I am pressing toward a way of “doing theology” that grows out of the Scriptural witness itself, so that the Word establishes the framework through which we understand what the issues really are and how they can be talked about. I believe we shouldn’t let either culturally dominant world views (rationalistic scientific modernity, postmodern relativism and subjectivity, or whatever) or historic theological traditions (Reformed, dispensational, Wesleyan, Thomistic, etc.) determine the terms of the debate. We need to ask ourselves something like, “What did Jesus and the biblical writers have in mind, when speaking of God and his purposes, within their religious-political environment, and in terms of their literary context?” Then we need to ask, “Where do we fit into that picture?” The question is not, “How do we interpret Scripture,” but rather, “How does Scripture interpret us?” It’s our life and world that need clarification, not the Word of God.
In Christian teaching and preaching, I think there is always the tendency to “go beyond” what the Bible says (1 Corinthians 4:6) in the fear that people will not get the whole truth from the reading and study of Scripture itself. But should we think of Scripture as pointing to a “truth” external to itself — in which case there is a criterion of truth higher than Scripture — or should we follow the lead of Jesus who prayed, “Thy Word is truth” (John 17:17)? That is, the Word of God not only answers our questions, it also defines which questions are askable and answerable, and establishes the world view and perceptive grid in which those questions may be discussed. The problem with doctrinal systems and denominational statements of faith — the subjects of much theological debate — is that they step out of this biblical world view and superimpose on Scripture a scheme for resolving questions that the Bible often does not raise. When we do that, we have moved beyond Scripture to something like Irenaeus' “rule of faith,” the Roman Catholic magisterium, or Confessionalism of any type. (In my opinion, Sola Scriptura trumps any other “Solas” — and how can there be more than one “only”?)
N. T. Wright, in his 814-page The Resurrection of the Son of God, concludes that Jesus’ resurrection had revolutionary implications for the first-century era within both the Jewish and pagan worlds. In working through this question Wright lays the groundwork, I believe, for an approach to theological issues that emerges from a biblically based world view. If the resurrection of Jesus was revolutionary in the period of Christian origins, would it not have an equally revolutionary impact on our church life, and on the church’s witness to people in our culture, if we were bold enough to make it the centerpiece of our theology and proclamation? It certainly was the centerpiece for Paul, who declared to the Athenians that God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). It wasn’t because all doctrinal issues had been reconciled that the early Christians prevailed over a hostile world, but because in the beginning they had seen the risen Jesus and through the Spirit were continually led by him. It was only when the Presence of the living Christ had become obscured by other concerns that doctrine about Christ, rather than life in Christ, became the burning issue for the church. We need to get back to being a Presence-driven church.
One of those obscuring concerns, I suggest, is the contemporary debate about “justification.” Let us remind ourselves that, biblically, justification is not a “thing” that exists somewhere in the abstract, but describes a relationship of “rightness” between persons. If God gave a Law, or commandment, that Paul considers “holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12), then one would expect Paul to assume that how people relate to God must have something to do with honoring the Way he has outlined in Scripture. Typically, Protestantism has held that “faith” alone, as opposed to “works,” is what rights the broken relationship between God and his errant people. But this is usually taken in too simplistic a way: “Faith” is understood as belief or trust, and “works” are understood as attempts to win God’s favor through keeping the Mosaic teaching. Neither of these, it seems to me, quite describes what the New Testament means by these terms.
Faith is more like “faithfulness,” i.e. commitment, or a relationship of covenant loyalty, of the type epitomized in Thomas’ confession “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28) which is in the tradition of the worshiper’s confession of homage and loyalty in the Psalms (e.g., Psalm 63:1 and elsewhere). And works may go deeper than simply actions, as they relate to “works of the Law.” There is a Dead Sea Scrolls text called MMT, or “The Works of the Law,” and some have made a case that the document was well known in Judaism of the first century and that it is this document, with its comprehensive provisions regarding Jewish religious practices, to which Paul was referring. The scribes, whom we meet frequently in the Gospels, were the keepers of an unwritten, esoteric tradition that went well beyond the written form of the Torah, and which made them the most revered functionaries within the Jewish community. Jesus certainly inveighed against “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” so as to lay burdens upon the people they were unable to bear, and Paul refers to “human precepts and doctrines” (Colossians 2:22) about forbidden things. But neither Jesus nor Paul meant the Torah when speaking this way, only the improper use to which it had been put in certain Jewish circles of the time and to its surrounding encrustation of restrictive traditions of which the scribes and Pharisees were the self-appointed custodians.
Thus, to play the Torah off against grace vis-a-vis the issues of “salvation” and “justification” may, indeed, be a false understanding of the uses of the Torah (in its extended forms) in first-century Judaism. It was not, as is commonly thought, a vehicle for earning salvation, or God’s acceptance. The Pharisees already believed they had God’s favor. In their hands the Law, extended by their traditions, was rather a means of purifying the Jewish community in preparation for the coming of the Messiah who would lead them in throwing off the Roman yoke. The Pharisees’ stress on the Law was not salvific but revolutionary. But Jesus threatened their agenda, because he saw the futility of this misuse of the literary deposit from God’s covenant. Israel had been called to be a “light to the nations,” but under Gentile oppression certain Jewish parties had altered the goal to liberation from the nations. Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom called for his people to repent of this false agenda and return to their roots, their Abrahamic calling — to which, of course, Paul also returns in his emphasis on the faith of Abraham. Jesus warned that unless his people repented they were destined to be slain by Roman soldiers or crushed under falling buildings (Luke 13:1-5). These things, indeed, occurred in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in AD 70 — an event that I believe John expects to see as the vindication of the martyrs under Jewish persecution (Revelation 6:10).
These are but a few examples suggesting that before we can meaningfully discuss issues like justification, Jesus’ humanity and divinity, or other important theological matters we may need to step back and take another look at what is actually occurring in Scripture. Insofar as it is possible after a gap of two millennia, we need to try to get into the mind and perspective of Jesus and the biblical writers and try to appreciate what they were saying, as set against the political and religious trends and themes swirling about in their cultural environment. In so doing we will come to see what a brilliant thinker and incisive theologian Jesus is, speaking even from the human standpoint. To me, that is a deeply “incarnational” approach, recognizing that God chose that moment “when the time had fully come” (Galatians 4:4) to send forth his Son. In like manner we come to have the same appreciation for the intellectual, as will as the inspirational, gifting of Paul, the four Evangelists and other New Testament writers.