My Doctoral Dissertation — A Draft Outline

Title: The Pluriform and Polyphonic Nature of Τὰ Βιβλία and the Implications of, and for, Open and Relational Theology

Treatise Academic Abstract – Draft

The earliest Christian theologians and apologists––i.e., the creators of the New Testament texts and the apostolic fathers––were thoroughly aware that their “holy writings” (ἱερὰ γράμματα) were pluriform in nature. They ingeniously capitalized on this pluriformity when making the claim that Jesus is the prophesied messiah. It was not until the latter part of the second century through the end of the fourth century CE that the canons of Jewish and Christian scriptures were determined and closed. However, even then, the earliest codices of “the books” (τὰ Βιβλία, i.e., the Bible)––dated to the late fourth through mid-fifth centuries CE––varied in the texts that were included between their covers. Even to this day, there is no one “Bible” that all Jews or all Christians accept as authoritative.

Yet, so many modern theologians and biblical scholars draw spiritual, doctrinal, and theological conclusions as if “the Bible” they are exegeting contains virtually exact copies of “the originals”. They are either unaware or unconcerned that the majority of textual critics­­––especially since the discovery of the “Dead Sea Scrolls” in the mid-twentieth century––have demonstrated that the most ancient manuscripts were pluriform in nature.

Added to “the Bible’s” pluriformity is the reality that its contents are also clearly polyphonic. Many, diverse and, at times, even contradictory, are the perspectives in these “biblical” texts with respect to God’s nature, God’s work in the world, and God’s will for humans. The Dead Sea Scrolls make it clear that the pluriform and polyphonic nature of those texts deemed authoritative during the latter Second Temple period were apparently not a problem for either pre-rabbinic Judaism or nascent Christianity.

Many of those who espouse Open theology also acknowledge that the biblical texts are polyphonic in nature and thus contain various portraits of God, some of which are inconsistent with a God who is lovingly relational. How should we then deal with those portraits which disagree with our preferred theological perspective? Many Open theists dismiss, or minimize, those passages by means of the so-called Christological lens. Others, rather than outright dismissing the contradictory divine portraits, have worked very hard to create new, complicated, and confusing hermeneutical theories in order to demonstrate that these divergent divine portraits support their belief that “all Scripture is God-breathed” (e.g., Boyd, Korpman, Gordon, etc.). Yet others believe it to be sufficient to claim that these unloving and controlling portraits of God are the minority testimony, whereas God as lovingly relational represents the majority view.

However, could it be that these diverse and contradictory portraits of God’s nature, found within the texts we call “Scripture,” were created and collected with the purpose of retaining theological polyphony? It is the thesis of this paper that the polyphonic nature of the texts which are included in the various canons, is not a mistake or an oversight. I have found it to be intellectually unsatisfying and spiritually unhelpful to emphasize those passages that support our theological preferences while ignoring, dismissing, or explaining away those passages that clearly present God in a dramatically different way. But then the question arises, “If we accept that the biblical texts present multiple and often contradictory portraits of God, can we hold to any particular theology?”

In this treatise I strive to show how Open and Relation theology can help us understand and appreciate how and why the authors, redactors, and collectors of the biblical texts created and maintained the many and diverse portraits of God. Through the lens of God’s uncontrolling love we can appreciate how divergent portraits of God persist in the multiple forms of t Βιβλία. Also, by truly accepting our finitude and mediated access to the divine, humility can empower us to have confidence in our theological convictions while simultaneously respecting the beliefs of those with whom we disagree. 

Treatise Outline – Draft

Introduction: Thesis Statement and Overview

Chapter 1:  Τὰ Βιβλία – Always Pluriform

  • Our modern Bibles tell us so.
  • The most ancient manuscripts (i.e., DSS) tell us so.
  • The earliest Greek codices (i.e., LXX) tell us so.
  • The New Testament tells us so.
  • Biblical Scholars and Textual Critics tell us so.

Chapter 2: Τὰ Βιβλία – Always Polyphonic

  • This polyphony is often acknowledged but also often ignored, explained (away), or deconstructed.
  • Does this polyphony create a “conundrum of contradictions” or template of/for ongoing dialogue and discovery?
  • Biblical polyphony shows how the creators of the various texts perceived God and that they “often got God wrong!”
  • Polyphony is a characteristic of Second Temple and Rabbinic Jewish literature, which encourages dialogue, discussion, disagreement and debate.
  • God is both knowable and unknowable. We are finite and have only mediated access to God, as were, and did, the creators of the biblical texts.

Chapter 3: Τὰ Βιβλία – Are They “God-breathed”?

  • Exegesis of 2 Timothy 3:14–17. “All God-breathed scripture is also useful…” is a grammatically and contextually justifiable translation.
  • The pluriformity and polyphony of the biblical texts are the result of God’s influence, not God’s control, nor God’s providence.
  • This understanding of “God-breathed” could equally apply to at least some non-canonical texts, both ancient but modern.
  • The diversity of the biblical texts should not be ignored, explained away or deconstructed.

Chapter 4: Τὰ Βιβλία – And Open & Relational Theology

  • Use of the term “biblical theology” is acceptable as long as we acknowledge it is understood to be multi-faceted, diverse, contradictory, open to dialogue, discussion, debate, and disagreement.
  • Inductive, not deductive: the biblical texts do not prove ORT, but do demonstrate that there were some ancient Jews and early Christians the proposed or espoused views of God that are consistent with ORT.
  • The reformists claim of “sola Scriptura” results in “selective reading of some texts while avoiding others.” Some form of the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” encourages the use of reason and experience when seeking “truth” via Scripture and tradition.

Postscript: An Appeal to theological humility

  • God is both knowable and unknowable. We can only “know in part”. We, in our finitude, cannot truly know the infinite God no matter to which means of revelation we appeal.
  • We must learn to hold our convictions with humility, while respecting those who hold to alternative theological perspectives.
  • As Charles Schultz, the famed creator of the “Peanuts” cartoon strip, once had Snoopy state that the perfect title for a theology textbook is, “Has It Ever Occurred to You that You Might Be Wrong?”

Appendix – Translations of Key Passages with Notes

  • 2 Timothy 3:14-17
  • A few passages that demonstrate the ancient biblical pluriformity in the New Testament “quotations” of Old Testament passages (e.g., Isaiah 7:14)

Bibliography

One thought on “My Doctoral Dissertation — A Draft Outline

  1. Nice work. Best wishes! And … just in case you haven’t read Donald Harman Akenson *Surpassing Wonder: the Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds* (University of Chicago Press) – highly recommended, especially re: the Second Temple period.

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