Psychoanalyzing Biblical Authors

At an ETS meeting a few years ago, I asked a presenter (and friend) whether he thought John the Seer intentionally wrote Revelation to an ideal reader or to what extent John meant to communicate certain things. I asked that question because it’s a common question I receive when discussing my own research on John’s theology. He gave a helpful answer, but the summary (rightly) was, “I’m not sure.” That’s often my answer, as well, but I was hoping he would give me some kind of uncharted insight that I could cite later. Alas.

Relatedly, I was recently lecturing at a university on the development of Trinitarian language from the NT to Nicaea and a student asked me afterward, “Do you think the OT writers would have had a pre-existing concept of the Trinity?” Though I answered the question the best I could, my initial comment was, “We need to be careful not to try to psychoanalyze biblical authors.” This is a good general rule for both my question at ETS and the student’s question of me.

That said, we can suggest or hypothesize about particular authors’ intentions or thought processes because we have the final form of their texts in front of us. Along with the text itself, what we know of the historical or cultural conditions in which it was written can help us make relatively informed conclusions about the author’s underlying intentions or influences — so long as we use those tools with care and caution.

For example, in my dissertation, I’ve made the following statement about John’s incipient Trinitarianism:

John’s apocalypse contains a view of the Trinity—that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are co-equal in substance and yet distinct in personhood—that is incipient; that is, John’s explanation of the relationship between the persons was developing rather than fully or systematically established. This developing understanding of the persons means that John’s Trinitarianism is not tidy or terminologically precise; therefore, the explicitness of his descriptions will vary from passage to passage. Like other NT writers working from early Christian kerygma—particularly the Christological interpretation of the OT, patterns of devotion, and religious experience—he uses language and concepts familiar to himself and his audience to describe the apparent multiplicity of persons within the identity of Israel’s one God. . . .

While at some level we cannot interrogate John’s mental apparatus in order to understand all of his intentions and presuppositions, we have the final form of Revelation’s text through which we can ascertain judgments about his theological project. For example, John clearly constructs Revelation as a cohesive and unified letter with an epilogue and prologue and, as we will see, his method for applying concepts and allusions varies but is not haphazard. . . .

Regardless of whether it’s John or another biblical author, we should be careful not to psychoanalyze him, most obviously because he is not here to defend himself against our false conclusions. However, we should not allow this caution to scare us from saying anything definitive about the purpose, method, or theological project of an author. Indeed, Christian scholars acknowledge that each text is written by a human author, of course, but also by a Divine Author who is working behind the scenes in ways the human author cannot see. In turn, we as modern readers have the Holy Spirit and a biblical canon that offer us the ability to pay attention to patterns within both individual books and the overarching biblical storyline that may not be obvious on an historical-critical Petri dish.

I suspect that many biblical scholars are so paralyzed by my first question above that they cannot appreciate this tension.


Matthew Bates on Ancient Exegesis, Faith Alone, and 7 Kids

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Matthew Bates of Quincy University. We discuss crazy birth stories (2:20), becoming a scholar (5:00), the apostles’ and early church fathers’ hermeneutics (10:50), expanding on the definition of “faith alone” (18:45), favorite fiction novels (32:00), and more.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Joel Green on Good Biblical Scholarship

This week, Logos Academic posted this piece by Fuller Seminary’s Joel Green on their blog as a part of the “What Makes a Good Biblical Scholar?” series. It provoked a heated reaction from some corners of the Internet and among certain sections of the biblical studies guild. Here are some of my thoughts on it:

  1. I think it is clear to those who know Dr. Green’s scholarship that he is using “good” in a particular sense, namely in relation to the scholar who holds particularly Christian commitments, beliefs, and orientations toward her or his work. He makes this clear in the comments. Yes, it would have been helpful to have fronted this comment, but a good faith reading of an intentionally brief piece in a series of such pieces understands this, I think.
  2. In other words, Green is defining “good biblical scholar” with only one possible definition of “good.” He doesn’t claim that his description is the only possible definition of “good,” and he clarifies that in the comments. There are other possible ways of defining “good biblical scholar,” which, I take it, is part of the purpose of the blog series.
  3. If you’re familiar with Green’s scholarship, you’ll know that he *does* believe there are other definitions of “good biblical scholar” from the fact that he engages non-Christian biblical scholars liberally, critically, and appreciatively.
  4. The real issue I have with some reactions is not that they ask Green to clarify that he does, in fact, believe that there are other definitions of “good biblical scholar.” The issue I have is that some commenters refuse to acknowledge Green’s own definition as a possible definition. For many biblical scholars, introducing any kind of faith or devotional element into the practice of biblical studies automatically voids it of the quality, “scholarly.”
  5. As I and others have said repeatedly, I do not think many in the biblical studies guild has reckoned adequately with the epistemological foundations on which it often rests. The invocation of empiricism and rationalism as somehow automatically superior and qualitatively different from, say, faith seeking understanding betrays a lack of critical engagement with one’s own beliefs that these kinds of comments purport to champion.
  6. In other words, I am not (and Green is not) “anti-biblical studies,” or unappreciative of the many excellent, high-level, scholarly contributions of non-Christians to the field, or claiming a kind of intellectual superiority to those same non-Christian biblical scholars. But the reverse is often not true.

Glenn Butner on the Trinity Debate and Theological Method

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Glenn Butner of Sterling College. We discuss entering the 2016 Trinity debate (3:30), Trinitarian theological method (7:00), his new book on the obedience of the Son (16:05), why Jesus’s human submission to the Father matters (26:30), and more.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Preston Sprinkle on Hell, Non-Violence, and Same-Sex Attraction

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Preston Sprinkle of The Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender. We discuss becoming a scholar (4:15), non-violence (23:00), Hell and annihilationism (34:00), how Christians talk about same-sex attraction (53:20), and more. This episode will also be aired on Preston’s podcast, Theology in the Raw.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Darian Lockett on Types of Biblical Theology and College Basketball

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Darian Lockett of the Talbot School of Theology. We discuss his denominational pilgrimage (1:45), baptizing kids (14:00), the theology of the catholic epistles (22:30), types of biblical theology (33:40), cheating(?) in college basketball (54:15), and more.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Chronological Theological Snobbery

This isn’t going to be a long post. I simply (again?) want to bring attention to the prevalence, in certain sectors of the evangelical academy, of a particular rhetorical tactic. This strategy of argumentation assumes that whatever insights they may be writing about have only been gained in the last hundred years or so. Before that, silly things like Christendom and Medieval monks and post-Reformation political disputes kept us all in intellectual and theological bondage and didn’t want us to know whatever Dr. Scholar wants us to know now. You’ll know this when you see it, and I’m not calling out anyone in particular here. In fact, this is so prevalent that I’ve probably offended quite a few people I’ve never read. But the truth is that this particular rhetorical tactic is far too common in evangelical academic circles and it’s also patently silly. Yes, the Reformation was needed, in part because of doctrinal error rooted in erroneous understandings of the relationship between Scripture and tradition. But that fact does not warrant the kind of attitude to which I’m referring. This stance towards the history of interpretation and doctrine is not reformational, it is chronological theological snobbery.

It is snobby because it assumes that the Church has not read or understood the Bible well in a given arena until we moderns came along. But it is also silly, because it usually rests on a fairly thin understanding of the history of interpretation and doctrine. So instead of saying something like, “here’s what the Bible has to say about [X text or doctrine], no one said it this way until [Y twentieth century event or person], and so this is a truly revolutionary model of [Z],” we might say, “here’s what the Bible has to say about [X]. While [Y developments in Christian thought] may have obscured this reading/understanding in some quarters, [Z figures throughout church history] evidenced a similar understanding of what I am arguing here.” That’s a more historically and theologically humble way to put it, at least from my point of view.

Daniel Treier on Theological Interpretation and Longsuffering Sports Fandom

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Daniel Treier of Wheaton College. We discuss longsuffering sports fandom (2:10), the good and bad of theological interpretation of Scripture (3:30), recovering from a house fire (25:00), handling busyness and productivity (33:20), and more.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Thomas Schreiner on Pauline Debates, Parenting, and Being a Hipster

Our debut episode is a conversation with Dr. Tom Schreiner of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. We discuss parenting (3:50), becoming a scholar (6:30), the development of Pauline scholarship over the past 30 years (8:30), favorite books on Revelation (29:40), what complementarians get right and wrong (35:40), and more.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Introducing: Church Grammar

In this short introduction we discuss the purpose and hopes for the Church Grammar podcast, and look forward to some forthcoming guests and topics.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.