The website for Duke Divinity school is announcing that beloved professor and well-known ethicist, Allen Verhey has died today at the age of 68. Verhey was the author of a dozen books, including his most recent volume, The Christian Art of Dying, in which he reflected on his own struggle with a life-threatening illness.
Sometimes I will hear a student say about a particular professor – “Wow, she is so smart.” It used to make me jealous because students never say that about me. It doesn’t really bother me anymore because I think that often what they mean is that the professor uses big words, is hard to understand, and tries to deconstruct everything in sight! (Not always, but often enough.) I try to communicate clearly and focus on a very good foundation in the basics. All too often we try to get students “up to speed” on latest methods and trends. There is a place for that. But we also need to make sure the foundation is laid securely. I try very hard to lay that foundation with a strong substance.
Sometimes students leave seminary more confused than when they began. There is a kind of productive “disorientation” that must take place to break and re-set malformed theological notions. However, some professors are hell-bent on doing the breaking and very little of the re-forming. Our minds hunger for simplicity, or at least some form of consolidation.
On that note, I was happy to come across (again?) Don Hagner’s statement about simplicity and complexity in his The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction (Baker). In the preface he mentions that his introduction could come across as naive because Hagner tries to give straightforward answers. Here is his rationale for his “simple” approach:
Simplification is essential to a student’s introduction. Undoubtedly some will regard my approach in general as reflecting a kind of naive, rosy optimism or an unbelievable chutzpah. If it reflects naïveté, it is a ‘second naïveté.” I agree with the statement attribute to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: ‘I do not give a fig for the simplicity this side of [i.e., instead of or before] complexity, but I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of [or after] complexity’. (xi)
Indeed. So, I am OK with my students not thinking me ‘smart’ because I don’t bombard them with esoteric and convoluted terminology. I could also be accused of coming across as overly simple. Don’t get me wrong. We talk about various viewpoints and some current theories on this or that subject. But I want to make sure, at the “far side of complexity,” that I can help students touch terra firm again.
I have just finished reviewing the Festschrift for Grant Osborne, edited by Stan Porter and Eckhard Schnabel. I really liked the particular focus of this volume, though I don’t think it will have the wider appeal that some Festschriften have. Having edited a Festschrift myself, I know that it is important to identify a specific focus or several foci in the honoree’s scholarship around which to center the book’s essays. The title of this volume is On the Writing of New Testament Commentaries, and contains 21 chapters devoted to the topic of writing commentaries on different biblical texts. While this won’t appeal to all readers and reviewers, it is interesting to those like me who hope to one day write a commentary, along with others who already have. The book is filled with insights and interesting tidbits from seasoned authors. The book, no doubt, also serves as a fitting tribute to Prof. Obsorne. During his 40-year career, Osborne has published a dozen books, including two full-scale commentaries (Revelation and Matthew) and four less technical commentaries (Romans, John, Mark, and James/1-2 Peter/Jude).
Of the 20 contributors to this volume, 17 have experience writing at least one commentary, while most have made a career out of the commentary-writing enterprise. The book is divided into five sections:
(1) Commentaries and Exegesis (with chapters from Eckhard Schnabel, Stan Porter, Doug Moo, Craig Blomberg, Douglas Huffman, and Craig Evans)
(2) Commentaries and the Hermeneutical Task (with chapters from Don Carson, Daniel Block, David Pao, Robert Yarbrough, Walter Liefield, and Scott Manetsch)
(3) Commentaries and Theology (with chapters from Kevin Vanhoozer, Daniel Treier, and Linda Belleville)
(4) Commentaries on the Gospels, Epistles, and Revelation (with chapters from Darrell Bock, Stan Porter, Scot McKnight, and Lois Fuller Dow)
(5) Commentaries and Publishers (with only one chapter written by Daniel Reid, longtime editor at InterVarsity Press).
For my money, the fourth section is the most instructive and interesting. Congratulations to Prof. Osborne!
I am doing a book-recommendations series for Logos Academic Blog, and I am up to part 4. Check it out by clicking here!
When I was in seminary and had the opportunity to do a bit of teaching, Dr. Stuart (OT prof) gave me this advice that has stuck with me: classroom preparation involves 10% work on producing a lecture and 90% readiness for answering questions. By that he meant that anyone can hit the library and develop a lecture with bulletin points and examples. The way you detect an expert from a novice is in the “thinking on your feet” moments. It also means that a lot of learning and processing happens in unpredictable ways.
It is unfortunate when a professor gets into the classroom and is too locked into setting the agenda for three hours. It pays, I have learned, to pre-plan “wiggle-room” for discussion and reflection (perhaps even 30-50% of the classroom time should be non-lecture). Nowadays, students have a lot of access to information (ATLA, blogs, ebooks, etc…). What they need is a context to work through some of their own questions.
That having been said, I was delighted to get a surprise in the mail today from IVP – Theology Questions Everyone Asks: Christian Faith in Plain Language (2014). This book is produced entirely by Wheaton theology faculty to provide basic thoughts on questions that are often raised by students (What is Christianity? Who is God? Who is Jesus? How Should I Live?). I couldn’t help myself so I jumped right to chapter 2: “What is the Bible?” (contributor: Kevin Vanhoozer). While it is a basic approach to the question (15 pages, non-technical), I found Vanhoozer’s discussion refreshingly clear and insightful, even winsome. I don’t suppose this book fits the needs of seminary students as much as it does undergrads, but I am considering throwing Vanhoozer’s concise little chapter on Scripture into the introductory reading mix for my first-year sem students. Why not? Who could teach them better than KJV?
Anyway, this is a neat little book – always exciting to see a faculty come together to produce a shared work. It shows institutional unity and integrity. It shows care for their students and others. By the way: the three chapters I will read next, “Who is Jesus?” (Gary Burge), “Who Is the Church?” (Dan Treier), and “What Is Christian Hope?” (Beth Felker Jones). Do you teach a gen-ed intro theology course at your evangelical institution? Pick this up and have a look.
A few days ago when I read, then discussed Larry Hurtado’s blogpost about how the gnostics were not to be regarded as intellectuals, I wondered to myself if April DeConick wouldn’t eventually respond. Well now she has, with a fairly substantive post of her own. I would love to see this turn into an ongoing conversation between the two.
Over at his blog, Larry Hurtado discusses the assertion that the ancient gnostics were “intellectuals”–an assertion he thinks this is “very funny, really.”
Two quotes in particular stood out to me:
It’s perhaps a natural mistake for people who haven’t read the texts, given that “gnostic” comes from the Greek word “gnosis”, which means “knowledge.” But in the case of those called “gnostics,” the kind of “knowledge” that they sought wasn’t “intellectual,” but (to put it kindly) what we might term “esoteric,” secretive truths expressed typically in cryptic, riddling form, deliberately intended to make little sense as expressed. Put unkindly, one might characterize it as a bunch of “mumbo-jumbo” with no attempt to present them reasonably and in terms of the intellectual climate of the time.
There are modern equivalents to the ancient “gnostics,” people who go for the esoteric, who imagine themselves “special” in some way, such that, without the sort of academic training most of us think necessary, they can leap into some mystical “truths.” Just go to the average bookshop and scan the “religion & magic” section (yeah, I know, “religion & magic,” says it all). You’ll likely find many (perhaps most on the shelves) catering to such tastes and positing such ideas.
If you really want to observe “intellectuals” at work in the first few Christian centuries, Hurtado suggests reading the Ante-Nicene Fathers.