The New Testament and the Examined Life: Thoughts on Teaching

By Johnson, Luke Timothy | The Christian Century, February 1, 1995 | Go to article overview

The New Testament and the Examined Life: Thoughts on Teaching


Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Christian Century


THE CLASSICAL DEFINITION of New Testament studies 'essentially involves, the historical-critical method. It is not so much a method, of course, as a theoretical construal of the field. New Testament studies has had as its object the historical reconstruction of early Christianity. It has demanded that the canonical writings he analyzed in strictly historical terms, which has meant, among other things, bracketing claims to divine inspiration in favor of human authorship, bracketing discussion of the miraculous in favor of observable causes, and subjecting all the sources to the most rigorous questioning in terms of dating, authorship, tendency and accuracy.

The result was a version of Christian origins that in many if not most points was at variance with the version accepted by the ordinary believer. If the believer thought, for example, that Christianity began in unity and only later fragmented into heresy, the historically correct version claimed the opposite: Christianity began in diversity and achieved unity only partially and only by great effort. The historical-critical perspective expressed a scholarly mission of correcting historical perceptions and thereby of purifying the Christian faith. Those who adopted this perspective could view themselves as holding a version of Christianity that had survived the toughest of tests.

Teachers making use of this perspective in the university, college or seminary generally assumed that their students would be the children of the pious but unenlightened faithful. They would have been raised in solidly and traditionally Christian homes (just as we professors, ex-monks, ex-seminarians and ex-churchgoers had been), would have read the Bible in worship and heard endless sermons based on it, and studied the Bible in Sunday school so that they had the facts of biblical lore (its geography, chronology, monarchies, prophets, Gospels) at their fingertips. They would have read the Bible in the home and in church as the word of God to be received in faith as divinely inspired and authoritative for all of life.

We teachers could fancy ourselves as playing a Socratic role for these students, inviting them to the examined life which alone is worth living. Just as in political science classes teachers challenged a student's assumption that because his father was a Republican, so he should be, and just as in economics classes professors challenged a student's assumption that capitalism is without question the best of all economic systems, so in religious studies teachers challenged students to examine their received traditions concerning Christianity. And nowhere was this done more frontally and forcefully than in the introductory course in the New Testament.

We did this--or at least many of us did this--with an astonishingly "uncritical" acceptance of the received verities concerning our own discipline. The historical-critical method, after all, had its own internal myth. According to this myth, biblical scholarship was a struggle outward from dogma into the freedom of history, and upward to the higher truth finally realized in 19th-century Germany. The myth declared historical-critical method to be the only "true" way to read the New Testament, and dismissed all other modes of reading (particularly the despised errors of allegory) as "precritical."

Little did we realize (I hope) that in our classes we were in effect proselytizers for a different creed. We deceived ourselves if we thought that our students "accepted" the two-source hypothesis for the Gospels because they had carefully gone through the synoptics and reached an independent decision that just happened to coincide with ours, or that they "accepted" the pseudonymous authorship of the pastoral letters because they had independently examined all the arguments pro and con. In fact, they converted to our point of view because they accepted us as the new authority figures.

So satisfied were we in our secure possession of a higher truth regarding Christian origins that we did not think to ask some fairly important questions. …

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