wrangling with wrede

Last night I started re-reading a book I read years ago, although at that time I understood very little of it. (The book is, The Nature of New Testament Theology: The Contribution of William Wrede and Adolf Schlatter [ed. R. Morgan; London, 1973)]). This happens from time to time, where I will begin reading something and set it aside because I get bogged down by the complexity of it. Admittedly, I occasionally get frustrated with myself because I don’t “get it” on the first go and thoughts of giving up completely do cast their ominous shadows.

However, it was instilled in me never to give up simply because something is hard or difficult. There is nothing wrong with stepping back, getting better equipped and returning to the task with new eyes and a (slightly) stronger mind. The hope, therefore, becomes: with the passage of time and further development in study, the shadows would have retreated and my re-reading would be more fruitful. That was indeed my hope when I decided to pick up Morgan’s book once again.

Because of time and mental exhaustion, I was only able last night to make it through the first major section of Wrede’s essay (entitled: “The Task and Methods of ‘New Testament Theology’,” 68-116).¹ However, nearly half way through this first section, I found myself becoming more awake and mentally stimulated because of some frustrations with Wrede’s argument. My vexation this time stemmed not because of me being haunted by shadows but from his line of argument and its presuppositions (which were occasionally stated). A somewhat benign example can be seen with his claim:

So long as New Testament theology retains a direct link with dogmatics as its goal, and people expect from it material for dogmatics to work on–and that is a common view–it will be natural for biblical theology to have an eye on dogmatics (p. 69)

This argument is so patently obvious that it was hardly worth Wrede stating it. (I think when I read this line I audibly exclaimed, “Well, duh!”). It would be similar to me saying: so long as I have the happiness and well-being of my wife as basic goals in our marriage, it would make sense (and be expected) that everything I do will be directed toward achieving those goals. Wrede’s argument and my parallel would be more provocative if something was amiss between stated goals and chosen methods. For example: NT theology has dogmatics as its goal but instead focuses its attention on estimating the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. That would be worth stating. (Well, maybe not; but you see the point).

There must be a reason why Wrede flaunts what is otherwise commonplace. I didn’t have to wait very long before finding that reason. In fact, it was in the same paragraph. Wrede first declares that biblical theology concerns itself with dogmatic questions. (Duh). However, for Wrede, the Bible cannot necessarily answer these questions (because, presumably, the text precedes the questions); yet dogmatists need biblical support for the answers (i.e. beliefs) they espouse. From this Wrede implicitly accuses dogmatists of approaching the biblical text as a repository for dogmatic theology rather than what it truly is–i.e. a collection of historical texts, illustrating the views and ideas of an ancient religion. Then comes the indictment:

The writings which contain the material are burdened with definite dogmatic predicates like “normative”, which say nothing about their character as documents. So long as this continues to be the case, it is at least psychologically probable that New Testament ideas which go contrary to expectation will be worked on and arranged till they fit those predicates (p. 69)

In not so few of words, Wrede criticises dogmatic theologians for engaging in eisegesis for the sake of sustaining dogmatic traditions. The criticism is accurate insofar as it signals a methodological tendency that should be avoided–if not repudiated.  However, two questions are worth asking about Wrede’s assessment: 1) is his critique based on objective findings or it is merely an interpretation of an observation; and 2) in criticising theologians of being influenced by certain presuppositions, does Wrede see himself as innocent of being influenced by purely historical/a-theological presuppositions?

While Wrede goes on to say the reader of the NT “must be able to keep his own viewpoint, however precious, quite separate from the object of his research and hold it in suspense. Then he will indeed know only what really was” (p. 70);² it is not quite obvious that Wrede succeeds in this regard when he assesses both the biblical text and biblical, dogmatic theology. He admittedly comes to the study with his presuppositions about the biblical text (i.e. a purely historical set of documents, questions of inspiration are ridiculous) and allows them to dictate his investigation. Moreover, Wrede (implicitly) prioritises scientific analysis rather than theological study of the biblical text on the basis that it is the most objective tool for historical criticism.

However, and to be rather bold (or academically suicidal), that in itself is a presupposition that cannot be either maintained absolutely or held as free from its own biases. In other words: the very claim, “scientific analysis of the NT is the most objective method of study” is a presupposition, and “scientific analysis” of the NT brings with it certain presuppositions (or groundrules) that will dictate how the study is performed, and these presuppositions are influenced by prevailing ideas or philosophies of the time (in this case: empiricism, rationalism, and even positivism). Wrede reveals his acceptance of these influences when he characterises the NT texts as merely historical documents, and when he not only reduces the theological content of the NT to ideas or beliefs once held by the historical figures noted in the texts but also sees such theology as passé because the omniscience of scientific analysis says so.

I will abruptly end on that point, mainly because I need to attend to other responsibilities but also because I need to finish reading Wrede’s article.

¹ The German original of this essay was published in 1897. The original title (Über Aufgabe und Methode der sogenannten neutestamentlichen Theologie) reveals more of Wrede’s feelings on the subject–i.e. “sogenannten” = “so-called”, thus intimating his dislike for the phrase “New Testament Theology” as a description for an academic discipline.
² The context of this expectation is worth repeating: “The first thing which must be required of anyone who wishes to engage scientifically in New Testament theology is, accordingly, that he be capable of interest in historical research. He must be guided by a pure disinterested concern for knowledge, which accepts every really compelling result. He must be able to distinguish between the alien modern ideas of his own thought and those of the past” (p. 70). Then comes the above quotation. Here we can see the groundwork for Bultmann’s later essay, “Ist voraussetzungslose Exegese möglich?” (TZ 13 [1957]: 409-17).

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