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A Critical Introduction to the New Testament
Interpreting the Message and Meaning of Jesus Christ
By Carl R. Holladay
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2005 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The New Testament as Theological Writings
"Christian theology is the fully reflective understanding of the Christian witness of faith as decisive for human existence."
"[The New Testament writings] are theological as actualizations of the unique revelation that preceded them."
Theology may be thought of in different ways. If we ask someone, "What is your theology?" we are probably asking about that person's religious beliefs. In the strictest sense, we would be asking what the person believes about God, since "theology" technically means "discourse about God." But the term can include beliefs about other divine or semidivine beings, such as angels or devils. It can also encompass beliefs about human beings: whether we are inherently good or evil; why we behave the way we do; how we deal with our sins; how we relate to God and neighbor; and what happens to us when we die. These are only a few of the standard topics—theological loci—encompassed by the term "theology."
But how do we arrive at what we believe? How do we come to have a theology? Quite simply, by doing theology. By shifting the verb from having to doing, we point to the process through which we arrive at our theological beliefs. When we subscribe to a particular creed, we may be struck by its simple formulation. How we have come to adopt it, however, may not be so simple. We may have undergone a period of religious instruction to learn about the elements that comprise the statement of faith. Prior to that, we may have undergone a radical conversion experience or perhaps have come to faith more gradually. In either case, religious conversion has a ripple effect that touches all aspects of our lives, simplifying them in some respects, complicating them in others. The process of moving from "believing in" to "believing that" may turn out to be quite complex.
We might also reflect for a moment on how a statement of faith arises. We may be impressed by its cadence, its smoothly turned phrases, and even its poetic quality, but this surface simplicity masks the rich, often long, history that led to its formulation. Seemingly simple combinations of words may have resulted from lengthy church controversies that turned on a single word or phrase, or even on a single letter. Competing formulations may have created deep divisions within the church that caused sharp debates and required the convening of church councils. Statements of faith have usually arisen from a long, complex process in which the church as a whole struggled to express its "belief in" as "belief that."
Whether we think of an individual believer who comes to faith or of an entire church that formulates its beliefs in a creedal statement, the process of clarifying belief may be thought of as doing theology. But why the verb "doing"? Why not simply "having"? Because to have a theology means that we have made some decisions about certain things to believe. To that extent, they are fixed decisions. Even if we find ourselves rolling them over in our heads in light of different life experiences, they are still reference points to which we return. How we think about them may change, but the fundamental item of belief remains constant. Taken together, these beliefs frame our house of faith.
Life is never static, however, and faith remains dynamic by responding to new questions. We find that the points of belief to which we have committed ourselves, perhaps many years ago, constantly need clarification. To say that we believe in God the Father may express our fundamental belief in God, but we find ourselves asking whether "the Father" is the only, or even the best, way of attributing reality to God. We may ask, "What does this metaphor actually mean?" or "Are there less traditional but equally profound ways of expressing our faith in God?" These questions may be prompted by life around us, by our conversations with other believers, and by struggles within the church over what language is most appropriate for talking about God. As we pursue these questions openly, we seek to clarify, refine, and enrich our basic convictions. In doing so, we may draw on many resources as we do theology.
The questions that prompt us to do theology arise from many quarters. They may derive from our own personal quests, but they often arise within the church. Perhaps our congregation is trying to decide an issue relating to its own life together. Our denomination may be facing an issue with broad ramifications for church policy and for the ways people think about themselves, their fellow Christians, and how they will speak about God, Christ, and the Spirit. However these questions originate, we find ourselves trying to think about them in light of our faith commitments. We find them challenging our faith as well as requiring a response from our faith.
Responding faithfully means more than simply repeating our statements of faith. We talk with others to clarify what we believe and to formulate our faith in light of these newly raised issues. We also find ourselves reading—going to our church libraries as well as our public libraries—to educate ourselves further about these issues. What we read may vary widely, ranging from the works of Christians who lived centuries ago to the writings of contemporary theologians. We find ourselves praying alone and with others as we try to discern what is at stake for faith and life. In short, we use virtually every resource imaginable as we seek to clarify what and how we believe about a particular issue.
The process of theological discernment is not a theoretical process. It is not as though we simply sit down and think. That we do, but we also act. We talk with others; we do research; we pray; we worship; we continue to make a living; we go to movies, art galleries, and sports events. Through this tangle of events and experiences we try to gain greater clarity about our beliefs. As we give shape to our thoughts, we put them into words and behave in ways that express those beliefs. All of this is involved in doing theology. What makes it "doing"? The ongoing activity. What makes it theology? That it is ultimately about God and from God.
To say that we formulate patterns of behavior that reflect our beliefs introduces yet a third dimension: living our theology. In one sense, this behavioral element is inseparable from having and doing theology. Even as we do theology we are expressing our faith in action. Still, we can distinguish this third element as a discrete aspect of theology. At the risk of gross oversimplification, we can say that having a theology is an essentially cognitive act. At a critical point, it is a matter of intellectual assent. Doing theology, while involving cognitive activity, may be thought of as an essentially practical act. It involves specific practices that have been developed over time as the church has related faith to life.
While doing theology may appear to be intuitive, random, and even somewhat unpredictable, it actually implies certain well-defined theological practices that have been shaped in a variety of contexts, including churches, schools, homes, and various public institutions. To take just one example, biblical interpretation has occurred for centuries, yielding its own set of rules and practices that are widely recognized, even if they are practiced differently. Or, when we engage in thought, we use principles of logic and common sense that constitute a set of assumptions that is widely shared, even among archrivals. We all recognize inconsistency as something we avoid rather than strive for. And so on. Without developing an entire taxonomy of theological practices, we can see how doing theology both presupposes and utilizes such practices. They include cognitive activity, but they include much more.
In contrast to having a theology and doing theology, living a theology is behavioral in a way that neither of the other two is. As indicated earlier, it includes patterns of behavior that are consonant with our beliefs but also are expressive of them. Typically this aspect of theology encompasses the field of ethics: how we behave as individuals and as communities of faith. Behavior should be understood to encompass both thoughts and actions. Forming attitudes can be thought of as a behavior, even though the most conspicuous forms of behavior are those that express our underlying attitudes. By patterns of behavior, however, we refer primarily to how we act: how we worship, both in public and private; what we say; how we relate to others, whether we embrace or exclude them, protect or harm them; how we form communities or institutions that serve to promote our faith; how we form families; how we play; and how we rejoice and mourn.
These behaviors along with many others are the means by which theology is lived. If there were some way to consider our behaviors comprehensively and look for consistent themes in how we behave, we would discover the theology that lies behind them. If we have any doubt about how closely correlated having a theology and living a theology are, we need to consider only some of its more conspicuous examples. In the ancient world, the members of the Qumran community, who separated themselves from what they regarded as the corrupt religious leadership associated with the temple in Jerusalem, expressed their theology in quite remarkable behavioral patterns. They lived together as a sectarian community, they engaged in certain communal practices, they followed their own calendar, they worshiped in a certain way, and they read the Jewish Bible in a distinctive way. This example simply confirms what we already know at an experiential level: that the theology we have and the theology we live are inseparably connected. In fact, each affects the other quite dramatically.
To say that theology is discourse about God suggests that there is an underlying reality—God—who serves as more than the topic of theology. When we say that we believe in God, we are doing more than setting the conversation topic; we are identifying God as our conversation partner. Behind every confession of faith is belief in the Living God, even if this is expressed in a Trinitarian form that also encompasses Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit. When we engage in doing theology, we are doing more than thinking and talking about God. Through it all, we are trying to make sense of God, the Someone beyond us all. To say that God transcends us suggests that God exists independently of any one of us. Taken seriously, this means that God is not something or someone we construct in our heads, even if we think constantly about God. Trying to understand who God is and to discern how God is present and active in the world is the central task of theology. The Living God is the primary Subject of theology, serving both as the One whom we adore and the One whom we discuss. It is possible to think and talk about God with great sophistication and yet not believe in God. Thought and conversation about God, however, take a different form when they stem from belief in God. At the heart of theology, in any of its forms—having, doing, and living—is the Living God who is finally the source and goal of our intellectual longing.
Christian Theology: Believing in Christ
To speak of Christian theology narrows the focus of our discussion, for it implies that God has been revealed through the figure Jesus Christ. Classic formulations of this belief, such as "God was in Christ reconciling the world to God's Self" (2 Cor 5:19; my translation), render more precisely the ways God is present in the world. Among the most pressing questions is how to think of Jesus Christ in relation to God. Naturally it is a question Christian believers have considered from many different angles over the centuries: Is Christ God? If so, in what sense? How do their essential natures compare? Has Christ always been God, or was this a status he had to attain?
"God at work in Christ" suggests the notion of delegated authority, in which one person carries out the work of someone in a higher position. Whether Christ is thought of in highly personal terms, such as God's Son, or in less personal terms, such as God's Logos, he is seen as the one through whom God's work is accomplished. To the extent that Christ is privy to God's desires, he provides clues to who God is.
Understanding how God has been revealed in Jesus Christ and how God has been experienced as present in the world through Jesus Christ is the special task of Christian theology. Among the many resources available to anyone engaged in this task, the twenty-seven writings of the New Testament (NT) occupy a unique position. With a few possible exceptions, they are the earliest writings that reflect this distinctive perspective. Eventually they acquired canonical status throughout the church, which means that they were regarded as uniquely normative in a way that other writings were not. As the title New Testament suggests, they were intended to be read alongside the Old Testament and thus were given a privileged status among the many early Christian writings.
It is fully appropriate to approach the NT as a set of writings that bear witness to "God at work in Christ." If they are about anything, they are surely about this. Rather than trying to prove that God exists or that God has been active in the world, they assume both. They do not assume that God has been generally present in the world, but rather that God's tracks are most visibly present in Israel—its people and their history—as abundantly illustrated in the Jewish Scriptures. This earlier story of how God chose Israel and nurtured their growth as God's people is regarded by the NT writers as a prelude to the story of Jesus Christ. The Jewish Scriptures are seen as earlier chapters of a larger story that continues into the time of Jesus Christ. The NT writings express it in different ways, but they confidently place Jesus Christ in Israel's line of succession leading all the way back to Adam and including such notable figures as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and David. They regard Jesus Christ, however, as more than another link in the chain of successors. They see him as the culmination of the line—the last link in the chain.
For the NT writers, the Jewish Scriptures are more than a collection of proof texts that point forward to a future Messiah. Rather, they unfold the history of God's people as a series of ups and downs, as alternating cycles of obedience and disobedience, of exile and return. Reading the Jewish Scriptures as recurring cycles in which God's people are alternately faithful and unfaithful and in which God is constantly faithful, early Christians saw patterns of behavior in Israel's past that were repeated in later generations. Bondage in Egypt led to the exodus, but newfound freedom became bondage in the wilderness. Deliverance from the wilderness led to the promised land, but the promise gave way to an unanticipated monarchy. Capture gave way to exile, and exile to return. Through it all, Israel saw deliverers appear and reappear and experienced salvation time and again. Early Christians saw these "types" continued in the story of Jesus and his followers, a story that presented its own version of obedience and disobedience, rejection and restoration.
"God at work in Christ" aptly captures the NT's angle of vision: The God who was powerfully at work in creation, in the call of Abraham, and in the many ups and downs of Israel's turbulent love affair with God once again appears in Jesus Christ. This basic claim is filled out in two directions by the NT writers. They identify persons and events in both the remote and recent past that led up to the story of Jesus. They compare Jesus favorably with figures such as Moses and David; for these writers, John the Baptist is seen as Jesus' immediate predecessor. They also carry the story forward beyond the time of Jesus' death to show how his disciples continue the work he began.
The NT writers naturally focus on Jesus himself—what he did and said and what was done to him. The death of Jesus—including the circumstances that led to his death and reactions to it by both friend and foe—occupies much of their attention. At a deeper level, the NT writers probe the significance of Jesus' death, often struggling to find appropriate metaphors to express its significance. One of the most poignant and profound metaphors, sacrifice, is developed in several different directions.
Excerpted from A Critical Introduction to the New Testament by Carl R. Holladay. Copyright © 2005 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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