Friday, May 05, 2006

A rant about the poor relation between NT studies and systematic theology

I’ve been going over my exegesis of 1 Corinthians 1:3 and 16:23 (‘Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’, and ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you’) today, and my thoughts were provoked in unusual directions.

In relation to the nature of the ‘grace’ in these verses, many modern commentators such as Fee, Schrage and Thiselton rely heavily on Bultmann’s (cf. his Theology of the NT) distinction between grace as ‘event’ and grace as a quality or disposition within God. Thus, even a theologically aware exegete such as Thiselton writes that grace, in 1:3, ‘constitutes an event rather than a disposition’ (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 81). However, a theologian reading Thiselton’s words would very likely, and I think rightly, accuse him of theological naivety.

What is the big deal? Not only do many modern commentators wrongly draw this distinction between grace as ‘event’ and ‘disposition’ from Dunn (citing his earlier work rather than his more nuanced later presentations), they, more importantly, seem to by-pass the hugely important theological debates in direct relation to such matters.

The whole issue of hermeneutics over objective trait of God, event over attribute, aseity over God pro nobis, economic over immanent or essential trinity, of course find themselves within the debates surrounding the disagreements between Barth, Bultmann and their respective students. And in this context, Jüngel’s God’s Being is in Becoming finds its voice.

But all of this seems far from the minds of modern exegetes. Why? Surely, if God’s grace is an event in 1:3, this is not to be framed as ‘rather than a disposition’ as Thiselton and other do. Suddenly, many even conservative commentators inadvertently find themselves in bed with raw existential and hermeneutical interpretations of the significance of God’s activity and human subjectivity! However, with Barth, one can instead insist that because the grace in 1:3 (and 16:23) is an event, it is also true of God. The economic God of grace is the immanent God of grace!

This is only one example of a far deeper problem within the theological guild, the division between theologians and exegetes. I once again refer my readers to the mostly forthcoming Between Two Horizons commentary series, and the introductory volume: Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology.

Perhaps Ben Myers is right to ask: ‘So could it be a sign that God’s eschatological kingdom is breaking into our midst when even New Testament scholars are now beginning to read Barth’s Dogmatics?’!!


At 5/05/2006 12:23 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

p.s. In case you suspect, my supervisor Max (co ed. of the Between Two Horizon's series) is not paying me a penny for these plugs!

At 5/05/2006 1:07 AM, Anonymous Jim said...

I suspect this division of labor is the natural result of the damnable demonic overspecialization in which some NT exegetes know something only about Galatians 1:4 and others, more broadly minded, have some concept of 2 Cor 5. Some theses today are so focused on minutiae that no one but the writer and the supervisor will ever care about them.

And who is to blame? The Academy itself which ceaselessly presses students to "talk about something no one else has talked about". But why? To what end? As if novelty is the end all and be all of academic work.

What about having a broad base of knowledge rather than a narrow particularized blather of information about only one slice of the entire pie. Or, in some cases, one crumb.

Rant on brother- maybe Academic Deans will pay attention when they realize that their exegetes are ill equipped to do anything that matters to anyone else.

At 5/05/2006 6:32 AM, Anonymous Ben Myers said...

It's always refreshing to see thoughtful attempts to move beyond the dogmatics-exegesis divide. Obviously specialisation in itself is important and desirable, but the sharp division of disciplines is only harmful to those of us on both sides of the divide. The whole project of relating exegesis to dogmatics really deserves far more attention than it has ever received!

Some time ago the Barthian theologian Hermann Diem did some good work on all this, especially in the second volume (1955) of his Theologie als kirchliche Wissenschaft (translated into English as Dogmatics, 1959).

At 5/05/2006 3:52 PM, Anonymous Chris T. said...

There is a symposium in this month's First Things with Stanley Hauerwas, Paul Griffiths, and others on the role of theology in the academy that touches on this problem.

I think more generalists can only be a good thing, because questions of theology can rarely be solved without recourse to almost every sub-discipline. I find myself pulled between systematics, Christian ethics, and liturgics, and I'm starting to feel like I'm never going to be able to make a choice between them. Which I guess means it'll take me roughly eighty years to earn my Ph.D.

At 5/05/2006 6:46 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thank Jim, rant on I will.

And thanks for the Hermann Diem tip Ben - I'll have to dig that one up.

Chris, I originally started off my doctoral plans with a thesis idea that spanned Jesus studies, Pauline studies and systemaic theology. Reality hit home, however, so I focused. I think such broad studies are life works, not doctoral theses!

At 5/05/2006 9:34 PM, Anonymous Chris T. said...

That's probably true—which is why I'm feverishly reading stuff in every subject prior to going to grad school. ;-)

At 5/05/2006 10:05 PM, Anonymous C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

Speaking of what divides us, how many world class theologians are sufficiently competent linguists to be able to detect a bogus exegetical move? In the USA we have highly touted and widely published "experts" on the exegetical use of NT Greek who are linguistically clueless. If this is the case among the exegetical folks how much more will it be among the thelolgians.

There is a growing number of Greek and Hebrew scholars who have a very solid background in linguistics but these are not the guys who write the language text books used by the vast majority of seminarians.

At 5/06/2006 4:41 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Nice to hear from you Clay. I must say, having studied modern continental philosophy, with its lingusitc twist, I feel I have an important weapon in my armory - albiet imperfectly understood as yet. Books like Hearing the NT are doing a good job in collecting the various extra-NT-themes helpful for exegesis.


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