What Are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas?

My forthcoming book, What Are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas (Paulist Press) is scheduled to be published in late 2011 or early 2012. Today, they were kind enough to send me the cover art. It looks better than I anticipated. The book traces contemporary discussions of Thomas‘ date, relationship to the canonical gospels, and theological outlook. There’s a final brief chapter where I discuss the use of Thomas in recent historical Jesus studies. Make sure to put it on your Christmas list! (BTW, I’m also helping Nick Perrin with the second installment of his Currents in Biblical Research study on trends in Thomas studies. We’re hoping to be done with that soon as well.)

A Walk with Bonhoeffer – his young life (B)

I am devouring Metaxas’ biography on Bonhoeffer. I know that many Bonhoeffer scholars have criticized Metaxas for overdrawing conclusions, making Bonhoeffer more like American Evangelicals than likely, and for not utilizing all the resources he could. If I were a Bonhoeffer scholar, I would feel the same way. However, all of the critics admit he is an amazingly gripping biographer and story-teller. I have tried, before, to read a biography on Bonhoeffer and it was so challenging I did not make it through the first chapter! Personally, I think it is worth the inaccuracies to expose the wider reading community (of non-specialists) to the inspiring life of Bonhoeffer. My guess is that on the major elements of his life and thought, Metaxas is close enough to make it worth it.

Anyway, I have finished reading about Bonhoeffer’s life up to his 25th birthday. What made Bonhoeffer so special and uniquely capable of recognizing the serious problem of Anti-Semitism and extreme German patriotism that was corrupting his own nation through Nazi propoganda? Was it a “theological epiphany”? Perhaps, but certainly not all at once, and there were so many things in his early life and upbringing that shaped his perspective on the world.

1. He had a first-class education – this may be the obvious one for those of us who study, but he also had what many in the world (not only Germans) would have considered the most demanding and highest quality theological education. His education (among many other things), taught Bonhoeffer to think deeply and critically (in a good way) about theology. I am afraid sometimes our seminaries are too soft on students. Bonhoeffer benefited from a very rigorous education.

2. He traveled far and wide, with others – His international and multicultural experiences (whether in Rome, America [esp. Harlem and the South], England, Spain, or Mexico) gave him outside perspective on the best of the cultures and people he was groomed to hate (like the French or British). When he saw Black/White hatred in America, he was struck by it, but on his one-year at Union he did not think there was anything remotely like it in Germany, so it was a peculiarity to him (the kind of anti-Semitism of the Holocaust was not present in Germany at the time Bonhoeffer was at Union in NYC). However, meeting that fellow student from Union who introduced him to the Abyssinian Baptist Church was his connection to a world he could not have understood as a “tourist.” It is important that he traveled with others. He was constantly processing his experiences with friends, and also through letters he sent home.

3. He journaled. Bonhoeffer thought about his experiences and the world around him all the time. He was every part a social anthropologist and student of “cultures” as he was philosopher and theologian. It helped that he loved adventure and new experiences. But it was not just fleeting entertainment. He even spent time reflecting on “bull-fighting” and why people love it so much.

What can we learn?

Two things seem relevant to our education and academic experiences.

1. Seminary students need to have a semester abroad – esp. in a place unlike their natural setting. Go to Croatia for a semester. Go to Jerusalem. England is good, but not as jarring. Don’t just go to sit in a library, but get a real experience of the culture, people, and atmosphere. Travel around. Be adventurous. [Note: Bonhoeffer grew up in a wealthy household, but by the time he went to New York, he was not personally wealthy; he often ran out of money and could not travel around. He was very creative and relied a lot on friends for lodging. He camped out a lot. One time next to a herd of pigs – unknowingly, of course]

2. Process your experiences more. I probably will never journal. My wife does. I have tried before, but it doesn’t feel natural. I guess I will do it by blogging 🙂

That’s all for now.

A Walk with Bonhoeffer (D) Part I

This coming winter, I will be teaching a Christian Formation course that will have a special focus on the cross and Christian discipleship. Thus, I dug out my old copy of Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship which I have not read for many, many years and perhaps not even in full. I recently rediscovered Bonhoeffer as I assigned my students last year to read the Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians biography for this same course.

This summer, I am reading Discipleship and Eric Metaxas’ (controversial?) biography. I must admit that right now Bonhoeffer’s work and lifestyle is resonating with me in many ways. I know many of you have probably read Bonhoeffer and do not need an introduction or refresher on any of this, but it will help me process and perhaps spark interest in him among a few of you who don’t know his work well (as I admit I do not).

The (D) posts will focus on Discipleship. The (B) posts will focus on the life of Bonhoeffer as explained in Metaxas.

Cost of Discipleship Chapter 1: Costly Grace

Cheap grace is the enemy of our Church (43)

…cheap grace…amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God (43)

What is “cheap grace”?

…preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession (44-45)

So what is “costly grace”?

…the kingly rule of Christ…the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him” (45)

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ” (45)

Bonhoeffer, in his own time and context, expressed a deep sadness at the power of a Church that has largely forgotten Jesus and misunderstood grace. It offered cheap grace to the world and the world gladly accepted. It is cheap because the Church offered to justify the sin without justifying the sinner. Real grace is different.

…like water on a parched ground, comfort in tribulation, freedom from the bondage of a self-chosen way…” (49)

One does not really understand what Bonhoeffer is trying to say in this book unless he/she reckons with the German title: Nachfolge – “following after.” Yes, this is discipleship, but the theme of following (versus the central concept of word “disciple,” which is learning) is about leaving everything to follow Christ. It is about action and active obedience, not just “commitment” in a more abstract way. I suggest we try to re-claim a closer terminology of Bonhoeffer’s title: “The Cost of Following Jesus.”

What about the potential for pelagianism and legalism – earning salvation by works. Bonhoeffer wishes to take the risk.

The word of cheap grace has been the ruin of more Christians than any commandment of works (55)

Next time, chapter 2.

Scot McKnight on James (NICNT)

Eerdmans, 2011.

The NICNT has a number of truly excellent volumes already from Gordon Fee (1 Corinthians, Philippians, 1-2 Thessalonians), Douglas Moo (Romans), R.T. France (Matthew), F.F. Bruce (Colossians/Ephesians), and others. Scot McKnight’s (SM) contribution on the book of James will surely meet the same standard of excellence.

Introductory Matters

As one would naturally expect from SM, he supports a “story”-focused reading of Scripture, and so of James. He uses his Eikon model from his book A Community Called Atonement.

1. creation of Eikons

2. cracking of Eikons

3. the covenanted community of Eikons

4. the redemption through the perfect Eikon, Christ

5. the cosummation of the union of Eikons with the triune God.

He reiterates: “It is wise to see this plot from the angle of mission, and to see that mission as the missio Dei” (pp 4-5).

The Uniqueness of James

“James tells this one true Story of God’s redemption in moral, wisdom, and prophetic keys rather than in the more didactic, soteriological  keys one finds in Paul, Peter, and Hebrews” (p. 6-7)

Authorship

I was very interested in seeing what arguments and conclusions SM would make here. He settles on James (the brother of Jesus) as the author, but he does not do so dogmatically, nor out of a sense of conservative commitment. He summarizes his position (which I would also affirm) in this way:

We have turned over the rocks [of evidence for and against], we have smelled the earth afresh, but we have discovered no gold. In my estimation, the arguments against the traditional authorship are inconclusive; the arguments for traditional authorship are better but hardly compelling.” (p. 37).

For SM, it is reasonable to assume that it was written in the 50’s from Jerusalem (see 38).

Genre

“The letter [of James] is not an abstract “epistle” designed for posterity or intellectual reputation. It is a gritty in-your-face pastoral letter zippered up at times with some heated rhetoric” (p. 61)

Situation

SM takes, what I consider to be, a socio-rhetorical approach to his commentary. Rather than treating James as a random assortment of proverbs and aphorisms, SM tries to see a consistent thread of concern throughout most of the letter. Here are snapshots of his reconstruction.

“The trail [discussed early in James] is twofold: the socio-economic privation of the messianic community and their need to resist the desire to resort to violence (4:1-2) to establish justice (1:20) and peace (3:18).” (p. 76; see also 94)

“…being tested by economic stress and learning to respond to it properly” (105)

“…the messianic community or at least the poor in the messianic community are being oppressed by the rich and are suffering economically. Second, this condition promotes “desires” for revenge and violence (1:13-15, 19-21). Third, James mentions just these sorts of “desires” in 4:1-12, where he brings up such things as murder, disputes, and slander…[SM suggests that James] responds to the Messianic community where some are being tempted to use violence against oppressors in order to establish justice (1:20). He makes it clear that such desires do not come from God” (117)

The Commentary as a Whole

I am not going to take time to comment on everything in the book, but I will say that I appreciate that SM tries to offer some kind of holistic framework for understanding James. Commentaries, in my opinion, should do more than offer random “comments” of clarification. By and large, once upon a time, that is more or less what they did. SM thinks big picture, big story, and with application and theology in mind. That makes this commentary excellent.

I find the structure of the commentary challenging. It is so long and dense (not SM’s fault) that it is hard to just flip to a verse and “see what he thinks” about a particular issue. this is much easier in Black’s or WBC. So, this is one of the most comprehensive commentaries on James, but I don’t know if I will have the patience to search for the information I am looking for all of the time.

I want to point out, even if you have a few commentaries on James, SM is worth it because he is such a good interpreter of Scripture. Both his Galatians and 1 Peter volumes (NIVAC) are outstanding.

My book reviewed in Interpretation

Today I ran across Susan Hylen‘s review of my book, John and Thomas: Gospels in Conflict? in the most recent fascicle of Interpretation (65 [2011]: 311). Susan teaches at Vanderbilt and I got a chance to meet and hang out with her a little bit at last year’s SBL in Atlanta. She wrote an excellent little book (which I highly recommend) called Imperfect Believers: Ambiguous Characters in the Gospel of John, that was published right around the same time as my book. I am also pleased to note that she is contributing to a book on Johanine characterization I’m editing with the Library of New Testament Studies (slated for Fall 2012).

Anyway, in her review, which is generally quite positive, she writes:

Skinner’s work is a useful reminder that scholar’s who engage in constructing a history of the early church often neglect complex literary questions. . . .For those interested in characterization, Skinner’s interpretations of Thomas and Peter are the most developed of the characters he treats. He suggests that Peter and Thomas are characterized similarly: both characters show significant misunderstandin, but are rehabilitated in the end. . . . The book’s strengths are Skinner’s reading of Thomas’ character, and the resulting contribution to the question of conflict between the Gospels.

Hylen does take me to task for spending too much time on traditional exegetical questions while not attending as carefully to issues of characterization. I have two responses to her critique. First, it was a dissertation and that’s what my committee wanted to see. Second, since I was trying to enter a historical-critical debate using narrative-critical exegesis, I wanted to spend as much space possible examining the entire text.

Overall, I am appreciative of Hylen’s careful reading of my book. I’m also glad that she seems to have understood what I was trying to do (unlike, I believe, Stevan Davies, who gave me a less than flattering review in CBQ).

Prepare, Succeed, Advance now available in print from Amazon

My book on PhD Studies, Prepare, Succeed, Advance, is now available for order (in print) on Amazon. It sells for retail, $19, and if you go directly to W & S you can get a discount: $15.20. I like Amazon because I get free two-day shipping (as an Amazon “Mom,” – they don’t have a Amazon “Dad” option…), but you might get it from W & S faster.

Anyway, thanks for all who have given me words of encouragement. My hope is that those who are contemplating the PhD path, or beginning it, will have fewer questions marks about the process than before and will set their goals well.