Sunday, May 22, 2011

Historical Criticism, Act I: Jesus and the New Testament

In 1787, the year that the first states ratified the U.S. Constitution, Johan Philipp Gabler (1753-1826) “made a most far reaching contribution” to the development of the discipline of “historical criticism” of the Bible, in a lecture at the University of Altdorf, when he provided a definition that separated the text of Scripture from its divine teaching. Gabler noted, “Biblical theology possesses a historical character, transmitting what the sacred writers thought about divine matters; dogmatic theology, on the contrary, possesses a didactic character, teaching what a particular theologian philosophizes about divine matters in accordance to his ability, time, age, place, sect or school, and other similar things” (Gerhard Hasel, “New Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate,” Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, © 1978, pgs. 22-23). According to Gabler, here, divine inspiration of the texts was to be separated from the text itself.

A contemporary writer, George Lorenz Bauer (1755-1806), augmented Gabler’s definition by positing that Biblical theology was to be “pure and purged of all extraneous concepts – of the religious theory of the Jews prior to Christ and of Jesus and his apostles,” which he considered to be “a development traced from the writings of the sacred authors and presented in terms of the various periods and the various viewpoints and levels of understanding they reflect.” (Hasel, pgs. 23-24)

Such was the beginning of two centuries’-worth of liberal biblical criticism, a process which, though it began with profound skepticism, has largely ended up confirming not only the life of Christ (and skeptics were more than happy to stand back, arms folded and say, “the life of Christ? Prove it!”), but it has also confirmed very much of the traditional dating of and historical accuracy of the New Testament as well.

For example, Harvey Cox, who no conservative Christian would consider an ally, recently summarized the work of the Jesus Seminar: while setting out to disprove much about history, in the process they proved he was a first century Palestinian Jew who claimed to be God and who was crucified under Pontius Pilate; his disciples fanned out to the world with the story that he was raised from the dead. Cox said:
“Despite widespread discrepancies among the researchers, some things were not contested. All agreed that Jesus really had existed, and that he was a first-century Palestinian Jew living under the heel of a Roman occupation that – like many such occupations before and since – had split its captive people into feuding sects and warring factions. They also agreed that he was a rabbi who taught the imminent coming of the kingdom of God, and gained a following as a teacher and a healer in Galilee, especially among the landless and destitute, but that he aroused the ire of the nervous ruling religious circles and the tense Roman authorities. When he and some of his followers arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover holidays he caused a stir in the Temple, was arrested, interrogated, and executed by crucifixion, a form of death by torture reserved by the Romans for those suspected of subverting their imperial rule. But after his death, his followers insisted that he had appeared to them alive, and they continued to spread his message even in the face of harsh persecution.” (Harvey Cox, “When Jesus Came to Harvard,” Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, ©2004, pgs. 18-19).
Robert Jewett, as well, in his Commentary on Romans, is confident enough in the historical accuracy of that work to make some extremely firm and confident assessments of the date and place of its composition:
The historical-critical method requires “a firm chronological structure” because “chronology is the skeleton of history” (19) … the assessment of these details supports the date of the winter of 56-57 for the writing of Romans … (21) … This evidence has led Romans commentators, without exception as far as I know, to conclude that Paul wrote Romans in the area of Corinth (22).
When writers tell you that evidence is “imprecise” and “fragmentary” from this era, remember that a great deal of precision can nevertheless be ascertained from what is available.

In an appendix to his “New Testament Theology” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, ©2008), Thomas Schreiner summarizes the fruit of these efforts:
When we do biblical theology, we must not think that it can be approached from a putative objective standpoint. … One of the crucial matters in this whole endeavor is whether we pay attention to the divine intention in reading Scripture. I am not suggesting that the divine intention is accessed in some mystical way apart from the words of the text. The divine meaning of the text is not granted via dreams or private revelations. Nor am I jettisoning the importance of historical study. Understanding the meaning of the human authors is fundamental to biblical theology and foundational to grasping on God’s meaning. Focusing on presuppositions does not mean that historical evidence is ignored. Schlatter rightly reminds us that we must see what the text says. Still, when we consider the many authors of Scripture and their various intentions, we realize that God was superintending the whole process, and that there is a divine intention through the historical process. For example, the writer of Psalm 2 certainly was speaking of a king in Israel’s history. But when we read the whole of Scripture, it is clear that this psalm ultimately refers to Jesus Christ. So Vanhoozer rightly says that we must read the Bible “according to its truest, fullest, divine intention.” The divine meaning is not contrary to the human meaning, but it may transcend it in ways the original author did not grasp….

In this book I have assumed that the NT theology is rooted in the word of God that is unified and coherent. At the same time, I would argue that there is substantial evidence to buttress such a claim (886-888).
In other words, the historical evidence supports our conservative presuppositions. The evidence is not contrary to them.

What Schreiner is saying here is that when we read “what the text says,” the conclusions that we reach from the text provide a basis from which it is not a large leap of faith to say, “God superintended the whole thing.” The internal and external evidence that we see, in the interlocking of the Old and New Testaments and the various works by various authors, do not make it difficult to conclude that a single Mind was orchestrating all of the events that led to the 66-book Canon of Scripture.

No comments:

Post a Comment