Saturday, November 21, 2009

Discussion and Assessment of New Testament Theology by G. B. Caird

This paper was written May, 2004, and was the last one I turned in before graduation from Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.  Part of a course on New Testament Theology, the paper is a "discussion and assessment" of a book with the same title by New Testament scholar G. B. Caird ($85!!!) and his student, L. D. Hurst, who completed the book after Caird's death.  Bogged down in learning Hebrew that last semester, I almost missed the deadline on this paper and had to put it together in a high pressure twelve hours or so, with no multi-tasking allowed, just before graduation.  That's not the way I like to work, but, looking back at the final product, it was not so terrible an experience.  I have some problem with getting this blogging software to show the footnote references correctly so the numbers in parentheses are the page numbers referred to in the book.

If you are ready for a nap, read on...after checking out my disclaimer to the right under "Why Last of All?"

Discussion and Assessment of G. B. Caird’s
New Testament Theology
Darryl K. Williams
May 13, 2004

Introduction and Overview

This challenging work is a joint effort of the primary author and his student, L. D. Hurst, who completed the “less than half finished” (vi) work after Caird’s death. Although Hurst made significant individual contributions to the finished product, including half of Chapter 6 and all of Chapters 7-9, he followed, as much as possible, the original author’s thinking as he understood it from Caird’s lectures and papers, and from private conversations. In this paper, for convenience, I will describe all quotations and references from the work as Caird’s.

Caird expresses a clear understanding that the development of a theology based on the NT Canon is complicated by the fact that the NT writers wrote to address particular issues in particular circumstances and for particular communities. Therefore, none of the individual works can be considered to tell the whole story for all times and circumstances. They are not systematic theologies. However, Caird’s hypothesis is that all the writings can be clearly understood as bearing witness to the historical Jesus of Nazareth and to some common NT theology. The presumption seems to be that that common NT theology will not be found to be described fully by any one writer, nor will the total Canon necessarily fully describe the theology, nor will everything written by a particular writer necessarily advance an understanding of the theology. However, Caird seems to be saying, if one could get inside the minds of the writers and successfully imagine the contexts in which they wrote and then comment, with neither modernization or archaization creeping in, from the viewpoint of each on what each of the others wrote, perhaps an improved picture of that NT theology to which they all bear witness would emerge. Perhaps one would be able to discern, “not whether these books all say the same thing, but whether they all bear witness to the same Jesus and through him to the many splendoured wisdom of the one God.” (24)

Caird avoids traditional approaches to New Testament theology, arguing that, “the whole tenor of the New Testament is opposed to dogmatism…” (8), that a chronological approach ignores the canonicity of the New Testament, that a kerygmatic approach is flawed because the New Testament does not contain all that the apostolic church taught and thought, and that an author by author approach leaves undone any possible reconciliation of the various messages. What Caird proposes, to accomplish the task of getting inside the minds of the authors, is an imaginary conference of about a dozen New Testament writers, at which issues are raised, perhaps based on words of one of the writers who had a great deal to say about a particular issue, and then other participants are allowed to comment if they have anything to say on the subject. Of course all the participants do not have the same experience base or the same knowledge, and all will learn from each other. One can imagine that the responses might range from total agreement to, “I see what you mean,” or “I never thought of that.” Invitees to the conference table include the Gospel writers, Paul, the Pastor, and the authors of Hebrews, James, 1st and 2nd Peter, Jude, and Revelation. Caird assumes that the writer of John can speak for whoever wrote the Epistles of John and that Paul can speak for whoever wrote 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians. (18) If the writers of those later epistles were faithful students of their predecessors simply addressing new situations in the context of the same church, that assumption may be considered reasonable.

Caird’s model for the conference table approach is the first Jerusalem conference which included honest discussion of differences between Paul and the other Apostles and resulted in all being able to go on their ways, not necessarily in unanimity, but recognizing that, “…the same God was at work both in Peter’s mission to the Jews and in Paul’s mission to the Gentiles.” (24) Such agreement seems to be a worthy but unreachable goal for a church as fragmented as we are in the 21st century but perhaps can be achieved incrementally.

Caird’s Center of the New Testament

An overview of Caird’s volume leads to the conclusion that, for him, the New Testament is primarily about what happened to Jesus in his death and resurrection and how that was and is a solution to the problem of our sins. This focus can be seen in the organization of the volume which begins with explanation of how the NT and the church are tied to the OT and its prophecies of someone from the nation of Israel through whom all nations will be blessed. The result of that promise which is to be fulfilled through “The Divine Plan,” is God’s “Plan of Salvation.” Then he addresses the need for and the nature of the promised salvation and climaxes with a discussion of “The Bringer of Salvation, Jesus Christ, and his theology. “Caird finds ample evidence that the Church is continuous with and not a replacement of Israel in the fact that the early Christians all regarded OT history as their history. (55) The concept that what happened to Jesus was predicted by or at least consistent with OT scripture he finds to be pervasive in the NT, and he calls this concept a “notion of fulfillment.” (27) He finds it in the writings of all the witnesses at the conference table except 2 Thessalonians, 1, 2, 3 John, and the Pastoral Epistles. That may seem to be a long list of exceptions, but it certainly represents a small portion of the NT and a portion primarily concerned with particular limited issues rather than with a general proclamation of the Gospel.

Caird identifies other consistent and unifying themes, but they can all be reconciled with a central focus on what happened to Jesus. He finds, for example, that for all the NT writers, evil is real and the solution to the problem of evil will have to come from outside, “from God Himself.” (117) Consistent with that, he finds that belief in the moral bankruptcy of the human race is prevalent. (74) He also finds that the NT is uniformly a book about God, (31) that the writers agree that God acts in history but transcends it, (126) that the Parousia was almost unanimously expected, (242) and that the writers believed that Jesus was sinless. (299) He also finds that, “The New Testament writers are uniformly positive and forward looking.” (160) With respect to present life in the faith, Caird writes that, “Through all the varieties of emphasis there runs the one dominant theme of life: rich, full, abundant, and free, a pulsating and irrepressible vitality. To be a Christian is to enter the service of the living God…” (179) One might argue that Caird is glossing over or rationalizing differences and focusing only on commonalities and consistencies in the testimonies. Given the premises of his book, that none of the witnesses know the whole story and that he is looking for the truth to which all the participants bear witness, the approach seems to be to be reasonable and defensible. So for Caird, Jesus as the “bringer of salvation,” through his death and resurrection, is both the center of the NT and a fulfillment of the OT.

Extent to Which Caird’s Center Unifies the Whole Canon of the NT

I think the question Caird would rather answer is whether any of the Canon is inconsistent with or eliminated by identification of a focus on Jesus and his death and resurrection as the center. Certainly parts of the NT do not directly address the death and resurrection of Jesus, but all or almost all the NT seems to address either the need for the death and resurrection, the promise and the process leading to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the central events themselves, or the life in the resurrected Christ that is made possible because of the fulfillment of the promises of God in those events. James, for example, hardly mentions Jesus but focuses on the life of faith and the good works which are a part of it. There seems to be no problem reconciling the writings of James with the Luke-Acts focus on the downtrodden and disadvantaged, for example.

Caird leaves out none of the Canon with the possible exception of 3 John, the only book not included in the Index of Passages Cited. He gives great weight to the Luke-Acts narrative because in it he finds the most complete theology including a description of God’s plan and its execution. In his chapter on The Divine Plan, he summarizes the Luke-Acts theology in a list of seven points which he then uses as the basis of questions to the other NT writers. (30) The choice of Luke-Acts seems reasonable since its author was the only NT writer to describe not only the prophecy, birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus but to also describe what happened with respect to the church in the few years after the resurrection. That writer also gives an outside view of Paul in which can be used in dialogue about the writings of Paul.

This particular chapter on The Divine Plan can be used as an example of this reviewer’s impression that the organization and outline of much of Caird’s excellent material seem weak, thus making his arguments difficult to follow. The list of seven points of Lukan theology is found in the first section of the chapter which is followed by seven sections which correspond roughly but not exactly to the seven points. The titles of the seven sections resemble, in some cases but not in others, the seven points. Finally, the transitions from witness to witness are bumpy, and the “questions” being asked of the other witnesses are not made explicit. Therefore, to find out exactly what Caird asks the other witnesses and what he hears them saying about one particular point may require some digging and translation that could have been avoided with improved subdivision and titling and continuity and outlining of the material. There seems to be an opportunity for significant improvement in clarity and readability by writing the questions and responses in dialogue format rather than in third person narrative style. Don’t tell me what Mark said. Let Mark speak for himself since an expectation for that was created early in the text.

In any case, Caird finds no refutation of or important inconsistencies with the seven point Lukan theology among the other NT witnesses.

How Caird Deals With Diversity in the NT

A great deal of the theological diversity in the NT has to do with the concept of time and, to a lesser extent, with location. Is the Kingdom of God here now, or is it drawing near but not yet arrived, or is it to come only at some future time? Is it on Earth or to be on Earth or is it to be only in Heaven or in both Heaven and Earth? Do we already have salvation, or are we being saved, or do we have only a hope of salvation at some future time? There is a question of whether the “last days” are just out there at the end sometime or if they have already begun and whether salvation referred to in the future tense means just at some future time or from now on. (121) These are all questions to which we want answers, but Caird seems to be arguing that there may not be any simple answers and that maybe allowing all the answers to co-exist is the better solution. Caird identifies what he calls a “three-tense structure of salvation” and concludes that there are four “irreducibly complementary and interlocking” (138) answers to the question of what Jesus has done, is doing, will do. He calls them substitution, representation, leadership, and example but insists that they are not to be considered as separate, independent, and different and subject to debate. (137) He gets full attention of the faithful reader with his statement that, “…although there are no conditions attaching to God’s free gift of salvation, there are substantial conditions attached to the reception of it and the belief in it.” (138) So, there is no need to argue about whether Jesus has substituted in some way for us in the past and that, as a result, we have salvation or whether Jesus is to be seen as an example to follow into the future. The answers are, “Yes,” and “Yes.”

For Caird, an important key to identification of the truth to which all the witnesses testify is to allow for the inherent ambiguities in the meanings of Greek words, and ambiguities of the Greek tenses. Most of the ambiguities are lost, of course, in the process of translation into English and are further handicapped by the 21st century meanings we tend to impose on the English translations.

With respect to verb tenses, for example, Caird writes, “It will not necessarily be the case that all past verbs refer to salvation as an accomplished fact and all future verbs to the final consummation…We have already seen that events still future to the believer can be referred to in the aorist tense because they are conceived as already done in the predestining act of God.” (120) Further ambiguities are introduced by the fact that surface meanings of tenses can be overruled by context, by use of the historical present, and by lack of a future perfect in Greek.

With respect to word meaning, he writes, for example, that, “It is extremely fortunate that the Greek basileia is an ambiguous term which comprehends the three possible senses: sovereignty, reign, and realm. And these three are logically so inseparable that it is no surprise to find the New Testament writers moving freely from one sense to the other, and even exploiting the ambiguity.” (129) Willingness to understand basileia in any or all of these three senses eliminates the need to pin down a time frame for the Kingdom of God and makes it possible to fit the concept of the Kingdom of God into the “three-tense structure” of salvation: that it is accomplished, is continuing, and is yet to be finally consummated. (118) The diversity issue is complicated by the fact the variances are found not only between the various writers but within the works of a single writer. Paul, for example, sometimes talks of inheriting the Kingdom of God and sometimes of living in the Kingdom of God. (130)

The tense issue is further revealed in the church’s historical tendency to associate justification, sanctification, and glorification with past, present, and future and to limit the concepts to those defined times. As a process-oriented individual, I find myself sympathetic with Caird’s criticism of this tendency and agree with Caird’s arguments that we are better served by consideration of the significance of metaphors used to describe theology, salvation, and the Kingdom of God. The processes of sowing, cultivating, and reaping, not once but year after year, (123)of continual cleansing, of being set free and then living free, of running a race, of growing to maturity, of building on a foundation, of traveling, and of producing fruit all lead toward thinking of salvation in terms of process or progress rather than of event. This progress can take place in the life of an individual believer and can also be seen in the spread of the influence of Jesus throughout the world. (122) This viewing of salvation as process and progress, both individual and universal, is consistent with and supported by Caird’s three-tense structure.

Caird’s Position on the Historical Jesus

Caird places high importance on the historical Jesus, saying that, “Without the Jesus of history the Christ of faith becomes a Docetic figure.” (347) He writes, “New Testament Christology should start from where the first disciples of Jesus started. They first knew him as a man, and whatever other staggering affirmations they may have later come to make about him, they never ceased to think of him as a man.” (280) He further argues that, “…those who believe that in the life and teaching of Jesus God has given a unique revelation of His character and purpose are committed by this belief, whether they like it or not, whether they admit it or not, to that quest (for the historical Jesus).” (347)

Caird sees difficulty in the fact that the NT message of Jesus is based on three sources: Jesus, the evangelists, and the early church. I would have included Paul in the list as well because, although he says little about the activities of the historical Jesus, his writings surely must reveal something about the message of the historical Jesus. I think Caird sees the Epistles as being the “early church” source but also may argue that the message of the evangelists is influenced by their churches. He mentions John in particular as reflecting sixty years of Christian theology in his writings. (331) The fact is that there are two historical realities of great interest to Christians today: The historical Jesus and the historical early church. Neither is described completely, and the descriptions we do have are filtered through oral tradition and through the writers of the NT and are affected by situational priorities. Still, Caird believes that an understanding of the NT based on these three sources would yield a picture of the historical Jesus which could then be used to sort out what originally came directly from Jesus. (25) For this reason, Caird planned placement of his description of the theology of Jesus at the end of his book, and it was therefore left, after Caird’s death, to be written by Hurst.

Caird’s strongest views on the historical Jesus are found in Chapter 9 on The Theology of Jesus. The process by which the church developed within a generation has generally been considered by theologians and scholars to be either a development of the work of Jesus, influenced somewhat by external forces, or an entirely new entity with very little basis in what Jesus actually said and did. Caird outlines “four errors of method,” the first of which is “to assume that the Jesus of history was a different person from the Christ of the Church’s faith,” (346) which have led to the unsatisfying latter conclusion for many theologians. For Caird, “Without the Jesus of history the Christ of faith becomes a docetic figure.” (347) Caird writes that, “…we shall not find Jesus even indirectly relevant to our age unless we first find him directly relevant to his own.” (353) He then describes what he sees as Jesus’ relevance to his own age.

Caird begins with “the one undoubted fact in the history of Jesus: He was crucified,” (353) and then builds a case that it happened for political reasons resulting from the position of Jesus that, “at least Jesus, and anyone who would share it with him, must fulfill the national destiny” for Israel to be “the agent through whom God would assert his sovereignty over the world.” (418) Caird’s case is built on his assumption that there had to be some valid reason in the historical situation of Jesus and what he did and how he was seen for him to be crucified. He argues that Jesus understood clearly the prophecies about Israel’s role and that, as a result, he should be seen as, “…intimately bound up with the politics, history, and daily affairs of the nation…” (359) So for Caird, Jesus was concerned about individuals and their relationships to their maker but also about the fulfillment of the promises of God to bless all nations through Israel.

I find Caird’s argument that Jesus’ crucifixion resulted from his political activity to rally the Israelites in support of the survival of Israel reasonable but vaguely unsettling. I can understand it as a, ‘national summons to repentance,” (360) which the authorities interpreted as a national summons to rebellion, and I suppose that is what Caird is saying. In any case, Caird finds the move the early church made from Jesus’ self perceived role as a Jew concerned about the role of Israel in God’s plan for the Gentile nations to understanding of his death as a vicarious sacrifice for the sins of the whole world to be reasonable based on scripture long before it was put into writing by Paul. (408) Caird closes his chapter on the theology of Jesus with Luke 24:25-27

(How dull you are…How slow to believe all that the prophets said! Was not the Messiah bound to suffer in this way before entering upon his glory? Then, starting from Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them in the whole of scripture the things that referred to himself.)
and concludes: To those who believe Luke’s testimony, no further explanation is necessary. To those who do not, no further explanation is possible.” (408) I suppose this affirms or at least strongly suggests that the church, approaching the New Testament in faith, is quite reasonably going to find different things than will be found by the skeptic approaching with an attitude of disbelief.

Usefulness of Caird’s Model for the Church

Caird closes his work with an essay on the futility of two extreme approaches to NT theology, one of which claims that development is everything and that whatever actually happened with Jesus is reduced to irrelevance and the other of which denies the existence of development with the result that “the infallibility of scripture becomes a cypher for the infallibility of the interpreter.” (424) If we cannot go to either of these extremes, we are led to the conclusion that there are no simple answers, and we are forced to dialogue. Caird’s early conclusion that, “…there is no such thing as New Testament theology,” (4) is confirmed. God really is beyond our understanding. There is a divine mystery. The “Four Spiritual Laws” and “The Roman Road” not withstanding, we cannot put God in a box and rest comfortably that we know all that we need to know. But we can make progress. We can grow and mature. We can participate in the process of salvation. And we can do that more effectively through dialogue about scripture for which Caird has given us a model in his conference table approach to theology. We can seek common ground and identify areas of agreement and disagreement. I found particularly helpful the identification of unifying themes, some of which are listed on page 5 in this paper. Hurst writes in the forward to Caird’s book that, “Caird was too fine a scholar to see a perfect harmony or agreement as the criterion of an apostolic conference. Dialogue was its essential characteristic.” (x) We may reach the same conclusion about the Church and the issues it faces today. Perfect harmony or agreement may be impossible and may not even be desirable, but reading and studying the New Testament in community is an essential element of the Christian life. Caird’s book is a rich and affirming resource for believers willing to take such an approach and deserves a place on the shelf of any serious student of the New Testament. As we move into positions of leadership and service in the church and seek to understand and interpret scripture and to proclaim the gospel, we would do well to remember some of Caird’s closing words about consistency in the New Testament message: “What Paul expressed in highly theological language is illustrated in simpler terms in the gospel story. Jesus dealt leniently and sympathetically with the outcasts and untouchables, reserving his severest strictures for the ecclesiastical authorities.” (424)

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