Monday, August 03, 2015

Hearing the full NT choir

Today I have been mostly sorting out the New Testament Theology unit I teach at Spurgeon's. I've delivered it four times now (I think) and it is in need of a bit of a refreshment. I am also revisiting the essay questions in a bid to weed out the ones that don't really reflect the current unit content.

The whole exercise has got me thinking about how we handle NT theology in our churches. Do our teaching programmes reflect an understanding of the joined-up nature of the New Testament or do we just create sermon series as discrete entities with no reference to how to they relate to other series? I realise that in any well-rounded teaching programme in a church, there'll be attention paid to Old Testament texts as well as NT ones.

The grand daddy of NT theology - Johan Philip Gabler - argued that we pursue the discipline in order to renew the doctrines of the church in every generation. His discipline has developed in a variety of ways but two strong strands lead from him to the current world of scholarship. One is increasingly concerned with the early church as a historical phenomenon to be studied as we would study any other movement in history. The modern champion of this position is Heikki Raisanen who, building on Wrede, has produced some interesting historical studies but nothing to equip the church for its mission in the twenty-first century.

The other strand continues to look for ways of reading and understanding the New Testament in the contemporary world in a way that equips the church to bear witness to its central figure. There are many champions of this approach - among those with recent books covering the territory are Howard Marshall and Frank Matera, and from the recent past, the wonderful George Caird.

As I tweak the approach this unit takes to NT theology, I have two aims. The first is that I want to help students grasp the breadth and diversity of the NT witness to Jesus, to gain the ability to read each text on its own merits before trying to see how it agrees (or otherwise) with other texts. In particular, I am keen to encourage students not to read everything through Pauline eyes! So we look at 1 Peter and James and assess their unique voice before adding it to the NT choir.

The second is that I want to encourage everyone who takes this class, and who is headed into pastoral or teaching ministry of some kind (an overwhelming majority), to think about how they will structure their approach to preaching the NT in the light of this unit. I think this particularly applies when we are thinking of doing some kind of primer in Christian basics. Do we just lift something off the shelf or do we try to create our own in the light of what the likes of Marshall, Matera, Caird and others are saying about New Testament theology?

But I believe it applies more generally. Is our version of the Christian faith simply Pauline or do we read the gospels on their own merits, hear the voices of the other writers with equal clarity to that of Paul. Now, don't get me wrong, I am pursuing detailed study of Paul; I continue to find him an intriguing, restless witness to a transforming encounter with Jesus, a man who wanted whole communities to experience what he had.

But he is not the entirety of the New Testament; and the other writers must not be assumed to be in agreement with him. They deserve at least to be heard in their own terms. The author of 1 Peter is an extraordinary voice, James a wonderful, simple purveyor of an intriguing view of Jesus, Revelation a roller coaster of missional engagement with an oppressive empire, and so on...

The question, I guess, is how do we ensure our churches get to hear the full NT choir? And does the unit I teach offer any help to some fledgling preachers, teachers and church leaders?

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