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.


Anonymous said...

Is the site intended for the savant who is educated in fine points of abstract ruminations? I ask this question because while I can use the jargon of Christian theology passed on to us, I live in a world that has trouble putting two coherent thoughts together.

I think that most systems of theology deal with concepts that can be put into three basic categories:
1. ideas that have a direct affect on our day-to-day life ― it now becomes a choice between doing and not doing.
2. ideas taught in Scripture that are difficult to comprehend because they identify things outside of our experience ― one God but the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.
3. ideas that are brought to the text by the writer that helps him structure his views ― writers of theology often go beyond what is in the text to explain a real problem. It would be better if they just said the text does not reveal the position proposed; it is their proposal.

I would like to see theology expressed not in the vernacular of the masses but in the common language used by the society that is evangelized and taught. At this time, it projects the same kind of mystery as a legal system. One needs an expert, lawyer, to translate. I would like it translated and honest in its limits.

Instead, I find that new approaches to the ancient text are being discovered and applied. New formulations of the old systems are being developed.

A belief system or worldview is personal. Each person must know what he believes. It should be the task of the savant to help the uneducated to develop their theology. It will not be unique or original but it will be their own because they deliberated and struggled with the text.

Chris Tilling said...

Hi Ben,
Very helpful post, thanks. I guess the only factor I find myself a little uneasy with is the centrality given to the preached word.

"these texts themselves are, first and foremost, the records of preaching". Hmm.

Perhaps we should speak of the scriptures serving as the Word of God in the sense that they bring the life of the kingdom to a community through public reading and preaching, but boiling all of these issues down as you have to the event of "evangelical proclamation" is perhaps going too far. I don't know though, as like you, I'm thinking aloud!

"I view the gospel itself as implicitly trinitarian". Perhaps you could expand on that sometime?

All the best,

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