Book Excerpt: 'Scripture Revisited' by Gerhard Stübben
The following is an excerpt from Gerhard Stübben's forthcoming book, Scripture Revisited: A Theology of the New Testament and Christian Tradition.
All of life’s most important decisions are beginnings. The first decisions we make and the first opportunities we receive shape us more than anything that comes after. A millimeter of difference when hitting a cue-ball will mean a difference of inches, if not feet, in where on the pool table the ball will land. What we say about scripture from the outset, then, will shape our final theology and ethics more than any other theological or philosophical decision. The most important decision we make in our Christian lives is what we will say about scripture.
And the decision we make is as difficult as it is important. As a young person and an evolving Christian I wandered through many different approaches to scripture looking for something compelling, something coherent, something true. I passionately traversed the jungles of inerrancy and infallibility, the wastelands of progressivism and academia looking for a home, but they all seemed unstable. None of them felt like rocks on which to build a house. In time I peered underneath all of their floorings, investigated all of their foundations, and found that house after house that I had built was founded on sand. In time, the winds and waves inevitably rose and beat against their flimsy walls. And, as Jesus said, “great was their fall.”
When I say that I “passionately” looked for a theology of scripture to call home, I was not overstating the matter in the least. Among other strangely existential experiences, in college I once stayed awake for an entire night doing nothing but thinking through the logical coherence of and proofs for inerrancy. When the sun finally rose I got up, went to work, and told a close friend of mine that I now thought I believed in it. That conversion, though, proved short-lived. I couldn’t ignore the many contradictions in scripture if I was to practice the honesty that scripture itself taught, so I returned to my mental turmoil less than a week later.
The various options in progressivism had even less to offer me, it seemed. What was billed as a “critical yet faithful” approach to scripture was in fact simply a critical approach. There was little if no faith to be found in the popular progressives of my day, who were content to deconstruct scripture without ever reconstructing it. Who were satisfied with showing why the conservatives were ham-fisted in their approach to the texts, in how the Bible is riddled with major and awful contradictions and moral failures, without ever constructing a new and coherent system. And while that seemed to make sense for a time, while it felt more honest and raw than my previous phase in conservatism, it was ultimately untenable. When people said things like, “Jesus is the Word of God, not scripture” what they meant was, “Scripture doesn’t ultimately matter.” Whatever they said, that is what they invariably meant. And treating scripture as if it doesn’t matter is no way to live a vibrant, faithful Christian life. All that it ended up producing was a bland, vaguely religious carbon-copy of Western culture.
I am relatively sure I would have ended up a disinterested biblical scholar, with little faith commitment but a career in biblical studies, if it were not for the writings of N.T. Wright and then, later, my rediscovery of the Puritans. The former showed me that scripture could honestly be read, the latter that it could piously be lived. But while I am unaccountably indebted to Wright and the Puritans, I do believe there is a further word to be said about scripture. I do think there is a more coherent way to think and talk about scripture than even their very engaging and informative books recommend. There will perhaps always be a further word to say about this Word, this divinely given and deeply human collection of ancient writings. And so I offer this book, my own critical but faithful engagement with the difficult and beautiful texts we Christians call “holy.”
In this book I will engage with Christian scripture as a (post)modern person writing to (post)modern people, as a Christian who has no choice but to honestly engage the findings of biblical scholarship and who wants to remain authentically Christian even in their wake. If a person wants to ignore biblical scholarship they can easily formulate a coherent theology of scripture. If we ignore the fact that the gospels have not only technical contradictions (such as the fact that the different gospels say that Peter denied Christ to different people) but also serious theological contradictions (Matthew, for example, was a Judaizer of the type rejected by Paul and the other gospel writers), then a theology of scripture is easy to come by. Any theory can be made coherent if evidence is ignored. But theories on the cheap are no foundation for Christian life. At best they will turn us into intellectually dishonest people, at worst it will lead the more honest people in our churches away from Christ when they find that the church’s message is riddled with holes and inconsistencies. We have no choice, if we want to be honest with ourselves and honest with the world, but to find a way to incorporate the most difficult findings of biblical scholarship into our faith.
One way that I’ve found to both honestly and faithfully engage scripture is by taking seriously the New Testament’s notion of apostolicity. The word “apostle” means very little today – it is simply a vague and semi-transparent veneer on the texts of the New Testament, having something to do with the New Testament’s authority – but it is in fact essential to reconstructing a new and livable theology of scripture. I found, as I studied the New Testament and the earliest Christian writers, that the word “apostle” had a very specific and concrete meaning to early Christianity. And that concrete definition of “apostle” contained within itself the nucleus of a new, coherent, and rigorous theology of scripture. By looking backwards, by recovering a very old and very traditional perspective, I found a theology of scripture that I believe is adequate to deal with all of our modern problems.
In this book, I will build a theology of scripture entirely on the foundation of that one ancient word, solely on the office and notion of the apostle. The apostle, I argue, was and should remain the centerpiece in any discussion of authority in Christian life and faith. But before I build, I must first tear down. Before we construct a new theology of authority, we must reject other notions. Instead of dealing with them directly, though, I will first argue that God is unknowable unless God Godself takes the initiative and acts. Unless God speaks first, we will have nothing to say about God. Then, from that point of desperation and inadequacy, I will construct a new theology of authority centering on the ancient notion of apostle.
One glaring omission in this book, though, is that I will not be dealing with the Old Testament in any significant way. While I will make somewhat regular reference to the Old Testament, this book is only an attempt to construct a theology of the authority of the New Testament (and, it will turn out, other early Christian literature). The Old and New Testaments are so vastly different that one cannot deal adequately deal with both collections in one single book, unless that book becomes unreadably large. So I have chosen to restrict myself for now to formulating a theological approach to the New Testament.
With that caveat aside, it is time to begin. No more delays. Let’s pilgrimage together through scripture, seeking in it the face and voice of Christ.
Scripture Revisited is now available for preorder and will be released on October 25th.
is an author, a co-host of Podcastica Patristica, and a graphic designer in Waco, Texas. He is a co-author of Divine Providence: A Conversation and Arius in His Own Words, the first ever stand-alone translation of the works of the fourth century heretic Arius.