Michael Bird on Theology, Writing, and Advice for Ph.D. Students

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Michael Bird of Ridley College. We discuss becoming a scholar (2:00), advice for Ph.D. students (4:35), changing denominations (6:40), his new NT introduction with N. T. Wright (10:15), how to be a scholarly generalist (18:34), his writing style (26:35), the Trinity without hierarchy (27:58), and more. Buy Mike’s books.

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.


Lynn Cohick on Women in Evangelicalism and Tips for Male Colleagues

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Lynn Cohick of Denver Seminary. We discuss becoming a scholar (5:30), the present and future of the United Methodist Church (9:40), being a female scholar in evangelicalism (14:15), women in the early church (38:30), and more. Buy Lynn’s books.

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.

Qohelet’s Advice on How Not to Hate Your Work as an Old Testament Scholar

Eric Ortlund:

As a seminary professor with an incurably bookish bent, I personally find it deeply liberating to disconnect the value of my teaching and writing from visible results. It is a relief to me to admit that I cannot produce the results I want in my students; that is God’s work. With regard to publishing, it has been my observation that paradigms in OT studies last around 50 years; articles published in the 1960s and 1970s are already beginning to look like antiques. Soon my work will be an antique as well. If I set my hopes on making a visible impact on the state of professional biblical studies, I may very well become so frustrated that I start to hate the work. This is true even if I succeed, for (if I am honest) I will have to admit that my influence will fade quickly. Qohelet liberates me from that despair to enjoy each day of teaching, simply and as nothing else than a gift. And God’s word becomes rich and sharp in a way it never would if my only goal were to be an influential professional scholar.>

Ortlund, Eric. “Pastoral Pensees: Laboring in Hopeless Hope: Encouragement for Christians from Ecclesiastes” Themelios 39.2

Where Are All the Patristics Scholars in Evangelicalism?

During my graduate work at Criswell College, I was fortunate to have a systematic theology professor who had studied patristic theology in his doctoral work, and a patristic theology professor who majored in the discipline and wrote his (now published) dissertation on early Christian exegesis and Irenaeus. I was more spoiled at the time than I realized.

As a Ph.D. student in theology, I’m spending more time than ever reading the patristics, and I’ve begun to realize how little definitive work on patristic theology has been done by evangelicals. Aside from a few notable contributions by evangelicals, the field is mostly dominated by Catholic theologians and the occasional non-evangelical Protestant. (I do think, however, that this is going to change. Evangelical theologians and pastors in my generation seem to care more than ever about patristic retrieval.)

On Twitter last year, Seumas Macdonald tweeted a short thread with some thoughts on why there’s been a dearth of evangelicals working in patristics. That thread is now no longer available, but he wrote a blogpost outlining many of the same thoughts. To summarize the five-tweet thread, Macdonald made the following points:

  1. Some evangelicals act as though church history started with the Reformation.
  2. As such, evangelicals short-sightedly read earlier church history through a Reformation lens.
  3. Most evangelical seminary tracks contain only one early church history course, and there’s likely not a patristic specialist there to teach it.
  4. Evangelicalism, thus, is caught in a vicious cycle of marginalizing patristic theology and thus marginalizes those who specialize in the field.
  5. In worst cases, evangelicals who focus on or fall in love with patristic theology end up leaving evangelicalism for more (perceived) friendly denominational/theological/ecclesiological pastures.

There’s so much more to be said, for sure, but Macdonald is onto something here. I remember during my graduate program, many of the undergrads moved from Baptist or other evangelical churches to Catholic or non-evangelical high church traditions. They did this, largely, because they felt as though evangelicalism isn’t tied to the tradition of the church, and so they were unable to connect with Christians of the past through evangelical ecclesial structures (or lack thereof).

I can’t say I blame them. I was tempted at times myself. But—sorry for the shameless plug—but this is precisely why we founded the Center for Baptist Renewal. The Baptist tradition and other similar evangelical groups are not—or at least should not be—disconnected from the great Christian tradition. I’m thankful, however, that some Baptists are trying to retrieve the Tradition. And personally, I’d rather be a catalyst from within than a critic from without.

The “allegorical” readings of the Patristic Fathers, the Catholic flavor of the first thousand or so years of church history, etc. are not reasons to abandon pre-Reformation theology. And yet, so many evangelicals immediately bristle at this notion on the principle that we should care more about the five solae of the Reformation. These five truths recovered the gospel in many minds. I recently wrote a study on the five solae, so I understand this sentiment and greatly appreciate the correctives that came with it. The Reformation was an act of God—I truly believe that—but we should consider two things.

1. Primarily, we should be willing to learn from those in the midst of the expansion, canonization, and creedal development of Christian orthodoxy. If we’re truly orthodox Christians, then we affirm major creeds like the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed. The affirmations forged and fought for in these creeds are essential to Christian faith and practice, and yet we take for granted the time and context in which these theological foundations were laid. We act as though we can take the creeds and leave everything else; however, the creeds didn’t happen in a vacuum.

2. Further, we shouldn’t forget that the Reformers relied heavily on the early church, especially the work of Augustine. Not even the Reformers cut themselves off from the great tradition. It’s a common joke to say that all of Western theology is a footnote to Augustine, but it’s especially true of the Reformation.

Denominations are fine, even important at times. They help us build accountability, missional partnerships, and communal identity. But we can’t become so polarized and dichotomized within our denominations that we fence ourselves off from the bloodline of Christianity—the theological heritage of two millennia of Christian thought. Timothy George said it well:

I believe in an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation. We do not advance the cause of Christian unity by abandoning our biblical understanding of the church. But how do we hold these together? Three things: First, recognize the centrality of Jesus Christ. The closer we come to Jesus Christ, the closer we come to one another as brothers and sisters in him. Second, study the Bible together. The Bible belongs to the whole people of God, not just to one denomination or church tradition. We can clarify differences and find a deeper unity by going deeper into the Scriptures. Third, prayer. Jesus prayed to his heavenly Father (John 17:21) that his disciples would be one so that the world might believe. We can join our prayer to the prayer of Jesus and in so doing become a part of its fulfillment.

May we continue to recover and retrieve pre-Reformation theology and tradition, keeping our denominational distinctiveness without sacrificing our Christian theological heritage.


Note: If this post looks familiar, it’s because a version of it originally appeared at my old Patheos blog.

The Boundaries of ETS and the Task of Christian Scholarship

As this year’s annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) approaches, I want to return to an open letter to the members of ETS written by Stanley Gundry. In this letter, he expressed concern about the ramifications of a recent resolution affirming traditional marriage and the sexual binary of men and women. Commenting on the dangers he sees in defining ETS’s boundaries beyond its current parameters (affirmation of the Trinity and the Bible’s inerrancy), Gundry asks:

What better forum is there for collegial discussion and debate of complementarianism and egalitarianism, open theism and classical theism and all points in between, eschatology, the “new perspective” on Paul, and yes, even the question of whether same-sex “marriages” can be defended biblically, than a forum where we have agreed to appeal to the sole source of authority for Christian faith and practice, the Bible, God’s Word written?

Gundry raises a question that will likely remain ongoing in Christian academia: What are acceptable boundaries for Christian academic societies? Some say ETS is already too narrow, while others say groups like the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) are too inclusive. I am not sure what the answer is, because all answers are somewhat subjective. But it leads to a broader question worth commenting on here: How should Christian scholars approach the task of biblical-theological inquiry?

Again, I am not making assertions one way or another about a specific society’s guardrails—after all, I am just a lowly student member of the ETS and SBL. Further, this is not an affirmation or denial of the resolution Gundry is addressing. However, we can learn a few things from the early Christians’ attempts at theological purity and from our own age of theological novelty. After a brief sketch there, I will offer some suggestions and reflections that I am chewing on as I seek my own career in Christian scholarship.

Early Christianity and Heresy

In his punchy little book, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, Alister McGrath considers a number of reasons why heresies popped up in the first centuries of Christianity. One interesting reason he points out was the desire or even pressure for theologians to make Christianity appear respectable among the non-Christian thinkers of the day. He notes,

As Christianity became more deeply embedded in the late classical culture, it was subjected to increased criticism by its intellectual and cultural opponents. [Leading critics such as Celsus and Galen of Pergamum] argued that its leading doctrines could not be taken seriously by cultured people. (86)

McGrath goes on to use Arius as an example. “Arius offered an understanding of the relationship between God and creation that was regarded as philosophically rigorous by the standards of the time,” but that his heresy ultimately “introduced radical inconsistency into the Christian understanding of its core identity.” Arius offered an intellectually and culturally acceptable proposal, but orthodoxy and orthopraxy won out in the end. “The vision of faith offered by Arianism was quite different from that offered by orthodox writers such as Athanasius of Alexandria.”

While heresy is heresy for a reason, it is often assumed that heretics were bent on destroying the Church. But as McGrath notes throughout, it seems that heretics were more often confessing Christians whose innovations were out of step with the core orthodoxy passed down from the apostolic period. Some heretics such as Arius or Marcion, for example, thought they were purifying Christian doctrine, not destroying it. The question is not about intention, though, so much as it is about doctrinal integrity.

Christian academia contains a hodgepodge of opposing views still today. There are well-meaning Christian scholars who seek to “recover” or “rediscover” certain aspects of Christian belief—for better or worse. Sometimes Christian scholars offer helpful considerations that cannot be ignored even in disagreement (e.g., the New Perspective on Paul), and sometimes they offer revisionist accounts that do not square with historic Christianity (e.g., approval of same-sex sexual practice). Other times, scholars who do not even claim to be Christians dedicate their work to undermining or discrediting Christian beliefs (e.g., Bart Ehrman). In other words, Christian scholarship (or scholarship about Christianity) comes in many forms and with mixed results. But we have to be careful to distinguish between the Arius, the Athanasius, and even the Celsus among us.

The Task of Christian Scholarship

I recently signed a contract with B&H Academic to write a book on the Trinity in the Book of Revelation (based on my PhD thesis), and the pull toward trying to be novel or unique is already threatening to take me off balance. In Christian scholarship, the idol of novelty is a real struggle. We are blinded by our own ambitions or by the expectations of our peers. We know “nothing is new under the sun,” but we do not always want to believe it.Of course, there is nothing wrong with being unique or trying to find an unexplored angle, but it should not come at the expense of orthodoxy or even theological precision. So, what should Christian scholars do? How can we approach scholarship with rigor that any field of scholarship can respect (Christian and otherwise), while being careful not to become sellouts, heterodox, or even heretics? Here are two thoughts:

Of course, there is nothing wrong with being unique or trying to find an unexplored angle, but it should not come at the expense of orthodoxy or even theological precision. So, what should Christian scholars do? How can we approach scholarship with rigor that any field of scholarship can respect (Christian and otherwise), while being careful not to become sellouts, heterodox, or even heretics? Here are two thoughts:

1. Be faithful to God’s Word.

If only this were obvious. Christian scholars have a tendency, if we are not careful, to dance around biblical texts without actually dealing with them. Thousands upon thousands of words will be presented at Christian academic societies this year, with biblical texts only making brief appearances in between parentheses. I have sat in a few presentations where I have thought, “This passage either disagrees with him, or he needs to deal with it directly.” I am not calling for naïve biblicism (“it’s just me and my Bible and nothing else matters”), but it is reasonable for Christian scholars to interact intentionally with biblical data. When the temptation to compromise or bend biblical truth to make a point arises, allowing Scripture to be our first-order consideration is an easy safeguard. We do not have to become Arius or a shadow of him, developing a logically impressive theology that ultimately flies in the face of historic Christian belief. The Bible is rich with enough raw materials and intriguing insights to give us a thousand lifetimes of academic inquiry. With this in place, the following point can be done well.

I am not calling for naïve biblicism (“it’s just me and my Bible and nothing else matters”), but it is reasonable for Christian scholars to interact intentionally with biblical data. When the temptation to compromise or bend biblical truth to make a point arises, allowing Scripture to be our first-order consideration is an easy safeguard. We do not have to become Arius or a shadow of him, developing a logically impressive theology that ultimately flies in the face of historic Christian belief. The Bible is rich with enough raw materials and intriguing insights to give us a thousand lifetimes of academic inquiry. With this in place, the following point can be done well.

2. Do fair, rigorous, and honest research.

This point is two-fold.

First, there is nothing worse than a scholar who blindly and unfairly derides positions in opposition to his or her own. I recently saw a Reformed scholar rail against the New Perspective on Paul with platitudes and overstatements, but without truly engaging the best arguments that school of thought has to offer. If our viewpoint makes the best conclusion of the biblical data, it can stand on its own and it can stand against its best challengers. Christian scholarship should exhibit rigorous considerations of varying viewpoints with no stone unturned, allowing the rigor of our work to make the case.

Second, Christians should be leaders in academic integrity. Expanding a bit on the previous paragraph, we should be fair to other viewpoints simply for the sake of being fair. It is not morally upright to trash an opposing view, even if you are right about its merits. Also, plagiarism is on everyone’s radar once again. This is not surprising—again, the pressure to produce something “new” is real. But Christian scholars especially should “do all things for God’s glory” (1 Cor. 10:31), which includes the process by which they conduct and explain their research. We do not need to play dirty or cut corners; we have all we need in God’s Word through God’s Spirit to make compelling truth claims.

Scholarship that Is Always Christian

Now, back to Gundry’s point. On the one hand, he is right that Christians can pursue the truth together. We should not be afraid of dissension or critique, and we should keep the tent broad as we seek to develop doctrine in our own age. I cannot agree more with Gundry here.But on the other hand, we should remain Christian in our scholarship. This means we should at least consider whether or not we should allow a theological belief system into a Christian society. It is not enough to baptize it under the guise of “scholarship” and give it a free pass. There are many places we can debate heterodoxy or heresy, but perhaps a Christian theological society is always the best place. At minimum, a society should always be clear about what it does and does not tolerate theologically. This does not mean that Gundry is right (or wrong) about his concerns, but it does mean that we should be careful what we label as “Christian” scholarship, and be clear about our standards.

But on the other hand, we should remain Christian in our scholarship. This means we should at least consider whether or not we should allow a theological belief system into a Christian society. It is not enough to baptize it under the guise of “scholarship” and give it a free pass. There are many places we can debate heterodoxy or heresy, but perhaps a Christian theological society isn’t always the best place. At minimum, a society should always be clear about what it does and does not tolerate theologically. This does not mean that Gundry is right (or wrong) about his concerns, but it does mean that we should be careful what we label as “Christian” scholarship, and be clear about our standards.

In any event, let us strive not to get too cute with our research, lest we become functional Arians or worse. Orthodoxy does not automatically equal empty-headedness. Heretics are often well-meaning people with big brains, but their doctrinal innovations are weeds in the otherwise beautiful garden of orthodoxy. Each one of us, in the end, is capable of giving into the pressure of unnecessary innovation or compromise. The desire to be accepted and respected by our peers looms over us. It is tempting to fudge a little or give a little rather than be labeled a fundamentalist or worse. But we can and must do better.

May our Christian scholarship go the way of the Bereans, who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily” (Acts 17:11).

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.

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

 

 

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.

Toward a Holistic Hermeneutic

Chris Morgan, Dean of the School of Christian Ministries at CBU, and I have recently published an article in the most recent issue of The Journal of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Right now the journal is available online, but it will also be published in print later this spring.

Our introduction reads:

In this article we argue hermeneutics ought to be holistic. A proper method for biblical interpretation ought to include a concern for exegesis, narrative, doctrine, the church, and application. Much like an orchestra, each of these fields has a part to play in biblical interpretation, and, while each may have a featured part at some stage, none should be allowed to play a purely solo act. Exegesis both rests on and results in theology, for example. Similarly, churches not only shaped the original context of the biblical material, they are still the primary interpretive context and central focus of the application. Our hope is that a holistic hermeneutic can produce a fuller symphonic interpretation. In what follows, we seek to sketch the overall contours of these aspects, suggest how they fit together, and offer an example of this method in practice.

You can access the article and read it in its entirety here.

C.S. Lewis as a ‘Man of Letters’ rather than Scholar

downloadAs many are quite aware, this year marks the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death and there have been various functions in Cambridge to commemorate his life and work since moving here in October. In whatever time has alloted this term, I have been trying to read more Lewis and books about him.

Recently I read Jacqueline Glenny’s short booklet, “C.S. Lewis’s Cambridge” and I came across a quote from John Stevens, one of Lewis’ Magdalene College colleagues at Cambridge. Stevens’ description of Lewis is a healthy reminder to those of us engaged in biblical research.

“…if talk was his play, books were his love. The enthusiasm and relish which C.S.L. brought to his reading, and that not only in the fields where he was acknowledged master, were infectious. He did not regard himself as a scholar, but as a man of letters. The backgrounds of academic controversy, research and criticism were kept rigorously in their place. He spent his time reading texts rather than reading about them.”

See:

Jacqueline Glenny, “C.S. Lewis’s Camridge”, Cambridge: Christian Heritage Press, 2003.

John E. Stevens, ‘In Memoriam: Professor C.S. Lewis’, Magdalene College Magazine and Record, 8, (1963-1964), p.13.