Wednesday, 27 February 2008

I'm off till Tuesday

Recent goings on on the biblical studies list have left a bad taste in my mouth (though my Site Meter statistics have rocketed as result. Is that good or bad publicity?). They've sapped my desire to post anything meaningful today. If people are interested in my literal/spiritual sense thread, then Michael wrote a decent response to my Literal and Spiritual Sense of Scripture post. He disagrees with my definition of "the spiritual sense," contests its continuing validity, calls for sharper distinction between it and the word "referent" and has an alternative interpretation of some NT verses. Give him a read. I'll get back to him as soon as I'm back.

In the meanwhile I'm off to a colloquium in Tübingen, where I'll have the pleasure of smoking narghila with Mr Tilling. It's then off to Wuppteral for another colloquium, where I'll meet my second doctoral supervisor for the first time. This'll hopefully give my wounded soul time to heal and help me get over the wish to quit the aforementioned list.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The Christ Files

Due to extended discussion on the Biblical Studies List I've not got time to continue my literal/spiritual sense thread today. Instead, a fascinating video clip on an up-and-coming documentary on the "historical Jesus". Here's the blurb:

Have we lost sight of the real Jesus in our busy lives? Is our Saviour so buried by tradition and fable that he has become insignificant to people living in the 21st century? In a captivating journey across the globe, Dr John Dickson examines ancient documents and consults the world’s most respected historians in search of Jesus of Nazareth.
What is most fascinating is the impressive list of academics interviewed in the course of the films making:

Professor Richard Bauckham of St Andrew’s University, Scotland on the Gospels and Eyewitness Testimony
Professor Marcus Bockmuehl of St Andrew’s University, Scotland on Gnosticism and the Gnostic Gospels
Professor James Charlesworth of Princeton University, USA on the Dead Sea Scrolls and Jesus
Professor James Dunn of Durham University, England on how ancient societies preserved traditions aurally
Professor Sean Freyne of Trinity College, Dublin on the Archaeology of Galilee (filmed on location in Israel)
Professor Martin Hengel of the University of Tübingen, Germany on the historical value of the Gospels
Professor Alanna Nobbs of Macquarie University, Australia on the Greco-Roman sources for studying Jesus
Dr. Adolfo Roitman of Shrine of the Book, Israel on the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls
Professor Peter Stuhlmacher of University of Tubingen, Germany on the Apostle Paul and the value of his letters for the study of the historical Jesus
Professor Christopher Tuckett of Oxford University, England on the source behind the Gospels, such as ‘Q’
Right Reverend Dr. Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, England on the importance of the Old Testament for understanding the historical Jesus

Unfortunately, it looks as if it's only being aired on an Australian channel this Good Friday. Looks as if I'll have to buy the DVD.

For samples of interviews with Bauckham and Wright, go here. (HT: Chris Tilling)

Monday, 25 February 2008

Diem on Scripture, Doctrine and the Apostolic Tradition

I'm currently reading Hermann Diem's Dogmatics, which is providing me with essential background material for understanding Childs. I came across the following quote, which I thought I'd post as an update to my previous post on Luke 24 and the Dogmatic/Exegesis Relation.

“Our study has brought us constantly face to face with the circular argument that the Spirit which has inspired Scripture can be recognised only by the Spirit which they alone have who are apo Kuriou Pneumatos (II Cor. III. 18). Nowhere is there given any definite hermeneutical method of exegesis such as would furnish secure grounds for this recognition, nor can one be subsequently inferred from the practice of NT exegesis ... . Moreover, it is not the isolated individual believer nor the theologian, in his interpretation of Scripture, it is rather the Church as such (cf., for example, I Cor. II. 6-16) which moves within this circle. But the Church is never confronted immediately by Scripture in its bareness. Just as according to the Synoptics Jesus Himself must open to the disciples the mind of Scripture, so the later Church has Apostolic doctrine which with Apostolic authority appeals to the Lord Himself as the key to the right understanding of the Bible. Hence we receive no hard and fast hermeneutical principle for the exegesis of Scripture, but a new tradition of proclamation and doctrine which claims to be the right understanding and exposition of Scripture and also to test Scriptural exegesis. Hence our question about the authorisation of Gospel teaching and proclamation must be addressed to this Apostolic tradition itself." (1959: 178)
I find this fascinating and challenging.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Saturday, 23 February 2008

A Remarkable Exchange of Roles

Ernst Käsemann in his report on the problems of NT scholarship in Germany [*] points out a remarkable exchange of roles in the history of NT research:

'This began about two hundred years ago with the intention of freeing the historical Jesus from the fetters of dogmatics. Now this attempt ends with the confession, made by its most radical representatives ,that the Easter faith is the Church's foundation and the sole means of access to the historical jesus Himself. In order that this spectacle, so interesting to those who understand, should not be altogether lacking in human comedy, a new orthodoxy (or what is considered such) is, at the same time, endeavouring to show that, both as regards method and intrinsic necessity, the only way out of the difficulty is to recover the life of the historical Jesus, and out of the Gospels is accordingly making factual reports. The critics have become dogmatic and the orthodox liberal. Now the fight is being waged the other way round.'” But there remains a genuine problem: “in what relation the faith, doctrine and preaching of the Church stand to the historical Jesus.”

[*] “Probleme der Neutestamentlichen Arbeit in Deutschland,” in Die Freiheit des Evangeliums und die Ordnung der Gesellschaft, 1952: 138. Cited in H. Diem, Dogmatics, 1959: 82]

Top Posts of the Week (2nd in Lent)

I've decided to start collecting the posts that have caught my eye over each week. The only thread of continuity between them is that they interest me. In fact, as I look over this list I'm surprised by how much I read on current events in the Middle East. I truly believe that this area should be the focus of attention for the coming generation. The world is not the place it was (it never is), and the Church has profound challenges before it.

So here is my selection:

PaleoJudaica: The Ark of the Covenant. Jim Davila links to an esoteric (to say the least) story from Time Magazine on the latest theory concerning the lost Israelite ark. The article's closing line: "Animating all searches for the Ark is the hope — and fear — that it will retain the unbridled divine power the Old Testament describes."If this is what animates their search, then the searchers haven't read their Bible properly: 1 Sam 4.

Dr Jim West does the blogging community a favour by uploading Zwingli's 67 articles. I haven't time to read them, unfortunately, but it's good to know they're there when I need 'em.

Large Blue Footballs links to an important article on the suffering of Palestinian Christians. An important issue. As the author concludes: "It is an awful way to live. It is more awful still that so few know, or care about it."

Another story of brutality, this time by the Egyptian government against a blogger who criticised Muhammad and President Mubarak. His punishment: four years in prison. I thought Mubarak was above such barbarity?

Zionism and the State of Israel links to an interesting article on why Jews don't like Christians who like them. By "Jews" is meant "liberal Jews" and by "Christians" is meant "Christian-Zionists." I think it's clear where the problem lies.

For an example of communication between a Christian Zionist and a Jewish (religious) Zionist, check out this e-mail on the blog of Kumah. Fascinating.

Lubab No More hosted a fascinating guest thread by Avi, an Orthodox Jew turned non-believer who's still happily married with his Orthodox believing wife.

I'm always up for theological material in formats other than text, so I appreciate Chrisendom's providing us with video interviews with Bauckham, Wright and Charlesworth.

Ora et Labora has a sobering piece on the significance of the recent events in Kosvo for the Western world.

Point of no Return translates part of an article from a Saudi paper, highlighting the growing awareness in Arab countries that the exodus of Jews and Christians is not a good thing and in fact does not correspond to the traditions of the Middle East.

Davila posts on the Biblical Hebrew Ulpan, run by Randall Booth. The language is being taught as a living, spoken language ... oh how my heart yearns for that! The course probably costs a bomb.

Friday, 22 February 2008

The Literal and Spiritual Sense of Scripture

This post inaugurates the second section of my overarching thread dealing with the theological exegesis of Brevard S. Childs. An overview of the total structure can be seen in my programmatic statement here.

I have already established here that a theological approach to Scripture must first classify the text as a “witness” to divine truth. This introduces a distinction between the mere verbal sense of the individual texts and the reality to which they give partial access. When the verbal sense of the text is provisionally relabelled the literal sense and the ultimate referent the spiritual sense, we can see the continuity of Childs' approach with traditional Christian exegesis. Theological reflection must ultimately be on the text's subject matter, so that the basic thrust of theological interpretation is from the literal to the spiritual. This move also gives the concept of allegory a new currency, as long as allegory is understood to be a means of moving to the text's ultimate subject matter while respecting the literal sense of text itself (i.e. its “integrity” or its “own voice,” what Seitz calls its “per se witness”). For how these two dimensions of the text relate to each other, stay tuned!

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Jim Back Online

Due to popular support, Jim is back on-line. His new blog can be found here:

Support for Jim West

As is now well known on the blogosphere, biblioblogging patriarch Jim West has become the victim of internet terrorism. Some childish coward hacked into his Word Press website and using his password deleted everything, his entire work. Jim has decided that is not going to start again. It wouldn't surprise me if emotional hurt has a role to play in this decision; it would for me.

Jim has been blogging longer than most and has been something of a father-figure to many. He's advertised new blogs (including this one) and has done much to encourage networking and communication amongst those interested in the field of biblical studies. It's a genuine shame to see him go and its a scandal that there are people out there offended enough to want to make him go like this. Given that most of his controversial views were related to theology, I shudder to think that a "Christian" is responsible for this ... If so, public repentance can redeem him. But your heart has to be so hard in the first place to do such a thing that apology would be the last thing on his/her mind.

Some other blogs which have voiced support for Jim are the following:

James' Thoughts and Musings



Dr. Claude Mariotinni




Abnormal Interests

Chrisendom posts a letter from Jim West

Update: Sibylline Leaves has a far more detailed overview than this here.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Excellent Online Audio Introduction to the Tanakh

A while back I linked to the website of Yale Divinity School, where you can download both audio and video recordings of a brilliant introductory course to the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible hat tip to Deane). I've pretty much made my way through the 24 hours of material and I have to say that I find it very well done. Christine Hayes is extremely articulate and engaging; at the end of each lecture I find myself itching to hear more. It's worth noting the very Jewish tone of the presentation: Hayes is herself from the field of Talmudic studies, the translation and study Bible she uses are Jewish, and the majority of the scholars she calls on are Jewish (Kaufmann, Levenson, Greenberg, Weinfeld).

I found the opening lectures on the Pentateuch the most rewarding. The sections on the histories was pretty much standard historical critical fare, along with her treatment of the prophets. I am disappointed by the underlying aggression to the apparent "distortions" of later Christian tradition (e.g. she's happy to point out the mistranslation of parthenos in Isaiah, but then, a few minutes later, fails to point out how Isaiah' wrestling with the problem of sin and forgiveness are taken up in the New Testament. References to the New Testament are consistently negative). I'm also disappointed by the way that Childs does not even get a mention, despite the fact that his entire career was spent at Yale and that she mentions in the course outline that she's interested in "canonical approaches." It only gets a first mention in lecture 21, and there she seems to be using the term in the way that Sanders used it. This is fair enough, but given Yale's post-liberal heritage I'd have thought that she would have at least pointed out the interpretative options. It is also surprising that in the same lecture, after announcing her decision to read the Psalms from the perspective of canonical criticism, she goes on to interpret them in the classic form critical categories of Herman Gunkel. There is no mention of the theological shaping of the book nor of the midrashic nature of the Psalm titles.

All in all it's well worth a listen. For those on a time budget, two lectures are particularly worth listening to:

  1. The Priestly Legacy: Cult and Sacrifice, Purity and Holiness in Leviticus and Numbers (no#9; I was surprised to hear that she distinguishes between moral and cultic purity)

  2. Biblical Law: The Three Legal Corpora of JE (Exodus), P (Leviticus and Numbers) and D (Deuteronomy) (no#10; beautiful outline of main emphases and its ancient context).

NB. Awilum has posted his thoughts on this course here.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Clarifying the Bible's "Subject Matter"

A certain Paul wrote an interesting response to my post yesterday on The Nature of the "Substance" of the Bible. I've decided to respond here, as the points he raises are important. His comments are in italics, my response beneath.

Seems to me the Bible is an anthology, multi-authored, composed over thousands of years, with some texts that are very similar and others widely disparate;

I'm in total agreement here. Yet the line of continuity between all these texts is that they have been used religiously by a particular community of faith throughout its history as a testimony and response to its God. Diversity and even logical contradictions don't exclude the possibility that there is one God behind it all, revealing himself to and guiding his people. Which is why, I think, Childs talks of the “substance” of the Bible as being “dynamic,” i.e. God in relationship in history. The central formulae of both Jewish and Christian faith are narrative in nature, rather than abstract description. Irenaeus, for example, spoke of a movement from “creation to incarnation to consummation.” The task of exegesis, an exegesis which wants to really get to the subject matter of the Bible, is to read each text both in its integrity as well as in relation to this (or another) broader picture. Christians believe in the Irenaen one. Others have other “meta narratives” by which to combine the parts into a whole (e.g. Marxist, existentialist, evolutionary, etc.).

the "substance" is always going to to be those elements and aspects that the particular theologian finds most meaningful and prefers to emphasize.

Subjectivity in exegesis is unavoidable. Bultmann, for example, chose to identify the existential dimension of the text as its “true” referent. Working with a Heideggerian understanding of this reality he then sifts out those texts which best accord with its truth claims (at least, that's what I see Bultmann doing ...). I think, however, that some ground rules are necessary, “boundaries of interpretation” or “a rule of faith.” This will depend on your confession, but Christians (of which I am one) not only confess that the Bible is Scripture and as such testifies to God (i.e. it is authoritative), but that it is a “canon,” i.e. a fixed rule which provides the boundaries within which theological exegesis can take place (I posted on this distinction a couple of days ago here). This canon provides the outer limits for exegesis, both a negative criterion marking the boundary between orthodoxy and heresy and a postive criterion, delineating the boundary within which diversity is allowed to flourish. Bultmann's problem, as far as I can see, is that he does not respect that “canonicity” of Scripture, in that he only selects certain strands as proclaiming “true existence” and he denigrates the Old Testament to the status of evolutionary precursor.

Which is why the potential for theological debate is truly eternal

I guess so, but it's not arbitrary. It's a matter of subjectivity within boundaries guided, hopefully, by the Holy Spirit.

Monday, 18 February 2008

The Nature of the "Substance" of the Bible

Childs often talks of the "substance" of the Bible. It is this reality to which all theological exegesis ought to "push through." Today I'd like to clarify Childs' use of the term, as it has acquired associations through usage which most Biblical Scholars have attempted to eschew.

Classically, the philosophical concept of “substance” denotes the essence of a thing in distinction from its accidents and its qualities. In traditional Western ontology an analogy of being was sought between human and divine reality which could be discerned to some degree by means of reason. As such, objections may be raised that Childs' concern with Biblical reality will end up with a static deposit, a “ground of being,” or an abstraction of timeless ideals.

Childs, however, treats the biblical witness as primary in order to fill these philosophical terms with meaning. The reality to which the Bible points is dynamic, rather than static. The narrative nature of the regula fidei (which Childs endorses, cf. here) already points to this. As Childs states, according to the Bible

“the reality of God ... has no true being apart from communion, first within God's self, and secondly with his creation. God is one whose being is in loving which is grounded in a freely given commitment toward humanity and this relationship is constitutive of his being.” [*]
[*] Childs, Biblical Theology, 82.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Rising Muslim Conservatism in the Middle East

That's what's happening according to this interesting article by the New York Times. The cause would seem to be despair in the face of poverty, disallusionment and political corruption or ineptitude.

Mr Sayyid's comments would appear to be typical:

“Nobody cares about the people,” Mr. Sayyid said, slapping his hands against the air, echoing sentiment repeated in many interviews with young people across Egypt. “Nobody cares. What is holding me back is the system. Find a general with children and he will have an apartment for each of them. My government is only close to those close to the government.”
Mr. Sayyid, like an increasing number of Egyptians, would like Islam to play a greater role in political life. He and many others said that the very government that claimed to elevate and emphasize their faith was insincere and hypocritical.
“Yes, I do think that Islam is the solution,” Mr. Sayyid said, quoting from the slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but tolerated organization in Egypt that calls for imposing Shariah, or Islamic law, and wants a religious committee to oversee all matters of state. “These people, the Islamists, they would be better than the fake curtain, the illusion, in front of us now.”

Luther on Discipleship: "Bewilderment is True Comprehension"

“Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend—it must transcend all compreshension. Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own comprehension, and I will help you to comprehend even as I do. Bewilderment is the true comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. My comprehension transcends yours. Thus Abraham went forth from his father and not knowing whither he went. He trusted himself to my knowledge, and cared not for his own, and thus he took the right road and came to his journey's end. Behold, that is the way of the cross. You cannot find it yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were a blind man. Wherefore it is not you, no man, no living creature, but I myself, who instruct you by my word and Spirit in the way you should go. Not the work which you choose, not the suffering you devise, but the road which is clean contrary to all that you choose or contrive or desire—that is the road you must take. To that I call you and in that you must be my disciple. If you do that, there is the acceptable time and there your master is come.”
From Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 93.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

The Difference Between "Scripture" and "Canon"

In discussions of the canonical approach, a failure to distinguish between the categories "scripture" and "canon" can lead to confusion. I hope today's thoughts help clarify the issue ...

Whereas both categories refer to the authoritative collection of sacred writings as the vehicle for communicating the will of God, the term scripture refers above all to the divine authority of these writings. Canon, on the other hand, refers to the scope of the collection.

This distinction is important for understanding the significance of the fluidity of the Christian canon, especially respecting the tension between the narrower (Jewish) and larger (Greek) forms of the Old Testament corpus. Historically speaking, this fluidity in scope has never played a decisive role in challenging the concept of the authority of Scripture. The tensions that arose in the Reformation were dogmatic in nature and were concerned with the relation of biblical authority to later church tradition, not with the question of biblical authority per se

Although the question of scope and the role of translations is an issue, it is important not to overestimate the scale of the problem. It is not the case that the church has functioned without a scripture or in deep confusion. Rather, as Childs states, “the implication to be drawn is exactly the reverse. In spite of areas of disagreement [concerning a few books on the periphery], the Bible in its various forms has continued to function as an authoritative norm for the church throughout its history.”[*]

As with most issues misunderstood by Childs' later critics, this point was made from early on:

“The fundamental theological issue at stake is not the extent of the canon, which has remained in some flux within Christianity, but the claim for a normative body of tradition contained in a set of books.”[**]
[*] Childs, The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 301.

[**] Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970), 98.

Friday, 15 February 2008

A Problem in Biblical Theology

“Problems in Biblical theology stem from attempts to relate reality to something other than the concrete experience of Israel. Usually this means finding reality in the ideas of Israel or in some concept of history into which certain aspects of Israel's life can be fitted.” [*]
As I slowly work my way through Bultmann's History and Eschatology, I get the impression that this is a mistake he makes.

[*] Brevard Childs, Myth and Reality in the Old Testament (London: SCM Press, 1960), 81

I Need a Barth Expert

I recently wrote an essay trying to understand the relationship between Brevard Childs and Karl Barth. Unfortunately, I'm not a Barth expert, so I'm not too sure how sound my conclusions are. They seem to be saying essentially the same thing, with Childs' canonical approach being an attempt to implement Barth's programme exegetically. I hinted at this in a previous post here.

If anyone is interested in critically assessing this essay, I'd be grateful. Send an e-mail to philsumpterAThotmailDOTcom and I'll forward it on to you.

As an aside, Timothy has a great Childs quote here.

And for an interesting response to the recent Australian apology, go here.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Exegetical Obligations of the Redeemed

The theological reality of the relationship between God and his people and the unique role of Scripture in this relationship has left a material mark on the text of the Bible with concrete implications for today's exegete. Since the Enlightenment it has become clear that one does not have to read the Bible according to its own perspective. It is possible to understand the Bible in history-of-religions categories. Yet, despite the importance of such work, the goal and procedure of such exegetical practice are different to an approach which would read the Bible as the Word of God to his people. Belonging to this people requires that one aligns oneself with the Bible's own perspective. As Childs says:

“The biblical text must be studied in closest connection with the community of faith which treasured it. Obviously these texts can be studied from any number of other contexts and perspectives, but not as Sacred Scripture! The authority of the canon of Scripture is not a claim of objective truth apart from the community of faith but it is a commitment to a particular perspective from which the reality of God is viewed.” [*]
The exegete as member of the congregation must face a hermeneutical decision before he reads the text: as a member of a historical people with a text that has been the unfolding word of God to them through time, how do I best situate myself to receive that message today? What is the authoritative context within which the message of the Bible takes shape? Given the peculiar function of this text over against this community within the context of God's eschatological purpose, Childs would argue the text's final form.

[*] “The Sensus Literalis of Scripture: An Ancient and Modern Problem,” in Beiträge zur Alttestamentlichen Theologie: Festschrift für Walther Zimmerli zum 70. Geburtstag (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1977), 92.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Israel's Memory and the Rule of Faith

After a massive hiatus, I return to my ongoing discussion of Childs' canonical approach and it's implications for theological interpretation. The thread started an eternity ago here, where I outlined the overall structure of what I want to say. I'm still in stage 1: "The Authority of Scripture." Once this stage is finally finished, I'll move on to 2: "The Literal and Spiritual Sense of Scripture."

At the beginning of his career Childs worked as a form critic, which meant that his primary concern was identifying the unique ways in which Israel responded to its tradition and proclaimed its message. From this historical critical perspective Childs made the following statement about the theological function of Israel's traditions:
“Israel's memory ... serves a far more important role than merely providing illustrations from the past. It serves in making Israel noetically aware of a history which is ontologically a unity. There is only one redemptive history.”[*]
Childs seems to believe that this redemptive history finds its maturest expression in Irenaeus' rule of faith (Creation – Incarnation – New Creation). This rule functions as a boundary within which Christian exegesis can take place, as it sums up the true substance of Scripture. Yet the rule is not detached from the witness on which it is based, as if it were an external ideology imposed upon an innocent text. The very hermeneutical shape given to the text throughout its long canonical (kerygmatic) development adumbrates in complex ways the reality that would find its fullest expression in Irenaeus' rule. It would seem that for this reason Childs at times calls the canonical shape of the Bible itself a regula fidei.
[*] Memory and Tradition in Israel (London: SCM Press, 1961), 51.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

The Talmud on "Costly Grace"

I subscribe to a weekly "eDrash," a commentary on the weekly Parasha along with a connection to a New Testament parallel. The group responsible for this call themselves "First Fruits of Zion" and believe that conversion to Christianity entails keeping the Mosaic Law, including the Oral Law. Fascinating!

I rarely have time to read their comments, but I found today's really interesting. It's a story from the Talmud and as a Christian I found it's message spot on. It illustrates the existential dimension of genuine faith. As Bonhoeffer says: "acquired knowledge cannot be divorced from the existence in which it is acquired." [*] Wanting to follow God's commandments is one thing, grasping what that actually means is another thing altogether. The difference amounts to the distinction between "cheap" and "costly" grace.

I've cut off the commentary's Christian application as I didn't find it relevant. Here's the rest:

Thought for the Week

Out of all countries, the Holy One, blessed be He, chose the land Israel, and from the land of Israel he selected the Temple, and from the Temple, He selected only the Holy of Holies. Similarly, out of all the nations God selected Israel, and from Israel, He selected the tribe of Levi, and of the Tribe of Levi, He chose Aaron. (Exodus Rabbah 37:4)


You shall make holy garments for Aaron. (Exodus 28:2)

Once it happened, in the days of the Master, that a certain prominent Gentile, a high-ranking officer in the Roman government, was walking past a study hall in Jerusalem when he overheard the school children learning their Torah verses. The man stopped and listened for a little while. He heard the teacher reading from the Torah portion about the high priest’s special garments. He listened while the teacher read the words, "These are the garments which they shall make: a breastpiece and an ephod and a robe and a tunic of checkered work, a turban and a sash, and they shall make holy garments" (Exodus 28:4).

The Gentile did not know anything about the Bible or Judaism except what he had just heard. He stopped in and asked, "Who are these garments for?" The teacher told him, "For the high priest." The Gentile said to himself, "I will convert to Judaism so that I can become a high priest." He went to Rabbi Shammai, one of the leading sages of the Sanhedrin, and said, "I will allow you to make me into a proselyte on the condition that when I am Jewish you appoint me as high priest." Shammai was so infuriated by the man’s impertinence that he took a swing at him with a builder’s cubit and drove him away. Undeterred, the man went to Rabbi Hillel, Shammai's colleague and another leader of the Sanhedrin. He made Rabbi Hillel the same offer. Hillel accepted the terms and made him a proselyte. But he said to him, "Before a man can be made king, he has to learn about politics and government. Before you can be a high priest, you need to study the arts of governing over Israel from the Torah." The man studied Torah in preparation for becoming high priest, and as he studied, he realized that he did not qualify for the position. He could never be high priest. "Even the common Israelite cannot serve in the priesthood, but only the sons of Aaron; how much less am I eligible," he said. He went to Shammai and said, "If a stranger is not eligible to serve as high priest, why didn’t you just tell me that?" He went to Rabbi Hillel and said, "O gentle Hillel, may blessings rest on your head for bringing me under the wings of the Divine Presence of God. If not for you, I would not have become a believer."

[*] Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Discipleship (trans. R. H. Fuller; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 51. Trans. of Nachfolge (München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1937).

Saturday, 9 February 2008

The Hamas Dilemma

“Palestine remains more an idea than a state, and the battle to control its destiny is waged in coffee shops and classrooms, hospitals and mosques, and, through the waning months of 2006 and into early 2007, in bloody street battles between Hamas and Fatah supporters. Memories die hard in this troubled terrain, and the relative calm initiated in February by a fragile agreement to pursue a unity government is unlikely to erase the chaos and the killing that immediately preceded the new détente. Many believe that attempts to forge a unity government and institute democratic rule are premature when the occupation remains a stubborn fact and Palestinians are experiencing a collective identity crisis.”

—from Richard A. Johnson’s “The Hamas Dilemma,”, The Walrus Magazine

Thursday, 7 February 2008

An Ongoing Dialogue

My recent post Luke 24:13-35 and the Dogmatics/Exegesis Relation has generated a helpful conversation between myself, John Poirier and a certain Michael. Due to the length of the comments I haven't time to post today. I just thought I'd refer you to the conversation and invite you to jump in! Politness isn't required, just gnawing hunger for the truth ... or maybe for life ... and a bit of compassion for your fellow travellers.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Reading in a Revised Frame of Reference

In his brilliant essay "Christ in All the Scriptures?", R.W.L. Moberly asks, "What should a Christian be trying to do with the OT at this moment in history?" He is thinking of our postmodern context, a context which "does not wish to dispense with science or technology as such ... but that is rethinking their significance within the overall scheme of things" (91). Here are his suggestions for reading in a revised frame of reference:

1) Being a good historian should no longer be a prime requirement of biblical study but should should merely be one important ingredient among others needed in the pot to produce nourashing fare. This is not least because the content of Scripture has to do with moral and spiritual realities, which require moral and spiritual literacy if they are to be handled well. As Stephen Fowl and Gregory Jones have put it, in a groundbreaking study, "the interpretation of Scripture is a difficult task not because of the technical demands of biblical scholarship but because of the importance of character for wise readings." [*] The rationality that one needs is informed not just by the technical mastery of intellectual skills but also by the moral and spiritual disciplines of the church.

2) Christ must be not only the light to which we look but also the light by which we see. Israel's texts that speak of divine sovereignty and grace, human sin and repentence, and the calling of israel to covenant faithfulness should be come more luminous, for Jesus embodies (in various ways) that of which the texts speak. Faith in Christ can give believers conceptual and existential resources for truer understanding.

3) Biblical interpretation needs to be seen as revolving around context. This involves recognising that biblical texts have many contexts. There is a difference, for example, between the originating context and the literary context of preservation. When Gen. 1 is read in its historical context, it may well be the product of "priestly" Jews in Babylon responding to the disintegration of their kingdom. When Gen 1 is read as part of a canonical collection that includes the account of personified wisdom, present with God at creation, in Prov 8, a further set of intertextual resonances and possibilities is set up. When Ge 1 is read as part of the Christian Bible, with the retelling of creation in relation to God's Logos/Word, then further resonances are set up. When one adds to this the Pauline account of Jesus as the image of the invisible God, and then the broader context of extended Christian engagement with the meaning of creation and humanity in the light of Scripture as a whole, then the question of context for the opening verses of the Bible is rich indeed.

[*] Reading in Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life (London: SPCK, 1991), 49.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Luke 24:13-35 and the Dogmatics/Exegesis Relation

A while back I made the point that posing a dogmatics/exegesis dichotomy is not only impossible to implement in reality (i.e. we always assume a theology before we read; see also Ben Myers on this here), it is also theologically undesirable. This is because the object of theological interpretation is not ultimately the text but the reality to which it points: Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be found in any one text of the Bible, but rather represents the totality of the witness of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. To turn the Bible itself into the Word of God is biblicism.

A certain Michael has asked me how this relates to the Emmaus road story (Luke 24:13-35). I'm glad for the question as thinking about it has helped confirm for me the truth that theological interpretation is and should always be a dialectic between dogmatics and exegesis, rather than a one-way street in either direction.

"Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures."
Moberly [*] points out that the logic of Jesus' expounding the Scriptures to his puzzled disciples is that these Scriptures provide a context and a content for making sense of Jesus, when all that the disciples know about him already somehow has not "clicked"; Israel's Scriptures help one make sense of Jesus. This represents the move from exegesis to dogmatics. Yet these disciples are Jews who are already thoroughly familiar with these Scriptures, many of which they would know by heart. So, Moberly concludes, "presumably a further part of the logic of Jesus' exposition is that the disciples need to be able to read these Scriptures in a new way, in the light of all that had happened surrounding Jesus, so that they can see in these Scriptures what they had not seen before; Jesus helps one make sense of Israel's Scriptures. Thus a two-way dialectic between Jesus and Israel's Scriptures is envisaged, both being necessary for Christian understanding of the crucified and risen Lord" (80).

The key point here is that it is the risen Jesus himself, an extra-textual reality, who positions us to be able to understand the texts that at the same time point to him. How do we get to know the Jesus who interprets the Bible for us? There are many ways, but central is the community of the church, who has preserved the Gospel for us and communicates it to us in summary forms such as in creeds and theological summa. One can't, on theological grounds, remove dogmatics from the activity of exegesis.

[*] R. W. L. Moberly, "Christ in All the Scriptures? The Challenge of Reading the Old Testament as Christian Scripture" Journal of Theological Interpretation I.I (2007) 79-100.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

The Most Amazing Sermon Series, ... ever (?)

I've finally finished listening to the greatest series of sermons I've ever heard. Every Sunday I would listen to a sermon by Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian Church, downloaded from this page of the church website. Tim Keller is an intelligent, educated, passionate, articulate man who is driven by his vision of who the God of the Universe is and what this God is doing, especially in New York but ultimately in each and every neighbourhood of this planet. The entire sermon series revolves around Redeemer's core vision, which is as follows:

Redeemer's VisionTo build a great city for all people­—through a gospel movement that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice and cultural renewal to New York and, through it, to the world.
So simple. You can watch a video introduction here.

I was first introduced to this series by a friend after I complained that I hadn't heard too many decent sermons based on the Old Testament. Most of this series is based on Isaiah, though being the systematic person that I am I went right to the beginning and started with sermon #1, the prodigal son. Even here I was impressed by how he could make such a well worn story come alive in such an existentially gripping way, bridging the gap between my personal faith and my place in the broader created world. The last sermon was again New Testament, this time the Wedding at Cana. I don't know how sound his exegesis was, but what he had to say was so beautiful that I just want to believe it!

So, if you want to do you soul and your neighbour a favour, listen to this sermon series, systematically, prayerfully, one after the other. Let Keller's words take up residence in your consciousness until you find yourself transformed and equipped to go out and do what it is we were saved for in the first place.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Now I've been tagged

I apologize for the scarcity of posts in the last few days. It's carnival time here in the Rheinland, which means that everything shuts down in order for people to dress up in kitsch clown costumes, get drunk and sleep with each other. My wife Ingrid has, for the first time in ages, managed to finish work while there's still an evening to speak of, so time's been spent doing husband-and-wife things and travelling. We drove to Luxembourg yesterday, but the constant rain and biting cold, combined with the fact that I wasn't dressed for the outing, combined to dampen my appreciation of what is probably a beautiful city.

I'm also grateful for comments on my Ghandi post. I will get back to you as soon as possible!

So anyway, I've been tagged by J.K. Gayle. What the logic behind this game is I'm not sure, but my geeky addiction to books somehow makes it seem fun. Here are the rules:

Pick up the nearest book of 123 pages or more.(No cheating!)
Find Page 123.
Find the first 5 sentences.
Post the next 3 sentences.
Tag 5 people.

Well, to my left is Gordon Wenham's Word Biblical Commentary of Genesis 1-15. So here's what it says:

On the traditional documentary hypothesis most of these editorial changes are ascribed to P, for the most obvious connections in 5:1-3 are with 1:1-2:4a, which is assigned to the P source. However, 5:29, pointing back to 3:17 and mentioning "the LORD" by name, has to be ascribed to J.
Boring! Oh well, one can't always have the most gripping books lying in one's vicinity.

And I'm supposed to tag 5 people, so here goes: Tim, Bob, Chris, Stephen and Stefan.