In the recently released introduction to the study of the New Testament, The New Testament in its World, N.T. Wright (along with Michael F. Bird) dedicates the first section to the question of what the New Testament properly ought to be considered, especially by Christians. Imagining how prominent figures of ancient Greek, Rome, and Judaism might understand the New Testament, Wright offers the following:
In the end, however, their conclusions would probably converge around three things: history, literature, and theology. These writings, they would recognize, claim to be based on real people and real events. They employ different styles and genres which have at least partial analogues in the wider worlds of their day. And they all assume the existence and living activity of a creator God, the God of Israel, claiming that this God has now acted decisively and uniquely in the man Jesus. There might be other categories, too: philosophy, politics, and even economics come to mind. ‘Religion’, to repeat, is too muddled a category to be much use. History, literature, and theology, held together in a new kind of creative tension, are the best starting-points to help us understand what sort of thing the New Testament actually is. (Emphasis my own)1
As he goes on to observe in the conclusion of this chapter and the next three chapters that covers the place of history, literature, and theology in the New Testament, the place of each of these three is not uncontested nor universal, even among scholars. For instance, it is well known the aversion, if not sometimes distrust, that some biblical scholars who are concerned highly about the questions of history have about history. Wright references Wayne Meek’s distaste for the phrases “Biblical theology” and “New Testament theology.”2 Additionally, the way we understand the New Testament as literature is variously debated. Do we seek to understand the intentions of the author or the implied narrator, or should it be understood primarily by reference to the response it evokes in readers? If our own interpretations and response to the Scriptures are what is important, then what place does history have in grounding how we interpret the New Testament?
This is not to mention the messiness that comes into play by trying to work history, literature, and theology together. Each three as specific fields of intellectual inquiry and study have very different cognitive, epistemological, and hermeneutical principles that determine (1) how the inquiry should proceed and (2) how one can rightly extend the extent of one’s knowledge. (What follows is a general description of the common approach taken in each field, but it is meant to more provide the prototypical manner in which the fields of inquiry work, but not to be a definitive account of all such inquiry).
Academic history relies upon a high degree of historical evidence to ground one’s claims about history, and as such is often implicitly foundationalist in its epistemology. Especially in forms of historiography influenced by the Enlightenment, historical evidence is interpreted separately and in isolation from other historical evidence and then those various pieces that are brought together into a historical reconstruction. As a result, an understanding of history is developed that relies upon certain fixed points we know of that is then put together into a coherent account.
Literary studies are concerned with the way a text reads as a whole, which tends to operate more with a coherentist epistemology (even if it is not formally expressed in literary studies). One can not rightly understand one part of a work of literature without reference to the rest. Context is king, but we can’t be really sure whether the specific passage in question should be reread in light of the context, or the context should be alternatively understood in light of the passage. This leaves every reading underdetermined, leaving it such that other readings may be just as legitimate.
Insofar as Christian theology contains particular beliefs about God who is known to us but is different from us such that He is not knowable in the traditional forms of knowing, neither foundationalist nor coherentists account guide theology, but it becomes an externalist account that relies upon the Scriptures somehow being inspired, that is reliable, source of understanding about God. As a consequence, theological knowledge is conditioned to our knowledge being formed by the object of our knowledge,3 whereas history and literary studies reconstruct and create understandings, respectively.
You can imagine, then, the messiness that comes from trying to bring these three fields of inquiries together that can lead to different readings. A historical reading might focus on the relationship of Paul’s discourse to Claudius’ expulsion of Jews from Rome based upon key historical data points in the works of the book of Acts, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio in probably the late 40s AD and its chronological nearness to Paul’s letter in the mid-50s AD. However, a literary reading of Romans may come to the judgment that Paul’s rhetoric is protreptic in nature by taking the structure of the letter as a whole, which finds its origins in Hellenistic philosophy as a form of “conversion” literature. Then, a theological interpretation about Romans may think that Paul is addressing how people can have confidence that they may find life and peace with God through Jesus Christ. Each of these three readings could suggest a different “purpose” for Paul’s letter[/note]addressing Jewish hostilities towards Rome and the Gentiles; converting the Roman Christians to a specific way of thinking; helping people to find and know God’s love and forgiveness[/note] arrived at by paying attention to different information in Romans and pertinent to it, processing it differently4, with differing purposes for the interpreters. Trying to blend these three readings of Paul based upon those three modes of inquiry could potentially lead to more disagreement than cohesion between them.
However, it is important at this point to recognize that there is an important difference between an etic analysis and emic comprehension. As we approach a text with a critical, analytical rigor, we have a tendency to focus on specific words, concepts, structures, purposes, meanings, etc. that we observe within the text so as to understand the text. In so doing, our attention marshaled for the purpose of the analysis is focused on making the contents of these ideas clearly understood and employ these ideas for making further inferences. Consequently, such an analysis necessitates the reduction of cognitive ambiguity to perform these tasks as we focus on some salient property of the text and/or our interpretation of it. In such a case, trying to bring together three different portrayals of Paul’s letter to the Romans can lead to tension between the three portrayals because they would each fight for primacy and attention that would lead to some or all of the readings to become more blurry and ambiguous in order to bring them all together; all three can not be the primary purpose of Romans that is constituent for Paul’s meaning at the same time.
However, an emic, insider understanding of a text is not concerned with analytic clarity and precision. Rather, for people competent to understand a particular communication based upon having (1) a common language, (2) similar culture, and (3) overlapping understanding of the circumstances, they will usually comprehend the communication naturally and intuitively with only the occasional need to analyze and critically assess what has been said. They just understand much of the communication in its various facets, how it relates to the circumstances it is intended to address, and how the structure of the communication flows and fits together. Amidst this, communications are multi-functional, producing various construals and understandings, which when individually taken under the cognitive-reflective microscope of analysis would appear to be distinct and different from the other construals and understandings, but in the specific event of communication and comprehension, they are just understood in such a way as they fit together.
When we read Paul’s letter to the Romans, we do not have a natural comprehension of his communication as a whole. We may have enough of an understanding to extrapolate some important historical matters, or to give a description of the structure and form of Romans, or to have a sense of what it means to be a Christian in light of Romans, but we don’t have an emic comprehension that would give us a higher-definition comprehension of each of those matters in isolation and blended together. And if we seek to make progress towards that type of high-definition comprehension, we have to start by analyzing it from what knowledge we believed we have in history, literature, and/or theology and proceed from there to push further. This mode of analytic inquiry is a necessity due to the epistemic gap that exists by being separated by 2000 years with a different culture and life experiences than Paul and the Roman Christians at the time.
Nevertheless, if we are not careful to distinguish between the way we understand something due to the analysis of the outsider from the way we would comprehend something as an insider, we can have problems synthesizing together the findings that come together from different modes of inquiry. Instead, we may be tempted to reduce the meaning of Paul’s letter to the Romans down to the purposes and meanings that are more relevant to our preferred mode of inquiry, rejecting or relativizing the rest away.
But, if Wright is correct that the New Testament would have been understood as history, literature, and theology together, then we may become impoverished of meaning due to our intellectual inquiries, as they may keep us locked into very specific patterns of textual construal and interpretation. The very thing that is necessary to cross the threshold of basic awareness about the text to a comprehension of the communication may become the very thing that locks us away from comprehension; intellectual inquiry and analysis may be a necessity, but it certainly isn’t sufficient.
However, any attempt to try to give specific intellectual prescriptions to change the three fields of inquiries as strangers and opponents in a debate into friends who share with and change each other would miss the point: I can not tell you how to get to a deeper comprehension by reference to anything that comes outside of that comprehension: I may have a nugget of insight here or there that is helpful along the way, but in the end, I can not provide any guidelines for how they should be combined that would not already assume a certain meaning in the first place. At that point, I would simply be encouraging you to see history, literature, and theology come together in the way that I would think they should come together.
However, a specific metaphor may be useful to help people break down the cognitive antinomies that can exist by bringing together different fields of inquiry. Imagine a house, whose foundation supports the exterior walls (and the roof also) and the inner walls of the house, which in turn determines how the living space feels and can be arranged and used for personal use. While there are multiple ways the walls can be arranged upon a foundation, for a specific floor plan to be put in place and remain there is the need for the foundation. However, at the same time, the floor plan is developed with the purpose of humans inhabiting and living so that that the foundation is planned and laid with that floor plan in mind. The setting and usage of the foundation, walls, and interior space are all a function of each other. In terms of physics, the foundation determines the walls, which shapes the interior life, whereas, in terms of human life, the purpose of the interior determines the walls, which determines the foundations. If we imagine history as the foundation, literature as the walls, and theology as the interior, we can comprehension through metaphor the interworkings of the three fields together.
Beyond this metaphorical image for the blending of meaning, a second way forward it to have a different rationale for our intellectual inquiries into the New Testament. Often times, academic inquiry works on the premise of discovery, finding something that was unknown and/or innovating to create something previously unimagine or unimplemented. The drive for novelty makes intellectual inquiry proceed by going from the known to the unknown. However, let me suggest a different vision of New Testament studies that finds its intellectual inspiration in Wittgenstein: an academic inquiry into the New Testament is more about repairing our own reading and our own comprehension more so than it is about directly giving to us the meaning of the New Testament texts. We are fundamentally in ignorance and error about the meaning of the New Testament (from a Christian perspective, we can push this forward to see we are spiritually and morally blind to its meaning due to sin), although to what extent we are in error we can’t know just by looking at the Bible. Nevertheless, we can identify some interpretations as being much less realistic and not having as much fidelity to the texts, being much more like a cheap, bootlegged knock-off of New Testament than an adequate representation of its meaning. While we may not know exactly what it is we will find, we can identify something that doesn’t work. We may be able to repair our understanding through different forms of historical, literary, and theological inquiry that can help us to sift the wheat from the chaff, to know what wounds in our own comprehension need mending and rest or even emergency surgery to repair and heal. While the intellectual inquiries will not directly deliver to us the meaning of the New Testament in all its historical, literary, and theological significance, we can recognize their tremendous usefulness while recognizing their fundamental limitations in not able directly able to provide us an emic understanding of the New Testament.5
It is this recognition that allows us to engage in Wright’s hermeneutics of love, where love is “the readiness to let the other be the other, the willingness to grow and change oneself in relation to the other.”6 If we recognize our inquiries into the New Testament are more about self-repair than discovery, our attentive engagement with the New Testament, or even our whole-hearted engagement with the God the New Testament witnesses to, can help us to see where we are in need of repair so that we can receive the other as they are, rather than as something we wish and expect them to be. It is there that the blending of the understanding of history, literature, and theology in the New Testament can come together where our intellectual inquiry was ill-equipped to do so.
- N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird, The New Testament in Its World. (London: SPCK, 2019), 47).
- Ibid., 77.
- To note here, I word this in such a way that even non-believers can engage in theological inquiry when it comes to understanding the passages, as their object of knowledge could be considered the beliefs about God expressed by the New Testament authors.
- the cognitive patterns that adhere to modern foundationalist epistemology, a coherentist epistemology that straddles the line between modernity and post-modernity, and a supposedly “pre-modern” assumption of a theological reality.
- To further expand this notion of an emic understanding from a Christian perspective, we can suggest that the Holy Spirit is responsible for the understanding of the New Testament authors, and it is the Spirit who inspired the authors of the New Testament can also guide and train us to comprehend it in a way that leads us towards an emic understanding.
- Ibid., 74.