed this story accurately represents Jesus understanding [of the last supper] (whatever the particulars about the authenticity of the words of institution), what astounding faith and trust he must have had to have believed that his death would accomplish such a thin, and then to be so supremely confident that he could symbolically distribute the benefits of that death in advance of it happening! This high moment must be compared to his moment of struggle in the Garden of Gethsemene.’ (‘New Testament History’, p, 146)
I’ve never thought of the last supper from that angle, though it certainly is an angle that I think makes a lot of sense. There’s some definite similarity with Wright’s approach to Jesus’ self-understanding – a very flesh-and-blood, living, breathing human understanding. It takes the actual humanity of Jesus very seriously.
Christ is born! Chains shall He break, and in His name all oppression shall cease. His law is love and His gospel is peace. A merry and blessed Christmas to all, and may the Lord bless you, keep you and make His face shine upon you and all your endeavors this year.
Some interesting pushback against David Bentley Hart’s ‘The Experience of God,’ which continues the debate/discussion between the classical view of God and some of the modern ‘personalistic’ viewpoints.
Since I didn’t feel like transcribing my study notes from today, here’s my chickenscratch:
My interest in 1st century/2nd temple Judaism/early Christianity has been rekindled – I’ve spent the morning reading Wright, Sanders Segal, Metzger and others, and here’s an interesting snippet from Metzger about John the Baptist:
‘The other unique characteristic of John’s preaching was his insistence that in the coming judgment the privilege of belonging to the chosen people would count for nothing: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matt. 3:9, Luke 3:9). In effect, John excommunicated the whole nation and received back such as would repent and be baptized.’ (Bruce Metzger, ‘The New testament, it’s Background Growth and Content’, pp. 109-110).
Wright is well known for the thesis ethnic boasting and exclusivity was a major problem for the apostolic church, and it would seem here that John the Baptist provides a bit of evidence to bolster that thesis. Part of John’s problem (it appears) was that people were resting content in the fact that they belonged to the ethnic family of Abraham, and so were safe on judgment day, to which John gives his spirited reply.