Redoing theology

by Sam
Comments: 4 Comments
Published on: January 19, 2012

Over the years I have changed my theology and my thinking about it a lot. Some of the books that have helped were Continuity and Discontinuity, The Politics of Jesus, The Prophets, Echoes of Scripture in Letters of Paul and of course several books by N. T. Wright. What I have concluded is that there is a need for an overhaul of theology. We need to think about our approach to developing theology. Systematic theology has been the dominant method for theology. But it has its limitations, which most people seem comfortable with. Of late there has been an increasing interest in Biblical theology, which is an improvement. It uses more of a narrative approach to theology. So what are causing these changes? Why are they needed? I would like to explore a few of them.

The first precursor to this change is the shift from modernism to post-modernism. Most modernist would languish this shift. The biggest complaint heard is the lack of absolutes among post-moderns. The foundation of modernism is absolutes. I am not referring to what just Christians might call absolutes, but other secular absolutes too. Think of absolutes as a body of truth that should not be questioned. we cannot live without absolutes. Even an atheist believes in some form of absolutes, for example, the presumption that there is no god unless proven otherwise. That is an absolute for them.

What post-modernism has done, has brought all these absolutes into question. Doing this shakes the foundations of modernism. It is scary. Not many people venture into such questioning. For some of us this has proved to be useful. One of my biggest discoveries is that we read the Bible through the lens of Greek Philosophy. Now most of you might protest to not doing this. Well you may not be doing it deliberately, but our culture is an enlightenment culture which is based on Greek Philosophical truths, like logical thinking, rationalism or timeless truths. Unfortunately Greek Philosophy is not the context in which the Bible was written. I will make the the claim that the writings of Apostle John combat this Greek Philosophical problem. More to that later.

This brings me to the second important reason for re-doing theology. We need to move from Greek Philosophy to Jewish thinking. For the most part the Bible was written by men who thought as Jews, not Greeks. Romans 3:2 states that the word of God was entrusted to the Jews. When we read the “word of God” we need to read it as a Jew would do it, not as a Greek. I believe many of our theological debates arise because of our Greek Philosophy.  We end up asking the wrong questions of the text. We put emphasis on different places than what a Jewish mind would do.

The Apostle John whose writings were written after CE 90, show a tension between the different ways of thinking. The gospel of John is suppose to have been written after CE 90. This is about 20 years after the destruction of Jerusalem. Christians were not allowed any more in the synagogues. The result was that Christians were largely of non-jewish origin, which was Jesus’ intention for the Church. But the Gentiles brought with them, their baggage, in particular, Greek Philosophy. So when John re-writes the gospel for a new a generation, you see some of this tension coming out in his writings. He begins his gospel with this very tension. John 1:1-5 expresses God in a way that the Greek mind will find palatable. Even a non-Christian Greek would say Amen to this. The Greeks were very much into words, words of men, like their philosophers. They often equate those words as gods. Those words were unquestionable. The scandal to the Greek mind comes in John 1:14. “The word was made flesh”. For the Greek this is an unheard of concept. For them words are words. Absolutes are absolutes. How can it become flesh? But to the Jewish mind, there is only one absolute and that is God, as a person, not as a concept. Truth exist, not on its own, but only as the glory of God. The statement, “All truth is God’s truth”, would seem logical to the Greek mind, to the Jewish mind it would be heresy. Truth cannot be determined apart from God. Again in John 14:6, we see the personification of truth. In fact if we follow carefully the theme of truth in John’s gospel, we will see how John is defining truth in opposition to Greek Philosophy.

So how does this Jewish understanding of truth effect us? Let us consider the Greek Philosophical/Enlightenment construct of “timeless truths“. Let us ask the simple question if eating pork is a sin or not? Well before Noah, thinking of eating meat would be unheard of. After Noah eating pork was not sinful. But then from Moses to Jesus, it was sinful. Since the time of Jesus, it is again not sinful to eat pork. So, is there a timeless-truth-answer to the question whether eating pork is sinful? No. Even the number of wives a person can have cannot be answered by a simple timeless truth. After all King David had several wives and yet was a man after God’s own heart. The concept of timeless truths does not apply to God nor his word. We need to understand that there is only one absolute and that is God. Even in the book of Job is this demonstrated. I think the best demonstration of this is Jesus. We all think the noble thing to do, is to do the right thing no matter what the situation. Well for Jesus in John 8:1-11, the right thing to do would be stone the lady caught in adultery. This is what the Law states. Yet Jesus did not do it. Did he sin? Of course not, you see, He is the truth.

Now all I have demonstrated is that Jewish understanding of truth is very different from the Greek’s. If you are careful you will realize that this changes a lot. If we have been reading the Bible with the assumption of Greek’s timeless truth as opposed to one Jewish God, we would have gotten a lot of things wrong. Redoing theology is not an easy one, but a necessary step, to help us go back to how the original audience would understand scripture.

There are other differences I could bring out, for example, imperatives/propositionals vs narrative. While imperatives are used in scripture, we seem to have limited God to using only imperatives and not narratives to relate Himself to us. Or does everything have to be chronological history? The book of Jeremiah surely isn’t. Or Genesis 1, is it just history or could it be history expressed in the form of a poem? Does God have emotions? Does being objective require lack of feelings? Can we understand God only if we are emotionally neutral? What does it mean for scripture to be fulfilled? Does it have to mean a prediction came true? All these are questions that I have been asking.

These are questions that post-modernism has thought me to ask. But I am not left without a foundation, when it comes to reading scripture. Instead it has led to recognize that the appropriate way to read scripture is with a Jewish mind.

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