Sunday, June 14, 2009

Screwtape on 'the historical Jesus'

Recently imonk posted some 'guidelines for interpreting the gospels'. One tip that I appreciated, though I doubt his audience is really the group that needs to hear it, was "The study of the historical Jesus is important." Nice. 
Chris Tilling said something similar a few weeks back: "Start to learn the habit of enjoying NT related books that are more informed about matters of exegesis, historical background, hermeneutical subtlety etc." I agree. I think these are important things, and for many they are totally unfamiliar. 
Obviously not every layperson is going to be able to force themselves into this kind of reading, for one reason or another, but for those who can I think they should. I'm in the middle of Wright's Christian Origins series right now myself, and I'm teaching a class for my church on the Jewish roots and context of 1st Century Christianity. 
This is important stuff.

And then Screwtape opens his mouth.

Lewis doesn't seem to have been wholly opposed to historical Jesus scholarship... just mostly. And it's understandable. Lewis was a good catholic Christian, faithful to the Tradition, and historical studies have often been conducted in a calculated opposition to that Tradition. He was also living in a time when various fads ruled Jesus-studies (maybe that's not over just yet), and when Bultmann was in the vanguard of the scholarship, arguing for a misguided separation of history and theology. Lewis knew better than that. 

As always, Screwtape is incisive. In letter 23, he makes four claims about 'historical Jesus' studies:
  • The conclusions are unhistorical and have their way with the texts. "The documents say what they say and cannot be added to; each new 'historical Jesus' therefore has to be got out of them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another, and by that sort of guessing (brilliant is the adjective we teach humans to apply to it) on which no one would risk ten shillings in ordinary life..." 
  • They distract from who Jesus is (i.e. the Word) and what He did by focusing on "some peculiar theory He is supposed to have promulgated." 
  • They destroy the devotional life of prayer and the sacraments by substituting for the Christ worthy of all honor and praise an object that "cannot in fact be worshipped", "a distinguished character approved by a judicious historian." 
  • The reconstructions of a 'historical Jesus' replace the knowledge of a risen Jesus who has redeemed His people--the truly saving 'facts', if you will, about Christ.  
I certainly won't deny that any of these happen, and at times have happened frequently. 
So how should the student of the New Testament, the junior-historian in the congregation, the follower of Jesus respond to these observations? 

Of course, Christians have to be devoted to good scholarship. That's true in the study of the New Testament, in the biological sciences, and everywhere in between. After all, we're to put away all falsehoods, and this is just a part of that calling. And this means that we have to approach the experts with a critical eye, especially mindful of omissions and exaggerations, and evaluating their logic. Crossan and Borg have some great information, but what about their conclusions? What assumptions are they making at the start that need to be acknowledged?
These aren't always easy questions to answer, but it's critical that they're asked.

Unless you've decided to reject the Christ of the Creeds for another Jesus of historical reconstruction, then you must always cling to "the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father... he was crucified under Pontius Pilate." Even if this is in the back of your mind for a time, as you try to understand this or that facet of 1st Century Messianic beliefs being enacted by this man from Nazareth, it must be held in mind. These studies are meant to inform our reading of the texts and our understanding of Jesus' activities; let them do that much, but be aware of when they try to do more, separating things which the Creeds holds together.

This is all closely related to worship, the devotional life. Historical claims can be the death knells of worship for some. For others they might place an idol on the throne: any Christ other than He whom the Church has always proclaimed, dead, risen, and coming again. We must remember that Jesus has taught us to pray, and that Jesus--the Word who made all things--has called the bread and wine His body and blood. Perhaps one movement here ought to be the assimilation of historical study into the worshipping life of the Church. I'm not talking about holding seminars on 'St. Paul and the First Century Cynic Revival' in place of worship; I'm talking about recognized the role of historical study in our reading of the texts. I'm talking about understanding all that we do as worship, including critical thinking and engaging with Biblical scholarship. While this scholarship can be a treacherous road for the Church to walk, it may be best travelled under the stewardship of that Body transmitting the Creeds, administering the sacraments, whose Head is Christ. 

Finally, do not let these studies become your text. The Bible is not scripture because it met various historical and literary criteria. The Bible is our scripture because the Spirit led the Church to the use of these texts and ultimately their canonization; because they were inspired in their compositions, and they can tell us about the Risen Jesus whose life, death, resurrection, and continuing life in the Church can reveal God to us. Again, let these studies inform your reading of scripture, not replace it. 

These responses may sound simplistic, but they may be no less true. 
And frankly, the 'dangers of scholarship', while they need to be acknowledged, also need to be gotten over. Especially in my tradition, what is needed is not more skepticism of the scholars; we have more than enough of that. What we need is critical reading and critical thinking. We need to learn about the texts, to understand the reading of the texts, and ask hard questions (without offering stock, worthless answers). Blissful ignorance is not a good way to survive the attacks of critics. Instead, we must be able to meet the questions and confusions out there in such a way that the unbelieving world is edified. Regardless of your biases, critical, historical, Biblical scholarship is a big part of this task.

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