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Theology > Jesus > Introductory Considerations > The Source Material


What material is used in the study of Jesus Christ, and how reliable is it? Not only must these questions be answered in regard to Christology, but they are initial and foundational questions confronting the believer in every area of theology. Questions of the Text are crucial and unavoidable.

While the source material can have two broad divisions, non-Christian (apocryphal writings) and Christian (the sixty-six books of the Canon), the focus of this article and the foundation for this website are the Christian Scriptures. The non-Christian references may be interesting to peruse, and at times historically informative, but their agreement with the Christian material does not contribute to the reliability of the Christian material, nor does their disagreement detract from the Sacred Text. The Scriptures stand on their own and force upon the reader their own sufficiency and authority (see: The Starting Point).

The idea of source material presupposes the concept of Canon—a collection of Sacred Scriptures revealed by God and recognized by the Church. And the original concept of a collection of writings was related to the fact that the writings were deemed to be from God, that is, they appeared because of Revelation (see: Revelation). When there is a refusal to distinguish between Canonical (from God) and non-Canonical writings (from man), then the true standing of the Canonical writings is lessened in the mind of the student.

The main source material for the life of Jesus is the New Testament, especially the Gospels. The question of the Gospels is part of the larger question of the entire Text itself. And the question relates to the nature of the Text: is the Text normative? Does the Text determine the thinking of the reader and thus the interpretation of the reader; or does the reader determine the integrity and therefore the authority and resulting reliability of the Text (see: Authority)?

Using different terminology the issue regarding the source material is whether the material is Revelation or reflection, that is, is the material from above or from beneath? Did the material originate with God, or did it develop within the Christian community and, therefore, reflects the Church’s contemplation of the significance of Christ?

This issue has consumed and conditioned New Testament studies for many years. What is to be made of this relatively recent and innovative approach to the study of the New Testament—an approach which anchors the source material within the reflection of the early Church? And what is to be said particularly as it relates to Christology?

The believer’s attitude toward the source material will shape the interpretation that is given to the source material. It is true that the conviction of the student regarding the nature of Scripture impacts the theology constructed by the student from Scripture. The two cannot be divorced. A high view of Scripture will usually translate into a theology that is more classical and orthodox, while a more moderate view of Scripture will lead to a theology that is somewhat innovative and therefore suspicious.

The origin of the debate lies with the influence of the Enlightenment and its humanistic perspective, which, when adopted by Christian scholars, leads to the reduction of the revelatory nature of the Text to the pious musings and spiritual reflections of the early believers. The events of the New Testament, rather than being historical fact, come to be viewed as myth, saga, or legend that produces symbolic truth, and lost in this thinking is not only Revelation but also history.

Contrary to such mythological musings the source material is history, a historical account of events that occurred and words that were spoken. While the Scriptures are more than mere history, they are certainly not less than history. They are not a theological presentation in which there is little regard for history. The Bible is not a mythological history, from which is extracted a theological formation, meaning that the modern reader must separate the two, and at the same time understand the insignificance of the historical claims and give priority to the theological reflections of the primitive Church that are anchored in the non-historical material.

The source documents do not reflect the evolving thought of the Church but reveal God’s interpretation concerning historical events. There is both a record of what was said and what occurred, and also a record of the meaning of the events and the speaking associated with the events. No disjunction can be accepted between event and interpretation or between history and theology. Event and interpretation are intricately related, meaning that theology cannot be detached from history.

The source material cannot be reduced to simply a collection of documents that reflect the attempt by the Church to understand the person and work of Christ, and in the process the writers of the documents separated the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. Rather the source material is Sacred Scripture, sacred because it is of God and not of man—is is Revelation not contemplation.

Discussions of whether the content of the New Testament is Revelation or reflection is an unprofitable exercise—the unbeliever cannot be convinced, and the believer does not need to be convinced. In fact, the very discussion of the issue reveals a doubt or question regarding the very claim that the Scriptures make regarding themselves. In both Testaments there is the assertion that the words they contain are the very words of God, revealed by Him to man. How can the teaching of the Scriptures be taken seriously if at the beginning of the study the teaching of the Scriptures relative to their origin and nature is rejected?

While human interpretations of the Divine Revelation may vary, it is not acceptable to interpret the documents so that the very essence of the Text as taught by the Text is undermined. For example, it is acceptable to consider the meaning of the phrases, “Son of Man” or “Son of God”; but it is not acceptable to attribute the three-word titles to the creation of the early Church rather than to what was spoken by Christ Himself, and which was then impressed by the work of the Spirit on the writers who recorded the account. The former presents viable options for the believer to consider, but the latter destroys the very essence of what it means to believe. The former is to be encouraged; the latter is to be rejected.

If the New Testament emphasis of the Deity of Christ is a later development in the thinking of the ecclesiastical community rather than a Divine Revelation from God then it is easier to stress the historical Jesus at the expense of the theological Christ. Instead of a sinless sacrifice by the Son in order to satisfy the Father’s justice and express the Father’s love, Jesus becomes a prophet of morality, a preacher of ethics. If, on the other hand, the theological Christ is stressed at the expense of the historical Jesus, then there is a Christ independent of history and, therefore, proclaimed without justification.

“Jesus died” is historical fact; “Jesus died for me” is interpretation of the historical fact. But the point is that the two cannot be separated.

The theology is empty without the history,
and the history is meaningless without the theology.

For both—the theology and the history—to have significance they must be interconnected. To separate the two is to create a vacuum that does not and cannot relate to life with its problem of evil and the resulting need of salvation.

The Scriptures can and must be studied as a student would study any literature, that is, they must be read in order to understand the meaning; and this involves study of words, context, the time of writing, and other related issues. But beyond this, and more important than this, it must be remembered that the Scriptures are in a class by themselves; they are unique—from God not man, meaning that all study must be done beneath the umbrella of Revelation. When the student removes himself from this umbrella, knowingly or unknowingly, it does not matter how conscientious his studies may be in the above fields of words, context, situation, etc. because the study is flawed from the beginning—an improper perspective has been accepted. The resulting theology will surely be flawed.

The Scriptures of the Christian faith are not to be treated as any other or all other literature because the Scriptures are essentially different. They are from God not from man; this is to affirm that the Scriptures appeared because of God’s Revelation and not from man’s reflection, therefore, the content of the Scriptures is Truth (see: Revelation and Significance of Truth).

Return to: Introductory Considerations; Next Article: Unity of the Text

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