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Author(s): John Holdsworth
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JOHN HOLDSWORTH was Principal of St Michael's College, Cardiff, before becoming Archdeacon of St David's.
When I began to study the Bible, of all the Introductory courses we were offered, the easiest to revise for was New Testament Epistles. The reason was simple. The study of each of these works was dominated, usually, by one issue. All you had to do was know what the issue was, and mug up a couple of contrasting learned opinions about it, and hey presto you were through to the next level. So for Corinthians, it was all about just how many letters Paul sent. For Ephesians, it was about whether Paul wrote it at all. For the Letters of John it was about the relationship, if any, between this literature and other New Testament works ascribed to someone called John. For Galatians it was about whether the letter was sent to north Galatia or south Galatia (yes, honestly). Needless to say, none of these issues has proved critical in the pursuit of a pastoral ministry in Wales. But I am glad to say, from my own recent experience, that this is not how people are encouraged to begin to access the non-Gospel parts of the New Testament nowadays.
Two things have helped change our approach. The first is the advent of social-scientific criticism. Students today are still interested in historical questions about these works, but nowadays those questions are more likely to be about the nature of life in Corinth, or the issues facing the people of Galatia. Was city life very different from rural life, and which seems to have been the better recruiting ground for new Christians? Who were these first converts anyway? From what social background did they come and what kind of attitudes did they have to issues that were not first and foremost theological? Social scientific criticism has encouraged us to look outside planet church a little and to see the addressees in the letters not just as members of churches but as members of families within a particular society. Especially, it has helped us to wonder whether there is, in some cases, a very strong link between their social status and situation, the kind of issues they raise in their letters, and the way those issues are addressed.
The second thing that has changed is the relative stature of practical theology. There has been in Bible study generally, a new desire to read texts in ways that makes them pastorally useful; that helps readers relate to them more immediately, and that enables them to be used in theological reflection today. The combination of these two changes has meant that today’s students read the Epistles to find out more about how the early church did its own practical theology. What were the big questions for these specific communities? How did this dynamic new religious movement offer something unique that would help people face the challenges of life afresh? Can we identify with any of this in our own time? What can we learn about how churches grow, how theology is done and how to learn new things about God?
With all this in mind, when I was asked to contribute a New Testament non-Gospel Studyguide in the Church Times series, I decided to write about 1 Peter and Revelation. Back in the old days this would have been about as interesting as pairing socks and as predictable as Gordon Ramsay’s vocabulary. The big issues for students of 1 Peter used to be, first, who wrote it; a question which scholars usually attempted to answer by futile recourse to a recital of the various matches for the references to suffering in the book. And then: is it a unity? And if it’s a combination of different sorts of written material, what might the different bits be: sermons, liturgies, homilies, catechetical material perhaps? (to mention just a few possibilities). For readers of Revelation, the issues might be more subtle, but one would certainly have been about whether the book has actual historical reference, and if so what it is.
But in the meantime refreshing new approaches have explored, for example, whether 1 Peter had a socio-economic strategy. The letter is addressed to “resident aliens.” Was this just a pious theological reminder that Christians are truly sojourners in this world, whilst in reality being citizens of heaven? Or could it be that “resident aliens” was actually a technical term for an identifiable social class in the areas addressed, perhaps not unlike “asylum seekers” in our own time. Writers on Revelation have related their study to questions of power and justice, church and state, and again the economic status of the addressees. All of which has helped to give the study of these books a very contemporary feel.
The two books are rarely studied together, but given what we know, it is possible, indeed likely, that they were written to roughly the same area at about the same time. And that is a place and time for which we have a lot of social data. Given that, I am fascinated by the fact that, outside the Gospels, these two books have more to say about two subjects than any others, in proportion to their length. Those two subjects are worship and suffering. And I want to know why this should be. Do these books give us any clues, for example, as to how the early churches dealt with suffering, or how they understood worship? Does it help us to see how worship developed? Is it the case that suffering people understand worship most fully? Is worship as the New Testament understands it really possible in a culture of wealth, prosperity and comfort? And whilst the old questions about authorship, purpose and genre are still to an extent unresolved, might it not be an interesting new angle of approach to see these questions in relation to a study of what the books have to say about worship and suffering?
It is surely true that questions about worship and suffering are among the most pressing for us. To an extent, different parties in the Christian community are characterised by their different approaches to, and styles of, worship. There are questions today about the function of worship in suffering and marginalised communities. Throughout the last year a string of natural disasters appears to have raised the issue of unjust suffering to new public prominence. Primetime Christmas Day television included a programme about the Asian Tsunami titled: “Where was God?”
I believe that Bible study today, should be helping us make connections between these issues and experiences, and the Christian tradition. Ideally, Bible study should be about relating perplexing experiences to interesting texts in a way that enables us to find a new frame of reference for our experience, helps us to see the texts as concerned with us, and provides us with an opportunity to do theology as those first Christians did, invigorated by sharing something of the process. It should help us to shape our world, understand our church and feel a part of a wider Christian destiny. Those rather grand ideas have resulted so far in just one slim booklet, but at least now you know where it’s coming from, and incidentally, just for the record, I’m a north Galatia man myself.