Who Is My Neighbor?

Yesterday a comment on the Internet[1] sparked some reflection about the nature of neighbor-hood and the people who inhabit the Middle East. The comment in question seemed to conflate America, and particularly its Christian inhabitants, with an idealized version of Israel on the one hand, and Middle Eastern peoples, particularly devout Muslims, with Israel’s OT enemies on the other. In doing so, the commenter was saying both that we should take care of our neighbors –fellow Americans – and keep at bay those who hold to Islam because the Arab peoples can only ultimately be consigned to idolatry and violent hatred for Isaac and Jacob’s descendants.

There are a number of issues here, but I will focus on two. I think they can be summarized in two questions – who is my neighbor? And, who is Israel?

Regarding the first, Jesus makes it plain in the Gospels that if one wants to discern who counts as a neighbor, he should first think of the person with whom he has the most enmity and work from there. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan is chosen because to a Pharisee that would have been the most theologically and ethnically offensive choice. Jesus’ point is that neighbor-hood is not nationalistic – the Samaritans were viewed as outside Israelite society; it is not ethnic – the Samaritans were viewed as a sub-par ethnically mixed group by “pure” Israelites; and it is not about theological correctness – the Samaritans were viewed as worshiping incorrectly by citing Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem, as the proper site for worshiping Yahweh. In other words, the definition of neighbor-hood starts with the person I least want to be my neighbor and then works from there. In 21st century rural Deep South America, I’d imagine the epitome of someone who is the opposite[2] of a resident of that area in terms of nationalism, ethnicity, and theology would very likely be an undocumented Syrian refugee. That is the starting point for neighbor-hood for a Christian.

This, I think, is fairly easy for many Christians to grasp. What may be harder to work through is the subsequent statement about Middle Eastern peoples only being able to produce idolatry and hatred towards Isaac and Jacob’s descendants. In other words, the idea is that in the Old Testament Israel was the faithful worshiper of Yahweh, and now, since America is Israel, we are the faithful Christian nation. Conversely, in the OT the descendants of Ishmael and Esau were always idolatrous and at enmity with Israel, and now, since the Middle Eastern nation-states are Ishmael and Esau, they can do nothing but produce idolatry and enmity.

I don’t know any other way to say this – that is just a very poor reading of the Old Testament. In fact, I’m not sure anyone with this view has read the Old Testament very much(not a shocking proposition in light of the incipient Marcionism in many churches). In the Old Testament, Israel commits idolatry over and over and over again.[3] Israel is unfaithful to Yahweh and Yahweh almost destroys them many times.[4] Conversely, it is the nations that many times exhibit obedience to Yahweh in contrast to Israel’s disobedience. Rahab in Joshua 2 and the Gibeonites in Joshua 10 are prime examples. Further, God in the OT Prophets promises to save not just Israel but the nations – the Ishmaelite nations particularly – as well. The promise of salvation that Christ fulfills is not for an ethnic group but for all people. Justification by faith is for Jews and Gentiles, Jacobites and Ishmaelites alike. There is nothing inherent in anyone aside from our common inheritance of Adam’s sin nature.

To claim that Americans, or Germans, or Brazilians, or Chinese, or Kenyans, or anyone else has some kind of advantage over any other ethnic group with respect to the way Adam’s sin has affected us all is unbiblical. To claim that the gospel of Jesus Christ is in some way not for another ethnic group is unbiblical. To claim that a certain ethnic group is not my neighbor based on our political, nationalistic, ethnic, or theological differences is unbiblical. This kind of thinking has no place in the kingdom of God or his Church.


[1] I will not link to or quote this comment for two reasons: 1) I have no desire to draw any more attention to it that I already am, and 2) the sentiments expressed are by no means held only by this one person. Through personal experience and observation of our current culture I am certain this kind of thinking is prevalent throughout the USA.

[2] Of course, the Samaritans were not the opposite of the Pharisees; they were closely related to one another in many ways. A closer analogy might be African Americans, particularly in the mid-twentieth century, but really throughout American history. You could also posit a non-English speaking undocumented Hispanic immigrant. The list goes on.

[3] E.g. Exodus 32, Joshua 7-8, Judges 8, 2 Kings 12.

[4] See for instance Exodus 33, and Joshua 7-8 and Judges 20-21 when the herem (command of total destruction) is placed on tribes within Israel. This command is given to Israel to destroy the nations in Canaan but in these and other instances Israel is so unfaithful that Yahweh turns the command on their heads.

Book Review: Andrew Streett’s The Vine and the Son of Man

During ETS and SBL this year I was able to read through Andrew Streett’s welcome contribution to Fortress Press’ “Emerging Scholars” series, The Vine and the Son of Man: Eschatological Interpretation of Psalm 80 in Early Judaism. Streett, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Redeemer Seminary in Texas, revised his dissertation (Univ. of Wales Trinity St. David) for this volume.

In the monograph Streett argues

(a) that Jewish and Christian interpreters found material in Psalm 80 pertaining to events at the end of the age, a time that some interpreters believed had already come upon them and their communities; and (b) that the meaning derived from Psalm 80 most often comes from the images of the vine (vv. 9-17) and the potentially messianic man (vv. 16b, 18), which because of the ambiguity of the text are open to a wide variety of interpretations (1).

The reader familiar with the Jewish and Christian Scriptures will recognize the potential fruitfulness of exploring the history of interpretation of Psalm 80, as it is alluded to in significant passages of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, as well as in Second Temple literature and Rabbinic Judaism. But, as Streett notes, the study of Psalm 80 and its use in later Jewish and Christian writings, and particularly a study of its eschatological interpretation, is relatively scant. Streett’s volume therefore fills a lacuna in the study of ancient Judaism and early Christianity.

The book is tightly organized, beginning with two chapters on Psalm 80 in its historical and literary contexts respectively. Over the course of the remainder of the work (chapters 3 – 7), Streett traces the use of Psalm 80 through various Hebrew Bible, Second Temple, and New Testament texts, including Daniel 7 and John 15:1-8. Streett is particularly keen to show how Psalm 80 came to be read messianically and then christologically, and how it is an exegetically feasible reading.

This type of book – one that traces the history of interpretation of a particular passage through its various stages- seems to me to be increasingly popular, and I think rightly so. While the outline of this book and others like it may appear relatively simple, the work done by Streett in this volume is important and useful on a number of levels. First, it sheds light on a comparatively understudied but still important passage in ancient Judaism and early Christianity, and one whose varied interpretations helps us to understand why Christianity ultimately departed from Judaism. The interpretation of Psalm 80, and particularly the Gospel authors’ reading of it as a reference to Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, is one of the hermeneutical tipping points for early Christianity. Streett’s careful exegesis of the passage, coupled with his nuanced explanation of how ancient Jewish and early Christian writers read it differently, is of great assistance to scholars of these ancient texts and of the history of religion.

Second, Streett provides readers with what I consider to be a robust interpretive method. He describes it as “eclectic”, drawing on both historical and literary tools. On the latter, he is most interested in describing how Psalm 80 can be read canonically and intertextually (11). This type of reading, that situates a passage of Scripture while at the same time reading it as part of a larger whole, is one that I wholeheartedly commend.

Third, while Streett does not describe his project this way, in my mind it is helpful for Christians who wish to understand better the rationale of the New Testament writers as they used the Old Testament. The Vine and the Son of Man demonstrates that, while there are other interpretive options for the passage, early Christian messianic and christological interpretation of it fits well within the realm of possibilities when considering the intentions of the author of Psalm 80.

On that note, one question I continue to have after reading the book, and after re-reading the relevant passages to this question a number of times, is what Streett means by “meaning,” “intention,” and “intentionality.” A number of times Streett uses these terms to my mind in seemingly disparate ways, so that at one point they can refer to a (single?) intent of the original author – i.e. “what it meant” – while at others they seem to refer to what later readers understood it to mean, and at still other times they appear to refer to what the passage means in a canonical context. Perhaps Streett means all three, and maybe more, but it is still not clear to me exactly what he means by meaning or intention.

I would also hope to see a subsequent article or book on the interpretation of Psalm 80 not just in the New Testament but in early Christianity and perhaps even beyond. It seems to me that these types of projects would be bolstered by looking at the history of interpretation not only in the Christian canon and its background literature but also in subsequent Christian writings.

That question and small quibble aside, The Vine and the Son of Man is a carefully argued, methodologically robust, and therefore welcome addition to the study of the Hebrew Bible in subsequent literature. I would recommend it to those interested in a rigorous study of the Psalter, the history of interpretation, or early Christian origins and exegesis.


NOTE: I received this book in exchange for a fair and impartial review.


Adolf Schlatter on Theological Method

I stumbled across an essay on the theological method of Adolf Schlatter that is instructive to the theological task. One of Schlatter’s overarching points is the need for interpreters to take the proper time to actually observe what is in the text.  Here is one golden quote from Schlatter:

We will continue to see exegetical works appear that show how the author pored over commentaries about the text but left the text unread. We will see dogmatic treatises which reveal that the writer knows his dogmaticians, especially from his own school of thought, but that he has never seriously observed the religious matters that actually come to pass.

This quote is found is one of Schlatter’s points about the challenge of the theological task to integrate the details of the text into faithful construction of the whole, but coheres well with his overall point on observation.

Robert Yarborough has done us a service with his translation and commentary of Schlatter’s method. The entire essay is worth a read.


Read the Summa in Two Years

“This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology.”

-C. S. Lewis

I am ashamed to admit that there are too many classic literary works that I have never read in their entirety. Too many epic novels, histories, philosophies, and political treatises have gathered dust on the shelf. Sadly, the same is true for many classic works in my own field of systematic theology. I could blame my education or culture, but what good would that do? Better to take responsibility and get busy, right?

For several years now, I have poked around in the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, especially the questions on the Incarnation in the Tertia Pars.  Thomas has even made appearances in several things I have written. But there are large domains in Thomas’ magnum opus that I haven’t explored.

There may be other ways of scaling this Mt. Everest of Christian theology, but I’d like to read it all straight through (crazy, I know). So I put together a plan to read the Summa in two years. It involves reading one question each weekday, leaving the weekends open to catch up (or read ahead). Each question contains several articles and takes up about 5-10 double-columned pages in my copy. Given the density of Thomas’ thought, that’s a fairly heavy pace (for me anyway). But how else are you going to make it all the way through?

Here’s the plan:

Screen Shot 2015-12-19 at 9.34.43 PM

Summa Reading Plan

I’d like to start this plan in the new year, and I’m looking for accountability! If you’re interested, let me know. I may blog on it from time to time in this space. In preparation for the two-year journey, I am reading Michael Dauphinais and Matthew Levering’s introduction to Thomas’ theology. I’ll likely read other secondary literature along the way as well.

So, who’s in?

#StarWars #TheForceAwakens in Canonical Perspective



Second, for those who don’t know me, I teach Bible and Hermeneutics at Oklahoma Baptist University. One of my overarching emphases in all my classes is reading the Bible canonically. This means paying attention to the order and shape of the material, textual links between books, and following the arc of the story. As I watched and have continued to think about TFA, these principles seem to help understand exactly what Abrams is doing with Episode VII. (Which is not, contra Ross Douthat, just an homage piece with no originality.)

I’ll start with the similarities between TFA and the original trilogy, and these are (almost) legion.

TFA starts almost identically to A New Hope. The movie opens over a desert planet, Jakku, and the leader of the First Order is searching for Republic plans. Instead of plans to the rebel base, it’s a map to Luke Skywalker, but still, same. These plans are hidden in a droid, which is found by an inhabitant of said desert planet. It’s Rey, not Luke, but she’s a great pilot and skilled mechanically. She escapes the planet with the plans with Han and Chewie and heads to the Republic to hand them over. Once there, a super weapon destroys the planet on which the Republic government is settled. The first half of the movie, then, is definitely ANH rehashed, although I don’t think that’s a negative.

The reason I think this is intentional and not just lazy homage is because of what Abrams does next. Instead of continuing an ANH reboot with new characters, he jumps into Episode V in the next part of the film. While Rey’s character was portrayed as a new Luke in the first half, both Rey and Ren are portrayed as new Lukes in the second half. Rey reenacts Dagobah’s cave in Maz’ basement, while Ren reenacts the climax of Empire on the bridge with his father. But it’s Empire reversed. In V, Luke is confronted by his father on a long bridge, with no chance of escape, and given an ultimatum to turn to the dark side or die. Luke refuses, sealing his fate as a Jedi, not a Sith. Ren is the exact opposite. He is confronted by his father on a long bridge, with every reason and ability to walk away, and asked by his father to turn back to the light. Ren refuses, kills his father, sealing his fate as a Sith, not a Jedi. This is the climax of VII, and a reverse of V.

But there’s more. Abrams doesn’t stop with IV and a reverse V; he ends with VI recapitulated instead of returning to IV rehashed. As in Return of the Jedi, Han and Chewie plant charges in order to destroy base defenses so that the Republic can destroy the super weapon. And the scene where the weapon is destroyed is almost identical to the same scene in VI – the Millennium Falcon is the first out, followed by X-wings, and then the blast comes right behind. Go watch VI and then VII again and you’ll see.

In other words, Abrams has recapitulated the original trilogy in one film.

(Incidentally, I think this mitigates against the criticism that some of the film, especially character development, is rushed – yes it is, but for a reason.)

When you read the Bible and you see stories repeated over and over, you notice not only the similarities but also the differences. And I think this is where we really start to see where this new trilogy is going.

  1. This film doesn’t end like VI. There is no celebration, and Rey finds Skywalker. This latter bit is unprecedented, really. This should tell us quite a bit about what is going to happen in the next two films.
  2. Rey and Ren take up Luke’s mantle. Rey is light recapitulated, Ren dark. (This is why I think they’re twins, not cousins.) Before you say Luke has always been with the light, go back and watch VI again. Luke doesn’t go to the dark side, but he’s certainly not unambiguously light throughout, especially in his climactic battle with the Emperor and Darth Vader. Luke gives in to his anger and aggression but always ultimately pulls back from the brink each time. It’s still there, though. I think this is why Ren goes bad – Luke tries to train it out of him, but he’s not pure enough himself to do it. And whatever Ren subsequently did, it was bad enough that Luke never wanted to be seen again. (I think Joe Rigney’s comment on my earlier post are largely correct; go check it out.)
  3. Finn is Force adept. He awakens during the battle on Jakku, but doesn’t yet realize it. That’s why he’s the only non-compliant Storm Trooper, EVER, and why he can wield a light saber long enough to at least not get killed. I’d imagine we will see more people wake up to the Force as the series continues, and go to Luke (or Leia?) for training.
  4. Snoke, as many have pointed out, is probably Darth Pelagius, finally come back from the dead. He has to be destroyed, along with Ren, to balance the Force.

So again, Episode VII is fantastic. What makes Star Wars great is its simplicity. At its heart it explores the themes of good v. evil, redemption, temptation, and zero-to-hero through the lens of one family, the Skywalkers. This trilogy is going to give us the end of that story. Finally. And I can’t wait to see how it does it.

Some Thoughts on #StarWars #TheForceAwakens

  1.  **SPOILER ALERT** – If you haven’t seen it, don’t read any further.
  2. I loved it. As many have mentioned, JJ brought the magic back through set design, realistic (non-CGI) aliens and fight sequences, and taking this story where it needs to go.
  3. The major criticism I keep hearing is that TFA is just a rehash of Episode IV. A few things there:
    1. This makes sense, since both previous trilogies are interlocking ring sets. (See starwarsringtheory.com.) In other words, they all repeat one another, and the trilogies are structured similarly, and there are inclusios everywhere. And further, therefore, this isn’t actually a criticism. It’s how Star Wars works.
    2. Again, it makes sense because what made the original trilogy great was its simplicity. Farm boy to hero. Love story. Good v. evil. A chance at redemption. Temptation. Father and Son. These elements were overshadowed in the prequels. They’re back, front and center, in Ep VII.
    3. More particularly, I want to mention a few things about this being a repeat of Episode IV (and therefore also of Ep I). Certainly in many, many ways this is true. Particularly in its beginning and end – desert outpost, Millennium Falcon escape, learning about the Force on MF, finding one spot of weakness on the enemy’s apocalyptic weapon, new force adept hero traveling to find lone Jedi to train them – TFA is definitely framed by Episode IV. But if you stop there you’ve missed the most important way that Episode VII is connected to both the prequels and the original trilogy.
    4. Episode VII is also in perhaps the most important ways drawing off of Ep V (and therefore also of Ep II). The penultimate climactic scene of Ep VII is a reverse of the same sequence in Ep V. Whereas Luke resists his father in Ep V, and in virtually the same visual manner (THE BRIDGE) as in TFA, Ren does not. Luke seems to seal his fate to the light (although temptation is still to come) in that climactic scene by resisting but losing to his father; Ren seems to seal his fate to the dark side in Ep VII by resisting and defeating his father. Notice also that Rey experiences the same type of Force training as Luke does in Ep IV and V, but especially V as typified in the hallucinogenic cave scene on Dagobah. The same occurs for Rey in the basement of Maz’ bar.
    5. In other words, TFA isn’t just a 30 years later reboot of ANH; it’s TESB reversed and ensconced within an ANH reboot. The main point is Kylo Ren’s continued march down the path of the Dark Side, in contradistinction to Luke’s continued march towards the light in TESB.
    6. I think Abrams structured this movie this way for a reason. This movie is Ep V in reverse via Kylo/his dad because *this trilogy won’t be the same as the first two.* It’s going to end with the Force actually being balanced, something that apparently didn’t happen even at the end of VI, presumably because Snoke was out there somewhere unbeknownst to Luke etc. So this movie starts by rehashing V, VIII will rehash III/VI, and IX will be something we’ve never seen before. I think.
  4. Some other criticisms addressed:
    1. Finn’s character shifts in personality so quickly after his defection because he’s awakened to the Force, too, just not as quickly as Rey. Kylo doesn’t just notice he’s not shooting anyone in the skirmish on Jakku; he notices that Finn’s awakened to the Force in that opening sequence. That explains his truncated abilities with the light saber twice later in the movie. We’ll see him become more fully and consciously Force adept in the next film, I’m guessing.
    2. Rey is not another Luke. She’s more powerful than him and anyone else so far, apparently. Which I think is awesome. Also, it explains her almost immediate success throughout.
    3. Again, therefore, this is not just a rehash. Kylo *isn’t* Darth Vader. He hasn’t finished his training, he’s erratic, he’s overcome with emotion and not just using it in battle. He clearly has different, and maybe better, abilities than DV. He’s not DV. Rey isn’t Luke (see #4.2); Finn isn’t just a new Han (see #4.1).
    4. Finally, and maybe most importantly, I think 4.2 and 4.3 explain who Rey is. She’s Ren’s sister (twin?). These two will balance the Force through being polar opposites. Again, think about it. Rey follows Luke’s path in IV and V, while Ren does exactly the opposite of Luke in V.
  5. One final thought – it occurred to me as the credits were rolling that this is the first Star Wars film I’ve seen in theaters where I didn’t know what was going to happen. RotJ came out when I was a newborn, and we always knew where the prequels were headed, even if it we didn’t know exactly how they’d take us there. I’m in brand new territory here.

So, I think TFA is brilliant. I want to see it as many times as possible in theaters.

Thank you, JJ.

Do We Overuse the Word “Gospel”?

File this under the hashtag #confessyourunpopulartheologicalopinion, but I think we sometimes overuse the word “gospel.” Think of all the hyphenated adjectives we have invented with the word “gospel” on the front end (gospel-centered, gospel-driven, gospel-saturated, etc.). Think of how many organizations and local church ministry initiatives have been framed by the word “gospel.” Think of how often we use the word in sermons and Sunday School lessons and small group meetings, often without taking care to define precisely what we mean by the term.

Obviously the Greek term euangelion (“good news”) and its cognates constitute an important theme in the biblical story of redemption. It is rooted in the Messianic promises of  the Old Testament (Isa. 40:9, LXX). It is the title affixed to the climactic story of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1). It is used by Paul dozens of times to describe the core of his apostolic message. So I would never want to displace what Paul says is of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). My concern is not so much with the concept itself but with how we employ the specific English word “gospel.”

As I see it, the word “gospel” exerts an outsized influence in our theological vocabulary. There are several potential weaknesses in the overuse of the word “gospel.”

  • It is a derivation of an Old English word. The word gospel comes from the Old English godspell, which means “good news.” What if we just translated euangelion directly into modern English as “good news”? What would happen if instead of talking about having gospel-driven ministries we spoke of having good-news-driven ministries? It seems that nothing would be lost and much would be gained by simply providing a gloss of the term when we use it.
  • It can become cliche. This is actually true of any term. If you use a word often enough, without explaining its content, it becomes hackneyed. So maybe this point is not so much a knock on the word “gospel” per se as it is an encouragement for Christians to define carefully and consistently what we mean by it. Which brings me to a third potential weakness.
  • It is a disputed term. The gospel means many things to many people. It can be used as short-hand for individual salvation (God, man, Christ, response). It can be employed to speak of the overarching storyline of the Bible (creation, fall, redemption, consummation). It can be used to describe the anti-imperial overtones of the church’s confession of the Lordship of Christ. It can be used to tease out the social and even political implications of the Christian message. It can expanded into a summary of the entire Christian worldview, as nearly everything important becomes a “gospel issue.” If we overuse the word “gospel” and under-explain it, we risk being misunderstood. We also risk becoming untethered from how the term is actually used in the New Testament. This point, like the last, may not be a direct criticism of the word “gospel” itself, since many important terms are disputed and in need of constant definition. But we can’t simply use the word and expect people to know what we mean by it.
  • It can unintentionally displace God’s activity in redemption. We often use the word “gospel” when what we really mean is “Christ” or “the Holy Spirit” or “God’s grace.”  The New Testament sometimes personifies the word euangelion and has it doing certain things (e.g., Rom. 1:16-17), but most often the NT writers speak of God’s agency in and through the gospel message. We don’t construct our theologies by simply counting verses, but it does seem instructive to compare the number of times Paul, for example, uses “Christ” (370x) versus “gospel” (~70x). Again, what would happen if instead of talking about having gospel-driven ministries we spoke of having Christ-driven ministries? What if we strove to cultivate Christ-centered marriages, Spirit-empowered parenting, and grace-enabled sanctification? Don’t get me wrong. I still use the word “gospel,” and I am not on a campaign to have it retired. It is a beautiful word with a rich history in English-speaking Christianity. But I wonder sometimes if “the gospel” doesn’t sort of take on a life of its own that obscures the direct agency of the triune God in our salvation.

So what do you think? Do we overuse the word “gospel”? Do we do a sufficient job explaining in precise biblical terms what we mean by it? Do any of these potential weaknesses miss the mark?

Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar 2015

Worldview and the Old TestamentAs ETS/SBL/AAR/etc approaches, I want to invite those interested to this year’s Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar and to the newly formed Scripture and Doctrine Seminar. The theme for the former is The Old Testament and Worldview, and Al Wolters, Raymond van Leeuwen, Koert van Bekkum, Jamie Grant, David Beldman, and I will be speaking on various aspects of that topic. The schedule for our meeting is:

1:00 – 1:10      Welcome and Introduction – Heath Thomas (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, USA)

1:10 – 1:15      Opening  – William Olhausen (St. Mathias’ Church, Ireland)

1:15 – 1:35      Worldview and the Old TestamentAl Wolters (Redeemer University, Canada)

1:35 – 1:50      Pentateuch and WorldviewRaymond Van Leeuwen (Eastern University, USA)

1:50 – 2:05       Worldview, Historiography and OT NarrativeKoert van Bekkum (Theologische Universiteit Kampen, The Netherlands)

2:05 – 2:20      The Psalter, Worship and WorldviewJamie Grant (Highland Theological College and University of the Highlands, UK)

2:20 – 2:40      BOOK LAUNCH and BREAK

2:40 – 2:55      Wisdom and Worldview – Dave Beldman (Redeemer University, Canada)

2:55 – 3:10      Old Testament Worldview and Early Christian Apocalypses Matthew Emerson (Oklahoma Baptist University, USA)

3:10 – 3:40      Questions and Discussion

3:40 – 3:45      Closing

We will also be launching the most recent publishing project of the seminar, A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation, edited by Heath Thomas and Craig Bartholomew.

A Ph.D. student at SBTS, Brian Renshaw, has helpfully linked to the relevant information and registration pages here.

For convenience I’ve linked to the individual pages below.

Registration for the Seminar – http://www.eventbrite.com/e/scripture-and-hermeneutics-seminar-at-sbl-2015-tickets-15974778994

Registration for the (new) Scripture and Doctrine Seminarhttp://www.eventbrite.com/e/scripture-and-doctrine-seminar-tickets-17338075651

Registration for the dinner – http://www.eventbrite.ca/e/st-georges-centre-for-biblical-and-public-theology-dinner-2015-tickets-18907036455

If you can make it to any or all of these, we would love to see you there.

Please also feel free to pass this along to anyone else you think may be interested.

The Silliness of (Some) Source Criticism

My current course load includes one class on the Former Prophets, and this week we’ve dealt with the critical theories about these books’ composition. Of course for Joshua-Kings the prevailing scholarly consensus is the “Deuteronomistic (or Deuteronomic) History,” most famously postulated  by Martin Noth but having undergone many subsequent revisions. For Noth and most OT scholars, the DtH builds on the earlier Documentary Hypothesis, and specifically on de Wette and Welhausen’s claim that the D (Deuteronomic) source was written in the 7th century in response to Josiah’s reforms. According to Noth, the Dtr uses D and attaches to the larger narrative he writes to compose the entire DtH, spanning from Deuteronomy through Kings.

I’ve been knee deep for months in both of these critical theories, and one particular thread sticks out to me. I’ve read biblical scholars across the spectrum on this, from primary sources (e.g. Noth’s seminal volume) to Robert Polzin’s literary approach to Provan et al. and Alexander’s more conservative approaches. The common denominator that runs through them all is a criticism of the methods and conclusions of the original theories. Even Noth, who assumes the Documentary Hypothesis, is critical of the variety of contradictory conclusions that are made in response to Welhausen and de Wette’s seminal articulations.

These criticisms can be grouped, I think, into three categories. First, there are criticisms of the methods used by pioneers of the two theories. Both Polzin and McConville, for instance, criticize Noth for relying on changes in noun/verb numbers to identify sources, noting that this is an arbitrary source critical device and that it has not yielded any sort of scholarly consensus in subsequent scholarship (more on that in a moment). The same types of criticisms are leveled at Welhausen from all manner of OT scholars across the theological and philosophical spectrum (see e.g. T.D. Alexander’s forceful critique in From Paradise to Promised Land).

Second, and related to the arbitrariness of method, is the arbitrariness of the historical assumptions that lie behind these approaches. The most prominent and important of these for both theories is that D was composed in response to Josiah’s reforms in the 7th century. And yet, today, the opinion of the guild seems to be that there is nothing in particular that requires this conclusion. As McConville points out, there are equally valid reasons for thinking much of DtH is pre-exilic (esp. Joshua-Samuel) as there are for thinking that it is post-exilic, and there is nothing in the text that demands a 7th century (and beyond) setting. So the methods used and the historical assumptions that govern these theories are suspect.

Third, and because of the arbitrariness of both method and assumption, both the Documentary Hypothesis and DtH are criticized because neither the approach nor the methods used have led to anything like a scholarly consensus. If one reads the history of both of these critical theories, it becomes readily apparent that with each and within each subsequent generation of scholarship, there is much more disagreement than there is consensus, either with past or present peers. McConville, for example, notes the variety of perspectives on DtH since Noth, many of which directly contradict one another. One would think that if the methods are “objective”, as modern biblical scholarship claims to be,  these would yield a consensus position. And yet they have not.

I would add a fourth criticism, which is that the progenitors of these theories were highly influenced by German philosophy and Enlightenment suspicion. They went to the text looking for, e.g., a Hegelian dialectic development of ideas and texts, for ways to chop up the text so they could then deny its authority, and to verify positively a historical background using “objective” methods. This, too, has been highly criticized by recent biblical scholarship from across the theological spectrum, in that most biblical scholars now recognize the postmodern turn, thus rejecting “objectivity”, and also have moved on from the German philosophical schools of the last two and a half centuries.

All of this leads me to two questions that are (obviously) mostly rhetorical.

First, if the 1) methods, 2) assumptions, 3) conclusions, and 4) philosophical underpinnings of the seminal works for both of these theories are questioned by virtually all contemporary biblical scholarship, why do we still refer to them as if they represent scholarly consensus or as if they are the only way to understand the composition of the Pentateuch and Former Prophets?

Second, how can any non-confessional scholar look an evangelical in the eye and claim objectivity of method and conclusion when a) neutral objectivity is an Enlightenment myth and b) the supposedly objective methods and conclusions are claimed by their own peers to be arbitrary and contradictory?

One final comment: I named this post “The Silliness of (Some) Source Criticism” because I do not want to suggest that source criticism is of no value. It does have value. But when it is appropriated and used in service of “objectivity” and German philosophy, and then left to its own devices by subsequent scholarship, it devolves into self-contradictory silliness.

A Scholar’s Prayer

I came across this prayer from Thomas Aquinas about six months ago. It has been a great help in centering my mind and heart as I prepare for whatever academic work I’m doing that day, whether it be reading, writing, lecture prep, or teaching. I hope it blesses you as it has me.

Ineffable Creator,

You who are the true source of life and wisdom and the Principle on which everything depends, be so kind as to infuse in my obscure intelligence a ray of your splendor that may take away the darkness of sin and ignorance.

Grant me keenness of understanding, ability to remember, measure and easiness of learning, discernment of what I read, rich grace with words.

Grant me strength to begin well my studies; guide me along the path of my efforts; give them a happy ending.

You who are true God and true Man, Jesus my Savior, who lives and reigns forever.