Sunday, October 26, 2008
Robert Milligan: Hermeneutics and Theology
What comes first the chicken or the egg? It is the proverbial dilemma. We know there is a deep and intimate relationship but which has priority? This dilemma finds its way into hermeneutics and theology too. Which comes first? Does our hermeneutic determine theology or does our theology predetermine a particular hermeneutic. I think in the case of the Stone-Campbell Movement that a case can be made that hermeneutic comes first.
Perhaps most basic to our historical hermeneutic has not been CENI but dispensationalism (i.e. that Scripture is divided up into "dispensations" like the Patriarchal, Mosaic and Christian). Thomas Campbell sowed the seeds in the Declaration and Address, his son worked the details out systematically in his “Sermon on the Law” and it seems this was a fundamental concern for Disciples of that generation. Robert Milligan assumes the validity of this hermeneutic and it has profound implications on his (and “ours”) theology. The hermeneutic and accompanying theology is both subtly altered and hardened in Milligan. Milligan gave the Stone-Campbell Movement one of its true classics, The Scheme of Redemption. The Scheme is divided into three “Books:”
1) Book First: God, Creation and Fall of Man
2) Book Second: Scheme in Development
3) Book Third: Scheme Developed in and through the Church
Book Two relates the development of God’s scheme from Genesis to the setting up of the Kingdom through Acts 2. It is not without significance that Milligan places Jesus’ ministry and the Gospels within the confines of Book Two . . . the process of “development.” Books One and Two take up a little less than half of the 577 pages of the Scheme of Redemption (284 pages). Of these Jesus gets forty four pages. Of these 44 pages “Christ’s Nature, Character and Personality” are discussed in 13. There is no discussion of Jesus’ life and ministry, rather we have “doctrine about Christ.” There is a brief discussion of six pages under the heading of “Christ our Example.” There is no discussion on how we live by the Sermon on the Mount, no mention of the Lord’s Prayer. By way of comparison the section on “Legal Types” is twice as long the discussion of John the Baptist and Jesus combined.
Milligan’s dispensational hermeneutic has relegated the life and actual teaching of Jesus to mere development. Jesus himself is not the climax of revelation rather that occurs in his apostolic interpreters. Thus when Jesus proclaimed the great commission the teaching of “everything” was not in the Gospels at all but, as Milligan says point blank, “everything in Acts – Revelation” (p. 473). The continuing shift away from Jesus to Acts and Epistles in apparent. Jesus’ ministry is really a prelude to the good stuff (my words not Milligan’s).
There is a shift in the way Milligan approaches the Hebrew Bible as well. The “OT” becomes miniature factoids and prewritten “proofs” of Christianity rather than a witness to God’s gracious acts in history. This manner of approaching the Hebrew Bible is, I believe, deeply imbedded in our collective spiritual DNA.
But I do not wish to be to harsh on Milligan. Milligan did not wish to marginalize Jesus ironically he did did just that. But certainly has a wider theology than many in mid-20th century Churches of Christ. There is much we can learn from Milligan and his emphasis on the story of redemption. And his book, when compared to T. W. Brents “The Gospel Plan of Salvation” is far and away more balanced. Brents devotes a whopping 306 pages to the subject of baptism and never once mentions the cross (in the entire book!)
If our hermeneutic drives us to place the person and work of Jesus on a secondary level theologically . . . perhaps that should cause us to question the hermeneutic.