Stephen Fowl and Theol Interp of Scripture (Book Review, Part I)

When I lived in Massachusetts, my wife and I would go to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra once in a while.  I like music as much as the next person, but I did not have enough technical knowledge of music theory and composition to really appreciate what was going on in each concert.  It happened, though, that prior to the concert, on one particular evening, the conductor offered to give a lecture before the concert where he would help to pre-guide novice listeners to the concert.  He offered behind-the-scenes sorts of tips.  He helped us to fine tune our ears to hear the details.  Essentially, he gave enough information to enrich our understanding.

Imagine if someone could do this for SBL for you….

In comes Stephen Fowl.  The Wipf & Stock (Cascade Series) Theological Interpretation of Scripture ‘companion’ does this sort of thing that the conductor did for the beautiful but complex symphony.  As a ‘companion’ at the party of scholars discussing ‘theological interpretation of Scripture’ (TIS), Fowl is a skilled and eloquent guide.

The ‘party’ metaphor is one that Fowl uses throughout the book.  He treats the book as a friendly introduction to a gathering of bible and theology scholars who have been debating and discussing an important issue.  In about 100 pages, Fowl masterfully succeeds in giving the tyro a succint and useful lay of the land.

In the first chapter, Fowl gives a view of Scripture itself and how Christians are meant to interact with it and what role it plays in ‘God’s drama of salvation’.  Then Fowl moves on to define how TIS is related to various other critical matters.  Thirdly, Fowl highlights certain ‘practices’ and ‘habits’ of TIS.  Finally, he briefly considers the ‘prospects’ for the future.  The book closes with a short set of profiles of the other ‘guests’ at the TIS party.

A more detailed interaction with Fowl’s book will follow in other posts.  For now, let me say that this was a delight to read.  I had lunch with Fowl last year at SBL and he is a humble and wise scholar.  His Philippians commentary (Two Horizons) was a great inspiration to me and I was also not disappointed at all with this book.  This is another great volume in what looks to be a very promising series from Wipf & Stock.

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Dunn’s NT Theology (Abingdon) – overview

Some time ago I mentioned that Abingdon had published a short New Testament Theology (introduction) by James D.G. Dunn in thier ‘Library of Biblical Theology’ series.  I have had a chance to look it over and I would like to offer my thoughts.

On the back, Brueggemann mentions that this book offers a ‘culmination of James Dunn’s lifelong work’ and he is correct.  Though the book is a mere 206 pages, it offers a mature and cogent discussion of NT theology.

In the first introductory chapter, Dunn talks about the definition of NTT: canon, multiple theologies, ‘theologizing’, Paul as model theologian.  Rather than seeing the NT as a static repository of doctrine, he sees the history and communal co-reasoning that eventually saw the development of the NT canon.  From this perspective, the NT text is ‘a testimony to and expressive flow of the movement of expereince, thought and praxis in earliest Christianity’ (12).

What determines NTT?  Dunn offers three factors, the third being too often neglected.

1. OT

2. ‘the revelation of Jesus Christ’ (Gal. 1.12)

3. ‘the impact of fresh experience of God, attributed to the Spirit of God, bringing new insight and revelation’ (19)

Dunn goes on to discuss, not only the determinative factors for NTT, but also the essential core of its content: God, Salvation, Israel, and Torah.  How did the revelation of Christ and the experience of the early Christians challenge, confirm, clarify, and modify these categories?  Dunn treats each theme as a separate chapter.

More to come: I will try and blog on each chapter.

NB: This would make an excellent concise textbook for a NTT course, or even a NT survey course with a strong interest in theology.

Review of G.D. Fee’s Galatians Commentary (Part II)

In the earlier part, I simply introduced the commentary by Fee.  Now I will press on to comment on the content and theological perspective of Fee’s excellent commentary.

On introductory issues, Fee has little to say.  He favors the Southern Galatians view just slightly (with the mentioning of Barnabas being the tipping factor).  More controversially, Fee places Galatians between the writing of 2 Cor. and Romans – for a number of reasons, but it includes the close relationship between Romans and Galatians.  He does not expand upon all the reasons, but he has taken this approach in his earlier works and I am sure he offers some explanation there.  In the end, he explains that such differences of opinion on the dating and the location of the readers does not greatly affect the interpretation of the epistle.

One thing to take notice of, in Fee’s method of interpretation, is his eye for the word-order of the Greek sentences.  For example, in the salutation he sees the order of ‘grace and peace’ (1.3) to be purposeful in order – as peace results from grace.  Fee is attributing to Paul, here, a high level of intentionality even in perfunctory sorts of parts of the letter.  I have no problem with this assumption and he makes some interesting points, though it is difficult to know for sure.

I think an exegetical conundrum in Galatians is the actual point of the personal narrative in chs. 1-2.  Why does Paul spend so much time discussing where he has been, who he has been with, and all that?  Fee’s perspective is helpful:

His point in [1.13-24] was to capitalize on what his detractors saw as a defect, namely, that they came from Jerusalem but Paul had not.  But what they saw as a defect Paul saw as to his great advantage.  His gospel came directly from Christ and therefore had nothing to do with “men,” either in terms of source of approval’(55)

Another issue that Fee touches upon is how to translate and interpret the challenging Greek word sarx.  He aptly explains that, for Paul, being ‘in the flesh’ means: ‘to live according to the values and desires of life in the present age that stand in absolute contradiction to God and his ways’ (108).

Now the question you have been waiting for – what about the New Perspective and the question of the law?  Fee seems quite supportive of the fundamental convictions behind the New Perspective on Paul and the issues in Galatia.

‘At issue…is not how people gain their salvation, but whether “saved people” must also adhere to the law’ (81); ‘the primary issue of this letter is not “justification by faith,” but Gentile inclusion as Abraham’s – and therefore God’s – true children and thus rightful heirs of the final inheritance.’ (151)

He also seems quite close to the views of J.D.G. Dunn when he highlights the boundary-marking nature of the law.  Here he is insistent that the law was given for social and moral reasons, rather than soteriological ones (see 189).

One of the issues that Fee discusses is the perennial problem of translating dikaioo into English.

‘interestingly, the word “absolve,” in the sense of “to grant pardon for” would seem to come closest to [an English equivalent], but it is a word Protestants are loathe to use because of what they perceive to be abuses in Roman Catholic use of the word’ (83)

He finds ‘acquit’ to be inappropriate as it means no verdict of guilt is involved.  In Fee’s mind, this kind of thinking can lead to problems.  Sin is there, guilt is there, but it has been pardoned, not treated as non-existent in the first place.

On the matter of pistis christou – ‘faith of Christ’ – Fee argues for the objective genitive (‘faith in Christ’).  One point he makes is that Mark 11.22, exete pistin theou, would have clearly meant ‘have faith in Christ’, not ‘have the faith of Christ’.

One of the more interesting discussions in Fee’s commentary is his treatment of Gal. 3.12 with the quote from Lev. 18.5.  Here, when some say the issue is ecclesiological and others that it is soteriological, Fee argues that it is primary eschatological (this is my paraphrasing of his views).  If one is to choose to carry out the works of Torah, then one is choosing a life that involves going back to an outdated paradigm of religious life.  Moreover, one is choosing this paradigm that was never intended to save or to make one righteous.

Fee underscores Paul’s point that one cannot pick and choose which laws to follow and which to ignore for the Galatians.  It is all or nothing.  One cannot mix and match ‘faith in Christ’ elements with ‘works of law’ elements.  If one decides to take on parts of the law – they decide to carry out the whole thing (thus Gal. 3.12).  He follows up with an important point: ‘The plain assumption in all of this, one should note at the end, is that people can do “the righteousness” found in the law, understood as observable behavior…The curse is that they must do so, and thus they are excluded from Christ’ (118).  Well said, Gordon.

A serious concern that one could issue with Fee’s intepretation is that it could seem to reject the importance of the OT altogether.  This could be fuel for supporting a kind of Marcionism.  But, Fee makes an important clarification.  The law is still useful as a reminder of God’s desire of morality and virtue, but the law’s role of ‘hemming in human conduct because of trangressions’ has been made obsolete by the advent and endowment of the Spirit.  The Spirit is able to bring about the kind of righteousness God desires (a function not available to the law).

While we are on the topic of ethics, Fee has an excellent discussion of the moral discourses in the last couple of chapters of Galatians.  A nice pithy quote, though, comes from his summary of Pauline ethics:

‘God’s glory is their purpose, the Spirit is their power, love is the principle, and Christ is the pattern’ (232)

I will end with probably one of the most perplexing issues in Galatians – Paul’s use of OT imagery and, especially, the discourse on Hagar and Sarah.  Is it reasoned allegory?  Some kind of typology?  What do we do with it?  Can be learn how do to that?  What Paul just making it up as he went along?  With respect to Gal. 4.21-5.12, Fee has these wise words:

‘Paul was inspired by the Spirit in ways that we are not; and this passage was not written to give us an example of “how to do Scripture” (197) ‘we simply do not know enough about their situation to know how much, if any, of this paragraph is in direct response to what was being argued by the agitators themselves’ (197)


deSilva and the Sacramental Life (review)

At SBL last year I picked up David deSilva’s Sacramental Life: Spiritual Formation through the Book of Common Prayer (IVP, 2008).

The book obviously has a devotion character where deSilva is thinking through a holy and upright life with the Bible in one hand and the Book of Common Prayer in the other.  This spiritual exercise led deSilva to reflect on the sacraments and their theological import (especially the themes and ideas tied up in them).  The first part of the book focuses on baptism (‘walking in the newness of life’), then the holy eucharist (‘nourishment for the new life’), and then two lesser, but significant sacraments of marriage (‘partnership for the new life’) and Christian burial (‘the gate of eternal life’).

I spoke with deSilva at SBL about this book and he mentioned his concern that many m0dern Christians are so driven by ‘authentic’ worship that they do not care to learn from certain Christian traditions (like Anglicanism) that can offer mature and rich theological resources.  As a Methodist who grew up in the Episcopal church, deSilva still appreciates ‘the liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer’ because they ‘gave me a language and a context for encountering God in my youth that continue to be essential vehicles for my own spiritual formation; (11).

This was a delight to read.  deSilva reads both the BCP and the Bible closely, drawing together important themes and ideas.  It would work well for spiritual formation groups in seminary/college or at church.

Methodologically, I think that deSilva’s work fits well into a modern re-appreciation for liturgy.  This dovetails nicely with the work of ritual studies (see Catherine Bell) which has attempted to understand the social significance of ritual performance.  There may also be a bit of this in speech-act theory as well.  It is no surprise, then, that many evangelical independent churches are becoming more traditional by including creeds and even hymns in their worship!  Many Christians are also finding independent Bible churches to be somewhat vapid in that they have little or no historical and traditional grounding such that, if the talented one-man-show pastor leaves, the show is over and the church wilts.

As an a methodist who has spent time working and worshiping in Presbyterian, Brethren, Nazarene, and Episcopal churches, I have benefited from each of these and their unique traditions.

This book is highly recommended!

Brevard Childs’ Canonical Reading of Paul (Part 2)

By the aid of Mr. Shepherd in PART 1, we were able to get a taste of what Childs is all about.  Now, I (Nijay) would like to dip into his The Church’s Guide for Reading Paul: The Canonical Shaping of the Pauline Corpus [Eerdmans, 2008] book to explore how he reads the great apostle.

Childs (C.) begins by highlighting the example of the SBL group that focused on Pauline Theology from 1986-1995.  C. observes that it is now widely recognized that ‘a broad consensus among the participants had not emerged’ (2).  Seeing himself as a fly on the wall in this conversation, C. asked himself, why has no one raised the issue of canon?  C. notes that it was agreed upon by the group that their interest would be in the ‘historical Paul’ with little interest in postbiblical developments (which would include canonical matters).  C. raises an important objection at this point:

Even to speak of a “Pauline corpus” is to enter into the arena of how the historical letters were received, treasured, and shaped, which is of course a canonical question.  Can one really search for a Pauline theology when the voices of those are missing who preserved his letters explicitly for an ongoing theological function within the early communities of Christian faith? (3)

In order to bring some coherence and unity to this mess of sorting out Paul, C. offers a solution: ‘No interpretation of a Pauline letter can be adequate that does not interpret the individual specificity of a letter also in its larger context within the Pauline corpus’ (235).

Does this require attention to post-Pauline interpreters?  C. nods affirmingly.  ‘Yes’, he says, ‘BUT – these are not just any hermeneutical guides’, they are the hermeneutical guides.  He commonly refers to them using the language of ‘shaping’ (thus, they could be dubbed ‘the canonical shapers’ -though C. does not use this phrase).

C.’s concern is this: how can we draw from the canon to find the historical Paul and not recognize the influence of how and why these letters are where they are?  The shaping of the Pauline corpus, within the NT canon, is meaningful and ‘by understanding each letter within the larger context of the entire Pauline corpus, and indeed, in relation to other parts of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, fresh constellations of meaning emerged through creative intertextual cross-referencing’ (9).

The Issue of Theological Hermeneutics

C. recognizes that his canonical approach may appear to be anti- or a-historical.  He denies that this must be the case.  Rather, borrowing language from M. Kaehler, he refers to the dialectic and fertile interaction ebtween two streams of interpretation: the first, Historie, involves ‘critical, historical exegesis’; and the second, Geschichte, involves ‘confessional, canonical understanding’ (13).  C. argues that both are necessary, but too much emphasis has been placed on Historie, but the canon itself demands to be read as Geschichte (as well?).

So, what do we do with Historical Criticism?

Can historical criticism offer a clear and precise interpretation of Paul?  How?  Should it be done away with?  In order to explore this hermeneutic issue, C. interacts with the hermeneutical models of Ulrich Luz, Richard Hays, Frances Young, Luke Timothy Johnson, and Wayne Meeks.  He finds points of agreement with the first three and criticizes the latter two.

C. appreciates Luz’s interest in Wirkungsgeschichte which offers ‘an attempt to overcome the distance between the ancient author and its modern interpretation that occurs in the historical critical approach by making more precise the range of inherited assumptions one brings consciously or unconsciously to the text’ (30, Childs).  However, C. appears to be concerned with Luz does not privilege any post-biblical reading (whereas C. obviously would affirm the normative shaping of the canon).

With Hays and Young, C. finds helpful their critique of relying too much on historical criticism.  However, C. shows concern with both for the disregarding of canon in light of a ‘charismatic’ hermeneutic (Hays) or a ‘postmodern’ one (Young).  C. strongly avers: ‘The assigning by the church of a privileged status to the apostolic witness a the primary testimony to the incarnation of Jesus Christ served to draw a line between Scripture and all subsequent church traditions’ (36).

With Johnson and Meeks, C. detects a disregard for the canon as well.  With Johnson, C. finds his separation of ‘exegesis’ (historical ancient-context intepretation) and ‘hermeneutics’ (modern relevance) to be troubling.  C. demonstrates stronger disagreement with Meeks and his sociological model.

‘In Meeks’ sociological construal, all the Christology of the Gospel is omitted– by definition a lifeless doctrine– and the theological dimension is flattened into a sociological function of the community’ (58).

In a sense, C.’s book is written as a direct refutation of Meeks’ hermeneutic.  In the next part we will engage in C.’s reading of Paul according to the canon and the church.

Reflections on Jerry Sumney’s Colossians Commentary

Tonight I finished reading Jerry Sumney’s Colossians commentary for the New Testament Library series (WJK, 2008).  The series, as a whole, has not produced seminal volumes (though Luke Timothy Johnson’s volume on Hebrews has received positive reviews).

Having recently reviewed and read through Douglas Moo’s Pillar commentary on Colossians, I was not expecting a shorter commentary to impress me (the NTL volumes are quite brief).  However, I was pleasantly surprised with Sumney’s overall contribution.

His approach is primarily rhetorical and theological.  Because he leans towards viewing the letter as pseudonymous, he refers to ‘Colossians’ doing things in the letter: E.g. ‘Colossians tries to show that…’.  This can be a bit off-putting, but overall it is a solution I can cope with for the sake of hearing Sumney out.

His reading of Colossians overall is very perceptive.  He focuses on Colossians as a response to the rhetoric of certain ‘visionaries’ who are trying to convince the Colossians (and other surrounding churches) that special revelatory visions and experiences are needed to perfect their faith.  Sumney does not presume that this is a Jewish perspective through and through, but perhaps the visionaries are influenced by a number of backgrounds and contexts.  Asceticism is practiced by many religious groups.  The boasting of ecstatic experiences was quite common all around.

A high point in Sumney’s commentary is attention to counter-imperial criticism and evidence of ‘hidden transcripts’ of resistance and alternative-identity formation with political overtones.  Unlike some maximalists, Sumney doesn’t overplay subversive language, but flags up key points in the letter where such critical language appears to surface.

Another excellent discussion involves the Household codes.  Again, Sumney wisely avoids slipping into the Balch-Elliott debate by recognizing patterns of accommodation and re-intepretation (or alternative conceptualization).

Finally, though Sumney does feel that Colossians is dissimilar enough to be considered pseudo-Pauline, he does not press the realized-ness (? is that a word?) of the eschatology in Colossians.  Time and time again he highlights where future aspects of the eschatology are in view (and this is something Moo brings up frequently).

My one critique is that, at times, Sumney’s rhetorical approach can make it seem that the author was only writing certain things because of convention- that is, because it met his rhetorical goals of getting his readers to think and do the things he wants.  Now, certainly rhetorical approaches look at the means of persuasion used in discourse, but at times the way it is expressed by Sumney makes it appear that certain sentiments or attitudes expressed by the author were ingenuine (i.e. merely rhetoric; like capitatio benevolae).  I do not think Sumney was trying to come across this way on purpose, but the combination of the pseudonymous view with this style of reading the rhetoric of Colossians can make it come across as manipulative.  The fact that so many details about the apostle, his companions, and his attitudes and self-reflections would just have been ‘made up’ by the false writer for rhetorical means just does not seem like the most satisfying way to read the letter exegetically.

Overall, however, I enjoyed reading Sumney’s exegetically commentary on Colossians and I recommend it to all, especially his discussion of and excursus on the Household codes.

Constantine Campbell and Verbal Aspect in NT Greek

I have taken probably 15 courses in classical and NT Greek, and I have taught Greek about 6 times. There are few things more difficult to understand (let alone teach!) than the meaning and exegetical utility of ‘verbal aspect’. It was a no-brainer, then, that when I saw Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek (Constantine Campbell, Zondervan, 2008) I snatched up a copy right away.

NT Grammars, at least the most recent ones, treat this issue and flag up the unique quality of aspect contained in NT Greek that is unlike anything in English. Campbell argues that, according to NT linguistics and philologists, ‘Aspect holds the key to understanding the Greek verbal system’ (32). But, grammarians disagree as to what it is and what to do with it! The book I am using to teach Greek (Duff) does a wretched job communicating aspect. So where do we go from here?

Let’s allow Campbell to have his say.

The Basics: What is verbal aspect (VA)? Cambell defines it simply as ‘viewpoint’ where ‘An author or speaker views as action, event, or state either from the outside or from the inside‘ (19). When viewed from the outside, this is called perfective; the inside, then, is imperfective.

How does this relate to aktionsart? Campbell differentiates this because Aktionsart is more about ‘how an action actually takes place–what sort of action it is’ (22). On the other hand VA ‘refers to viewpoint-how the action is viewed’ (22).

This is not too controversial. The real issue is what we do with tense and time. Some people think the present tense, for instance, is inherently linked to present time (aorist and imperfect to past). How else do you know when an action occurred? Campbell disagrees. He argues that one can find clues in the text (deictic markers) that indicate time (‘now’, ‘already’, ‘then’). But, then, if tense does not mark time, why are there so many tenses!!?

Campbell explains: ‘[time] is not regarded as a semantic value [=always true, generic] of verbs in the indicative mood, even though each tense-form has a characteristic temporal reference on the pragmatic [=in context] level’ (32). The tendency for a tense to be found in a particular time can be explained another way through the tendency of the semantic value of the tense.

For example, aorist has the quality of ‘remoteness’. Sometimes that remoteness is a temporal one (past time, remote from present). But, ‘Remoteness also offers explanation for those fifteen percent of aorists that do not refer to the past’ (36). They still convey remoteness, but it may be ‘logical’, for example. The example he gives comes from Mark 1.11 where eudokesa is aorist. Here the remoteness involves viewing Jesus’ life from ‘afar’.

One thing that is particularly helpful is Campbell’s discussion of how tenses use their VA in narratives. Remoteness, for example, is helpful when portraying actions in summary: it is ‘often used to outline the skeletal structure of a narrative’ (38).

Imperfective VA and proximity: If the aorist perfective aspect has the value of remoteness, the present imperfective is proximate. This may be temporal (the near-time=now=present). From an aspectual angle, ‘we watch as the action unfolds’ (40). In narrative we get information that is ‘beyond the narratival mainline’; information that ‘describes, explains, and provides background; it puts flesh on the skeleton’ (44). This can explain the ‘historic present’ where proximity does not involve ‘time’.

Perfect: This tense Campbell also labels as proximate, but with intensity. It is ‘heightened proximity’ (51); or ‘super-present’ (54).

Conclusion – Tense in Greek offers a viewpoint through VA. This is understood in terms of proximity and remoteness. Sometimes that is temporally relevant, but sometimes it is not. Time should be determined or confirmed by contextual (deictic) markers and clues. Proximity and remoteness often tend towards certain temporal concepts.

Praises and Concerns: I have a few minor concerns with Campbell’s book.

1. I get tired of books called ‘basics of’ because this is a complex discussion and is advanced to many who will read it. I sometimes find it insulting and condescending, but Campbell probably did not choose the title of the book.

2. I like the language of proximity and remoteness. However, I am satified with saying that tense is associated with time, but there is great flexibility. For teaching purposes, trudging through this kind of linguistic tap-dance of avoiding temporal categories is daunting. Teach students to accept that the aorist often is past, but there are many exceptions and when past-time is not possible or logical, let’s look at ‘remoteness’ in some other way.

3. Though I think Campbell as done much to raise red flags when exegetes base arguments on tense, his own intepretation of ‘remoteness’ or ‘proximity’ opens its own bag of troubles. I am afraid when we speak of ‘logical’ remoteness (when it is not temporal) that people will make some wild guesses as to what the logic is. Should we get from Mark 1.11 that the use of the aorist for ‘I am well pleased’ means that God is looking at Jesus’ whole life? Isn’t that just as dangerous exegetically as using outdated categories for understanding VA in Greek? We need more tips for how to interpret remoteness and proximity.

4. Campbell pointed to how an author would use perfective and imperfective VAs in narratives to mark mainline features and offline features. This is helpful. What about the epistles? What is the significance of using aorist versus present or perfect in non-narrative texts? What gains are there rhetorically for Paul, 1 Peter, Hebrews? Campbell stuck to narratives in many of his examples, but many grammatico-exegetical battles are fought in the epistles. Give us more help!
Overall, I learned a lot from this book. I recommend it to those who want to go deeper in their understanding of NT Greek. One would expect in this series (Basics by Zondervan) that it would be non-controversial stuff (as it is meant to be a textbook). But when it comes to VA, there is always disagreement. Appreciate what Campbell says, but don’t assume this is the standard approach. There is no standard.

One thing I will take away from this conversation is this: be careful what conclusions you draw exegetically from a text based on a verbs aspect. We haven’t come to a place where we fully grasp its meaning and purpose. You can make some educated guesses, but don’t build an exegetical house on it.