Cover image for Go and do likewise : Jesus and ethics
Go and do likewise : Jesus and ethics
Spohn, William C.
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New York : Continuum, 1999.
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x, 227 pages ; 23 cm
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BS2417.E8 S67 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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What does Jesus have to do with ethics? There are two brief answers given by believers: everything and not much. While evangelical or fundamentalist Christians would find authoritative guidance in the words and commands of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament, many theologians would say that Jesus is too concrete or narrowly particular to have any direct import for ethics.

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Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Although the Gospels are full of pithy moral aphorisms, Christian tradition is divided over the nature of Jesus' ethical teachings. On the one hand, traditional Christian teaching holds that Jesus taught an ethic based on the coming of a new realm of God, so that living a good life now guaranteed entrance into this new realm. On the other hand, some argue that Jesus was simply a great moral teacher whose ethical teachings exhort Christians to live a virtuous life in the here and now. Taking a different approach, Spohn (What Are They Saying about Scripture and Ethics) shows that Christian spiritual formation is an integral part of Christian moral formation. In section one of the book, Spohn introduces various approaches to reading and understanding the Gospels. He also argues that Jesus is the "concrete universal of Christian ethics, the paradigm that normatively guides Christian living." He moves in the book's second section to a closer examination of the relationship between the story of Jesus and Christian ethics. Spohn claims that "spiritual practices help sharpen" powers of moral perception, thus enabling us to see others in the world around us as "neighbors" and to see each neighbor as "the one for whom Christ died." He also asserts that Jesus' parables teach new ways of directing our moral dispositions to form our character. Although filled with dry, academic prose ("...this type of normativity tends to crop up when the practices are isolated from an expansive tradition and the light of critical reflection"), Spohn's explorations offer clear moments of insight into the nature of spiritual integrity. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Building on the foundation laid in his What Are They Saying about Scripture and Ethics? (CH, Jul'85, rev. and expanded, 1995), Spohn (Santa Clara Univ.) here endeavors to erect a framework for Christian ethics around three interconnecting pillars: 1) the New Testament story of Jesus; 2) the ethics of virtue and character; and 3) the practices of Christian spirituality. The first third of the book explores this ethical tripod and how it nurtures the analogical imagination to find universal and contemporary moral meaning in the particular and historically contexted Gospel narratives of Jesus. The final two-thirds of the book show how this analogical appropriation of the New Testament story transforms and trains Christian moral perceptions, emotions, dispositions, and discernment, which in turn shape Christian identity, the cornerstone of ethical action. Spohn's case for the community practice of spirituality--prayer, service, and worship--as an integral element of this ethical construction work is compelling, and his illustrations of the analogical interpretation of the Gospel stories and Pauline ethical episodes are fresh and insightful. As a text outlining a Christian ethical method, it is recommended for libraries supporting courses in Christian ethics, religious education, moral theology and psychology, pastoral practice, and biblical interpretation. Upper-division undergraduate students through professionals and practitioners. C. S. Langton; Principia College



Chapter One Ethics and the Word of God     When I told a new testament scholar that I was writing a book on Jesus and ethics, he asked, "Which Jesus?" His question was only half in jest. Late-twentieth-century biblical studies has distinguished the distinctive theological slants that the different evangelists and Paul took on the story of Jesus. In this approach, any appeal to a single picture of Jesus runs the risk of slighting other New Testament portraits that are equally valid. Other friends who are theologians wondered, half in jest but fully in earnest, "What does Jesus have to do with ethics?" Some worry about moralizing Christian faith. Others balk at linking the Savior to the rational business of justifying acts by appeal to principles. A community of faith might struggle to discern God's invitation in "the signs of the times," but what does that have to do with invoking ethics, which they see to consist of abstract principles and arguments about moral absolutes?     Although it will take at least an entire book to answer these questions, I believe that the concerns of exegesis, theology, and ethics do not invalidate the radical insight of faith. To be a Christian means to follow Jesus, to be his disciple in community with others who walk the same path. His call is to "follow me," not to follow a set of concepts, a code of conduct, or an institution. I was reminded of this recently while waiting for a postponed flight in a crowded airport lounge. A group of young Muslims in traditional robes surrounded an aged teacher with long gray beard and staff in hand. He was seated, and they were around him, some standing and some sitting on the floor in front of him, hanging on his every word. At first it seemed a little bizarre to see such a tableau in Los Angeles International Airport in 1995. As I continued to pass the time by reading Marcus Borg's book on Jesus, it dawned on me that this is what disciples did--they were sitting at the feet of their master in the ancient sign of respect and subordination. Jesus' disciples must have done the same thing on the hills of Galilee and the town squares of Judea.     After discussing the importance of ethics for discipleship, I will introduce the three sources to be used, namely, virtue ethics, spirituality, and scripture. Then I will sketch the role that scripture will play in this synthesis. DISCIPLESHIP AND ETHICS Discipleship necessarily involves ethical reflection and accountability. Disciples look to their masters for guidance, inspiration, and challenge. They become apprentices of someone who knows what they need to learn. If Christians are disciples of Jesus, that implies that his life and teachings are normative for them. This relation necessarily means that the disciple acknowledges the authority of the master, particularly when the master lives up to the message. The particular life and death of Jesus set the boundaries for Christians, direct their intentions, and shape the emotions and actions of individuals and communities. That is to say, the life of Jesus functions as their "norm" or standard. Usually we think of moral norms as general statements, such as "equals should be treated equally." The norm for Christian life is more complex and more concrete than that. A main task of this book will be to show how a particular life can function as a moral paradigm that offers normative guidance for a way of life.     Jesus' life, depicted in the central story that unifies the writings of the New Testament, has a specific direction, a definable shape, and an undeniable urgency that continues to make the fundamental moral claim on Christians of every generation. Paul appeals to this standard when he urges the Philippians, "live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" (1:27). The gospel is not the only norm, as shown by Paul's frequent appeals to human values, practical logic, common secular wisdom, and the like. In the New Testament and most Christian theologies, at a minimum, general human moral standards are also presumed to be normative. The life of Jesus as related in the Gospels, however, is the fundamental norm for Christian identity. When Paul discusses a serious moral issue, he almost always appeals to the cross and resurrection of Jesus, which epitomized for him the pattern of the good news. Subsequent generations of Christians have appealed to various aspects of the Gospel story, but also to the Ten Commandments, the cardinal virtues, natural law, judgments about consequences, and so on. As we shall see, the story of Jesus is a paradigm , a normative pattern or exemplar that can be creatively applied in different circumstances. Disciples do not clone their master's life; they follow the master through discerning imaginations, graced emotions, and faithful community.     Christians have often substituted a false norm for the story of Jesus by projecting their own values and biases onto it. These counterfeits are exposed by a deeper reading of the Gospels, which are the enduring standard against which all portraits of Jesus must be measured. The sentimental Jesus of middle-class piety hides the cross of poverty and oppression; the Jesus of Western imperialism is refuted by the nonviolence of the passion accounts; the Jesus of patriarchal tradition wilts under the evidence that the Nazarene chose the powerless and marginal to share his table. Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino reminds us that "whenever, in the course of history, Christians have sought to reinvest Christ with his totality, they have returned to Jesus of Nazareth." In other words, they return to the one portrayed in the Gospels.     That return necessarily takes into account the best of historical scholarship because this story is about a particular human being at a definite time and place. If we are ignorant about the hopes and fears that drove his culture and the structures that shaped it, we will inevitably misunderstand the words and actions of Jesus, since they were directed, first of all, to his contemporaries. Misunderstanding their original meaning, we will be prone to misreading their import for today.     History, however, cannot convey the full import of the story. Every journey of Christian discipleship begins in an encounter with Jesus Christ, who is not an idea or a memory but the present risen Lord, who summons a wholehearted response from each generation. Those who hold aloof from this demanding and mysterious encounter cannot fully understand Jesus or the One whose reign he proclaimed. That intimate knowledge belongs to participants, not spectators. Scripture tells us the astonishing news that we are invited to be the friends of God, who know and are known by God intimately. While history can describe a person's context and resume, it cannot make us that person's friends. We have to make a living connection. Friendship necessarily involves encounter and personal engagement through mutual self-disclosure and commitment.     Christian faith asserts that an analogous, if far more mysterious, personal engagement is possible with God in Christ. That contact is not reducible to the language, symbols, and practices of various Christian traditions that are necessarily used to interpret it. In the final analysis, the Gospels are "good news" not because they convey a set of ideas about God but because they disclose Immanuel, God acting in our midst. Through this story the self-revelation of the central character occurs to the eyes of faith. Response to that revelation requires the action of the Spirit, personal decision, community, and struggle with the weakness and obscurity that faith never eradicates. I. A THREEFOLD APPROACH The canonical scriptures of Christian faith are held together by the story of Jesus of Nazareth, who came at the climactic moment in the history of Israel to proclaim and inaugurate God's reign or kingdom. Take away the story of that event and that person and almost nothing would remain of the collection of writings called the New Testament. In this human life Christians discover the path that leads to God, and they meet the One who invites and accompanies them on this way of service, witness, suffering, and reconciliation. Disciples follow Jesus as the Way, not as the terminus of the journey. The story that shapes the New Testament will also shape their lives and identities. Disciples are not above the master: they should expect the same treatment if they take the same path.     I propose that a particular method of critical reflection can assist those who have already begun to walk on the way of discipleship. We can better discover that way by combining three avenues of reflection: (a) the New Testament story of Jesus, (b) the ethics of virtue and character, and (c) the practices of Christian spirituality. These complement each other, like a tripod or a three-legged stool. First, let us describe how these three approaches relate to each other before addressing them individually.     1. How are we to get at this story? Or better, how can we let this story get to us? Here is where character ethics and spirituality come into play. An ethics of character and virtue offers the most adequate approach to the story of scripture because that story aims to transform not only our individual actions but our "hearts," that is, the whole embodied person as related to others. That story becomes our story as we appropriate it progressively through imagination, emotions, convictions, and actions. The other, more common types of ethics are based respectively on obligation and on consequences. They grasp a more limited portion of what the canonical texts offer. If scripture were primarily a manual of behavioral rules, then the ethics of obligation would be the best way to approach it. If it were a program for social reconstruction, a utilitarian or pragmatic ethics would be the optimal way to read it. Although the Bible contains rules and undoubtedly has a political dimension, it cannot be limited to these aspects.     Taken as a whole, scripture is the story of a people called into existence and led by God to be a distinctive community. The Hebrew Scriptures disclose who Yahweh is and who the chosen people should be in response to the covenant. The story that runs through the Old and New Testaments sets the pattern for Christian identity, for the "sorts of persons" Christians are called to become. Since character refers to the "sort of person" someone is, character ethics would appear to be a better candidate for interpreting scripture than an ethics of obligation or one of consequences (although both of these ways of doing ethics can play a useful, if limited, role in depicting the moral life and in understanding scripture).     Character attends to the whole person. It asks what sorts of people we are becoming through our actions and relations with others. We become what we do, for better or worse. Our actions and relations become habits that gradually shape the stable personal core we call "character." Virtues and vices are the dynamics of character, the habits of the heart that carry convictions into action and shape the way the person views the world and responds to it. People can, of course, have fairly well defined characters that are corrupt.     Unfortunately, most contemporary character ethics remain at a relatively formal level. The moral philosophers who are willing to describe the structure of the good life usually shy away from describing its content. In a pluralistic culture such as ours, advocating one set of human values seems to imply intolerance of other ways of living. The first problem, therefore, is that contemporary character ethics is reluctant to specify moral content, that is, what this way of life should be. Second, even when moral philosophers are willing to provide definite content to the good life, they are often agnostic about how we can develop the prescribed virtues.     2. The other two legs of our methodological tripod balance off these deficits of virtue ethics. The New Testament, taken as a whole , provides quite definite content to the moral life. Spirituality , the third leg of our methodological stool, complements exegesis and ethics by spelling out practices that foster the habits of mind and heart that gradually transform the character. "Spirituality" refers here to classical traditions of Christian practice and community, not the undefined and idiosyncratic amalgam of activities that is currently referred to as "spirituality." The purpose of traditional spiritual practices is not the fostering of specific virtues but deepening the relationship to God.     3. A sound understanding of virtue ethics will check the common tendency to use spirituality as an instrument for self-enhancement. Authentic spirituality's commitment to values beyond the self can counter any perfectionist tendencies in virtue ethics. Virtues are acquired indirectly, when one is concerned with values greater than the virtue itself. The virtuous life shifts attention from personal perfection to more important concerns like beauty, justice, and friendship. Analogously, spiritual practices affect the practitioner indirectly; in fact, they are distorted when used as tools for developing the self. For example, worshiping God in a community where the diverse body of Christ is fully represented may foster the virtues of gratitude and solidarity; however, using worship as an instrument to develop these qualities would be self-defeating. If the intent of worship is not God but personal growth, then God is being reduced to a means, which is a form of idolatry.     4. The combination of ethics of character and the content of the New Testament story moves spirituality beyond the descriptive to the normative. Spirituality has often been a private pursuit of holiness without accountability to any community. Or, as an academic discipline, it has been a merely historical description of certain practices and communities. In a normative Christian spirituality, however, certain habits of the heart are mandated and others are proscribed; certain ways of relating are right and others are wrong. They are measured against the normative paradigm of the life and actions of Jesus. Some spiritualities can claim a bogus normativity, as when the author makes his own individual experience the measure for the spiritual journey of everyone else. Like mushrooms blooming in the damp shade of a log, this type of normativity tends to crop up when the practices are isolated from an expansive tradition and the light of critical reflection.     Spiritual practices and the message of the New Testament have moral dimensions inherent in them. Christian ethics looks to bring out these implications so they can reshape character, community, and action in society. Often enough, these dangerous implications remain latent, and any attempt to bring them to the fore will be resisted by those who want to keep their piety safe and comforting. For instance, the practice of Eucharist has inescapable moral dimensions to it. When understood against the stories of Jesus' table fellowship with sinners and outcasts, the ritual of sharing food blessed and broken in Jesus' name, is itself a socially significant action. Worship in this way means that we should treat distant neighbors as guests at our own family table. Christian ethics does not have its own agenda and then turn to spiritual practices and biblical symbols to dress it up in an attractive manner. The task of ethical reflection is to draw out the implications of the rituals and symbols of faith for life.     5. Spirituality and character ethics emphasizes personal engagement in a way that can be salutary for critical biblical exegesis . This engagement requires different skills from those honed in scholarship. Commitment to critical distance, probing questions, and attention to unspoken agendas help the scholar move beyond the original naivete of encountering the work of art. After hermeneutics has helped someone climb the ladder of criticism, however, it can leave one stranded at the top, somewhat remote from the original encounter with the text. Virtue ethics and spirituality will not eliminate critical distance. They should return the reader to a renewed encounter with the text, a fresh encounter enriched by criticism but not stranded in intellectual distance. If a Shakespearean scholar came to know so much about Hamlet that she couldn't stand to witness an actual production of the play, something would have gone wrong in her literary criticism.     "Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again," wrote Paul Ricouer, a master of hermeneutics. The goal of criticism is not intellectual detachment but this "second naivete," which experiences the literary symbols not innocently and literally, as in the initial naivete, but "as if." The scholar needs a different set of skills to close the circle, to appreciate the religious text from the inside, as a participant in a way of life rather than a spectator from outside. Closing the circle is less likely to occur in the academy, where the Bible is analyzed. It requires spiritual practices, disciplines of meditation, practice, and service. It requires a different social location, namely, a community of faith where the religious discourse is embodied in a way of life. Liberation theologians remind us that the actual praxis of the gospel is the precondition for understanding it: the Way looks different when you are on it.     6. Finally, scripture and spirituality are not instrumentally related to virtue ethics . They are not motivational levers to get people to do what they ought to do but don't feel like doing. This persistent American heresy shapes many a Sunday sermon in which the Bible and liturgy are employed to foster a particular agenda, from social activism to family values. Worship and word are means to persuade the congregation to commit themselves to moral ends that are already clear. With a different audience one would simply use a different rhetoric.     This rhetorical strategy takes a more sophisticated shape in some recent forms of Catholic moral theology, where the content of morality is sharply distinguished from moral motivation. Moral obligations are claimed to possess intrinsic truth value which does not depend on extrinsic appeals. Support from scripture or the example of Jesus may assist those who cannot grasp the intrinsic value of ethical norms, but is unnecessary for the morally mature. They have no need of any such motivational "training wheels" to grasp the autonomous worth of moral norms. Motivation, however, cannot be so readily separated from moral content, since why we do something often enters into the very meaning of what we are doing. Often, different motivation changes the meaning of the action. Nonviolence understood as participating in the cross of Christ has a meaning different from Gandhian nonviolence. They are not the same moral practice outfitted in disposable rhetorical garments.     Let us now take a closer look at how we will read the New Testament and the story of Jesus, the first of the three components in studying Jesus and ethics. The next chapter will address the other two components, virtue ethics and spirituality. II. SCRIPTURE: AN ENGAGED READING What strategies of engaged reading are demanded by this connection of spiritual practices, virtue ethics, and scripture? Readers who are seeking meaning rather than a detached, objective picture of Jesus cannot treat the New Testament text as a relic. They must enter into conversation with it, bring their questions and concerns into "the world of the text," and interrogate it from new angles. They also must let the text interrogate them and allow its strangeness to upset their familiar frameworks and assumptions. It must enter the world of the reader to generate fresh meaning.     The canonical text of scripture provides the ultimate norm for Christian spirituality and virtue ethics. There is no point in trying to clear the vast and dense forest of biblical scholarship; perhaps it will be more realistic to indicate briefly where the space for our discussion is located in the forest. First, I will look at what an engaged reading of scripture means today; second, at the role that historical scholarship plays; and finally, I will turn to a cameo of Christian transformation in Paul's Letter to the Philippians. A New Quest for Meaning In the latter decades of the twentieth century, scripture is being read more through ethics than through history. This change of perspective came from two factors: the quest for meaning and diminished confidence in "objective" history. Studying the historical context of the work and the intention of its author no longer satisfies the contemporary quest for meaning, if it ever did before.     Let us first examine the way in which the interests of the reader have moved to the fore. Contemporary readers are increasingly seeking meaning , that is, truth that one can live by. Skepticism about timeless, universal truths and the pressure of personal and global needs is producing a more engaged reading of texts, including scripture. What do the texts that formed our culture mean for today? How are we to draw on scripture's normative vision to respond as faithful communities facing today's challenges? Classical texts are not museum pieces, carefully preserved by scholarly curators, or relics valued for their testimony to the thoughts of long defunct authors. The new forms of biblical criticism (contextual, narrative, rhetorical, reader response, etc.) address these new questions of meaning.     History provides a necessary perspective on the past, that of the observer who is as objective as possible; it needs to be complemented by another equally valid perspective, that of the participant. The writer Tobias Wolff distinguishes between "the facts" and the stories he has related in his memoirs. The latter are the actual events as lived through by himself as a boy and later interpreted as an adult in their retelling. Memory is anchored in the facts even while it colors them. Both perspectives are necessary. Wolff recommends that if you want to know about World War II, for example, you should read the most accurate descriptive account of the events you can find, always with the awareness that even they are recounted from the particular perspective of this historian. Then you should read at least one book written by someone who actually lived through the war to see what it looked like from the inside. Memory and chronicle are complementary vehicles of truth, even when they do not exactly coincide. The Gospels are presented as "good news" for the readers, who are invited to enter the story as participants in its ongoing reality.     Virtue ethics and spirituality encourage engaged participation in the story of scripture because they put a primacy on meaning. They seek to answer the questions, How should we live? How are we to respond to the gracious call of God in Christ? These questions do not prize meaning at the expense of truth because meaning that is ungrounded is an illusion. Historical and contextual study can help determine as best we can how Jesus actually lived and what he called for. We cannot, however, appreciate the truth of that story unless we are willing to let it engage us. A reading of the Bible that aims at transformation cannot stop at historical information. Sandra M. Schneiders writes, "Here the objective is to go beyond simply discovering what the text says to asking if what it says is true, and if so in what sense, and what the personal consequences for the reader and others might be." Spirituality and virtue ethics can play a significant role in this existential quest.     An engaged reading will also discover that not all of scripture's meaning has been positive; it contains prejudices and has perpetuated them. Some forms of engaged reading focus on these biases. A "hermeneutics of suspicion" seeks the social interests that shaped biblical materials that foster sexism, exclusive nationalism, and other forms of oppression. Texts that subordinate women or exclude other groups from Yahweh's supposed concern for justice are scandalous. What should be done with them? Should they be excised from the canon? Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, the most prominent feminist hermeneutics scholar, proposes that the canon of scripture is hopelessly androcentric and should be replaced by a new canon or norm of faith. The liberatory experience of women should be considered as the source of God's revelation and the norm by which biblical materials should be judged. Others suggest that the oppressive texts reveal the sinful limitations of biblical authors and contexts rather than the intentions of God. While a necessary critical tool, the hermeneutics of suspicion can leave the reader at such critical distance from the story of Jesus that a "hermeneutics of appreciation" is impossible.     An engaged reading may require painful self-examination. It challenges supporters of the status quo as well as those who reject it. Beyond acknowledging their "social location" of class, race, gender, and educational status, readers must also question their level of religious maturity. Walter Wink writes, "No scholar can construct a picture of Jesus beyond the level of spiritual awareness that she or he has attained." Immaturity blocks us from understanding what we have not yet experienced, and people at different levels of maturity may read the same biblical passage in different, even opposing, ways. The study of history has the same limitations because "historical reconstruction proceeds by analogy from our own experience." If accurate knowledge depends upon wisdom and religious maturity, the task of biblical interpretation becomes all the more demanding. Historical Analysis: Limits and Usefulness Historical analysis of the story of Jesus has limits that need to be taken into account. In recent decades, the historical-critical method has lost its monopoly on interpreting scripture. We have moved from a culture that prized historical fact and objectivity to one that evaluates systems of ideas primarily by their capacity for transforming individuals and society. Before describing the positive role for historical scholarship, we should acknowledge its limits:     1. Historical method promised an objectivity it has been unable to deliver. Nineteenth-century scholars aimed for a scientific history that could objectively determine the truth about the past. That project has been met with skepticism in a postmodern age that rejects Enlightenment pretensions to universal truth. Historical method cannot demonstrate the truth of assertions about what Jesus of Nazareth did and said. In part, this is due to the scarcity of evidence available about his life. More significantly, history as a method produces judgments of probability rather than certitude. It can establish with some probability that a saying of Jesus originated with him and whether there is any historical basis to a particular interpretation of Jesus. It cannot prove beyond doubt that Jesus did or did not say something.     2. The limitations and bias of the historian inevitably influence the interpretation of historical data. Many contemporary scholars have abandoned the ideal of establishing who Jesus was with scientific objectivity because the historical project cannot be separated from the author's own convictions. Those interests cannot be discounted. This does not mean that all history is merely ideological; rather, historians need to admit their biases and learn from other perspectives. Not all biblical scholars are convinced of these limitations. For instance, the "Jesus Seminar" reports its results as scientific determinations of what Jesus actually said. The seminar operates under the debatable assumption that the passion narratives and the eschatological sayings attributed to Jesus were fabricated by later communities and editors of the Gospels. Theological preferences, consequently, play a significant role in their supposedly objective historical judgments.     3. The long-running "quests for the historical Jesus" have produced quite different accounts. Recently, the historically sophisticated critics John P. Meier and John Dominic Crossan have spelled out elaborate methodologies to preserve their historical analyses from theological bias. Nevertheless, the resulting portraits are strikingly different. Meier stresses the Jewishness of Jesus, emphasizes the imminent coming of the kingdom of God, acknowledges some miraculous works of power, and concludes that Jesus believed that, despite his impending execution, he would participate in the messianic banquet beyond death. Crossan downplays the Jewishness of Jesus, expectations of the kingdom, a messianic mission, and any transcendent dimension to the ministry of Jesus. He recasts him as a wandering Cynic sage who would be remembered for his pithy observations. The sayings of Jesus that Crossan accepts as authentic promote an egalitarian tolerance that looks remarkably like the ideals of a 1990s liberal.     4. The "historical Jesus" constructed by scholarly research cannot function as the norm of Christian faith. History can study the human face of Jesus but cannot draw any conclusions about what should be believed about him as the Christ of God. Raymond E. Brown, an accomplished historical critic, cautions that history cannot dictate conclusions about Christology. The "historical Jesus" is what historians can agree upon through applying critical methods to the limited evidence available. This construct cannot give a complete factual profile of the person who lived in Palestine in the first century C.E. Brown argues that the Synoptic Gospels bear a closer resemblance to Jesus of Nazareth than the "historical Jesus" of scholars does. Their portraits do not edit out the story's religious and theological dimensions, as historicial criticism must do. Although the portrait drawn in Luke or Matthew was tailored to a particular community, the Synoptics intended to write about Jesus rather than use him as a mouthpiece for their own ideas. These portraits are the baseline for other ways of interpreting the text.     Does this editorial work mean that the Gospels are less true than a scholarly reconstruction of the historical Jesus? New Testament scholar Barnabas Ahern used to make an instructive analogy on this issue. Rembrandt painted a number of portraits of his mother. Are they more "true" or less "true" than a passport photo would have been, if photography had been possible in the seventeenth century? Rembrandt's personal knowledge and affection for his mother made the portraits less accurate but more true. Given the choice between the four Gospels and a documentary videotape of the same events, most of us would probably choose the Gospels. The perspective of the participants, interpreted through loving memory, has a distinct advantage for knowing the full truth about Jesus. Christian faith also holds that the Spirit of the risen Lord dwells in communities and believers to make present to them not just the meaning of the Gospels but, more importantly, the One who is the central character of the narratives. Faith seeks to encounter the living Christ, whose human face is revealed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels present good news about God's presence and power, not a nostalgic chronicle about a hero from the past. Historical methods remain descriptive at best, since they cannot address the transcendent and personal reality at the heart of the biblical story and the early Christian communities. The Usefulness of History The fact remains that Christianity is a historical religion. It asserts that God's self-disclosure occurs in human history and that certain revelatory events (exodus, exile, cross and resurrection, and so on) determine how subsequent generations are called to respond to God. The new forms of literary and rhetorical criticism do not advocate abandoning historical investigation of the life and times of Jesus. They do object to an exclusive reliance on historical method, which severely limits scripture's capacity to be the ethical and theological norm of a way of life.     Since 1980, Jesus scholarship has moved in a direction that this volume will draw upon. New research into Second Temple Jerusalem has more clearly located Jesus in his Jewish context. Archaeological and social-scientific research has clarified Jesus' social context. Some common positions emerge from the many new studies of Jesus. Healings and miracles are not dismissed out of hand but are seen as works of power that would have been expected from a religious leader in his time. Jesus' death is widely attributed to the threat he posed to the Sadducean authorities, which became critical after the Temple incident. With E. P. Sanders, some deny that Jesus was seen as a political revolutionary, yet many concur that his preaching and actions posed a political challenge to the established powers in Israel.     A number of scholars acknowledge a specifically religious dimension to Jesus, in sharp contrast to others who picture him as a sage or a wandering philosopher. There is greater agreement that Jesus was a person of Spirit, a holy man in touch with the numinous dimension of reality. Marcus J. Borg argues that a positivist worldview prevents many today from appreciating that life is more than two-dimensional. Jesus needs to be seen as one who had access to the divine and mediated numinous power into everyday life. Scholars like N. T. Wright, John P. Meier, and Ben F. Meyer see greater continuity between the actual life of Jesus and the subsequent traditions. Serious scholars such as James D. G. Dunn, Marinus de Jonge, and Wright posit some confession of Jesus as Messiah in his lifetime which formed the basis for the unanimous designation of Jesus as the Christ after his death.     Recent Jesus scholarship continues to debate eschatology. Following Albert Schweitzer, some hold that Jesus did speak of the end of the world and was wrong. Others argue that he was not mistaken because he did not in fact expect an imminent end to history. The early church put such language in his mouth. Still others believe that he did speak in eschatological terms; the world he saw ending, however, was not the space-time cosmos but the world of Second Temple Judaism and the political status quo of Israel. This renewed interest in eschatology marks off this recent scholarship from its immediate predecessors, who either bracketed eschatology as myth (Rudolf Bultmann) or dismissed it as an alien imposition by the Gospel writers on the story of Jesus (the self-styled Jesus Seminar).     While Christian faith is not based on the conclusions of historians, it cannot be widely variant from counterevidence without producing intellectual schizophrenia in its adherents. If it could be proven conclusively that Josephus and other sources were wrong about the execution of a Galilean named Jesus around 30 C.E. and that this person never existed, then the act of faith would be mistaken since it would be directed to a myth or an ideology rather than to a living reality that is the risen Lord. The move by Bultmann and others to finesse the problems of historicity by divorcing the Christ of faith from Jesus of Nazareth led to an empty outline that was quickly fleshed out by the philosophy of the day, in Bultmann's case existentialism, rather than by the paradigmatic stories, encounters, sayings, and events of the Gospels.     The new contextual criticism indicates how important knowledge of the world of the biblical text is for ethics. Contextual criticism considers the text as it stands in relation to its environment instead of seeking the earliest strata of the New Testament text on the assumption that the most primitive layer reflects the actual sayings or deeds of Jesus. Social-scientific knowledge remains descriptive, but it provides a necessary background for normative debates of Christians today. The methods of social science can uncover, with a fair degree of probability, the political, economic, and cultural patterns of Israel and Palestine that shaped the biblical writings. The contextual approach also attends to the life of the early communities to provide leads to the person and message of Jesus.     Communities are the primary locus of Christian moral discernment because the New Testament texts emerged from and were addressed to communities of faith. The texts are best interpreted by believing communities rather than by an isolated scholar bracketing any faith convictions. As Christian communities today wrestle with the contemporary world, they should look to the precedents of biblical communities engaging their own context, namely, the world of politics, economics, and so on, represented in the text. This is why historical study is necessary in an engaged reading: without the right information about their context we will not understand how they addressed their world, and we will be less able to bring an analogous reading to bear on our own contexts.     This is how the Gospel story of Jesus gives content to the formal patterns of virtue ethics and is normative for the practices of spirituality. They become Christian to the extent that they are rooted in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, who is also acknowledged as the risen Lord. Discipleship connotes obedience, and obedience connotes accurate listening to the authoritative sources. The one whom believers relate to in faith is the same one who lived the life that the Gospels witness to. It is not helpful to presume that we already know who Jesus is or was. Historical studies can make scripture strange again, a voice from a time and place quite distant from our own, which can then open new and unexpected possibilities for us.     New studies of the sociology of Palestine uncover cultural dynamics radically different from the contemporary first world. This research serves as a needed corrective to scholarship and piety that presume that the cultural values represented in the world of Jesus are largely the same as in our own. Ancient Palestinian society was structured by three cultural values that are quite different. First, religion was not a distinct aspect of culture but the horizon of everything else--politics, economics, social relations, and so on. Second, honor and shame were primary factors in society, since reputation counted more than property. Respect was gained through association, and disgrace could haunt a family for generations. Finally, it was a world of "limited good," where goods existed in limited and relatively fixed quantity. One person's gain came at the expense of others. Contrast that with a world in which wealth is seen to be produced by inventive use of capital, where personal accomplishment and property are the key to reputation, and a secular world where religion is relegated to the private sphere. When the world of the text opens up to us, we find it to be quite different from our own. Then the words of Jesus that challenged the structures of his day can challenge the different structures that dominate us unwittingly. Focusing on the Gospels I will focus on the canonical Gospels as the basis of the story of Jesus. I accept on theological grounds the validity of the canon or "list" of works that were accepted by the Christian communities as uniquely authoritative for the life, worship, and beliefs of the churches. These works were endorsed because they were of apostolic origin, whether actual or attributed; they were addressed to and accepted by important Christian communities; and they conformed with the rule of faith, the standard beliefs of the earliest Christian communities. The New Testament will continue to be interpreted by believing communities, but it will always have authority over every interpretation and community practice.     Every theology has to make some selection from the range of biblical material. I will concentrate on the Gospels and some material from Paul because they vividly present the story of Jesus as the norm for Christian life. The identity of Christians is shaped by the particular encounters, parables, and sayings of the Gospels as well as by the overall narrative shape of cross and resurrection. Paul, the earliest of the New Testament writers, witnesses to the same narrative structure as the Gospels, but without an actual narrative text. I agree with Richard B. Hays that the pattern of cross and resurrection, which is the core of Pauline theology, is the "master paradigm" of the Christian moral life. The Synoptic Gospels fill in that basic narrative structure in ways that are indispensable for Christian discipleship. Their parables, stories, and teachings shape Christian imagination and dispositions to act in ways that conform to Jesus. If the New Testament consisted of the Pauline writings alone, the profile of Jesus would be very sketchy indeed. We would know the end of his journey but precious little about how he got there. Paul's life had been radically transformed by encountering the crucified and risen Lord, but he had not known Jesus as a companion on the road that led to Jerusalem. The Transformation of Identity: Paul in Philippians What does it mean to say that the Gospel story of Jesus is the norm for Christian identity? Paul in his Letter to the Philippians gives us a glimpse of how radically the life of Jesus affects the Christian. The cross and resurrection changed the most fundamental orientation of his life. Jesus is the norm not just for Paul's behavior but for the core of his experience. Although the final chapter will treat identity at length, the topic is so central to the New Testament moral vision that it must be mentioned now as we conclude this methodological overview of scripture.     Identity refers to the conscious dimension of character, the deliberate core of personal experience that is shaped by our most basic commitments and convictions. Identity names that which stays the same in the stream of consciousness, the continuity to a personal history. Although never fully articulate, it is the basic "sense" of who we are. It is the horizon of our uniqueness, but, curiously, it is not individualistic. Identity is better captured by looking at our most important relationships than by introspection. I am a son of these parents, married to this person, member of this church, working in this profession, standing for these causes and against those menacing forces. The New Testament stresses this relational side of identity. The right question is not Who am I? but Whose am I? To whom do I belong? To what am I committed? Personal continuity is determined by the persons and causes to which we have committed ourselves, and the persons who have promised themselves to us. Identity comes from identification with specific people and causes.     Paul's sense of identity was radically changed when Christ broke into his life on the road to Damascus. Years later, he recounted that turning point to the Philippians. He had left behind everything that he had identified with in the first part of his life: "circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless" (Phil. 3:5-6). What he had counted as gain now was loss "because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (3:7). Christ has grasped him, and Paul strives to grasp Christ by entering into the center of the experience of Christ, sharing his sufferings and knowing the power of his resurrection. That is why he forgets what lies behind and strives like a runner to cross the finish line (3:12-14).     Paul's life was literally trans-formed, reshaped from one pattern into another. As he died to his old self and came to life in Christ, his conversion replicated in him the core pattern of the life of Jesus. He no longer belongs to his old allegiances; he now belongs to Christ. His identification is intimate and charged with affection. Christ has embraced him, and in a response of gratitude and hope, Paul strives to live wholly for Christ, to belong to him fully. That response shapes his emotions and his actions, but it is rooted in a new identity. He is not fully one with Christ yet, so he responds generously to the urgent call within him.     The logic of his argument in Philippians runs along a chain of identity: because Christ has identified with our human condition, Christians can identify with him. Their calling is the same as Paul's since all of them have been embraced by Christ. Therefore, Paul can move from their calling to the life of Christ to his calling and back again, because Christ's destiny is also theirs. In the first chapter, Paul commands the Philippians to be guided by the calling that he knew to be in them: "Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ ..." (1:27). He immediately spells out in graphic terms what the gospel standard is. In response to their rivalries and self-assertion, Paul bluntly tells them to put the interests of others ahead of their own. He appeals not to an abstract moral standard but to the basic shape of the story of Jesus: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus" (2:5). Then he relates the famous hymn of how Christ emptied himself in becoming human and a servant, even to death on the cross, and how in response God raised him up so that the whole universe would acknowledge him as Lord. That is "the mind" that should be in them: the story of Jesus should be integral to them because they belong to Christ. His example should convert them from self-assertion to service, from contentiousness to humility and loving acceptance.     In the third chapter, Paul gives his own life as a corroborating example, as an embodied instance of the exemplary life of Christ. As he was called to die to the old ways and live only for Christ, so too are they. The argument thus runs from the calling of the Philippians to the normative story of Jesus to the analogous example of Paul. Paul is appealing to their basic identities: "Whose are you? You are Christ's--so act like it!" They have not undergone a personality transplant any more than Paul had lost his own fiery temperament. Instead, they have all been brought into a radical new relationship with God in Christ, and that life had to be expressed in the way they lived.     Paul repeatedly makes this same appeal to the normative structure of Jesus' life in his letters. The "indicative" of the story of Jesus grounds the "imperative" of what Christians are called to do and become. He reminds the Romans that their lives turned around when they were baptized and plunged into the death of Christ. "Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4). "Walk" was a commonplace metaphor for living morally, journeying on the Way. At root, the imitation of Christ comes from participation in his life and death and rising. Christians so belong to Christ that his life, his Spirit, is in them, reshaping their very identities. That life forms not only the pattern for their behavior but also the energy and impetus to "walk in the newness of life."     Even though the discussion of identity will come at the end of this book, it is appropriate that it stand also at the beginning. Becoming a Christian was a life-changing event for the New Testament writers, a transformation of the roots of personal identity. Christian moral perception and dispositions stem from the new identity that has been given them in Christ. Before moving into these three dimensions of moral psychology, however, we need to conclude our methodological prelude by discussing virtue ethics and spirituality and the operation of the analogical imagination. Copyright © 1999 William C. Spohn. All rights reserved.