Why the Bible matters for theology

Ted Grimsrud

Probably the class I teach that I enjoy the most is Biblical Theology of Peace and Justice. I had an especially good group of students this semester, and I am sorry that our time together is coming to an end. We do a quick run through of the Bible, starting with Genesis and ending with Revelation. We focus on big themes that relate to peace and justice—some of the problematic texts such as the Joshua conquest as well as texts that more directly point toward pacifism and antipathy toward power politics.

The Bible is of course way to big and complex to be covered in just one undergraduate semester-long class. We have to skip a tremendous amount of important material and surely over-generalize as well as over-emphasize some parts in relation to others. But, still, I think many good things happen in this class and it provides students with an interpretive framework that at least in some cases sticks with them and helps them as they do more studying and thinking.

Even though I follow a similar outline each time I teach the class (I think this is the sixteenth time I have taught it—we always read John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, and Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers), I still find each opportunity to do this class a time myself to think new thoughts and make new connections. One huge factor, of course, is the different make up of students who always have questions and observations different than their predecessors. It is also the case, though, that no one can fully master this material. Each time I work through it, I see new things.

I want to write a little here about what I am especially noticing this year. This class is actually listed as a “theology” and not “biblical studies” class (I wish this were not the case) because, I suppose, my main areas of teaching are theology and ethics. Though I think this class should have a BIST rather than THEO prefix, I also recognize that I teach it more as a theologian than a biblical studies scholar. And I can’t help but think about the Bible in relation to what we could call “doctrinal theology” (as I elaborate in my book Theology As If Jesus Matters: An Introduction to Christianity’s Main Convictions). What I have realized this semester is that the reason I, as a theologian, care about the Bible so much and do so much of my constructive theology based on the Bible is because the Bible is, we could say, “this-worldly” in a way that later Christianity and Christian theology are not.

I remain deeply impressed with how the Bible from start to finish focuses on how human beings can (and so often fail to) live lives here on earth that are meaningful, just, creative, and health-giving. The basic problem for most biblical writers is that human beings, even those within the community of God’s people, give their loyalty to idols—with terrible consequences for themselves and the rest of the world. This loyalty is not about doctrinal beliefs or religious rituals nearly so much as about whether or now we show love and compassion toward other human beings.

I realize that part of the reason I find myself uninterested in or unattracted to much of what formal Christian theology focuses on (doctrines, sacraments, abstract ideas, boundary lines, exclusivist religious beliefs, entry into “heaven”) is that it is so often at best tangentially related to actual, this-worldly human flourishing. On the other hand, the Bible is concerned with little else.

Even when formal Christian theology does turn to the Bible, it seems that the central concern too often is doctrines about the Bible, focusing on the “authority” of the Bible more than on the content of the Bible. And when there is discussion of the content of the Bible, so often it is about isolated concepts that are separated from their narrative context (for example, in a discussion in a different class the other day, a student made a point about the “biblical teaching” on the eternal, disembodied human soul that either goes to heaven or hell immediately upon the deaths of our bodies—he cited the rich man and Lazarus story as support; we didn’t have time to discuss how this story needs to be read in its narrative context and not just mined for ideas that support theological beliefs arrived at from outside the biblical account).

But when we read the actual big story and the various smaller stories of the Bible on their own terms, we encounter time and again human life presented with amazing honesty, in the in-history struggle to find meaning, sustain life-enhancing human community, and embody our God-given imperative to live justly.

I increasingly wonder about the layers of teaching, interpretation, and “sophistication” that formal theology adds to the biblical story. Do we really need anything more than the biblical story of Jesus and his love? As I discuss in my book mentioned above, if we would do our theology overtly in light of Jesus (understood in his biblical context), we would have something much simpler and concrete (and, I believe, life-enhancing) than the doctrinal theology that has evolved in the post-biblical epoch.

6 thoughts on “Why the Bible matters for theology

  1. t glenn

    Loved the direction of this. As I posted in the comment section, keep going! BTW, I realized during reading your post that the way I conduct my business in my current work is in step with your thinking. Love to talk with you about this.

    d laban

  2. Ted,
    You ask “do we really need anything more than the biblical story of Jesus and his love?”

    Perhaps there’s a point to theology other than enhancing our lives or living better. One suggestion, perhaps, is that theology can bring us to a deeper knowledge and understanding of God. If God is a real person(s) with whom we are in relationship, knowing more about Him certainly seems like it would improve that relationship.

    I think a healthy balance of “here-focused” and “God-focused” is necessary. Of course, theology (especially of the systematic type) can get God wrong – but I’ve never read a theology that didn’t give me some sort of insight about God. Likewise, theology often becomes over-emphasized and we forget about how we need to live life in the midst of it.

    1. That being said, I’ve just read your three posts on Barth and realize that sort of thinking might go against your Anabaptist commitments. Personally, I find reading theology, even vastly speculative theology, at least intellectually enriching.


  3. As I say in my final exam paper, I think Wink is actually doing theodicy in Engaging the Powers. What does this mean? That when you actually start looking at the social and the personal on two different molecular levels instead of through the glass of speculative theology, you begin to know an emergent God that rises from the social and personal as ordering principle (Wink’s “God’s domination-free order”). These two spheres or “molecular flows”, the social and personal, are in psychological terms “inner belief” and “social action.”

    Powers and people aren’t created evil, so on some level they must be experiencing a severe dissonance, what Ezekiel calls a divided heart, when they act against their own inner (peaceable) values. This is what Ellul is referring to when he talks about the politics of God being a complete harmony of ends (inner beliefs) and means (social actions). It is also the basis for Wink’s vision of a non-coercive natural moral order, part of the fabric of Being. God, through prophetic politics and Jesus, is always inviting us back to an inner consonance, an undivided heart. When we accept the moral order as our own will, then we live in Christ, and in the Holy Spirit.

    Oy, thanks for making me read all that stuff.

  4. Ted, I was just having this conversation with Nancy the other day. Even though my desire is to study Systematic or Philosophical Theology in grad school, I hope to be able to take some biblical studies class whenever language prerequisites do not preclude that.

    Interestingly, whenever I am writing in a more theological voice I find that what I know from biblical studies (relatively little) leads me to be uneasy about some of the theological claims I want to make. This is precisely why the divorce between theology and biblical studies needs to be resisted. Often the theology that purports to be the most biblical (e.g. some Reformed theology, evangelical fundamentalism, etc.) has the tendency to be the most dehistoricized, least contextual treatments of the Bible.

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