Book Review: Becoming Whole and Holy (Brown, Dahl, and Corbin Reuschling)

Even though my day-job is being a “New Testament” professor, I am deeply interested in Christian formation and theological interpretation (and what good Methodist is not!). Thus, I took an immediate interest in the recent Baker book, Becoming Whole and Holy: An Integrative Conversation about Christian Formation by Jeannine K. Brown, Carla Dahl, and Wyndy Corbin Reuschling.

These three ladies are friends who wished to engage in conversation for mutual benefit, and they are also experts in their respective fields: Brown is a New Testament scholar, Dahl teaches in marriage and family therapy (and social sciences), and Corbin Reuschling works in theology and ethics. There are ten chapters on the subject of identity, holiness, formation, and community from a theological perspective. Basically, one author presents an essay – then, the other two offer reflections, constructive criticism, and praise or encouragement. As I was reading this book, it struck me that the respect, generosity, appreciation, and a willingness to learn and grow together is what scholarly interaction should be like at conferences, but rarely ever is. I caught a glimpse of this at the NT Wright conference at Wheaton – Tom was not sweetly praised, as there were some very demanding statements, accusations, critiques, and concerns. However, at the end of the day, everyone called each other “friend” and there was a mood and spirit of hope for the future as work continued in light of cooperation.

It is probably not surprising that my interest in the book immediately turned to Brown’s chapters on Scripture. In chapter five, “Being and Becoming: The Scriptural Story of Formation,” Brown looks at wholeness and holiness from a Biblical-theological perspective – especially recovering the image of God in humanity. How do Christians respond to the work of God in restoring humanity? Brown suggests two rubrics: dependence and discernment. Spot on! The first is a “relational conviction,” setting God as lord over your life. The second, discernment, is like “a compass, setting our course in a God-ward direction” (p. 81).

Brown has another chapter on the subject of “wholeness and holiness.” Her final thoughts in this chapter sum up well the perspective of all the authors and gives you a sense of what the book is about:

According to Scripture, the believing community is on a journey of becoming. Journeying or becoming is inherently part of the human experience because God created humanity as finite and wired for growth. Becoming is also a given because of humanity’s fall and subsequent propensity toward sin and idolatry. In this light human becoming is best conceived as responsiveness to God’s initiating and ongoing covenantal and redemptive work that culminates with Messiah Jesus, so that faith and faithfulness form the pattern of Christian becoming. (p. 96)

I think seminary faculties as a whole would benefit from coming together and reading this book together – demonstrating community and friendship, a common-cause as professors of formation (all of us!), and a spirit of collegiality in trying to learn from each other’s disciplines. If there is one context in which inter-disciplinary interaction is fundamental, it is the theological seminary. Eat this book! (wash it first).

Read the Bible for Life, edited by George Guthrie

UPDATE: Guthrie responds: see below for his perspective on some of my concerns. Thank you, George!

I met George Guthrie recently, I think at SBL at ETS this past year. He is a warm and gracious soul, and he is also a very capable NT scholar. He recently edited a book for young students called Read the Bible for Life: Your Guide to Understanding & Living God’s Word (B&H, 2011). It is composed of 16 chapters, containing personal “conversations” that Guthrie held with a variety of evangelical scholars. His intention is to spur teens and college students on towards fostering a love for Scripture and offer some foundational words of wisdom in terms of how to study the Bible.

The appendix also contains reading plans for studying the Bible over a year.

The scholars who are interviewed include: David Dockery, Andreas Koestenberger, Clint Arnold/Mark Strauss, Bruce Waltke, J. Daniel Hays, David Howard, Gary Smith, Darrell Bock, Craig Blomberg, Douglas Moo, and J. Scott Duvall (among some others). Some of this involves how to read the Bible spiritually, why we read the Bible, and much of it deals with reading different genres of Scripture uniquely.

What I liked about the book:

Guthrie’s overall purpose and intentions are commendable. He has planned the book out quite well. I also appreciate the selection of scholars. These are, mostly, conservative Baptist scholars, but they are the best of that bunch! I am always willing to read a book with Moo, Danny Hays, Duvall, Blomberg, and Bock!

Guthrie mentions the serious problem of Christians of a younger generation not taking the Bible seriously. He is absolutely right. There is an energy and a fresh-ness in the conversational approach he uses. He treats it much like Lee Strobel’s “The Case for…” books, where he writes like a journalist. Sometimes it is engaging, sometimes it is not, but I appreciate his enthusiasm.

What I found wanting:

First of all, let me say that I cannot really complain all that much because Guthrie took the initiative that many others have failed to do. Having said that, I still want to voice some concerns.

1. While it is hopeful in plan, it falls short in method. While hints of helpful methodology surface every now and then, I did not find most of the chapters to have the practical “how-to” take-home value I was expecting. Part of this may be the time spent on Guthrie’s describing the “scene” of the conversation – that leaves precious little time for the “meat” of the method. What he gains in ambiance, he loses in application and longevity of the book. This book either needs to be more focused (t0 be effective), or lengthened (which might scare students off).

2. There needed to be a chapter on the “theology of Scripture” – what is Scripture? Only once we outline what it is, can be actually point to its value and how it relates to God and relates to us. Is it a moral codebook? Is it the “story of God?” Is it a set of beliefs to be believed? Is it a prayerbook? While I completely agree that students need to learn genre-based method, they need to begin with WHAT IS THE BIBLE FOR? Hints of this come to light, once in a while, but not in a focused way. It deserves its own chapter. It deserves its own book!

3. Guthrie interviews himself in one chapter! This involves him actually talking to himself – asking himself questions out loud, and answering them as if he were another person. While he tries to play this off as tongue-and-cheek, it became a distraction for me (and a little creepy). If I were to make one (minor?) change to this book, it would be the recommendation that he either write that chapter as a normal (non-conversational) chapter, or have someone else (a real someone) interview him.

4. Guthrie makes a reference to every single word in the Bible being “inspired” (pg. 55). I know this is a normal thing for a conservative evangelical Baptist to say, and I don’t want to get into a spat over it right here and now ideologically, but I think this kind of thinking can do more damage than good to young students. To focus on individual words being inspired, I think, treats the Bible like a magical book. Then, when someone hands that student a Bart Ehrman book that deals with textual problems, where do they go from there?

I believe the Bible is inerrant (I prefer the word “perfect”; teleios), but based on its divine message, not a special “anointing” of each word individually. By analogy, think about Jesus as the perfect Word of God. We wouldn’t say each part of his body is inspired or communicative. We would say that his whole self is The Word of God – perfect, complete, inspired. He cannot be divided up into smaller “Word” parts. So Scripture, as God’s self-communication, is perfect. Let’s not obsess over every individual word being “inspired.”

CONCLUSION:

I respect Guthrie and the work he is doing (he has more planned for a Bible literacy project). I will continue my search for the perfect textbook for my Christian Scriptures course. Guthrie’s book helped me clarify what I am looking for, and I am thankful for that.

GEORGE GUTHRIE RESPONDS:

Thanks very much for taking time to review Read the Bible for Life. I appreciate your interest in the subject and your warm commendation of my taking up the task. Rather than just addressing teens and my students (who I use to illustrate a couple of points in the introduction), the book is meant to be for laypeople generally. As you note, the need is great! Thanks in advance for letting me interact with you on a couple of points you mention.

First, as for methodology, you and I come from the world of “professional” biblical studies, and I think it is hard for us to grasp the perspective of the average layperson in terms of “method.” I did not want to assume anything as I wrote the book, and I intentionally did not lay out a “textbook” type of approach to methodology. That said, over and over again in the book I asked my interviewees, “How do we read this part of the Bible?,” or “How do we approach this aspect of reading the Bible?” (It is the books most consistent refrain.) And They gave very specific, practical guidelines. In fact, that is the content of each chapter. Now, in some ways, the answers are so basic, we might feel the approach is “thin.” What has surprised me is the response I have been getting from normal church people; over and again readers (even pastors) have communicated how much the book has transformed the way they read the Bible. So they are picking up a method, for which I am grateful. For key principles from the book, your readers might check the “Summation” section at the end of each chapter, which summarizes the guidelines for reading.

Second, I too have a concern about theological foundations for our understanding of Scripture and have written about that topic elsewhere. I agree it would have been good to include such a chapter. In fact, the original proposal for the book had 32 chapters (!), one of which was on theological orientation as we read the Bible. Perhaps in a sequel!

Third, of course my intention for chapter 4 was to do something creative and fun. Didn’t mean to creep you out! In fact, I have had a number of people tell me it was their favorite because it changed the pace of the book in a “fun” way. My editor, who laughed his way through that chapter, even suggested that I write a whole book from that perspective!—which would be too creepy; no body needs that much of “me.” However, to each his own.

Finally, I understand your fourth concern and agree with it. We talk about this issue (as it relates to textual criticism) in my classes. What surprised me was that you failed to note that in the interview we made the exact point two pages later (p. 57). The emphasis is placed on the message of God rather than the individual words. I am comfortable saying “every word” because I am speaking idiomatically to mean “all of the Bible.” However, your caution is well-taken.
Thanks again for taking the time to take the book seriously. I hope we get to have further interaction in the future.

NIJAY RESPONDS AGAIN:

1. The methodological points are basic, but they are there. Yes, George, I suppose you are right. Certainly some chapters are much stronger on this than others. I found the chapters, for example, on the OT stories, prophets, and the teachings of Jesus pretty good. I was a bit disappointed with the chapter on Proverbs and also the one on the Gospels – as for the latter, I was expecting more from Bock. I love his work and I wanted 2-3 methodological points (the one about top-down versus down-up was not that illuminating in my opinion). Perhaps an appendix could have offered a “refresher” on the take-up points. Yes, they appeared at the end of each chapter, but that only further underscored that some chapters really didn’t come up with much (again, in my opinion). I am not saying – your efforts were wasted. I am saying, you are almost there, just a bit more and it could be a really amazing tool. I agree my perspective might be tainted from being in academia, but I am in a position here at SPU where I teach almost exclusively freshmen and sophomores (and zero theology or Bible majors). I feel that these students can handle more method and, frankly, are starving for it. I don’t think, though, the distance between your view and my view is all that different.

2. The theology of Scripture chapter did not make it into the book. I understand the limits of space. I do hope it makes it into a sequel!

3. Many have enjoyed the self-conversation chapter. Fair enough. Maybe it is just me. If others find it helpful, I cannot gainsay its value.

4. The textual issues were address and we focused on the “message of Scripture” being inspired. I really didn’t doubt you or Clint or Mark. It was more that such wording may be taken differently. Anyway, I appreciate the clarification and I apologize for not making it clearer that you do deal with the textual and translational issues.

Thanks for the thoughtful response.

James Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels (Part I)

When I was in Durham, it was a privilege and a delight to have gotten to know James D.G. Dunn — or “Jimmy” as he is known by many. Eerdmans recently released a collection of lectures he has given in recent years on a wide range of topics: Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels. The book is divided into three parts: What are the Gospels? From Jesus to Paul; and The Bimillennial Paul.

It is a rather short book (on the normal standard we expect from Jimmy!) – just under 200 pages. The endorsers referred to this book as a nice little “introduction” to Dunn’s life’s work on some key subjects on Jesus and Paul. I have long been familiar more with Dunn’s Paul “stuff” than his Jesus and Gospels “stuff,” so I found this little volume very handy.

In this first post, I will treat the first and second parts on Jesus and the bridge to Paul.

Chapter 1: “Fact or Fiction? How Reliable are the Gospels”

In this chapter, Dunn tries to bring some common sense to discussions about the Gospels that usually work with two poles – fact/truth or fiction/myth. Dunn seeks a middling method that takes seriously that the Gospels can be useful as “historical” sources because “The impact which Jesus had on his first disciples must be in some degree of continuity with the faith which they expressed in Jesus as risen from the dead and exalted” (p. 8). He shows frustration with the critical scholars criterion of dissimilarity – “Instead, I look for the characteristic Jesus” -

If a feature within the Jesus tradition is characteristic within the Jesus tradition, then the most obvious explanation of its presence in the Jesus tradition is that it reflects the abiding impression which Jesus made on many of his first followers (11)

Dunn moves into a number of features of the Gospels that are almost certainly “historical” – Jesus’ baptism, the crucifixion, opposition with Pharisees, proclamation of the Kingdom of God, followers, exorcisms (see pg. 20). Dunn works from a big picture of what we learn about Jesus. The details can get muddled or minor things shifted, but the substance is clear and clearly goes back to Jesus.

such a reconstruction does not guarantee the historical accuracy of recall of any particular saying or episode. But the method must certainly provide a much sounder basis for a historical reconstruction than one which depends on the evaluation of particular sayings and episodes (21)

I like the illustration he gives: “from the stamp on the paper we can discern the stamp which made it” (p. 21).

Chapter 2: “Between Jesus and the G0spels”

This chapter is, essentially, a condensed defense of his view that oral tradition and diversification is behind the Synoptic Gospels rather than a more fixed, literary-driven “redaction” view that most scholars hold. One of the features of the interrelationship between the Synoptics is those cases when there are divergences that are “inconsequential” (and thus not clearly a result of redaction): “If redaction is the only plausible or recognisable explanation, then we have to infer a casualness and arbitrariness in the redaction which can only imply a lack of respect for the authoritative original” (p. 35).

Dunn argues that when stories and teaching spread orally, there is more space for flexibility. The substance is essential and preserved, but different words could be used to get it across. Taking the differences in the Gospels from this perspective, for Dunn, helped to explain the ‘same yet different’ (38) character of the Synoptics.

Dunn, as an implication, fights the idea of an “original” version, as each “telling” is one witness, and there were many witnesses, so many “reliable” versions. While I follow what he is saying, it seems to devalue the idea that we are really working from history and the “real Jesus.”

Chapter 3: “The Birth of a New Genre: Mark and the Synoptic Gospels”

First, Dunn hypothesizes that the apostle Paul brought the term ‘gospel’ into usage by Christians, drawing especially from Isaiah and the fulfillment of covenantal hopes. When we look at Paul’s letters, there is evidence that “Paul…conveyed a good deal of Jesus tradition to the churches he founded” (p. 48). Not only that, but Dunn proposes that, even from the beginning, the earliest preaches had a  “narrative structure” in mind when recalling memories of Jesus.

From there, “It was Mark’s Gospel which took the next logical step of giving the title ‘Gospel’ to his account of Jesus’ mission — ‘Gospel’ as an account which climaxed in Jesus’ death and resurrection.” (p 50). Many scholars have criticized Paul for leaving aside Jesus’ life and teaching, and focusing more on his death. However, Dunn sees this the other way around. Because Mark focuses so much on Jesus’ death and resurrection, he is reinforcing Paul’s own emphasis: “The good news of Jesus was primarily the good news of his death and resurrection” (p. 55).

Two more implications are drawn from this view of Mark. Firstly, Matthew and Luke chose to adopt Mark’s new genre, while some small divergences in form and style appear. Also, texts like “Q” “have too casually been entitled ‘Gospel'” as they do not have a good narrative structure.

Chapter 4: “A Very Different Version! John as a Source for the Historical Jesus”

He makes some key points in this chapter

1. John follows Matthew and Luke by adopting Mark’s new genre

2. The discourses of Jesus, while different in detail, are still “rooted in Synoptic-like tradition”

3. John fills in gaps left by other Gospels (p. 73)

4. John is much closer in message, stories, and form than the apocryphal Gospels (p. 74)

Chapter 5: “From Jesus’ Proclamation to Paul’s Gospel”

In this chapter, Dunn engages in that perennially perplexing issue of going from Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom to Paul’s focus on “justification” and the church. Dunn does a marvelous job shows strong lines of continuity, outlining a number of shared messages and themes:

- the opennness of God’s grace

-eschatological tension

-the presence and power of the Spirit

-the love command

In that sense, Dunn characterizes Paul as “one of the truest disciples of Jesus” (p. 115).

REFLECTIONS

Again, this is a fine introduction to Dunn’s highly competent treatment of major issues related to Jesus and Paul. I will offer some brief thoughts on the “Paul” chapters in another post.