January 3, 2010

As I mentioned yesterday, this year is my year of being immersed even deeper in the academic discipline of New Testament theology. For my Master’s dissertation I, well, need to master the current discipline of New Testament theology. Yet, primary intention for doing so closely connected with my passion and ecclesiological intuition. NT studies are a contested discipline and have been for a number of years. Thus, I hope to help bridge the gap between the way in which NT studies are predominantly done today (that is without acknowledging ones own philosophical presumptions) with those who overtly misread scripture in the light of an ad hoc historical reading of scripture. That is not to say that a historical reading cannot be helpful. Rather, one must acknowledge his or her decisions regarding history are difficult to produce theology without the next step on narrative criticism. N.T. Wright is proving it possible to move from history >to> narrative-criticism >to> practices for the church. Yet, in my consideration reads Scripture with the purpose of producing missional persons, not necessarily wise readers of scripture. Wise readers need the tools for reading scripture in order for them to then embody the scriptural narrative, not some-one merely doing historical / narrative / theology for them.

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~ by natedawson on 2010/01/03.

9 Responses to “January 3, 2010”

  1. Nate,

    I’m intrigued by your take on the nature of NT studies, especially in light of the modern/postmodern divide. I’m reminded directly of the Brazos Theological Commentary series. I’ve only worked with Stanley Hauerwas’ _Matthew_, but it is quite cool.

    I would make one contention with your underlying argument, and it could be my own misunderstanding, but current trends in NT studies, though in many ways heavily grounded in historical criticism; this aesthetic is only considered one critical method of several, and that most scholars incorporate different critical methods in their scholarship. Sort of like a literary scholar employs several different critical methods to examine a text. The problem, as you suggest, is that a singular approach to the text cannot possibly represent a well-formed position, especially one of much use to the church.

    In many ways, the historical critical approach, if seen as overused in NT and OT study, it is most likely due, in no small part, to the imposition placed on it by its political feuding with Systematic Theology departments within academia. I wonder if the perception would change if Systematic Theologians didn’t feel their work threatened by Biblical Scholars and vice versa? In my experience it is the perception that STs are conservative and BSs are liberal is more damaging to the academic work than the nature of the work itself. Or did I misunderstand your original argument?

  2. Thanks Drew, I could respond in several ways. I’ll start with your last point. That is, “In my experience it is the perception that STs are conservative and BSs are liberal is more damaging to the academic work than the nature of the work itself.”

    I would want to make a clearer distinction between that of a biblical scholar and a biblical theologian. A biblical theologian is primarily concerned with the evidence of the text itself, while a biblical scholar, as you already suggested, can and does use many and various forms of criticism outside the range of Scripture’s evidence. So, it seems that the conservative / liberal divide is quite prevalent between these to groups of scholars. I only mentioned this because my advisor contends that BS have liberal tendencies because of all the non-biblical forms of criticisms they use. My concern with his perception though — is that he may not be completely aware that his own “conservative theological” and “modern philosophical” assumptions inform this way of thinking. On the other hand…

    I’m finding that many conservative systematic theologians are primarily rooted in the Reformed tradition – who then in turn believe themselves to be rooted in the ancient church. For example the Augustinian — Calvinist connection. While people like us – who desire to be rooted in the “one holy catholic and apostolic church,” tend to get labeled liberal if we attempt any form of systematic theology. It seems to me that our theology, in many ways, transcends many of the reformed doctrines (which is not to say we oppose them, but don’t make them the primary issues of our theological constructs). Does that make sense?

    I guess for me — I’m not so concerned with what labels I get placed on me. I think my greatest interests right now are in a discovery “the history of biblical interpretation,” and its importance for forming wise readers of Scripture who then faithful embody the biblical narrative for the life of the world. Similar to the way in which the Brazos Commentary Series and Two Horizons commentary series are seeking to do. Again — many thanks for your thoughts.

    • Excellent response. I confess that I was having seminary flashbacks, which at the time involved what seemed like a petty squabble turned verbal gang fight. Or perhaps more accurately like the Hatfields and the McCoys: irrational opposition.

      For us, this was lived out, not only in theological territory, but in current church politics (I was at Huron from 2004-07) with The Windsor Report, African Anglican outrage, and the overstepping of political boundaries in the name of self-described orthodoxy.

      The hard thing is getting past the ego of Biblical interpretation and toward an ethos that is fair–to Scripture, the hearer/reader, and the preacher–and in line with God’s Kingdom vision.

  3. In many way’s N.T. Wright is trying to do what you just suggested, but he is also more of a biblical scholar biblical theologian then a systematic thinker. Some people have advised me that hi IS A SYSTEMATIC THINKER. It that is true, I don’t think its by choice. He has systematically responded to those of Piper but as I previously mentioned regarding you and I, his rootedness is also in the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” I think he is forced into many conversation, primarily due to his popularity, regarding major reformational constructs that don’t always meets the needs of the church today. Man, I wish you were around to have these conversations face to face. How are things down south??

    • I know. That is the hard part about the timing–things were just starting get interesting!

      It’s good here–less anxious, or perhaps anxious is a newer phenomenon here–but I’m exercising different skills. It’s kind of weird!

  4. Nate,
    I think your categories of sytematic theology and biblical theology is a bit blurred. You made the comment that ST’s tend to be more conservative and BT’s tend to be more liberal. I don’t know that this is a valid claim. Historically, conservatives have been pretty bad at ST but it was the ‘liberal’ theologians that tended to set the tone in ST. BT theologians are pretty even across the board. The one area of difference between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ (I really don’t like those labels) Biblical Theologians centers on their positions of authority. I’ll grant you that many conservative theologians tend toward the Reformed idea of authority (I don’t–I think NT Wright’s defense of the authority of the Bible is right on). I think that what NT Wright is doing really is a systematic New Testament theology. He is creating a new system of biblical theology, which, I think, when he is done will be a Systematic Theology.
    I think the point that you want to argue against in typical ST is that ST are Aristotelian in nature. Traditional ST’s have created categories and have never shown how they relate to one another. Those thinkers in this post-whatever world have shown that this is a great error. Newer systematicians (Grenz, Vanhoozer, Wright, and myself) recognize that theology has to take a more wholistic and integrated approach. Some have labeled this approach as being a more biblical theological approach. However, there are just as many ‘biblical’ theologians (liberal and conservative) who adapt a systematic approach.

    These are just some of my thoughts on the issue. All (biblical and systematic) theology needs to be rooted in the biblical text. Understanding how the text means and what the text means is a topic discussed on both sides of the disciplines.

    We’ll have to get together to discuss this further. I think you have some good thoughts and I think that I have some good thoughts and we can sharpen each other a little more.

  5. I wouldn’t doubt that some of my categories are a bit blurred. It may be that we understand ST and BT a bit differently, but that’s no big deal – we’ll just need to clarify our understandings with one another.

    I would make one major point of clarification though, which actually means I’m portraying three categories instead of two. They would be systematic theologians, biblical theologians, and biblical scholars. I might agree with you that what Wright is doing is a sort of systematic New Testament theology. Especially in the light that he is organizing / systematizing his epistemological, historical, biblical and theological categories into a whole, but I have a suspicion that the way in which he is ‘doing theology’ in the Christian Origins series is more historical than exegetical or systematic…

    I would add that he is doing the work of…

    …a basic philosopher in that all the categories he learned from Walsh, Middleton, Keesmaat, Meyer, and Lonergan came after he had built his exegetical defense and historical reconstruction of the book of Romans. In other words, much of his understanding of Romans and his perspective on Paul were done, in the sense that his exegetical (biblical theological concerns) were completed in his dissertation. That being said, most of his historical methodological constructions were based upon the methods of British New Testament scholars (not so much biblical theologians per se, rather much more historical NT scholars [if that doesn’t make sense its because I’ve categorized biblical scholars and biblical theologians into two separate categories]). His epistemology and world-view concepts were not reflected upon until much later. For example, in the NTPG – it seems that the categories he learned from the noted scholars above merely support his exegetical constructs already complete – the categories he uses in Christian Origins my not be the actual methodology he used for his exegesis. (I HOPE THAT MAKES SENSE)

    …Wright himself has told me that he hasn’t nearly reflected upon his methodological assumptions very much…

    Anyway – all this just mentioned is not to disqualify his approach or methods in the realm of biblical studies – rather I’m asking these questions in order order to better understand his “new testament interpretation” in the light of the last 200 years of “new testament theology” in general. More specifically I’m asking of his interpretation – if it proves faithful in forming wise readers of scripture. And in forming wise readers / interpreters – I mean specifically – does “the church’s reading / interpreting lead them to ever deeper communion with one another and the triune God? Also, “does their reading inform faithful embodiment of the biblical narrative for the ‘life of the world.l

    PHEW – We’ve got a lot to talk about now… 😉

  6. Why do you want to separate biblical theologian and biblical scholar? Do you mean that a biblical theologian examines the theological categories biblically? Do you mean that a biblical scholar does exegesis? I guess I haven’t heard of the distinctions that you are making. The problem with trying to develop hard and fast lines of distinction between ST, BT, and BS (not that kind of BS;-)) is that they really do overlap and each field participates and interacts with each other. We have the Enlightenment to thank for wanting to develop these disciplines into true academic disciplines. So, thinkers in these fields had to defend why these topics belonged in the university and in doing so they lost the church in the process. Instead of trying to defend the academic validity we need to bring these things back into the hands of the church. I do not see anything wrong with the academic study of such fields (otherwise I would not being pursuing my PhD in the field). What is needed is to recover an ecclesial model of theology that includes elements of historical, biblical, systematic, and philosophical methodology.

    We have much to discuss, too much to be discussed here. Let’s get together.

  7. Its not so much that I want to separate biblical theologians from biblical scholars but this seems to be the perspective of my advisor. So at the very least I must learn how to navigate through his proposals. I wasn’t clear of his distinctions for quite a while but I shouldn’t be surprised. Holland’s opposition seems to be aimed at those who are doing theology from a very conservative reformed mindset (most often associated with the Scottish Presbyterians whose theology IS the the Westminster Confession of Faith). Robert Letham would fall into the Scottish Presbyterian category as well as the more American groups associated with Westminster Theological Seminary (the alternative to Princeton).

    In Grand Rapids at least, we’re much more familiar with the Dutch Calvinists strain of the neo-calvinists (Mouw, Wolterstorff, Dooyeweerd, Plantinga, and Smith et. el). These persons being more closely linked with the Kuyper and the Free University of Amsterdam, Institute for Christian Studies and Redeemer College (where Craig Bartholomew is).

    I think Holland views the reformed and evangelical categories quite broadly, which may be why he can engage the American evangelics to a degree. Yet, his critique of American evangelicalism would probably be the same as mine in that it is dominated by capitalistic and overtly pragmatic perspective, both of which I am very skeptical. In many ways the mainstream of American Evangelicalism is a sort of social darwinism – survival of the fittest anyone?

    Well, I’ve probably said too much.

    It’ll be much better to chat in person next thursday. I’ve got a place in mind near Eerdmans, I’ll send you an email.

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