History and Theology in The Church and Academy

A plea for biblical scholars to recognise the scriptural nature of the texts they study and for preachers to take the history behind the text more seriously.

In this piece, I want to make the case for biblical scholars to be more theological in their scholarship and preachers more historical in their homiletics.

Biblical Scholars Should be More Theological

The term theological can be used so broadly as to mean anything: about God, about systematic theology or, even more broadly, with an eye to the Church. If by theological we include this last and broadest sense (writing for the church), then we could list any number of biblical scholars, including foremost among them, NT Wright, who has done more than most to communicate the message of New Testament texts and the Christian faith to a lay audience. Writing for the Church is absolutely vital to biblical studies. It is the lifeblood of biblical work. It is not simply that the Church needs theology. Theology needs the Church. Markus Bockmuehl, when once asked about what made him excited about the future of biblical studies, answered quite rightly, “the existence of over 2 billion Christians worldwide”.

But I mean something slightly more specific when I write that biblical scholars should operate in a theological mode. I mean that they should engage with the historic doctrines of the church, its tradition and the creeds. For biblical scholars to be theological means for them to allow the doctrines, tradition and creeds of the Church dialogue with, shape, chasten and enlighten their readings of the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible.

This is a particular challenge to evangelical scholars, some of whom have frequently thought that theological readings of the bible, or treating the bible as scripture, simply means doing history “more faithfully”, so that the goal of biblical scholarship is to bolster and shore up support for conservative conclusions about historical reliability, authorship and the like (conclusions which may be very well justified, as the case may be). Grant Mackasill puts this very constructively when he writes,

One of the particular dangers facing evangelicals involved in biblical studies is that we see ourselves as having a strong commitment to Scripture, but we don’t necessarily engage with it as Scripture. We see our task as one of practicing some kind of faithful equivalent of historical criticism, rather than one that necessarily moves beyond it. So, we generate what we see to be faithful accounts of Paul or of John, but to engage with New Testament as Scripture requires us to read our authors canonically, as part of the living word of God to the church.

Macaskill’s point is that such accounts of the biblical text still operate on a purely historical realm—and the historical work is, let me assure you, absolutely essential to the interpreter’s task (see here for more) But it’s not enough to generate some faithful equivalent of historical criticism, label it “for the church” and say that the job of theological interpretation is done.

Instead, to operate in a theological mode means engaging the theological and doctrinal reception of certain texts, allowing these to throw up questions about the text and its application that then drive us afresh to the text and the task of exegesis.

Let’s take a few examples to flesh this out. First, Macaskill’s own work on union with Christ (Union with Christ in the New Testament, OUP 2013) is an example here. He takes in the reception of union in the Fathers, in Orthodox tradition and the Reformers before then engaging in his own exegesis of the text (both OT and NT!) allowing the questions that others have asked the text to inform his own. Encounter with the history of ecclesial reception and interpretation is never done at the expense of exegeting key texts in the scriptures within their own historical and literary contexts. The New Testament texts are no less than history but amount to much more than this. For Macaskill, the biblical scholar is to coordinate the historical and theological tasks rather than bracket one out in favour of the other.

A second example is John Barclay’s Paul and Gift (Eerdmans 2013), a book which recalibrates our thinking about Paul’s conceptions of grace. Apart from the conclusions Barclay comes to, I want to comment on his engagement with the theological tradition. Barclay presents a narrative of previous “perfections” of grace among the big-hitters of Pauline exegesis (from interpreters as momentous as Augustine and Pelagius in the fifth century to contemporary interpreters as creative as Alain Badiou). By perfections of grace, Barclay refers to interpretations that have “drawn to an end of the line extreme” by emphasising certain aspects (“unconditionality”, “uncontingency”, “super-abundant” and so on). Barclay’s work on the history of thinking about grace in the Church, constitutes the digging tool that allows him to obtain several precious nuggets of data from this mass of data, each of which highlight important assumptions and questions that he addresses, and importantly transcends, in his own exegesis of Paul. Once again, we see a deep interest in the voices of ecclesial interpreters, and ecclesial interpretations but always done in tandem with fresh exegesis of the texts in their own literary and historical contexts.

The importance of dealing with the doctrinal history of the text which we see in both these examples is something that Macaskill points out, when he goes on to write

Again, I think we often reduce that vitally theological issue to something naturalistic: we see a canonical reading of Paul, John, etc., as simply a matter of locating their writings in the bigger narrative that runs from creation to eschaton. That’s part of it, sure, but it’s still a long way short of what we encounter in the great exegetes like Calvin, who take seriously the fact that they are dealing with a living voice and that its reception by the church has been subject to divine providence. So, even when applying the principle of semper reformanda, the history of theological reception of the text is never simply jettisoned, since that would be potentially contemptuous of providence and the working of the Spirit, but is instead sifted.

A couple of caveats here before I go on to note the benefits of this approach. I noted that it won’t do to simply write accounts of the text that amount to “faithful historical accounts”, and call this theological. Equally, though, some will have legitimate concerns that theological interpretation seeks to jettison history altogether. And these fears are not entirely unfounded. To operate in a theological mode is not to jettison the history behind the text, even if certain forms of theological interpretation (or Theological Interpretation of Scripture, TIS) unfortunately come close to doing so. Macaskill, again, speaks of coordinating the two tasks. He writes (Union, p.7),

We must deliberately allocate sufficient space to the examination of Scripture itself and this, I think, requires that we do not conflate the study of the biblical texts with the treatment of theology. They require to be coordinated, not conflated.

Let’s move on, finally, to consider the benefits of this approach, of which there are many. Not all will go down this road. But for those who will, there is one significant advantage of doing so, in comparison with the usual approach of “faithful historical-criticism”. Engaging the doctrine, creeds and tradition of the church takes seriously the fact that we are “traditioned”, in the sense that we each have our horizon and tradition from which we approach the text. To operate in a theological mode is to own this “traditioned-ness”, embrace it and allow it to enrich one’s reading Scripture in ways that purely biblical or historical modes (which usually have their own, if masked, traditions) do not.

Preachers Should be More Historical

When I say that preachers should be more historical, I mean something very specific. I am referring to the history behind the text. My plea is that preachers attend to the history behind the text, which includes the author’s intention as best as we reconstruct it through close reading of the text within its historical contexts.

Some will object and say that all of this historical detail distracts from the mission of the church in translating the message for today. There is something to this. The historical digging can, to be fair, go overboard though this is so rare as to run the risk of being a straw man. I can think of the odd Oxbridge College evensong or university service that might indulge in this kind of historical pontificating for its own sake. But these are exceptions, in my experience.

More concerning, though, is the assumption that we can simply translate the message of a text for today without any kind of engagement with the history behind the text. Such a view is naive to the reality of translating anything (particularly anything from the ancient world). Yes, there is absolutely a meaning in this text for us today, but that comes, in large part, through carefully considering the text in its context and, to apply what we have said above about biblical scholarship to the task of preaching, listening to the voices of other Christians through the ages. None of this is meant to replace application of the text, but to enrich it.

I want to turn quickly to consider the advantages of this “history behind the text” approach. There are two benefits to it that are most obvious to me.

First, attending to the history of and behind the text contextualises the text and so particularises our applications of it. What I mean is that by contextualising biblical texts, we actually come to more specific and therefore more rich applications. Let’s take, as an example, Luke’s emphasis on the poor as seen paradigmatically in the Nazareth manifesto, in which Jesus quotes Isaiah 61 and says that in him, this scripture has been fulfilled: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me, to proclaim good news to the poor”.

What does Luke’s gospel have to say about the poor? Some have taken Jesus’s emphasis on the poor in Luke’s gospel to mean that “the poor are our teachers”. This, to me, seems to have the potential to say that the poor can do no wrong, that we should simply submit to what the poor might teach us in every situation. As one of my mentors who grew up in a working-class British city put it, “I certainly learned a lot that was good in the council estate I grew up in, like loyalty and community…but I also learned much that wasn’t good, like thrashing someone who insults you”. So we need to be careful to read Luke in its own context, here. When we do, we see that in Luke’s gospel, the poor are blessed not because their situation is good, but because it is going to change. Mary’s Magnificat points to the reversal of fortunes that is at the heart of the coming Kingdom of God. Luke’s teaching on poverty and riches teaches us generosity, particularly to those in the household of the faith (the disciples were poor, after all), as well as to all. And it warns us of the snares of wealth, which might lead us to believe we are purely self-sufficient and in no need of God.

We come to see that concern for the poor (and the rich!) has a specific meaning in its cultural and linguistic context that might rule out as well as open up a dialogue with the ways that we define (or fail to define) that concern today. The same could be said of other texts or verses, particularly those that concern virtues that are prized highly in our society (for instance, love, justice, inclusion and so on). When we look at the history behind the texts that talk about these virtues though, we see that these texts have particular resonances that align with our own day, as well as certain resonances that resist our own contemporary preconceptions. Engaging with the history behind the text helps us to avoid the kind of eisegesis that reads false assumptions from our context into the text.

Second and finally, doing the historical work is intellectually honest and allows our preaching to have integrity. Speaking as a lay person who occasionally preaches, most of us in the pews have deep questions about the text, and are constantly wondering about the stuff in our bibles. It won’t do for preachers to bury their heads and the heads of their congregations in the sand and pursue literary readings that deal only with “the world in the text”. Ignoring historical questions or questions to do with the world behind the text, or offering simplistic or wrong answers (the common misconception that Genesis was written before the Babylonian creation narratives, for instance) or, worst of all, saying that these questions do not matter, will only cause problems in Christians communities. Stories where Christian communities have failed to value the history behind the text sadly abound.

I want to stress that infusing our sermons with details from the world behind the text will only enrich the sermons we offer or listen to. To take the Genesis example, by immersing ourselves in the history of the text we come to see that Genesis 1 and 2 were written in response to the Enuma-Elish myth, the Babylonian stories in which the capricious gods create humans for food and sustenance and to act as their slaves. When composing Genesis, later picked up and read by Christians, the authors depict God in relationship to the human beings he creates “in his own image”. God creates human beings to relate to him, to benefit the earth and to serve one another in perfect mutuality. The implications of this historical nugget for how we understand God and human community today are massive. Coming to a truthful and accurate picture of the world behind the text only enhances the meanings of this text, rather than undermining application altogether.

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In summary, I have brought out and emphasised certain aspects of the task of the biblical scholar and the preacher. I believe that theology and history belong in both church and academy, of course. But my choice to emphasise the place of theology in biblical scholarship and historical work in preaching is because I have the impression that the pendulum has swung quite far in the opposite direction in both realms. Thus, biblical scholarship has sadly become conceived of narrowly as historical archaeology of the text, with any meaning that we might dare to find being confined to “back then” (if there is any to be found at all). In response, theological interpretation that is also historical takes seriously the task of exegesis and seeks to let it dialogue with the living voice of these texts and the application of the text to doctrinal debates throughout church history. Similarly, preaching can easily become the sharing of anecdotes or the universalising of certain virtues so that they lose all meaning (“God is love”). In response, I hope to have shown that when preachers engage the history behind the text, while maintaining the good and necessary emphasis on applying these insights to the community of the faithful today, their sermons are all the richer for it.

Image Credit: Unsplash (Jan Canty)

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