Sunday, March 30, 2008

On Reading as a Believer

George Eliot's description (in the last post) of what it means to read as a believer rings true--believers have often expanded the text for whatever they can put in it. But hers is an outsider's perspective. Faithful reading need not entail eisegesis.

Here's a more challenging insider perspective:
What does it mean to "believe" a doctrine as true? Belief, as Thiselton has learned from H. H. Price, is an utterance that is "inextricably embodied in patterns of habit, commitment, and action, which constitute endorsement, 'backing,' or 'surroundings' for the utterance." To "believe" is to take a stand in the face of opposition. He quotes Price: "If circumstances were to arise in which it made a practical difference whether p was true or false, he [the believer] would act as if it were true." To believe is "performatory" in character. Thiselton puts it like this: "Belief, then, is action-orientated, situation-related, and embodied in the particularities and contingencies of everyday living." He adds one more component, which, if he's right, shapes everything he says and everything we believe: belief in a doctrine involves "communal commitment and communal formation." (Scot McKnight review of Anthony Thiselton, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine in Christianity Today)
In short, believers don't just read; they act.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

When Bad Grammar is Sublime

"Dorothea's faith supplied all that Mr Casaubon's words seemed to leave unsaid: what believer sees a disturbing omission or infelicity? The text, whether of prophet or of poet, expands for whatever we can put into it, and even his bad grammar is sublime." - George Eliot, Middlemarch (Penguin Classics), 50.

(Middlemarch is currently at the top of my "to read" list, thanks to t.'s repeated recommendations, so Inspiration and Incarnation may have to wait awhile.)

Friday, March 28, 2008

Inspiration and Incarnation

Three years ago Baker Books gave away free copies of Inspiration and Incarnation at the reception they hosted for the Institute for Biblical Research in Philadelphia. The book looked interesting--the Baker representative said it was important--but I didn't do more than peruse its contents before it was shelved with the other books acquired at SBL that I hoped to read sometime. As a New Testament scholar, books on the "problem of the Old Testament," however worthy, tend to get superseded by others closer to my primary areas of research.

The news that controversy surrounding the book resulted in a decision yesterday to suspend Peter Enns from his position as Associate Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, has catapulted the book to (near) the top of my "to read" list. I even brought the book home this afternoon and read the preface, where Enns thanks his colleagues at Westminster for their openness to dealing with difficult questions. I quote:
Also influential has been my own theological tradition, represented by my colleagues at Westminster Theological Seminary, past and present, and the wider tradition of which that institution is a part. This is not to imply that I speak for that institution or tradition. Nevertheless, I am thankful for being part of such a solidly faithful group that does not shy away from some difficult yet basic questions and with whom I am able to have frank and open discussions. This does not happen at every institution, and I do not take that privilege for granted....I believe with all my heart that honesty with oneself is a central component to spiritual growth. God honors our honest questions. He is not surprised by them, nor is he ashamed to be our God when we pose them. He is our God, not because of the questions we ask (or refrain from asking), but because he has united us to the risen Christ. And being a part of God's family is ultimately a gift to us, not something to be obtained by us. God has freed us in Christ and made us his children. And, as all children do, we ask a lot of questions.
Guess he spoke too soon.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Sunday and Volf

"There is a profound wisdom about the nature of our world in the simple credo of the early church 'that Christ died for our sins' (1 Corinthians 15:3). At the core of Christian faith lies the claim that God entered history and died on the cross in the person of Jesus Christ for an unjust and deceitful world. In taking upon himself the sin of the world, God told the truth about the deceitful world and enthroned justice in an unjust world. When God was made sin in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21), the world of deceit and injustice was set aright. Sins were atoned for. The cry of the innocent blood was attended to. Since the new world has become reality in the crucified and resurrected Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) it is possible to live the new world in the midst of the old in an act of gratuitous forgiveness without giving up the struggle for truth and justice. One can embrace perpetrators in forgiveness because God has embraced them through atonement."
- Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Abingdon 1996), 294-5.

Gender Hierarchy Part 5 - Gender and the Heart of the Gospel

Suggesting (as I did here) that we may move beyond the gender hierarchy presupposed in Scripture makes me uncomfortable because it seems to make life easier, when Jesus, according to Matthew 5:21-48, made it harder. The folks at CBMW can claim the rhetorical high ground because they stand fast against society's pressure, while the rest of us are left to slither through the garden asking, "Did God really say...?"

To be clear: I have no desire to make the gospel easy or to evade the force of its demands. As one who wishes to remain under Scripture's authority, I am not free to discard bits and pieces I don't like, or to say without further ado "We don't have to bother with that anymore." If there is a movement "beyond" Scripture--to adopt I. Howard Marshall's provocative and problematic expression--it can only be in order to be more faithful to Scripture and, more importantly, to the God of Scripture.

So how can one "move beyond" gender hierarchy while remaining faithful to Scripture?

Richard Hays proposes that we look at Biblical passages on ethical issues through the focal images of community, cross, and new creation. Whether or not one agrees with Hays's overall approach (summarized here), it is interesting that all three images are expressed in Galatians 3:27-29:
For as many of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Judaean or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are of Christ, then you are seed of Abraham, heirs according to the promise.
Those who were baptized have experienced new creation through the cross (implied in baptism) and are part of the community of those who are one in Christ. Whatever its social implications--and here Paul is only concerned with the first pair of binary oppositions--this passage lies at the heart of Paul's gospel.

As far as I can tell, Paul didn't see Gal 3:28 and Col 3:11 as being in conflict with his command for women to be subject to their husbands "as is fitting in the Lord" (Col 3:18). Nor does he state explicitly that slavery is wrong. However, he does relativize slavery in Col 3:23-24 by making it clear that both slaves and masters serve one Master--the Lord. And after arguing that women "ought to have authority on their heads because of the angels" (1 Cor 11:10) on the one hand, and because woman was created because of man (11:9) on the other, Paul adds "nor is man apart from woman in the Lord...but everything is from God" (11:11-12). Here again, being "in the Lord" affects gender relations. It is because of statements like these that are tied to the heart of the gospel message, that I think we are justified in taking the implications of NT teaching farther than the NT writers themselves took them.

Of course, to do this we must recognize that we do not encounter Scripture as a book of Law. And, as one of my colleagues once remarked, we need still to appreciate the hierarchical pattern lying behind Eph 5:25-33 in order to grasp its subversiveness. For, as Suzanne McCarthy commented on an earlier post: When "the wife submits and the husband sacrifices, this is not a hierarchical relationship but describes the nature of the egalitarian reciprocity."

I'm not convinced I'm making sense anymore, so I'll stop here.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Gender Hierarchy Part 4

I didn't plan a "part 4" to follow parts 1, 2, and 3, but after I wondered whether the tension between “there is neither male nor female” and “wives, be subject to your husbands” needs to be preserved in our twenty-first century context, Andrew asked, "Couldn't that same reasoning be applied to same sex relationships?" It is a good question. This is my attempt at a reply.

First, here is some more context from part 3:
I wonder whether the tension between “there is neither male nor female” and “wives, be subject to your husbands” needs to be preserved in our twenty-first century context. Since we stand closer to the end than Paul did, perhaps we can let our union in Christ relativize the hierarchy of the household code to a greater extent than was possible in the first century. Perhaps we can say with Jesus, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment” (Mark 10:5) and move on to live out in our context the mutual self-giving love that Paul was calling for.
Essentially, I'm wondering about the propriety of our employing Jesus' eschatological hermeneutic to the New Testament as well as the Old Testament. Can we go "Beyond the Bible," as evangelical scholar, I.H. Marshall, put it provocatively a few several years ago?

Jesus claims that the implicit permission of divorce in Deuteronomy 24 stands in tension with God's design as expressed in Genesis 1-2, and explains that divorce was a concession to human frailty, and is no longer permitted. The standard label for this is "progressive revelation," but the term misses the eschatological contrast between the old age of hardened hearts (cf. Deut 10:16; Jer 4:4), and the new age of the kingdom.

I think we see something similar going on in the case of slavery. The OT takes slavery for granted. It is presupposed in the Ten Commandments (see Exod 20:17), and although laws are established for the fair treatment of slaves (e.g., Exod 21:1-11), the practice of slavery itself is never condemned. In the NT Paul's letter to Philemon and his statement that in Christ there is no longer slave or free (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11) stands in tension with the injunctions for slaves to obey their masters. Slavery is relativized by the assertion that Christ alone is Lord (Col 3:22-4:1), but none of the NT writers explicitly condemn the institution of slavery itself.

Despite what the Bible doesn't say on this subject, I believe it is wrong for a human to own another human being. I can appeal to Gal 3:28 and Col 3:11 for support: In Christ, slavery is relativized. Though there are appropriate distinctions in social roles, owning another human runs counter to the gospel message. For whatever reason, Paul did not explore fully the social implications of his message. (Perhaps he could not imagine a world in which slavery did not exist.) Since I am decisively influenced by the events of the last 250 years, I have a hard time not seeing them.

If we do this for slavery--which most of us assume to be wrong--I wonder whether we can trace a similar eschatological trajectory with regard to gender roles. Are statements, such as Gal 3:28 and Col 3:11, fully realized in their first century context? Are we now in a position to see more clearly the implications of what Paul said?

In the end, I don't think the same reasoning applies to same sex relationships because I don't see an eschatological trajectory with roots in Scripture that applies to same sex relationships. As its title indicates, William J. Webb's book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis [Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity, 2001], explores this idea in some detail. Although I have serious reservations about Webb's mechanical hermeneutic and his "principlizing" approach, readers of Webb will notice the obvious similarities between Webb's concept of "redemptive-movement" and what I have called an eschatological trajectory. Webb, of course, is not the first to explore the idea.

We call this Friday good

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

- T. S. Eliot, from "East Coker"

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


This is all that remains of the snowman our renters built in our backyard a couple months ago.

I, on the other hand, am snowed under, and look to remain that way for the rest of the semester.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

R.G. Collingwood on Publishing

Collingwood was a historian and Philosopher of note at Oxford, who died in 1943. Here he describes one of his teachers:

"He was a fiery, pugnacious little man with a passion for controversy and an instinctive eye for its tactics; more important, an inspiring teacher, whose enthusiasm for philosophical thought I still remember with admiration and gratitude. He, too, refrained from publication; and he once explained to me his reasons. 'I rewrite, on average, one third of my logic lectures every year', said he. 'That means I'm constantly changing my mind about every point in the subject. If I published, every book I wrote would betray a change of mind since writing the last. Now, if you let the public know that you change your mind, they will never take you seriously. Therefore it is best never to publish at all.' Whether he thought that by not publishing he deceived the public into thinking that he never changed his mind, and whether he regarded this as a good thing to do, even though the public remained ignorant what his mind was, or whether he had a mind at all, I did not ask; probably because I already knew that there are two reasons why people refrain from writing books: either they are conscious that they have nothing to say, or they are conscious that they are unable to say it; and that if they give any other reason than these it is to throw dust in other people's eyes or their own."

R. G. Collingwood, Autobiography (Oxford: Clarendon, 1939), 19.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Gleanings from February

This is not a "best of" list, much less a Biblical Studies Blog Carnival--just assorted comments, in no particular order, on blog posts from the month of February that stuck in my head:

1. Mike Bird has a fascinating interview with Richard I. Pervo, whose commentary on Acts in the Hermeneia series is due out in November. When asked for a list of favourite Luke/Acts scholars, Pervo answers:
In one sense would say H. J. Cadbury, striking out his caution. Best would be a combination of Cadbury, Haenchen, dropping his sarcasm, and the Venerable Bede. The last understood that Luke was a poet, the second that he was a theologian, albeit not systematic, the first that he was a writer. All three are necessary, but the greatest of these is the poet.
I trust the commentary itself will be written in complete sentences.

2. John Hobbins links to a Trinity Journal review article by Robert Yarbrough, one of my former TEDS profs. In the article Yarbrough states with regard to the relationship between Old and New Testaments that "there is no more seminal issue for Christian theology or bigger challenge for responsible biblical exegesis."

3. AKMA Pernicious Propensity post resonated for me after I returned from teaching a first year Gospels class that felt particularly basic:
[A]mong the difficulties that beset biblical interpretation, few may be as toxic as the the disciplinary proclivity toward esotericism. ...I mean that biblical studies tends to focus its disciplinary energies on that which cannot be detected by a casual reader....I do not endorse a facile literalism (still less, the King James variety). On the other hand, sometimes authors express themselves exoterically: they mean what they say. At such points the expositor’s job is not to seek out further obscurities, but to say, “Yup, that’s pretty much what it means. You didn’t need a biblical scholar to tell you that, did you?”
4. My colleague Eric Ortlund's wonderfully challenging quotations (here and here, for instance) make me think I should stop blogging and start reading more stuff like that.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Shoshana's First Word

People sometimes ask whether Shoshana's first language will be Greek or English. The more sophisticated inquire, "Will she call you πατήρ or אבא?" There has to be a good comeback line. For now, the best I can offer is "I wish."

In his contribution to When Dead Tongues Speak, Kenneth Scott Morrell explains that normal infants start producing words "around the time they turn one...and by eighteen months they have begun to develop syntax. Most three-year-olds are grammatically correct 90 percent of the time. For this process to occur, children must perceive and comprehend examples of language in use, which usually, but not always, take the form of spoken discourse....[A]ny average four-year old can be fluent in one or more languages without coaching or training of any type and without any conscious understanding of grammar" (134-5).

Morrell's point, not surprisingly, is that teachers of ancient Greek should learn from the way children naturally learn to speak: "[T]he 'teaching' of language ultimately represents the process of creating an environment that will allow students to encounter as much input as possible in a way that will engage and facilitate their innate ability to acquire language" (135).

My point, of course, is to sing the praises of my daughter who at just three and a half months had her first word. The word was not the expected πατήρ or אמה but "ivy." That's right: "ivy." Random letters tapped on a computer keyboard count, don't they?