Monday, January 22, 2007

Reflections on NT Introduction

This is the first of my posts reflecting on my first semester at HTC. Overall, it has been a hugely positive experience in many ways - but I want to get to the nitty-gritty and reflect on each of the semester modules. First up is NT Introduction, taught by Mike Bird. The main textbook for the module was David deSilva's excellent Introduction to the New Testament. It's impressively thick and dSilva's penchant for long-winded prose doesn't do anything for its accessibility, but the work of reading it pays off. He is challenging, technical and pastoral. The excellent sections on Ministry Formation at the end of each chapter really ground the content in the real world. If you want to buy it, click the link on the left (but hurry, new books of the moment will be along soon). Looking back on the module, what stands out?
  • Connecting with the first century world and getting to grips with the soil in which the church and its kerygma grew. Understanding more of the lie of the land within Judaism and in the surrounding Jewish and Gentile cultures, really puts you 'there'. And here's the key thing for me - this sheds new light on interpreting the NT for today. If you don't know what Jesus meant to the people who heard him, you're going to be struggling to communicate Jesus' message to people today. The 'spiritualisation' of texts, the 'lifting' of texts from their context in history and, more importantly, salvation-history, is pretty common it seems to me - and that's a problem.
  • Noticing the 'inclusio' structures in Mark's gospel certainly sheds new light on the message. The Fig Tree Inclusio in chapter 11 directly relates the tree to the Temple, which is important. 'Jesus comes to the Temple looking for fruit, just as he went to the fig tree looking for fruit. Both have the appearance of flourishing, but both are found to be barren.' The following statement of Jesus about saying to this mountain 'be taken up and cast into the sea' can be seen as a direct reference to the Temple and not some vague reference to the power of faith. For deSilva, the problem with the use of the Court of the Gentiles by the money changers was primarily that it spoke of the failure of the Jews to invite the nations in to worship: 'the Court of the Gentiles is so empty and irrelevant to their concern that it serves as a convenient place for the moneychangers and vendors of animals for sacrifice'. A narrative that has been interpreted as 'cleansing' the Temple is actually an indictment.
  • Who dares to grapple with Revelation? When you see the main themes of Revelation as being: the Unveiling of the realities of everyday life; God's commitment to Justice; the Lamb who is reigning...then it roots it in the present as much as (perhaps more than) in the future. If you think about the OT prophecies about Messiah, they too were rooted in their own time, speaking of contemporaneous situations, but also spoke of greater things to come. I've always thought that the contemporaneous element of Revelation was largely ignored. For example, deSilva describes the aim of the apocalypse as being the 'deconstruction of Roman ideology'. Now that is the Revelation that I read! But, you don't hear that too often. If Revelation is about exposing the bankruptcy, injustice and eventual defeat of the Roman political, economic and social system by the ascendent and victorious Kingdom of the Lamb, then it has a message for every generation.
  • I can't finish without mentioning New Testament Theology. We had but a single lecture on this immensely important subject (but then it is a NT Introduction module), but I chose to complete my module Essay on the question 'What is the Centre of NT Theology?'. Preparing the essay was a highlight of the semester. I've felt for some time that far too much emphasis is placed on Systematics in the Reformed church. I was introduced to Berkhof years ago, but only came across Biblical Theology fairly recently. The problem with an obsession with Systematics is that it wrenches truths from their context and from the framework of revelation and places them in an artificial framework. This might help the Western Modernist mind to understand them (might), but I wonder whether, without seeing the primacy of Biblical Theology (Bib Theol must be the foundation for Systematics), we lose more than we gain - we lose touch with salvation-history and the narrative context for biblical revelation and we introduce boundaries of dogma which just aren't there. The penchant for the New Birth Experience as a touchstone for Christian Experience in some churches is a result of this kind of thing - imho. Anyway, Intro to Systematic Theology this coming semester, so I'll be put right!

If you get a chance to check out Mike Bird's blog 'Euangelion', then do it! Link is on the left. It's well worth a read. Mr Bird has been an excellent teacher - his enthusiasm is contagious. He's currently working on a book where he deals with the New Perspective. One of his (four) recent papers to the ETS conference in the US was 'Meeting the New Perspective Halfway'. I myself like the sound of that. I don't think he reads this so I can say this without embarrassing him!