Monday, June 16, 2008

Tom Schreiner on Scripture's Fundamental Harmony

Collin Hansen's CT interview with Tom Schreiner about his new New Testament Theology has been mentioned here and here (to start with two blogs I follow). The interview is well worth reading and I expect Schreiner's big book is too, but I do have a quibble with Schreiner's response to critics of his project:
Some scholars argue that the NT writers contradict one another. Hence, an approach like mine forces, they allege, a harmony on the NT. I would respond by saying that Paul believed that the message proclaimed by him and the other apostles (Gal. 2:1-10; 1 Cor. 15:11) was coherent. . . . At the end of the day, those who think the NT contradicts itself buy into a philosophical worldview opposed to the NT message.
Schreiner later explains that he hopes his readers "will see that the NT message is fundamentally harmonious." Fair enough. But are fundamental harmony and self-contradiction polar opposites? If so, why not say "completely harmonious" rather than "fundamentally harmonious"? Can the NT be "fundamentally harmonious" and still contradict itself? The answer depends on what one considers a contradiction and what "fundamentally harmonious" means.

Let me explain. Mark 9:2 says that Jesus ascended the mount of transfiguration "after six days." Luke 9:27 says the event happened "about eight days after these sayings." This is a formal contradiction, but I doubt very much it troubles Schreiner. Perhaps he would explain it, like I do, as two different ways of referring to a period of about a week. Nor do I expect Schreiner has difficulty reconciling James's statement that "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (2:24) with Paul's insistence that "a person is justified by faith apart from works" (Rom 3:28). I don't know how Schreiner explains the donkey and the colt that Jesus rode on according to Matthew 21:7 with the single colt Jesus sat on according to Mark 11:7. But I suspect Schreiner would regard this too as at most a tension rather than a contradiction. If the distinction comes down to semantics--if one person's contradiction is another's tension--perhaps the distinction itself is problematic.

Let me be clear: I don't object to viewing Scripture as harmonious. On the contrary, I am delighted whenever I catch a new glimpse of its unity. But I object to the suggestion that those who are impressed with the diversity within Scripture do so only because they have bought into a "worldview opposed to the NT message." Maybe they are just using their eyes.

I also object to the defensive posture that Schreiner's position requires. Rather than stipulating in advance what it means for Scripture to speak in harmony, why not listen to it, and let it spell the tune. How Scripture hangs together is precisely the question.


Ben Byerly said...

I'm glad you made these comments. I had similar thoughts and was having trouble articulating them.

My second question, which I hesitate to remark on - since I haven't seen the book, is this: "what role does the story of Israel play?" (The debate over the story of Israel - and Jesus' role in it - seems to play a key role in at least Matthew, Luke, John and most of Paul's writings - not to mention Hebrews.) If Schreiner's commentary on Romans is anything to go by, I bet he give the central "Israel" dialog a pass here too.

I'd be interested to know hear what others who have read the book think.

d. miller said...

Thanks for the comment, Ben. I'll keep my eye out for Schreiner's treatment of Israel...if I ever get to his NT Theology.

I am enjoying your blog, by the way. It brings back good memories of growing up in Kenya.