Friday, September 14, 2007

A Theology of Early Christianity: A Rationale

A Theology of Early Christianity: A Rationale

I am intending to write a ‘Theology of early Christianity’ as opposed to a book on ‘New Testament Theology’ or a book 'Christian Origins'. That is because I hope to integrate together the field of Christian Origins with the discipline New Testament Theology. That integration is needed because of the relative weaknesses of the discplines of New Testament Theology and Christian Origins.

The Problem with Christian Origins

The problem with Christian Origins is that, while adequately capturing the generative power of sociological forces for fostering theological beliefs, it fails to recognize that theology can also create a sociological dynamic. The door of cause and effect between theology and sociology swings both ways since what people do and what they believe are intimately intertwined. A further problem is that practitioners of Christian Origins deliberately avoid and even eschew exploring the theological texture of these documents. That inevitably results in an unsympathetic treatment of the texts precisely because of their largely theological nature. It also means that the theology of each book or letter cannot be so neatly deconstructed to be ‘really’ about ecclesial machinations, imperial politics, the suppression of minorities, the rising power of an orthodox collegiate, or comprise weapons of intra-Christian factionalism, when in fact they are trying to say something about God and the human condition. Whatever social complexity or religious context lies behind the texts of the New Testament we cannot shirk away from the fact that these writings are fundamentally concerned with an otherworldly reality known as God and the world to come. A history of early Christianity is only available through the theological witness of the New Testament, so historians of Christianity must do business with early Christian theology. It is, then, unsatisfactory to merely list and describe the beliefs and rituals of the early church, to plot the origin and evolution of beliefs from other sources, to map out factional differences and splits, and to point the finger at endless instances of diversity. Commentators, by negating the theological dimension of the New Testament in their inquiry, ignore the primary message of these writings which is largely theological. In the end, such commentators leave us with nothing more than ‘historicism or anti-quarianism, with its lack of interest in relevance’.[1] No-one can hope to understand the origin of Christianity without sympathetically listening to the theological beliefs, hopes, and creeds of the first Christians. It may be fashionable to say that there is no single theology of early Christianity to study, but in the final dust up they did opt for a single theology and they called it the Holy Scriptures.

The Problem with New Testament Theology

First, for a historical reason, we may consider the relationship of the first Christians themselves to the New Testament writings. In writing a New Testament Theology one may choose to focus exclusively upon the text of the New Testament given a presupposition of its ontological status as inspired, canonical, and authoritative (and why not!). Such an exercise will be concerned with the major theological themes of each book, how to explicate the unique theological contribution of each New Testament book, as well as expositing the New Testament’s theological message as a whole. The problem I have with this approach is that while it appropriately upholds the singularity of Scripture as inspired and normative for faith communities and it studiously engages the content of the New Testament itself, it still abstracts the New Testament from its historical origin and its impact upon the early church. New Testament Theology is not a systematic theology derived from the New Testament, it should be a theology derived the early Christianity community including their history and testimony as represented in the text. Theology, especially New Testament Theology, does not occur in a vacuum and it is the result of a long historical process of debate, conflict, struggle, and reflection with the competitors and collaborators of one’s environment over the question of God. Theology is created in the historical journey from struggle to Scripture and narrating that journey helps to explain the theology. In other words, there can be no theology of the New Testament without a description of the early Christians themselves. As an example, a theology of Romans must take into account: (1) the history of Christianity in Rome; (2) Jewish and Christian relations in Rome up to the mid-50s; (3) the social and religious context of the Roman Christians in the city of Rome; (4) Paul’s own circumstances including his motivation for writing, the relationship of the epistle of the Romans to the epistle to the Galatians, and also the evidence that Romans represents a distillation of previous debates in Antioch, Galatia, and Corinth; and (5) the immediate reception of Romans in the early church. Whereas New Testament theologies have focused on the main themes of the text and how those themes relates to the other New Testament writings, I think that a more profound set of questions to ask is what did the text do, to whom, why, and how does that relate to other Christian communities? By doing that, one is keeping the theology of the text rooted in the situation of the author and recipients and placing the findings in the wider context of the first Christians as a whole. Second, for a theological reason, we must consider the phenomenon that birthed the New Testament. The New Testament was written, copied, transmitted, preserved, preached from, and disseminated by Christians. A Protestant apologetic ploy is to say that the Church did not create the canon, but discovered the canon created by God.[2] A passing read of Eusebius’ History of the Church indicates that this is flat out false. God created the canon through the Church. The Bible may have been written for us, but its composite parts were not written to us. It is perfectly natural then to see the New Testament as the witness of a constellation of communities to their own story and beliefs, to their relationship with other groups (Christian and non-Christian), and to their own life in God. The New Testament is in part the biography of the Church and what God has done, is doing, and will do for the Church. The story of God becomes available only through the story of the Church. The New Testament had a formative role for the faith and praxis of particular communities from the very beginning. In fact, the New Testament writers are fundamentally concerned with a world beyond the text and thus we find the locus of meaning situated in the interface between text and community or between author and audience. A theology of Paul’s epistle to the Romans as a thing-in-itself is impoverished without taking into account the Roman Christians who comprise far more than the happenstance for writing, but their theological and pastoral instruction is the goal of epistle. The epistle to the Romans is not theology unless it is a theology for the Roman Christians. At the end of the day, I am arguing for the integration of ecclesiology into a doctrine of Scripture (a frightening task for a self-confessed evangelical). In my mind, such a perspective not only justifies the continuing inquiry as to what the text originally meant, but it secures the validity of theological exegesis as the enterprise by which the Church continually searches, studies, and sermonizes the Scriptures. By theological exegesis I mean, ‘theological interpretation of the Bible seeks to relate the ancient text to the religious question of the modern reader, without doing violence to either’.[3] Another corollary is that studies in reception-history (wirkungsgeschichte) become of vital significance as the division between implied readers and real readers may not be as wide as is often thought and so we must bring later witnesses with us in investigation of the New Testament documents. Meaning is created through fusing together the horizons of author, recipient, and reader. This justifies taking into account the wider ecclesial context from which and for which the New Testament was written.

In Summary

What I am arguing for is for the integration of Christian Origins into the study of New Testament Theology, or in other words, a theology of early Christianity. What this gives us, in terms of history, is a fuller picture of literary and social environment of the biblical authors and the effect that their writings had upon Christian communities both singular and global. As such the background of the New Testament in Second Temple Judaism, the Graeco-Roman world, and in early Christianity history becomes crucial for animating the world of the text by taking into account the world around the text. What this approach also gives us, in terms of theology, is a greater awareness of the overarching theological message of the New Testament by expounding the formative context and subsequent effect of these writings in the early church. By ‘theology’ I am referring here to ‘biblical theology’ which is the task of describing and expressing the theological message of the biblical books by paying careful attention to the context, genre, language, subjects, and purposes of the biblical authors. This biblical theology is the attempt to understand the theological contributions of the biblical writers on their own terms and without importing artificial categories on to the text. In the end, biblical theology is the attempt to tell the story of the early Christians by using their own language and symbols. In sum, the approach I am outlining attempts to uncover the theological message of each document and each corpus but in the context of the emergence of early Christianity. To give an example, what Paul says about the Law in Romans takes on far richer significance when placed in the wider context of Jewish and Christian debates about the Law which were related to issues of group boundaries, self-definition, ethics, and eschatology. That, however, feeds directly into the theological issue raised by Paul being who are the people of God, how will they be vindicated in the final assize, and how are God’s people to live a life that honours him? Thus, the theology of Romans is properly grasped within its particular historical circumstance and when taking into account the function of this theology in shaping the praxis and self-definition of Christian communities. A theology of early Christianity should illuminate the content and concern of each biblical book and should also illuminate the context and consequence of each biblical book. By bringing in the historical context we avoid a New Testament Theology that is essentially atemporal and purely propositional. By acknowledging the theological character of the New Testament we avoid the trap of substituting the context for the content of each book. In this way, the theological nature of New Testament Theology is preserved even when situated in the wider framework of historical description.

[1] Krister Stendahl, ‘Biblical Theology, Contemporary,’ in Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1962): 1.419.
[2] Cf. e.g. Norman R. Geisler, ‘Bible, Canonicity of,’ Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999), 81-86.
[3] John Barton and Robert Morgan, Biblical Interpretation (Oxford: OUP, 1988), 37.


Loren Rosson III said...

Sounds interesting, Michael. I look forward to reading when published.

J. B. Hood said...

Very interesting, Mike, looks like an excellent piece of business.

"Integrating New Testament Theology and Christian Origins" might make a good subtitle... said...

Wordy, but you are getting warmer. Years ago, I asked myself what the Spirit was doing before 'Pentecost'. The reason was that my Baptist minister was preaching that the Spirit could have no effect on anyone unless they had first believed in Jesus. It was thus not worth praying that the Spirit would speak to an unbeliever - whereas for many years before I had understood the exact opposite. The minister's teaching was a good example of how an academic can change what a minister preaches. The minister based his teaching on a book called The Normal Christian Birth by David Pawson.

My questioning took me to where I am now where I understand that the earliest Christianity was all about the Spirit, and that it was the theology of the Spirit (Judas' philosophy) that determined the early first century history of the Jews.