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To some, such an exercise may seem either illegitimate or passé. It could be argued that there are only theologies in the New Testament, not a theology of the NT, and therefore it is inappropriate to talk about New Testament Theology writ large. On the other hand, there will be others who feel that they have had quite enough of the use of paternal language for God and that this study will be at best arcane and at worst a perpetuation of a theological problem. We do not feel that either of these criticisms is entirely valid, though each has a point to make.
Whether we agree with how the earliest Christians discoursed about God, or not, it can hardly be disputed that they didrefer to God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At the very least then, it is an appropriate historical undertaking to ask and try to answer the question of what they understood by using these terms. While it is true enough that different NT authors do have differing theological emphases, and sometimes differing terminology, all NT writers to one degree or another use the traditional language that came to be called Trinitarian language. This was indeed something that distinguished them from other groups that were part of or came forth from early Judaism. It is a fundamental assumption of this study that however much diversity there was in early Christianity, there was also some significant unity, particularly in the use of God language, and we would do well to examine closely these shared terms and the concepts they represent. Indeed, we would also do well to ask about the shared experiences of God that the earliest Christians had.
The modus operandi of this study will be to examine the traditional God language right across the NT canon and see what comes to light, which is to say this study will take a canonical approach to theology. This assumes that early Christianity was a relatively unified movement with a shared theological tradition. Care will be taken not to artificially blend together disparate ideas or traditions, but at the same time we will be looking for what the earliest Christians shared in common both in regard to the use and the function of their God language. For those of us for whom the canonical discourse is seen as normative in some sense, there will also surely be implications for modern faith and practice.
In regard to the modern concerns about inclusive language we must urge that while we fully support the use of such language when referring to human beings, we find unconvincing the arguments that "Father" language or "Son" language should no longer be used in the naming of God. It is of course true that abuses have happened in the use of such language throughout church history, as the church was all too captive to patriarchal agendas and did often oppress women and others by the way they used their God language. Yet the old Latin dictum remains true-"Abusus non tollit usum." The abuse of something does not rule out its proper use. Nor does the argument that we should not use Father language for God because there have often been abusive human fathers convince at the end of the day. Unless one is actually prepared to argue that there are no good fathers, or there have never been good models of what fatherhood should look like, it should not be seen as inappropriate (then or now) to use such language for God. Indeed, to eschew using such language altogether is to deliberately disobey Jesus' command that when we pray to God we should at least some of the time pray to God as abba, just as Jesus did himself.
A canonical approach to God language will indeed wish to affirm the proper use of the traditional God language while also emphasizing that other sorts of language, including female metaphors, exist in the canon when the functioning of God is being described. In short, a canonical approach will wish to embrace all such materials as valid and valuable when we are talking about a God who is spirit, and therefore in the divine essence is neither male nor female.
Nevertheless, a word of caution is in order. A Gnostic approach to the Son will not do, for he was in his human nature a man, and his human nature should not be radically separated from his divine nature. Theology that tries to bracket out or protect itself from the human nature of Jesus of Nazareth, or from Jesus as a historical person, is not truly Christian theology either insofar as it is consonant with the beliefs and practices of earliest Christians, or of the normal and normative beliefs and practices of the church today. Our task in this book is to re-examine that traditional language in the New Testament and see what indeed the earliest Christians believed about the nature and functions of the God they called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In this particular study we will limit our selves to these three terms and their occurrences in the NT.
Finally, it needs to be stressed that while it is quite true that there is no developed doctrine of the Trinity enunciated in the New Testament, there is nonetheless the raw data to construct such a doctrine. There is an especial wealth of material about the relationship of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Son. Furthermore, as we shall see, such God language was not as radical a departure from early Jewish monotheism as many have thought. We will be drawing on recent gains in the study of early Jewish thinking about monotheism by R. Bauckham and others to show how there was considerable continuity between Christologically reformulated monotheism and other forms of early Jewish monotheism.
Thus, this study will appear by turns both controversial in some quarters, and commonplace in others. So be it. Our concern must be to faithfully examine the details of the language about Father, Son, and Spirit as it is found in the New Testament and let the implications be drawn as the reader chooses. We invite the reader on a journey through the storied world of the New Testament as we seek to reflect on God and the divine roles in that story. We trust the journey will prove both stimulating and also reassuring, both convicting and convincing. It is time then to examine first of all the story of the "Promising" Father.
Excerpted from The Shadow of the Almighty by Ben Witherington III Laura M. Ice Copyright © 2002 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission.
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|1.||The Story Thus Far||1|
|2.||The Promising Father||19|
|3.||The Prodigious Son||67|
|4.||The Powerful and Prophetic Spirit||101|