Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Pastoral Significance of Christian Origins and New Testament Theology

I want to argue that Christian Origins and New Testament Theology have important pastoral implications. Studying Christian Origins allows us to see the big picture of the diversity and growth of the early church, and New Testament Theology enables us to grasp the complexity and accordance of theological ideas within the canon itself. Together they indicate the sociological and theological unity and diversity of early Christianity.

Why is this important? Well, I find that many Christians operate with a default "myth of Christians origins" and skewed view of New Testament Theology. What is that myth and what is skewed?

1. Well, the myth goes something like this: In the beginning was "us" (i.e. me, since all the first Christians held the same beliefs that I did, they hated the same false teachings that I hate, my distinctives were their distincitives). Things went well for us until about 100 AD when it all turned to a schmozzle and we disappeared. But the good news is that "us" is back and we have brought with us a return to the pristine era of doctrinal purity. We are the gatekeepers of truth and righteousness and the boundary of the kingdom includes us and our friends. In the immediate sense, all before us and all apart from us are dogs and devils. (Note, this is a caricature and an exageration and I do not have any body or any group in mind).

2. On another level, when students (esp. evangelical students) talk about the message of the New Testament, they usually mean Paul. And when they mean Paul, what they mean is Romans and Galatians. Their understanding (or sometimes lack of undestanding) of these two epistles often becomes the centre of not only Paul, but of the entire New Testament. Hebrews, Matthew, Revelation, and Luke-Acts are all forced into a Pauline framework.

How is this corrected? First, Christian Origins shows us the real diversity of the early church. You only have to compare the Johannine literature, Luke-Acts, and Paul to see that the saving significance of Jesus was expressed in different (I did not say contradictory) concepts, categories, and terms. Approaches to the law were diverse and pluriform as Christians struggled (in every sense of the word) to understand how the law-covenant was to be understood and followed in light of the coming Jesus/faith (cf. Gal. 3.23). A study of Christian Origins opens our eyes to the reality and goodness of diversity, so that Christians can learn to differentiate between convictions and commands, and discern between the major and the minor doctrines of Christian belief. I would also add that, despite this theological breadth to the early church, there was still unity within diversity, a unity apparent in the common kerygma of the early church. While there was diversity and complexity in the early church, it was never a free for all, and the desire to discern between true and false expressions of belief were part of the Christian movement from the very beginning. That leads us to New Testament Theology and rather than priviledging Paul to supra-canonical status (and Romans and Galatians and hyper-canonical), we should listen to each corpra on its own terms and to the issues to which they speak. A study of this kind will indicate where the theological (and dare I say) spiritual centre of gravity lies in the New Testament.


C. Michael Patton said...

I agree completely. Great post. Thanks for reminding people of the necessity of wrestling with the past.

J. B. Hood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. B. Hood said...


Mike, I've been struck lately by the way in which "Cross as example" is one of the most common themes in the NT: all four gospels, Paul, 1 John, etc. Where on the grid would this go? Shared "theology" or "kerygma"? Or shared "praxis"? Or is it shared "framework" or "expectation" (perhaps derived from tribulation/Jewish martyr theology)?

Jim said...

Hi Mike, you write

I want to argue that Christian Origins and New Testament Theology have important pastoral implications.

I agree of course but isn't that like arguing for the importance of oxygen? If a person doesn't know that NTT has pastoral implications shouldn't they be selling cars somewhere?

Sean said...

This is exceptionally helpful!

CJW said...

Mike, this is fantastic.

However I think I went to college with a few of the people who provided your caricature for your first point ;)

I certainly read your second point loud and clear. However I also went to college with some people who would take it even further: not only are Christian Origins collapsed into the NT canon, but this is reduced to Paul, whose theology is summarised in Romans and Galatians, but (and here we get to the point) the singular thrust of this eternal theology is the doctrine of the atonement, the numerous models of which all find their best arguments coalesced into the penal substitutionary model. So, finally we find that the whole point of those first 100 unadulterated years was to give us penal substitutionary atonement!

David R Kirk said...

Mike. Of course I would argue that you might find a 'molecular' expression of gravity rather than a singular centre of gravity! But that is the point you make when you speak about forcing the diversity into a Pauline framework.

kentuckyliz said...

Thank you for this. I have had some tell me that Paul nullifies Jesus!

The extreme is cramped.

kentuckyliz said...

Those you describe in #1 act as if their opinion is inscribed on stone tablets.