Tag Archives: Contextualization

Getting Beyond the Bible

3 Apr

I’ve just finished reading I. Howard Marshall’s “Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology”. I’m just starting a new PhD chapter/section which will look at theology as a third level missional “speech-act” (of the church). My previous chapter/section looked at Jesus Christ as the first level missional “speech-act” and the Bible as a second level missional “speech-act”. So as I transition from reflecting on the status/authority of the Bible to the theological process I want to reflect on how we get from one to the other, ie. how we get from Scripture to theology.

Howard Marshall’s book was an interesting read especially in terms of the questions it raises with regard to how we modern day Christians treat various bits of the Bible as compared to other bits. He sees a “development of doctrine” from the Old Testament to teaching of Jesus in the Gospels and then from the Gospels to the letters of the New Testament. 

Here’s what he says about the development from the Gospels to the letters of the New Testament (which I find interesting and somewhat helpful)…

…the teaching of the early Christians was not limited to the repetition of what Jesus taught, but involved the proclamation of him as the crucified, risen, and returning Saviour and Lord who is spiritually related to his people here and now. Even where the teaching of Jesus influences the letter writers, there is scarcely any direct citation of what he said, but rather allusion and echo. (page 51)

The central theme in the teaching of Jesus was the kingdom of God, but this motif moves away from the center in the teaching of the early Christians…. The centre lies rather in the personal relationship of believers to the risen and exalted Lord. A relationship made possible by his atoning death. (page 52) 

Marshall’s aim is to look for principles in the Bible to guide is today as we are involved in the development of doctrine.

He suggests a two-fold principles which I find helpful in terms of my PhD research. The two elements are (1) the apostolic deposit (which is, the centre of Christian theology or.. the interpretive key for Christian theology) and (2) a transformed mind (ie. transformed by the Holy Spirit), or… a mind nurtured on the Gospel.

These two factors work together to detect error and to promote true development in Christian doctrine and practice. The combination of a doctrinal, Christological criterion and a renewed mind enables believers to develop the implications of their faith and to come to fresh insights to deal with new knowledge and the danger of false belief. By these means believers were able to assess new revelations by prophets and new teaching of other kinds, and this led to fuller development of doctrine. (page 71)

The most controversial thing that Marshal says, however, is in relation to some of “God’s actions” in the Old Testament (eg. the slaughter of the Cannanites or the slaying of Achan) and also Jesus’ “underdeveloped” (p.64) and “accommodating” (to culture) teaching which may lead to “misunderstanding”.  Marshall mentions the parables in which Jesus mentioned how a “wicked servant” is “cut into pieces and assigned a place with unbelievers”  (Matt 24:51) and how a “rich man” ends up “in agony in this fire… in this place of torment” (Luke 16:25, 28).


Marshall states…

There would be universal agreement among civilized people that no human being should perpetrate horrors of the kind described in the parabolic imagery… (page 67)

It is incredible that God should so act. So we are alerted to the conclusion that the imagery in the parables is imagery belonging to a time in society that was accustomed to such things in real life and so no incongruity in portraying divine judgment in that way, even if this imagery is used by Jesus…. I suspect that people of his day were not as aware of the unacceptability of such imagery as we, hopefully, are today. (page 67)

There are two response chapters in the book. One by Kevin Vanhoozer and the other by Stanley Porter. Both pick up on the above.


Vanhoozer states…

… I am a bit troubled when Marshall appeals to the liminal period in order to relativize Jesus’ doctrine of God…. Marshall believes that some of the images that Jesus uses to depict divine judgment are inappropriate for out time… Is this really so? I am not that sanguine about this. After all, God is no tame lion. (page 85)


Marshall wants Christians to get ‘beyond’ genocide. So do I. But I am not prepared to say that God’s judgment of the world, or of the nations, is ‘intrinsically wrong’ if it involves killing people. Marshall is doing more that ‘reconsidering’, it seems to me, when he says that we ‘can no longer think of God in that way’. Unless we are prepared to jettison significant portions of the Old Testament (or to revise their meaning in the light of contemporary sensitivities), this way of going beyond Scripture has more of Marcion that of marshall about it. For it is really not about numbers. If Marshall is to be consistent, he should say that God does not have the right to take a single a single life…. To confuse God’s love with our culturally conditioned imitations is to go beyond the Bible not biblically, but culturally. Finally, if we are shocked by images of judgment, what are we to make of the cross? Even after the fervent prayers of a righteous man in a garden in Gethsemane, the Father did not remove the cup of judgment. (page 85)

Okay… I’ll admit it. I am a bit of a Vanhoozer fan. But I do think he raises some really important points in respopnse to Marshall. Can we so easily associate, in the way that Marshall does, “universal agreement among civilised people” with minds “nurtured by the Spirit”? 

Porter makes a similar point… 

How do we know the difference between cultural bagge and contemporary inconvenience. (Marshall’s arguement) might well seem to beg the very question we are trying to answer, however, which is not just what civilized people, but rather what Christians of today, should think about such actions. (page 120-121)

The questions that Marshall raises are vital for us to ask as we think about the task of theology in the contemporary world. But on the basis of what Marshall has to say, and this particular problem he seems to get himself into, it seems equally clear that coming up with answers will not be easy. One wonders what Marshall would have to say in response to Vanhoozer and whether he would change his arguement and/or conclusion?

Food for thought… and definitely worth the read.


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