I’ve been doing some thinking lately on the relationship between History, Theology and the Church. I’ve been irritated by a scholar who argued for theological formation divorced from historical foundation and this morning have recieved a fresh appreciation for Philip F. Esler. I remember encountering Esler’s writings at undergraduate level, and loved a lot of what he had to say, particularly to do with social-context. In a chapter i’m reading at the moment he outlines why he takes social context incredibly seriously when studying scripture.
Esler’s approach to scripture seeks to combine history, theology and community (in a nut shell). This approach essentially attempts to open up a dialogue between the writers of the New Testament and ourselves. It is ‘necessarily intercultural, given the great cultural distance between us and them, and critical, since there will be areas in which their ways (the acceptence of slavery, for example) are not our ways.’ A responsible reading of scripture recognises and acknowledges the differences not only between author and reader, but between authors themselves – allowing each author to tell their story in their time.
In order to allow each author to do this, a socio-theological approach recognises the ‘necessity of attempting to understand our biblical forebears in all their historical particularity.’ The purpose of this is not to confine their beliefs to history, but to drag their history into our present in order to inform our future. ‘It is not a body of systematic theological truth that depends on ignoring or eliminating the historical distinctiveness of the New Testament writings. Rather, it renders articulate the theological foundations of what we are doing when we try to grasp the original meanings of the New Testament as composed by persons who, like us, belonged (or belong?) to the Body of Christ and experienced the same Holy Spirit in spite of the gulf between us and them.’
According to this approach to the bible then, the purpose of the historical, critical, study of scripture (something often viewed sceptically by paritioners and congregations alike) is to better inform our teaching in order to better equip the Church.