Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What can scripture really tell us about Jesus? Part 2: discerning the unity of scripture

As I mentioned in part 1 of this reflection, the academic world has largely lost sight of the real contribution of scripture to an understanding of who Jesus is and what he accomplished. While acknowledging the historical reality of Jesus' public life nearly 2 millennia ago, there is serious and widespread disagreement about what can truly be known about what he taught and what authority he could legitimately claim in advancing his teaching. Our Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, has written a three volume series on Jesus of Nazareth in which he accepts the challenges laid down by scripture scholars and advances important arguments to support the claims of faith. Thus, Benedict argues, the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith are one and the same person. Or, to put this another way for the claims of faith, the historical Jesus was who scripture says he was, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, who dwelt among humanity, who was anointed by the Holy Spirit to carry out a mission of salvation and who suffered, died and rose from the dead in fulfillment of the Father's plan.

Papa Benedict (as he prefers to be addressed in informal circumstances, accepting the unofficial Italian title of all popes) wrote that two key arguments needed to be advanced in support of the claims of faith, one positive and one negative.

The positive argument is that scripture as a whole, including both the Old and New Testaments, has an underlying unity of vision involving a demonstrably coherent meaning and purpose. Discovering this unity of vision and the true coherence of scripture requires a starting point. That starting point, Benedict argues, must be the content of faith, itself.

So it is with all developments in the hard sciences. So it must be in the development of a coherent biblically-based theology. (What is theology, after all, but a coherent understanding of faith?) In the case of scientific theories, a new theory must be tested against existing and new scientific observations. In the case of a coherent theology, it must be tested against historical studies, including archaeology, and scientific observations, as well as individual human experience. Above all, it must be tested against scripture as a whole and the traditions that undergird scripture since these bear the weight of recorded divine revelation.

Papa Benedict describes the key to discerning the unity of scripture, founded on faith in Christ, as "a Christological hermeneutic". Here is what he says, in describing the process of discovering/discerning the unity of scripture.

This process is certainly not linear, and it is often dramatic, but when you watch it unfold in light of Jesus Christ, you can see it moving in a single overall direction; you can see that the Old and New Testaments belong together. This Christological hermeneutic, which sees Jesus Christ as the key to the whole and learns from him how to understand the Bible as a unity, presupposes a prior act of faith. It cannot be the conclusion of a purely historical method. But this act of faith is based upon reason—historical reason—and so makes it possible to see the internal unity of Scripture. By the same token, it enables us to understand anew the individual elements that have shaped it, without robbing them of their historical originality.

(Emphasis mine.) I will say more in the next installment.