Monday, June 6, 2011

The Riddle of the New Testament

I first encountered Sir Edwyn Hoskyns in Stephen Neill's fantastic history of The Interpretation of the New Testament, and have been intrigued by Hoskyns and Davey's The Riddle of the New Testament (3rd ed.; London: Faber & Faber, 1947) ever since reading Markus Bockmuehl's Seeing the Word. Neill calls it "a series of hammer blows, at what . . .was a widespread understanding of the gospels" (215). It is that, but it is also a series of hammer blows against theological liberalism, for, as Neill explains,  "[T]he most important thing of all about Hoskyns was that, like Karl Barth, he was a converted liberal" (213).

As one would expect from a book first published in 1931, parts of The Riddle of the New Testament are rather dated. I find the authors a little too confident in the results of historical criticism. However, it is worth your time at least as much as C.F.D. Moule's Birth of the New Testament, and it is an easier (and shorter) read. In many respects it seems far ahead of its time. It is also a model of clarity, forceful argument, and verve. The whole book is written around the riddle of the relationship between Jesus and the church:
"There is a riddle in the New Testament. And it is a riddle neither of literary criticism, nor of date and authorship, nor of the historicity of this or that episode. The riddle is a theological riddle, which is insoluble apart from the solution of an historical problem. What was the relation between Jesus of Nazareth and the primitive Christian church? That is the riddle. The New Testament documents, all of them, emerged from the primitive church. They reflected piety and encouraged faith. Was there, or was there not, a strict relationship between this rich piety and exuberant faith and the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth? Did the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth control the life of the primitive church? or were his life and death submerged by a piety and faith wholly beyond his horizon? . . . The adequacy of the modern historical critical method is therefore finally tested by its success or failure in answering the problem of the Jesus of history. The authors of this book are confident that the critical method does survive this very severe test, and that it does disclose results, even assured results..." (12).
Hoskyn's and Davey's answer is, in a word, Yes. The life and death of Jesus controlled the life of the primitive church:
"No single strand in the evidence deprives Jesus of the conscious sense that he was bringing into being a new order and working out a purpose . . . . Nowhere in the New Testament are the writers imposing an interpretation upon a history. The history contains the purpose, and is indeed controlled by it. That is to say, the historian is dealing in the end with an historical figure fully conscious of a task which had to be done, and fully conscious also that the only future which mattered for men and women depended upon the completion of his task. The future order, which it was the purpose of Jesus to bring into being, depended upon what he said and did, and finally upon his death." (172)
I, for one, find their answer compelling.

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