Barth, Historical-Critical Methodology, and Figural Readings of Scripture

Because Barth was writing for the church, rather than for the academy, his use of historical-critical methodology “could never be an end in itself.” As Craig Carter notes:

“For Barth, the [biblical] text conveys not only the historical effects of God’s actions, but witnesses to God himself because God’s being is in His act. The text itself is Barth’s focus, as opposed to a reconstruction of what supposedly happened behind the text, to which the text allegedly refers, or to the experience of the biblical author…Barth viewed the modern historical critics as being too hasty with Scripture, too ready to impose modern assumptions on the text and not humble enough to sit quietly before the text until it disclosed its own concerns. He tried not to impose a system upon Scripture and then seek proof texts for what is known in advance to be the case. Instead, he sought to develop a theology that organically arises out of the witness of the Bible and that reflects the shape, limits, and preoccupations of the biblical witness, rather than the demands of logic or the prejudice of culture.” the literal sense cannot be reduced simply to the historical sense for Barth is convinced that [the] OT speaks literally about Jesus Christ.” (122-126).

“The difference between pre-modern interpreters and Enlightenment interpreters is that most moderns hold that the literal is nothing more than the historical. This crucial assumption was not held by pre-modern interpreters…In modernity, any attempts to do figurative or spiritual exegesis are left to the department of homiletics and biblical scholars piously avert their eyes at such ‘homiletical embellishments.’ Thus, the theological interpretation of Scripture is disconnected from historical exegesis and a wedge is driven between the scholarly study of the Bible and the ecclesial proclamation of Scripture” (126).

Carter, Craig. “Karl Barth on the Imago Dei: Typology and the Sensus Literalis of Holy Scripture.” In Go Figure!: Figuration in Biblical Interpretation, edited by Stanley D. Walters, 121–36. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008.

19th Century Female Biblical Interpreters

From left to right: Lissa Wray Beal (Providence); Rachel Krohn (Wycliffe); Marion Taylor (editor of the volume; Wycliffe); Christiana de Groot (editor of the volume; Calvin).
From left to right: Lissa Wray Beal (Providence); Rachel Krohn (Wycliffe); Marion Taylor (editor of the volume; Wycliffe); Christiana de Groot (editor of the volume; Calvin).

One of the highlight’s of this year’s CETA (Canadian Evangelical Theological Association) conference was the panel discussion on the newly released Women of War, Women of Woe: Joshua and Judges through the Eyes of Nineteenth-Century Female Biblical Interpreters.

I’m only just now finally reading this superb volume, and I am struck by several things. First, in all of my biblical studies classes, the focus has always been on historical critical interpretation. Citing theological sources, or biblical commentaries that were more than 20 10 years old was considered bad research. Newer was always better. I think this methodology feeds into the problem I identified in yesterday’s post that the modern age suffers from a self-centred historical amnesia in which we are the enlightened generation and we are the first and only to consider the “obscure” passages of Scripture and we read them, or “recover” them because no one else before us has, supposedly.

Second, in my context, very often the attitude is “all we need is the Bible and nothing else.” This then sidelines theological reflection and historical reflection, and we end up with an anemic theology of Scripture, one that forgets that the same Spirit who is the author and inspirer of Scripture is also the author and inspirer of the Church community. Reading Scripture should be an ecclesial and communal endeavour.

Third, what would it have looked like if in some of my biblical studies classes, the professor had included some sort of historical interpretation text so that students could see how Christians throughout the ages have read the Bible? Would I have been more likely to gravitate towards biblical studies rather than theology?

A must-have for students of Biblical Studies.

This is where this new volume comes in handy. Taylor and de Groot have gathered excerpts from thirty-five nineteenth century women who commented on eight women in the Old Testament books of Joshua and Judges. These excerpts are short enough, and have a good basic introduction to the life of the female interpreter, that a professor could easily create reflection exercises, group discussions, or student presentations, that integrate, rather than supplant, the main biblical text of an OT class, either on Joshua & Judges specifically, or an OT historical books class more generally.

My favourite section is Clara Balfour‘s reflection on Deborah. Here Balfour attempts to make sense of how a woman could be a leader in ancient Israel, looking at the text through the lens of a discussion of the nature of masculinity and femininity:

…It may be considered another proof of the essentially feminine character of Deborah, that Barak should have laid so much stress on her appearance among the children of Israel at that time. The human mind is far more affected by contrasts than similarities. Had Deborah been a fierce, stern, masculine woman, she would have aroused no enthusiasm, her character would have approximated too closely to their own — she would have ben a sort of second-rate man, instead of being as she was, “A perfect woman, nobly plann’d/To warn, to comfort, to command.” It was the presence of a thoughtful, spiritual, intellectual woman as a leader of the armed host, that awakened energy and strengthened hope… (pg. 70).

Taylor and de Groot have done a fantastic job. And I’m looking forward to Prof. Taylor’s (co-edited with Heather Weir) next volume Women in the Story of Jesus: The Gospels through the Eyes of Nineteenth-Century Female Biblical Interpreters.

Forthcoming this fall! Stay tuned!

 

 

Embracing the Ordinary: A Reflection on the History of Biblical Interpretation

 

When I was in seminary, there was a theology professor who insisted on calling me “the feminist theologian.” At first I thought it was just a joke, but I eventually realized that he was serious. One day, as we were passing in the hall, he greeted me in his typical manner, and I turned, very politely, with a laugh in my voice, and replied, “Actually, I’m not a feminist theologian, I’m a theologian who just happens to be a woman!”

I tell this story because it is emblematic of how I understand my faith and my identity. My primary calling, before being a wife, a mother, a woman, a Canadian, a geek, etc., is that I am a Christian. Any other designation is simply a modifier or adjective that is secondary to my primary calling. It is an ordinary and yet extraordinary calling. It is ordinary in that to be a Christian is not based on works, social status, or culture, but is the identity of all those who profess faith in, and heed the call to follow, Christ. This ordinary calling is broadly equalizing, making distinctions and signifiers secondary, if not outright irrelevant, in light of the extraordinary work of the One after whom we are named, and in whom we are being moulded and fitted for glory.

 

My professor, Dr. Marion Taylor. I highly recommend her classes!

It is from this context of experience and understanding that I came into my first semester of PhD studies and Marion Taylor’s course, “Reading Scripture through the Ages.” Throughout the semester, both through the weekly class gatherings and the course readings, I was struck by the ordinariness of the interpreters and their interpretative work, especially the female biblical interpreters. These women did not interpret Scripture primarily out of some sort of feminist agenda (whatever that means), but were first and foremost responding to the Divine Word. They were compelled to translate, interpret and share (be it teaching, preaching, or writing) because of their encounter with the revelation of God in Christ, because of their identities as disciples of Jesus, and because of the infilling of the Holy Spirit who is the author and sustainer of Scripture.

Through twelve weeks of reading entries from the Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters, I was introduced to women from diverse walks of life, across cultures, historical periods, life situations, and socio-economic statuses, who all published, preached, taught and interpreted Scripture. I read about women like Dhouda, Katherine Parr, Elizabeth I, and Marguerite de Navarre, who came from families of wealth and/or political power and made use of their connections to find a platform for their interpretative work. There were women like Magdalena Beutler and Elizabeth Smith who lived in poverty, and women like Elizabeth Hands, who worked as a domestic servant. There were women like Catherine Booth and Mary Cornwallis, and Esther Copley,[2] who were married to ministers; women like Briet Bjarnhjedinsdottir and Christine de Pizan who were widowed; and women like Hannah More, Elisabeth of Schönau, and Rebecca Jackson,[3] who were single either because of choice or life circumstance.

What unites these ordinary women, regardless of denomination, is that they are all examples of the biblical image of the priesthood of all believers. They all demonstrated that the Holy Spirit calls Christians, regardless of other identity markers like gender, class, and culture, to respond to, wrestle with, and share the message of the Gospel as recorded in Scripture.

Argula von Grumbach is the best!

Take for example, Argula von Grumbach, who is probably my favourite female interpreter. She was compelled to speak out because she believed in the final authority of Scripture. She had no formal teaching, and even though she came from a noble class, she was title-rich but financially poor.  She knew that 1 Timothy 2 says that women are to keep silent, but the calling of Christ in Matthew 10 to confess Christ, gave her the authority to speak, not from her position as a woman (noble or otherwise), but from her identity and calling as a Christian.[4]

It is this calling that also drives both men and women, from different ages, cultures, and social positions, to wrestle with even the most difficult texts. The modern age suffers two problems when it comes to biblical interpretation. First, it suffers from a self-centred historical amnesia in which we are the enlightened generation and we are the first and only to consider the “obscure” passages of Scripture and we read them, or “recover” them because no one else before us has, supposedly. The second problem is that the modern age suffers from an exaggerated form of political correctness, in which only women can speak to texts about women, and only special interest groups can properly speak into, and claim authority over, difficult parts of Scripture.[5]

In Reading the Bible with the Dead,[6] we see how incorrect these two problems are. The reality of the Christian identity and the importance of Scripture drove interpreters and theologians to wrestle deeply with texts like the narratives of Hagar and Ishmael, Jephthath’s foolish vow and the death of his daughter, and Gomer and Hosea’s marriage. As well, there are the imprecatory Psalms, examples of “heroes of the faith” doing dishonourable and/or villainous things, and social/cultural practices that appear to no longer make sense in a 21st century context.

What characterizes all of this is wrestling. Because of their encounter with the revelation of God in Christ, because of their identities as disciples of Christ, and because of the infilling of the Holy Spirit, who is the author and sustainer of Scripture, these interpreters throughout the history of the Church wrestled with, and tried to make sense of, the whole of Scripture, even the uncomfortable parts. Thompson argues that the difficult passages of Scripture “are actually made more accessible, not less, by consulting the commentators of our distant past.”[7] In his discussion of the story of Hagar and Ishmael, Thompson argues that modern feminist readings of this text are not new and that they can actually be strengthened by “an awareness of how our forebears received and read the story.”[8] This does not mean that the commentators of the past always interpreted Scripture perfectly. For example, Origen, in trying to make sense of Abraham’s polygamy, ends up over-allegorizing Hagar so that she becomes a “virtue of wisdom” and since “a man can never have too many virtues!,” Abraham’s polygamy is virtuous rather than problematic.[9] The danger of over-allegorizing Hagar is not just a danger in the past, but modern feminist scholars also run the risk of over-reading Hagar, even if it is not done allegorically, to the point that she becomes something wholly distinct from the original narrative. By recognizing the ordinariness of interpretation in the past, we can learn to be aware of our own cultural and hermeneutical foibles, and to approach all interpretation with charity, patience and humility.

Related to this, it is also possible that the interpreters of the past may actually have a better experiential lens with which to read Scripture. We can see this in Origen who, though he badly mangles Hagar in an attempt to explain Abraham’s polygamy, offered a sensitive reading of Jephthah’s foolish vow, because he read it through the lens of being the son of a man martyred for his faith. This life situation allowed Origen to wrestle deeply with the apparent gaps or silences in the narrative, and he attempted to make sense of what appears to be a senseless death. For Origen, Thompson notes, martyrdom was a senseless act, but, while “the martyr’s crown may be visible only to faith…it is visible to faith.”[10]

 

Jepthath’s Daughter

History judges the validity of interpretations. Some, like Augustine’s attempt to make sense of Jephthah’s daughter’s death by saying that Jephthah’s vow was okay because he was expecting his wife to be the first through the door to greet him,[11] do not stand the test of time. But it does teach those of us in the 21st century that one day future interpreters will look at our attempts to interpret difficult passages and some of our explanations which we now consider cutting-edge, provocative, or the ultimate solution to the theological or exegetical problem, and may conclude that our interpretations are nothing more than curious footnotes to be dismissed as quaint, overly simplistic, or even too fringe.

Along with this, reading the ordinary interpretations from the past, warts and all, should help us to assess our motivations in interpreting. This is especially true for academic interpretation. In an age where funding, publishing contracts, and tenure are prized, and threaten to overwhelm the heart of the academic endeavour, it can be easy to chase after the interpretation, methodology, or critical engagement that will garner the most funds, land the largest book contract, or secure tenure. The scholar/interpreter then needs to ask: are their interpretation, exegesis, and theological reflections guided by a hermeneutic of provocation, or are they guided by a hermeneutic of faithfulness? By reading the interpretations of ordinary Christians throughout the ages, there is an ever-present reminder that a Christian’s work, be it in academia, in the pulpit, or in the ordinary everyday living out of the faith, is done in and for the Church. The “Church” is more than just a gathering of people in this specific age, culture, and life situation, but also includes the gathering of “saints” from across generations, cultures and life experiences.

This is not to say that there should not be innovation in interpretative frameworks, or that there should not be “fresh” readings of texts. There should be, but these innovations cannot be done apart from the legacy of 2,000 years of Christian interpretation, because the Holy Spirit, who is the author and sustainer of Scripture, is also the author and sustainer of the Church.

On the first class, Professor Taylor quipped, “you can have dead mentors.” And as much as I like theological giants like Karl Barth, I find myself wishing I could devote more time and research to highlighting some of the ordinary voices that have been lost in the currents of history. There is something inherently ecclesial in recovering those ordinary voices which have been neglected not because of faulty or heretical interpretations, but simply because of the progress and sweep of history. This ecclesial listening and researching is a holy work that not only benefits the current age of Christianity, but builds up the whole body of past, present, and future ordinary saints.

 

[2] Copley is interesting because it appears that she ghost-wrote many of her husband’s sermons when he was inebriated. See, “Esther Beuzeville Hewlett Copley,” 139.

 

[3] Jackson was married when she received the call to celibacy. See, “Rebecca Cox Jackson,” 284.

[4] see her letter to the University of Ingoldstadt in Peter Matheson, Argula von Grumbach: A Woman’s Voice in the Reformation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995).

[5] I wonder if part of this can be traced to an overall decline in biblical literacy both in the broader culture and in the church, where people are not being exposed regularly to the whole of Scripture, but are instead exposed to a pericope approach to Scripture, where only snippets of Scripture are taught.

[6] John L. Thompson, Reading the Bible with the Dead (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007).

[7] Ibid., 9.

[8] Ibid., 17.

[9] Ibid., 19.

[10] Ibid., 37.

[11] Ibid., 38.

The Gravity of Sin: Some Thoughts on Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion

the crucifixionIn chapter four of The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge sets out a theology of sin that is focused primarily on Sin as a power, rather than sin(s) as misdeeds. This is not to say that sin(s) as misdeeds is irrelevant or unimportant, rather Rutledge argues that there is a specific relationship between the two, in which Sin as a power is the cause and sins as misdeeds are the consequences.[1] In other words, Sin is “an active malevolent agency bent upon…the utter undoing of God’s purposes” and sins are “signs of that agency at work; they are not the thing itself.”[2] Sin has two aspects: it is a “responsible guilt” and an “alien power.”[3] These two aspects require atonement and liberation, respectively. These two aspects of Sin parallel Rutledge’s overall thesis of the book, in which she proposes a two-part approach to understanding the crucifixion: the death of Christ is both “God’s definitive action in making vicarious atonement for sin” and “God’s decisive victory over the alien Powers of Sin and Death.”[4]

According to Rutledge, any discussion of Sin (and sins) can be done only in the light of an awareness of God’s prevenient grace. This grace “precedes our consciousness of sin, so that we perceive the depth of our own participation in Sin’s bondage simultaneously with the recognition of the unconditional love of Christ, which is perfect freedom.”[5] Rutledge demonstrates this by analysing Psalm 51. In this penitential Psalm, she notes that there is a definitive “relationship between understanding sin and knowing God.”[6] In other words, “sin can be understood only from the vantage point provided by God.”[7] The Psalmist’s confession of sin and cry for forgiveness stems from a relationship and knowledge of God and his laws.[8]

Next, Rutledge surveys the New Testament and lays out the biblical texts that speak of the relationship between Christ’s death and Sin. She sees several prominent themes. First, there is an emphasis on the forgiveness of sins and the overcoming of Sin. Second, there is an emphasis on Sin as a Power, particularly in Paul where Sin is both a verb and a dominion.[9] This then has implications for a robust doctrine (and practice) of repentance; so much so, that repentance functions significantly differently in the Christian tradition than in the 2nd Temple Jewish tradition that Paul inhabited.[10] According to Rutledge’s reading of the Pauline texts, repentance is not the first action to secure forgiveness of sins. Instead repentance is the response to God’s first action. In other words, “for Paul, the sequence is not sin-repentance-grace-forgiveness, but grace-sin-deliverance-repentance-grace.”[11]

Rutledge emphasizes that there is nothing inherent in the human condition that can make the reality of Sin disappear; not sentimental approaches to the atonement,[12] and not overly optimistic understandings of human progress.[13] Nothing that humans do can overcome the gravity of Sin[14] because it is more than just misdeeds; it is a Power that rules over all of humanity. It is from this Power that God has liberated humanity, through the atonement by Christ on the cross, and it is in light of this first act of grace that the gravity of Sin is realized, and that “the people of God go to their knees to acknowledge their need for a deliverance from Sin that they have already received.”[15]

There are two practical applications for the life of the church that we can extrapolate from Rutledge’s understanding of the gravity of Sin in light of God’s prevenient grace. First, attempts to tell society that it is sinful, or to preach a ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God’ type of message is not necessarily going to work in a post-Christian society that has either a poor concept or no concept of sin. Rutledge argues that the predominant North American model of convincing people of their sins so that they will come to Jesus is backwards. It is only in light of the message of salvation that “the sense of sin will come as a consequence” and it is only then that “the knowledge that the danger [of Sin] is already past will result in profound and sincere repentance.”[16] This has implications not only for preaching (preachers are one her key audiences in this volume), but also for evangelism and discipleship. So, adapting and translating Rutledge’s examples into a Canadian context, practices like the evangelical tent/church revival meetings of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the “Heaven’s Gate and Hell’s Flame” [17] dramatic presentations of the late 20th century, for example, only worked because the culture at the time was culturally Christian at least in worldview or culture, though not necessarily in practice. The preacher, then, is to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel, including the forgiveness of sins, and it is from and through that proclamation that the hearer may be convicted, by the Holy Spirit, of both the great mercy of God and then of the grave reality of their sin. In other words, sin is not the starting point; God’s abundant love, mercy and grace is.

Changing the starting point does not mean that the language and theology of sin should be eliminated from Christian discourse, because the second practical application that can be extrapolated from Rutledge’s chapter is the need for a robust practice of confession of sin. This practice is done by Christians who stand in the light of this prevenient grace, and is itself a form not only of discipleship, but also of witness and evangelism. By regularly confessing and acknowledging sin, praying for forgiveness and mercy, and hearing the words of absolution, the Christian community is testifying to the work of Christ, and to the prevenient grace of God’s justice and mercy. As Rutledge notes in her conclusion, confession is the sign, rather than the cause of God’s reconciling work with humanity.[18]

Throughout this book, Rutledge critiques contemporary Episcopalian liturgies which have omitted or glossed over key biblical and theological statements concerning the doctrine of the atonement. In this chapter, Rutledge laments the omission of the classic phrase “there is no health in us” because it was through this form of the General Confession that the Church was able “to teach that sin is not individual transgressions, but a universal malady.”[19] In confessing our corporate sins, Christians are evangelizing and testifying to the world to show how deficient modern North American conceptions of Sin (and sins) can be.[20] This same critique can be applied to the Book of Alternative Services in the Canadian Anglican context. Like the American Book of Common Prayer, the BAS downplays the language of sin. In the service of Morning Prayer, for example, the Penitential Rite is entirely optional, and when it is used, it does not contain the General Confession (including the line “there is no health in us) from the original BCP. Instead, the confession of sin emphasizes sin as misdeeds with no reference to Sin as a universal malady or a Power.[21]

This robust practice of confession of Sin (and sins) can also be strengthened by the observance of Lent. While Lent is an ancient Christian practice, it has only been in the last twenty-five years that low churches (particularly evangelical) have embraced this portion of the church year.[22] The rhythm of forty days set aside prior to Easter, allows the Christian community to not only acknowledge the Power of Sin and Death (starting with Ash Wednesday’s declaration of death’s inevitability), but also to learn more deeply how to pray, how to repent, and to better understand the gravity of Sin. It is in this context, then, as a form of discipleship, that the pastors and leaders of the church can move between proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel and teaching about the pervasive destruction of Sin in such a way that calls the gathered Christians to confess, repent and respond to God’s gracious act of Jesus’ atoning and liberating work on the cross.

This chapter (and the entire book) serves as a good introduction, that pastors, preachers, and teachers can use as a way to frame sermon series, Bible studies, and introductory theology classes on the doctrine of sin and salvation in a way that is both faithful to the biblical and theological witness and accessible and applicable for a church serving and living in a 21st-century post-Christian culture.

Rutledge’s chapter, “The Gravity of Sin” serves as a helpful reminder to the preacher of how and why to preach the Gospel. It serves as a helpful reminder to theologians that any theological and philosophical analysis of the doctrine of sin can only occur in light of the Gospel which illuminates, identifies, and names our sins. Finally, this chapter serves as a reminder to the church that there is no way to escape either the universal human question of justice (the topic of chapter three), nor the centrality of Christ’s death and the myriad of biblical motifs used to explain and describe the atoning and liberating work of the cross (chapters five thru twelve) because Sin rules and defines human existence apart from Jesus Christ.

[1] Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2015), 168.

[2] Ibid., 175.

[3] Ibid., 181.

[4] Ibid., 209.

[5] Ibid., 171.

[6] Ibid., 183. Emphasis in the original.

[7] Ibid.

[8] This emphasis on the necessity of a relationship and revelation of God’s grace prior to understanding sin was a completely new idea for me. But looking back at my conversion experience, it does appear to fit Rutledge’s ordering. It was a full year of encounters with Christians and the Bible before my conversion, and it was only after I had personally encountered Christ in an act of mercy (literally, a miracle), that I could surrender and confess my sins and my utter and complete need for salvation and forgiveness.

[9] Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, 189.

[10] For example, Rutledge discusses the difference between the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and the Christian understanding of atonement that takes place in Christ’s crucifixion. Ibid., 171–172.

[11] Ibid., 192.

[12] Ibid., 195–197.

[13] Ibid., 197–200.

[14] Ibid., 202.

[15] Ibid., 204. Emphasis original.

[16] Ibid., 173.

[17] I am not dismissing the “Heaven’s Gate and Hell’s Flame” drama productions outright. It was through one of these at a Pentecostal church twenty years ago that I came to faith in Christ.

[18] Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, 204.

[19] Ibid., 194.

[20] See for example, Rutledge’s humorous example of the “Sindex.” Ibid., 193.

[21] “We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

[22] This is due in large part to the work of Robert Webber. See, for example, Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999).

What if Barth’s Commentary on Romans had Been Published in the Age of Twitter?

(This post is inspired by Richard Burnett’s discussion of the release and response to Barth’s commentary on Romans. See,Burnett, Richard. Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The Hermeneutical Principles of the Romerbrief Period. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001. p. 14-23)

Review: Did The First Christians Worship Jesus?

Did The First Christians Worship Jesus? is a continuation of an ongoing academic discussion on the nature of early Christian worship, rx between Larry Hurtado, physician Richard Bauckham and James Dunn. In this work, written at a level suitable for the general readership, Dunn notes that he does agree in principle with the writings of Hurtado and Bauckham, but that in this volume he wants to wrestle with those passages that seem to contradict the idea that the early Christians worshipped Jesus. If in fact the early Christians were hesitant to worship Jesus, Dunn believes that it is important to stop and ask why this is.

Dunn explores this by asking five primary questions: 1) What is worship, and does worship define God? 2) What did worship involve? 3) How was God’s self-revelation understood in biblical Judaism? 4) Was Jesus a monotheist? 5) What did Jesus’s exaltation to the right hand of the Father mean to the early Christians?[2] Dunn’s thesis is that, in the early Church, the worship of Jesus was not an alternative to the worship of God, it was a way of worshipping God. More precisely, the worship of Jesus was (and should be) wholly Trinitarian; that is, “Worship of Jesus that is not worship of God through Jesus, or, more completely, worship of God through Jesus and in the Spirit, is not Christian worship.”[3]

Dunn argues that the original question, “Did the first Christians worship Jesus?” is too narrow, and when taken at face value it should be answered in the negative. Better questions to ask, Dunn suggests, are “was the earliest Christian worship possible without and apart from Jesus?”[4] and, “did the first Christians include Jesus within this restricted worship, or did they somehow loosen the restrictions?”[5] Dunn is attempting to guard against the possibility of Christomonism, or in his words “Jesus-olatry”, wherein the worship of Jesus replaces the worship of God.

This book, while written at an easily-accessible level and marketed to the general Christian public, makes the reader feel like they have walked into the middle of a conversation without any prior context of the conversation. As well, because Dunn states that he is in agreement with Hurtado and Bauckham, the subtle arguments that he is making in relation to their broader conversation will probably be lost on those who have not fully followed the conversation. As such, Larry Hurtado’s review[6] helps to guide readers in understanding the broader conversation, as well as pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of Dunn’s argument.

From a theological perspective, Dunn’s book is useful because he affirms and wants to ensure that all discussion of Christian worship is Trinitarian in nature. At the same time, the question needs to be asked if Dunn’s fear of “Jesus-olatry” is overblown. An examination of the Patristic development of Christology, even though it is extends beyond the first century data that Dunn is analyzing, would be useful to explore, particularly some of the early writings of Justin Martyr and Tertullian, to see if the worship of Jesus actually displaces the worship of God the Father. (Though space does not permit, I would argue that the development of the doctrine of the Trinity prevents this from occurring). That being said, Dunn’s worry about “Jesus-olatry” does not warrant criticisms that Dunn is undermining the foundations of Christian orthodoxy with his scholarly examination of the biblical texts.[7]



[1] James Dunn, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus: The New Testament Evidence (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 58.

[5] Ibid., 60.

[6] Larry Hurtado, review of Did the First Christians Worship, by James Dunn, Journal of Theological Studies 61 (2010): 736-40.

[7] See for example, Paul Owen, review of Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The New Testament Evidence, by James Dunn, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54 (2011): 645-47.

Review: Paul In Fresh Perspective

viagra 204, no rx 203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_.jpg” width=”300″ height=”300″ />Paul: In Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright is based on a series of lectures delivered between 2004 and 2005. His aim, through these lectures, is “to let in some new shafts of light on Paul” (p. ix). He does this by dividing his lectures into two sections: themes found in Paul’s writing, and structures of Paul’s theology. While this book, in part, builds on his previous work on Paul, (notably, What St. Paul Really Said, Climax of the Covenant, and his commentary on Romans), it also points to Wright’s next project, namely the fourth volume in his series, Christian Origins and the Question of God.

In chapter one, Wright introduces the world, or more specifically the worlds, of Paul: Judaism, Hellinism, Rome, and the ekklesia. Wright argues that the narratives of these different worldviews all influenced Paul’s theology and thought, and that the focus in Pauline studies on narrative structures “is one of the most significant developments which the ‘new perspective’ revolution has precipitated” (p.8). Wright briefly outlines the shift from the “old perspective” to the “new perspective” and argues that many of the ideas in modern Pauline scholarship were/are born out of specific cultural and interpretative contexts that are now being evaluated and brought to light. (For example, he talks about how Ephesians and Colossians being seen as pseudo-Pauline arose out of a very specific context: German existentialism).

In chapter two, Wright explores the interconnectedness of the themes of creation and covenant. Building off of Psalms 19 and 74, Wright presents three Pauline texts (Colossians 1:15-20; 1 Cor 15; Romans 1-11) that display the same pattern of fusing creation and covenant together, even when the terms “creation” and “covenant” aren’t specifically referenced in the text. Wright’s thesis is that the Old Testament, and thus Paul in retelling the narrative in light of the work of Christ, portrays God as the creator God who is the covenanting God, and vice versa (p.24).

In chapter three, Wright focuses on the themes of Messiah and the Apocalyptic. He argues that this pairing of themes demonstrates that for Paul, the “apocalypse of the Messiah as Israel’s king and therefore the world’s true Lord challenges…the grand claims of the pagan empire” (p.40). Wright rightly challenges the modern misunderstandings of “Christ” that downplay the Jewishness of Jesus’ title. Wright then looks at the themes of Gospel and Empire in chapter four. Wright argues that not only was Paul discussing the Gospel as fulfillment of Israel’s narrative, but he was also subverting (implicitly and explicitly) the ideology of the Roman Empire (pg. 59).

Wright then shifts from themes in Paul’s writings to the structure or shape of Paul’s theology. Wright critiques previous attempts to structure Paul’s theology, because they ended up emphasizing certain doctrines at the expense (or outright dismissal) of other doctrines. Wright suggests the adoption of a three-fold Jewish framework that would categorize Paul’s theology under “one God,” “one people of God,” and “one future for God’s world”, and then tweaking it to focus on the Messiah and the Holy Spirit (p.84). Chapters five, six and seven look at each of the three aspects in turn, and these chapters form the beginning sketches of Paul’s exploration of the Christological and pneumatological foci of each category.

In his concluding chapter, Wright looks at some of the corollary questions that arise from his proposed restructuring of Paul’s theology. First, Wright examines the supposed dichotomy or polarization between Jesus’ message and Paul’s message. Wright argues that both Jesus and Paul saw the world through the same set of themes (as explored in chapters two through four), but their functions were different.  Paul was not attempting to modify or better Jesus’ theology, instead Paul saw his role as being the conductor who simply conducts the music written by the composer, that is, Jesus (p.155). But, if this is the case, Wright asks, what should be done about the apparent discrepancies between Jesus and Paul, in areas like teachings on the Kingdom of God, justification by faith, and Christian ethics? Wright, briefly explores each of the issues and concludes that the solution lies in understanding that Jesus and Paul had two different vocations that served the same over-arching vision (p.161).

While this book has a very conversational tone, and is aimed at more of a general rather than an academic audience, Wright would have been better to have offered more endnotes with references and clarifications to help the reader along. As well, the endnotes that merely reference Scripture should have been changed to parenthetical references to make it easier for the reader who has to continuously flip from the chapter to the endnotes at the back of the book. In terms of Wright’s overall presentation of his perspective on Paul, a reader who is familiar with Wright’s more academic works would understand the summaries and overviews that he gives, but for the reader who is unfamiliar with Wright, the summary nature of Wright’s arguments may actually be overwhelming and disorienting.  As someone who has read Wright, I found his chapter on messiahship to be a good review of his fuller discussions of messiahship as found in Jesus and the Victory of God. On the other hand, his chapter on Paul and Empire was actually confusing instead of clarifying, and as such readers would be better off reading his essay “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire.” That being said, this book serves as a way for evangelicals to re-read Paul with new insights, and to understand the narratives that Paul is using and retelling in his presentation of the Gospel.

Given the introductory nature of these “shafts of light,” and given that the book is written to a general, rather than academic audience, I would suggest that judgment and evaluation of Wright’s re-thinking of Paul be held in reserve until the more complete volume is released. The danger in critiquing Wright at this stage is that, because Wright does not set out to “prove” his re-thinking but rather to gather people together to begin to re-think with him, the reader is in danger of attributing issues or implications to Wright that may or not actually be indicative of Wright’s thought.

As a theologian, I find Wright’s suggested structure for exploring Paul’s theology to be both intriguing and useful, especially in a post-modern context that has moved, and is moving, away from the modernistic structures of systematic (particularly Reformed) theologies. I would suggest that Wright’s proposal could be the beginning of a bridge between biblical studies and theology, and specifically between the fields of biblical theology and systematic theology, especially if there was a way to subsume the systematic categories under the broader structure that Wright proposes.

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Evangelical Theological Society — Day Two

Wednesday afternoon was a bit of a mixed bag. First up was a great presentation by doctoral student James Gordon on Barth and speculative theology. There were some great post-paper questions raised by the audience. Next up was a very weak paper which was disappointing because the topic was fascinating. The day concluded with a great paper on Irenaeus and his emphasis on teaching catechumens how to read and interpret Scripture.

For supper, sovaldi sale I wandered a bit and found a great pub about a block from the hotel that had great (and cheap) burgers. And then I spent the evening unwinding. (Once again, ask I am reminded why I’m glad I don’t have cable. Commercials are annoying.)

This morning started with an unexpected surprise. William Webb’s presentation was canceled, so on a whim, I decided to pop into Richard Bauckham’s paper on naming practices in Jewish Palestine from 330BC to 200AD. I ended up sitting beside a Briercrest professor who I didn’t even know was going to be at the conference! Yay Briercrest! Next up was a paper on Cyril of Alexandria and John Chrysostom on Baptism by Talbot professor Ashish Naidu, and then on to the presentation by Francis Beckwith on ethics. My final session of the morning was cancelled, but that’s okay because it meant BOOKS!!!

I promised some friends I would post a list of the books I’ve purchased. So here goes:

I bought a three volume set of books on the Church Fathers by Christopher Hall: Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Worshipping with the Church Fathers, and Learning Theology with the Church Fathers.

I bought Zondervan’s Four Views on Christian Spirituality.

I bought Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom’s Clouds of Witness: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia.

I bought Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. (The school library has this book and it’s one of those ones where I keep signing it out and never actually finishing it. But since I was able to pick it up for $10 now I should have a bit more flexibility to finally finish it).

And the best book purchase ever has to be Kim Paffenroth and John Morehead’s edited book The Undead and Theology. Chapters include (but are not limited to):

Vampires are People, Too: Personalism in the Buffyverse (Jarrod Longbons)

The Living Christ and The Walking Dead: Karl Barth and the Theological Zombie (Jessica DeCou)

Zombie Walks, Zombie Jesus, and the Eschatology of Postmodern Flesh (John Morehead)

“Eat of My Body and Drink of My Blood”: Johannine Metaphor, Gothic Subculture, and the Undead (Beth Stovell)

I can’t wait to read this book!

The plan for the rest of today is to find some lunch, and then spend the afternoon in the session on Introducing Karl Barth to Evangelicals.

Evangelical Theological Society — Day One

After a horrific day of travel, shop I am now officially at the ETS conference in Milwaukee. (Horrible travel day included a canceled flight after we were already boarded, sale two hours in line to be rebooked, illness being rerouted through Denver, another delayed flight, and horrible customer service at security. I arrived in Milwaukee a full 6 hours after I was originally scheduled to arrive).

First on the agenda was Kevin Vanhoozer’s paper on the relationship between biblical studies and theology, specifically the need and importance for a theological interpretation of Scripture. The room that the presentation was to take place was teeny-tiny (maybe 50 seats), so they moved to a larger room (200 seats) and even that room wasn’t big enough as several people were left with standing room only at the back. What I appreciated about Dr. Vanhoozer’s presentation (besides the topic), was that it was conversational and affable in tone. (Trust me, this is a big deal because often times paper presentations can be the most wooden and boring things to listen to.) Vanhoozer suggested that the danger in “pure” biblical studies is that it becomes “magic”, that is, a way to exert power and control to ensure the results the scholar wants, in this case discovering the “true” meaning of the passage in the original context. Because the Bible is not merely human and historical, but also points to the Divine discourse that God had and continues to have with his people, theological interpretation opens the way for us to participate in the Story of scripture.

Unfortunately, Dr. Vanhoozer’s presentation ran overtime, so I was unable to get to my second session. Instead, I went and checked out the exhibitors (translation: BOOKS! CHEAP BOOKS) I am a little ticked at IVP though, they won’t ship books to Canada, and Canadian ETS attendees who order books have to order through David C. Cook, but David C. Cook won’t give the 40% ETS discount. Grrr. Argh!

The next session I attended was a paper on the shift in Basil the Great’s understanding of the Ascetical Life. The presenter, Jason Scully, compared Basil’s “Epistle 2” to his “Longer rule” and argued that Basil moves from being preoccupied with the soul’s intellectual purity (emphasis on purging bad habits), to being focused on the need for loving actions (emphasis on fostering good habits and pursuing virtues).

The last paper of the morning was by doctoral student Susan Rieske. Her paper looked at the language of “delight” that is used to describe God’s attitude towards Israel’s destruction and ruin if she breaks the covenant (Deuteronomy 28:63). She proposed three ways to interpret this “delight”: as a term of volition or determination; as a rhetorical device meant to get Israel’s attention; and as pointing God delighting in his overarching purposes for Israel (over and above judgement).

So far, it’s been a great experience. Yay for brainy Christians who serve God through scholarship!

ETS: The Final Plan

The ETS conference starts on Wednesday. I have scoured the program and I have come up with the final list of presentations I plan on attending. Here’s the plan:

Wednesday Morning:

  • Kevin Vanhoozer, viagra “Exegesis I know, sick and Theology I know, but who are you?”: Biblical Hermeneutics and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture.
  • Taylor Worley, “The Splendor of Holiness”: The Church as the Theatre of Divine Beauty.
  • Jason Scully, The Loving Soul: Basil the Great’s Biblical Conception of the Ascetical Life.
  • Susan Rieske, Yahweh the Sadist? An Examination of God’s “Delight” in Destroying Israel in Deuteronomy 28:63.

Wednesday Afternoon:

  •  James Gordon, Is it Possible and Desirable for Theologians to Speculate After Barth?
  • Micah Meek, The Role of the Anglican Puritan Pastor in the Moral Formation of the Church.
  • Stephen Presley, Intertextuality as Catechesis in the Early Church.
  • John Auxier, Technology and Sanctification.

Thursday Morning:

  •  William Webb, Corporate Solidarity: An (In)justic in Holy War.
  • Ashish Naidu, The Transformation of Fallen Creation: Cyril of Alexandria and John Chrysostom on the Sacramental Implications of Christ’s Baptism.
  • Francis Beckwith, The Case of After-Birth Abortion in the Journal of Medical Ethics: A Critique.
  • Brian Goard, Critical Realism in the Thought of Alister McGrath.

Thursday Afternoon:

  • Michael Allen, Introducing Karl Barth to Evangelicals: Challenges and Approaches.
  • Marc Cortez, Introducing Karl Barth to Evangelicals: Universalism as a Test Case.
  • Matt Jenson, Introducing Karl Barth to Evangelicals: Ecclesiology as a Test Case.
  • Keith Johnson, Introducing Karl Barth to Evangelicals: Nature and Grace as a Test Case.

Friday Afternoon:

  • David Cramer, Does (Church) Practice Make Perfect (Christians)? MacIntyre, Yoder, and the Moral Significance of the Sacraments.
  • Jordan Hillebert, The Mystery of Faith and the Mystical Theology of Henri de Lubac.
  • Randal Rauser, Is Penal Substitution too Provincial?
  • Timothy Erdel, The Great War, the “Good War,” and Their Challenges to Christian Pacifism.

Again, if you’re going to be at ETS I’d love to meet you. If you’re not going, feel free to check my blog daily for updates, and my twitter feed (@CWTheology).

 

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