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Chapter Four
(iii) Wanted: New Categories
What we find, in short, is that the epistemological tools of our age seem inadequate for the data
before us. One of the present ironies, typical of movements within the fashions of scholarship, is
that some philosophers are today moving away from materialism, or even a moderate realism, and
back towards idealism, just as the theologians, kept prisoner for so long in idealist strongholds, are
finally rejoicing to discover some form of realism. These debates may serve to keep checks and
balances alive within a discipline. But I suspect that the idealist–realist distinction is itself ultimately
misleading; and swings from one to the other are not much help in terms of an actual historical
investigation such as ours.
What we require, I believe, is a set of tools designed for the task at hand, rather than a set borrowed
from someone who might be working on something else. Just as the gospels and epistles embody
genres somewhat apart from their closest non-Christian analogues, so the study of them, and of
their central figures, are tasks which, though they possess of course several analogies with other
closely related disciplines, require specialized tools, that is, a theory of knowledge appropriate to the
specific tasks. That is what I am trying to provide in this Part of the book. If, moreover, the Christian
claim were after all true—and it would be foolish to answer that question either way in advance
when dealing with preliminary method—we might perhaps expect that in studying Jesus himself we
would find the clue to understanding not only the object we can see through the telescope, the voice
we can hear on the telephone, but the nature of sight and hearing themselves. Studying Jesus, in
other words, might lead to a reappraisal of the theory of knowledge itself.
I have already suggested in barest outline some ways in which this enterprise might proceed, and I
hope to return to the point at the end of this whole project. For the moment we can say: the
‘observer’, from whatever background, is called to be open to the possibility of events which do not
fit his or her worldview, his or her grid of expected possibilities. Or, as I would prefer to say it, it is
appropriate for humans in general to listen to stories other than those by which they habitually order
their lives, and to ask themselves whether those other stories ought not to be allowed to subvert
their usual ones, that is, to ask whether there really are more things in heaven and earth than are
dreamed of in their little philosophies. Taken at one level, this might sound simply like a plea for
‘modernist’ Christians, or non-Christians, to be ‘open to the supernatural’—a plea, in other words,
for an old-fashioned conservatism or fundamentalism to be given its day in court. Against this, let it
be said at once that it is often precisely the ‘ordinary Christian’ of this sort who needs to be open to
the possibilities of ways of reading the New Testament, and ways of understanding who Jesus
actually was, which will call his or her previous stories into serious question. I hope it is also clear
that, just as I reject the subjective/objective distinction, so I reject the nature/ super nature
distinction which is equally a product of Enlightenment thinking. Indeed, it is precisely the stories
that are modelled on these distinctions, whether in a ‘conservative’ or a ‘liberal’ manner, that I
believe will be subverted by the story which I propose to tell.
The tools of thought which we need, then, cannot be those of premodernism any more than those of
modernism. To what extent the ones I am offering belong to ‘postmodernism’ is a matter that does
not much concern me. Diversity is, after all, a necessary feature of postmodernism. To proclaim the
death of the Enlightenment worldview is not yet to announce what will rise to take its place. It may
be that the study of Jesus, which cannot but focus on questions of death and resurrection, will have
something to say on the matter.

If we are eventually to mount a new theory of knowledge itself, we will also need a new theory of
being or existence, that is, a new ontology. In this case, too, we find ourselves in a chicken-and-egg
situation: we need to know the new theory before we can study the material, but it is in studying the
material that the new theory will emerge. I am therefore content, at this stage, to outline the way I
think the argument might run, and to let it be modified as we go along. It seems to me, picking up a
point from the last paragraph, that ontologies based on a nature/super nature distinction simply will
not do. ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’, and to reject that premise by opting in
advance for either materialism or ‘supernaturalism’ is always to run the risk of what seems to me an
untenable ontological dualism. How, at an initial level, might we escape from this?
At this point, inescapably, the interpreter must declare his or her hand. I find myself driven, both
from my study of the New Testament and from a wide variety of other factors which contribute to my
being who I am, to tell a story about reality which runs something like this. Reality as we know it is
the result of a creator god bringing into being a world that is other than himself, and yet which is full
of his glory. It was always the intention of this god that creation should one day be flooded with his
own life, in a way for which it was prepared from the beginning. As part of the means to this end, the
creator brought into being a creature which, by bearing the creator’s image, would bring his wise
and loving care to bear upon the creation. By a tragic irony, the creature in question has rebelled
against this intention. But the creator has solved this problem in principle in an entirely appropriate
way, and as a result is now moving the creation once more towards its originally intended goal. The
implementation of this solution now involves the indwelling of this god within his human creatures
and ultimately within the whole creation, transforming it into that for which it was made in the
beginning. This story, whose similarity to the parable of the Wicked Tenants is scarcely accidental,
obviously attempts to ground ontology, a view of what is really there, in the being and activity of the
creator/redeemer god. It has, in my own case, already succeeded in subverting all sorts of other
stories (including several ‘Christian’ ones) that I used to tell myself about reality. I find that it ‘fits’
with far more of the real world than the usual post-Enlightenment ones. To pretend that this were not
the case—to abandon this story in favour of reducing everything to ‘mere history’, an
Enlightenment-style project as outdated now as the Berlin Wall—would be as dishonest as it would
be foolish.
What then is the proper method for the historian? It has recently been argued with some force that
history consists of the process of hypothesis and verification. Since in many respects I agree with
this proposal, to the extent that I believe that this (or some modification of it) is in fact what all
historians do anyway, it is vital that we explore just what might be meant by it, and how in particular
the ‘normal critical methods’ associated with contemporary New Testament study stand up within it.

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