Wednesday, 5 October 2005

The doctrine of Scripture: closing reflections

Back in early September I wrote a couple of posts on the doctrine of Scripture, and I got so interested in the topic that it unexpectedly turned into a month-long series. My reflections on Scripture did not represent an attempt at a definitive statement. On the contrary, I was simply trying to think out loud, to experiment with some basic concepts, and to offer a provisional approach toward a contemporary doctrine of Scripture.

The main point I wanted to make was that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the subject-matter of Scripture, and that the gospel should therefore be the starting point for all theological reflection on Scripture.

In this final post in the series, I want to close with some critical reflections on the series as a whole. What are the theological problems that stand out as I look back on the series? If I were to start all over again, what would I do differently? Four main criticisms come to mind:

1. First of all, I think theological reflection on Scripture should take place within a trinitarian context. This context was always in the back of my mind throughout the series (since I view the gospel itself as implicitly trinitarian), but it never became explicit. I think this is a very significant theological shortcoming, and in future I would attempt to make the trinitarian context explicit from the very start. Above all, I would probably try to do this by speaking first and foremost of God the Holy Spirit—which brings me to my next criticism.

2. During the series, a few readers pointed out that I was not saying much about the Holy Spirit. Again, the role of the Spirit was often implicit. But the fact that it was not fully explicit and in the foreground is a serious problem. If I were to start the series again I would try to let the Spirit be both the first word and the last word, and I would try to demonstrate that the whole doctrine of Scripture is in fact nothing more or less than a subdivision of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

3. It is also necessary to criticise the series for its lack of clarity about the relationship between Scripture and the church. In a certain sense it would be true to say that the nature of this relationship is the fundamental question which a doctrine of Scripture tries to answer. I spoke several times about this relationship in negative terms—e.g. “Scripture does not receive its authority from the church”—but somehow I never got around to articulating the relationship in positive terms. And theological negations count for little unless they are first defined by theological affirmations. If I were to start the series again, I would try to focus on the work of the Spirit in such a way that the relationship between Scripture and church becomes clear, so that in turn the concrete ecclesial context of Scripture is articulated theologically.

4. Finally, I should also criticise my conceptual use of the term “gospel.” I think this concept is correct and useful, but I think it should be employed far more sharply and more radically than it was in my own formulations. In particular, if I were starting the series again I would try to give prominence to the proclamatory or kerygmatic character of the gospel. I would thus try to articulate the primacy of proclamation over the written biblical texts, so that it remains clear that these texts themselves are, first and foremost, the records of preaching, and in exactly this way they are also the source of all successive preaching. I would also try to express more sharply the fact that the “Word of God” is essentially an event of evangelical proclamation—and that the biblical texts exist in service of this event and must be understood from the standpoint of this event. Such a kerygmatic use of the term “gospel” is not only more precise theologically, but also more faithful to the true character of the biblical writings.

Perhaps I can schematically summarise these four criticisms by saying that my theology of Scripture should be more Orthodox in its attention to the Trinity, more Catholic in its attention to the church, more Reformed in its attention to the Spirit, and—above all—more Lutheran in its attention to the Word. (Sorry to all my Baptist readers: I just couldn’t think of a fifth one.)

Well, these are my closing suggestions. The challenge here—as always in theology—is never to stop thinking, but always to be willing to start again.


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