Sunday, October 07, 2007

Two Views on NT Theology

It is a remarkably interesting exercise to compare the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas presidential addresses of Martin Hengel (1993) and Wayne A. Meeks (2004) and what they both have to say about the field of New Testament theology.[1] Both addresses set forth a proposal for the future direction of scholarly study of the New Testament and, while they share a commitment to historical study of the New Testament and other sources, they have violently different opinions about the role of biblical theology in that future.

Hengel notes the efforts of several scholars (e.g. W. Wrede, G. Lüdemann, and H. Räisänen), who have made the NT canon obsolete as a historical entity with the result that: ‘In place of Introduction to the New Testament we are to have the History of Early Christian Literature; in place of a New Testament Theology, the History of the Religion of Earliest Christianity.’[2] He says in counter-point:

"To be sure, I cannot share this fear of the concept ‘theology,’ the Christian understanding of which is ultimately grounded in the Prologue of John. It is not by chance that an irreducible connection between the word of God, faith, and history is presented to us in this particular passage. The concepts theologos, theologia, and theologein enter at first on the basis of the Johannine logos in the language of the early Church Fathers and preserve over against the Greek environment a wholly new meaning. Our discipline would self-destruct were it to give up the question of truth pressed by Pauline and Johannine theological thinking and transform itself into a merely descriptive history of religion. For this is the salt that seasons our work and warrants its existence."[3]

Hengel acknowledges that study of the NT should be comprehensive and the boundary of study should be expanded to include the Judaism of the early Hellenistic period and in reference to Christian writings the upper echelon should pushed up towards the third century CE.[4] At the same time, Hengel affirms the value of the canon precisely on historical grounds since the decisive boundary-markers for the canon have already been established by 180 CE. In Hengel’s view, the writings deemed canonical by the church are not only earlier than the extra-canonical writings, but also:

"[T]he genuine Corpus Paulinum and Johanneum together with the synoptics represent the basis of Christian theology—who would doubt this? And on what would it base itself otherwise, if it expects to be and to remain Christian theology? And what authorizes the existence of our Societas, if these things were no longer so? These texts do certainly form the center of our efforts, but we shall only do them justice if we draw the circle around them more broadly, so that we grasp them in relation to their Jewish and Hellenistic antecedents as well as to their early Christian effects."[5]

According to Meeks New Testament scholars need to press on in the pursuit of history, they must pay greater attention to Wirkungsgeschichte (or reception-history), and they also should ‘erase from our vocabulary the terms “biblical theology” and, even more urgently, “New Testament theology”’ and whatever ‘contribution these concepts may have made in the conversation since Gabler, we have come to a time when they can only blinker our understanding’.[6] He substantiates that on the grounds that, first, biblical theology smuggles in a cognitivist model of religion that privileges doctrine at the expense of life. Second, biblical theology claims textual and historical warrant for propositions that emerge out of the relationship between text and reader and tacitly masks authoritative truth claim embedded in biblical texts. Third, biblical theology has functioned ideologically in order to secure one’s beliefs in a theological hierarchy within the church.[7]

There are elements from both addresses that I would be prepared to affirm and reject. Against Hengel, I find it fiercely ironic that he should minimize the significance of Religionsgeschichte when he himself has led a resurgence in the new Religionsgeschichte schule in New Testament christology (along with Richard Bauckham and Larry Hurtado)[8] in undermining the older theories on christological evolution asserted by Wilhelm Bousett and Rudolf Bultmann and their theological progeny. Moreover, Hengel has not assuaged the doubts of those who think that one can and should construct a Christian theology from sources broader than Paul, John and the Synoptics. For example, Helmut Koester writes: ‘The canon was the result of a deliberate attempt to exclude certain voices from the early period of Christianity: heretics, Marcionites, Gnosticism, Jewish Christians, perhaps also women. It is the responsibility of the New Testament scholar to help these voices to be heard again’.[9] Who decides the ‘theological quality’ of Mark over the Gospel of Thomas or Marcion’s Luke over canonical Luke? Against Meeks, I would be prepared to argue that George Lindbeck’s attack on the cognitivist model of doctrine is greatly overstated and amounts to a straw man argument. Alister McGrath has shown that the cognitivist-linguistic model has a lot more going for it than what critics acknowledge.[10] Likewise, theology does not necessarily promote antipathy towards authentic Christian living, but rather, it constitutes the generative force for a Christian praxis soaked in the world of the biblical texts. In addition, while all truth claims may amount to a claim to power, those who attempt to deconstruct these truth claims are themselves engaging in an ideological power play by attempting to dismantle the permanent structures of human existence (church, society, collective identity) in order to create a vacuum that can be filled with another ideological platform that is instantly immune from criticism since all criticism are a claim to power.

[1] Martin Hengel, ‘Aufgaben der neutestamentlichen Wissenschaft,’ NTS 40 (1994): 321-57 = ‘Tasks of New Testament Scholarship,’ BBR 6 (1996): 67-86; Wayne A. Meeks, ‘Why Study the New Testament?’ NTS 51 (2005): 155-70.
[2] Hengel, ‘Tasks’, 72.
[3] Hengel, ‘Tasks’, 72.
[4] Hengel, ‘Tasks’, 72-73.
[5] Hengel, ‘Tasks’, 74.
[6] Meeks, ‘Why Study the New Testament?’ 167-68.
[7] Meeks, ‘Why Study the New Testament?’ 168.
[8] Martin Hengel, The Son of God: The Origin of Christology and the History of Jewish-Hellenistic Religion (London: SCM, 1976); Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1999); Larry Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988); idem, The Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).
[9] Helmut Koester, ‘Epilogue: Current Issues in New Testament Scholarship,’ in The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester, ed. Birger A. Pearson (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 472.
[10] George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Post-Liberal Age (Philadelphia, PN: Westminster, 1984); Alister E. McGrath, The Nature of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundations of Doctrine Criticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).

1 comment:

T. Baylor said...


Have you read Vanhoozer's Drama of Doctrine? He offers an alternative to Lindbeck's Cultural Linguistic model through the use of drama theory. He argues though theology has functioned ideologically, if the lines of canonicity are darkened then theology becomes the "creative expansion" of the thoughts of the canon -- thus incorporating knowledge and practice. It is interesting because his model engages heavily with all of Meeks' objections.