Volume 3 - Issue 3

Theological byways?

By R. T. France

I am sure some of our readers, struggling to survive through the rigours of a theological syllabus and looking to Themelios to help them in the struggle, will take one look at the contents of this issue and snort in disgust: nearly half the space frittered away on a very long article about, of all things, Islam! You are always complaining, Mr Editor, that you are short of space—is it any wonder, if you cannot make better use of it than that?

Now an editor’s life has its problems, especially when articles turn out to be twice as long as was expected. I could have been ruthless, and demanded a complete rewrite in half the space. But I didn’t, and when you read the article I hope you will see why. I almost wish it had been longer (though I wouldn’t have dared to tell the author so!).

You have had a good staple diet in the last two issues—patriarchs, apocalyptic, christology, justification, Reformation; all good grist to the academic mill. Now relax, and do a bit of thinking about the real world for a change. Go on, spoil yourself.

And you may be surprised to find that the subject is not as remote as you thought. After all, Islam is one of the most potent religious and political forces in the world today, and even the insular western world can hardly remain unaware of its challenge. By its very existence and its nature, Islam poses questions which Christians cannot go on ignoring without writing off a substantial portion of humanity. For those who live in countries where Islam is not only powerfully entrenched but as vigorously engaged in a crusade for political domination as is Marxism itself, the questions are pressing. Too often such questions are answered by traditional formulae and long-ingrained attitudes. But the evangelical Christian is committed to ‘thinking biblically’, and this can be an uncomfortable as well as an exhilarating experience. It may well lead him into conflict with established traditions.

So as you read Colin Chapman’s article, be prepared to get involved, and ‘think biblically’ for yourself about a subject which vitally affects millions of Christians. In the process, you may find that some accepted ideas about Judaism, and indeed Christianity itself, will be challenged. So much the better, if it makes us all think things out for ourselves.

Colin would not claim, I know, to have provided all the answers. But he has provided some of the questions, questions which have a practical application to Christian mission and involvement in the world far beyond the limits of Islam, and questions about which we all need to ‘think biblically’ for our own situations.

Bruce Chilton’s article takes us to a more familiar scene for most theological students, the search for the historical Jesus, and the evaluation of redaction criticism. But again your first impression will probably be that we have wandered into a byway, when you see that the article consists largely of a technical study of just one verse! So please read his introduction before you get stuck into the detailed exegesis, and you will see that this one verse is deliberately chosen and carefully worked out as an example; it shows in practice how a careful comparative study of the synoptic versions of a key saying, with due attention to the viewpoint and aims of each evangelist, can help us also in establishing the authenticity of a saying which is widely regarded as a later Christian addition to the teaching of Jesus.

So in different ways these two articles illustrate an important aspect of theological study (as indeed of any intellectual pursuit): study of one specific area (Islam; Mark 9:1) can throw up principles of more general application, and so can not only start us asking far-reaching questions in general terms, but also suggest new ways of approaching the specific problems which engage our academic and existential concern. It is the ability to draw out such wider implications responsibly which can often separate the theological sheep from the more shortsighted goats. The true theologian is the one who sees the wood as well as the trees.

R. T. France

Llangelynin, Gwynedd