Sacred: the Abrahamic Religions and their Books (part 3): The New Testament

17 June 2007 at :00 am

Last week talked about how Christians have viewed the Hebrew Bible - which for Christians is the Old Testament. I tried to show how in the early days of Christianity, when there was a move to drop the Hebrew Bible, this was firmly resisted by the Church. As far as Jesus was concerned, to talk of the Scriptures was to talk of the Hebrew Bible. The challenge for Christians now is to read the Hebrew Bible with the mind of Christ. And there lies the whole problem. What is the mind of Christ and how can we know it? On difficult issues, particularly about moral teaching, Christians disagree with each other very strongly. How can the Book of Leviticus or Judges help us in today's world? There are no easy answers.

However, we have the New Testament as a key to help us in our thinking, and it is about the New Testament that I want to speak today. The word 'testament' is one we use in almost no other context (though we do speak of a 'last will and testament'). It comes to us from the Latin word meaning to bear witness - like our 'attest'. A 'testament' is first and foremost a 'covenant' because a covenant, a solemn agreement, is something sworn before witnesses. The New Testament bears witness to the new covenant, or solemn agreement, between God and humanity in Jesus (the extent to which this 'new' covenant is a renewal of a covenant already in existence is something I touched on last week). What we have in the New Testament is assured witness, testimony we can trust about who Jesus is and how he represents God to us, and us to God, the creator of all.

Here we come to a point that all three religions of the book have in common, because all three are collections of sources: all three took time to collect. There had to be a sifting or testing of sources to make sure they were trustworthy. In the case of the Qu'ran this was after a relatively short time, perhaps twenty years. In the case of the Hebrew Bible the whole process took hundreds of years. The same is true of the New Testament, most of which was being read as a collection of Scripture a hundred years after the time of Jesus; but the whole collection as we have it today wasn't finalised until the fourth century. In some ways, it's true to say that for all three sacred books there are some bits of text which are not settled even now. In the case of the New Testament, there are various versions which have to be compared and scholars often have to choose between slightly differing texts.

The criterion that was used in judging whether Christian writings should be recognised as Scripture was clear: it was whether they bore trustworthy witness to Jesus Christ. This is why books which were said to have been written by the apostles were so important, and why Paul's claim to be in a special sense an apostle was vital. It was to show that their witness, because they had been so close to Jesus, was to be trusted. These were the writings - gospels, history, letters, prophecy - which the Church could trust to tell us truthfully about Jesus. Those writings that did not present in Jesus the fullness of God in human flesh, that did not have at their centre a recognition of the incarnation, were not to be trusted. In the end, the Church chose the Scriptures, and the Scriptures formed the Church. The Church could be confident that it lived by the creative power of the Spirit of Jesus because it read, over and over again, these books which bore true witness to the living Christ.

This is how the mind of Christ is formed in the Church: by the prayerful reading of the Scriptures in communion with Christ. A key question, of course, is where Christ is to be found and heard - and if we are to take the Gospels seriously we will not expect to find Christ only within the religious establishment and its texts. We shall expect to find Christ in all sorts of unexpected places, and to hear the voice of Christ from people who don't have much to do with the Church. But always, when we think we hear the voice of Christ calling us to new places and new ideas, we have to check back with the New Testament. What other assurance can we have that what is being said or done is in accord with the mind of Christ? So the debate goes on. The point for us is that we cannot pick and choose among the New Testament texts. We have to listen to them all - and this can be pretty uncomfortable at times - if we want to learn more of the mind of Christ.

There are all sorts of difficult questions on which Christians continue to debate, both inside and outside the church: questions about dialogue between religions, about theology, politics, abortion and euthanasia, about sexuality, power and justice - but the spirit in which they are to be debated is clear. Christians are to obey Jesus' summary of the Jewish law: 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself' (Lk 10:27).

So much is broadly common to the three Abrahamic religions. But there are two things I would say are characteristic of the Christian approach to issues and the Christian approach to life - because they reflect the life, and the mind, of Christ. The first is an ethic of service, which reflects Christ's willingness to be the servant, the slave of others. His washing of the disciples' feet is an enacted parable of this - so the characteristic Christian virtue (heaven help us) is humility (cf. Jn 13:15). The second is an ethic of forgiveness, following Christ's forgiveness of his enemies: 'Father, forgive them for they know not what they do' (Lk 23:34). Jesus died peaceably with words of forgiveness on his lips. The New Testament gives us trustworthy testimony about the way he lived and died. More than that: it gives us trustworthy pointers as to how we too can live in accord with the mind of Christ.

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