Biblical Theology and the Authority of the Canon. Or; Why Don’t We Incorporate Other Religious Texts?

Essay word-counts are the bane of my degree; I always have too many things to say, usually because I do enjoy my tangents.

The following post is an introductory section that I had to excise from a recent essay regarding the theology of the Torah as found in the text of Deuteronomy as compared with that found in the Epistle to the Romans. My aim was to first show how and why it was possible to compare a single theme between two disparate texts in the bible.

Rather than let it sit idle in a forgotten folder, I reproduce it here.

I realise that it is out of its original context, and reads with a certain brevity, but I do not have sufficient time to edit it into a different form, although I have enlarged certain quotes for a better understanding of viewpoints.

Make of it what you will.

— — — — — — — —

When thinking about Biblical Theology difficulties begin with our understanding of the canon; with sixty-six books written over the span of many centuries, in different contexts, by different people, and split into two distinct sections of the ‘Old’ and the ‘New’, it is necessary to first question whether a unified understanding of any biblical theme can be achieved from the diversity of the texts.[1] On this, Gerstenberger comments that ‘The Old Testament, a collection of many testimonies of faith from around a thousand years of the history of ancient Israel, has no unitary theology, nor can it.’[2] However, this is not a surrender to the difficulties faced, as he goes on to state ‘the diversity of the theologies opens up for us a view of other peoples, times and ideas of God… It frees us for the honest, relaxed assessment of the theological achievement of our spiritual forbears that they deserve.’[3] For gerstenberger, the diversity and apparent disunity of the text grants us freedom from a single biblical ideal, and instead allows us the opportunity to find a more open-ended understanding of God for the contemporary community, or to follow his plural line of thinking, for our contemporary communities. He concludes by stating, ‘it relieves us of any pressure to look anxiously for the one, unhistorical, immutable, absolutely obligatory notion and guideline in the ups and downs of histories and theologies… and it makes us capable, in dialogue with them and with the religions of the world, of finding and formulating the ‘right’ faith in God, i.e. a faith to be expressed here and now, for an age which represents a turning point and perhaps an end.’[4]

This understanding of the Old testament text is untenable. While it does take the necessary step of freeing the diversity of the texts from an artificial unity, it fails to give importance to the community and tradition that has created and transmitted the text. Instead it would have us create our own synthetic theology aided not only by the biblical texts and their display of an understanding of God, but also by other unconnected religious ideals from people groups around the world. The rationale being that if the biblical texts are themselves discrete testimonies from different communities in different times regarding an understanding of God, why not extend our textual horizons to consider, with equal importance, other religious texts from around the world. Helmer and Landmesser provide a corrective for such an understanding. ‘On one hand, the text remains open to continuous subjective actualization, and on the other hand, an objective subject ‘behind the text’ guarantees the continuity of the tradition of interpretation throughout the religion’s tradition. The unity of the canon is related to the unity of the tradition.’[5] For them, the unity of the canon is safeguarded in the fact that the text is received by successive generations of a single tradition. ‘These text originate through a process of interpreting a distinct world-view and religious experiences structured by that world-view… They are engaged as relevant when they are used in the interpretative task of the tradition to answer questions concerning the fundamental constitution of the tradition.’[6] Thus, in the Judeo-Christian world-view, and the communities that use this as a unifying factor, the text has unity and authority. It is possible to follow the diversity of the text and themes in a way that informs and directs our own contemporary community. A second corrective, and criticism of blurring the unity of the canon, is related to the first. It is because of differing communities’ worldviews that it is inappropriate to compare texts of different religions. The presuppositions and value systems that are encapsulated in texts, and equally in the world-view of the successive generations, will invariable differ between communities and traditions. This is not to say that one tradition is ‘right’ and one is ‘wrong,’ but that direct, uncritical comparisons can lead to illegitimate and most likely schizophrenic world-views.

With this conceptual method in place, it is possible to follow themes through the disparate texts of the bible, without the need to blur the boundaries of the single unified canon outside of the Judeo-christian community tradition, or to be overly frustrated by apparent inconsistencies within the texts of the canon.

First, the presentation of a theme in each text must be outlined, and then these understandings can be compared and contrasted to find the similarities and differences. From this a historical-contextual trajectory of thought within the community tradition can be constructed, and thus it becomes an easier task to understand where the theme fits into the contemporary community’s theology as the receiving people of the inherited text.

[1]Mead, Biblical, 3-4.
[2]Gerstenberger, Theologies, 1.
[3]Ibid.
[4]Ibid. 1-2.
[5]Helmer & Landmesser, ‘Introduction’ in One Scripture, 3.
[6]Ibid.

Bibliography:
Gerstenberger, Erhard S., Bowden, John (trans.), Theologies in the Old Testament, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2002.

Helmer, Christine & Landmesser, Christof (eds.), ‘Introduction: A New Biblical-Theological Approach to the Unity of the Canon’ in One Scripture or Many? Canon from Biblical, Theological, and Philosophical Perspectives, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Mead, James K., Biblical Theology: Issues, Methods, and Themes, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.

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