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Corley: Hebrews affirms necessity of understanding history & faith

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–In a postmodern age marked by disconnection, Christians need to reconnect the Jesus of yesterday with the Jesus of today and tomorrow, which means they must study history, said a professor of New Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“If indeed the Word became flesh, then history is the arena of God’s activity and we cannot give up the search for what God has done in the past,” Bruce Corley said during the 1999 convocation address on the Book of Hebrews Aug. 26 at the Fort Worth, Texas, seminary.
Taking to task the Jesus Seminar that intended to find the “historical Jesus” but ended up with “a trimmed down Jesus” and “a reinvented Christianity,” Corley called the seminar’s findings “bad history.”
In Jesus Seminar proponent Robert Funk’s best-selling book, Corley said, Jesus is demoted from Savior to sage and from Son of God to social critic, in an analysis relying more on the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas than the four New Testament gospels.
The rigidity of the application of the historical critical method has driven a wedge between faith and history because it rules out the possibility of the supernatural, that God has acted in history, Corley said.
“The protest I raise against historicism is a plea for openness to transcendence, to a correction of method, not a discarding of historical inquiry,” he said. “And I say to you we need the skills to do better history. If Jesus walked among us, then historical inquiry is a way to find truth.”
Corley agreed with a Jewish scholar who said the Jesus Seminar is “either the greatest scholarly hoax since the Piltdown Man or it is the utter bankruptcy of New Testament studies.”
“We don’t have the option to abandon history to the crazies of our world,” Corley said. “We must beat them at their own game, because it is our game also.”
Corley said Christians must set aside “the-Bible-tells-me-so” approach to understanding Scripture and seek answers to the hard questions presented in the Bible. Tom Wright, a British New Testament scholar, Corley said, pointed out “the devout predecessor of deconstructionism is that reading of the text that insists that what the Bible says to me now is the be-all and end-all of its meaning.”
“What strange bedfellows, that evangelicals would cozy up to people who destroy history,” Corley said.
The former dean of Southwestern’s school of theology acknowledged Hebrews has many unanswered questions but that the central message — “To see Jesus again,” originally delivered to first-century Christians who had grown complacent and despondent — still communicates to Christians today.
“The vision presented by Hebrews has a double focus: Get in touch with the past of Jesus and hang on for dear life to the future of Jesus,” Corley said. “[T]he Jesus of today, the now, is linked to the Jesus of history and the Jesus of the now is also linked to the Jesus of eternity.”
Three areas in biblical studies — history, author and text — no longer have validity for some Bible scholars, Corley said.
“In some circles, the icy fingers of postmodernity have choked off the possibility of making historical inquiry or finding the meaning of an author or ever coming to a final meaning for a text,” he said.
The “reemergence of secret meanings, detection of Bible codes, hankerings after echoes and whispers” have followed, he added.
“The difference now is that these reading strategies have emerged among educated people in the academy and cannot thereby be shoved aside as the blind gropings of the unlearned,” he said, noting modern literary methods resemble medieval exegesis of the church.
Those who still do history, like the Jesus Seminar, have presuppositions and methodology that reject the majority of what the gospels record Jesus did and said, Corley said.
“Their new and improved Jesus has faint resemblance to the crucified Messiah described in the gospels,” he said.
Just because some groups do bad history doesn’t mean Christians can neglect history, Corley said.
Hebrews’ repeated references to Jesus’ earthly life affirms the need for Christians to see the relationship between faith and history, Corley emphasized.
“In Hebrews, the humanity of Jesus is the touchstone of our faith now with history,” he said.
With references to Psalms, Jeremiah and Habakkuk, Hebrews is also affirmation of the significance of the Old Testament, Corley said.
“How systematically do you read the Bible that Jesus and the apostles read?” Corley asked. “When is the last time you preached a real sermon from the Old Testament? The Book of Hebrews is a clarion call for the church to preach the entire Bible.”
Hebrews also attests to the need to keep the Old and New Testaments together, Corley added.
“The essential vocabulary and conceptual framework of the New is drawn from the Old,” he said. “The Old Testament functions both as an authoritative guide for understanding Jesus and also as a dutiful servant.”
Corley said Hebrews has a unifying theme that scholars agree on: Christ is the high priest.
“It’s all about Jesus, God’s Son, our high priest. Its message is so distinctive so as not to be missed, and how impoverished we would be without it,” he said, noting the more than 150 statements in the book about Jesus as the high priest.
Corley also cited four of 10 titles for Jesus that are found only in Hebrews: pioneer, perfecter, apostle and forerunner. From the titles, Corley said a picture of Jesus emerges as benefactor, substitute and representative.
“He is your man in heaven,” Corley said. “He is not behind you; he is ahead of you.”
Corley concluded by exhorting his listeners to “draw near to God,” “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess,” “consider how we may spur one another toward love and good deeds,” not give up meeting together, encourage one another, and make Jesus “preeminently exalted.”
“We have a great priest over the house of God,” he said. “With those Greeks who said, ‘Sir, we would see Jesus,’ let us go to Mount Zion to the assembly of the firstborn to Jesus. Let us see Jesus.”

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  • Matt Sanders