10/10/11

Lewis on modern academic theology pt.2

This post is a follow-up to my first post reflecting upon "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism," a paper written and presented by C.S. Lewis for a gathering of Anglican seminarians at Wescott House, Cambridge in May 1959. Lewis, a "sheep" from the flock of Christ, over whom these seminarians will soon have charge, writes:

"Now for my second bleat. All theology of the liberal type involves at some point - and often involves throughout - the claim that the real behaviour and purpose and teaching of Christ came very rapidly to be misunderstood and misrepresented by His followers, and has been recovered and exhumed only by modern scholars. Now long before I became interested in theology I had met this kind of theory elsewhere. The tradition of Jowett still dominated the study of ancient philosophy when I was reading the Greats. One was brought up to believe that the real meaning of Plato has been misunderstood by Aristotle and wildly travestied by the neo-Platonists, only to be recovered by the moderns. When recovered, it turned out (most fortunately) that Plato had really all along been an English Hegelian, rather like T. H. Green.
I have met it a third time in my own professional studies; every week a clever undergraduate, every semester a dull American don, discovers for the first time what some Shakespearian play really meant. But in this third instance I am a privileged person. The revolution of thought and sentiment which has occured in my own lifetime is so great that I belong, mentally, to Shakespeare's world far more than to that of these recent interpreters. I see - I feel it in my bones - I know beyond argument - that most of their interpretations are merely impossible; they involve a way of looking at things which was not known in 1914, much less in the Jacobean period. This daily confirms my suspicion of the same approach to Plato or the New Testament. The idea that any man or writer should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous. There is an a priori improbability in it which almost no argument and no evidence could counterbalance."

The idea that Lewis criticizes here - that a 20th century American or German scholar knows better than 1st Century Christians in Palestine what Jesus really taught - is one example of the monumental arrogance of much of the modern intelligentsia (precisely what Lewis meant by "chronological snobbery"). And yet this is precisely the (often unspoken) idea upon which much of our academic theology is founded.

It makes far more sense that the ancient Christians, who inhabited the same thought-world of the New Testament authors would have all kinds of insights into the New Testament that simply elude the modern scholar. I am reminded of the New Testament professor at LSU, who pointed to the different "versions" of the Lord's Prayer and certain parables; he cynically asked teenage Christians, "If you really believe in the Bible, which of these versions is the infallible truth, how could they both be, since they are different?" as if the existence of more than one version of a teaching on prayer or a parable in the Gospels somehow implied a necessary contradition.

What the professor's question completely misses is what it means for Jesus to be a travelling preacher. Like Jesus, I've done a little travelling preaching and teaching myself and like any preacher, I know that we often reuse sermons, stories, illustrations - sometimes even to make different points in different contexts - and of course every time you tell it, it is just a bit different. Any preacher would know this. The fact that we see this in the Gospels, far from demonstrating contradition, simply lends credence to the historical narrative (so, Luke and Matthew put the Beatitudes in different sermons preached in different places...perhaps it is because Jesus preached on the Kingdom-shaped life more than once!). That a well-educated professor could miss this point shows a poverty of insight (and perhaps in some such instances it is a voluntary poverty, conveniently ignoring genuine historical possibilities for the sake of spreading skepticism in young minds, after all).

Lewis hits on one major reason why I believe that Tom Oden and other "paleo-orthodox" (or just plain "orthodox," it means the same thing) theologians are quite right to look to the consensus of the ancient church in Scriptural interpretation. The Protestant Reformers drew upon Scripture and the Early Fathers to help reform the Medieval Church; their cry was "ad fontes!" - "back to the fount." This is also precisely what Wesley means by looking to "primitive" Christianity as a guide for Christian teaching. My own New Testament professor in seminary, representing the very attitude that Lewis critiques, encouraged us to resources and commentaries that were less than 30 years old in our study of the sacred text, as if the Spirit had been utterly silent before his own career began. Modern scholarship has certainly brought us some valuable insights into the New Testament, but Lewis, Wesley, and the Reformers had it right: we should learn first from the Ancient Church, and in our studies as pastors the Modern scholarship should not be used as a substitute for the classic tradition, but as a supplement to it.

The development and popularity of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series (edited by Tom Oden) is an important development in the recovery of that ancient witness that Lewis (along with Wesley, and the Reformers) is talking about. May the church of the next century recover the ability to listen to voices from beyond just the last 30 years, but from the whole communion of saints, and especially those fathers of the early days who lived and breathed in the same culture as the New Testament writers themselves.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Nance said...

While I have no qualms with referring to, even giving deference to, the Fathers in my own studying and growth, I do see one problem here: the Fathers too, to a large extent, inhabit a very different conceptual world than did Jesus. These are Gentiles, often of a philosophical (Middle Platonist?) bent, totally divorced from the backwater world of Palestine and the heritage of a Jewish rearing. To the extent that a modern scholar pours over the social and intellectual world of 1st century Palestine and, as well as she can, enters into that world, the scholar will definitely have an abundance of insights *completely* lost on, say, Clement of Alexandria. Take N. T. Wright as an example. His theological insights are, I think, much more in line with what Paul is trying to do than those of Justin Martyr, in many instances.

10:09 AM, October 11, 2011  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

certainly the Fathers too have their blind spots, thus I think we should supplement their work with the medieval, early modern, and contemporary scholarship wherever we can. I see the paleo-orthodox move as primarily a corrective move, since currently the scales are so far tipped in the other direction.

While I agree that the though-world of the Fathers may differ substantially from that of most 1st Century Rabbis in the Palestine, I suspect that it is a good deal closer to that of the actual NT Writers (and documents) which are largely aimed at a Hellenized audience anyways (and probably a good deal closer to other Helenized Rabbis besides just St. Paul for that matter).

1:25 PM, October 11, 2011  

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