In the previous two sections on Christology and Theological Method I have argued that theology has its genesis, not in Scripture per se, or in a general concept of God, but rather in the history of the Son of God as seen in Israel, the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and the church. It is in and through this history that we come to recognize the Triune God, the Father, Son, and Spirit as the one true God. It is likewise from within this history that the Scriptures are formed, unfolding in the life of the church as the authoritative witnesses to Christ through the Spirit.
Theology is grounded in the revelation of God in the history of Christ. It is irreducibly particular and specific. And only insofar as theology retains its particularity does it remain truly Christian theology. Only through the radical particularity of Christ is the universal and transcendental reality of the Triune God revealed and realized. From within this framework of Christocentric particularity, it becomes important to examine the relationship between the central sources for theology to which the theologian must attend. We have already discussed the role of culture in determining how theology must find ways to speak the gospel in a variety of tongues for the purpose of showing how the story of Christ is the key to all human stories. However, the reality of this all-expansive and radically inclusive narrative of Immanuel, God-with-us is the irreducibly particular story of Jesus of Nazareth.
Thus, the doing of theology is concerned with rightly narrating the story of Jesus as the story of God. What happens in Christ, Christians believe, is what happens in God. The narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for us is the reality of God. In Jesus, God happens in human flesh, “what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands”: in this Jesus, we have not the veiling of God, but his unveiling, his primal epiphany! As Paul himself declares concerning Christ,
Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:12-18)
In Christ we see, not the veiling of God, but his very apokalypsis, his revelatory unveiling before our eyes in history. To be sure, the reality of Christ is infinitely rich and beyond ever apprehending. But it is precisely this infinity that happens before our eyes in Jesus of Nazareth. For it is in Christ that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden (Col. 2:3).
Theology must be radically Christocentric if it is to be a theology that serves the gospel. The task of the theologian is to attend to the work of hearing the word concerning Christ and passing it on (paradosis). Thus, theology is fundamentally an act of tradition. In the doing of theology we are participating in a historical community of memory whose task it is to hear anew the word concerning Jesus and pass it on faithfully to others. As such, theology is and must always be a practice which submits itself to the authoritative witness to Christ, the Scriptures. Because theology is an action of tradition-making and tradition-participation it must be Sriptural from begining to end.
The theologian reads the Scriptures, not from a fictional vantage point of inductive neutrality, but from the standpoint of the story of Jesus Christ which stands at the center of the Scriptural narrative and which is the context for Scripture’s interpretation. The story of Christ, which is the story of God, is the hermeneutical lens for the proper reading of Scripture. Conversely, Scripture is the authoritative witness to that story which constantly reshapes our telling of it. The theologian stands in a dialectical field of discourse between Scripture and Creed, between the rule of faith which guides the church’s reading of the Bible and the genuine novum, the surplus of meaning which always refines, expands, and enriches how we understand the rule of faith as we read the Scriptures.
The Scriptures do not operate in a historical vacuum. The formation of the canon of Scripture is a deeply convoluted and messy history. There is nothing neat and tidy about it. How the church came to the point of submitting to the canon of the New Testament as we know it today is no simple story, and it is a story that is theological from beginning to end. What we have in the New Testament are those writings which the church deemed the Spirit to have led them to regard as authoritative witness to the story of Christ. The Scriptures, the church’s tradition, and the current reality of the visible church-community all belong to the same category in the theological structure of things. They are witnesses to Jesus Christ.
The church is the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit. It is in the church that the continued presence of Christ in the world is embodied through word and sacrament. It is only in this context, the context of the palpable, embodied, and visible community of Christ’s followers that the biblical witness to Christ is intelligible as Scripture. But neither can the church be itself without the verbum exernum of the Scriptural witness. Followers of Jesus are not infallible, and sadly neither is the visible church, as soteriologcally relevant and central as the visible church is. The Scriptures do critique and measure the church, they are the church’s canon, and the church is accountable for its faithfulness to the authority of Scripture as the Spirit inspired witness to Jesus Christ.
It is likewise in the context of the visible church that the reality of the church’s tradition, the history of the Spirit’s work in and through the body of Christ over all centuries is remembered and owned. The living tradition of the church cannot be appropriated apart from the reality of the community who lives within the stream of that historic tradition. But likewise, it is impossible for the church to be itself without reference to the stream of the great tradition. The church is the body of Christ in that it is Christ’s embodied presence in the world throughout history. No one can “create” a church; rather we can only join one. All churches, to some degree or another, stand in the midst of the great and tumultuous history of God forming a people for himself out of all nations. However, that history is not simply the history of the Spirit guiding the bride of Christ into all truth, it is also the history of a stiff-necked whore who is always resisting the Holy Spirit! The church throughout history has been suffused with the redeeming presence of God amidst human unfaithfulness to his call. Tradition is at once the history of the church’s successes and its failures. A right appropriation of the church’s tradition requires the reality of the gospel of Christ to stand in judgment over all our attempts to be faithful to God.
Ultimately, the Scriptures, the tradition, and the church-community cannot be the source and foundation for Christian theology. Christian theology is indeed scriptural theology, it is likewise traditional theology, and it is certainly ecclesial theology. But prior to all of these things it is Christian theology. The source and foundation for all theology is Christ himself. It is in him that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are to be found, it is in him that “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9).
It is only through the hard work of being a theologian who lives wholly in the visible church-community that theology can be done with embodied grounding. Likewise it is only through the hard work of being a theologian who lives passionately through the church’s historic tradition that theology can be faithful to the God who walks with his people through history in Christ and the Spirit. No less, the theologian must unflinchingly strive to submit to the Scriptures as the witnesses to Christ if theology is not to become a mere reflection of the zeitgeist of our current culture. To strive to be a theologian of the church, of tradition, and of Scripture is to strive to be a theologian of the gospel to which church, tradition, and Scripture all bear witness. Ultimately Christian theology is gospel theology. And the gospel is that the story of Christ is the key to all human stories. The gospel claims that what happens in Jesus life, death, and resurrection is God apocalypsed in the life of the world. The reality of this gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ is that which is proclaimed by the church, remembered in tradition, and witnessed to in the Scriptures. It is only through the diligent and faithful attention to all three of these witnesses that Christian theology is done to the praise of the Triune God.