Saturday, November 29, 2008


I am teaching Hermeneutics again next semester after a year's reprieve. (At Briercrest, Hermeneutics is a second year course required of students in all BA programs.) This time around I have attempted to align the assignments more closely with my overall goals for the course. I also reworked the course introduction in the syllabus:

This course is an apprenticeship in the craft of reading Scripture. We will practice reading skills—which, like any skill, require a lot of work to begin with—that are designed to mine its riches. We will consider how best to approach the diverse genres of biblical literature. We will reflect self-consciously on the reading process itself as we critically evaluate our own reading practices, and strive to develop more effective ones. And we will begin to grapple with persistent hermeneutical issues as we examine cultural and intellectual movements that have shaped the way the Bible has been read.

But the craft of reading Scripture requires more than skills and knowledge; it demands the development of habits, dispositions, discipline, and a willingness to listen attentively to others. This is especially true for Christians who affirm that the Bible is the Word of God that challenges and summons to a response. As you progress through this course, then, it is my hope that . . .
  • You will be convinced of the practical value of wide reading in, and careful study of, Scripture.
  • You will realize what you inevitably bring with you to the task of interpretation, including your presuppositions, your social and historical context, and your past experiences. As you do so, you will become more sensitive to the kinds of things that your background helps you see clearly, as well as to the kinds of things your background (and your bent human nature) keep you from seeing.
  • You will be eager to let your horizons be widened by encountering Scripture, and to let your readings be challenged by others whose backgrounds differ from your own.
  • You will recognize the importance of reading as part of the community of the Spirit, and of listening attentively to other readers past and present.
  • You will nurture an open mind that is willing to revisit questions and the evidence, as well as the humility that strives to learn from and be gracious towards those who arrive at different conclusions.
  • You will seek actively to acquire the wisdom needed to apply Scripture faithfully.
The full syllabus can be downloaded here.

Friday, November 28, 2008

CSBS 2008 Review - Part 3

I know, I know, I should get with the program and talk about SBL last weekend in Boston along with all the other bibliobloggers instead of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies Annual Meeting that was held almost six months ago. But a panel discussion on "A Week in the Life of an Academic" is especially timely at the tail-end of a busy semester, and several of the panelists' comments stuck with me.

I arrived in time to hear the first panelist, Michel Desjardins of Wilfrid Laurier University, saying "balance comes from within."

Next up was Terrence Donaldson, a New Testament professor at Wycliffe College, who recommended setting aside the first day of the work week for research before one is exhausted by other teaching, administrative or ministry demands. Or, as he might have put it, "pay yourself first."

Marion Taylor, an Old Testament professor also at Wycliffe College, talked about the challenges of raising a family when both spouses are full-time academics. Among other things she said that the old model--where the wife is expected to sacrifice her career goals to support her spouse--is obsolete. Couples must work as a team. I presume this means that neither is as academically "productive" as they would be on their own, for she added "don't worry about books you didn't write while kids are small." Family forces integration of academics and real life.

In contrast to the complete integration of academics and life exemplified by the Wycliffe College profs, Phil Harland (York University) insisted that academics is not life--at least not for someone who is not in "ministry." In addition to setting regular time each week aside for research, Phil tries to spend at least one day a week not working.


This is part 3 in a 2-part series. Part 4 dates from June 5.

Parts 1 and 2, alas, are destined for oblivion. There will be no summary of the three hour Dead Sea Scrolls session with papers on "Pseudo-autonomous Determinism" and abstracts that mention "1QS IX 5, 26, X 6 and CD XI 21." (The session might seem to reflect typical scholarly preoccupation with esoteric minutiae. But for those in the room who had read and taken courses on the scrolls, the discussion among a handful of scrolls scholars who care deeply about the texts and their social contexts was pulsating with life. One highlight I should mention was Eileen Schuller's report on the new edition of the Hodayot that will render all previous translations of the scrolls obsolete.)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Powerlessness of Faith

“Paul did not believe in faith. He believed in God and emphasized faith—not because faith is powerful but because God is....Had Paul been interested in the power of faith, in the potency of our trusting, he might have organized ‘faith clinics’ in which he taught people how to ‘believe harder’ so that their faith would be more powerful. Then, of course, he would have said that God justifies the godly.”
– Leander E. Keck, Romans (ANTC; Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 133 on Rom 4:23-25.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Augustine on the Hard Sayings of the Bible

Bill's comment reminded me of a great passage from Augustine's On Christian Doctrine. Since I don't have time to compose anything of my own, Augustine will have to do instead:
But many and varied obscurities and ambiguities deceive those who read casually, understanding one thing instead of another; indeed, in certain places they do not find anything to interpret erroneously, so obscurely are certain sayings covered with a most dense mist. I do not doubt that this situation was provided by God to conquer pride by work and to combat disdain in our minds, to which those things which are easily discovered seem frequently to become worthless.
Augustine illustrates his point with an allegorical reading of Song of Songs 4:2:
For example, it may be said that there are holy and perfect men with whose lives and customs as an exemplar the Church of Christ is able to destroy all sorts of superstitions.... But why is it, I ask, that if anyone says this he delights his hearers less than if he had said the same thing in expounding that place in the Canticle of Canticles where it is said of the Church, as she is being praised as a beautiful woman, 'Thy teeth are as flocks of sheep, that are shorn, which come up from the washing, all with twins, and there is none barren among them'? Does one learn anything else besides that which he learns when he hears the same thought expressed in plain words without this similitude? Nevertheless, in a strange way, I contemplate the saints more pleasantly when I envisage them as the teeth of the Church cutting off men from their errors and transferring them to her body after their hardness has been softened as if by being bitten and chewed....
And here is the point:
For the present, however, no one doubts that things are perceived more readily through similitudes and that what is sought with difficulty is discovered with more pleasure. Those who do not find what they seek directly stated labor in hunger; those who do not seek because they have what they wish at once frequently become indolent in disdain. In either of these situations indifference is an evil. Thus the Holy Spirit has magnificently and wholesomely modulated the Holy Scriptures so that the more open places present themselves to hunger and the more obscure places may deter a disdainful attitude. Hardly anything may be found in these obscure places which is not found plainly said elsewhere. - Saint Augustine: On Christian Doctrine, Book 2.6 (D.W. Robertson, trans.; New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1997), 37-38.
Whatever you make of the allegory, the pastoral point is still worth a hearing.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

F.F. Bruce on Evangelicals, Dogmatism and Scholarship

Making the rounds in Biblioblogdom is a great quote by F.F. Bruce on his hopes for the evangelical Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research:
No such conclusions [he is referring to pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic biblical scholarship] are prescribed for members of the Tyndale Fellowship. In such critical cruces, for example, as the codification of the Pentateuch, the composition of Isaiah, the date of Daniel, the sources of the Gospels, or the authenticity of the Pastoral Epistles, each of us is free to hold and proclaim the conclusion to which all the available evidence points. Any research worthy of the name, we take it for granted, must necessarily be unfettered. (F. F. Bruce, “The Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research,” The Evangelical Quarterly 19 (1947) 52-61) (HT: Michael Bird, who got it from Dan Reid)
Michael points to Bruce's autobiography and observes that the quote is surprising given that Bruce was "conservative as they come." This is true enough, though I got the impression from reading In Retrospect that Bruce was not as conservative as he let on. Here's another quote that hints at this:
A sense of security with regard to the foundations of faith and life encourages a spirit of relaxation with regard to many other matters. I am sure that an inner insecurity is often responsible for the dogmatism with which some people defend positions which are by their nature incapable of conclusive proof: there may be a feeling that, if those positions are given up, the foundations are in danger. I am sure, too, that a similar insecurity is responsible for the reluctance which some people show to acknowledge a change of mind on matters about which they once expressed themselves publicly: they may fear that their reputation for consistency is imperilled if they do . . . . Ultimately, the Christian’s faith is in a Person: his confession is ‘I know whom I have believed’, not ‘…what I have believed’ . . . . With this sense of liberty one can write freely – which is not the same thing as writing irresponsibly. A Christian will consider the probable effect of his words, whether spoken or written. - F.F. Bruce, In Retrospect: Remembrance of Things Past (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 172-3.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Kristof Defines an Intellectual

Here's how my favorite NYT columnist defines an intellectual in "Obama and the War on Brains":

An intellectual is a person interested in ideas and comfortable with complexity. Intellectuals read the classics, even when no one is looking, because they appreciate the lessons of Sophocles and Shakespeare that the world abounds in uncertainties and contradictions, and — President Bush, lend me your ears — that leaders self-destruct when they become too rigid and too intoxicated with the fumes of moral clarity.

(Intellectuals are for real. In contrast, a pedant is a supercilious show-off who drops references to Sophocles and masks his shallowness by using words like “fulgent” and “supercilious.”)
But, he adds:
As Mr. Obama prepares to take office, I wish I could say that smart people have a great record in power. They don’t. Just think of Emperor Nero, who was one of the most intellectual of ancient rulers — and who also killed his brother, his mother and his pregnant wife; then castrated and married a slave boy who resembled his wife; probably set fire to Rome; and turned Christians into human torches to light his gardens.

Two Approaches to Criticism

From Mark Elliott's review of Andrew T. Lincoln and Angus Paddison, eds., Christology and Scripture: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (London: T&T Clark, 2007):
"With the essays of Morgan and Lincoln we have a contrast of two styles, even attitudes. One is trying to be critical in the sense of asking questions about what were the probable factors at work in the expression of a witness that came to be known as the New Testament. Lincoln seems more interested to run the autopsy just to make sure the patient is dead."
Too bad for Lincoln.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Trouble with Unicode

I've been using Unicode when I work with Greek and Hebrew since the turn of the millenium. Unicode is great for all the reasons stated here. It is especially nice for Hebrew, because it keeps the correct right-to-left word order when there is a line break in the middle of a string of Hebrew text.

The problem--in my limited experience--is that most publishers remain wedded to legacy fonts. Until publishers and editors get on board, it is not true that "Unicode Fonts Unite Biblical Studies."

Monday, November 3, 2008

John Goldingay on Evangelicals and Scripture

I was preparing a rant--a, uh, pep talk--to deliver to my Gospels students as feedback on their first essays, when I read this, which says it for me:
If there are no aspects of scripture that they do not like and do not have to wrestle with, then they are kidding themselves. It means that they have bracketed them out or reinterpreted them. That is what as evangelicals we have to do. We know we have to accept all of scripture, so we make it mean something else so we can accept it. As a Bible teacher one of my basic concerns has become simply to get people to read the Bible with open eyes. Some people learn to, others do not. I want people to read the Bible, to be open to finding there things that they had not realized were there, to be enthralled and dazzled and appalled and infuriated and puzzled and worried and stimulated and kept awake at night by these extraordinary words from God, to let their mind and heart and imagination and will be provoked and astonished by them.
- John Goldingay, To the Usual Suspects: One Word Questions (Paternoster, 1998), 153-4.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Calling for a Moratorium on New Commentary Series

I recently checked the list of forthcoming commentaries on Jeremy Pierce's Parableman blog, and discovered 13 on Acts, 4 of which are due out this fall:
Loveday Alexander (Black's)
J. Bradley Chance (Smyth & Helwys)
Youngmo Cho (New Covenant)
Joel B. Green (NICNT, to replace F.F. Bruce)
Carl R. Holladay (New Testament Library)
Craig Keener (Eerdmans, not in a series)
Todd Penner (Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity)
Richard Pervo (Hermeneia, Nov 2008)
David Peterson (Pillar, probably late 2008 or early 2009)
Stanley Porter (NIGTC)
Mikeal C. Parsons (Paidaia, Nov 2008)
Eckhard J. Schnabel (Zondervan Exegetical)
Steve Walton, Acts 1-14 (Word, Nov 2008)
Steve Walton, Acts 15-28 (Word, Aug 2009)
J. Weatherley (Two Horizon's)
When you add in the 2007 contributions by Richard N. Longenecker (Expositor's) and Darrell Bock (Baker Exegetical), that makes 6 commentaries all coming out at more-or-less the same time--as if scholars wanted to be spared the burden of reading each other's work. These commentaries are in addition to the 50+ selected English language commentaries on Acts I included on my Acts syllabus for next semester.

A few of the forthcoming commentaries will join my old friends Gaventa, Fitzmyer, Johnson, Cadbury and Lake, Haenchen, Bruce, and especially Barrett, whose dry wit never fails to make me chuckle. Since I am teaching Acts next semester, I expect to purchase Pervo's and Walton's commentaries at SBL, perhaps Parsons' too, and I can't wait until Loveday Alexander's commentary in the reasonable-length Black's series comes out.

But why, friends, do we need a Zondervan Exegetical Commentary to go along with the Baker Exegetical Commentary and the Eerdmans Exegetical Commentary, etc.? Why do we need the 40 or so NT different commentary series on Jeremy's list if not to provide publishing opportunities for scholars and $ for publishers? As Max Weber observed long ago (and I read recently on Ben Myer's blog):
“Many elements conspire to render unlikely any serious possibility of a new communal religion borne by intellectuals…. Nor can a religious renascence be generated by the need of authors to compose books, or by the far more effective need of clever publishers to sell such books. No matter how much the appearance of a widespread religious interest may be simulated, no new religion has ever resulted from the needs of intellectuals or from their chatter. The whirligig of fashion will presently remove this subject of conversation and journalism, which fashion has made popular.”
Weber's prediction was wrong, but his diagnosis was, I think, correct in this case: Publishers sponsor commentary series because they can be counted on to sell consistently. Most of the commentaries will repeat the tired old comments that everyone else has made already. The result: Whoever wants to research a passage thoroughly has to wade through the sludge of similar material or ignore it altogether. It doesn't help scholarship. It doesn't really serve the church.

I wish more commentators would begin their writing with the customary apology for writing yet another commentary on this or that book, convince themselves that another commentary is not, in fact, needed and go on to something more productive for scholarship in general, and for the church in particular. What we need from a scholarly angle is more detailed long-term projects that actually make a contribution to knowledge--the kind that don't make money or advance careers in the short term. What we need from a pastoral angle is scholars who are in touch with the needs of the church, who are able to write well. The occasional popular level commentary by a fine scholar is okay, but we don't need 40 on each book.