David Foster Wallace on Turgidity

I was encouraged and exhorted yesterday by Fred Sander’s post on writing tips. Last night I also read a few essays in David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, including his review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time (“Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think,” pp. 51-58 in CtL). The review is scathing, to say, the least, and full of detailed critiques of Updike’s writing that I don’t need to repeat here. But toward the end of the essay, Wallace gives a summary what he calls the “turgidity” of Updike’s prose (p. 57-58), a summary which I believe is applicable to any writer in any genre.

  1. “so many modifiers” – Wallace first critiques Updike for constantly modifying nouns and verbs. I see many younger writers (including myself) give in to this particular temptation by loading up sentences with adjectives and adverbs that we’d probably never use in real life. And I’d guess that many times we overload readers on Twitter or in articles and books to make what we’re saying sound more profound than it really is.
  2. “so much subordination” – Wallace’s point here is that Updike constantly subordinates clauses in the middle of sentences. Again, I see (and do) this frequently. Sentences don’t always have to be short, but they should be clearly follow-able. Subordinating clauses decreases the reader’s ability to follow the grain of a sentence.
  3. “so much alliteration” – According to Wallace, Updike gets too cute by half with alliteration. But trying to make all your modifiers start with the letter “p” or some such isn’t the only way we try to doll up our sentences: using weird sentence structures or formatting (as if we’re trying to be the next e e cummings), giving the reader a heavy dose of modifiers (see #1), using words that everyone knows we found in a thesaurus or a GRE Study Guide and not in our own vocabulary, and the like are all ways that writers (including me) try to make their sentences and paragraphs look better than they actually are. As we say in the Deep South, it’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

These were helpful to me to consider. Maybe they’ll benefit some of you as well.

Craig Bartholomew and the Kuyperian Tradition

IVP Academic will soon (April 24th) publish a new volume on retrieving the Kuyperian tradition by Craig Bartholomew, H. Evan Professor of Philosophy and Religion & Theology at Redeemer University College. Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction aims to identify “the key themes and ideas that define this tradition, including worldview, sphere sovereignty, creation and redemption, the public square, and mission. He also goes beyond Kuyper to show how later thinkers developed these ideas,” including Bavinck, Dooyewerd, and Berkouwer (from the back cover).

Bruce Ashford, Provost, Dean of the Faculty, and Professor of Theology and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has interviewed Bartholomew about this book at his blog.

I’d encourage you to take a look at both the interview and Bartholomew’s forthcoming book, available for pre-order now on Amazon and at IVP’s website.

Biblical Studies and Systematic Theology: An Allegory

This is anecdotal, and, for the purposes of this post, a bit hyperbolic, but in my experience there is still a divide within evangelical scholarship between biblical studies and systematic theology. To be sure, there are those who do these together and do it well, albeit from one or the other discipline, but, for many evangelical scholars, an academic version of Lessing’s ditch makes its disciplinary mark and it, like the original, cannot be crossed. Biblical studies is biblical studies, and theology is theology, and never the twain shall meet. Again, of course there are biblical scholars who believe all sorts of things about theology, and of course there are theologians who read the biblical text. But with respect to how these two disciplines mutually inform one another, the implied answer, at least from their praxis, seems to be that they don’t.

Here’s an example: I have witnessed, countless times, evangelicals trained in biblical studies exercise a hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to systematic categories, concepts, and terms. To my biblical studies friends, theology is something that should be kept at arm’s length, at least until we’re done exegeting. Dogmatics is also something that, to many biblical scholars, isn’t rooted in the Bible but instead in tradition, philosophy, and so forth.

I have also witnessed, namely through reading but also through listening to papers and to conversations among peers, systematic theologians theologize without exegeting the biblical text. Constructing dogmatics appears to be, for many, a task we can do without exegesis. Theologians look to philosophy, the hard sciences, the social sciences, logic, and history to “do theology,” but the biblical text is a footnote at best.

To put it simply: my biblical studies friends are often suspicious of systematicians, and my systematician friends often find exegetical work boring and useless.

Or, to put it allegorically, biblical studies and systematic theology are, in this view, like Jacob and Esau: they are family, twins, even, but different in stature, interests, and outcome. While they greet each other warmly on the outside, they do so under a cloud of suspicion on the inside (Genesis 32-33).

Rather than these two roads diverging so widely in the wood of Christian scholarship, though, it would be better if we did not put asunder what God has joined together. Frankly, this mutual suspicion between tasks is born not out of the superiority of one discipline or the other, but is instead a hangover from modernism. In seeking to cast aside every authority but the self, modernism separated exegesis from theology, interpretation from the church, hermeneutics from confession. This ought not to be so.

Biblical studies and systematic theology, rather than suspicious but related brothers, are instead more like covenanted friends. They push one another, edify one another, love one another, encourage one another, protect one another. Instead of Jacob and Esau, brothers in paternity but rivals in spirit, these tasks should be seen more like Jonathan and David: covenanted friends who seek to serve the one God together. Each has its strengths, but each needs the other to edify its work in places where its tools are insufficient in and of themselves.

Suspicion is a product of the spirit of the Enlightenment; mutual love is a product of the Spirit of God.

On Scholarly Focus: Pursuing Dogmatic Biblical Theology

I am currently reading A. G. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life – a feast for those pursuing an academic ministry – and last night I read the end of the chapter, “The Field of Work.” This section focuses on two poles: on the one hand, the scholar’s need to connect their discipline to other areas of knowledge, since, as God’s creation, all knowledge is connected; and, on the other hand, the scholar’s need to dig deeply in one specific area of focus. I cannot remember the exact quote, and I don’t have the book in front of me at the moment, but Sertillanges ends the chapter by cautioning the academic not to take that first principle too far because a jack of all trades is a master of none. Everything is interesting, everything could garner our attention, but the academic life is a disciplined one, and this is especially true with respect to the focus of one’s study.

I find this particularly difficult. My dissertation was an integration of canonical criticism (biblical studies), the history of interpretation (hermeneutics), theological method (dogmatics), and tracing a theme through the NT (biblical theology). That’s a lot to tackle in one monograph; too much, really. Looking back, I realize I should have narrowed considerably. In any case, I mention that because it is characteristic of how I operate: many areas of study catch my eye, and I tend to try and fit them all together. As Sertillanges says in his first principle, this is, on the face of it, not a bad thing: all areas of knowledge are connected and therefore can and should be integrated. My problem has been that I do not drill down deep enough in one area and only then, once I’ve done so, ask where the other wells of knowledge connect to mine.

This has been an issue I’ve been pondering for at least a year, and toward the end of last year and the beginning of this one I began to see with some clarity where I’d like to dig. I’ve given it the moniker dogmatic biblical theology. By “dogmatic” I mean the study of Christian doctrine in its historical and systematic formulations. By “biblical theology” I mean reading Scripture with its redemptive historical, intertextual, and contextual features at the forefront of the interpretive process. There are a couple of other terms floating at the edges that need mentioning, but I haven’t quite figured how to put these into a concise, summary phrase. “Ressourcement” would be the first; I want to retrieve the biblical-theological rationale, and the pre-critical methodologies from which that rationale arose, for traditional dogmatic categories. “Protestant” would be the second; my theological method is situated within a Protestant, evangelical, Baptist theological method. Combining these, and to state it succinctly, I want my focus to be recovering classic Christian doctrines from an evangelical perspective via pre-critical hermeneutical retrieval and biblical-theological reflection.Perhaps an even more succinct way of putting it is that I want to do biblical theology in service of hermeneutical and dogmatic retrieval. I think this gives me enough focus to dig deeply while at the same time scratching the itch of disciplinary integration.

Perhaps that last paragraph is a bit “meh” for you. Not your cup of tea, etc. That’s fine. Understanding Canaanite creation myths isn’t my favorite blend, but more power to you if that’s the well you want to dig. I’d still encourage you to a) pick up Sertillanges ASAP, if you’re pursuing an academic vocation and b) articulate your specific area of focus.

The “Scripture and…” Seminars at IBR/SBL 2016

The highlight of my ETS/IBR/SBL experience every year is the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar. If you’re unfamiliar with SAHS, it began in 1998 under the direction of Craig Bartholomew and produced what I consider to be some of the best biblical scholarship available in the Scripture and Hermeneutics Series. Last year, SAHS unveiled their latest project, A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation, and also presented papers on the Old Testament and Worldview. In my estimation, SAHS is a “can’t miss” event for those attending IBR/SBL (in full disclosure, I’m biased as a committee member). This year’s meeting is on Saturday, November 19th, from 4-6:30pm. The theme is “The Kingdom of God,” and the schedule is as follows:

Welcome

Opening Liturgy     

Heath A. Thomas (Oklahoma Baptist University): ‘The Kingdom of God is Among You’: Retrieval of the Kingdom for Today

Catherine McDowell (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary): The Image of God and the Kingdom of God

Break

Brant Pitre (Notre Dame Seminary, New Orleans): The Last Supper and the Kingdom of God

Jonathan T. Pennington (Southern Seminary): The Sermon on the Mount and the Kingdom of God

Discussion 

Closing Liturgy

This is an outstanding group of scholars, and I’d encourage you to sign up here.

Last year Prof. Bartholomew also initiated the Scripture and Doctrine Seminar, led by a committee consisting of Bartholomew, Kevin Vanhoozer, Scott Hahn, Luke Stamps, and Benjamin Quinn. Their theme this year is a continuation of last year’s event on Divine Action. The SADS meeting takes place on Friday, November 18th from 1-3:45pm, and the schedule is as follows:

Welcome and Introduction – Benjamin Quinn
Context Setting Introduction: Craig Bartholomew and Luke Stamps
Andrew Pinsent (Oxford University, Faculty of Theology and Religion): The Second-Person Perspective on Divine Action in Hebrews
Amy Peeler (Associate Professor of New Testament, Wheaton College): A Fearful Thing to Fall Into the Hands of a Living God: Divine Action In Human Salvation
Alan Torrance (School of Divinity, St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews): What does the Continuing Priesthood of Christ tell us about the Doctrine of God?
Mary Healy (Sacred Heart Major Seminary): The Holy Spirit and Christ’s Ongoing Priesthood in Hebrews.

Again, this is a fantastic group of scholars, and I’d encourage you to sign up here.

There is also a new seminar being formed, the Scripture and Church Seminar, and it will have a planning discussion on Sunday, November 20th from 4-6:30pm. If you would like to attend this discussion, please sign up here.

Finally, please join us for a meal together on Saturday evening.

SPACE IS LIMITED SO PLEASE SIGN UP ASAP.

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.

Amen

 

 

Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar 2015

Worldview and the Old Testament The Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar, which has produced the 8-volume Scripture and Hermeneutics Series with Zondervan, as well the upcoming Manifesto for Theological Interpretation with Baker, will host its annual meeting this year in Atlanta, GA (in partnership with IBR) on the topic of Worldview and the Old Testament. Speakers include Al Wolters, Jamie Grant, Koert van Bekkum,  Raymond van Leeuwen, and David Beldman. I’m also honored to present (on apocalypse and OT worldview).

In my own life, both academic and devotional, the seminar has been and continues to be incredibly influential. Craig Bartholomew, the seminar’s founder, as well as Heath Thomas, the current committee chair, have made a point to show how rigorous scholarship can and should be wed to deep devotion to our Lord Jesus Christ, reliance on the Spirit, and to the aim of glorifying our heavenly Father. Of course, the seminar has produced scholarship that is beneficial even if one does not take such an approach to academic work, but for my part it has not just been the quality of the scholarship but also the spiritual depth of the seminar’s leadership that has been particularly influential for me.

I’d encourage you to register and attend.

The Journal of Baptist Studies 7 (2015)

The latest edition of the Journal of Baptist Studies is out. You can read it here. As you can see from the table of contents listed below, this edition focused on the four marks of the church from a Baptist perspective. The essays were originally presented in the Baptist Studies session of the 2014 ETS annual meeting. I’d encourage you to take a look.

Editorial, p. 1

Contributors, p. 3

Articles

“Baptists and the Unity of the Church,” by Christopher W. Morgan, p. 4

“Baptists and the Holiness of the Church: Soundings in Baptist Thought,” by Ray Van Neste, p. 24

“Baptists and the Catholicity of the Church: Toward an Evangelical Baptist Catholicity,” by Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps, p. 42

“Baptists and the Apostolicity of the Church,” by James Patterson, p. 67

Book Reviews

Currid, John D. Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament, reviewed by Kenneth J. Turner, p. 83

Freeman, Curtis W. Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists, reviewed by R. Lucas Stamps, p. 86

George, Timothy. Theology of the Reformers, rev. ed., reviewed by John Gill, p. 91

Hays, Christopher M. and Christopher B. Ansberry, eds. Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism, reviewed by Matthew Y. Emerson, p. 95

Holmes, Stephen R. The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity, reviewed by Michael A. G. Haykin, p. 99

Sanders, Fred. Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love, reviewed by Christopher Bosson, p. 101