Nothing (Completely) New Under the Sun

In the Modern Academy, to earn a PhD (or, indeed, any kind of post-graduate degree in any field whatsoever) one needs to produce an original, fresh scholarly thesis in a relevant field of study. One of the things about this set up is that it encourages a particular kind of scholarship which views “new discoveries” and “originality” as the highest virtue. Which is quite appropriate in scientific fields, and explains especially the exponential increase in “break through” discoveries and inventions.

But when it comes to theology and scriptural scholarship, there is a problem – especially for the Catholic Theologian/Scripture Scholar – a problem which is infinitely less acute in the Protestant world.

That problem is this: The Catholic Church isn’t really into theological “originality” and “new discoveries” in scriptural exegesis. It is more about preserving the Deposit of Faith and faithfully passing on the Sacred Tradition.

Protestant theologians and scripture scholars, on the other hand, are not only unfettered by a living magisterium of any kind, but are literally encouarged by their dynamic and personal understanding of the “Word of God” to embrace the “ever new” approach. Of course, there are Catholic Theologians who want a bit of the freedom of their Protestant brethren and sistern also, and whom you will (occasionally) hear speaking about the “magisterium of theologians” as an adjunct to the “magisterium of bishops”. Whenever the Bishops make some assertion along the lines of “We are the teachers of the faith, not you”, the replying complaint is usually that the theologians right to “freedom of theological enquiry” is in some way being denied.

Still, the “new” or “original” discovery is still the best way to sell books. I might again mention one of my favourite (Protestant) theologians, Bishop N.T. Wright, as a classic case of this. He follows in a long line of new discoveries – or, in fact, “new perspectives” – on St Paul: first that of Ed Sanders, then that of James Dunn, and now that of Tom Wright. When a priest friend of mine asked “What is Wright on about?”, he expressed utter disbelief at my reply: “He thinks he has a new and correct understanding of what St Paul meant by the word “justification”.”

In his book, “Eschatology”, Joseph Ratzinger deals with one protestant theologian after another who, in the 20th Century, believed they had discovered the “original meaning” of Christian eschatology: Von Harnack, Barth, Bultmann, Cullman, Dodd, and right on in to Moltmann and Metz. At the end of this overview, he writes:

So what conclusions may we draw from all of this? In the first place, the importance of courage in evaluating the latest theories of one’s age with greater equanimilty, noting in a historically informed way their role in that criticism which historical reason carries out in its own regard, and understanding their place in the movement of history as a whole. The obverse of this courage should be the modesty of not claiming to have just discovered what Christainity is really all about by dint of one’s own ingenuity. Out of such modesty something even more valuable could emerge: the kind of humility that submits to reality, not inventing Christain truth as a newly discovered “find”, but truly finding it in the sacramental community of the faith of all periods.” (Eschatology, p60).

I think, whether your name is Martin Luther, N.T. Wright, David Schütz, or [insert name here], there is something in that for all of us.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Nothing (Completely) New Under the Sun

  1. matthias

    Interesting that NT WRIGHT and the reformed baptist John Piper are engaged in a discussion about St paul ,as is written up over at HWAET.
    Bultman was a liberal ,and Barth believed that the Bible ‘contained the Word of God” .
    I heard at BibleStudy last night some of the work of Jeffrey John who i think is a Bishop in the CofE but i was wondering if anyone else had heard ofm him.

    • I am currently reading Piper’s critique. His criticism does show weaknesses in Wright’s defence of his thesis, but I still think Wright’s basis thesis can be defended and, Mutatis Mutandis and all that, can lead us forward to a fuller understanding – especially in the ecumenical dialogue on justification.

  2. matthias

    Last night our Bible study group looked at the 21st chapter of St John’s gospel,where Jesus asks Peter three times ‘Simon lovest thou me” . Discussion centred around :
    – as to whether this chapter was added later to justify St Peter’s appointment as the first pope.
    – That it was a chapter about St peter’s conversion
    -that it is about us encountering Christ in our everyday experiences.
    -evangelism.
    I was a taken back by the light skepticism around
    this chapter,with the belief that it was perhaps an add on,especially if compared to John 20. Jeffrey John’s book on miracles was read out of ,and he cites a belief that to evangelise in this day and age and in a plural society could cause offence!!