God Has Spoken: A History of Christian Theology

God Has Spoken: A History of Christian Theology

by Gerald Bray


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433526947
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 10/31/2014
Pages: 1264
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 11.10(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Gerald Bray(DLitt, University of Paris-Sorbonne) is research professor at Beeson Divinity School and director of research for the Latimer Trust. He is a prolific writer and has authored or edited numerous books, including The Doctrine of God,Biblical Interpretation, God Is Love, and God Has Spoken.

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Christianity and Judaism

The Parting of the Ways

Why are Christianity and Judaism different religions? Today we are used to this and seldom give it much thought, but for the historian it is a question that demands an answer. Consider the evidence. Jesus was a Jew and so were his disciples. Neither he nor they expressed any desire to break away from Israel. Jesus made it clear that his message was intended primarily for Jews, and his disciples followed him in this. He regarded the Hebrew Bible as authoritative Scripture, quoted it often, and even stated that not one word of it would be overruled by his teaching. His message was that he had come to fulfill the promises made in the law and by the prophets, and there were many Jews in Jesus' time who were actively waiting for that to happen. They expected a charismatic Messiah figure who would come and deliver Israel from its bondage to the Romans, and to some of them at least, Jesus looked like a plausible candidate for the role. They may have been wrong to interpret his mission in political terms, but that was a mistake that could be corrected by a more spiritual interpretation of the promises made to Israel — it was not a new idea that was alien to the hopes and aspirations of the nation.

Furthermore, although the Jewish world of Jesus' day stood apart from its non-Jewish (or "Gentile") surroundings as a distinct religious and national entity, it was not a monolith. Alongside the temple establishment in Jerusalem, which all Jews recognized as their central religious authority, there were many subgroups competing for influence among them. In the New Testament we meet the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who are well known from other sources. There was also the Qumran community, which was not mentioned by anyone in ancient times but which we know a lot about thanks to the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947. Among several other groups there were many "Hellenized" Jews, people who had adopted Gentile ways and the Greek language but without abandoning their ancestral faith. We might even include the Samaritans, who were Jews of a kind even though they were rejected by the mainstream. Why could Jesus not have launched a messianic sect similar to one of these and remained within the fold of historic Judaism?

In fact, some modern scholars think that this is more or less what Jesus wanted to do. They portray him as a great rabbi whose intentions were traduced by others after his death. What propelled his disciples (or perhaps their disciples) to develop a belief in Jesus as the Son of God that was incompatible with the Jewish understanding of monotheism remains something of a mystery to them. They generally conclude that this development occurred under non-Jewish influence, but why that was able to supersede traditional Jewish beliefs is unclear and remains controversial.

There were always many Jews who rejected Jesus and his message, but only when his followers started admitting Gentile believers to their fellowship without obliging them to become Jews first did it become clear that Christianity was not just another form of Judaism. Within a couple of generations, Jewish converts to the new faith tailed off and the church became a largely Gentile body to whom the political heritage and religious culture of Israel were alien. Once that happened, it was inevitable that Jews and Christians would emphasize their differences and downplay what they held in common. In many ways Jews found this easier to do than Christians did. Jews could always dismiss Christianity as an aberration based on a false interpretation of their sacred Scriptures, but Christians could not reject their Jewish inheritance so easily. They insisted that Christ had come to fulfill those Scriptures, and they knew that he had ministered almost exclusively to his fellow Jews. They also realized that his teaching and work could not be understood if the Jewish background to them was not recognized. The few Christians who tried to reject the Hebrew Bible were condemned as heretics, and the church continued to emphasize not only that Jesus had fulfilled the promises contained in it but also how he had done so.

The stages by which Christians separated from Judaism are obscure, though we may assume that the process was not the same everywhere. What is universally agreed is that by about AD 100 a Christian church had emerged that claimed a Jewish origin and heritage by appropriating the Hebrew Bible as its own, but that no longer thought of itself as Jewish. The Jerusalem temple had been destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, so whatever connections the church continued to have with it after the resurrection of Jesus were automatically severed. The Old Testament food laws and other aspects of traditional Jewish practice that survived the initial conversion of Jews to Christ were gradually ignored or abandoned, and any knowledge of Hebrew was quickly lost. Christians read the Greek translation of the Bible as their sacred text and used it to argue that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Somewhat oddly, although Christians advocated loyalty to the Roman authorities, it was they who were persecuted for their beliefs and not the Jews, despite the Jewish tendency to rebel against Rome. The reason for this was that Judaism was a legally recognized religion, while Christianity was not. Even as early as AD 64, when most of the apostles were still alive, the emperor Nero could distinguish Christians from Jews to the extent of blaming the former, but not the latter, for having started the great fire of Rome in that year. This unfair discrimination inevitably caused bad feelings, and some Christians believed that Jewish agitators were the main cause of their suffering. How true that was is hard to say, but that there was an abiding tension between two otherwise similar communities is certain.

How did this happen? A comparison between Christianity and Samaritanism may help us understand the process more clearly. The Samaritan schism seems to have been political in origin, as much as anything else, and with a scriptural text that contained only six books (Genesis to Joshua), Samaritanism was less developed than full-blown Judaism. Christianity, on the other hand, was everything that Judaism was and more. Not only did it take over the whole of the Hebrew Bible, it added to it quite considerably. The Old Testament that the church preferred to use was a Greek version that contained a number of books (and parts of books) that were missing from the Hebrew text, and what we now call the New Testament was gradually added to it — in Greek, not in Hebrew. The New Testament is less than a third as long as the Old, but its significance for Christians is at least as great as that of the Old Testament, if not greater. The reason for this is that the church regards it not only as equally authoritative (and therefore just as divinely inspired) as the Hebrew Bible but also as a kind of commentary on it, giving principles of interpretation that the church can use to read and interpret its Israelite legacy.

It is the New Testament that tells us what the essential difference between Christianity and Judaism was, and we must look to it for clues to explain how the two became separated. Let us start with the teaching of Jesus. Was he a rabbi with new and challenging ideas, or was he something quite different? What was his take on the law of Moses, and why was his view rejected by the Jewish leaders of his day?

What is certain is that Jesus was not a rabbi in the usual sense of the term. He was not trained in a rabbinical school in the way that the apostle Paul was, and as far as we know, his only contact with the rabbinic world before he began his public ministry occurred when he went to Jerusalem at the age of twelve and spent several days with the teachers in the temple. However there is no indication that he learned anything from them; on the contrary, it appears that even as a boy he was teaching them as their equal. It is true that during his adult ministry he was frequently addressed as "rabbi," but this was a courtesy title bestowed on him by people who did not know what else to call him. Neither his training (if he had any) nor his message could be described as "rabbinical" in the usual sense of the word.

Admittedly, rabbinical Judaism was still developing in Jesus' day, so there may have been more freedom for Jews to recognize the kind of freelance teacher that Jesus was than would have been the case later on. But even if that is true, what Jesus said was often quite different from standard rabbinical teaching. The main differences between them can be sketched as follows:

1. The rabbis were concerned to interpret the law and apply it to situations that were not envisaged in the original text, or not fully expounded there. Jesus said that he had come to fulfill the law and make it redundant. In this sense, he was not really messianic, as Jews understood it, because he did not see his mission as the establishment of a Jewish state in which the law of Moses would be perfectly observed. On the contrary, he said that his kingdom was not of this world, something that was beyond the comprehension of most Jews of his time. Messianic movements remained active among Jews until AD 135, when the defeat of Bar-Kochba's rebellion finally put an end to them, but Christians did not get involved in them because, in their view, the Messiah had already come!

2. The rabbis understood the law essentially as the performance of particular tasks, whereas Jesus saw it more as the adoption of a certain attitude. While it is too simple to say that the rabbis thought of righteousness as something external whereas Jesus internalized it, there was definitely a difference of emphasis between them along these lines, as can be seen from particular incidents in the life of Jesus. For example, the rabbis believed that it was wrong to heal people on the Sabbath because it was a sacred day of rest, whereas Jesus thought it was appropriate and sometimes even necessary, because meeting human needs was more important than observing divinely appointed regulations that might get in the way.

3. The rabbis took their cue from Moses the lawgiver, whereas Jesus went back to Abraham as the true source of Israel's faith. According to Jesus, Moses stepped in to bolster that faith because the people were unable to keep it, but his law was a stopgap to prevent further degeneration, and not a pathway to eternal life.

4. The rabbis wanted to protect Israel from contamination by the outside world, whereas Jesus wanted to transform Israel by raising it to a higher plane. For Jesus, the things of the world could not pollute those who were pure in heart, and so there was no need to fear or avoid them as a matter of principle, even if they had to be used with discretion.

None of these things by themselves, or even all of them taken together, need have caused a breach between the Christian church and the Jewish world. If Jesus had been no more than a reformer within the Jewish culture of his time, it is quite possible that his ideas would have been taken on board after his death. After all, the Jews had persecuted the prophets but then canonized their message, and presumably the same thing could have happened to Jesus. What made him different was the nature of the authority on which his teaching was based. Both the rabbis and Jesus believed that all authority came from God and that it was contained in the law of Moses. But Jesus taught that the written law pointed to him as its author, its content, and its fulfillment, and he claimed authority over it. If Jesus was right, it could only mean that, in his view, the Hebrew Bible taught that he was God in human flesh, come to earth as the prophets had promised that he would. The signs of this are there in the Gospels. Not only did Jesus reinterpret the law, but he forgave sins, which was something only God could do. In his duel with the Devil at the beginning of his ministry, he was tempted in ways that only God could be. A mere man could not have turned stones into bread, but the Creator of all things could do so. Once that is understood, the rest of Jesus' ministry falls into place and his resurrection becomes inevitable — how could death have held the One who made all things and who is eternal life in himself?

Putting Jesus at the center and interpreting the law as something that was meant to be fulfilled in him caused a seismic shift in biblical interpretation as it affected Christians. No longer was it a matter of applying the law to previously unknown (or unforeseen) circumstances, as the rabbis typically did. Now the main subject of discussion became how the law revealed Jesus — who he was, where he came from, and what his relationship was to God, whom he called his Father. It was questions of that kind that brought Christian theology into being and set the church on an intellectual journey quite different from anything that could be found in rabbinical Judaism.

Theology as an academic discipline did not exist in Old Testament times, nor has it developed very much in modern Judaism, where "theological studies" focus more on religious laws and their interpretation than on the being of God. The ancient Israelites knew that their beliefs were different from those of the surrounding peoples, but they never developed a "doctrine of God" to explain this. That term did not exist in ancient Hebrew, but if it had, it would have meant something quite different from what we mean by it today. When we talk about the doctrine of God in the writings of Paul, we focus on what Paul taught about God. But if Paul had used the term, he would have meant not what he (or anyone else) thought about God, but what God had told them about himself. The "doctrine of God" would have been the teaching received from God, not what its recipients thought about him, and in thinking this way Paul would have been typical of his time.

The ancient Israelites knew about other belief "systems," if we can call them that, but they were not interested in dialoguing with those who held them or in trying to persuade them to accept Israel's understanding of God instead. Foreigners could worship the God of Israel if they wanted to, but it was extremely difficult for them to become Israelites, if only because they were not descended from the ancestors to whom God had revealed himself. Jews saw little need to explain their faith to outsiders, and their leaders were more concerned with the practice of worshiping God than with developing a theory of monotheism. Of course they knew that there was only one God, but that knowledge was less important than the fact that he had established a relationship with them, a "covenant" that demanded obedience to a set of laws rather than a confession of certain beliefs. But what for Jews was their national covenant became for Christians the Old Testament, a body of law and tradition that was superseded by a new and fuller revelation of God in Jesus Christ. That revelation was not another law but a new relationship with God that was rooted in a deeper understanding of who he is and of what he has done to save us.

Instead of creating new laws, the Christian church developed theology, which is the understanding of God based on his self-revelation. In itself, the New Testament is not a textbook of theology any more than the Old Testament is, but what it says shows us why the church would have to create such a discipline. Christians had a commission to preach the gospel to the nations, which meant that they had to explain what it was and why it mattered. People who did not understand even the rudiments of Jewish thought would find it very difficult to grasp the Christian message, as Paul discovered when he went to Athens. Furthermore, Jewish beliefs had to be presented to them in a coherent and systematic way, since otherwise they would either have made no sense at all or else would have been absorbed in a piecemeal fashion, which might have been even worse.

A religion or culture that adopted certain Jewish beliefs without understanding the context in which they had emerged might easily end up misunderstanding and even perverting them. A good example of this was the widespread adoption of the Hebrew week in non-Jewish circles. A cycle of time that for Jews was closely connected to creation and the worship of the Creator was borrowed by others and applied to the seven recognized planets — the sun, the moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. It was then used for astrological purposes that had nothing to do with Judaism. The Christian church was eventually able to rescue the week from this aberration and restore the sense of harmony with the created order that had originally been intended, but the fact that most Western European languages still use the planetary names for the individual days serves as a reminder of how the biblical concept had been misinterpreted by those who did not understand or accept the context in which it first appeared.


Excerpted from "God Has Spoken"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Gerald Bray.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

PART ONE The Israelite Legacy,
1 Christianity and Judaism,
2 A Shared Inheritance,
PART TWO The Person of the Father,
3 God as Father,
4 The Father and His Children,
PART THREE The Work of the Father,
5 The Reconciliation of the World,
6 Providence and Predestination,
7 The Work of the Father and the Trinity,
PART FOUR The Person of the Son,
8 The Challenge of the Incarnation,
9 The Son of God,
10 The Christian Theological Vocabulary,
11 The Son of Man,
PART FIVE The Work of the Son,
12 The Body of Christ,
13 The Death of Christ,
14 The Coming of Christ's Kingdom,
PART SIX The Person of the Holy Spirit,
15 The Forgotten Person of the Trinity?,
16 Spirit of the Father, Spirit of the Son,
PART SEVEN The Work of the Holy Spirit,
17 The Presence of God,
18 The Inspiration of Holy Scripture,
19 The Preservation of the Church,
20 The Pathway to Heaven,
21 The Mystical Body of Christ,
PART EIGHT One God in Three Persons,
22 The Classical Doctrine of God,
23 The Eclipse of Theology,
24 The Trinitarian Revival,
25 The Challenge of God Today,
Chronological List of Persons,
Chronological List of Events,
General Index,
Scripture Index,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“A remarkably learned, wise, and substantial study of the history of Christian doctrine. Written by an Anglican who is also an evangelical, this volume interacts with the entire scope of Christian theology in all of its major ecclesial trajectories. This book will stand the test of time—in the best tradition of Newman, Harnack, and Pelikan.”
Timothy George, Dean, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University; general editor, Reformation Commentary on Scripture

“Despite its breadth, one that covers the centuries, God Has Spoken also plumbs the depths of numerous doctrines throughout the church’s last two thousand years. This volume is an excellent resource for students, pastors, and scholars, and for anyone who wants to study the organic development of the church’s theology. This will prove to be an invaluable resource for generations to come.”
J. V. Fesko, Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Westminster Seminary California

“Under Gerald Bray’s able pen, the history of Christian thought comes to life. Bray’s Trinitarian way of framing the story of Christian doctrine is a creative and helpful contribution to the discipline. His familiarity with the sources from every branch of the Christian tree is refreshing—and enviable! His evenhanded narrative—mixed with periodic personal commentary that is often witty, always insightful, and occasionally provocative—makes this book a delight to read. God Has Spoken will be essential reading for scholars and students for years to come. Highly recommended.”
Nathan A. Finn, Dean, School of Theology and Missions, Union University

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