In a recent post, Michael Bird asks “What is the theological centre of the New Testament?” and offers some thoughts on ‘apostolic discourse’ as a helpful possibility. I have pondered this question before, and now wonder whether there is something wrong with the question itself.
In the writings of theologians and NT/OT scholars we can often observe the controlling influence of certain themes/concepts on the theological systems they produce and their treatment of various topics, even when their method of proceeding is not made explicit. It seems to me that this is what is being looked for when we speak of ‘the theological center’ of the NT. However, unlike with the writings of scholars, such a ‘center’ has not clearly stood out across the writings in the NT, even with the substantial amount of scholarship which has focused upon finding one.
What does this tell us? Probably that we are looking for the wrong thing, imagining (some of us hoping for and others against) that the writings of the NT have the type of coherence a single authors writings often do. I think it is clear that this is not the case. It also tells us that given ‘centre’ is a metaphor, it has not served us well in illuminating the NT writings or early Chrsitianity. The question we have asked is legitimate, but perhaps the terminology that shaped it has turned out to be a dead end. I think it is more helpful to think in terms of ‘starting points’ for both the work of scholars and the NT writings.
Instead of asking what the ‘center’ to the theology of the NT writings is, perhaps we should ask whether the various authors of the New Testament writings have a shared starting point out of which their writings grow? How do we go about answering this question? Are we are now attempting to move behind the writings themselves? And if we are, can we with any amount of confidence, move from the unity and diversity exhibited between the NT writings to knowledge about the unity and diversity in early Christianity, given that the ‘starting points’, although not always finding expression in the extent writings, may exhibit a different pattern of unity and diversity? In other words, might there be a more clearly evident unity in early Christian belief and practice than the NT canon exhibits?