With All Saints’ Day fast approaching, I’ve found myself getting into discussions with Orthodox and Roman Catholic brothers and sisters about what we’re doing as we celebrate this important day in the church calendar.
I’ve found myself returning to NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope, a book which re-lit the smouldering embers of my faith back in 2013.
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.
January 25th marks in our church calendars the traditional date for the “Conversion of St Paul”. The evangelist Luke relates the dramatic account of Paul’s conversion twice, in his follow-up volume to his Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 9:1-9; 22:6-21; cf. 26:12-18).
But was Paul converted?
I’m reading through Acts in preparation for an Intro the New Testament course and I’ve been re-thinking the “Paul was converted” argument, mainly thanks to this 2019 blog post from the late Larry Hurtado here. Hurtado argues for the following couple of points:
if by religion we mean changing from one religion to another, then we cannot speak of conversion in Paul’s own experience, since the earliest Jesus followers did not form a new religion but a new sect within Judaism
Nevertheless, we can still speak of conversion in Paul’s thinking, if we strictly apply this to Gentiles who Paul urged to turn or convert from their idols to worship the one true God (1 Thess 1:9-10). But in his own experience as Jewish follower of Jesus, Paul speaks of coming to a new revelation and a new calling (Gal 1.11-17), in a way that strikingly mirrors the experience of OT Prophets.
So Paul was called, not converted. That’s not to say that Paul wasn’t interested in conversion, however. Rather, he had in mind a “twin track” approach that dealt differently with Jews and Gentiles: Gentiles “converted” from pagan religions to the worship of the one true God (see 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10) but for Jews, like Paul, turning to Jesus entailed coming to a right understanding of the purposes of the One God of Israel for his people, and for the nations (Galatians 1:11-17).
This reading of Paul’s calling has very important implications for a number of areas of Christian life. In the remainder of this post, I will focus on just three: (1) Jewish-Christian relations, (2) the importance of the Old Testament and (3) Christology and Theology.