evangelicals and theological liberalism: the blind spot?

Do we ignore Jesus when we read the New Testament? Is it possible to read about Jesus but have no need of him – i.e. the real person, the one who was incarnate, crucified, raised and exalted? Could it be that the way we view Scripture is the culprit in this crime?

In New Testament and the People of God, Wright suggests “ it is the odd nemesis of the Protestant principle of sola scriptura that one of the basic models to which it has given rise has little place within its hermeneutical structure or authority system for Jesus himself, since he was the author of no New Testament book” (22). What Wright is getting at is the axiomatic principle among scholars over the past several hundred years that when we read the New Testament (particularly the Gospels), we are not getting direct access to Jesus himself, but only to what the evangelists think about what Jesus said and did. In this way, the idea that sole authority rests in the written Word actually privileges the authority of the text over against the authority of the Son because Jesus did not author a text.

For the time being, let’s ignore the issue of the value and meaning of sola scriptura and the issue of whether or not the evangelists faithfully recorded the actually words and deeds of Jesus and move on to what really happened in the wake of the Jesus conundrum: some scholars decided that they didn’t need Jesus in flesh and blood. The first move in this direction was the rejection (by Reimarus) of the idea that the Gospels actually reflect any resemblance of the historical Jesus. After this notion had been chewed and digested (and assumed), the idea that a historical Jesus was not necessary for the theology and preaching of the New Testament was birthed. In other words, the “real” Jesus was displaced for the pursuit of timeless theological truths which transcend what took place in space-time history. The point, for these scholars, is not Jesus himself, but the truths gleaned from the analysis of the text. This is liberal scholarship at its best. (Note Rudolf Bultmann – pictured above)

First, I want to suggest that many popular, conservative, evangelical voices sound a lot like mid-20th century liberal scholars when it comes to theology and interpretation of the New Testament. If some conservative evangelicals, especially laity, knew just how liberal they are theologically, I think they might implode. For far too many conservative, evangelical Christians, the point is not Jesus himself – the point is the truth or application that can be gleaned from reading the New Testament. The most important thing is what the New Testament says about me. In this way, we are ignoring the real Jesus – jumping right over him to get to the real thing: that which applies to me and my life. This is not a question of the relevance of the text to our lives, this is a question of missing what the New Testament is about because our theology and interpretation is very poor. Like mainline liberal theologians of old, many conservative Christians do not need a historical Jesus. I realize that my evidence (in this short space) is only anecdotal. But I think its a fair indictment. I could point to a plethora of pop Christian literature regularly consumed by the evangelical masses, but my guess is that many of you can testify to the same reality – experienced in Sunday school, small groups, and from the pulpit. What can we do to encourage the practice of reading the New Testament and talking about it in a way that recognizes that the historical Jesus really matters?

[Parenthetically (I’m about to take the gloves off for the first time), I would also suggest that the most pressing issue in evangelical churches today is the deteriorating theology implicitly affirmed in the way the Bible is read, not politics and not the economy. Conservative evangelical churches most certainly should be concerned about liberalism, but most immediately the theological liberalism systemically affirmed in some of the literature they read and ways they interpret the Bible.]

Second, I want to suggest that I am still unsatisfied with the false antithesis described above: either authority rests in the text or it rests in the person/work of Jesus. I do want to affirm that all authority belongs to God, and God is made known supremely in Jesus and all authority has been given to Jesus, and I also want affirm that it is the same God who chose to make himself known, by the Holy Spirit, through the text (in which case I suppose we could say that we have direct access to Jesus because God is ultimate author) This issue has been worked over many times by others much more qualified than I am, so I’ll only take this space to ask why this is a problem in the first place. What is it that caused us to differentiate between the authority of Jesus and the authority of the text?

Any ideas?

grace and peace,

seth

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