As Paul tells it ...

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A tourist, bothered by the jets taking off and landing during a tour of Windsor Castle, asks the guide, “Why would they build so close to the airport?”

So what else is a historical perspective good for? 

Historical Perspective

It is good for something in Biblical studies generally, because Judaism and Christianity are historical religions, rooted in historical events and persons.

Such a point of view can help us appreciate what it was like to have been a believer in early New Testament times, when as yet there was no New Testament, but when there was an exceptionally vivid sense of the presence of Christ, mediated through women and men who had seen Jesus in his earthly life, who had come to know him very well, and who had been sent out as his extended personality and presence to draw in others who would become his followers.

In other words, before there was a New Testament there was a church, a community of those who had experienced new life in Jesus Christ. Through the historical imagination we are virtually transported back to a time before disciples were called Christians; a time when most believers were Jewish and the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing; a time before letters or gospels or the book of Acts were written; a time when everything seemed new, and the end-of-time events were near.

Historical perspective enables us to honor the letters of Paul especially, not only for their rich content but also because as the earliest writings of the New Testament they take us back to within a decade or two of the Christ event. Thus we get a peek at the earliest Christian congregations, and empathize with their end-of-time expectations (and with their disappointment when the end did not come). We sense some of the tension they felt between the old and the new, between law and gospel. We discover a three-dimensional Paul, who is the caring pastor, the fierce defender of the law-free gentile mission, and the end-of-time visionary who in the course of time faces his own this-age mortality.

Wearing our historian’s hat, we celebrate our being able to work through documents which came from the pen (or from the dictation) of Paul himself, a first century man of action who was also a first class thinker. As we come to appreciate the historian’s craft, we give pride of place to Paul’s letters as primary sources, in the enterprise of reconstructing his work and his thought. We view with interest whatever reminiscences of the apostle have come down to us from later, secondary sources, without permitting such evidence to over-ride what we find in the letters. Since the letters give us direct access to Paul’s personality and thinking, we can to a considerable extent permit Paul to tell his own story.

Even as we prize the letters as primary sources, and use with caution secondary sources such as the book of Acts, we try to keep in mind that Paul was no impartial observer. He had a cause to promote, and was very much a partisan for the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as indeed the other writers of the New Testament were partisans. Thus the story Paul tells is not objective history, but it is very much his story.

Though this process may sound simple and straightforward enough, it is complicated by the fact that students of Paul are often themselves believers as well as historians. Do we remove our historian’s hat when we do theology, or do we remove our theologian’s hat when we do history, as in the reconstruction of Paul’s career and the development of early Christianity? When Van Harvey affirms that it is the historian who confers authority on his sources, sorting out the more from the less reliable sources, we may not be bothered if the historian is investigating colonial America, for example. But if a historian begins sorting out the more from the less reliable sources in the Bible, believers may become offended by what appears to be a denial of the authority of the Bible. When this problem arises, it is no longer an issue of biblical interpretation, but a theological issue.

Accordingly, we need to consider the theological perspective which a person brings to biblical studies in general, and to the study of Paul in particular.

Theological Perspective

We recognize several theological problems which converge at this point of our discussion, including (a) the source(s) of religious authority; and (b) the doctrine of the inspiration of the scriptures.

The sources of religious authority

We proceed, not so much prescriptively, as descriptively, to identify the bases for what Christians believe, how they worship, and the manner in which they conduct their lives.
bulletThe Church is not only a community of believers but also a source of authority, whether explicitly declared (as in the councils and creeds of the church), or implicitly as some expectation of agreement and conformity. Sometimes this authority is expressed in a hierarchical manner, and sometimes in terms of denominational or local tradition. The widespread practice of infant baptism is evidence of a willingness to accept a long standing tradition of the church, without express scriptural warrant.
bulletThe Bible has historically been influential in defining the church’s doctrines, and in providing a source for making moral decisions. The sole authority of the scriptures (sola scriptura) was a major Protestant affirmation, even though, as has long been recognized,  the authority of the scriptures is derived from the authority of the church, which defined the canon or limits of Holy Scripture. Because of the diversity of teachings in the Bible, the process of regulating belief and practice on the basis of the Bible alone has tended to be somewhat selective—Anabaptists insisting upon believers’ baptism and pacifism, but ignoring the Sabbath requirement (i.e. rest on the seventh day of the week) and dietary requirements; and Seventh Day Adventists laying emphasis upon Sabbath and diet, but less concerned about pacifist teaching.
bulletReason plays an important part in the theological and moral teachings of various denominations, whether Catholic or Protestant, though rarely does it function in isolation from other sources of authority. Great minds have struggled (and not often successfully) with problems of innocent suffering, predestination, and the Trinity; and have tried to construct a credible interface between faith and science (often failing to satisfy believers and scientists).
bulletReligious Experience is valued among most Christians, but comes to classic expression in the Society of Friends. The inner life nourishes the springs of religious life, but mystics and enthusiasts have some times been perceived as a threat to the religious establishment.

Most often, a combination of all four sources is operative in defining religious belief and practice. Where there is greater freedom of choice and expression within a denomination, the last two will naturally play a more important rôle.

A Theology of the Inspiration of Holy Scripture

There are a number of different ways to state this belief, and it would be presumptuous to say that this is the best way or the only way. The claim made here is that this statement is theologically defensible, and that it is one which gives room for scholarly inquiry on the one hand and for thoughtful and informed contributions by the general reader, on the other hand.

At the outset, we should make clear that the doctrine of inspiration is itself a sub-topic under the theme of revelation, namely, how God discloses himself to humankind. On the one hand, God makes himself known in nature, in history, and in the mental and moral capabilities of persons. Accordingly, he is accessible to all, and appropriately this sort of manifestation is known as general revelation

God also reveals himself to and through Israel, his chosen people; through the Jewish Bible and the New Testament of Christians; and supremely in Jesus Christ and in the continuing activity of the Holy Spirit. Special revelation is the term applied to these channels of revelation. Having laid the matter out in this way, we nevertheless acknowledge that God by his sovereign nature is not at all limited in the ways he might choose to disclose himself and his righteous will to humankind.

As for the doctrine of inspiration itself, we mention again that the covenant community, whether Israel or the church, is prior to the books of scripture. These books are written for the community, by inspired people (prophets, poets, apostles, lay persons) of the community; under the guidance of the Holy Spirit these books are declared to be part of Holy Scripture by the community—in the case of the New Testament, by councils of the church.

In view of the diverse contents of the books of the Bible, the typical Bible reader is understandably puzzled. Historically, the church has provided guidance to the faithful in the interpretation of the Bible’s message. The writings of the Church Fathers are still instructive for the modern reader, as are more contemporary works of scholarship. Ultimately, Jesus Christ—his life, his message, his example, his death and resurrection—is the standard by which the teachings of the Bible are to be measured.

While people sometimes refer to the Bible as “the Word of God,” it is perhaps theologically more useful to speak of the Bible as containing the Word of God, if we understand by “Word of God” the divine self-disclosure or revelation, which sometimes comes to expression in the pages of the Bible under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but which sometimes is operative in other ways, for example, in God’s speaking through prophet or preacher; thus, the term “Word of God” is a broader concept than the books of scripture. Indeed, the Word or logos of God as set forth in John 1:1-18 comprehends not only the divine revelation but also divine creativity. Martin Luther declared that God’s Word is contained in scripture, even as the infant Jesus lay in a manger without being the manger. So also we are entitled to say that the Bible contains the Word of God, without reducing the divine Word to a book. While one does not wish to make spiritual realities into some kind of formula, it is nevertheless useful to recognize that the printed page of scripture does not in itself operate to inspire, convert, instruct and illumine, but that it is the Holy Spirit who brings these things about in the reading and hearing of the words. 

The enterprise of Biblical scholarship then is engaged in clarifying the process by which revelation was mediated to and through the community of faith, as the books of the Bible came to be written; and thus to clarify the divine message, as it came to the Jewish and Christian communities. If questions are asked concerning the date, authorship, unity, destination or purpose of books of the Bible, it is for the sake of hearing that message more clearly and urgently, and not just to be playing scholarly games. 

It is indisputable that the Bible is a vital part of Christian education, evangelism, spirituality, and moral concern. As such, it deserves, and receives, appropriate appreciation and honor. The Bible is clearly a very important means to a very important end. That some are inclined to make claims of inerrancy on the part of the Bible, is perhaps understandable, though hardly necessary. The larger problem is to decide which of the parts of the Bible are authoritative and to be taken with the utmost seriousness: the parts (for example) which legislate retaliation (the lex talionis of Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21), or which abrogate retaliation (Matthew 5:38-42); the parts which legislate dietary requirements (Leviticus 11), or which declare all foods clean (Mark 7:14-23).


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New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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