Baptist Theological Method

Over the last day or so I’ve read Richard Barcellos’ The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace: More Than a Memory (Fearn: Mentor, 2013). I highly recommend this short but pastoral, exegetically based, and historically informed study of the church’s communion practice from a Baptist perspective. Although I could highlight a number of quotes from the book on everything from prayer to the Holy Spirit to Baptist history, one of my favorite sections is a very brief note on theological method Barcellos makes at the beginning of his final chapter. He writes,

The Reformed confessional and catechetical formulation of the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace is not based on one biblical text or a few isolated proof texts. It is based upon a complex of texts, exegetical work on those texts, the doctrines derived from those biblical texts and others in concert with a redemptive-historical, whole-Bible awareness and in conversation with the history of the Christian tradition.

In place of “the Reformed confessional…as a means of grace,” we could substitute the simple phrase “Christian doctrine.” Doctrinal formulation is not a matter of proof-texting (although certainly we should allow for doctrinal formulation on the basis of only one text), but rather, as David Yeago puts it, using conceptual terms to render accurate judgments about the patterns of language found in Scripture.

Intertextuality in Revelation

Today on Twitter (and by today I mean 2 minutes ago) I mentioned that I think there is much work to be done on intertextuality between Revelation and the rest of the New Testament. Because of John’s obvious reliance on the Old Testament, there have been an increasing number of articles and books published on intertextuality between Revelation and the OT. For instance, G. K. Beale in his commentary, as well as in his earlier John’s Use of the Old Testament in Revelation (which has been assimilated into the much larger commentary), notes all kinds of fascinating intertextual connections, but they are largely confined to Revelation’s use of the OT. So far there has been surprisingly little published on how Revelation alludes to other NT books.

Alistair Roberts pointed me to the John-Revelation project, which is a fascinating and compelling textual comparison of the two books, and he also mentioned Peter Leithart’s forthcoming commentary on Revelation as a possible source for this kind of work. In my book I point to a number of textual parallels between Revelation and Hebrews-Jude, and early in the twentieth century R. H. Charles in his ICC volume noted the distinctive connections between John’s Apocalypse and the Gospel of Matthew. But, given Revelation’s status as the canon closer and its relatively late date in comparison with the rest of the NT, we shouldn’t be shocked if there are a plethora of connections between it and the Gospels and Letters. I for one believe this is an area where NT scholars can find hundreds of treasures in a relatively unexplored field.

Christ and the New Creation Kindle Edition

Book CoverI just received word from Wipf and Stock that my book is now available in Kindle format. I neglected to change my Greek fonts when it was published in print, which is why there’s been a delay with the electronic format. Thankfully I had some time to comb through it last week and get the correct fonts in the manuscript. For those of you who enjoy reading on the digital screen rather than the printed page, you can order the Kindle edition here.

The Thorny Issue of Historical Background Research

I just sent in a review of David DeSilva’s recent book, The Letter to the Hebrews in Social Scientific Perspective (Cascade Companions; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012). As the title indicates, it is a social scientific study of Hebrews. In the review I articulated my concern with some fundamental assumptions with this approach to biblical studies, which I’ve reproduced below.

(If anyone knows if quoting my own review on my own blog is copyright infringement, please let me know. I’ll adjust accordingly. I also plan on updating this post with the relevant bibliographic info if/when the review is published.)

. . . the issue is with the broader tendency in biblical studies to make a sharp distinction between what it meant and what it means (xii) and therefore to place the onus of interpretation on reconstructing historical background, from author to audience to cultural influence, rather than on the text itself.

The issue here lies primarily in the idea that the intended audience of the biblical books, and even more conspicuously, the biblical canon, is almost completely focused on first century readers. But this, both for non-believing interpreters and for confessional Christians, is not the case; the biblical authors frequently mention other readers besides the community to which the letter is originally addressed, and, for confessional Christians, the Bible is not only a collection of historical documents but also and foundationally the Word of God for the people of God. That is, it is the Word of God for all Christians, near to the original context and far from it. To thus locate the interpretive crux on reconstructing the context of the original audience seems at best to dichotomize falsely the book’s readership between original readers and future readers; this is neither authors’ intent, human or divine.

Furthermore, this exacerbation of the importance of historical reconstruction often yields little actual benefits. Ironically, this is nowhere a more acute problem than with Hebrews; we are left in the dark, or at least in the twilight, on both authorship and audience. DeSilva cannot escape this despite his best efforts, and is left to generalizations that are of little assistance. So, for instance, on the question of audience, even after a detailed discussion of its makeup, DeSilva is left to this innocuous conclusion: “In all probability, the community was probably composed from a wide range of social strata . . .” (37). Additionally, this approach tends towards valuing cultural background over Old Testament background, and DeSilva does not escape this. A mere page after listing the litany of OT books upon which Hebrews’ author draws (10), DeSilva makes the altogether puzzling comment that Heb. 12:5–6 is much more dependent on Seneca than it is on Prov. 3:11–12, the passage that is directly quoted (11).  This sort of baffling retreat to cultural background over explicit OT quotations and allusions is frequent throughout the book, and is symptomatic, in this reviewer’s opinion, of this type of approach to biblical interpretation.

This is not to deny the validity of studying the cultural milieu of the biblical books, or even the fact that at times this study may provide valid insights, but rather to say that I think modern biblical studies overemphasizes it to an unhelpful degree.

Thoughts?

 

Debate on the Divinity of Jesus

Mike Bird has announced a debate via monograph concerning whether or not Jesus is divine. Bart Ehrman, lover and recycler of all things Baur, Bauer, and von Harnack, is set to publish a book arguing for the development (invention?) of the doctrine of the divinity of Christ after Jesus’ death and the earliest versions of Christianity. Bird, Craig Evans, Simon Gathercole, Chris Tilling, and Charles Hill will be responding with their own monograph, How God Became Jesus.  You can read Bird’s comments, along with each book’s Amazon.com blurb, on his blog.

This should be a great debate. Ehrman has always been able to to put arguments against the veracity, historicity, and antiquity of the Bible in language that can be understood and adopted by the masses (and of course he’s been helped by Dan Brown in that as well). This particular issue is one that strikes at the heart of Christianity, and I look forward to what I will assume can only be a witty but penetrating and insightful critique of Ehrman’s position by Bird et al.

And who can talk about Ehrman debating Christ’s divinity without mentioning this episode of the Colbert Report? (apologies for any ads that pop up…not under my control)

Distinctives in the Fourfold Gospel Corpus

Nijay Gupta, quoting Eddie Adams, recently posted some thoughts on the distinctiveness of each Gospel. While there certainly may be some truth to Adams’ list, namely in noting some of the unique literary devices used by the Evangelists, I personally find the list dissatisfying, particularly for its lack of theological engagement. This is seen in Adams’ first distinctive, which for him is that Matthew’s Gospel is more Jewish and more explicitly tying itself off to the OT.

But this is, in my opinion, to get the point exactly backward. Matthew is not the most Jewish nor the most oriented towards the OT; instead, each of the four Gospels’ different orientation towards the OT is exactly what makes it distinctive.

As I tell my students, the four Gospels each present a broad picture of Jesus that demonstrates he comes to:

  • Restore Israel, through which he will
  • Restore the entire creation, and therefore Jesus comes to
  • Bring salvation through his life, death, and resurrection to God’s fallen world

I then go on to point out that what makes each of these books unique is not their purpose, or even their outline (Jesus’ beginnings, ministry, Jerusalem, death, resurrection), but the lens through which they view Jesus. Specifically, which Old Testament lens do they use?

In my estimation, Matthew views Jesus through a New Moses/New Israel lens, Mark through a New Exodus lens, Luke through a New Elijah/New David lens, and John through a New Creation lens.

This approach, for me, focuses on the literary and theological distinctives of the Gospel writers instead of on rather subjective historical reconstructions of the provenance, date, and audience, and also gives a more robust picture of both the literary and theological goals of the author and therefore their distinctiveness in comparison to the other Evangelists.

What do you think?

Greg Goswell and NT Canonical Shape

Greg Goswell, lecturer in biblical studies at Presbyterian Theological College, has published another article in JETS on the shape of the biblical canon. His previous three articles have discussed the LXX, MT, and NT orders, while this newest essay asks how the shape of the OT might have influenced the shape of the NT.

I agree with Goswell’s conclusion – it isn’t possible to decide if the NT is consciously shaped through consideration of either OT order. Asking the question, though, helps to draw out certain themes, exegetical points, and narrative threads that we might overlook otherwise. One of the most helpful aspects of the essay, in my opinion, is the introduction, where Goswell explains the role of considering canonical order in interpretation.

Before proceeding any further, it is necessary to consider what status is to be given to the phenomenon of book order. The sequential ordering of the biblical books is part of the paratext of Scripture. The term ‘paratext’ refers to elements that are adjoined to the text but are not part of the text per se. . . . The (differing) order of the biblical books is a paratextual phenomenon that cannot be put on the same level as the text itself. It is a post-authorial imposition on the text of Scripture, albeit an unavoidable one when texts of different origin are collected together in a canonical corpus. Where a biblical book is placed relative to other books inevitably influences a reader’s view of the book, on the supposition that juxtaposed books are related in some way and therefore illuminate each other. A prescribed order of books is a de facto interpretation of the text (emphasis mine).

Yes, exactly.

As a side note, many might simply stop at, “yes, exactly,” and assume that everyone agrees here. But, based on first hand experience in graduate work, conference participation, and conversations with colleagues, I’d still venture to guess that many NT scholars, and perhaps OT scholars as well, don’t agree that canonical order influences interpretation.

NT Wright on Justification…Again

Well maybe you live under a rock and don’t know this yet, but NT WRIGHT IS PUBLISHING A BOOK ON PAUL. AND IN IT HE WILL DISCUSS JUSTIFICATION.

I think people’s brains might explode over this, either because of the length of the book or because we’re going to have to re-hash the “justification as declaration” vs. “justification as action” argument for what must be the upteenth time.

Anyway (don’t ever use that transition in a paper, kids), Mike Bird has thrown us all into the deep end with this tantalizing quote from Paul and the Faithfulness of God:

[E]ven though Romans 3.21–31 is part of the same flow of argument as Romans 5—8, and Galatians 2.15–21 is part of the same flow of argument as Galatians 4—6, and even though these two larger arguments do develop a view of the spirit’s work in the transformation of character which can properly be seen both as virtue and as theōsis, this does not take away from the fact that when Paul speaks of initial justification by faith he means it as a very particular, specific claim. This ‘justification’ means that, ahead of any transformation of character other than the bare, initial pistis whose whole nature character is by definition to look helplessly away from itself and gratefully towards the saving work of the Messiah, this person is welcomed into the family on the basis of that confession of faith and nothing else. The inaugurated-eschatological assurance which this welcome provides is thus both forensic (the verdict of ‘not guilty’ in the present will be repeated in the future) and covenantal (full membership in Abraham’s family is granted at once and will be reaffirmed in the resurrection). The two dimensions join up in practical ecclesiology: the mutual welcome which Paul urges in Romans 14 and 15 is the concrete, bodily form which ‘forgiveness’ is supposed to take in the present time.

Bird then asks whether this will assuage Reformed-ish folk and if Wright seems to regard justification as both social and soteric.

I’ll venture a few thoughts:

1) Although the “forensic” language in the quote certainly seems to be a step towards his critics, in that it may suggest that NTW acknowledges that justification has an inherently soteriological significance, it still does not address what, in my opinion, is the crux of the issue. In Justification, as well as in various places in his other works, Wright argues that justification is not a legal action by God on a person that places them in his kingdom, but instead a declaration by God about their continuing status as part of his covenant people. It is, in other words, purely declarative act according to Wright, instead of what has historically been understood as a transformative and saving act. Nothing in the above quote suggests that Wright has shifted on this understanding, and of course nothing suggests that he hasn’t shifted.

2) That brings us to the second point – this quote has no context whatsoever. So, kudos to Mike Bird for getting us talking already.

One thing is certain; the blogosphere is going to explode once we all get a chance to work through PFG.

 

Dirk Jongkind on the Syntax of Revelation

Dirk Jongkind has posed some interesting questions about the syntactical construction of Greek prepositions in Revelation. Looking specifically at chapter 4, Jongkind notes,

I was looking at Revelation 4:9 where the text reads τῷ καθημένῳ ἐπὶ τῷ θρόνῳ with the variant ἐπὶ τοῦ θρόνοῦ. . . . In the construction ‘he who sits on the throne’ the case of the prepositional phrase ‘on the throne’ (ἐπί + article + θρόνος) that follows the participle ‘he who sits’ is normally identical to the case of the participle.

So we have ἐπὶ τοὺς θρόνους … καθημένους (4:4); τῷ καθημένῳ ἐπὶ τῷ θρόνῳ (4:9); τοῦ καθημένου ἐπὶ τοῦ θρόνου (4:10).

There are a number of exceptions. With the nominative (ὁ) καθήμενος we find both ἐπὶ τῷ θρόνῳ (21:5) and ἐπὶ τὸν θρόνον (4:2) and with other combinations of κάθημαι ἐπί (e.g. with αὐτός) it doesn’t apply as much. It would be nice if someone could give a good linguistic explanation of this phenomenon.

You can read, and perhaps interact with, the whole post here.