Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Ideal Oxford

I am thoroughly enjoying C.S. Lewis's Weight of Glory. Here is an excerpt from the third chapter:
When I first went to Oxford the typical undergraduate society consisted of a dozen men, who knew one another intimately, hearing a paper by one of their own number in a small sitting-room and hammering out their problem till one or two in the morning. Before the war the typical undergraduate society had come to be a mixed audience of one or two hundred students assembled in a public hall to hear a lecture from some visiting celebrity. Even on those rare occasions when a modern undergraduate is not attending some such society he is seldom engaged in those solitary walks, or walks with a single companion, which built the minds of the previous generations. He lives in a crowd; caucus has replaced friendship. . . . There is a crowd of busybodies, self-appointed masters of ceremonies, whose life is devoted to destroying solitude wherever solitude still exists. . . . And even where the planners fail and someone is left physically by himself, the wireless has seen to it that he will be . . . never less alone than when alone. We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and privacy: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship. - C.S. Lewis, "Membership," in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Macmillan, 1949), 30-31.
Three random remarks:
  • ...Fortunately, the post-modern practice of blogging counteracts the unwholesome effects of the "wireless." Uh, right.
  • My own tendency has been to abandon those late night (or late afternoon) discussions "hammering out their problem till one or two in the morning" to go back to work on a paper, which perhaps illustrates a comment Lewis makes later on about how examinations come "to prevent young men from becoming learned."
  • The contrast between "a dozen men" listening to "a paper by one of their own number"and "a mixed audience of one or two hundred students" makes me think the sexism I have noticed elsewhere in Lewis* can't be excused by appeal to his early 20th century context. It was rather a conscious choice. The ideal Oxford, for Lewis, was an Oxford in which women were absent. Did he change his mind after encountering a certain Joy Davidman?

*Take, for example, the references to "men without chests" in The Abolition of Man.

Friday, June 27, 2008


It seems to me that this illustration from C.S. Lewis's essay, "Transposition," has some relevance to the question of Scripture's distinctiveness:

[W]e understand pictures only because we know and inhabit the three-dimensional world. If we can imagine a creature who perceived only two dimensions and yet could somehow be aware of the lines as he crawled over them on the paper, we shall easily see how impossible it would be for him to understand. At first he might be prepared to accept on authority our assurance that there was a world in three dimensions. But when we pointed to the lines on the paper and tried to explain, say, that 'This is a road,' would he not reply that the shape which we were asking him to accept as a revelation of our mysterious other world was the very same shape which, on our own showing, elsewhere meant nothing but a triangle? And soon, I think, he would say, 'You keep on telling me of this other world and its unimaginable shapes which you call solid. But isn't it very suspicious that all the shapes which you offer me as images or reflections of the solid ones turn out on inspection to be simply the old two-dimensional shapes of my own world as I have always known it? Is it not obvious that your vaunted other world, so far from being the archetype, is a dream which borrows all its elements from this one? - C.S. Lewis, "Transposition," in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Macmillan, 1949), 22-23.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Another coffee with Cranfield

Another Durhamite, Nijay Gupta, also visited with Cranfield, and describes his time here.

In response to the question, "what should Pauline-scholars-in-training be reading?" Nijay reports:
Cranfield was very critical of those who eschew older academic works and prefer only literature that has been written in the last few decades. In fact, Cranfield’s list of people to read begins with the Greek fathers. He repeatedly mentioned John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Cyril, and Thomas Aquinas. Then, Cranfield went on to praise both Calvin (Cranfield belongs to the United Reformed Church) and Barth.
Cranfield may be opinionated, but he is old enough to have earned them. His recommendation of pre-modern commentaries is certainly wise (even if I don't follow the advice often enough myself).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Coffee with a Nonagenarian

Over at Dunelm Road, Ben Blackwell describes his visit with Charles (C.E.B.) Cranfield, who I didn't know was a nonagenarian. What a wonderful opportunity!

I have now added Cranfield to my list of nonagenarian NT scholars. The others on the list are C.F. Evans, C.K. Barrett, and Robert McL. Wilson. Who else am I missing?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Seized by Truth, Part 2 - Joel Green on "Distance"

Here's a bit from the last chapter that clarifies Green's objection to speaking of distance between the biblical text and our own context:
Someone may urge that . . . the church must account for the historical gulf separating our world from the biblical world, and, in deed, that my own reflections on method . . . likewise assert the necessity of overcoming the historical distance of the biblical materials. This, however, would be erroneously and unnecessarily to equate 'otherness' with 'distance.' . . . [T]he Bible, when granted the status and role of Christian Scripture, is not an object to be examined or an extension of our own personalities or a container of the cultural presuppositions that I and people like me share. Scripture is subject (in the sense of its performative capacity to speak to and shape us) and other (in the sense of situating itself as partner in discourse). And this is a very different view of the biblical materials than the view inherent in attempts to discover what the text said back there and then. (156-7)
This is helpful (and the book as a whole is well worth reading). I get Green's opposition to viewing the Bible as an object to be examined. But I'm still puzzling over a few things:
  • I wonder whether Green would allow the legitimacy of a historical investigation into what the Biblical text meant back then, and what significant difference in result there would be--besides an important change in one's posture toward the text.
  • Is the approach stated here one that can be applied uniquely to Scripture as authoritative text? Or can it be applied to other literary classics? If so, how is this different from reading the Bible like any other book?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Seized by Truth

I ordered Seized by Truth for consideration as a Hermeneutics textbook. Page 3 convinced me I should read it for my own sake:

"[W]hen we read the Bible we are not necessarily reading the Bible as Scripture. . . . At one level, this is the experience of many ordinary Christians who take up the Bible and read its words, then walk away unchanged, uninspired, and uncertain. This is the Word of God? What does it mean? Who can make sense of these words? . . . [I]t is no less true that the seminary-trained and the scholar share the common experience of dryness in the journey through the pages of the Bible. In fact, for those apprenticed in the ways of biblical scholarship during the last two centuries, the experience of distance between ancient text and faithful life is often even more pronounced" (3-4).

I can identify with both dryness and distance. D.A. Carson dignified the "experience of distance" by the term distanciation, claiming "it is a necessary component of all critical work"--necessary but "difficult and sometimes costly" (Exegetical Fallacies, 23). For Green it is a sign that something is wrong.

I am also guilty of teaching my Hermeneutics students an approach to Scripture that Green claims is at the root of the problem, though I am in good company. In a recent book review Don Garlington put it this way: "At this point in time, it should not have to be said aloud that the New Testament documents were not, in the first instance, addressed to us..." (review of Piper, John, The Future of Justification, page 3).

According to Green, those who regard the Bible as Scripture must read it as though it is addressed to us. As the back cover puts it, "We are not reading someone else's mail." Green recognizes that "Exploring differences is important, not least because it carries with it the capacity to protect the Bible from captivity to modern opinions and categories. However, we cannot escape the fact that no approach more clearly separates the message of the Bible from those of us who turn to it for religious insight" (12-13).

I am not (yet) convinced that the distinction is unhelpful. I think it is problematic, in one sense, to read the epistles as though they are addressed to us. I would still suggest that it is when we read 1 Corinthians over the shoulders of the Corinthians that we are able to hear the letter's address to us as Scripture. But I will keep reading. And, in any case, I do agree with this:
Whereas scientific exegesis has highlighted the historical chasm separating ancient text and contemporary readers, reading the Bible as Scripture focuses on whether we share (or refuse) the theological vision of the biblical text. . . . Center stage belongs to those practices of engaging with Scripture that embody the reader's commitment to live faithfully (or not) before the God to whom the Scriptures witness. The first question, then, is not what separates us . . . from the biblical authors, but whether we are ready to embrace the God to whom and the theological vision to which these writers bear witness. (18)
Sadly I'm afraid Green's prose will sail over the heads of my second year college students. Any recommendations for good introductory hermeneutics textbooks?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Tom Schreiner on Scripture's Fundamental Harmony

Collin Hansen's CT interview with Tom Schreiner about his new New Testament Theology has been mentioned here and here (to start with two blogs I follow). The interview is well worth reading and I expect Schreiner's big book is too, but I do have a quibble with Schreiner's response to critics of his project:
Some scholars argue that the NT writers contradict one another. Hence, an approach like mine forces, they allege, a harmony on the NT. I would respond by saying that Paul believed that the message proclaimed by him and the other apostles (Gal. 2:1-10; 1 Cor. 15:11) was coherent. . . . At the end of the day, those who think the NT contradicts itself buy into a philosophical worldview opposed to the NT message.
Schreiner later explains that he hopes his readers "will see that the NT message is fundamentally harmonious." Fair enough. But are fundamental harmony and self-contradiction polar opposites? If so, why not say "completely harmonious" rather than "fundamentally harmonious"? Can the NT be "fundamentally harmonious" and still contradict itself? The answer depends on what one considers a contradiction and what "fundamentally harmonious" means.

Let me explain. Mark 9:2 says that Jesus ascended the mount of transfiguration "after six days." Luke 9:27 says the event happened "about eight days after these sayings." This is a formal contradiction, but I doubt very much it troubles Schreiner. Perhaps he would explain it, like I do, as two different ways of referring to a period of about a week. Nor do I expect Schreiner has difficulty reconciling James's statement that "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (2:24) with Paul's insistence that "a person is justified by faith apart from works" (Rom 3:28). I don't know how Schreiner explains the donkey and the colt that Jesus rode on according to Matthew 21:7 with the single colt Jesus sat on according to Mark 11:7. But I suspect Schreiner would regard this too as at most a tension rather than a contradiction. If the distinction comes down to semantics--if one person's contradiction is another's tension--perhaps the distinction itself is problematic.

Let me be clear: I don't object to viewing Scripture as harmonious. On the contrary, I am delighted whenever I catch a new glimpse of its unity. But I object to the suggestion that those who are impressed with the diversity within Scripture do so only because they have bought into a "worldview opposed to the NT message." Maybe they are just using their eyes.

I also object to the defensive posture that Schreiner's position requires. Rather than stipulating in advance what it means for Scripture to speak in harmony, why not listen to it, and let it spell the tune. How Scripture hangs together is precisely the question.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Cheap Books and the Grim Pill

In past years no trip to Portland was complete without a visit to Pilgrim Discount or, as my sister's husband affectionately called it, "The Grim Pill." Pilgrim's books were never really cheap, but it had a great selection of used biblical studies and theology titles; with no online presence it was always worthwhile visiting in person. I found out yesterday afternoon that the venerable bookshop is closing its doors, so I hurried down for one last look. With everything discounted 80% for several days already, the pickings were slim, but I still walked away with a handful of books on Luke-Acts, Jesus, and the Gospels that I thought were worth picking up for about $2 each.

I almost missed another deal a couple weeks ago when I wandered into the academic building and discovered that one of my colleagues had spent the day giving away half his library. I grabbed a few leftover OT titles I will most likely never read, and walked off smiling at my good fortune, but also a little puzzled. Eric said the pruning process was liberating:
feel such a sense of release and relief - when they were on my shelves, I felt like I needed to read them sometime, and it was a burden. And it got in the way of just reading the Bible! The more I teach the Bible, the more I realize how good the Bible is at communicating on its own - a lot of it will get into you if you just sit with it. . . . The prof I most respect from my time in seminary once told us that we should only spend about 1/3 of our time in commentaries, and the rest just in the text. That is not a rule I've followed - maybe now I'll be able to. . . . I'm hoping that the Bible will become clearer to me and that I'll spend more time on the books that really matter - ones that I'll read more than once and actually find helpful. (Read the whole post here).
I am not ready to pare down my library yet. Who knows, I may need those books some day, I may have more time in a few years, I... I have to admit he has me thinking, especially as I am still acquiring books faster than I have time to read them.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Introductory Greek Objectives

My objectives for this fall's Introductory Greek course are a program of study for myself as well as my students:
The immediate goal of this course is to learn the elements of Koine Greek as efficiently and as thoroughly as possible. Languages in general are best acquired in a living environment that involves hearing, speaking, and writing as well as reading. “Dead” languages are no different. So in addition to memorizing vocabulary and studying grammar, we will take time to listen to ancient Greek and to speak it as it was spoken in the first century. We will also work to create a healthy learning community conducive to internalizing the language, where it is safe to practice and to make mistakes.

One of the main attractions of Greek is its potential to bring one closer to the text of the New Testament, to encourage a more attentive reading of Scripture, and to enable more confident interaction with secondary literature. We will begin reading (or at least pronouncing!) the Greek New Testament right away, and have frequent opportunities throughout the semester to pause and consider the significance of what is read. The disciplines and skills we begin to develop here, along with a growing awareness of how languages work, will contribute to a more careful and observant reading of Scripture—whether in Greek or in English. But reading the New Testament carefully is itself only a means to the end of glorifying and enjoying God, and I hope that our study together will contribute to this more important goal as well.

I also hope that by the end of this course you will be motivated to continue learning Greek on your own or in class. Success in Greek is not measured at the end of the semester, but twenty years down the road. If you do not keep using the language, you will lose much of the time, money, and effort you put into learning it.
For one thing, I don't (yet) speak Koine Greek as it was spoken in the first century, and I will have to confess to my students that I am a beginner at this too. In practical terms, speaking Koine Greek means learning a "reconstructed Koine" pronunciation instead of Erasmian, and introducing as much dialogue and other oral activities as I can while still using Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek. To get started, I have begun working through Randall Buth's Living Koiné Greek material. The price is steep, but it is very good!

This time around I also want to be more intentional about making time to reflect on the passages we read in class and to draw attention to their practical implications rather than simply focusing on the Greek. My current plan is to build our class activities around a narrative passage from John's Gospel such as John 4.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

CSBS 2008 Review - Part 4

A week ago today, we set out for White Rock, BC, where we met up with my in-laws who were there to take my wife and daughter down to Portland, while I went on to the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies annual meeting in Vancouver. The drive through the Rockies was scenic:
It was also long: With appropriate stops along the way, it took us about 12 hours to get from Caronport to Golden the first day, and another 8 from Golden to White Rock the next.

The conference was good and long too. My Josephus paper finally came together, and was well-received by the dozen or so people who made it out to the session first thing on Tuesday morning. I expect to have more to say about the conference itself in due course (stay tuned for parts 1-3). In the meantime check out the free public lectures I listened to on the drive from Vancouver to Portland on Wednesday:
  • The first is a stimulating big-picture overview of the book of Acts given by N.T. Wright in the fall of 2007 at Asbury Theological Seminary. Click here for the mp3. As one expects from Wright, the talk is engaging and accessible, with a rich combination of really interesting and really helpful suggestions. I may give it another listen when I move into more active preparation for the Acts class I am scheduled to teach in the winter semester next year.
  • The second and third are Dale Allison's 2008 Kenneth W. Clark lectures at Duke Divinity School on the "The Historical Jesus and the Theological Jesus." Dale Allison is one of my favourite NT scholars--not least for his bracing intellectual honesty. Lots to think about. Click here for a link to the lectures on itunes.