John Howard Yoder is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and formerly at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries. A graduate of the University of Basel (D. Theol.), he has served the Mennonite denomination in both mission administration and overseas relief, as well as at Goshen Biblical Seminary, where he was professor from 1965 to 1984 and President from 1970 to 1973. His publications include When War is Unjust (Augsburg 1984), The Original Revolution (Herald 1972), The Politics of Jesus (Eerdman 1972), and Karl Barth and the Problem of War (Abingdon 1970).
The following is Chapter 6 in Robert K. Johnston (ed.), The Use of the Bible in Theology: Evangelical Options (John Knox 1984).
For John Howard Yoder theology is an activity on behalf of the church. Its function is neither that of maintenance nor that of generalization. Theology is the church’s servant through a missionary and aggressive “biblical realism.” Theology protects against overly confident or overly relevant applications. It is meant to correct and renew the church.
To ask how the Bible functions in theology is like asking how the ground floor functions in a house: there are several possible right answers, and any one of them looks a little silly when spelled out. The self-evident answer is holistically that it is the ground floor. In terms of traffic patterns, you can say that you have to go through the ground floor to get to the stairs which would lead to the other floors. In terms of architecture, you can say that it carries the weight of the upper stories. In terms of frequentation, you can say that the rooms there tend to be used by more people and to be more public. Any one of those answers is true, and any one of them is less than simply to say that the ground floor is the ground floor.
The utility of any specific answer to this question depends then on the particular sub-questions which the one putting the question has in mind. Is the person asking about traffic patterns or about the weight of the building or about the channeling of pipes and wires or about rental values per square foot? Most of the questions which might be interesting from one perspective will be uninteresting from another. How then are we to proceed? My first concern is to elaborate on the obviousness of our situation, in ways that do not immediately promise to decide any controverted question.
How Do People Theologize in a Believing Community?
Theology has a catechetica function. This will naturally be the first function encountered by a seeker or believer new to the faith community. Here it is appropriate that formulations of what we believe will need to be developed, which select from a much wider heritage those particular elements that one needs to know first. Priorities are established among the various things which older Christians know, or which the community at large knows and which are all good to know, by hfting out the minimal number of things which a new believer needs to know first. This must be done in the fight of the total biblical heritage.
The Bible itself does not sort out any such minimal statement for us. It does record, sometimes explicitly, as in the account of the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian, but more often implicitly, some wordings of baptismal confessions, but such a confession is less than a catechism. Some scholars suggest that the book of Matthew was developed to serve as a catechism in some early Syrian community, but that is to use the term "catechism" in a broader sense.
The decision about what to teach first will not only be based in the traditional materials, mainly the biblical resources from the early church's experience. It will not only seek to annunciate this primitive gospel. It will also need to take account of the prophetic and evangelistic clash with the particular world of unbelief from which that specific seeker or convert has come. The church must be open to recognize some priority denunciations or renunciations as a necessary part of Christian decision in any particular world. In Psalm 24:3-7 we have an example of such theological affirmation and negation. Two items are named which describe a generally pure character; one is ethical, and one says that the person has not served idols. There are thus both behavioral and conceptual components in the definition proffered. The renunciation of idolatry in 4:6 is an integral part of the definition, a specimen of denunciation which applies if the surrounding culture is idolatrous. One recalls that Jesus said in Luke 14 that readiness to bear a cross is a prerequisite for following him.
The theological ministry of the catechete deals then with the criteria of appropriateness in selection and accent. The Bible will serve both as the first but not the exclusive source of the affirmations to be made and as the total value frame in which priorities need to be determined. Yet at two points the Bible is clearly not sufficient or self-expositing. It can replace neither the contemporary charisma of the teacher who makes that selection in a given circumstance nor the substance of the encounter with the world in which the particular catechumen has been nurtured and to which the corrective and informative impact of the message must be directed.
Persons who grow up within the believing community may never need catechism. They are surrounded with another kind of theology which might simply be characterized as Christian culture. There are the stories of faith told from one generation to the next. There is the language of worship and the several languages and styles of preaching. There is the way in which ethical deliberation draws upon the heritage of the believing community for illumination and adjudication. With this variety of communication going on, most of it nonprofessional and unsystematic, the child of a believing family grows up knowing a certain corpus of theological notions, understood more contextually than conceptually, their definitions more supposed than spelled out. This, too, is theology. The Bible constitutes its ground floor, but again its total composition will be determined by processes of selection and exchange which the Bible undergoes rather than directs. It will include considerable language originating later than that of the canon. More of it will come from hymns, sermons, and children's stories than directly from the text of Scripture.
The Bible is at the center of a larger field of teachings and testimonies from which the catechist will select what needs to be learned first. But precisely since catechesis is correlated with the particular unbelief from which a particular catechumenistic, and without final logical force. If, on the other hand, there is some common court of appeal or superior criterion, then the continuing dialogue about their difference can hold some promise of change which may be called "education," "repentance," reconcihation," or "training," depending on the perspective in which we want to look at it.
In the specific Christian case, that ultimate court of appeal in the corrective use of theology is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. To go back one step further we should of course say the ultimate court of appeal is God in se, since the functional meaning of the word "God" is such ultimacy. But apart from revelation in Christ we would not know which God or what kind of God we are talking about. Therefore, that last hypothetical degree of ultimate reaching back does not need further attention.
Obviously the label "Christ" as designating a revelatory authority is not simple but instead designates a semantic field. At the center there is the historic reality ofjesus. Surrounding that reality and mediating it to us, there is a circle of immediate interpretations by qualified witnesses who spoke about him in reliable Aramaic and Greek reports. Some of those reports were immediate testimonies about the life and work ofjesus. Others were less immediate in that they talked about the difference he made to them in terms of hope or atonement or initiation into community. The deposit of such testimonies is our New Testament.
Equally indispensable but one notch further out is the circle of assumptions and prerequisites, cultural backgrounds, and definitions of terms within which the primary testimonies have to be interpreted in order to know what those first testimonies meant. A dominant component of that context was the Hebrew heritage of which the Old Testament is our primary document. Another element of it is the contemporary Zeitgeschichte which is accessible to us only through the very fauible and fuzzy tools of literary and archaeological history, aided but also called into question by the ancillary disciplines of linguistics, literary analysis, anthropology, etc.
This way of schematically subdividing the kinds of theological discourse has intentionally left aside one of them. That one is the sense in which we are also talking "theology" when we talk to unbelievers. An unbeliever by definition is someone with whom we do not share an ultimate court of appeal, although we may very well share common penultimate criteria. With most of our unbelieving neighbors we agree to try to talk sense according to the laws of grammar and logic. With some of them we agree to try to argue according to the rules of rational debate. With most of them we get along most of the time assuming verifiable common readings on such matters as the price of eggs and the sovereignty of the United States of America. But on the matter concerning which they are unbelievers, those common criteria do not reach to convince or to condemn. Or, if they do, it is because through some special gift of providence some penultimate value is raised to a higher level of redemptive power. It may for instance be that some deed of loving service will touch a neighbor at a point of common humanity to communicate what argument could not. It will usually not be a biblical appeal. I thus conclude, within the oversimplification which is excusable for this kind of capsule argument, that apologetics or evangelism should not be thought of as constituting a distinctive mode of theological discourse for which we would need a specific definition of the place of the Bible.
How Did the New Testament Church Theologize?
The New Testament records indicate the presence in the early communities of a particular functionary known as the teacher (didaskalos). Which of the above functions are we to think of this person as exercising: a catechetical one, or a corrective one? Perhaps there was still something else which was done under that heading. The teacher's function is unique among those to which we find reference in the apostolic writings in the fact that it is specifically described in the epistle of James as a risky function which not many should seek to discharge. This is quite different from the general Pauline pattern which encourages everybody to seek all the gifts (I Cor. 14:5, all speak in tongues, all prophesy; I Timothy 3: 1, it is fine to want to be bishop).
The reason for this caution, we are told, is that the tongue is an unruly member." Our subjective individualism makes us think of "tongue" as the individual's capacity for speech and of the "unruliness" then as a tendency to speak impulsively, unkindly, or carelessly. One must doubt whether James was so modem. The "tongue" in any Aryan language means the language, the phenomenon of language, and the social reality of communication. Language is unruly in that playing around with words or trying to be consistent in our use of words or dealing with issues by defining terms is a constant source of contestation and confusion. Here is James' caution. So it is, too, that Timothy can at the same time be invited to "follow the pattern of the sound words" which he had received from Paul (2 Tim. 1:13) and be warned against "disputing about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers" (2 Tim. 2:14). The teacher is then someone charged with care about verbal formulations, who must serve in the awareness that such instruments of the faith are at the same time both indispensable and misleading. It is with language as it is with the rudder of a ship, the bit in the horse's mouth, or the flame igniting a forest: there is a multiplier effect whereby any mistake in balance or aim produces greater damage through the leverage of language.
What does this have to do with how the Bible functions in theology? First of all, the Apostle warns that the Bible itself is the victim of that flexibility and leverage. Canonical scripture used by communities to shape their identity has that characteristic of being subject to manipulation in order to support whatever the later interpreters of the tradition want to have ratified. There is a sense in which the objectivity of the scriptural text in its unchanging wording can be appealed to as a corrective against the most highly fanciful flights of redefinition, but it would be part of the naivete against which the Apostle warns us if we were to take that objectivity as a guarantee. It is rather the risk of abuse to which canonical texts are subject that calls upon the teacher to be more restrained than the poets and prophets in the interpretations which he or she allows people to commend to one another. The wording of the Bible is not an empowering ratification giving the theologian a special advantage in the knowledge of truths qualitatively different from the truths other people can know. The Bible is, rather, the victim of the corrosive and distorting effect of the leverage of language, and the theologian is its defender.
Everyone ought to read the Bible, and all ought to be free to interpret it soberly in relevance to their own situations. What we need the didaskalos for is to defend the historical objectivity of what the text said in the first place against the leverage of overly confident or "relevant" applications. Already in the early church this was a task that called for linguistic sophistication. One needed to know how discerningly to control the tongue. Today it is far dearer how such discernment can and must use the tools of linguistic science. The ancient concept of a "simple sense" of Scripture to be played off against the "fuller sense" and the allegorical sense of the text is obviously over simple, but the concern which it represented is still appropriate. There are forms of articulation which are fruitlessly speculative, destructively relativizing, or unwholesomely accommodating. The task of the didaskalos is to defend the difference between the organic fidelity of our interpretation now and the meaning of the message then as well as to oppose other "adaptations" or "applications" which rather constitute betrayal.
The fact that people are tempted to abuse Scripture by calling upon it to support whatever they believe is one of the reasons it is inappropriate most of the time to think that the primary theological debate is about whether the biblical text is authoritative or not. Too many people are affirming its authority by claiming its support for interpretations which a more adequate hermeneutic will reject. The theologian's task is more often to defend the text against a wrong claim to its authority rather than to affirm in some timeless and case-free way that it has authority.
How Does the Bible Function Authoritatively?
Thus far it has been sufficient to look "phenomenologically" and then "biblically" at how a believing community will be seen thinking. There is no need to theorize about why the Bible has authority when one finds oneself living in a community in which that authority is presupposed and which is constantly being renewed through the simple experience of its operation. The "apologetic" notion that the appropriateness of that authority's being operative should be dependent upon our being able somehow to explain it in terms exterior to itself does not arise in the ordinary life of the believing community. In making this observation I am not expressing any interest in debating a systematic position of "presuppositionalism." That is also an apologetic stance. It is much more simply, descriptively the case that Christians gather around the words of the Word and that its message bears fruit in the ways described above without needing constantly to be pulled up by the roots in order to see why it should be working that way.
It is unavoidable, nonetheless, that within the process of reading this story acceptingly there should be in particular cases some selectivity as to which of the texts are found most central. This is true of the theologian serving the readers of a particular culture and class. When a culture is preoccupied by fear of the dark powers which rule the world, one will find especially the message of release from that fear. When a society is preoccupied with death, one will hear the message of resurrection and eternal life. When a society is anomic, it will be open to be illuminated by the Torah. There is no reason that in all times and places such initial priorities should not dictate a kind of "canon within the canon." It will be the responsibility of the theological discipline both to exercise this selectivity reasonably and to criticize it. The ultimate canon within the canon must in the end, however, be the person of Jesus and, in a broader sense, the narration of the saving acts of God. This follows from the fact that the Bible as a whole corpus of literature is narrative in its framework, although some of its fragments are not. That framework itself dictates the priority of the historical quality over levels of interpretation which would be less historical by being more abstract (ontology, systematic dogma) or individualistic.
As Paul Minear indicated long ago, we are most likely to learn from a text something which will constitute genuine learning if we attend to the points at which what a text seems to be saying is not something we already know or have under our control. This is true for any kind of human understanding, whether it be applied to the phenomena of physical or biological nature or to a piece of literature. Even more must it be the case for the Christian Scriptures, of which we confess that they testify to us of uniquely revelatory intervention. As the expository ministry of Minear did not cease to illustrate, the points at which we will most likely learn will therefore not be those already previously reduced to rational system but the odd, forgotten, or systemically erratic blocks within the literature.
One very fitting example from my own work is the "exousiology" of the Pauline writings. It can hardly be doubted that the handful of texts in the Pauline corpus which refer to "principalities and powers, thrones, angels . . ." represent in the minds of the Apostle and his disciples a coherent segment of a larger coherent cosmology. The work of Christ has an impact upon that cosmos. Christian interpretation since medieval times has assumed that this was repeating something about "angels" which we already knew and has therefore paid little further attention to those texts. Scholastic Protestantism gave them still less attention. Liberal Protestantism consciously excised them from its practical canon, knowing that they describe something which we already know cannot be; namely, a world of familiar spirits behind the causation of events. As a result, a major segment of Paul's understanding of the universe and of redemption has been made inoperative.
A series of Reformed theologians-Berkhof, Caird, Morrison, Markus Barth, and others-have revitalized our awareness of the relevance of this material. When I drew from them in a secondary synthesis in one chapter of my Politics of Jesus, there were those who felt it to be an inappropriate expression of my Mennonite bias, even though all of the sources I used, both the scriptural and the systematic theologians, were consistently in the Reformed tradition. But my present concern is not that my reading was Reformed, but that it was new yet old. The text was always there, but a new age opened our eyes to read it. This has been happening throughout the centuries, at least since St. Francis if not since Augustine. Scriptural orientation sharpens the ability to discern the signs of the times, but it is just as true that temporal orientation sharpens our ability to discern the signs in Scripture. This is a concrete case, in our age, of the fulfillment of the promise of which the puritan John Robinson has spoken: "The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth........."
It is most lively and productive to think of one body of literature, the Bible, representing in any time and place the testimony of the narrative stretching from Abraham to the Apostles, which can be juxtaposed to any other age by its Psalms being sung again, its letters being read again, its stories and parables being retold. Then in the juxtaposition of those stories with our stories there leaps the spark of the Spirit, illuminating parallels and contrasts, to give us the grace to see our age in God's light and God's truth in our words. This picture of how it works is more representative of the experienced facts but also more rigorous than the classical scholastic vision of an unchanging body of timeless propositions needing to be twisted to fit a new age by the special skills of rationalistic linguists.
Accepting the Bible's Own Shape as Defining "Theology": Toward a "Biblical Realism"
In the context described above, "theology" is not an end in itself, as it seems to be in some literary and academic contexts. The vocation of teacher is a ministry to the body, just as are the vocations of deacon and elder. The construction of a system is not valuable in its own right; we need to know to what end consistency or completeness is valued. The translation of older affirmations of faith into a new language is only worthwhile when we clearly identify the limits of faithfulness which keep that reformulation from selling out to the assumptions of the new language. The Bible itself can be a safeguard against theology as a system becoming idolatrous or an end unto itself, since the Bible itself is not what we would call theological in its style.It speaks about God faithfully in pastoral, ministerial, and argumentative contexts, not in systematic or historical or expository ways. We still need to do theology as well in those ways, but the Bible will help to remind us to keep those operations both subordinate to the larger imperatives of the life of the body and relativized by their greater subservience to the demands of one's respective host culture. If we take the biblical authors as role models for theological discourse, they can protect us against overvaluing the didactic and the systematic modes.
The Bible is not simply a document of churchmanship with pastoral preoccupations. The particular kind of church of which it is the testimony is a missionary, aggressive, and subversive movement. We misunderstand even the practical/pastoral thrust of the Bible whenever we compare or equate it with the pastoral concerns of an established religion-with the maintenance of the life of parish and clan in a society where there are no longer any challenges being addressed to the powers that be, no longer any new believers coming in across the boundaries of nation and culture, and no longer any new threatening issues needing to be wrestled with on the missionary frontier. Pastoral care in the established church and in the minority missionary movement are two quite distinct operations. Scholastic theology tends to abstract out of that awareness; the Bible sustains it. "Biblical realism" is a tendency-hardly a school-which tries to make more of the Bible as a formal model.
We are accustomed to considering as "theological" those forms of expression that seek abstraction and generality. The Bible itself was not written that way. I do not argue that the reflexes of abstraction and generalization have no function at all, but we need to be more honest about their derivative quality and about the normalness of narrative or hortatory genres as good theology. The scandal of particularity and the vulnerability of faith as not being coercive are intrinsic to the gospel, and they are made more evident by the occasionalistic quality of the literature. When, for the sake of apologetic or missionary conprehensibility or for the sake of internal coherence, we step back from that concreteness and express ourselves in more general terms, it must not be with the thought that this will make the faith more credible. Apologetic rationalism, whether conservative like that of Clark or Van Til, moderate like Brunner, or liberal like Gordon Kaufman or David Tracy, is a rear guard exercise.
The real foundation, both formally and materially, for Christian witness is the historic objectivity of Jesus and the community he creates. Any other kind of "foundation" we can seek to make in a particular world is the footing for a bridge between that world and first-century Palestine.
By its nature, as a method seeking to reflect in its own structure the qualities of the text being read, "biblical realism" must be pluralistic with regard to styles and formulation. Therefore, it will, not by accident or misunderstanding but by virtue of its structural commitments, fall short of meshing satisfactorily with the methodological assumptions of scholastic orthodoxy which is committed to constructing a system which ideally would be rationalistic, stable, and closed. The reason for this flexibility of method is not a desire to be "liberal" either in the sense of an optimistic vision of human nature in general or in the more restrictive methodological sense of being optimistic about the power of one's critical tools. The reason is, rather, modesty about the power of our human instruments of interpretation, which leads appropriately, in the face of the choice which God obviously made to become manifest through a multiplicity of literary forms that are mostly narrative in framework and doxological in tone, to skepticism about the adequacy of any system-building of our own. Only in that way can the Bible be served and not become the servant in a communication event. just as we are willing to receive our message from an authority we do not challenge, so we should properly subordinate our methods. Rational scholastic orthodoxy errs in filtering the given texts through the grid of its independent ordering operation.
This is not to say that the questions with which scholastic orthodoxy was concerned can be shrugged off as unreal or uninteresting. It must be doubted, however, that they must always come first or always be answered in the same way. The authentic prolegomenon is not the rational presupposition of another axiom which alone would permit us to say what we want to say. What needs to be said first is that we are already together in the believing community, praising God and supporting and admonishing one another.
Although some of its critics make that accusation for their own reasons, there is nothing about this "biblical realist" position that is primitivistic in the sense of promising that it would be possible to recreate a first-century world or a first-century world-view or a first-century church. No such naive vision is intended. In fact the biblical realist position is only possible as a post-critical phenomenon. It is scholastic orthodoxy which is naively pre-critical when it assumes that the scriptural text standing there alone can be interpreted faithfully and can be equated with our systematic restructuring of its contents. What is at stake is not whether the Bible can be interpreted at this great distance without linguistic and hermeneutic tools but whether, at those points where it is clear what it says, we are going to let that testimony count rather than subjecting it to the superior authority of our own contemporary hermeneutic framework.
It is also not accurate, although there are also some critics who for their own reasons make that claim, that this view includes any disrespect for human rationality, for the natural knowledge which we share with our unbelieving neighbors, or for the appropriateness of meaning systems not derived only from the gospel. This position is one which can only be exposited with the aid of rationality in all its identifiable forms. It involves as well more claims upon an esthetic sensitivity, also a form of natural culture, than do some earlier views. A commitment to biblical realism will heighten rather than weaken our ability to converse with our neighbors in their own language, if we become clear about the differences which distinguish one language game from another. I grant that some Barthian rhetoric, which I would reject if it be taken as systematic theology, although it may be quite appropriate as pastoral theology (e.g., Barmen), may have played into the hands of this misinterpretation. The point is not that all the truth is in Jesus or in the Bible. it is that the truth which is in Jesus is the truth that matters the most, which must therefore regulate our reception and recognition of other kinds and levels of truth rather than being set in parallel or subordinated thereto.
Perspicuity and Change
In describing the need for criteria within the corrective task, I noted that to know what "Jesus Christ" means requires acquaintance with a widening circle of "assumptions and prerequisites, cultural backgrounds, and definitions of concepts." No text has a clear meaning without a dictionary to define its terms. There is no infallible "dictionary," not even in the minimal literal sense of a collection of definitions for specific words and even less in the wider sense of what symbols, sentences, and social structures mean. Therefore, the choice made by God to use human events and human reporting of those events makes the task of faithful interpretation endless. On a given issue one can, by continuing dialogical disciplines, approximate more and more the confidence that one understands basically what the original testimony meant. But at the same time new issues arise and new challenges are addressed to old formulations in such a way that the task is never finished.
With regard to translation in the literal sense, Eugene Nida used to say regularly that no translation from one language to another can ever be perfectly accurate, but that in every specific interlinguistic interface it is possible to find a substantially adequate rendering of the central point of the original text. What is thus said about moving from Greek to Swahili or Chinese can also be said mutatis mutandis of restating in 1983 what was at stake when Jeremiah or John was writing. We can never know perfectly, but we can understand substantially. The disciplines of doing that may be exercised under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but they are never infallible.
It is specifically with reference to future questions not yet named that the Jesus of John 14- 16 promised further leading and "greater works." There is no reason to exclude the ministry of theological articulation from the scope of this promise. It is therefore inappropriate to accentuate, as has been done in some past evangelical experience, the immutability of Christian truth once formulated, as if that authority were enjoyed by our articulations rather than being reserved to the canonical texts themselves and the historical events behind them. Formulations can and will keep changing and it is most fitting that we should expect them to. The proper issue to be concerned about is the ground rules and guidelines for articulating such changes, not whether they should happen.
Having made use of the analogy to a linguistic model of translation," let me also suggest certain qualifications regarding its adequacy. First we note those dimensions of the reading of the canonical witness which are mentioned specifically in the New Testament as distinct workings of the Holy Spirit. One of these is the process of dialogue about moral matters for which Jesus used the rabbinic expression "binding and loosing" and of which he said that, when it is done in his name, it receives the seal of his presence and stands in heaven. We may appropriately read the narrative of Acts 15 as a specimen of God's keeping this promise. An issue had been raised by the collision between the missionary methods of Paul and his colleagues and the disciplinary concerns of some people from Jerusalem. The matter was given head-on attention rather than being dodged or papered over. Arguments were brought to bear from experience and from Scripture. Everyone who had anything to say was heard, until the assembly fell silent. Then the concluding compromise, proposed by the presiding elder of the host congregation, was described as having "seemed right both to the assembly and to the Holy Spirit." There is no tension or contradiction between saying that this result was the work of the Holy Spirit and saying that it was the result of proper procedures of conflict resolution and decision making.
Secondly, we are explicitly urged to consider the variety of gifts as one special sign of the guidance of the Spirit. The gifts of prophet, teacher, moderator, etc., all contribute to the process of theological articulation. They contribute best if each has maximum liberty to contribute in its own way and if the exercise of those liberties is itself coordinated in the right way (which coordination is also one of the gifts). The one thing which the New Testament language on these matters gives us no ground for is the notion that the theological task could be exercised in isolation from the bearers of other gifts or from the surveillance of the total community.
In the spiral movement whereby the mind of the church constantly links the world's agenda and the canonical texts, one does find a degree of progress in any given context in becoming clearer both about what it is in the present challenge to which Scripture speaks and about what the answer is. This growing clarity cannot be imposed on other times and places, but we do learn about some of the priorities in our time and place if we keep the circuit open. That the God of the Bible cares about the future of this earth and the human race, rather than intending to leave it behind as a radioactive cinder in order for disembodied souls to enjoy themselves timelessly in a placeless heaven, is a truth which grows on anyone who reads the Scriptures with that question in mind, even though for centuries it was possible for readers not to notice that testimony, so thoroughly had they been taken in by neo-Platonism.
That the God of the Bible wants captives to be freed, the poor to be fed, and the exercise of authority to be accountable to those who are led is likewise becoming increasingly clear, though we knew something of it before theologians of the "Third World" made more of it. The agenda of oppression had been faced by Christian believers in other times-by the Lollards and Levellers, by Wesley and Finney. But in our age those themes have been given a much more acute vitality by spokespersons for the minorities and majorities whose human dignity has been denied by oppressive social structures. More than was the case for Wycliffe or Wesley (at least more in quantity if not in quality), this sensitizing impact of awareness has pushed readers of the canonical Scriptures to find new depth and breadth, new detail and sharpness, in the stories of Moses and Jesus and the apocalypse.
The biblical appeal of the contemporary theologies of liberation has once more given occasion to fulfill the promise of John Robinson that "the Lord has yet much more light and truth to break forth from his holy word." It is an affirmation and not, as many conservative evangelicals have reflexively assumed, a questioning of biblical authority when the language of liberation and empowerment prove fruitful in understanding further dimensions of what salvation always meant according to the scriptural witness, even though we had not previously been pushed to see it that clearly. It was the alliance of official Christianity with oppression which kept it from being seen for a millennium. One must assume as possible, and I would hope as likely, that there could be yet other such further clarifications ahead of us. Thus the function of the Bible is to continue correctively to stand injudgment on our past failures to get the whole point.