Hearing Them on Their Own Terms: Introducing the Old and New Testaments

Andy Johnson

The first book I read in my graduate work on the NT began as follows: “It is impossible to speak of a scientific view of the NT until the NT became the object of investigation as an independent body of literature with historical interest, as a collection of writings that could be considered apart from the OT and without dogmatic or creedal bias. Consequently, it is improper to speak of a scientific study of the NT or of a historical approach to primitive Christianity prior to the Enlightenment” (W.G. Kümmel, The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems [Abingdon, 1972] 13; italics mine).

The phrases I italicized in this quote reveal what Kümmel would characterize as a “critical/scientific” approach to the NT. It would entail understanding the NT as an object of an investigation, a separate phenomenon from the OT, a window through which to look back on the history of primitive Christianity before dogmatic and creedal biases clouded the picture. For many years variations of these same sentiments decisively influenced the writing of most “critical” introductions to the Old and New Testaments. Many of these assumed that biblical interpretation needed to be freed from dogmatic and creedal biases and therefore that, “critical” introductions should bracket out theological and ecclesial interests.

In recent years this notion has been sharply challenged. There has been an effort on the part of some to bring “the theological” back into critical introductions to the Old and New Testaments (e.g., B.C. Birch, W. Brueggemann, T.E. Fretheim, and D.L. Peterson, A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament [Abingdon, 1999]; R.E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament [Doubleday, 1997]). A recent NT introduction highlights this trend with language that challenges Kümmel’s implicit definition of “critical” at almost every point: “To read the NT on its own terms, then, is to read it in concert with the OT. The narrative woven implicitly and explicitly throughout the NT must be understood as beginning not with the birth of Jesus, but long before the days of Jesus, with God’s creation of the world and the call of Israel. . . To acknowledge the NT as the Scripture of the church provides a fruitful prejudice for reading and hearing the NT. The church has regularly assumed that the NT is about human life before God and that its texts offer both description of, and prescriptions for, that way of life. To attend to this dimension of these texts is to hear them on their own terms. To come openhanded to these texts, ready to be challenged and formed by them and thus to assume what the church at its best has assumed about the NT, will foster, rather than preclude, meaningful engagement with the NT” (P.J. Achtemeier, J.B. Green, and M.M. Thompson, Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology [Eerdmans, 2001] 11-13; italics mine).

The authors of this book are widely recognized for their ability to engage in “critical” scholarship. Yet the italicized phrases indicate that the authors: (1) approach the NT not simply as an object of an investigation, but as a conversation partner that may challenge and form interpreters; (2) understand the NT not as a separate phenomenon from the OT, but rather as a part of a continuous narrative of Israel’s God and the people of that God; (3) assume that dogmatic and creedal biases do not necessarily “cloud” the picture, but may provide a “fruitful prejudice” enabling one to hear the NT on its own terms.

What has happened to move us to the place where an introduction to the Old or New Testament need no longer bracket out theological and ecclesial concerns in order to be considered “critical”? Catalysts for such a move include: (1) changes in the broader intellectual milieu; (2) more specific developments in biblical studies. I will briefly discuss each of these in turn.

Frequent readers of Catalyst will be familiar with some of the changes that have taken place in the broader intellectual milieu over the past few decades. Modernity’s quest for a universally available rationality by which to judge the truth claims of faith-based communities has largely collapsed. This collapse need not mean that some measure of objectivity is impossible, but it does underscore the recognition that no one has access to a neutral “view from nowhere.” Interpretation always takes place within some particular interpretive community whose specific stories, traditions and practices shape the kinds of questions considered important, the methods considered suitable to answer them, and the kinds of explanations that are considered persuasive.

Various groups within the larger academy who understand themselves as oppressed or marginalized (based on their gender, race, sexual orientation, economic standing, etc.) purposely form themselves into such interpretive communities. They consciously employ a particular ideology and praxis and consistently use it as, what they understand to be, a fruitful bias to interpret the Bible. Although such a process may be inherently circular, it need not be viciously circular. At times their ideological agenda may impede their ability to be self-critical. However, they would argue that at their best they engage biblical texts in a way that demonstrates consistency and coherence. I have seen little evidence that the critical reflection of most of these groups on their own particular ideology and praxis will ever lead to any substantial modification of it. However, I agree with them that such ideological concerns do not necessarily compromise academic integrity.

This is similar enough to what the church has always done when interpreting its Scripture to warrant a brief comparison. Even before there was a formal NT canon, and in dialogue with documents that would later be recognized as part of such a canon, the ancient church was self-consciously shaped by a particular theology (i.e., “the rule of faith”) and by particular practices (celebration of the Eucharist, baptism, etc.). The church considered this theology and praxis to be a fruitful bias with which to select and then interpret its Scripture. Ecclesiastical agendas may have at times impeded the church’s ability to be self-critical in the interpretive process. But at its best, the church has demonstrated the ability to engage biblical texts in a way that demonstrated consistency, coherence, and critical reflection on its particular tradition and praxis that led to its modification. Using its own “dogmatic and creedal biases” as an interpretive lens to address ecclesial concerns has, at times, fostered a meaningful engagement between the church and its biblical texts, an engagement that actually resulted in adjustments to these very “dogmatic and creedal biases.” Theological and ecclesial concerns, then, do not necessarily compromise academic integrity. This brief comparison suggests that changes that have taken place in the broader intellectual milieu over the past few decades have made it apparent that bringing “the theological” back into an Old or New Testament introduction does not thereby make it less “critical.”

Numerous developments in biblical studies have reinforced this judgment. Here, I only have space to mention two. In NT studies the modernist tendency to dichotomize human experience would often take the form of segregating historical, social, and political realities (“facts”) from religious and theological ideas (“values”). However, recent studies of the social and political background of the NT indicate that such a dichotomy is completely unwarranted. In the Roman empire of the first century, the hierarchical social structures embodied in patron/client relations both supported, and were supported by, a political ideology that made the emperor the primary patron for all in the empire. This political ideology was legitimated by appealing to divine sanction for the establishment and eternal rule of Rome. In short, a particular theology undergirded all aspects of social and political life in the Roman empire.

Recognizing this enables one to read NT texts more critically, i.e., on their own social, political, and theological terms. In light of this background, Jesus’ programmatic proclamation that the “reign of God has drawn near” (Mark 1:15) at the very least implies that God is not satisfied with the eternal “reign of Rome.” Hence, Jesus’ statement is not simply a “religious” statement, but is politically/socially charged and based on a theology at odds with that on which Roman rule was based. When Paul, for example, addresses eating meat offered to the gods and goddesses of the empire (1 Cor 8-10), the whole socio-cultural context is shot through with implicit theological assumptions. Recognizing this, Paul frames the issue theologically and addresses it as an issue of ecclesial identity. It has, therefore, become increasingly clear that one cannot bracket out theological and ecclesial concerns and claim to read such texts on their own terms, i.e., critically.

To move to our second example, recent studies have shown that Mark and Luke extensively used Isaiah’s theology (particularly Isaiah’s New Exodus motif) to both structure and interpret their stories of Jesus. Such work shows that NT writers made an explicitly theological judgment to paint their stories of Jesus on the canvas of the OT and its narrative of God’s dealings with Israel. This suggests that these writers were attempting to forge a connection between the identity of their ecclesial audiences and that of the one people of God in the OT (i.e., Israel). These studies illustrate that it is impossible to approach the NT on its own terms if one approaches it as a “separate phenomenon” from what Christians call the Old Testament. Therefore, considering the NT apart from the OT is not a “critical” approach to the text that avoids a dogmatic or creedal bias. Rather, it is to approach the NT with a particular dogmatic or creedal bias solidly in place, a modernist bias that is not justified by the nature of the material itself.

When I started teaching in 1994, critical introductions that did not attempt to bracket out theological and ecclesial concerns were rare. Since then, the movement to put “the theological” back into critical introductions has gained momentum and will benefit both theological students training for Christian ministry and the wider academic guild of biblical studies. This is because such introductions help both theological students and biblical scholars better understand the Old and New Testaments on their own terms. May their numbers increase!

Posted Apr 01, 2004