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So, what is the NT today?

28 March 2013

Lionel Wickham is impressed by this scholar's answers

Pietà : The Lamentation, c.1480, Castilla-La Mancha (Guadalajar), Spain, once the centre of an altarpiece in the Benedictine monastery at Sopetrán, north-east of Madrid, is one of the beautiful medieval artefacts displayed in a 75-year-old branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters, celebrated in a handsome and scholarly new paperback guide. See caption overleaf for full details

Pietà : The Lamentation, c.1480, Castilla-La Mancha (Guadalajar), Spain, once the centre of an altarpiece in the Benedictine monastery at Sopetrán, ...

Is Scripture Still Holy? Coming of age with the New Testament
A. E. Harvey
Eerdmans £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT602 )

A GOOD question! Things can stop being what they once were, and scripture could be one of them. After a fashion, of course, in this fine book - so much more illuminating, not to say even important, than its slender dimensions might give you to think - it is provided with an answer.

A "tentative" answer, Anthony Harvey calls it: one that attends to "some considerations which should be taken more seriously by scholars than is usually the case". It may be "tentative", but is also, I can report, positive. He has delivered it without footnotes or bibliography; and the word "eschatology", a sure sign that the conversation has taken off to where you might not feel able to go, does not appear in the index of subjects.

The index of biblical references mentions only the New Testament, because written here are some things that a specialist New Testament scholar of great experience and, I would add, of refined judgement particularly wants to say now about that strange and all but literally fascinating, or "bewitching", bundle of documents.

His thoughts do not need footnotes or bibliography. They surely and certainly arise from long study. His readers will give their respectful attention, conscious that, at the drop of a hat on any particular point, he could furnish a long list of scholars who have or have not thought the same as he; and that for his present purpose such listing is pretty well irrelevant: he is writing what he thinks to be the case.

There are seven chapters. The first, "Coming of Age", focuses the theme, and has all the trickiest ideas in the book: what elsewhere in an old-fashioned handbook of doctrine you would find under the headings "Godhead", "Providence", and "Revelation". Scripture is holy in so far as it "mediates some moment of experience in the past when the transcendent God in whom we believe intervened in the universe he had created"; scripture is authoritative in so far as it is historically reliable, morally relevant, and nourishes the imagination. The rest of the book is about how it continues to fulfil these conditions.

Chapter Two, "Checking the History", looks first at Acts, and gives reasons for judging it to be "true to the facts" according to the standards and methods of the historiography of its author's time; the "Jesus tradition" of the Gospels is consistent and was carefully preserved, its integral miraculous element not incredible.

Chapter Three, "Evaluating John", allows for the differences from the other Gospels and as complement to them, but concludes that a negative assessment of its witness is not called for.

Chapter Four, "Seeking a Moral", deals with New Testament ethical teaching. Chapter Five, "Questing for Jesus", makes "Messiah" the dominating category for interpretation of Jesus' role. Chapter Six, "Reckoning with Paul", does just that; and the final chapter, "Supplying 'If'", is about interpreting the New Testament understanding of ultimate and imminent divine restoration.

This book pursues the historical method. History provides no spiritual or metaphysical truths. It de-scribes how they came to be entertained. I commend this reliable de-scription. It deserves pondering on.

The Revd Dr Lionel Wickham is a former lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge.

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