How Dangerous is Rob Bell? A Response to John MacArthur

I have now read Rob Bell’s Love Wins. And I have read John MacArthur’s literally damning review. I won’t take the time now to give you my full review of Love Wins -I will post something substantial in a few weeks. However, in light of MacArthur’s review, I felt the need to make a response to his response.

MacArthur essentially condemns Bell for deviating from orthodox Christian doctrine as MacArthur himself sees and defines it. He also places him in the category of false teacher, like the ones in the New Testament. MacArthur condemns Bell for, among other things, claiming to be Evangelical and then not taking serious the authority of Scripture, the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement, and the instrumentality of justification by faith. First off, reading Love Wins, I did not see any of these things put in danger. Are MacArthur and I reading the same book?

Secondly, MacArthur raises the question – what does it take to be a Christian? If Bell didn’t believe in an eternal hell of torment for the unbelievers, is that enough to condemn him? If so, I might ask MacArthur, where is Augustine, because we all know that, though he is beloved by evangelicals, he believed in some weird things (like you must be baptized to be a saved Christian, see Sermons to Catechumens, On the Creed, 7:15).

Thirdly, MacArthur repeatedly argues that we should look at Bell’s “fruit” to see if he is genuine. I think for MacArthur to make the specific kinds of accusations he is making, he needs a better overall “audit” of Bell’s spirituality and commitment. Before condemning Bell publicly, I think MacArthur should have flown to Bell’s church. Talk to folks there. Talk with surrounding churches and pastors. Talk to Bell’s family. See the ministry he has with the poor and the sick. “Fruit” does not just mean “what he preaches” – it is also about the actions of Bell and his overall ministry.

Fourth, MacArthur raises the question for me: how should we assess a book by a so-called Christian that seems to be challenging what many “evangelical” Christians already believe? For MacArthur, you quickly dismiss it, throw some texts of Scripture at it, make a claim to tradition, and move on. I am not sure this is the wisest approach. We need to have enough humility and respect for another human being to ask: (1) Does he claim to be a Christian?, (2) Does he seem to be trying to exegete the Biblical texts carefully, (3) Is he writing with a generous spirit and motivation? If the answer to these is “yes,” I think we can disagree with the conclusions of the book, without coming right out and damning the person.

Finally, I will say that the comparison between Bell and the NT false teachers is overdrawn. Paul himself felt the need to condemn false teachers because what they were saying and doing was leading to immorality or disunity (or both). Think about Galatians – the false teachers were turning Christians into slaves of Torah. Think about Colossians – the social body was being neglected and fractured in view of personal spirituality. Think of 2 Corinthians, false teachers were boasting in outward appearance, and rhetoric, condemning the suffering apostles. Bell’s book doesn’t look like any of this, nor does it lead to any of this. If you find a heresy (and I don’t think Bell’s book is in this category) that is too gracious, I say: why bother to condemn it (especially when, in my opinion, Bell has done his exegetical homework, although I do disagree with his interpretation of particular texts on some points)? Correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t think any NT text condemns false teachers for being too gracious. Am I right?

[UPDATE: One blogger, Nick,  has taken up the challenge of pointing out what seems to be a false teaching condemned for being too gracious - Jude 4. I didn't think of this, so kudos on the quick thinking. However, I already mentioned that I thought many NT writers took issue with false teachings that led to immorality. That is not what I meant by false teachers being "too gracious." By using Rob Bell as an analogy, he is not "too gracious" in terms of moral laxity. Rather, he is "gracious" in terms of salvation. Are there any false teachers that fit that category? That is what I meant. My bad - I should have clarified what I meant. Again, that is not to say I totally agree with Bell. I have serious concerns with his book. Rather, it is to say that I call him "brother" and not "wolf," and I see no need to publicly condemn him.]

In my opinion, MacArthur’s incendiary review will ultimately cause more damage to the Christian cause than Bell’s best-selling book ever will. (That is not to say I agree with Bell, just that I think MacArthur’s words are just that harmful). It is one thing to politely disagree, it is another to engage in “friendly fire.” My personal opinion is that this post by MacArthur only ironically comes from his website entitled “Grace to you” (Physician, heal thyself!)

[Update #2: Some people are accusing Bell of being a universalist. While his position isn't crystal clear in his book, he has said over and over again in interviews he is NOT a universalist, and I take him at his work. If he can be accused of anything on this issue, it is being unclear.]

Bible Study Magazine featuring N.T. Wright article (May/June 2011)

I just received the May/June 2011 issue of Bible Study Magazine, a periodical published by Logos. The lead article in this issue involves an interview with N.T. Wright called “In Tune: Developing an Ear for the Word.” The Wright-disciple (like myself) will not find anything “new” in this article. And yet I really liked it, because he is talking to laypeople about how to read the Bible. There is good practical advice and also a good number of anecdotes and interesting illustrations.

I also contributed a short article to this issue on “Keeping Up with the Greeks” – learning about the ancient context and learning from it when you engage in Bible Study.

Let me say, while BSM is only in its developing stage, the editorial team has done an excellent job of attracting excellent lead articles. Once they hit their stride and work in more “scholars” into the other articles, this magazine will fill a major niche in the Christian world. Also, the design of the magazine as a whole and the illustrations in the articles themselves are really high quality. Kudos to John Barry and his crew!

Scott Hafemann hired at St. Andrews (New Testament)

The University of St. Andrews School of Divinity recently posted the exciting news that Scott Hafemann has been hired to teach New Testament. All I can say is that this will be great for Scott and great for St. Andrews. Imagine the conversations that will happen in their New Testament seminar.

PhD-Student hopefuls: what are you waiting for?

(Of course I think Durham is still the best place to study, but by sending our Bishop to St. Andrews, I am somewhat torn!)

The Difference Resurrection Makes: My Two Favorite Resurrection Analogies

N.T. Wright expresses what it means to having resurrection daylight for Christians who live out the “new day of God’s kingdom” in the midst of the night of the same old evil age:

“[Paul] is like someone taking off just as dawn is breaking and flying rapidly westward, catching up with the end of the night and arriving in the new country in time to experience dawn all over again. His body and mind know it’s already daytime, while the world around him is still waiting for the dawn to break. This is the picture of the Christian, living in the new day of God’s kingdom—a kingdom launched by Jesus—while the rest of the world is still turning over in bed.” (After You Believe, p. 137)

James D.G. uses a vaccination analogy to express the difference resurrection makes as the same cosmic power of death that consumed Jesus led to a “sin-resistant” human Jesus that could pass on this cure to others:

“In vaccination germs are introduced into a healthy body in order that by destroying these germs the body will build up its strength. So we might say the germ of sin was introduced in Jesus, the only one “healthy”/whole enough to let that sin run its full course.  The “vaccination” seemed to fail, because Jesus died. But it did not fail, for he rose again; and his new humanity is “germ-resistant,” sin-resistant (Rom. 6:7, 9). It is this new humanity in the power of the Spirit which he offers to share with men.” (The Christ and the Spirit, p. 208)

Entering the Conversation on “Love Wins”

I never really had much of a desire to read a book by Rob Bell. However, my institution, Seattle Pacific University, is putting on a symposium on the book Love Wins and I have been asked to respond to the ideas in the book from the perspective of his interpretation of Scripture. So, I WILL be reading the book, but I asked the university to buy a copy for me!

Anyway, our session will be in a few weeks. I will post my reflections here when that symposium is over.

I have tried not to read blog posts and reviews so that I can come to the book “untainted,” so I will probably not be up to speed on what other folks think. So, just FYI, my own thoughts may be similar to other Bible profs.

The Interpretation of the Gospel of John – A Dialogue with Urban von Wahlde

A few months ago I wrote a review of the first volume of a three-volume commentary set by Prof. Urban C. von Walhde. Prof. von Walhde recently wrote a response to my review, taking issue with a number of my comments and also the nature of my review as a whole. I thought it helpful to repost the whole discussion – see beneath my own review for the response from Dr. von Walhde. I welcome further comments.

Nijay K. Gupta: Apparently a massive undertaking, Urban von Wahlde (UvW) recently wrote a commentary on the Johannine Literature (Eerdmans). The first volume, covering introductory issues, reaches almost 700 pages alone!

Why would such a lengthy volume be necessary?

UvW has developed a rather sophisticated solution to what he sees as the problem of an incoherent and heavily redacted final form of the text of the Gospel of John. Drawing considerably from the work of Bultmann and to some degree from Brown (and Wellhausen, seriously), he has established a reading theory that separates the final form of John into three layers or “editions” as he calls them.

Edition #1: Written probably between 60-65AD offers the skeleton story of the Gospel as it currently is. This ground layer has a low Christology, uses “signs” as the keyword for Jesus’ miracles, focuses on a broad range of terms for the antagonists (Pharisees, chief priests, rulers), and develops a plot line where such enemies of Jesus grow in anger until they plot to kill him. This first author was probably Jewish and had a strong knowledge of the Jesus tradition. His purpose is evangelistic and his writing community probably had contact with or deep knowledge of the ministry of John the Baptist.

Edition #2: This redactor edits the text with a theological agenda, and neglects and even obscures the narratological progression of the text. This edition focuses on the antagonists simply as the “Jews”. It is this edition especially that intends to communicate to Jewish Christians who have been rejected by the synagogal community. A high Christology is woven into the text at this point. This edition probably was produced 65-70AD.

Edition #3: This redactor has even less of an interest in the narrative and make purely theological changes. He infuses the perspective of the Elder (1 John written prior to this edition), brings an apocalyptic perspective, adds the prologue, and develops the eucharistic language. This edition was produced 90-95AD.

UvW recognizes how this reconstruction might sound to a modern guild of NT scholars that have “moved on” away from diachronic readings to treat the canonical text from a literary perspective. Yet UvW is relentless in his argument (hence the massive volume) that such a multilayered approach is absolutely necessary. I find his reasoning flawed, and yet I respect the fact that he presents as thorough a case as possible. In the end, though, the complexity of his own re-construction is not a manageable, provable or satisfactory resolution. Below I will engage with his series of arguments. I will present some of his claims (I can only do so much!), and my own responses.

Claim: The text of the Gospel of John needs to be studied diachronically, because it is a “cacophony” (his words, 3) that needs sorting out.

My Response: UvW does not like some of the tensions and ostensible inconsistencies in GJohn. However, I am really concerned with the idea that we (in our time and culture) have the right ears attuned to sort out the noise and find the symphony. If UvW were to convince me that GJohn is obviously unreadable as a coherent Gospel, I would have liked to hear about Patristic concerns of the same kind – where they also felt uneasy with GJohn in its extant form. That would confirm, to me, that we are not just use to a different style of music.  Even today, scholars like Barrett and P.N. Anderson accept that the “tensions” in Christology, for example, may very well be internal (dialectical, dialogical), rather than external; within the mind of one author.

Second Reponse: UvW seems to prize simplicity, coherence, and smoothness. But, is this really an ideal that we have real examples of? Why is it that he can presuppose that the original author prioritized smoothness, but the final editor (who has fooled so many people in history) is essentially tone-deaf?

Claim: Unlike today, it was conventional in ancient history for books to undergo several editions (p. 10) – such as the Pentateuch.

Response: This is actually a decent argument. However, the Pentateuch was edited over hundred of years. UvW is talking about an editorial process happening over 30-40 years and we have no (clear) evidence from manuscripts of earlier editions. Besides, Greek and Roman biographies were becoming more common at the end of the first century which established a genre (at its most basic form) for the Gospels – I wonder if we have evidence that such bioi went through editions?

Claim: The removal of additional (secondary and tertiary) layers will offer a “cleaner” and “crisper” text and sequence – one that is “coherent and logical by any modern standard.” (34). He offers the example of 13:33-37 which would read more smoothly if vv. 34-35 were removed. Then Peter’s response to Jesus would be direct and uninterrupted by Jesus’ mention of the love commandment.

Response: Again, I would say to UvW, what standard are you using for coherence? Apparently you think the first author possessed a kind of narrative sanity that not only was uncharacteristic of the later editors, but somehow the editors have also fooled so many. Can you offer an example of a coherent, logical Gospel – pick any canonical or non-canonical one. If your ideal is a smooth text, can you supply at least ONE example where it is free from aporias? Does Mark count? If we cannot find an ideal text (free from aporias), how do we know what the ideal (original, crisp) standard was other than using a “modern standard”. Again, either clear manuscript evidence (that lacks vv. 34-35) or Patristic discussion of incoherence would seriously bolster his argument.

Another response I would have deals with the movement UvW makes from a more difficult text to a more simple text. His reasoning is that the more complex and unreadable the text, the less likely it is to be original, presumably because people do not think and write in such a way. However, doesn’t this logic run against the well-known text-critical principle of lectio difficilior - the more difficult reading is probably the more authentic? The key idea is that scribes/editors/redactors are not stupid – they would more likely harmonize a text rather than complicate it further. UvW’s logic runs the other way – redactors muddle up clean and coherent readings with their theological agendas. Would we call this lectio facilior? When has a text-critic relied on this? Why should it be different on a larger scale – especially when we don’t even have a “variant reading” so to speak?

Claim: “For some, the difficulties for interpretation presented by a multilayered text may seem sufficient to reject the enterprise altogether and to return to a “simpler age.” But the problem here is no different from those problems involved in attempting to do a “theology” of the New Testament…[which] does not speak with a single voice.” (p. 41)

Response: Firstly, yes…the complexities of UvW’s theory seems too untenable. In terms of his canonical analogy, he makes a nice attempt, but the key difference is that ANYONE can distinguish the dividing lines between the various canonical texts. While we have things like the problem of 2 Cor 1-9 and 10-13, by and large we know when one book ends and another begins. While we may have a hard time harmonizing Mark’s Christology with Revelation’s, we can still clearly speak of a Christology of Mark and one of a distinct book called Revelation. It is difficult to get to this analytical point with UvW’s proposal simply because we cannot agree on the nature, extent, and substance of the editions. Can UvW name anyone that will agree with even 80% of his reconstructed editions?

Conclusion: While reading this heavy tome, I was reminded of Doug Campbell’s revisionist reading of Romans – both see too many problems in the text as it stands and both construct elaborate theories that require numerous point-counterpoint arguments. Again, this is where Occam’s Razor comes in – once the theories get to a certain level of complexity, they decrease in probability. While such proposals may have covered basic questions with intelligent responses, they continue to seem conjectural. Sadly, I do not think I will consult the commentary much, as UvW weaves and works out his theory into the 2nd and 3rd volumes. Others, of course, may find his reading more convincing.

Review Rating: 2.5/5: Points for creativity and thoroughness, but I find his 3-edition theory to be too elaborate, thinly based, and ultimately reductionistic. Also he uses the word “clear” too often and quite loosely (“It is very clear that…”).

Response by Dr. Urban von Wahlde:

Since Prof. Gupta has published a review of my book in blog format, I think it may be helpful to the reviewer and to the reader to have my own reflections on Prof. Gupta’s review. In his review, the reviewer makes a number of quite harsh and damning comments: “the reasoning is flawed,” the proposal is “hardly manageable, provable or satisfactory,” it is “way too untenable.” I think these comments are unmerited.
My first observation would be a general one: there seems to be no evidence in the review that the reviewer read beyond page 41. I hope I am wrong, but as I said, there is no evidence of this among the quotes of my “claims.” It is also surprising that there is no reference at all to Part Four of Volume One, which is summary of the theological development of the Johannine tradition through the four stages of the tradition evident in the gospel and 1 John. It presents a first-ever history of the Development of Johannine Theology.

Second, from the review, it also seems (although I may be wrong) that the reviewer does not have Vols 2 and 3. The publisher sent out all three volumes at once to reviewers. Perhaps the reviewer has not been asked to review the volume but only decided to do it “freelance.” Perhaps he only bought Vol 1 and is basing his judgment on that. I would argue that to do so would be problematic also since the project cannot be judged only on Vol 1.

Third, it seems the reviewer has essentially one complaint about the Commentary. He does not think that there is evidence of editing in the gospel, tensions maybe, but not editing. The reviewer rejects possible parallels to the type of editing and also rejects the proposed standard of coherence and consistency (which would indicate such editing)saying that it is too modern. On p34 of Vol 1 of my commentary, I provide a Section entitled “What Sort of ‘Coherence’ Is to Be Expected in First-Century Texts?” My answer is there for the reviewer and others to read. The reviewer does not mention or engage this material.
I would point out that the standard I propose is the standard of the text of the gospel itself when editorial additions are removed. If this is not a sufficient standard, I would ask what the reviewer judges the standard to have been in the analysis of the Pentateuch and of other documents such as 2 Cor and 1QS? It is nothing other than this — along with repetition, interruption, etc, the features that are called “aporiai.” Once again the reviewer is inconsistent in his acceptance of such standards for use in analyzing some documents but not sufficient for analyzing the Gospel of John. He really cannot have it both ways.

Fourth, closely related to the issue of insufficient evidence of editing, the reviewer indicates that it is significant that we do not have manuscript evidence for earlier editions of the gospel and that we have no evidence of Patristic concern with an inconsistencies or aporias in the gospel in its present form.
It should be pointed out that we do not have manuscript evidence of the various strands of tradition in the Pentateuch – only the internal evidence within the texts themselves.
The reviewer recognizes 2 Cor as an example of a text that has been edited but does not discuss it at all. He does not mention that we do not have any manuscript or Patristic evidence that 2 Corinthians is such a compilation. The analysis is done by means of factors internal to the letter itself.
Finally, the same is true about editing in the Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g. 1QS). It is done by analysis of factors internal to the letter itself.
If the reviewer accepts the validity of internal analysis of these other documents and the conclusions, then it is inconsistent to refuse to do the same for the gospel of John. It is clear, at least to me, that he cannot have it both ways.
The reviewer missed the point of my comparison of the various theologies present in the Gospel of John with the variety of those present in the New Testament. I did not mean to imply that we do not know the boundaries of the various documents. That would, of course, be absurd. My point is that the Christian community established a canon of documents that represented a “measuring rod” by which the true and authentic message of Jesus could be gauged. Yet, at the same time, modern scholars have pointed out (as the reviewer himself did) that the theology of Mark might be difficult to reconcile with the theology of Revelation! Those who established the canon were not concerned about such variety and inconsistency. They were obviously comfortable with a multiplicity of theologies within the unity of the canon. First century writers undoubtedly had different levels of “tolerance” for the amount of both theological and literary variety permissible in the canon and within a document such as the Gospel of John. In short, our questions are not always their questions.

But There Is The Larger Question Of How Such A Proposal As I Put Forward Should Indeed Be Critiqued.
I welcome serious engagement with (and critique of) the validity of the criteria I propose. If the reviewer had engaged the criteria with individual passages, something that is done throughout the second volume, he would perhaps have been in a position to make informed judgments about the proposal.

It should be pointed out for those unfamiliar with my Commentary that Volume 1 is divided into four “Parts.” The first three “Parts” provide the materials for the analysis of each of the three editions of the gospel. Each “Part” has three “Sections.” The first “Section” of each “Part” is an overview of the edition; the second is a listing and discussion of every criterion used to identify the material of that edition (I list 28 criteria for identifying the first edition, 34 criteria for the second edition and 56 criteria for the third. The reviewer mentions briefly only four criteria for the first edition and one for the second but nothing beyond that). Finally the third “Section” of each “Part” is a synthesis of the thought (structure, theology, historical value, relation to Synoptics, date, author, location, etc.) of the material of the edition identified by those criteria.
This will help the reader know a bit more about the thoroughness of the study. But the real question, I believe, is how to judge the proposal of the Commentary. I would suggest the following.

How to Judge the Adequacy of the Proposal Put Forward in My Commentary
First, the critic must determine whether the listed features occur consistently and exclusively in the stated material [i.e. do the features of the first edition really occur and overlap (providing redundancy) in the material of that edition and not in the material of the other editions?]
Second, when a body of the material in the gospel is isolated by the listed criteria, does that body of material yield the consistent and coherent theology, narrative structure and other elements claimed for it in Section Three of the analysis of each edition?
Third, does the thought of 1 John confront a theology similar to that which emerges from the second edition? And does the theology that emerges from the author of 1 John’s own thought echo that of the material identified as belonging to the third edition of the gospel?
Finally, is it correct that when the eleven major categories of theology (Christology, belief, pneumatology, eternal life, eschatology, knowledge of God, soteriology, ethics, anthropology, ecclesiology, attitude toward the material world) are analyzed as they are in “Part Four,” do we find a notable progression and development of each topic in each edition of the gospel, i.e. from the first to the second edition, from the second to the theology of 1 John, from the theology of 1 John to the final edition of the gospel?
If it is shown in the Commentary (as I believe it is) that the application of the stated criteria to the material of the Gospel of John yields three bodies of material, each of which has a distinct structure and theology (as well as a number of other distinctive features), then I believe that fact alone indicates the analysis is correct. And if any reader is still reluctant to see this as editing, I believe the burden would be on that person to explain the consistency of the factors described above.

But as I did say in the Commentary, for some, the effort involved in truly testing a theory such as this is simply too much work. As the reviewer says early in his review, “I can only do so much!” I can appreciate that. It takes a lot of work. Yet at the same time, I believe that one not up to doing the work necessary should not attempt it and cannot claim to provide an assessment that is adequate.

Thank you, Dr. von Wahlde for your comments. Here is my response to these statements.

Nijay K. Gupta: Here I would like to respond to a number of statements made by Dr. von Wahlde in his first response to my review.

Firstly, he expresses concern over some of my terminology finding it “damning.” I want to apologize, because I never intended for my statements to be taken that way. When I say “the reasoning is flawed,” I don’t mean that as “damning,” but that the line of argumentation does not convince me.

Secondly, Dr. von Wahlde did not find my review to be thorough. Let me just say that I did read past page 41, but if you look at the shape of the whole 781 page first volume, the theoretical background is really found in the first 41 pages. After that, he follows his process of interpretation and explains how the three volumes work. Also, when he says that it appears I did not read much past pg. 41, I find this somewhat surprising as the first thing I do in the review is go over his three-edition breakdown. Much of the information about these three editions come from information in the rest of the first volume. (His concern is with my “claims” and “responses” but I found the first 41 pages to be the most important part of the first volume.) I will admit that each reviewer (print or blog) must decide what the discuss and not to discuss. I felt that I focused on the most important section, but I am willing to accept fault for not drawing from more areas.

Let me say that, personally, I did not want to write an extremely lengthy review, because it is not conducive to the blog format and few readers would make it through a 2500-word review. I realize now that there are limitations in my choice, and I know that Dr. von Wahlde disagrees that I should have done the review if I wasn’t up to doing a more thorough analysis.

Thirdly, Dr. von Wahlde wishes that I had reviewed all three volumes. I find it acceptable, if a book is as long as his is, and if it is divided into three parts, for it to be reviewed as stand alone volumes, as along as they are reviewed sequentially (so I wasn’t going to review vol 2 without doing vol 1). Otherwise, why does the publisher allow Amazon to sell volumes independently? They should always be sold together. (Note, for example, that Craig Keener’s two-volume set on John is sold together.) Fair enough, though. Sorry that I only reviewed volume one. I see now how this could be upsetting to an author.

Dr. von Wahlde would want me to clarify whether or not I think editing takes place within Biblical documents. I wish to admit that when it comes to the Pentateuch, certainly editing took place. However, I will say again that took place over hundreds of years. When it comes to 2 Corinthians 1-9 and 10-13, I never said I thought it was a composite text. I said the transition from 9-10 is problematic, but I think it is hard to prove that these are separate documents. Take the example of Philippians; very few scholars think that we have several letters stitched together, but people like Helmut Koester have argued this. It is not that it is impossible, it is that there is no or very little external evidence. Theories  based on internal readings are a very messy kind of work as any text critic will admit.

When it comes to finding coherence in GJohn, von Wahlde argues that his theory of editing helps  to produce a smoother text. Again, I will ask: why does “smooth” equate “original” or earlier strand? Why would the original author be more competent than the later editor? Again, can Dr. von Wahlde point to a clean Gospel from the early church to set a basis for  judgment? Without an objective standard, how do we know what we are looking for?

Again, I will say, it is not so much that I don’t believe that  NT texts could have gone through  a process of editing. I only doubt that our modern literary tools can uncover  the layers with a useful measure of accuracy. Given the dawning of the age of theological interpretation of Scripture and the thriving of a canonical approach, I don’t think I am alone in this concern. Take, for example, Joshua or Judges. While they very well may be composite documents with layers of editing, very few scholars today feel the capability of sorting out what came from what. Certainly Wellhausen felt this comfortability, but I don’t know many modern commentators that attempt to peel Judges’ layers. To me, the layers may be there, but the final canonizers/editors gave us (or left us?) enough coherence to work meaningfully from the text from a theological standpoint.

I will not get into the detail of how von Wahlde believes his work should be tested. I will only say that I find, again, that his standard is a smooth text. Why is that our standard? To take an analogy from textual criticism, what happened to lectio difficilior?

I will stop there. I hope it goes without saying that I encourage readers interested in this topic to read von Wahlde’s book in depth yourselves and come to your own conclusions about his argumentation and the validity of his methodology. Despite von Wahlde’s concerns that my original review was too negative, I will repeat what I said earlier: his book set happens to be the most thorough attempt to argue for a diachronic approach to John and I appreciate his attention to methodology and detail, even though at the end of the day I disagree with him.

Dwelling with Philippians (review)

We live in an age of commentary-overload. That is good news to anyone wanting scholarly discussion of exegetical and theological issues in the Bible. It can be a nightmare for researchers who have to sift through a veritable sea of books in an attempt to be “thorough!”

Given the state of things, a “new” commentary hardly makes frontpage headlines. However, a new book on Philippians did catch my eye – Dwelling with Philippians: A Conversation with Scripture through Image and Word (eds. E. Steele Halstead, P. Detterman, J. Borger, and J.D. Witvliet; Eerdmans). This is not your grandma’s historical-critical commentary! How would I describe it? Well, you might call it a liturgical-theological commentary.

Before I get into what the book contains, the origin of the “conversation” may interest you. This book began as the main textbook for a campus-wide “Bible study” at Calvin College under the “Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.” Alongside highlighting the thoughts and pictures of a number of well-known poets and artists, the editors intentionally drew from Calvin professors and alumni.

There is a similar project going on right now at my institution, Seattle Pacific University, under the direction of the Center for Biblical and Theological Education – see HERE. Anyway, I am teaching Philippians for the seminary here next year and I thought this book looked very interesting.

It is not a commentary in the sense that it is attempting to set Philippians in its ancient historical, social, or even literary context. The book contains a number of types of reflections on the text: prayers (ancient and modern), theological and homiletical reflections, words of profession and praise, and related Scriptural texts. Perhaps the most distinct part of the book is the series of visual images that pepper almost each page – from folks like Rembrandt to a number of modern artists. The visual art is quite diverse culturally and in terms of medium: photographs, paintings, sculptures, drawings, etc…

In terms of reflections in texts, quotes (usually a paragraph or two long) are drawn from a wide range of writers – here is a sampling: Maya Angelou, Karl Barth, Richard Baxter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hieronymus Bosch, Frederick Buechner, John Chrysostom (of course!), T.S. Eliot, Kierkegaard, Lesslie Newbigin, Henri Nouwen, and Charles Wesley (hymns), and especially Eugene Peterson.  This is not a running commentary, but more like a series of snapshots. Each block quote appears in a colored-box and the boxes are arranged artistically on the page. This gives it the flavor of the experience of walking through an art gallery. What a great idea!

Given the new directions that commentaries are going in, and how hard it is for a new book on any book of the Bible to draw attention, the editors here have done a fantastic job of filling a new niche. Who would benefit from this book? I think this works for personal devotional study, but it could also be useful in any worship setting, such as a Sunday School, college chapel program, or I might use selections from this to start each class session for my exegesis course.

If I have one criticism, and it may not even be that big of a deal in this case, it is that one might read this book and feel that Philippians is a somewhat random collection of theological ideas, rather than a rhetorically-driven argument with a context and background. I can tell the editors know the background of this text to some degree, but will readers pick up on this? Given the niche of this book, I know they did NOT want to get too far into the historical context and background, and I can respect that.


OVERALL: 4.5/5 stunningly-beautiful presentation, novel approach, well-selected quotes and images.

Schreiner’s Commentary on Galatians

The new Zondervan Exegetical Commentary volume by Thomas Schreiner has probably been hotly anticipated by many as he is a leading conservative NT scholar and a strong voice in the debate over the legitimacy of the New Perspective on Paul. This particular commentary on Galatians allows Schreiner to engage in major issues related to Paul’s theology and especially his doctrine of law and salvation.

On introductory issues, Schreiner maintains standard positions, such as a Southern Galatia approach and Jewish, Torah-centered opponents who also have faith in Christ. In terms of distinctives of the commentary itself, even the backcover of the book claims that Schreiner endorses a “Reformation reading of the text” which places justification by faith at the center of his soteriological message.

Let’s start with the good. I think Schreiner, throughout the commentary, consistently focuses on the importance of the cross as the work of God in loving sinners through Christ. Secondly, one of the major themes of Galatians that Schreiner rightly picks up on is eschatology – we cannot accept circumcision as necessary because Christ has inaugurated the new age. The Judaizers were “turning the clock back” (p. 75). I also think Schreiner is right to adhere to the objective genitive reading of pistis Christou – faith in Christ. Finally, Schreiner gives good space to drawing out the importance of the Holy Spirit. Finally, he underscores the hostility and defeat of the cosmic powers of sin and death.

On the other hand, I found a number of concerns with this commentary. There are several exegetical weaknesses:

Gal 1:15 – “to me” or “in me” – Schreiner goes for “to me” because of the Damascus road experience. But what about the idea that Paul displayed to them the crucifixion of Jesus? (Gal 3:1 – Schreiner dismisses this interpretation here as well).

Sonship = pre-existence – Schreiner makes this argument (Gal 1:15). While I am all for pre-existence, there is no absolute connection between sonship and pre-existence. David was covenantally the “son” and so was Israel. We can find pre-existence in a number of other places, so no need to forcefully defend it here, I think.

- “righteousness should not be defined as covenant faithfulness” (p. 156). Does anyone really define it as that, or do they make a strong association between the two? I think the latter, but I could be wrong. Anyway, Schreiner seems to deny the connection, but Wright (et al.) only makes that connection when the language of the “righteousness of God” is used, not righteousness/justification language in general. So also Kasemann, I think.

Looking at 3:22, Schreiner sees “a polarity here between the law versus faith, between doing versus believing” (p 245). He draws this idea into 6:14 as well. Truly a Lutheran reading! I am speechless! All I can say is that the “presenting issue” in Galatians is circumcision, as Schreiner himself concedes. How can circumcision be about boasting in “doing” when someone else “does” it to you? Is it not about covenantal membership? I simply do not see Schreiner’s interpretation as viable in this context.

Finally, I was disappointed in the key theme of unity missing from his reading of Galatians. I understand he doesn’t like the New Perspective, but it seems he has gone too far away from some NPP distinctives. How can the one-ness and unity motifs be simply brushed aside? The key themes he discusses are justification by faith, the full divinity of Christ, freedom from the power of sin through the death/resurrection of Jesus, and dependence on the Holy Spirit (so stated on the back cover of the book). No unity of God’s people? How could he have missed this?

My personal opinion is that Schreiner needed to write a commentary on Galatians, because the “Lutheran” reading needs a good strong post-NPP advocacy, but this seemed to me to be a rather weak attempt. While I am criticizing Schreiner, I am also saying I fully believe he is capable of writing a cogent and critically-engaging commentary. I think the Zondervan Exegetical format did not allow him the space and platform for this. I think he needed something like a two volume WBC update or something heftier than ZECNT. Also, I felt he did not follow through on the ZECNT expectations either. My favorite part of the ZECNT is the “Theology in Application” section at the end of every passage discussion. While Osborne’s ZEC on Matthew handled this section marvelously, Schreiner seemed to have given this section little thought. At one point he almost comes right out and says, I don’t have much to say here! (see pg 113).

Another concern is that Schreiner engages in a wide number of key exegetical cruxes and asserts his own viewpoint only superficially – the main text of the commentary gives basic concerns with alternative positions and the footnotes point to more detailed studies that defend his position. My problem is that this commentary almost turns into a reference work for a non-NPP reading. While that is not a problem in and of itself, it could hardly be labelled “exegetical.” When I think “exegetical,” I think “inductively studied and defended.” Schreiner’s commentary seems to me to be a deductive approach – he says it himself – a “Reformation” reading. OK, it is true that it is impossible to be without presupposition and also people like NT Wright come to the table with an agenda as well. My disappointment is when a commentary becomes predictable. In a good commentary, an exegetical commentary, I want to see more weighing of options, and once in a while a commenter says, “As ugly and complicated as it may seem, the text points to this idea.” While Schreiner “weighs” options sometimes (though I don’t feel like it is a real weighing), I can always predict where he is going to “land.” While it makes the reading systematically comprehensible, it also becomes a bit more suspicious.

I am still waiting for a strong defense of a Lutheran/Reformation reading of Galatians. Westerholm – take the challenge! Well, actually slated to write Galatians commentaries in the future are Don Carson (Pillar), Douglas Moo (Baker Exegetical) and Brian Vickers (New Covenant). Carson and Moo (because of space-allowances) are sure to be substantial contributions. I trust both to be fair, accurate, and critically-engaging.

On the other hand, it will be interesting to see the Galatians commentary (Two Horizons) by N.T. Wright and the NTL one by de Boer (coming this fall!). Also, I am looking forward to seeing where deSilva (NICNT) and Peter Oakes (Paideia) land on NPP/Reformation questions.

Last thing – I still think that the ZECNT has potential, as Osborne’s contribution was quite good and I am excited to read Clint Arnold’s Ephesians volume. More to come!

The Reliability of the New Testament, with Ehrman and Wallace (review)

The New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary holds a forum called the “Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum in Faith in Culture.” Previously, they have had forum dialogues on the resurrection of Jesus, Intelligent Design, Atheism, and religious pluralism. In 2008, the subject was on the textual criticism of the New Testament, the reliability of the text, and the theological implications of the issue and evidence. While, on that occasion, several speakers gave papers, the two plenary presenters were Bart Ehrman (from a viewpoint of skepticism) and Dan Wallace (from a viewpoint of optimism).

That dialogue was recently published by Fortress Press under the title: The Reliability of the New Testament: Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace in Dialogue (2011). When I was in seminary, I learned a good deal about textual criticism, but this book offers a series of papers-turned-essays that really drive at the heart of key questions regarding the implications of the state of the issue. The state, that both Wallace and Ehrman agree upon, is that we simply do not have 100% accuracy in reconstructing the “original” books that were written to compose the NT. In fact, it appears that such an endeavor is impossible (at least with what evidence we have now). Ehrman concludes that basing Christian faith on what we have of the NT now is shaky ground. Wallace urges that there is certainly enough evidence (and trust in the accuracy of text-critical methods) to “know” what the NT says and what the original authors intended to communicate, without needing 100% accuracy.

The core discussion by Ehrman and Wallace comprises about 45 pages of the book. In addition, we find a number of other excellent essays. Dale Martin writes about why it is important for Christians to have a serious “theology of Scripture” so that they know how and what to learn from Scripture and also how it can be “used” for theological, social, and ethical purposes. Craig Evans reflects briefly on some of the theological issues bound up with this reality that there are words, phrases, and even passages that NT scholars are unsure about textually – what does that mean for our faith? What is our faith built on?

What I really like about this book is that the “so what” questions of textual criticism are really highlighted. Also, Ehrman and Wallace, especially, write in such a way that the discussion is accessible to a wider group of interested readers, not just those who already know something about textual criticism. This book is written keeping in mind people who have no idea who the Alands are!

I am going back and forth on whether or not to assign the Ehrman/Wallace debate for my undergrad students to read. It is certainly easy enough to understand. But the kind of things they discuss will scandalize many Christians who see the Bible as a magically perfect book. The idea of scribal errors (whether intentional or accidental) and uncertain texts (like the adultery pericope in John) would bury their faith in a sea of doubt, confusion, and uncertainty. For many of my students (as I would have been before seminary), the Bible is a “perfect” book from God, the center of the Christian religion. What happens when that foundation is found to be fraught with “I don’t knows” and “maybe that reading is not original.” Wallace and Evans (and others in the book) affirm that no cardinal doctrine of Scripture hangs on textually-uncertain passages. True enough, and maybe Erhman would agree. However, how can this material be presented in a way that continues to encourage young Christians? I don’t want to withhold the truth of the messiness of the issues from my students, but is this the right time (in the second year of college)? Probably not.

Overall, this was a fantastic read and I thank Fortress for making this conversation available to a wider audience. Please do check out the book and consider how it might be of help in your own courses and ministries.