Saturday, March 08, 2008
William Wrede in his famous essay on "The Task and Methods of [so-called] New Testament Theology" complains that little attention is given to the social context of the New Testament and too much emphasis is given to a conglomeration of theologies or theological doctrines. He then offers this analogy:
Consider the following: suppose that we are living two thousand years from now and are interested in the social democratic movement in our nineteenth century. Most of the literature of social democracy is lost, but we do still have a reasonable number of sources - two popular biographies of Lassalle, an academic treatise of Marx, a few letters of Lasalle, Engels and one or two unknown workers active as agitators; then a few pamphlets two or three pages long and finally a social inflammatory writing describing the socialist picture of heaven upon earth, - i.e. a collection of literature something like the New Testament. Now suppose we want to use these documents to get a picture of the outlook, ideas and earliest development of social democracy. We proceed as follows: we establish the order in which they were written. We then treat each one on its own. Marx and Lassalle rank alongside all the rest, only are dealt with more fully. The same procedure is adopted in each case. We naturally ask what Marx understands by labour, production, surplus value, etc. But we also ask what the pamphlets and letters mean by the concepts of bourgeoisie, proletariat, by the idea of its 'disinheritance', and by the variation in the concepts of labour or co-operative. Perhaps we manage to establish that in one of the papers the concept of ownership means just the same as that of property, and that some of Lassalle's ideas and phrases can no doubt be found in the inflammatory writing, and also - remarkably enough - traces of Darwin's influence, and a little Nietzsche. There are four occurrences of 'struggle of existence', two of 'adaptation', and one of 'master morality'. Another author has a special preference for the idea of agitation - so he is clearly 'the socialist of agitation'. In this way we carefully catalogue the ideas of each writing, stolidly piling one investigation upon another, arranging it all attractively according to the main points of view. Then we call the whole thing 'The Ideas of Social Democracy in its Period of Origin' (in Morgan, p. 82).
Wrede's point is that a history-of-ideas approach ends up with a caricature rather than a genuinely historical account of the New Testament.