Does Diversity in the New Testament Undermine the Concept of Heresy?
As was mentioned in the last post, a canon or standard of writings was needed because of the diverse and even contradictory nature of some of the early Christian documents. But was the canon itself (in this case, the New Testament writings) so diverse that finding any unity of theme, story, narrative, and doctrine proved to be quite elusive?
The fact that the documents of the New Testament are diverse should be obvious to the one who studies the canon. But Alister McGrath offers two cautions in employing the word "diversity" when speaking of the voices that come to us from the pages of the Christian canon. First, the word diversity does not in and of itself point to a fundamental unity with the New Testament, when it is clear that Jesus is the central focus of every New Testament writer. Second, the diversity of concern is in actuality quite limited. Careless use of the the term diversity to refer to the New Testament undermines the truth that a fundamental core of ideas can be identified within all the writing of the New Testament. McGrath lists five core ideas:
1) The God of Israel can be loved and trusted as Creator of all.
2) Jesus is the one sent by God to reveal and redeem humanity.
3) In spite of human failure, trust in God's redemptive work through Christ is the way to salvation, a redemptive process begun in this life and completed in the life beyond.
4) A person who has salvation is expected to love others and care about them, and to follow the ethical standards laid down by Jesus.
5) The body of believers is an extended fellowship. (pp. 49-50)
For McGrath, making sense of this unity in the midst of diversity is a matter of interpretation and synthesis-- "of allowing the inherent unity of the New Testament to be perceived, while respecting its diversity. Whether the New Testament is perceived as a cacophony or symphony depends in part on how it is interpreted, especially how its diverse voices are allowed to relate to one another" (p. 50).
McGrath does a nice job of giving a brief and selective history of how theologians attempted to come to terms with the diverse voices of Scripture in the context of the unified voice of the work of Jesus Christ that made the writing of such documents necessary (pp. 50-54). Some attempts were indeed better than others. While I tend to believe that the unity in diversity of the New Testament canon is more of a symphony than a cacophony, what one finally concludes is clearly a matter hermeneutics that focuses not only on the minutia of individual passages, but on the grand narrative that passes across the pages from Matthew to Revelation.
And while, I would list more core "ideas" present in the New Testament than McGrath, he makes a solid case that there is a core, a unity, and that the diversity present reminds us that the kerygma, the proclamation of the gospel, speaks to diverse situations. Such unity, then, not only makes it possible to have an intelligible understanding of heresy, it becomes indispensable.
So how does doctrine (and by default, heresy) develop in the midst of this canonization and hermeneutical process? That's the subject of the next post.
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