I am doing an informal study on attitudes/opinions about the authorship of 2 Thessalonians. Please cast your vote!
Nearly a year ago (last October 11, 2013), I published the following post on my previous blog. Today during a the Q & A portion of a fabulous lecture given by Dr. Willie Jennings (Duke Divinity School), a stranger from the audience stood up to sermonize (rather than ask a question) and much of what he said betrayed the sort of thinking I discuss below. So, I thought it would be a good thing to share again. Enjoy.
Few writings have shaped orthodox Christian doctrine or the popular Christian imagination as much as the Gospel of John and its story of an enfleshed God who stepped down from heaven to do the Father’s will. Apart from John’s presentation of Jesus, it is difficult to imagine Chalcedon ever happening. And if you have been exposed to much teaching or preaching within contemporary Christianity, you have no doubt heard language and themes drawn largely from the Gospel of John. (I often tell my students that John, along with Paul’s letter to the Romans, are the two most foundational NT writings shaping both early doctrinal developments and the current American Christian ethos).
Against the backdrop of John’s importance within contemporary American Christianity, I see a significant problem which goes largely undiagnosed. One characteristic feature of John’s Gospel is its use of dualistic language to tell the story of Jesus. We see this from the beginning of the narrative: the Word is the “light of humanity” which “darkness” has not overcome (1:5). Jesus is “from above” and he has entered the realm “below” to fulfill his mission. Were we to draw the picture comprehensively, we would have to look at the language of truth v. falsehood (also present in the Epistles of John); flesh v. spirit, and on and on. In my opinion, this sort of language is often swept uncritically into the Christian lexicon without the necessary attention given to the rest of the NT which, by and large, does not work in such extremes. A simple comparison of Jesus’ teaching in John with his teaching in the Synoptics will easily support this point. So here’s the undiagnosed problem as I see it:
Given the Gospel’s influence, many Christians are led to the uncritical stance that the external world is to be regarded in the same extremes we see in John’s story of Jesus. And in my experience, this also creates an ethical dualism in which individuals are only able to conceive of ideas or proffer opinions rooted in right v. wrong, good v. evil, black v. white, or whatever dualism you prefer. This creates an imbalance in which Johannine ethics become the dominant way of thinking about the world and people. (I can already hear some of my colleagues objecting that this statement is ironic since there has been much discussion over whether there is any such thing as ethical material in the Gospel; I think there is by the way). This sort of either/or thinking is dangerous in virtually every area of discussion, but I think it has the potential to be even more destructive in the context of current American political discourse. Despite a common insistence that there is or should be a “separation of church and state,” we can all see that religion and politics are inextricably intertwined in this country (for more, see here and here).
Political discourse in the US needs no help thinking in such extremes, but the introduction of Christian language in current political squabbles only serves to confirm my suspicion that American Christians are thinking too much like John’s Jesus and not enough like the Jesus-mosaic we get through a balanced reading of the entire New Testament. Left unchecked and devoid of nuance, an acceptance of the ethics of John is not only dangerous, but potentially destructive for the American church and much of our political discourse.
We are still working our way through the Gospels in the NT Christology course that I am teaching this term. As I was researching for the lecture this week, especially on the question of the nature of Matthew’s Christology, I was struck by and impressed with this comment from Ulrich Luz:
Matthew advocates a Christology ‘from above’, but not in the sense later espoused by the Old Church. It is not his primary intent to define the figure of Jesus as one thing or another, for example, God. What he does say, however, is that in the story of the man Jesus, God acts. In other words, his Christoogy from above is conceived from a narrative standpoint. But it remains a Christology from above in the sense that the Christological tenets most essential to the Gospel of Matthew do not revert to biblical statements about some divine emissary, such as a prophet or the royal messiah, but to God himself. For Matthew, the story of Jesus has theological significance. For him, Jesus is the occurrence of God. (32, The Theology of the Gospel of Matthew).
I think this kind of nuanced statement captures the challenge of trying to answer questions about whether or not Matthew has a “divine” Christology. Because of the uniqueness of the person of Jesus in Matthew, and his mission, the answer to that question must be both “no” and “yes.” Or perhaps all you can say is that Jesus is “God with us.” And for Matthew, that is as all the ontological definition you need.
Now that Mike Bird has finished a major book on a systematic evangelical theology as well as numerous works on messianism, the historical Jesus, and the theology of Paul, I wonder if it is time for Mike to extend his brand into cook books and romance novels! Clearly he has a lot of time for writing!
Well, let’s wait and see if the Romans commentary he is working on kills him first. In the meantime, I am here to talk about Mike’s brand new book: The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (Eerdmans, 2014). I was delighted to get ahold of this book because I am currently teaching two courses that deal with the Gospels.
Unlike a survey book on the Gospels, this volume is aimed at the nature and background of the Gospels, not their content per se. (For a good discussion of the Christology of the Gospels, see his Jesus is the Christ.) Mike deals with such matters in this book as the transmission of the “Jesus Tradition,” the Synoptic Problem, the genre question, and the canonization of the “fourfold Gospel.” In the course of these discussion, Mike also gives attention to the non-canonical Gospels – why they were written, what they are about, and how they were received by early Christians.
Let me just cut to the chase and say this was a very helpful book for me to read: excellent summaries of the state of discussion of scholarship on the given topics, always something fresh as Mike gives his own “take,” and plenty of humor and wit. (Yes, a refer to “Gagnam Style” makes it into the book!)
Just for fun, here are some “quotable quotes” from the book that I jotted down:
Q: “The Q document, in whatever form it might have existed, was probably an early handbook on discipleship that drew its content mostly from circulating dominical tradition” (29)
Memory: “Much of Jesus’ teaching material appears to have been composed precisely in order to be wedged in memory” (40)
” ‘[M]emory’ is the constant renegotiation of past and present in social and cultural frameworks. Social memory provides a way of conceptualizing how groups like the early church appropriate the past in light of and with respect to their present contexts” (99)
Believing Criticism: “My own approach is what I would term ‘believing criticism.’ This approach treats Scripture as the inspired and veracious Word of God, but contends that we do Scripture the greatest service when we commit ourselves to studying it in light of the context and processes through which God gave it to us. Scripture is trustworthy because of God’s faithfulness to his own Word and authoritative because the Holy Spirit speaks through it. Nonetheless, God has seen fit to use human language, human authors, and human processes as the means by which he has given his inscripturated revelation to humanity” (68)
Names Attached to the Gospels: “Largely following Martin Hengel, I contend that there is good reason to think that this attribution of names to the Gospels occurred very early, perhaps as early as the last decade of the first century” (p. 258).
Biographical Kerygma: “…the Gospels are a form of biographical kerygma, which narrate the story of Jesus in the mode of Greco-Roman literature” (280)
The Gospels for All Christians?: In the end, we should no more assume a single community behind each Gospel than we would assume that Tacitus wrote on Agricola for a “Tacitean community” or that Plutarch wrote his Parallel Lives for a “Plutarchian community.” It might be better to proffer the view that the Gospels were intended for local digestion within a broad network of like-minded churches with a deliberate and conscious intent of disseminating the document further afar” (278)
What to call wider category of gospels: “I propose that all books and writings pertaining to Jesus should go under the heading ‘Ancient Jesus Literature’ [rather than gospels]. and thereby leave the question of ‘What is a Gospel?’ as a secondary question once all the ancient materials about Jesus are properly grouped together. All these writings, irrespective of form and content, regardless of their dependence on or independence of the canonical Gospels, whatever titles they have or are given, are a type of Jesus Festschriften (i.e., celebratory writing about a person)” (289)
Agenda-driven canonical formation? “[W]hile theological minorities did not always get a fair hearing from their critics, the decision not to include their writings was not born out of realpolitik. The canon of the orthodox church was not designed principally for oppression and promulgated out of a quest for ecclesiastical power. Rather, it was driven by a desire to be faithful to the apostolic faith and to define the consensus of the worldwide church on the writings that make up its register of sacred books” (291)
Well, that’s all I got, but let me, again, give the “Gupta bump” to The Gospel of the Lord. Few books treat this group of subjects in one place. Even fewer do so with such clarity and insight.
Last week I ran across the title of a book that was too interesting not to order. The book in question was Sanghee M. Ahn’s monograph, The Christological Witness Function of the Old Testament Characters in the Gospel of John (Paternoster Biblical Monograph Series; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014). I am interested in characters, Christology, the Old Testament, and the Gospel of John, so I immediately realized, “here’s a book with everything!” Here is a description of the book, Ahn’s revised dissertation:
This book investigates the narrative function of the Old Testament characters in the Gospel of John. The intriguing thesis is that the Hebrew characters in John’s narrative uniformly function as a witness for the messianic identity of Jesus. The Jewish scriptural traditions (Hebrew and intertestamental ones) are compared to shed light on John’s indebtedness for its formation of his Christology. A compelling argument ensues that informs our understanding, not only of the Gospel itself, but also of Jesus Christ revealed in the Gospel.
Earlier this week the good people at Wipf and Stock sent along an exam copy for me to peruse. It remains to be seen if this book really has “everything.” I have only just begun to read, but the one thing I can say right away is that this book is extremely well researched. It looks to me as though Ahn has read practically everything directly and/or indirectly related to his subject matter in English, German, and French. I wouldn’t be surprised if over half the word count for this book was found in the footnotes! The bibliography alone spans 60 pages! I look forward to saying more about this book in due course. Congratulations to Professor Ahn on the publication of his monograph!
We have spent the past two days in class wrapping up our discussion of The Last Temptation of Christ. Today we introduced students to the ins and outs of the controversy that developed as protests broke out throughout the US and in the UK. We showed a number of pictures from the protests and analyzed the sentiment expressed there. Not surprisingly, the protest signs we examined were more about proclamation (viz., “Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” or “Lies about Jesus!”) than they were about persuasion. This led into a discussion about what it means to be reactionary vs. what it means to be reflective and careful in our analysis of such issues. One surprising element of our discussion, and something that escaped my notice in the past, was the rampant anti-Semitic sentiment that arose during the protests. (See picture to the right). The argument seemed to go: (1) Jews run Hollywood, and (2) Jews want to make Jesus look bad, therefore (3) Jesus-hating Jews are responsible for creating this film. Curious reasoning when you consider that the film was made by an avowed Catholic (Martin Scorsese) about a book written by a self-professed Orthodox Christian (Nikos Kazantzakis)–who, we should point out, was excommunicated because of this very book.
We also watched a brief clip from a much longer episode of the Oprah Winfrey show where Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox clergy were vociferously disagreeing with one another. The class was amazed at how so many people consciously, openly self-identifying as “Christian” could be so hostile toward one another in a context in which there was such wide disagreement about Jesus and about theology. We divided the students into smaller groups and had them answer questions about their takes on both the film and the controversy. We will continue this exercise on Monday. I look forward to sharing more of what comes up.
For now, here’s the full episode of Oprah, in case you’re interested (though please note, this version is comes from a site that exists to promote propaganda for an orthodox priest). Enjoy…..
A few days ago I mentioned a new series from Abingdon Press called Reframing New Testament Theology. Dr. Joel B. Green, the editor of the series, was kind enough to answer some questions about this. Can’t wait to get my hands on some of these volumes!
Nijay: Can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved in this series and its aims?
Dr. Green: Actually, the initiative came from Abingdon Press. The idea was for a series concerned with theological contributions to central questions raised by study of the New Testament. The point of departure would be questions raised among New Testament students, and the analysis would bring students into active, theological engagement with the New Testament and related materials. That was our beginning point, anyway, and we developed the series more fully from there.On your blog, you mentioned the “themes” books that Word produced some years ago, but our thinking went back further, to such precursors as John A.T. Robinson’s The Body, and Oscar Cullmann’s Baptism in the New Testament. Those books suggested to us something of the aim and level of writing anticipated, even if those older books were shorter than expected in this series, and their coverage of the New Testament books was generally more limited.
Dr. Green: We assumed a readership with little or no familiarity with New Testament scholarship generally, and didn’t want New Testament scholarship itself to set the agenda for the volumes. So you won’t find a lot of critical interaction with scholar A or scholar B. Even so, we weren’t thinking of the ever-elusive education layperson when we imagined the series. Such people do exist, of course, but we wanted to produce textbooks first and foremost, as well as books that would be good reads among pastors and study groups.One of the hallmarks of the series is that we don’t try to define for our authors what it means to use “New Testament” and “theology” in the same sentence. We want books in the series to promote theological engagement with the New Testament, but we don’t try to specify for our authors how best to introduce and invite that kind of engagement.
Dr. Green: In Why Salvation? I try to ground salvation deeply within God’s work in the world, and I try to define salvation as broadly and wholistically as possible. I work to show how our understanding and experience of salvation is tied to creation and kingdom; persons and communities; the past, present, and future; and so on.As I urge in the book’s introduction, our understanding of salvation builds on a number of related concepts, including, for example, anthropology, theology, Christology, ecclesiology, missiology, and eschatology. Throughout the book, then, I argue that, if our exploration of the theme of salvation is to be faithful to the New Testament, it must be account for the human cry for healing in personal, communal, and even global terms; and it must provide a vision of salvation that can be heard and communicated genuinely as good news.
Dr. Green: I’ve already hinted at this, I think. You will know that my work on “humanity in Scripture” emphasizes the irreducible wholeness of the human person, the relational character of humanity, and humanity’s inseparable tie to the earth God has created. This means that we are ever in danger of promoting an anemic gospel of salvation, when what is needed is an invitation into a salvific journey that encompasses all of life and entails transformed commitments and fresh practices.
Dr. Green: The series is open-ended, and I’m on the lookout for potential authors. You’ve mentioned the first three volumes. A fourth will follow: Dean Fleming on Why Mission? Other volumes I have in mind are Why Jesus? and Why the End of the World?