Friday 23 October 2015

The tyranny of the dominant theme

There is a fascinating moment in Don Carson’s commentary on John’s Gospel (pp 439-440). While discussing the mention in 12:27 that Jesus’ “soul is troubled” by the prospect of the cross, he gives a writer called Nicholson a bit of a spanking.

Nicholson, you see, is convinced that John’s portrayal of Jesus emphasises how intent Jesus was to go to the cross. As a result he concludes that Jesus could not experience any anguish at the thought of what lies ahead, only determination to go through with it. And for that reason he suggests that Jesus’ heart is troubled not on his own account but because he is concerned over whether the disciples will stay firm.

“Methodologically” Carson says “Nicholson is aligning himself with those who establish a tyranny of the dominant theme.” That is, those who decide a biblical author has one major theme or perspective and then find ways to screen out contrary evidence or other themes. Hence the verdict: “Nicolson’s effort to establish a tyranny of the dominant fails to listen to the minor chords, and descends into reductionism.”

Critical scholars are often more explicit about this – and have ways of explaining the contrary evidence: either it’s traditional material that the author cites but doesn’t really agree with (why then, you have to ask, do they cite it?!), or has been inserted later by an editor with their own theological agenda. 

Evangelicals of course won’t adopt those approaches but I wonder if we aren’t still prone to impose the tyranny of the dominant theme. Emphasis on the main point of a sermon or the main purpose statement of a biblical book has brought a really helpful focus to many a preacher, myself included. Occasionally, though, that leads us with Nicholson to offer readings that are less plausible. More often it simply means that we are in danger of being reductionistic. There is a danger that we likewise fail to listen to or expound the minor chords.