This is just a reminder that Dr. Michael J. Gorman (St. Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore) will be at the University of Mount Olive tonight (7 PM) and tomorrow morning (9 AM) delivering our annual Harrison Lectures. Dr. Gorman will give two lectures related to his book, Reading Revelation Responsibly. Both lectures are free to the public. If you are in the area (or close by), we’d love to see you. (FYI: Mount Olive is about an hour’s driving distance from the Raleigh-Durham, Wilmington, and Fayetteville areas.) For more information on the lectures, see here.
This week I received the first volume in the new Zondervan OT commentary series ”Hearing the Message of Scripture.” Daniel Block, the general editor, is also the first author. The launch volume is on…Obadiah? One might have liked to see Genesis or Isaiah. At first I was a little disappointed. But! It makes a lot of sense when you learn that the series is designed to make the message of each OT book easy to understand – even a book like Obadiah! Block is one of the best Old Testament scholars out there, so it is nice to have his perspective on this text (you can find a sample here).
The design and layout of this series looks quite a lot like the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament in terms of textbook-y feel, lots of charts, and the inclusion of a “main idea” section at the head of each unit. Also, Block’s commentary concludes with a chapter called “Canonical and Practical Significance.” This portion of Block’s work is insightful.
Obviously the series will stand or fall on its contributors. It is off to a good start with Block’s work. I also look forward to the volume on Judges by my buddy Mark Boda. For more information, see here.
We are looking at a September 2014 release of Thinking through Paul, an introductory textbook by Bruce Longenecker and Todd Still (Zondervan). There are already a number of pretty good books that help folks to understand Paul (e.g., books by N.T. Wright, Mike Gorman, David Capes et al., etc.), but having a contribution from Longenecker and Still is very welcome in my opinion. These are two of the sharpest minds in New Testament studies and both reputations as excellent communicators.
Believe it or not, my students sometimes find Paul confusing and/or uninteresting. Still and Longenecker have made it their aim to draw out the richness and dynamism of Paul’s life and theology. I have happily used Gorman’s Apostle of the Crucified Lord as a textbook pretty much since it came out, and I still turn to it repeatedly for guidance and wisdom. But I think I may try out Longenecker/Still even if just to have an excuse to read it myself.
I think more details about the book are yet to emerge, but both authors are featured in short videos about the book – check it out.
While all orthodox Christians believe in the trustworthiness and reliability of Scripture, there is much confusion and disagreement about what it means to call the Word of God “true.” Whether it is Ken Hamm on Genesis, science, and world-origins, or archaeologists on camel bones, everybody seems to want to prove or discredit the Bible on the subject of its historical accuracy. Situations at places like Bryan College are not helping (Google it if you don’t know about it).
So, can there be any way forward in discussions about the nature of Scripture? Yes there is, says Michael Graves (Wheaton College). Graves has written a nice little book called The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us (Eerdmans, 2014). Graves does not treat the Church Fathers as infallible, but he believes that, because they lived historically and culturally closer to the world of Scripture and the apostolic age, they can teach us much. And he has done a fine job making that case. The bottom line for me is this: Graves’ book is outstanding because you have such a handy resource, all in one place, for studying how the Church Fathers thought about Scripture. Many of you know that the Church Fathers did not have explicit and detailed discussions about the nature of Scripture in the way we do today, so when they do, you have to pay close attention, and you also have to learn inferentially from the way they use and cite Scripture. This is what Graves offers and it is very helpful.
In the introduction, Graves gives us a window into how ancient writers (Christian, Jewish, or other) thought about and approached religious texts in general. He noted that they had a tendency to look for allegory in stories, they inspected linguistic details closely, took interest in word etymologies, and always mined ancient texts for modern relevance (see p. 10). Graves does not recommend these for modern reading of Scripture, but it is useful to understand cultural tendencies of the times.
The book is comprised of five main chapters: Usefulness [of Scripture], The Spiritual and Supernatural Dimension, Mode of Expression, Historicity and Factuality, and Agreement with Truth. One point that Graves makes regarding the historical accuracy of Scripture is that, by and large, the Church Fathers defended the direct factuality of the text, but for some there were occasions were problems were recognized. In such cases, for some writers, “problems at the level of factuality or historicity signaled the presence of a spiritual level of meaning” (105).
I think the conclusion of the book, in itself, is a must-read for all students of Scripture. When it comes to lessons learned from the Church Fathers, Graves boils it down to this: “Above all, ancient Christian thinking about inspiration shows us that we must interpret Scripture in light of its divine purpose: to guide people in knowing and following God” (133). Graves sees the modern church as overly obsessed with the ad litteram sense of Scripture to the neglect of “the contemporary significance of Scripture” (134): “If Scripture is to speak credibly to contemporary Christians, the exposition of Scripture must move beyond simply recounting the ad litteram sense toward reasoned theological interpretation set forth with charity” (135).
When it comes to how to read Scripture (with help from the ancients), Graves sums up with the following
(1) The Fathers read all of Scripture refracted through the lens of Jesus Christ (the Incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and session of Christ)
(2) Proper interpretation of Scripture must happen in and through the Church. That does not mean universities should not study the Bible, but the very purpose of Scripture’s existence is to form a people with a mission and ministry in service to God and world. That should never be left out of the picture.
(3) Scripture’s teaching must be “worthy of God.” I think Graves means that there is a moral dimension to all biblical learning (but I must confess I didn’t follow explanation of this).
(4) Good biblical interpretation requires “divine illumination.” Again, Graves is not arguing that non-Christians get everything wrong about the Bible. Rather, “As modeled by Origen, the mysterious insight that allows us to perceive the meaning of the gospel for us in Scripture comes through prayer and receptivity to divine illumination (137).
This book repays the patient reader far more than I could express in a brief review, but I do think Graves has provided a healthy opportunity to drive the discussion of the nature of Scripture forward by honoring our Fathers who came before us and thought a lot about how to study Scripture properly. Graves helps us see that, even though we should not turn the clock back to a supposed golden age of belief before the Enlightenment, we have much to learn from the past – especially how the ancients treated the Bible as Holy Scripture – not just an inviolable Christian constitution (to be defended even if by war), but as a spiritual book that connects God to his people in a special way to form and grow them up in the faith under Lord Jesus Christ and through the power and work of the Holy Spirit.
Today I was notified by Dan Batovici that the recent volume, Character Studies in the Fourth Gospel (ed. Steven A. Hunt, Francois Tolmie, Ruben Zimmerman) was reviewed over at Reviews of Biblical and Early Christian Studies. I have a special place in my heart for this volume. Not only was I privileged to contribute two essays to the book (character studies of “The World” and Malchus), but I was in constant contact with the editors as I brought forth my own volume, Characters and Characterization in the Gospel of John (Library of New Testament Studies), during the same period their volume was emerging. The review, written by a young scholar named Josaphat C. Tam, is interesting in that it only looks at three of the seventy essays in the book. The first of those three happens to be my study of “The World.” In the second of two paragraphs devoted to my essay, Tam writes:
While Skinner’s exegesis from the selected texts is reasonable to show that his view stands, he seems to have undervalued the significance of texts like 1:29; 3:16-17; 8:12; 9:5; 16:8; 17:21, 23, where the world clearly remains the object of God’s love and the evangelistic target of Jesus and the Paraclete (subsequently the Christian community). There is a tension between the unbelieving/rejecting attitude of the world towards Jesus and the hopeful conversion of the world for which Jesus/the author maintains. If the unbelieving characters/traits are represented by the world, the believing characters are also represented by the world. Being also members of the world, the Samaritans, the Samaritan woman, the blind beggars, and the disciples etc. encounter Jesus and are called to be children of God. They are from the world; upon understanding God’s love and through their believing understanding, they no longer belong to it while they are still in it (cf. 17:11, 14-16). The Pharisees’ fear in 12:9, “the world has run off after him,” though hyperbole it may be, ironically contains an element of truth. Far from expressing the world’s following in ignorance as Skinner claims (p.67), these words of the Pharisees can be a partial summary to Jesus’ ministry. Through these words, the author shows to the readers that, in contrast to those religious elite, truly some members of the world can be receptive to Jesus’ message. A clear example is that even the crowd (7:31, 40-43) are divided in their attitude towards Jesus. Time and again, the world is the receiver of God’s promises, though unfulfilled to some, yet definitely not to the others. In light of these observations, it seems the more complex traits of the world should be further explored.
I am, of course, thankful for the engagement and I think Tam raises some helpful questions. However, I would say in response that if Tam had read the introductory portion of my essay a little more carefully, he would have noticed where I map out a specific approach for my analysis of the world as a character. I am focusing on specific instances where the kosmos behaves as the Johannine Prologue (1:1-18) predicts. I am also clear that my focus is intentionally narrow. I wanted to examine the kosmos as a character (the aim of the volume) as opposed to a comprehensive discussion of the concept of the kosmos in the Fourth Gospel.
Overall, Tam’s impressions of the book are good…and I agree with him. If you are interested in narrative criticism, Johannine studies, character studies, and related areas, you will want to check out the book. (The price tag is pretty hefty, so for my friends in academia who want a copy, you should probably volunteer to review it for a journal!)
The website for Duke Divinity school is announcing that beloved professor and well-known ethicist, Allen Verhey has died today at the age of 68. Verhey was the author of a dozen books, including his most recent volume, The Christian Art of Dying, in which he reflected on his own struggle with a life-threatening illness.
Sometimes I will hear a student say about a particular professor – “Wow, she is so smart.” It used to make me jealous because students never say that about me. It doesn’t really bother me anymore because I think that often what they mean is that the professor uses big words, is hard to understand, and tries to deconstruct everything in sight! (Not always, but often enough.) I try to communicate clearly and focus on a very good foundation in the basics. All too often we try to get students “up to speed” on latest methods and trends. There is a place for that. But we also need to make sure the foundation is laid securely. I try very hard to lay that foundation with a strong substance.
Sometimes students leave seminary more confused than when they began. There is a kind of productive “disorientation” that must take place to break and re-set malformed theological notions. However, some professors are hell-bent on doing the breaking and very little of the re-forming. Our minds hunger for simplicity, or at least some form of consolidation.
On that note, I was happy to come across (again?) Don Hagner’s statement about simplicity and complexity in his The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction (Baker). In the preface he mentions that his introduction could come across as naive because Hagner tries to give straightforward answers. Here is his rationale for his “simple” approach:
Simplification is essential to a student’s introduction. Undoubtedly some will regard my approach in general as reflecting a kind of naive, rosy optimism or an unbelievable chutzpah. If it reflects naïveté, it is a ‘second naïveté.” I agree with the statement attribute to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: ‘I do not give a fig for the simplicity this side of [i.e., instead of or before] complexity, but I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of [or after] complexity’. (xi)
Indeed. So, I am OK with my students not thinking me ‘smart’ because I don’t bombard them with esoteric and convoluted terminology. I could also be accused of coming across as overly simple. Don’t get me wrong. We talk about various viewpoints and some current theories on this or that subject. But I want to make sure, at the “far side of complexity,” that I can help students touch terra firm again.