Seattle Pacific University and Rob Bell’s Love Wins

OK, one last note on Love Wins – I participated (along with a few other faculty members) on a symposium on Bell’s book. You can check out the audio of our conversation on itunes here.

(Also, SPU recently posted on itunes a public lecture by Steve Fowl – good stuff!)

On the topic of “Hell” I will make quick mention of the forthcoming book by my friend Preston Sprinkle called Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We Made Up (David Cook, 2011). Oh yeah, he co-authored it with some guy name Francis Chan 🙂

This book is coming out July 1.


I would like to give a plug to a new book by friend and future scholar Andrew Byers Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (IVP 2011). This is a book for the church – especially for what Byers calls “Christian cynics” – those Christians who have been jaded by some of their experiences in the church. The title is apt (Faith Without Illusions)- when all the illusions of Christian idealism have shattered and faded, what is left? IVP asked me to endorse this book for Andy. Here is what I said:

“Andrew Byers takes a hard look at the broken, bitter and jaded in the church who are at a fork in the road. He offers a path of faith paved with hope and healing in the footsteps of the best models of Scripture. Byers is a humorous, unassuming and sympathetic guide, one worth following down the better road.”

If you know a teen or college student (or you are a teen or college student), you would do well to read this book. Byers has the ministry experience, Biblical expertise, and wit to write wisely and transparently. His humility and honesty work well with the subject matter. Here is the official book description:

Call it burnout. Call it enlightenment. Call it whatever you like–it’s plaguing the contemporary church. Andrew Byers calls it cynicism–the state we all too easily arrive at after passing through disillusionment. Too many saints in the making are having their wings clipped in this painful process.

But wait–there’s hope. Disillusionment is, at its heart, the dispersal of illusions, pointing us toward what’s really real–a great cloud of hopeful realists who have gone before us and welcome us into their number. There is a way beyond cynicism, and if we follow Jesus through it, we’ll find faith and life at their fullest.

Check the book out here.

Le Donne’s Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?

To many NT students and scholars, it may seem that the “Quest” for Jesus is over. Now, maybe it is a pilgrimage; maybe nothing at all (but scholars walking around in circles). In comes Anthony Le Donne, trying to refresh and re-direct “questers” in his book Historical Jesus: What can we know and how can we know it? (Eerdmans, 2011). This is a short book on Jesus that is aimed at the student and draws from social memory theories and historiographical discussions that take into account postmodern thinking.

Let me just say, first of all, Le Donne knows his stuff, both on the Jesus end and on the theoretical end. Better yet, he is humorous, humble, and uses some really illuminating examples for just about every lofty idea he raises. That makes the book a delight to read.

Here is his general pitch: “[There have been] two absurd extremes. On one side, there are many folks who expect from the gospels something similar to a courtroom transcript. For these people the historical Jesus is simply the biblical Jesus. The less interpretation, the better. On the other side, there are many folks who recognize fictive elements in the gospels and conclude that the gospels are wholesale invention. For these people, the gospels are not like courtroom transcripts and therefore must be fiction. Both views assume that remembering one’s perceptions is a simple, straightforward act. However, a modest grasp of the nature of perception makes either extreme absurd” (p. 23).

One key argument Le Donne makes is that we do not tend to remember the past (so remembering is the exception) and we don’t remember objectively, but perspectivally. You do not retain the past in your memory, but a mark of it. So: “Memory is the impression left by the past, not the preservation of it…[It] is an interpretive process” (p. 23-4)

Also, the past is remembered in a present time because there is a stimulus for remembering: “This means that your memories are always in active service to the needs of the present” (25).

Part of what is required, Le Donne argues, is a new idea of what “history means”  – he defines it as a discipline of knowledge that studies how the past was remembered and why. This is where I start to get confused in the book. Essentially, Le Donne turns “historical study” into a study of the development of memory-traditions. While Le Donne acknowledges that this is particularly the interest of the “postmodern historian,” he seems to be giving up altogether on traditional questions about “what really happened.” (The interest in the actual true reporting of a real event does surface briefly towards the end when he is talking about the temple incident, but that is quite brief.) While I can appreciate that Le Donne is showing the “state of the discussion” of how social memory works, that does not disqualify questions about how we can know certain events really happened.

For example, some have argued that the holocaust never happened. While some historians may be interested in the development of various traditions and “memories” about the holocaust, certainly it seems valid to most people for historians to ply their trade and garner support and evidence (from “eyewitnesses” especially) that lead to conclusions about what happened. In that sense, I did not find Le Donne’s book of practical use in more traditional discussions. I am not saying he is doing a bait-and-switch (bait you with the topic of the historical Jesus and switch you to a discussion of social memory), but I did find the book moving further and further away from the original questions.

That does not mean that I didn’t enjoy reading the book. His philosophical discussion  is absolutely fascinating – Schleiermacher, Heidegger, Descartes, Bertrand Russell, etc… He boils down their lofty theories into easily bite-size portions.He also uses some amazing examples. As in the story of two girls in a car crash who looked similar (but not identical) – the police accidentally misidentified the two and mistook their identities for the other one. One of the girls had died, the other was seriously injured and in a coma. It took over a month for the family looking after the living girl to realize it was not their daughter! Le Donne explains: “The family was told what to expect to perceive [when the doctors said “She has been in a crash. Expect to see her altered.”].  When given these expectations, they perceived according to their expectations….I’ve argued that the act of perceiving requires interpretation…Your environment, family, culture, emotional state, and prejudices color everything. The human mind perceives according to its continually shifting thought-categories” (pp. 104-5).

I get Le Donne’s overall point – we don’t have “the past” – we have memories of the past, and the imprint of memory is shaped by a number of things including our experiences, perspective, and environment. However, I get the impression (ha!) that this leads Le Donne down the road of a kind of hopeless skepticism behind historical inquiry. Now, LeDonne rebuts – no, I still do history, but I am interested in how and why people remember. OK, but does that mean we cannot or should not ask about “what actually happened”? Is that question too far removed from what is possible through memory and record?

Here is where, I think, what scholars call “critical realism” comes into play. Yes memory is interpreted, but we still rely on that when we tell any kind of history at all (whether of Alexander the Great or the bus ride I had to work). Can critical realism help us when we think about what the Gospels tell us about “what actually happened”?

I appreciate that Le Donne wants to move past the objective history-vs.-myth (simplistic) dichotomy – I want to move past that as well. However, my personal view is that genre clarification gets us further than accepting the limitations of memory and a redefinition of “history” (or a prioritizing of a “scholar’s” definition of doing “history”). Nevertheless, I have only been able to give you a taste of Le Donne’s book. It is well-researched theoretically and I have learned much from the book. I wish it would brought the conversation back to the original issues and questions in a “summary” chapter, but it repays careful reading as it stands also.

The Drama of Ephesians (Tim Gombis)

On several different occasions, I have heard N.T. Wright lament that because the book of Ephesians has been considered “pseudonymous” by academia at large, it has become seriously neglected and its theological power ignored. I believe that Wright would be encouraged by Tim Gombis’ new book The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God (IVP, 2010).

Here are Gombis’ opening words: “This book presents Ephesians as a drama, a gospel script that invites performances by communities of God’s people.” (p. 9).

Gombis covers a few key ideas or themes. One of them, reading Ephesians as drama, is mentioned right away. Also, he takes interest in the identity and theology of the “powers” that are defeated. Gombis draws out a key motif from Ephesians of power in weakness, or cruciformity (a term, I presume, Gombis inherited from Mike Gorman). In his own words: “God subverts human triumphalism in that he wins by losing” (p. 12). And, drawing together cruciformity, drama of God’s people, and the battle with the powers, he looks at God as the “divine warrior” in Ephesians.

Gombis on drama: “”Ephesians is not a doctrinal treatise in the scholastic sense of that term. It is, rather, a drama in which Paul portrays the powerful, reality-altering, cosmos-transforming acts of God in Christ to redeem God’s world and save God’s people for the glory of his  name” (p. 15).

Following from this drama-reading, Gombis talks about “improvisation” of churches as they re-enact the broader narrative theologically. This reminds me of the work of Sam Wells on this subject, and also the “drama”-and-ethics view of Vanhoozer and Wright. I think this is a healthy approach to theological interpretation and Gombis works it out very well.

Richard Bauckham once described the book of Revelation as trying “to purge and refurbish the Christian imagination.” Gombis works Ephesians similarly. He describes a common perspective where many believe “this world is all there is and that reality is fully and completely constituted by what I can see from this earthly perspective” (p. 23). Alternatively, “Ephesians functions to jerk us out of this conviction and to expand the horizons of our imagination so that we envision reality from the perspective that Jesus Christ rules this world and longs for us to enjoy his redemptive reign” (p. 23).

The book is neither a monograph nor a commentary. It is more of a theological guidepost. I appreciate Gombis’ penetrating knowledge of not only Ephesians, but also Biblical theology, his attention to method and hermeneutics, but also his ability to communicate clearly to a layperson audience (as the book seems to have this target). This would work especially well for upper-level undergraduate, though I have tossed around the idea of using it for a seminary course.

I know this makes me a sucker, but I immediately wanted to read it because it was endorsed by two of my favorite scholars: Mike Gorman and Scot McKnight. They were actually well-chosen because Gombis runs parallel to both their tracks of scholarship and teaching.

Beyond simply giving an exposition of Ephesians, Gombis’ book should gain wider appeal because his work is representative of a newer way to read Biblical texts theologically, ethically, and communally. He would make a GREAT Methodist!

R. Longenecker’s New Book: Introducing Romans

If you keep up with who’s writing which new commentary, you may know that Richard Longenecker has been working on a massive Romans commentary for the NIGTC series. He had so much “introductory” material that he was given the go-ahead to pre-publish some of it to reduce the size of the forthcoming commentary (so I understand).

The result is the newly published book Introducing Romans: Critical Issues in Paul’s Most Famous letter (Eerdmans, 2011). It is nearly 500 pages long and very detailed. (Compare this to C.K. Barrett’s famous commentary on the entire text of Romans which comes in at just under 300 pages!).

Longenecker divides this volume up into five sections.

The first part is: “IMPORTANT MATTERS LARGELY UNCONTESTED TODAY” (Author, amanuensis, involvement of others; integrity; date/situation). I will not comment on these issues.

Part 2: Addresses and Purpose.

When it comes to the “who” of the addressees, Longenecker is wise to avoid an “either”/”or” approach in terms of Jews and Gentiles and their composition. He prefers to look at the orientation of the addresses, rather than trying to reconstruct their ethnic make-up. From his historical analysis, he argues that “the early Christian faith at Rome had a distinctly Jewish character, whether as practiced and proclaimed by Jewish believers themselves or as accepted by Gentiles, or both” (p. 72). He also argues that, based on evidence from some archaeological and historical sources, the many synagogues in Rome had no central leadership, so they probably all looked to Palestine for authority and cohesion. Longenecker reasons that the early churches, being as “Jewish” in character as they were, adopted this stance as well, finding leadership in the Jerusalem church.

Thus: “we should lay emphasis on the axis that runs from Roman Christianity back to the Jerusalem church in Judea as being of primary importance” (p. 82). One implication, for Longenecker, is that these Roman churches would have “had a high respect for the Mosaic law” (p. 83).


In chapter five, Longenecker moves into a discussion of the purpose of Romans. He surveys and finds lacking dozens of proposals. This remarkable “survey of literature” is worthwhile, as he cogently refutes a number of leading theories.

His own perspective is this:

Priority in understanding the purpose of Romans should be given to the “epistolary frame” – especially the beginning of the letter.  Longenecker focuses on Paul’s own comment that he wishes to give a “spiritual gift” which is probably his own recounting of the Gospel “in order that they might understand accurately and more appreciatively what he was proclaiming in his mission to the Gentiles” (148).

Additionally, he wanted to seek their help in his mission to Spain.

Bound up in his desire to do these things would be his own need to establish lines of agreement and also points where his own ministry may have been brought into question (especially related to the Mosaic law). In that sense, he also needed to set forth

how that message of God’s direct acceptance of Gentiles through Christ, apart from any Jewish prolegomena or Jewish Christian contextualization, related to the hope of Israel, which they evidently saw as being fulfilled through the missionary outreach of Jewish Christians generally and in their midst at Rome in particular. (151)

Longenecker sees an apologetic thrust to this, as Paul pre-emtively defended his own authority and message, as in his claim not to be ashamed (1:16). But Longenecker sees this issue, not as primary (in response to “enemies”), but “subsidiary” – it is there, but not the “main purpose.”

Chapter six gets into how scholars have looked at rhetorical and epistolary features of Romans. I actually agree with Longenecker that Romans does not fit the deliberative, forensic, or epideictic categories of rhetoric. Rather, and I agree again with this, it seems to generally work with the notion of a “protreptic letter” (Aune; Stowers) – focusing on supporting a particular way of life.

In terms of epistolary categories, under the category of “letters of exhortation and advice,” Longenecker points to the “protreptic letters” as an epistolary form (as well as rhetorical category).

How do we see rhetorical expression and letter-form working together in Romans? Longenecker, again, is wise to point to the idea of a “letter essay” – “as instructional material set within an epistolary frame [which] seems to provide the most likely life setting and cultural context for a proper interpretation of the letter” (217).

Skipping to chapter nine (perhaps the next chapter most full of “controversial” arguments), Longenecker deals with “Major Interpretive Approaches Prominent Today” (p. 290f). In terms of the perennially thorny issue of the use of the phrase “righteousness of God,” Longenecker tries to transcend the issue in this way: Paul would have shared in common with the Roman Christians a very Jewish view that the RoG was an attributive of God – his saving justice. And, yet, while building bridges with this mutual affirmation, he wished to point out to them “a more objective or communicative sense” (p. 293).

By “objective,” Longenecker later clarifies in this way: “Paul’s emphasis in his Gentile mission…on God’s righteousness as a gift given by God to those whom he reconciles to himself through the work of Christ, the ministry of his Holy Spirit, and their response of faith” (p. 304).

Given his interest in the “objective” and “communicative” aspect of the righteousness of God, I would have expected him to buy into the objective interpretation of pistis Christou – but he goes the other way! He favors the subjective approach – the faithfulness of Christ (see his arguments 317-323).

He also finds much fault with the New Perspective on Paul, especially as articulated by E.P. Sanders and James Dunn. My critique of Longenecker here, though, would be that he misunderstands Dunn when he thinks Dunn views “works of the law” only as circumcision, Sabbath, and dietary regulations. Dunn has clarified a number of times that he views this phrase more holistically, but circumcision is a primary focus or entry point of the discussion.

In terms of the “heart” of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Longenecker himself urges that it can be found in Romans 5-8 with the key themes of peace and reconciliation (and Romans 1-4 really lays out tracks of mutuality and common-agreement that Paul has with the Roman churches; he established common theological ground before getting into “his gospel”).


Strong Points

Longenecker has done penetrating and broad research on the background of Romans! He works with literature from English and German sources and works back quite far in the history of interpretation. He models good research in general.

He touches on all the major issues and has a number of good insights into various areas, such as a historical reconstruction on the life of the churches in Rome.

His discussion of rhetoric and epistolary analysis is quite good and he gives a nice history of the study of both fields vis-a-vis NT studies.

In general, he is judicious and gracious. I appreciate his sensitivity to that, given the complexity of interpreting Romans.


While there are a number of strong features of this book, I found some limitations as well.

First of all, he left out some key players in some of the discussions. For example, he did not address Andrew Das’ book on the (nearly or totally exclusively) Gentile make-up of the Roman churches. Nor did he engage in the work of Mark Nanos on the relationship between churches and synagogues in Rome. While one cannot expect Longenecker to do everything, these seem like major omissions (to me). Also, when it comes to pistis Christou, I was surprised that the work of Barry Matlock was absent, especially since he is one of the major voices in this discussion. In terms of the socio-rhetorical strategy of Romans, I also expected a heavier interaction with the work of Francis Watson.

Secondly, while I like some repetition in the book, I found this introduction tediously repetitive. It is not as much that it seemed that Longenecker was trying to repeat himself – that would have come out OK. It seems (and this is just a theory) that the book was originally written in various different parts and edited together. However, when all together it is obvious that there is too much repetition. For example, he quotes the same block quote on 117 and 155, almost as if he didn’t know he had already made that quote! I don’t mean to be insulting – I just wish it would have been smoothed out a bit better on final editing. Perhaps Longenecker and Eerdmans, on the balance, were erring on the side of more repetition in case people only read selective portions. Fair enough.

My overall impression is that Romans experts will not find much “new stuff” in here and the few key insights Longenecker has do not make huge changes in how one interprets Romans (I don’t think). However, for students especially, Longenecker does a fine job of doing what the title suggests: Introducing Romans. In that sense, it would make a fine reference work or textbook.

Croy’s New PRIMA SCRIPTURA – A Must-have book!

When I had seen N. Clayton Croy’s Prima Scripture: An Introduction to New Testament Interpretation (Baker, 2011), I wondered what it was going to be all about. Is it about hermeneutics? Is it an exegesis primer? Actually – it is all-in-one in about 200 pages and it is FANTASTIC.

Essentially, Croy wanted a moderately rigorous hermeneutics book that worked basically from an inductive study method, but also offered traditional “exegetical” analytical tools and resources as well. Thus, Croy works with a very basic structure of chapters:

1. Analyzing and Preparing the Interpreter (1-12)

2. Analyzing the Text (13-128)

3. Evaluating and Contemporizing the Text (129-160)

4. Appropriating the Text and Transforming the Community (161-184).

There are four things that drew in my attention when reading this book. First, it blends very well theoretical and philosophical issues (what is meaning? Where does meaning reside? Can we be certain? Is there one meaning?) and pragmatic issues (book surveys, grammatical analysis). Secondly, Croy champions an inductive method – hunt for your own food. Thirdly, he takes the tasks of theologically analyzing the text and seeking personal and communal application very seriously. Some scholars treat Biblical interpretation as solely a historical or literary endeavor. Not so with Croy – I would say he fits pretty well within the broader group of scholars that have appreciated this thing we now call “Theological Interpretation of Scripture.” For example, I was blown away by the very rich and fruitful theological questions that he encourages good readers to ask of a text:

How does the text make you view the world differently? How does it envision the reign of God? How does it guide, encourage, and empower you to pursue that vision? What would the world look like if the vision of this text were realized?

How does the text envision the community of God’s people? How would leadership look different? What would relationships look like? How would Gods people on earth order their communal life differently if this text’s vision were realized?

How does this text form and inform Christian discipleship? At what points of living, doing, thinking, and being does it challenge persons today? (see p. 111).

What Croy is calling for is not a systemazation of Scripture’s theology, but a theological engagement with the stories and discourses in Scripture that is conversational, personal, communal, and transformative.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Croy is a good writer – actually, an outstanding writer. There are many amazing authors out there who get by on being good scholars. Croy has the advantage of having good material and being a very clear and engaging writer.

So, where does the title come from? In a way, it comes from the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and also the Reformation. As for the Reformation, many conservative Biblical interpreters want to claim Sola Scripture – only Scripture. Croy makes a helpful corrective that few of the great Reformers were actually trying to argue that Scripture is all there is theologically. They criticized some creeds and gave Scripture the ultimate authority, but, perhaps a better way to express Reformation ideals is Prima Scriptura – Scripture is given primacy, not exclusivity. As for the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Croy talks about how reason, experience, and tradition have their parts to play in the Christian pursuit of wisdom, but do not have the prime place that Scripture should have. Croy’s discussion is very careful and cogent here.

How can Croy’s book be used? It is rich in good theory and has many general exegetical tools and pointers that work well with a Seminary hermeneutics course. My suggestion would be to pair Croy with Gorman or Fee. There will be some overlap, but if your students are like me, they could use the repetition!

Here are some great “sound bytes” from Croy:

(on textual criticism and translations): “Reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your sweetheart through Saran Wrap. It’s better than nothing, but direct contact is always more exciting.” (p. xlii)

(on Sola Scriptura): “nearly all Christian traditions employ one or more additional criteria such as tradition, reason, and experience. A more realistic motto, then, would be prima scriptura: Scripture as the primary authority, but in conjunction with and mediated by other authorities.” (xlv)

(0n reader and meaning): “The fact that all interpreters read from a certain location does not mean that we should despair of meaningful interpretation; nor does it mean that all interpretations are equally prejudiced and therefore equally valid (or invalid). It simply means that we must analyze the interpreter as well as the text.” (p. 2)

(on observation): “reading attentively, perceptively, and inquisitively” (p. 15)

(the problem of parallelomania): quoting Dale Allison, quoting Ihab Hassan, “Learned and meticulous essays have been written to demonstrate the influence of everything on anything” (p. 91)

“When we reflect on the NT theologically, we are engaging it in a manner that builds upon but transcends description of the text” (p. 108)

“postmodernism has leveled the playing field for ideological readings, with the result that theology, having been escorted out the front door by modernism, returned by the back door of postmodernism” (p. 109).

(On using second sources): “By all means, stand on the shoulders of giants, but do not ride along in their pockets.” (p. 115)

(On what tradition brings to the table): Quoting G.K. Chesterton, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” (p. 138)