James Dunn on Faith and Scholarship

To complement the current series on faith and scholarship over at Café Apocalypsis, we might note some interesting comments from James Dunn’s Jesus Remembered. Dunn favorably mentions Gadamer’s alliance with “those who want to maintain that faith is not in principle at odds with the hermeneutical process in its application to the study of the NT” (123) because the whole Jesus tradition began from a “faith stimulus” (127). That is, “the original impulse behind these records was . . . sayings of Jesus as heard and received, and actions of Jesus as witnessed and retained in memory” (129; emphasis original). This tradition emerged and was preserved “as an expression of faith” (132). All this is to say, as Dunn helpfully summarizes, that:

(1) The only realistic objective for any ‘quest of the historical Jesus’ is Jesus remembered. (2) The Jesus Tradition of the gospels confirms that there was a concern within earliest Christianity to remember Jesus. (3) The Jesus tradition shows us how Jesus was remembered; its character strongly suggests again and again a tradition given its essential shape by regular use and reuse in oral mode. (4) This suggests in turn that that essential shape was given by the original and immediate impact made by Jesus as that was first put into words by and among those involved or eyewitnesses of what Jesus said and did. In that key sense, the Jesus tradition is Jesus remembered (335).

Thus, because the Gospels are, self-evidently, documents originating from a belief in Jesus’ messiahship, all else being equal, the hermeneutical horizon (i.e., the interpretive possibilities allowed and preferred for the available data) of modern people who believe in Jesus’ messiahship is one step closer to the hermeneutical horizon from which the Gospels originated than that of modern people who dispute Jesus’ messiahship. Many other contingencies, of course, can still make fusing these horizons a difficult task that may produce different results ini different contexts, but this similarity of perspective on Jesus provides at least one firm point of tangency from which to begin.


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James Dunn
James Dunn

Jesus and History

In his Jesus Remembered, James Dunn makes the following, insightful observations about the interplay between the study of Jesus and the study of history:

For those within the Christian tradition of faith, the issue [of Jesus’ relationship to history] is even more important. Christian belief in the incarnation, in the events of long ago in Palestine of the late 20s and early 30s AD as the decisive fulcrum point in human history, leaves them no choice but to be interested in the events and words of those days. For the incarnation, by definition, means the commitment of God to self-manifestation in Jesus at a particular time and place within human history, and thus places a tremendous weight of significance on certain events in Palestine in the years 28-30 (or thereabouts) of the common era. Christians cannot but want to know what Jesus was like, since he shows them what God is like. . . . [T]he new questers of the third quarter of the twentieth century showed that faith could and does have a theologically legitimate interest in the history of Jesus. Honest historical inquiry may be granted insights regarding Jesus which are crucially (in)formative of honest (self-critical) faith. . . . The point of [this historical] otherness of Jesus is, in part at least, . . . the otherness in particular of Jesus the Jew—again something we ‘moderns’ have forgotten at our cost. Without that sense of Jesus ‘born under the law’ (Gal. 4.4), of Christ ‘become servant of the circumcision’ (Rom. 15.8), with historical awareness of what that means in terms of the particularities of history, then the humanity of Christ is likely to be lost again to view within Christianity and swallowed up in an essentially docetic affirmation of his deity. Although the failures of earlier lives of Jesus at this point . . . are now widely acknowledged, the instinctive compulsion to extricate Jesus from his historical context and to assume his [a-historical,] timeless relevance still has to be resolutely resisted (101–102).


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James Dunn
James Dunn

A Hermeneutic of Love

Communication is hermeneutical; it involves people sending and receiving messages. To make the communication process work, the sender(s) and receiver(s) both have to meet their own particular, communicative responsibilities. Of course, with literature like the New Testament, the people who sent the messages it contains cannot clarify or supplement anything they have already said. So, if communication is to happen, any modern readers, or receivers, must try to understand the text’s own communicative horizon, for all the problems that task entails (see this post for a discussion). On this task, consider the following, insightful comments from N. T. Wright’s New Testament and the People of God:

I suggest, then, that the epistemology which I outlined earlier—that which sees knowledge as part of the responsibility of those made in the image of the creator to act responsibly and wisely with in the created world—results, at the level of literature, in a sensitive critical realism. We must renounce the fiction of a god’s-eye view of events on the one hand and a collapsing of event into significance or perception on the other. Until we really address this question, most of the present battles about reading the gospels—and most past ones too, for that matter—will be dialogues of the deaf, doomed to failure. But, for a start, I suggest a possible hermeneutical model . . . a hermeneutic of love.

In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself; and, even though it may speak of losing itself in the beloved, such a loss always turns out to be a true finding. In the familiar paradox, one becomes fully oneself when losing oneself to another. In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed.

When applied to reading texts, this means that the text can be listened to on its own terms, without being reduced to the scale of what the reader can or cannot understand at the moment. If it is puzzling, the good reader will pay it the compliment of struggling to understand it, of living with it and continuing to listen. But however close the reader gets to understanding the text, the reading will still be peculiarly that reader’s reading: the subjective is never lost, nor is it desirable that it should be. At this level, ‘love’ will mean ‘attention’: the readiness to let the other be the other, the willingness to grow and change oneself in relation to the other (63–64; italics original).


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N. T. Wright
N. T. Wright