Groundbreaking Conservative Scholarship?

In an earlier blog, I wrote about why many scholars do not accept that The Acts of the Apostles was written by a companion of Paul—despite the weight of evidence supporting that proposition. I concluded that there were two likely reasons. The first is a desire to avoid the apologist, or perhaps “conservative”, label. The second, and perhaps more weighty motive, is the desire to avoid confining one’s research and theories to well trampled ground.

One thing I learned in my undergraduate studies of political science and history, and just as well in law school, was that there is little glory (or grants, headlines, professorships, speaking engagements, tenure tracks, lecture invitations, published law review articles) in advocating tradition. It is the new take, the new theory, the debunking of conventional wisdom or sacred beliefs, the novel, that impresses. Unfortunately, conservatives can go to the other extreme. Walling ones’ self in with traditional beliefs and possessing a reactionary skepticism to new ideas can be a basic human tendency, but also can be a considered safeguard against the opposite extreme.

Most people would consider me to be part of the latter group. I am theologically (and politically) conservative. I have a high view of biblical inspiration. However, perhaps due to my charismatic background, I think that the above chasm is a false dichotomy. While Christians do believe that we have been given truth divinely revealed, we should have the humility to recognize that there is still much to learn (and God still has much to reveal). Fresh understandings about old truths and new theories that fill in gaps in our knowledge are not things to be feared. Indeed, well-considered scholarship that adds to our understanding of God’s divine revelation should be celebrated.

There are three examples of this kind of scholarship I want to discuss.

The first is Davis Trobisch’s Paul’s Letter Collection. As Gerd Theissen explains in his forward:

Trobisch demonstrates that it is very likely that the oldest writings of the New Testament—the letters of Paul—already show a unifying tendency. His thesis is that Paul himself collected and edited some of his own letters…. With the publication of this letter collection Paul basically gave birth to the concept of a Christian canon—that is, a collection of books that covers all the essentials that separate Christians from their Jewish mother religion.

You may not agree with every detail of this book, but the idea is fascinating. It offers a completely new picture of the origins of the New Testament.
The idea is well stated, and his discussion of ancient letter writing and editing was very informative. Unfortunately, the book is a mere 103 pages long. It would take a greater exposition of the idea with more references to convince me. I briefly corresponded with Dr. Trobisch about his theory and learned that he was in Germany pursuing another scholarly effort. I also learned that his book earned him much criticism. Not scholarly criticisms from other academics, but more personal criticisms from fellow Christians who thought his theory was somehow unChristian. This is a shame and seemed to genuinely affect him.

The second example has caused less controversy and been more widely read: Richard Bauckham's The Gospels for All Christians, Rethinking the Gospel Audiences. Gathering together contributions by seven leading scholars, The Gospel for All Christian is quite explicit in its goal. From the first paragraph of the Introduction:

The aim of this book is to challenge and to refute the current consensus in Gospels scholarship which assumes that each of the Gospels was written for a specific church or group of churches..... It is a remarkable feature of the history of New Testament scholarship in this century that this consensus about the original intended audiences of the Gospels has come about without any substantial argument.... But this view of the Gospels' intended audiences has never been justified by argument and discussion, and still less has it been established in debate with the other obvious possibility: that the Gospels were written with the intention that they should circulate around all the churches (and thence even outside the churches).
I think this thesis is more firmly established than Trobisch's, even if I do not agree with all of the articles contained in it. It has accepted the more liberal consensus, but with a considered alternative that better explains the facts.

The third example is the one I have found to be the most informative. It has been furthered by Richard Buackham in God Crucified, N.T. Wright in What Saint Paul Really Said and The New Testament and the People of God, and Ben Witherington's Jesus the Sage and The Christology of Jesus. Though with different nuances and emphasis, each of these scholars (and no doubt others) argues that the key to understanding the early Jewish Christian belief of Jesus as God is the first century Jewish understanding of God's Wisdom. To those who have difficulty in understanding the concept of the Trinity, this theory is very informative.

As Professor Bauckham explains about the first century Jewish beliefs about divine Wisdom and Word: "[they] represent Jewish ways of making some form of distinction within the unique divine identity, especially with reference to the work of creation." Bauckham, God Crucified, page 40. They are not, as N.T. Wright describes so well: "Jewish monotheism in this period was not an inner analysis of the being of the one true God. It was not an attempt at describing numerically what this God is, so to speak, on the inside." N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, page 63. Probably, the best introduction to this subject is Bauckham's God Crucified. Online, my own article touches on the subject here. also has a good discussion of the subject here.

In sum, I think that Christianity, and the academic community, need more scholars like these. There is no doubt that Torbisch, Bauckham, and Wright are Christians. But they are also scholars who--despite what others may view as their conservatism--have offered new and fresh understandings of old subjects. I have benefitted from their efforts. And hope that more Christians will.


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