Chapter 6: The Necessity of Theological Understanding

A Historical Introduction to the New Testament
by Robert M. Grant

Chapter 6: The Necessity of Theological Understanding

Thus far we have considered the collecting of the New Testament books, their copying and translation, and the methods by which one tries to ascertain what their authors were saying and the circumstances under which they wrote. But we seem to have failed to come to grips with the most important question of all. We have considered what they wrote and how they wrote it; we have not considered why they wrote, and this is the ultimate question of New Testament study. Unless we reach this question and make some attempt to solve it, there is no particular reason for us to be studying the New Testament rather than any other collection of ancient documents.

This point should be expressed with appropriate caution. It is not suggested (1) that there is no reason to study other documents, or (2) that the methods of studying the New Testament are necessarily unique to it. It is simply suggested that the New Testament writers had a purpose for writing and that unless this purpose is kept in view the analysis of their writings will be fragmentary and will produce nothing but a collection of fragments.

To some extent the history of New Testament interpretation -- or, more accurately, of biblical interpretation -- is roughly identical with the history of systematic theology. Most systematic theologians have believed that they were interpreting what the New Testament meant as a whole. To be sure, the use (conscious or unconscious) of the allegorical method often led them to read more into the text than more literal-minded exegetes have been able to find. But even the allegorical method requires that some passages in scripture be taken literally; these passages are usually regarded as the keys to the understanding of the Bible as a whole. In modern times, increasing use of ‘the historical method’ has led to insistence upon the variety of the outlooks expressed by biblical writers and sometimes to the refusal to lay emphasis upon their common faith. In place of ‘biblical theology’ or ‘New Testament theology’ we have varieties of New Testament religion. Such a concern is justifiable in relation to a situation in which differences were obscured and the New Testament was viewed in two dimensions rather than three or four. It is not justifiable if it obscures the ultimate unity of purpose underlying the New Testament books.

Again, the New Testament has sometimes been viewed as historical in the sense that it provides nothing but evidence for the development of early Christianity. The purpose of New Testament study is then regarded as the discovery or uncovering of various layers of tradition which either obscure or rightly draw out the implications of the earliest gospel. Only this earliest gospel is finally to be regarded as authoritative, or else the story of early Christianity, now truly seen, somehow possesses a meaning just because it is seen.

It should be said that such a notion is akin to the theory of Marcion rather than to anything to be found either in the New Testament itself or in the writings of Christian theologians. There is no reason to suppose that only the earliest strata of tradition contain the true gospel; had this been so, we should obviously have no New Testament, and none of the books in it would have been written. What we must look for, instead, is the purpose for which the New Testament authors wrote.

There are several ways in which this purpose has been sought. We have already mentioned the first, called ‘biblical theology’. But before turning to it we should mention the preliminary study, popular in antiquity (Origen) and today as well, of the meanings of New Testament words. This study, as we have already argued (Chapter III), does not usually produce absolutely definite results. At the same time, it must be admitted that it is indispensable for our understanding of the texts. Unless we have some idea of the probable ranges of the meanings of words we cannot possibly go beyond what the authors said to why they said it. Literary criticism is a necessary part of theological interpretation. From this kind of literary criticism we then pass on to interpreting whole books and trying to see what their authors were saying, and -- to some extent -- why they spoke as they did.

But the final questions take us beyond literary criticism into the realm of theology. Why do the various New Testament books exist at all? What impelled their authors to write? Surely it was not that they wanted to achieve literary fame, for few of them were stylists and the Greek which they used is not the same as that of the ‘best’ writers of their day. Instead, it must be stated that they wrote because of their conviction that what had happened in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and in the work of the Spirit in the new community, had given them insight into the plan of God for the salvation of men. The differences among the books and among the individual authors are due to the varying ways in which these authors understood the meaning of the events and the divine plan, and to the varying circumstances in which they wrote. Obviously it is legitimate for us to be concerned with the divergent understandings and the divergent circumstances; but we must constantly bear in mind the fact that the diversity is only an aspect of the more central unity to be found in the common faith -- in God, in Christ, and in the Holy Spirit.

The ultimate task of New Testament study, then, is to look for the whole as expressed in the parts. Often this task is rightly regarded as suspect, for students are likely either (1) to force somewhat different statements into a premature or even impossible synthesis, or (2) to treat New Testament, or biblical, doctrines as if they were absolutely normative when taken literally -- in other words, to speak as if theology had come to an end with the closing of the canon. The first error may be called the error of rationalism. The only adequate statement, on this view, is the logically consistent one; therefore the New Testament must be made logically consistent. The second error is the error of biblicism; it denies the possibility that some biblical doctrines may have been the product of the first-century mind (if such a thing existed) rather than of the biblical mind (if such a thing existed). It fails to recognize the extent to which the New Testament writings were addressed to specific historical audiences.

On the other hand, there are equally dangerous errors on the other side, as we have already suggested. (1) Students may be content with describing a mass of heterogeneous statements, insisting upon their inconsistencies, and thus losing sight of the ultimate unity of the gospel. (2) They may proceed to a rough and ready job of ‘demythologizing’, assuming that passages which they do not like are mythological and failing to see that not all such passages were meant literally. They may look for a simple, authentic (i.e., sympathetic) gospel which, freed from all its embarrassing features, may speak directly to them -- and support their own views. Both of these errors must be avoided; but no precise rules can be laid down for avoiding them. Probably, however, if a New Testament book seems to be nothing but a collection of contradictions we may suppose that we have misunderstood it; and if it clearly supports our own prejudices we may suppose that we have failed to interpret its message. The temptation to practise exegesis by removing difficult passages, and treating them as scribal errors or the work of stupid editors, should be resisted.

This is to say that in theological exegesis, just as in literary or historical criticism, we must maintain a certain measure of distance between the New Testament and ourselves. It is not so much a question of temporal distance (about 1,900 years) as it is a question of ‘emotional distance’. Otherwise the New Testament does not speak to us; we speak for ourselves and use it only as a megaphone.

The Question of Demythologizing

In recent years a favourite method of theological interpretation has been given the name ‘demythologizing’. By means of a biblical criticism ‘free from compromise’(The phrase of H. Ott, ‘Entmythologisierung’ Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart II [ed. 3], 479.) New Testament materials are first classified into something like primary and secondary. What needs demythologizing is the secondary language in which the primary was expressed, the language which speaks in a ‘worldly’ way of what is ‘unworldly’, the language of Jewish apocalyptic mythology or of Hellenistic Gnostic mythology. Such language, as Rudolf Bultmann once said, is unscientific and cannot be accepted by modern men who use electric light.

According to Bultmann the method, which has affinities with ancient allegorization, builds on what was right in the older Liberal Protestant theology and combines with it the discoveries made in the history of religions. What is primary in the New Testament, freed from mythology, is then to be interpreted in the light of modern existentialism.

One can perhaps suggest that the goal, if less methodically envisaged, is not very different from what Christian theologians have actually sought to achieve in the course of the history of theology. The rigidity of the method seems to arise, at least in part, from a faulty application of historical techniques. (1) Was only the framework of the gospel conditioned while the essence (kerygma?) remained unconditioned? (2) Was there only one ancient world view (or perhaps two -- apocalyptic and Gnostic), or did various persons hold various views? The latter conclusion is demonstrated, in my opinion, by my book Miracle and Natural Law in Graeco -Roman and Early Christian Thought (Amsterdam, 1952).

Moreover, the demythologizer, like the Liberal Protestant, finds a Jesus who in some ways resembles himself but makes the rise of Christianity incomprehensible. He makes use of classifications supposedly historical and treats central elements as peripheral. Nature miracles, sacraments, death and resurrection are assigned to Hellenistic mythology; exorcisms and prophecies belong to Jewish mythology. What remains is a Jesus who told stories and uttered wise sayings (many of them not authentic because commonplace); he was a teacher, let us say a teacher of theology. Somehow he was crucified, and later he was known to his disciples in an undefinable ‘Easter-event’. The retention of the Easter-event keeps the system from losing itself in secular philosophy, though it evidently confuses the secular philosophers to whom it is supposed to be addressed.

But let us leave philosophy to the philosophers and ask one further historical question. Presumably the mythology in which the Christians expressed themselves was intended to convey meaning to prospective converts. But we know that in antiquity there were many who regarded the Christian gospel, with or without myth, as both meaningless and untrue. Can one speak, then, of ‘the ancient world view’ as that which prevents modern men from recognizing the truth of the gospel?

An Alternative to Demythologizing

Of course, it may be argued that since demythologizing, for all its apparatus of scholarship, is highly subjective and, indeed, willful, we should steer on the opposite tack and simply take the New Testament ‘as it stands’. The appearance of objectivity thus given is spurious, however, since the New Testament does not ‘stand’ in such a manner. Behind and beyond the gospels stands the Jesus whom the evangelists both understand and misunderstand; as for the rest of the New Testament, it is obvious that the apostle Paul is more significant than (for example) Jude or the author of II Peter. Within the New Testament there is a hierarchy of significance; not everything in it is of equal importance. Therefore it is the task of the theological interpreters to discover what that hierarchy is.

The Role of Historical Analysis in Theology

Historical criticism by itself can never provide a guide to the theological understanding of the New Testament. Historical criticism can only attempt to show what was regarded as important at various historical points. The question then arises whether or not the New Testament is a self-contained unit or, at least, to be interpreted in relation only to itself and to the Old Testament. Here historical criticism is of some value, in that it can suggest that the New Testament books were written in and for a community by men who were members of that community, and that this community, originating in the work of Jesus, has a history which extended beyond his resurrection and, indeed, beyond the apostolic age. In other words, the New Testament writings cannot be understood apart from the life of the apostolic and post-apostolic Church. To be sure, Clement and Ignatius (for example) were as likely to misunderstand the meaning of the gospel as were Matthew and John -- or Paul. But the meaning of early Christianity cannot be recovered unless we take into account not only the New Testament but also the post-apostolic writings of the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists and Irenaeus -- to mention no others.

The Theological Significance of Gnosticism

When we have mentioned the Apostolic Fathers and others, we immediately confront the question of the limits of early Christianity. It is fairly evident that Simon Magus, for example, is not a good witness for early Christian life; for one thing, he regarded himself as the saviour of mankind, or rather of a small fraction of mankind, the spiritually élite. It is more difficult to assess the evidence provided by Marcion, chiefly because Harnack regarded him as the forerunner of nineteenth-century biblical critics. But it would appear that since Marcion denied that Jesus actually lived as a human being and held that the universe was the product of an inferior god, his testimony to Christian doctrine cannot be accepted. Similarly those apocryphal writings which grind special theological axes must be viewed as belonging to the periphery of Christianity. Jerome suggested that gold might lie in the mud of these documents; but the proportion of mud is remarkably high.

Some early Christian writers, and perhaps even some New Testament writers, were influenced by what seems to us to be Gnostic terminology. But it still remains to be shown that this terminology was always Gnostic and that in Christian writings its overtones were Gnostic. Once more, ‘modern’ men often find the ‘existential’-sounding Gnostic ideas attractive. This is not to say that they (either the men or the ideas) can be regarded as Christian. One of the chief values of the Gnostic movement was that it aided the Church to define its own terms and to reject Gnosticism as such.

History, Tradition and Theology

Gnosticism ultimately denied the reality of both history and tradition by insisting upon the historical unreality of Jesus. A truly theological interpretation of the New Testament must therefore take its stand upon the ground of historical fact, recognizing that Jesus and his disciples really lived and really taught what the New Testament documents indicate they taught. At the same time, such an interpretation must not deny the reality of modern interpreters and of modern men and their ideas. It must resolutely admit the existence of distance between the New Testament and ourselves. It must not, however, exaggerate the measure of this distance. Modern men often live longer than ancient men did; all men die, and all men are subject to drives which do not vary greatly from one century to another. Their attitudes to death and to these drives will vary, but nothing beyond confusion results if we try to make the New Testament writers share our own attitudes.

The basic question is probably that of theological authority. Is authority within Christianity derived from the Bible alone, or from tradition alone? Or is it a kind of mixed authority in which scripture, tradition and reason all have rôles to play -- rôles whose significance can be assessed differently under different circumstances? It would appear -- at least, so it appears to the author -- that the second option is the only tenable one, given the existence of the Church and the necessity of modifying various aspects of Christian teaching under varying circumstances. This is to say that we read the Bible not with ‘eyes of faith’ alone but with two eyes which give perspective. With one eye we read the New Testament to see what it may say to us about the gospel and about the early Church which proclaimed the gospel. With the other we look at it more critically to see whether or not what it says to us is historically and theologically true. Both eyes are kept in focus by the use of the glasses provided by tradition, by historical scholarship, and by theological inquiry.


What we have been trying to indicate is that the object of New Testament study is the understanding of the New Testament. Such understanding requires us to devote our attention primarily to the New Testament itself and to enter into an encounter with what it says. For this reason we must attempt to devise some kind of method for the encounter -- not that the encounter absolutely requires the use of such a method, but that, methods being what they are, it is better to have a more adequate and explicit method than to imagine that we are not using one when we actually do so implicitly.

In dealing with the New Testament, then, the first question to be raised is this: ‘What is the New Testament?’ Answering this question requires us to investigate the history of the New Testament canon (Chapter 1). The next question is, ‘What does the New Testament say?’ The attempt to deal with this problem leads us into the realm of textual criticism and the study of translations (Chapter 2). When we have considered these two ‘what’ questions, we are ready for the further question, ‘How does the New Testament say what it says?’ Here we enter the areas of translation and of literary criticism, which is essentially the analysis of the style of the various New Testament writers. Stylistic analysis can lead us towards understanding what the authors intended to say, for style cannot easily be separated from content. The style is the instrument which the author uses for expressing his thought (Chapter 4). Only after these investigations have been made are we ready to investigate the problem of why the authors said what they said. The ultimate ‘why’ question can be answered in two ways. First, it can be answered historically, in relation to the authors’ place within the stream of Christian life and to their various environments in the ancient world (Chapter 5). Second, it can (and must) be answered theologically, in relation to the author’s purposes in setting forth their basic understanding of the gospel -- that is to say, of the ultimate meaning of the revelation of God in Christ (Chapter 6).

The fundamental questions involved, then, are the questions of ‘what’ (Chapters and 1 and 2), of ‘what’ and ‘how’ (Chapters 3 and 15), of ‘how’ and ‘why’ (Chapter 5), and of ‘why’ (Chapters 5 and 6). Naturally there is more overlapping than this schematic statement suggests. We are dealing with real phenomena (the New Testament writings) which cannot be neatly dealt with by having a schematic structure imposed on them. But it can be argued that unless all the steps of this procedure are kept in mind, somehow or other, our interpretation of the New Testament will be unbalanced and/or inadequate.

The final result of this kind of analysis will be historical, we should claim; but it will also be theological in so far as we finally concern ourselves with the basic purpose or purposes which the authors had in view. In this sense, a non-theological interpretation is inadequately historical, and a non-historical interpretation cuts theology (at any rate, Christian theology) loose from its moorings or, to change the figure, deprives the ship of its rudder.

The same point can be expressed in a different way, if one does not wish to make use of theological language but prefers to remain in the realm of the historical. The historical method, to a very considerable extent, involves placing a document in its historical context and tracing interrelations. The historical context of the New Testament documents is a double one. First, and more generally, there is the context provided by the life and thought of the Graeco-Roman world and, a little more specifically, of Judaism in this world. This context is often regarded as all-important. But there is also the second context which, for the New Testament writers themselves, was the more important of the two. This is the context provided by the life and thought of the early Christian Church. In order to understand this context it is necessary to venture into the areas of biblical and church history and of biblical and Christian theology. By laying emphasis on environmental study at both levels we can cross the bridge between history and theology, provided that we are willing to recognize a considerable measure of continuity between the early Church and the Church today.

Finally, even if we do not recognize the continuity we can at least recognize the significance of the early Church as providing the historical environment for the New Testament. Without the ‘hypothesis’ of the Church the New Testament documents are like isolated pearls without a string.