Volume 13 - Issue 3
An evangelical approach to ‘Theological Criticism’By I. Howard Marshall
The Germans are intensely systematic in the way in which they discuss and criticize the Bible, and it is not surprising that the names of many critical processes are originally German, such as ‘form criticism’ (Formgeschichte) or ‘redaction criticism’ (Redaktionsgeschichte). These critical processes are often carried out systematically one by one in study of a given text. Thus the major German commentary on Mark by R. Pesch divides up its treatment of each paragraph into five clearly distinguished sections: 1. literary information and translation; 2. genre-criticism and form-criticism; 3. verse-by-verse comments; 4. tradition criticism and comments on the quality of the tradition; 5. redaction criticism, with a view to discerning the author’s intention in the section.1
In the present paper I do not want to explore directly these various types of approach to the text. Instead I want to consider another type of approach which can be carried on alongside these other approaches and which curiously does not figure in the textbooks of biblical criticism. Like many of the others it has a German name, whether or not the process itself is of German origin, and there is no one generally accepted English equivalent.
Two examples of the method
Let me begin with two areas where the process has been applied. First, we look at Acts. In his commentary on Acts 5:1–11, the story of Ananias and Sapphira, J. Roloff concludes his remarks by saying that this story reflects an experience of the early church with which it was particularly difficult to come to terms because the church thought of itself as the community of salvation directed by the Spirit; the problem was that among its members there were some who had entered it only in a nominal kind of way and for the sake of the status it gave them, but who were not ready for a total, inward surrender of themselves. Then he continues:
This conclusion does not in any way reduce the sharpness of the theological problem. There are two points especially which give rise to critical reflections. 1. Here we hear a rigourism which is scarcely reconcilable with the spirit of Jesus and which therefore found no followers in the further development of church discipline. Even where church discipline cannot be avoided, it must not forget the love that seeks for the lost over against the concern for the church which must be protected (Mt. 18:10–17). It must preserve a place for repentance, reconciliation and redemption (this is true even of 1 Cor. 5:3ff.). 2. With the implicit claim that the church can and must be the community of salvation perfect and free from sin, here in this world, the church’s situation of tension in this present world is overlooked. Here Paul (1 Cor. 10:13) and Matthew had the clearer theological vision: in its present existence the church cannot anticipate the perfect salvation-community of the End. It must continue to live with sin and hypocrisy and leave the separation of the ‘tares’ from the ‘wheat’ to the future judgment of God (Mt. 13:37–43).2
Here is a good example of a place where a commentator listens to the theological message of a text and says: compared with other biblical statements, it is unacceptable and wrong. Within the Bible there are different statements, and some of them cannot be accepted.
We may consider the implications of this approach for Acts by glancing at an essay by another German scholar, G. Harbsmeier, in his discussion of ‘Our Preaching in the Mirror of Acts’.3 He begins from P. Vielhauer’s statement that the Lucan Paul differs from the real Paul in the manner and content of his proclamation, although Luke himself was not aware of this. The difference between the two in fact amounts to contradiction.4 Harbsmeier claims that this conclusion is reached by use of the historical-critical method and is convincing. But, he asks, ‘should this scientific conclusion also be valid theologically?’ and he replies, ‘Yes, it should.’ No dogmatic presupposition about the unity of Scripture can be used to deny that such divergences exist. The historical-critical method is simply the appropriate way of listening to history. To deny the historical-critical method would be to deny the Reformation itself and would lead to the clericalizing of the Bible and knowledge generally.
The significant point here is that Harbsmeier is concerned with our preaching. He holds that the church’s preaching (he is thinking primarily but not exclusively of the Lutheranism of his day) tends to be strongly influenced by the Lucan Paul. There is a standing centrifugal tendency in the church from Paul to Luke. Catholicism, he says somewhat ironically, is thoroughly ‘scriptural’ in basing itself on Acts—as ‘scriptural’ as the letter of James is (according to Luther). But even Reformed preaching goes back to Luke rather than Paul. Paul is interpreted by means of Luke. Against this tendency Harsbmeier wants us to get back to the real Paul instead of the distorted Lucan Paul.
In short, alleges Harbsmeier, not all biblical proclamation proclaims Christ in the same way. We cannot assume that because a passage is part of Scripture therefore it truly proclaims Christ. Even in the case of Scripture Luther’s tag is true: simul justus et peccator! We must beware of making the Scripture a paper pope. Rather we must follow the principle was Christum treibt, which is admittedly not a historical-critical principle but is the most critical ‘spiritual’ principle.
For a second, and briefer, example I turn to the Pastoral Epistles. In a German book on the concept of ordination in the Pastoral Epistles by H. von Lips the word in question is actually used:
The concrete result is, however, harder to grasp because it depends on our answer to the question as to what relevance we assign to the Pastorals as NT writings. It does not seem appropriate either simply to take over their understanding of ordination as normative or to reject it totally on the grounds of a theological Sachkritik. To take over the understanding of ordination in the Pastorals as the biblical basis and legitimization for present-day ordination would mean overlooking the fact that this is only the witness and the conception of one part of the NT. To reject this understanding in a broad way would constitute a verdict on their value which ignores the historical context of this understanding of ordination. It seems most appropriate to regard the understanding of ordination in the Pastorals as a model formed in specific historical circumstances; that means that it is not eo ipso binding for today, but it is to be taken seriously as a model that must be tested for its validity for today.5
Here we have the same kind of problem. What is the validity of a specific piece of biblical teaching for today? And here we have a specific use of the term Sachkritik in a way which lets us see that it is concerned with the validity of biblical teaching.
The name and definition of the method
I shall continue to refer to the method by this German name, but it will be helpful to note that the possible English equivalents for it include ‘content criticism’, ‘theological criticism’, ‘critical interpretation’, ‘material criticism’6 and ‘critical study of the content’.7
It will not surprise you in the least that among the heroes of our tale, or, if you prefer it, the villains of the piece, we must mention R. Bultmann. Here is a comment on his Theology of the New Testament by Markus Barth, who asks how a conscientious exegete can develop a systematic exposition of Paul’s theology that contradicts part of the source material:
[He can do so] only when he feels himself called to Sachkritik on Paul, ‘just as Luther used it, for example, on the Epistle of James’. The victims of Bultmann’s Sachkritik include some Pauline statements on the Holy Spirit, the resurrection, the second Adam, original sin, knowledge. Naturally the hostile crumbs swept to one side by Sachkritik include the statements about creation, predestination and the incarnation of Jesus Christ which Bultmann has demythologized. In any case Bultmann is convinced that he is putting the ‘real intention’ of Paul over against the actual words of the text.… When Bultmann attributes the use of juridical, mythological, cosmological, mystical and idealistic concepts to a ‘superstitious understanding of God, the world and mankind’, he expresses as clearly and simply as possible the criteria for his Sachkritik.8
Now we must be clear as to what is going on here. It is not quite the same as the attitude expressed in the words: ‘I want to be free to disagree with Paul.’ In that wish there is expressed a contrast between what Paul said and what I think, and if we disagree, so much the worse for Paul. That is a question of Paul’s authority over against my own authority. We’ll come back to that in a moment. Rather what has been expressed is a contrast between one part of Scripture and another which stands in contradiction to it, or between what a writer actually says and what he really means. According to Tom Wright, we find an example of this in the procedure adopted by proponents of universalism.
The proponents of universalism admit very readily that their doctrine conflicts with much biblical teaching. What they are attempting, however, is Sachkritik, the criticism (and rejection) of one part of Scripture on the basis of another.9
That is to say, critics observe or search for places where there are doctrinal contradictions in Scripture and then have to decide which passage they are to follow in preference to the other.
Clarifying the definition
Let us now clarify this with a series of comments:
i. It is primarily theological contradictions that are at issue. Factual contradictions on historical, geographical and similar matters are not the problem here, except insofar as they form part of the theological differences. If Paul tells us that he visited Jerusalem only twice and Acts says that he visited it three times, that is a factual contradiction and it is to be sorted out by historical and literary investigation. If, however, John dates the crucifixion on the day when the passover lambs were slaughtered, that could be an indication of a theological understanding of the death of Jesus which was not shared by the other Evangelists and which might stand in tension or contradiction to their understanding.
ii. The contradictions may be between two statements in Scripture or between what a writer actually says and what may be presumed to be his real intention. Thus, if Paul in one place requires women to be silent in church, it could be argued, as it has been, that here he had a temporary lapse into Jewish, rabbinic ways of thinking, from which he had been largely set free, and that his ‘real’ theology is to be found in passages which emphasize the equality of men and women in Christ. This shows that the ‘real intention’ of a writer is not to be understood simply in terms of ‘He said x, but he meant y,’ but rather ‘Although in some places he says x, the main line of his thinking was y.’
It is in fact this problem of the ‘real intention’ which is basically the issue. The only discussion of the problem in English known to me is that by Robert Morgan who offers this definition: Sachkritik ‘refers to the interpreter’s criticism of the formulation of the text in the light of what (he thinks) the subjectmatter (Sache) to be; criticism of what is said by what is meant’.10
This may be the point to mention that some critics would argue that if not even a biblical writer is capable of writing with utter consistency and always getting to the root of the matter, still less can a group of writers do so. When Karl Barth wrote his commentary on Romans he said that the commentator must get beyond the actual words of the text to what he called ‘the inner dialectic of the matter’. This was questioned by Bultmann who said that it is ‘an impossible assumption that the “inner dialectic of the matter” must be adequately expressed everywhere in the Letter to the Romans’, and who maintained ‘that no man—not even Paul—always speaks with the central point in mind’, and therefore held that criticism of what Paul had to say about the ‘central point’ is ‘inseparable from exegesis and actual history in general’.11
iii. The theological contradictions may be found in three sorts of area:
a. First, they may be found between earlier and later writings. There are obvious questions about the relation between teaching in the OT and teaching in the NT. Some early Christians wanted to argue that Gentile believers should keep the law of Moses, but the decision which carried the day was that these laws were not applicable to Gentiles and that it was not even necessary for Jews to keep them: Jesus, for example, declared all foods ‘clean’.
b. Second, they may be found within the writing(s) of one author. Bultmann was doing this in the case of Paul. A further example can be found in Paul’s understanding of the law. It is clear that the relation of the law to the gospel is something of central importance to Paul, and that he is quite clear that one is not saved by the works of the law. But is all that Paul says about the law consistent with that central affirmation? Not all critics would agree that it is. Some would say that there is a clear development in his thinking; others more unkindly say that Paul is just inconsistent.
Similarly, there can be comparison of different more or less contemporary writers within a group such as the NT canon to see who gets it right. We saw how Roloff compared the theology of Acts with that of Jesus and Paul and opted for the latter. Thus the question may be about the contradiction between a passage in an individual writer and the ‘real intention’ of the NT as a whole. Such a procedure assumes that there is some kind of ‘centre’ or some norm by which the writings can be assessed. It is here that we often speak of a ‘canon within the canon’. This phrase can be understood in two ways. First, it may provide a criterion for rejecting what is thought to be inconsistent or on a lower level. Second, it may provide a basis for interpretation and for assigning writings to their proper functions in relation to the total purpose. One may reject James because it appears to be inconsistent with Romans or one may say that it has a different, a lesser, but nonetheless a legitimate and necessary function alongside Romans.
c. Third, there is the assessment of what the NT says over against the interpreter’s own understanding of the progress of revelation. A critic might argue that the Bible itself points us forward to certain lines of development in doctrine. For example, although the Bible itself is not a pacifist book, its understanding of Christian love might be thought to lead to an attitude of total non-violence. If so, we would have to judge that certain statements in the Bible fall short of that ideal. In ot er words, the Christian faith and practice to which the Bible points has been more fully revealed now than it was then, or perhaps we should say that the full implications of the biblical revelation now stand out more clearly, and, measured by that standard, certain parts of the Bible must be judged inadequate or out of date in their teaching.
vi. The result of such analysis is inevitably to force a judgment as to which texts are to be taken as expressing the real intention of a writer or the main thrust of the scripture and how they are to be interpreted. This raises the question as to how one determines the ‘real intention’ or the preferable text. At least two criteria would seem to operate:
a. One is the attempt to determine the central or controlling line of thought in a given writer, and to assess all that he says in the light of this central, basic line of thinking. Thus, if Paul’s central line of thought is justification by faith, we shall play down the importance of what he says on judgment by works or regard it as inconsistent with this main line and drop it from our theology.
But how do we determine what is the ‘real intention’? Thus to go back to the example of Paul on women, it could be argued (1) that both Galatians 3:28 and 1 Corinthians 14:33–35 express the real intention of Paul, namely that within the equality of men and women in Christ the woman must nevertheless be subject and keep quiet in church, rather than (2) that one text expresses the real intention and the other is a temporary aberration, or again (3) that, although Paul expresses both thoughts, the direction of his thinking, or the trajectory which he was following, leads to an unqualified statement of the equality of women to speak and minister alongside men.
b. The other criterion would seem to be the personal judgment of the critic. Now in a sense this is inescapable; even the most determined fundamentalist must still decide what it is that Scripture says, and his own prejudices may well affect his interpretation. Thus one cannot help wondering whether fundamentalist defenders of slavery or apartheid who find something in Scripture that we can discover only with the utmost difficulty are not interpreting it consciously or unconsciously in the light of their own beliefs.
v. In his essay from which I quoted a moment ago, Tom Wright goes on to say: ‘We leave aside the implications of this [procedure of the universalists] for a doctrine of scripture itself’. But we cannot leave this question aside here. It is obvious that the kind of approach which I have been outlining stands in tension, if not in contradiction, with the popular conservative evangelical understanding of the authority of Scripture which regards all of Scripture as authoritative. This paper is an attempt to discuss the significance of Sachkritik from a conservative evangelical point of view. We have therefore to engage in a dialectical process, that is to say a kind of dialogue in which we examine the significance of Sachkritik for our doctrine of Scripture and the significance of the doctrine of Scripture for Sachkritik. It could be that there are lessons to be learned on both sides.
Let us start our further examination by looking at our presuppositions.12 There are two important characteristics of the conservative doctrine of Scripture which are relevant here:
i. When we speak of the supreme authority of Scripture, we speak of the authority of Scripture taken as a whole rather than of isolated texts within it. This means that we assume that Scripture as a whole is harmonious in its teaching, and therefore we can take its total message as our guide. But although this approach may appear to put all Scripture on the same level of truthfulness and authority, in fact it has an important implication, namely that isolated texts taken on their own may convey a message which is at variance with that of Scripture as a whole. In other words, the meaning of Scripture is the meaning of Scripture as a whole, or of wholes within it, rather than the meaning of the smallest parts.
ii. Hence the complement of this principle is that individual texts must be understood and interpreted in their context. This is an obvious and universally accepted principle for the interpretation of a verse within a paragraph, a paragraph within a chapter, and so on. But it is also an essential principle with regard to seeing texts in the context of the Bible as a whole. Thus, to take the obvious example, the OT laws in the Pentateuch are seen by the Christian in the context of the NT teaching about the place of the law in the light of Christ, and therefore the laws about the offering of animal sacrifices are recognized to be no longer valid.
It may thus appear that we do in fact practise something that looks like a kind of Sachkritik in that we assess the validity of texts in their context, and that context is both local and global. Take, for example, the letter of James. If we were asked to name a writing that expresses the heart of the gospel, I do not think that it would be a likely candidate for the honour. Its function is to correct misunderstandings of the gospel as regards ethics and to furnish ethical teaching for Christians; it presupposes the gospel, but it does not proclaim it. Teaching about the person and work of Jesus is implicit rather than explicit. Therefore, James occupies a less central position than, say, the gospels or Romans. Implicitly we assess James as falling into a particular place in the total NT revelation. We would insist that if we take the teaching of James in isolation we shall get a one-sided understanding of the Christian message; it is not that what James says is untrue in any way, but rather that it must be understood in the context of teaching that is found elsewhere in the NT.
It may seem, then, that what we are already doing is Sachkritik. But advocates of the method use various phrases which suggest that it rests on presuppositions which we do not share. Consider the various phrases that have already appeared in the expositions which I offered of the method—‘the implications for a doctrine of scripture itself’, ‘once it is agreed that the biblical tradition itself is not revelation’, and so on. Morgan comments that if the aim of theological interpretation is to correlate the theologian’s understanding of the faith with what he finds in the tradition, and if it is agreed that the biblical tradition is not itself revelation [my italics], then the method is a proper one and indeed a necessary one in theological method ‘where theology is understood as the interpretation of the tradition anew in every age, in the light of contemporary experience which includes rationality’.13
Is, then, the method possible only on the assumption that the biblical tradition is not in itself revelation, in the sense that I can point to a copy of the Bible and say without equivocation, ‘That book is the Word of God’?—and, make no mistake, that is what the evangelical doctrine of Scripture implies. If so, we face two questions. First, we have to make a critical assessment of Sachkritik, examining both its methods and its presuppositions. Second, we have to ask whether there is an acceptable form of Sachkritik which is in harmony with our understanding of Scripture.
Two obvious weaknesses of the method
First of all, it can be argued that there are in fact weaknesses in the method as it is practised.
The first is that it is inconsistent in its attitude to the Bible. The question that arises is whether and in what sense the tradition is revelation. Here Morgan offers some interesting comments. He contrasts the method with Marcionitism and Liberalism which both rejected parts of the tradition out of hand. Sachkritik, he says, ‘allows the tradition to remain intact; it “gets round” obstinate pieces of tradition by reinterpretation, instead of removing them.’ He then compares the theologian to a chess player, playing with the pieces of tradition and attempting to persuade an opponent of the superior cogency of his own position by marshalling the traditions appropriately. To do so he may have to sacrifice some pieces. But two features emerge. First, after the game, all the pieces are put back on the board for the next game; the canon remains intact from theological generation to generation. Second, one can only tell as the game proceeds which pieces may need to be sacrificed.14 The really interesting point here is the insistence that each time the game is finished all the pieces must be put back on the board; that is to say, some players recognize the existence of the canon and remain tied to it—although of course there are NT scholars who are not so bound. There is, therefore, a recognition, at least by some scholars, that in some sense the NT is a locus of revelation and possesses authority of some kind. It is not surprising, then, that F. Bovon explicitly accuses Harbsmeier of inconsistency in that despite his attack on Luke-Acts he does not reject it from the canon.15
Second, there is the problem of subjectivity, to which Morgan has again drawn attention. The problem is determining the criterion for judgment, which is supposed to be the revelation itself, namely the Christ who is heard and apprehended in faith. But here the method becomes subjective and circular since the exegete ‘comes to what is meant only through what is said and yet measures what is said by what is meant’.16Bultmann, however, claims to avoid subjectivity in that he finds ‘what is meant’ through a historical discipline rather than a theological discipline; for him Sachkritik is a necessary part of the historical interpretation of the NT. In other words, he is asking not just what Paul means for us today, what we can take from him for our theology, but what was Paul’s own ‘real’ theology. Morgan becomes critical at this point, and accuses Bultmann of sometimes using a key to open the doors of NT interpretation and sometimes a crowbar. He remains sceptical that Bultmann has been able to identify theological and historical method and argues that the element of subjectivity remains. It is very easy for the critic to set up an artificial criterion for the central message of Scripture. Yet Morgan still finds that on occasion his method is justified, particularly where a NT writer seems to contradict himself. The admitted risks must be taken if critical scholarship is to be possible.17
Here again Harbsmeier is open to criticism, and once again the criticism comes from outside the evangelical camp. F. Bovon attacks him on two levels. First, he attacks what is in effect the method which is being applied. Harbsmeier claims that he is criticizing Luke in the light of the Christus praesens, that is to say from how he sees Jesus Christ as the centre of our faith. But Bovon argues that, despite his disclaimers, his attack really arises more from the theologus praesens than from the Christus praesens. In other words, Harbsmeier doesn’t like Luke.
Second, according to Bovon the centre of Luke’s message, the revelation of Christ as Saviour, is completely neglected by Harbsmeier in favour of themes which Luke considered secondary or which he was not even able to treat as such. That is to say, the method followed by Harbsmeier has the effect of causing him to have a kind of tunnel vision in which he sees only certain parts of Luke’s theology; the result is that he both misses out on what is central and also misjudges the parts which he does see because he does not see them in their proper context.18
Numerous exegetes would agree with Bovon at this point. In particular, I refer to W. G. Kümmel, in his essay on ‘Current Theological Accusations Against Luke’.19 For Kümmel the decisive question is whether Luke saw the history of Jesus as an eschatological event—and he argues that he did. This is essentially the same point as Bovon was making. But this is not the end of the matter. Kümmel says:
If we are neither willing to give up the concept of the canon nor able to deny the presence of fundamental contradictions in the New Testament, then we must necessarily face the question as to the central message of the New Testament, by which the statements of the individual writings are to be assessed.
Working by this principle, Kümmel is prepared to defend Luke as being in harmony with the central message of the NT, as it is found in the agreement of Jesus, Paul and John. He says:
By further developing the basic theological viewpoints which had been handed down to him, Luke attempts to solve for his own time the problems at the close of the period of earliest Christianity, and in that he remains, in the main lines of his theology, in agreement with the central proclamation of the New Testament.
Nevertheless, he continues:
That of course does not rule out the possibility that legitimate criticisms may be levelled against the Lucan theology or that individual passages, such as for example the Areopagus address, may contradict the main tenor of his proclamation. But that is no less true for every other form of New Testament theology. Even Luke does not offer the total and the perfect theology of the New Testament; he must be heard in connection with the other witnesses to New Testament theology and be criticized and augmented from them.20
Two points emerge here. The first is that Kümmel admits the possibility of serious doctrinal contradictions in the NT, but also that he believes that when one applies Sachkritik to the specific case of Luke and Paul Luke can be shown to be on the side of the angels. Kümmel, in other words, carries out a harmonizing act and thereby demonstrates that in principle harmonization is a legitimate procedure. The second point is that he admits that Luke, like any other NT writer, is not always on the same level and that he does contain statements which cannot be reconciled with his ‘real intention’ or the ‘real intention’ of the NT as a whole. It is here that the evangelical differs from him.
The problem of development
If we adopt an evangelical attitude to the Bible, we shall agree that there are differences between earlier and later writers, but that our principle of harmony suggests that these are differences in harmonious development rather than irreconcilable contradictions. Hence the equivalent of Sachkritik for us is placing biblical teaching in its proper place on the developmental plan. Clearly this means that some parts of Scripture are superseded by others or are not to be taken literally.
There is the fact that some parts of the OT are no longer directly applicable within the NT church. I have already mentioned the OT sacrificial system. Its literal application is no longer required, and this is grounded in NT teaching which teaches that since Christ has offered the perfect sacrifice, the animal sacrifices are now obsolete. Here is a clear example of later teaching superseding earlier teaching. Yet the earlier teaching is not totally rejected. It is now interpreted, as the writer to the Hebrews sees it, as being a shadow of the good things to come, as being a kind of prophetic pointer or symbol to the spiritual reality. Broadly this is true, but it must be admitted that much of the minute detail in Leviticus, which once provided the practical guide to Jewish religion, is now obsolete and cannot be used as a basic for practical, biblical exposition in the way in which we might expound a passages from the NT.21
The same will apply within the NT itself to those passages where Jesus addresses his disciples in terms of their continuing practice of the OT cult (Mt. 5:23f; 6:16–18). We learn to distinguish between teaching which is specific (a) a to particular audience at a particular time (e.g. specific instructions by prophets) and (b) to a particular people in a particular context (e.g. members of the Jewish cult). But in both cases we recognize that behind the instructions there will be principles which can be reapplied.
We also note that some teaching has a limited horizon. For example, in the OT there are some fairly horrific examples of genocide and of racial discrimination. In most, if not all cases, the horizon of the command or the narrative is the idolatry and immorality of the peoples concerned, and the danger of their corrupting the people and polluting the land In NT teaching, Christians are commanded to love their neighbours and their enemies and to seek to lead them to faith in God, and it is explicitly denied that if people refuse to accept the faith the disciples of Jesus should call down firm upon them, as Elijah did in OT times (Lk. 9:54f.). We can say that the principle behind the OT stories is a valid one within its horizon, namely that God’s people should seek to avoid being corrupted by idolatrous and immoral people, but that the method followed, namely the annihilation of the tempters, is no longer valid when we see things within the horizon of the command to love one’s enemies and to seek to lead the Lord’s opponents to a knowledge of the truth. Consequently, we do not reject the OT material out of hand as being primitive and now superseded by later material, but we do recognize that we are to listen to it in a different was from the original hearers of, say, the Deuteronomic law. On long tradition of interpretation sees the Christian counterpart to the enemies of Israel in the evil principalities and power against which Christians must fight with all their might.
But in coming to this conclusion we are engaging in a type of evaluation akin to Sachkritik in that we had to formulate some principle by which we judged that the OT teaching was no longer literally applicable. Similarly, in the case of the teaching of Jesus about how to offer sacrifices, it is not too difficult to formulate the principle that, since he had to give his teaching in terms of the system then obtaining, and since the NT teaches that this system no longer applies to Christians, we must modify this teaching for a new situation.
The problem of diversity
A second possibility that arises is that in certain places we shall find diversity in biblical teaching. We cannot simple adopt one view and ignore the others. Nor may it be possible to combine different views to form one total picture. Does such diversity at times amount to contradiction, or can we legitimately speak of complementarity which gives rise to a deeper and fuller understanding of truth?
We began our discussion by citing two examples of this problem, Acts and the Pastorals. Let us go back over the problems.
With regard to Acts there were two specific problems: (a) the general relation of Acts to Paul, and (b) the sub-Christian implications of Acts 5:1–11.
In the case of (a) the problem is to be settled by exegesis: is it the case that Acts really does give a different theological understanding from that of Paul and one which is theologically inferior? We have already commented on this problem, and we saw that Bovon and Kümmel claim that Harbsmeier’s case is not established exegetically.
(b) In the case of Acts 5:1–11 it is unacceptable to say that Luke is merely reporting historically what happened, and that this is not necessarily therefore an example to be followed by later Christians. The difficulties are that Peter is presented as an exemplary leader, and that what Luke is actually depicting is how God acted—or, if you prefer it, how the early church and Luke himself interpreted two actual deaths as divine judgment that left no place for repentance. Was Luke right to think that God could act like that? We can certainly say, as Roloff in effect says, that when discipline is applied in the church we must take into account all the evidence, or see it in the light of the central message, and this will mean that discipline will be exercised with a view to restoring the sinner.
But these points do not get to the heart of the matter, which is basically whether the picture of God here and of the way in which the church should act is inconsistent with the gospel. Liberals argue that it is. Conservatives tend on the whole to accept it and to see no contradiction.
A better approach is to say that the horizon of the narrative is limited; its purpose is solely to emphasize the heinousness of sin and the serious character of divine judgment. The narrative is concerned simply to stress these things: the question of an opportunity for repentance is not raised here, although it is taught elsewhere and must be taken into account in the church today. This is essentially the same approach as we took with regard to the stern judgments on idolatry and sin in the OT. The practical result is that we retain the passage as one which emphasizes the heinousness of sin and the reality of divine judgment upon it, but that we insist that the passage must not be taken on its own as a guide to the church’s action today: we shall insist that it was God who acted in judgment by striking down Ananias, and not Peter, and that elsewhere in the NT the need to practise discipline in such a way as to give the sinner the chance of repentance is inculcated. This solution may not be universally acceptable. It will be objected that it still leaves a picture of a God who strikes down the sinner without giving him opportunity for repentance, and that it raises the question whether we believe that God may still act in this way with erring members of the church. Part of the answer to this charge may well be that judgment is more central to the biblical message than many Christians are prepared to allow.
But again we have exercised a kind of Sachkritik in that we have felt that there are grounds for placing this passage in a broader scriptural context which affects its application to the church and to sinners today. The problem is whether we go along with the verdict of Roloff that the rigourism displayed here is not compatible with the spirit of Jesus and that therefore the passage is in effect marred by spiritual blindness. Rather, we have argued that the Bible does testify to the way in which wilful sin stands under divine judgment, and that this fact must be held alongside the biblical teaching on forgiveness. If it is objected that this presentation of divine judgment is unacceptable, then we must ask the critic whether he has correctly identified the ‘real intention’ of the Bible or is measuring the message of the Bible by his own subjective criterion of judgment.
We can deal more quickly with the problem of the Pastorals. Here the question is the validity of the kind of church order presented there when compared with teaching elsewhere in the NT. Lips was right to say that we do not reject this teaching outright on grounds of Sachkritik; indeed it would be hard to find grounds for doing so. He is also right to say that we do not simply take it over as it stands. For the fact is that there are several types of church order and organization in the NT, and we seem to be forbidden in principle from claiming that any one form is the final and definitive one. Nor can the different systems be harmonized into one. What we can do is to ask in each case what were the principles, the situation and the motives that led to the specific type of order, and then seek whatever order will retain the principles but be appropriate for our situation.
This again is Sachkritik in that it goes beneath the surface teaching to ask what is the real underlying concern in a particular area of teaching. It does not reject the authority of the teaching, but it does recognize that the particular form in which the principles appear is situation-bound, and that we must examine the different types of church order in the NT in order to see what principles come to expression in them.
The problem of unacceptable teaching
So we come, finally, to the problem of biblical teaching which appears to be out of date or untrue for the church today, and the question of what God is saying to us today from Scripture arises. Are we free to dismiss some aspects of what Scripture says? I take the familiar example of one specific aspect of the church order in the Pastorals, namely the refusal to allow women to teach. How do we tackle that for today? My own understanding of it is that this is a local, situation-bound restriction. But I say this on the grounds (a) that what seems to me to be a central part of the concern of the NT, namely the principle expressed in Galatians 3:28, overrules it, and (b) that we do actually see women fully engaged in ministry in the NT itself. In other words, there is a contradiction within the NT message itself if this passage is judged to be normative for all time, including NT times.
Now this means that a passage which on other grounds seems to be out of date for today is regarded as no longer literally binding not simply because it is unacceptable but because when placed in the context of the NT itself it is seen to be local rather than universal. There may well be situations today when it ought to be taken literally, but these will be the exception. Again, we shall not treat the passage as Scripture if we do not ask what principles of universal validity lie behind it and led the author to express himself for his local situation in the way he did. But we do not reject the literal teaching of the passage simply because we do not like it. Rather we have to see whether our uneasiness about it arises out of our fundamental loyalty to the message of the NT.
I have used the example of a passage which I do not believe applies universally today because it is of local application in the NT. But now let me mention a different example. If the world today tolerates homosexual practices and refuses to regard them as sinful, then we do not go along with this attitude, unless we can be convinced that the biblical attitude to homosexual acts is local and situation-bound, or perhaps even culture-bound. We are not at liberty to judge the teaching of Scripture by the standards of the contemporary world, but on the contrary we have to recognize that the Bible must be free to speak its prophetic and critical word to the practices and beliefs of our world.
However, there may be another criterion of judgment. Is it proper for us to assess biblical teaching not so much by the central concern of the Bible itself as by a theological position which, while developed from the Bible, claims to have reached a point beyond it, so that now we understand the central message itself better than the biblical writers did? To be sure, there are many cases where we have to go beyond biblical teaching expressed in a specific cultural setting, for example in recognizing that slavery, while accepted in the NT, is fundamentally at variance with the biblical understanding of man. But it is another thing to question the doctrinal and ethical principles which lie behind the situation- and culture-bound teaching of the NT and to assert that we can criticize and reject these on the basis of a position which is more ‘advanced’ than that of the biblical writers.
Barth saw the danger of ‘a method which is all too likely to do violence to a historical text in making it correspond to the interpreter’s own view’. It sounds suspiciously like the Christus praesens of some of the scholars we have been discussing, and the suggestion is that the Bible contributes to revealing Christ, but is only one contributor out of many. But there is not only the risk, alluded to earlier, that the scholar may easily confuse the theologus praesens for the Christus praesens. There is also the more fundamental objection which says that the Christus praesens must be identical with the biblical Christ, and that it is the biblical Christ who is and remains our authority. It is the Word of God, Christ himself, revealed in the Scripture, who is the final authority, and the claim of evangelical religion is that Scripture is a harmonious revelation of this Christ. The assumption may be wrong, but this is our faith, and this is where we stand.
The evangelical doctrine of Scripture sets firm limits to the practice of Sachkritik by showing that it is possible to distinguish between its presuppositions and methods. We must admit the existence of the problems that led to the development of Sachkritik, and the need to find solutions to them, but we shall do so by a method that looks for the underlying harmony and truth of the Word of God in Scripture, that recognizes the need for human interpretation of Scripture, but that insists that at the end of the day it is God’s Word that judges us and not we that judge God’s Word. It is unfortunate that the English equivalents of the term may convey this false impression that the reader can stand as critic over the theology of the Bible, and a less tendentious name for the process would be helpful. At the end of the day what we have to do is to compare Scripture with Scripture, to discover what is the message of a given passage when seen within the total context of the biblical revelation. Perhaps a more positive term like ‘theological evaluation’ comes nearer to the intention of the method.
1 R. Pesch, Das Markus-evangelium (Freiburg, 1976), I, p. 68f.
2 J. Roloff, Die Apostelgeschichte (Göttingen, 1981), p. 96.
3 G. Harbsmeier, ‘Unsere Predigt im Spiegel der Apostelgeschichte’, Evangelische Theologie 10, 1950–51, pp. 352–368.
4 P. Vielhatier, ‘On the “Paulinism” of Acts’, in L. E. Keck and J. L. Martyn, Studies in Luke-Acts (Philadelphia, 1966), pp. 33–50.
5 H. von Lips, Glaube—Gemeinde—Amt (Göttingen, 1979), p. 284.
6 Used by the translator of R. Bultmann, Faith and Understanding (London, 1961), p. 71f.
7 R. Morgan, The Nature of New Testament Theology (London. 1973), p. 42.
8 M. Barth, ‘Die Methode von Bultmann’s “Theologie des Neuen Testaments” ’, Theologische Zeitschrift 11, 1955, pp. 1–27, cited from p. 15; references are to R. Bultmann, Theology of the NT (London, 1952, 1955), I, pp. 181, 198, 251f., 295, 300, 334; II, p. 238.
9 N. T. Wright, ‘Towards a biblical view of universatism.’ Themelios Jan.1979, pp. 54–58, cited from p. 55.
10 R. Morgan, The Nature of New Testament Theology, p. 42; see also E. Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method (London, 1975), p. 71.
11 Cited from W. G. Kümmel, The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of its Problems (London, 1973), p. 369.
12 For a fuller discussion of the standpoint of this essay see I Howard Marshall, Biblical Inspiration (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1982).
13 R. Morgan, op, cit., p. 43.
14 R. Morgan, op. cit., pp. 43f.
15 F. Bovon, Luc le Théologien (Neuchâtel/Paris, 1978), pp. 24f.
16 R. Bultmann, cited by R. Morgan, op. cit., p. 45.
17 R. Morgan, op. cit., pp. 42–52.
18 F. Bovon, op. cit.
19 W. G. Kümmel, ‘Lukas in der Anklage der heutigen Theologie’ ZNW 63, 1972, pp. 149–465; = ‘Current Theological Accusations? against Luke’, Andover Newton Quarterly 16, 1975, pp. 131–145.
20 W. G. Kümmel, op. cit., pp. 142f.
21 Yet it cannot be denied that the method has its attractions. Third Way 10:12, Dec. 1987, p. 27, carries this quotation from Mark Twain Pudd’nhead Wilson: ‘Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; their he would have eaten the serpent.’
I. Howard Marshall
I. Howard Marshall
University of Aberdeen
Aberdeen, Scotland, UK