The Church’s Jesus: On Not Overdoing It

Over the next few days I will likely be saying a bit more about the church’s Jesus, as I began doing yesterday.

But before I get deeper into this, I want to speak a word of balance. Yesterday I made some claims about the church’s Jesus being a Jesus that in some ways the academy could never affirm. The church must always stand in the place of rehearsing Jesus not merely as a historical figure but as one who demands that we follow.

And so, in this sense, what the church does with and says about Jesus will always bear a similarity to the Gospels’ original purpose that the “purely academic” study of the Bible cannot, and does not with to, incur.

But…

Where the church’s readings can start to lose their moorings is precisely the place where academic study not only camps out, but even excels and thereby often surpassed the church’s readings.

In a couple of the proposals for theological interpretation I have read, the church’s ideal stance of “obedience” has been held forth as something that places the church closer to the posture of an “ideal reader” of the text than the historical academic readings. But to my mind this concedes too much to the potential response and too little to the historical context.

The first readers of the Bible were not merely worshipers of YHWH or followers of Jesus. They were not merely people who, ideally, would respond to the exhortations or shape their lives in accordance with the narratives.

They were all these things of course.

But they were also Jews living in exile under Babylonian rule. They were also Jews restored to their land in the Persian period and attempting to eke out a living there. They were also caught up in the currents of Roman rule of the Mediterranean world.

To reconstruct the hearing and response of an ideal reader of the text, taking into consideration that such a reader wishes to faithfully respond to God is a necessary component. But it is insufficient. The ideal reader of the text is also situated in a particular historical and cultural context within which the cues, clues, and commands means certain things, carry particular connotations, and aim for faithful response in that historical and cultural context.

The church needs an academy because the academy is always asking what we too often take for granted: “What was this text really trying to say, what response was it truly attempting to elicit?”

For this, we need more than faith. We need history. And for history, we often discover that those without the constraints of prior answers (i.e., an academy that, as such, has no constraint based on an agreed upon a priori right answer) often provide greater illumination than than those for whom history is not the main thing.

So for all that I said, and meant, yesterday about the church needing to say what the academy (as such) cannot, I will not say that people who do not share the church’s faith cannot read the Bible aright. Often, the academy does better with one of the necessary components (a historically viable reading of the text), even while the church’s posture of obedience allows it to affirm another necessary component.

While we in the church say, “God was at work in this history,” we often have to listen to those outside the church to learn better what “this history” is.

2 thoughts on “The Church’s Jesus: On Not Overdoing It”

  1. Yes, I could not agree more! As a pastor, it’s discouraging to see so many folks following a Jesus of their own making. While we all do this to some degree, it’s the historical question that keeps us rooted amidst the winds of our own imaginations. Being transformed into the image of Christ begins in the least with a willingness to transform our own image of Jesus in light of the biblical text as understood by the first readers. This is a historical task that must include, as you say, the academy.

  2. Daniel,

    These qualifications are helpful. I didn’t read your former post as anti-academy, but they did make me ask, “OK, so what to do with the academy?” You are 100% that the academy keeps us honest in our interpretation and understanding of the text.

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