Early in his book The Drama of Doctrine (pp. 3-4) theologian Kevin J. Vanhoozer writes these two challenging chapters:
“Each new Christian generation must grapple with the question: What has the church to say and do that no other human institution can say and do? Nature and society alike abhor a vacuum, and there are many ideologies and agendas waiting to rush and fill the hearts and minds of the uncommitted. Bereft of sound doctrine, the church is blown about by cultural fads and intellectual trends. Indeed, this has largely been the story of the church, and of theology, in the modern world. There has been an atrophying of theological muscle as a result of too many correlations and accommodations to philosophical and cultural trends.
“What the church uniquely has to say and do cannot be reduced to philosophy or politics. The church’s unique responsibility is to proclaim and to practice the gospel, to witness in its speech and life to the reality of God’s presence and action in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The theologian’s unique responsibility is to ensure that the church’s speech and action correspond to the word of God, the norm of Christian faith and practice. A number of contemporary theologians are not sure, however, whether to invoke the notion of authority or, if they do, where to locate it: in the history of Jesus Christ, in the biblical text, or in the believing community.”
I am interested primarily in the opening sentences of both paragraphs. In these sentences we are asked, essentially, what makes the church the church and not something else. Then we are told the church has the unique responsibility of spreading and enacting the gospel.
Yet, as Vanhoozer notes, we are often not even sure of what that means or where our definition is to be found. We are not in agreement as to where to find an authoritative answer. I am wrestling with this even now.
What does it mean to stay faithful to God in Christ? What does it mean to be led by the Spirit? Where do we find these answers?
For a few years I have tried to dig behind dogma in order to find a more pure, more original Christianity. I was not successful. I am thankful for all those studying the historical Jesus and the historical Paul, but if we stop there it has become my conviction we will forget the active, living Spirit and the Scriptures and the unity of the faith. We cannot think that our nifty historical reconstructions are a sufficient foundation for living the gospel. We can’t do this without denying, in essence, that the Spirit has been active in the church for these last two millennia and we are not the first generation to “get it”.
This doesn’t mean the church finds shape in traditionalism, but maybe a little more tradition; we are not limited to Catholicism, but maybe catholicism. The church must find her grounding and wherever that grounding is to be found there must be the impetus for mission and gospel-centered living.
The church will never be more “intelligent” than the university; more gifted in music than the world; more creative than marketing companies; better at gaining crowds than professional sporting events, but we do have the gospel. That makes us different. Now I need to go think some more on this.
I’ve had this book on my shelf for too long without cracking it open. From what I know of Vanhoozer, I appreciate his approach and thoughts on theology and Christianity at large. Here, like you perhaps, I’m struck by the last line you quoted: “A number of contemporary theologians are not sure, however, whether to invoke the notion of authority or, if they do, where to locate it: in the history of Jesus Christ, in the biblical text, or in the believing community.” While I’m tempted to try to balance all three, I have to admit that I lean toward the former as the starting point of a more logical relationship between the three. Christianity is about something that happened in and through the person of Jesus. That means everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, has to do history in order to make progress on the question, “Who is this Jesus?” But as this question is filled out–and it will be an ongoing task no doubt–then we can begin to explore, perhaps still as skeptics, what sort of community was birthed upon the world scene because of this person called Jesus, a community that worships the God of Israel and believes that he is still at work through the Holy Spirit, which would include the canonization of the biblical text. Perhaps this is just my own personality coming out, but that’s where I tend to land: Jesus in his historical context (which includes texts that don’t have to be given an a priori a canonical status) –> the believing community that emerges from the person and work of Jesus –> the biblical text that this Spirit-led community adheres to.
So where do we go from here? I’m not sure, but perhaps now we’re ready to balance the three in a more dynamic relationship like you say: the Jesus of history, the tradition of the church, and the text of Scripture–all three playing a crucial role in shaping the mission and practice of the church. Great food for the thought. Thanks so much.
@Tom: I have been meaning to read something written by Vanhoozer for some time now. It hasn’t been until I reached semi-crisis status regarding the relationship between Scripture and Christian theology that I decided to read him. I am only now getting that started.
I think we can find contributions from all three approaches (history, canon, tradition). I am a little weary of historicism, which I know is different that historical research, per se. Maybe James Dunn or N.T. Wright can feel comfortable with their historical Jesus being the image of their Jesus of faith, but it is harder for those of us who are not as gifted and/or educated as Wright and Dunn and others. We end up having to make a decision between the Jesus of Wright’s historical series or the Jesus of the canonical gospels! I have tried to use Wright, Dunn, et all to fill in the blanks formed by the canonical Jesus, but I can’t substitute the canonical Jesus for the Jesus of historicism.
As much variety as the we find in the canonical Jesus it is trumped by the diversity of the “historical” Jesus who has few similarities from one historian to another. So yes, Jesus being in history is important, but historicism is not as strong as many would like.
It is a hard set of approaches to balance! Thanks for commenting and helping me think through it.
Yes, the church is different because, in fact, it is community of faith; both the People of God and a People of the Spirit – and our authority is rooted in the Written word.
One more comment if that’s okay. Wright is often criticized for attempting to establish a Jesus of history over and against the canonical Jesus, something which he continues to deny. Historical Jesus studies, he argues, help the church gain a better understanding of the canonical Jesus. I think this is why in response to a recent CT cover article by Scot McKnight on why the historical quest for Jesus has failed and so evangelicals should cease accordingly, Wright comes down hard on McKnight. However, Wright’s arguments are all for approaching Jesus historically, something which of course McKnight would affirm. In other words, Wright doesn’t see himself doing “historicism,” but rather doing history for the church’s faith, which would then be informed by tradition. His plenary session at the Wheaton Conference last year on Jesus makes this clear, which I highly recommend if you haven’t heard it.
One more point: as frustrating as it can be to wade through all the different Jesuses presented to us by historians, I think it can also be just as frustrating to wade through all the different Jesuses given to us by the church. Just because we have canon and tradition doesn’t give us a free pass on picking Jesus out of a Jesus lineup. And without making history in some form or fashion a key anchor point for our faith, we’re all in grave danger of following the wrong Jesus altogether.
You can comment as often as you’d like. I welcome the discussion!
I don’t mean to come across as denying that Wright has done his project for the church. That is why I want to emphasize I see historical Jesus studies (or historical Paul, or form criticism, and various other history based disciplines) as being supplemental to the canonical Jesus we have been given. My only concern is when it becomes that Jesus who takes precedent over the canonical Jesus whom we have been given by the Spirit to the church and through the church.
So while I agree that we need to use these methods to check the Jesus that the church is preaching, I do fear when I hear sermons that try to give a history lesson more than trying to preach the theology of our canonical gospels and wrestle with the “meaning” of Jesus that the canonical gospels have provided. I hope that clarifies my approach a bit.
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