Recovering the Feast of Scripture – an Excerpt from A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation

The following is an excerpt from A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation, edited by Craig Bartholomew and Heath Thomas.

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Theological interpretation, which we define broadly as interpretation of the Bible for the church, is that most ancient of hermeneutics. Surprisingly and wonderfully, it is also that most recent approach to the Bible witnessed in the renaissance of theological interpretation today.

Cover ArtIn fact, it is not only that most ancient hermeneutic but also the dominant one during the last twenty centuries. It was only in the past 250 years, with the rise of historical criticism, that theological interpretation became increasingly marginalized. In reaction, we have witnessed a resurgence of theological readings of the Bible in the late twentieth century and on into today.

We welcome this renaissance as a gift, a springtime of biblical interpretation. But how are we to receive this gift, and how are we to contribute toward its maturing? The emergent theological interpretation is a “broad church,” which often raises as many questions as it does answers. Our Manifesto is an attempt to identify the key issues in theological interpretation and to propose fruitful ways forward. It is not the first word, nor is it the last word, but we hope it is a good and helpful word.

It is written by a diverse group of biblical scholars, theologians, missiologists, and pastors from a range of denominations and universities and seminaries. We celebrate this diversity and welcome the interaction between church, seminary, and academy. We also hope that this work spurs other women and men toward deeper and richer interpretation of God’s Word for the church.

Scripture invites us to a feast, to the great feast of the Lamb. For all its insights and rigor, too much modern interpretation has prevented us from hearing God’s address in Scripture and feasting at his table through his Word. At its best, theological interpretation offers us a way to recover the feast of Scripture without for a moment sacrificing the insights of modern scholarship.

©2016 by Craig G. Bartholomew and Heath A. Thomas. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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For more information on A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation, click here.

Interpretation: Right Reception – an Excerpt from Christian Dogmatics

The following is an excerpt from Kevin Vanhoozer’s chapter “Holy Scripture” in Christian Dogmatics, edited by Michael Allen and Scott Swain.

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The interpretation of the Bible—the way readers receive and act in response to it—is also part of the domain of God’s Word. To be sure, it is possible to read the Bible “like any other book,” yet Scripture, unlike every other book, is a set-apart (i.e., holy) vehicle of triune discourse and therefore requires special treatment: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).

Cover ArtWe cannot describe what it is to read Scripture rightly as if human agents were able to understand triune discourse simply through the employment of their natural abilities. Readers are sinners who “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18).

Readers too are, therefore, part of the economy of triune discourse (what God says to someone). The Creator of heaven and earth does not speak futilely into the air but effectively into human hearts and minds. The reader’s role in the economy is not to author Scripture or to confer authority on it but rather to receive and revere it as the Word of Christ, giving thanks for it with others in the church and letting it dwell in the core of their being in order gradually to conform them to Christ, its subject matter.

The goal of interpretation is to create right-minded and right-hearted readers who will rejoice in the truth, not least by willingly participating in it. The reader’s place in the economy of communication is to perform or live out the reality held out by the biblical text: fellowship with God or, in a word, communion.

©2016 by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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For more information on Christian Dogmatics, click here.

The Reformation Begins – an Excerpt from The Church

The following is an excerpt from Gerald Bray’s The Church.

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No event has ever shaken the church as profoundly as the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. There had been schisms before, such as that of the Donatists, but they had been peripheral. There had been splits caused by extraneous factors, such as the isolation of the Celtic churches after the fall of the Roman Empire, but they had been healed fairly easily once contact was restored. There had even been breakaway movements caused by theological disagreements, such as that of the monophysites of Egypt and Syria and the Nestorians, but they did not touch on the fundamental character of the church itself.

Cover ArtHowever much they disagreed with one another, all sides in these disputes claimed an episcopal succession that they could trace back to the apostles, and they organized their ministry and worship in much the same way. The Donatists and the Celtic church have now disappeared, but the non-Chalcedonian churches still survive and are regarded with sympathy by the Eastern Orthodox, who recognize the fundamental similarities between them—similarities that they do not share with either the Roman Catholics or the Protestants of the Western tradition. It was the Reformation that challenged this common pattern and forced the Christian world, or at least its Western half, to think through its principles of ecclesiology for the first time.

In the early sixteenth century there were still a few dissenting groups from earlier times, but they were localized and not very influential. Some Lollards survived in England but were so obscure that almost nothing is known about them, and there were Waldensians in the Alps, survivors of a medieval dissident movement originally led by Peter Waldo (1140?–1218?). The Hussite movement in Bohemia was far more influential than either of these, but it too was a regional phenomenon that did not spread beyond its Czech-speaking homeland. The pope did not lose much sleep over them, nor did he worry unduly about the Eastern churches, most of which were under Islamic rule or else so remote (in Russia and Ethiopia, for example) that they hardly mattered from a Western perspective.

Protestantism was something else altogether. The surviving Lollards, Hussites, and Waldensians quickly aligned with it—not the other way round—and it was to leave an indelible mark on the Christian world. In the course of a single generation, from about 1520 to about 1560, Western Christendom was torn in two and a new kind of Christianity came into being.

©2016 by Gerald Bray. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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For more information on The Church, click here.

Aquinas on the Existence of God – an Excerpt from Proofs of God

The following is an excerpt from Proofs of God by Matthew Levering.

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In his Summa theologiae, Aquinas very briefly offers five ways of demonstrating God’s existence. These are found in question 2, article 3 of the Prima Pars.

The first way is the argument from motion or change. Aquinas states that “motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality,” and he adds that “nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality.” The same thing cannot be in potency and actuality in the same respect, and so a thing cannot be both mover and moved in the same respect. This shows that “whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another,” but this cannot proceed to infinity, since if there is no first mover, there can be no intermediate movers either. The first unmoved mover, who is pure actuality and the source of all act and potency composites, is God.

Cover ArtThe second way is the argument from efficient causality, understood again in terms of act and potency. Nothing is the efficient cause of its own finite actuality (or act of existing), and it is not possible to proceed to infinity in essentially ordered efficient causes, since without a first cause—which itself needs no efficient cause of its act of existing and is therefore pure actuality—there can be no intermediate causes and no ultimate effect. Since there obviously are intermediate causes and an ultimate effect, there must be a first cause, which is God.

Necessarily, then at some time (given infinite time on an endless continuum) everything would have not existed, since “that which is possible to be at some time is not.” If so, then there would now be nothing in existence, since nothing can come from nothing. The fact that something now exists, therefore, means that there must be some thing or things whose existence is necessary. As shown by the argument from efficient causality (the second way), it is impossible to proceed to infinity in necessary things that are caused by another. There must be one uncaused necessary being that causes all others, and this is God.

The fourth way is from the degrees of perfection found in finite things: “Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble, and the like.” The predication of “more” or “less” good or true requires that there be a measure of the degree to which something “resembles” goodness or truth. This measure must be maximal goodness or truth, for otherwise it would itself be measured rather than being the measure. For a maximum in perfection to exist, it must be maximal actuality, “for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being.” This maximum, as perfect actuality, “is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection.”

The fifth and final way comes from the governance of the world. Nonrational things cannot direct themselves to an end, and yet nonrational things in the universe generally repeat the same actions to achieve the same ends. This could not be the result of chance. Thus nonrational things are ordered to their ends by an intelligent orderer who, as the one who orders this-worldly things to their end, transcends and governs this world.

©2016 by Matthew Levering. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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For more information on Proofs of God, click here.

The Surprising Growth of Christianity – an Excerpt from The Patient Ferment of the Early Church

The following is an excerpt from Alan Kreider’s The Patient Ferment of the Early Church.

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No one disputes that the early church was growing, but its growth is hard to measure. For a long time scholars assumed that Christian growth was so rapid that in the early fourth century, on the eve of the emperor Constantine’s accession, five to six million people—between 8 and 12 percent of the imperial populace—were Christian. The most confident statement of this approach was given in the 1990s by a sociologist, Rodney Stark, who calculated that for the church to reach this level, it grew across the first three centuries by 40 percent per decade.

Stark’s confidence has attracted wide assent but also withering criticism, not least from ancient historian Ramsay MacMullen, who has demanded solid, archaeological evidence and posited a much smaller Christian number by AD 310. Debates and speculations will continue as scholars study particular areas in detail. For now, we can safely assume three things:

Cover Art• Christian numbers were growing impressively in the first three centuries.

• This growth varied tremendously from place to place. In certain areas (parts of Asia Minor and North Africa) there were considerable numbers of Christians. But in other areas there were few believers. And some cities, such as Harran in Mesopotamia, were known to be virtual “Christian-free” zones.

• By the time of Constantine’s accession, the churches not only had substantial numbers of members; they extended across huge geographical distances and demanded the attention of the imperial authorities.

It is not surprising that this movement—both growing and worldwide—was buoyant and confident.

We tend to assume this growth and to forget how surprising it was. Nobody had to join the churches. People were not compelled to become members by invading armies or the imposition of laws; social convention did not induce them to do so. Indeed, Christianity grew despite the opposition of laws and social convention. These were formidable disincentives.

In addition, the possibility of death in persecution loomed over the pre-Constantinian church, although few Christians were actually executed. In many places baptismal candidates sensed that “every Christian was by definition a candidate for death.” More generally, as Kate Cooper has pointed out, Christians knew that they, as members of a “dubious group,” were vulnerable to being “turned in” by their neighbors or by others who wanted to see them deprived of privileges. In the 240s Origen commented about the “disgrace among the rest of society” that Christians experienced. Christians had to be cautious.

Nevertheless the churches grew. Why? After 312, when the emperor Constantine I aligned himself with Christianity and began to promote it, the church’s growth is not hard to explain. But before Constantine the expansion is improbable enough to require a sustained attempt to understand it. The growth was odd. According to the evidence at our disposal, the expansion of the churches was not organized, the product of a mission program; it simply happened.

Further, the growth was not carefully thought through. Early Christian leaders did not engage in debates between rival “mission strategies.” The Christians wrote a lot; according to classicist Robin Lane Fox, “most of the best Greek and Latin literature which remains [from the later second and third centuries] is Christian.” And what they wrote is surprising. The Christians wrote treatises on patience—three of them—that we will study in this book. But they did not write a single treatise on evangelism.

©2016 by Alan Kreider. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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For more information on The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, click here.

Foundational Texts – an Excerpt from Sacred Tradition in the New Testament

The following is an excerpt from Stanley Porter’s Sacred Tradition in the New Testament.

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The importance of understanding the OT background to the NT should not be underestimated. Even though, as we saw in the previous chapter, numerous difficulties still confront the scholar who addresses such issues, this does not mean that the topic is not worth pursuing. To the contrary: there are many important reasons for discussing how the OT is used in the NT. The reasons for the importance of the OT merit mention here, even if only briefly.

Cover ArtOne of the major reasons for the study of the use of the OT in the NT is that the OT constituted the foundational set of texts for the NT writers and, along with them, the first Christian believers. While it is easy to understand that the OT was important to Jews, whether they became followers of Christ or not, one must not lose sight of the importance of the OT for gentile believers as well. This importance is seen in the fact that the OT formed the basis of belief for those who first evangelized the gentiles, as well as its having an important role in defining many early Christian beliefs, which gentile Christianity adopted and developed.

One of the best examples of such a relationship is found in Paul’s writings. Paul directly quotes the OT over eighty times (scholars differ on the estimate, as noted in the previous chapter), with over fifty of these quotations occurring in the book of Romans, a letter written to a church Paul had never visited and to an audience probably composed mostly of gentiles.

Some recent scholarship has wished to see the background of the Letter to the Romans as conflict over Jewish issues, such as obedience to the Torah (Rom. 13:1–7).3 I disagree with this assertion and believe that scholars who have emphasized the Jewish background to Romans have overinterpreted the evidence. Even though Paul directly cites the OT more in Romans than in any of his other letters, his use of the OT is more for his own purposes than it is for his readers.

What I mean is that, for Paul, the OT constituted the basic framework of his thought, since he was a Jew trained in Pharisaic exegesis. As interpreters, we have probably placed too much emphasis on trying to understand Paul’s citations from the standpoint of his audience, rather than closely examining how Paul is thinking through Scripture and using it to develop his arguments.

©2016 by Stanley E. Porter. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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For more information on Sacred Tradition in the New Testament, click here.

Unity, Plurality, and the Gospels – an Excerpt from The Fourfold Gospel

The following is an excerpt from Francis Watson’s The Fourfold Gospel.

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The present book takes its cue from the fact that the four gospels are also a fourfold gospel. Each text is as it is only in relation to the others. The gospel texts retain their distinctiveness, yet they are coordinated with one another and do not exist outside that coordination.

Cover ArtThe plurality is a unity and the unity remains a plurality; one can therefore speak both of “four gospels” and of a singular “gospel according to . . .” in four different versions. None of the individual evangelists seem to have envisaged any such arrangement; indeed, only one of them (Mark) even uses the word “gospel” with any real enthusiasm.

The fourfold gospel is the work not so much of the evangelists as of their early readers. It is the outcome of a process of gospel reception, and—since reception creatively reshapes what is received—it is also an ongoing work of gospel production. In that work a number of well-known figures in the early church played their parts; the names of Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome will feature prominently in the pages that follow. But the work of reception was also carried forward by anonymous communities and individuals who read, prayed, lived, and cared about these books and so ensured that they continued in circulation and were available to meet new needs in new contexts.

The shaping of the four texts occurred not only in their initial selection and coordination but also in the provision of authorial identities and biographies, in the development of a gospel symbolism, and in the scholarly analysis and interpretation of gospel similarities and differences. By these and other means, the early church made sense of its own core texts, in which the one story is told and retold in four different ways.

 

©2016 by Francis Watson. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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For more information on The Fourfold Gospel, click here.

Founder, Corrupter, or Defender? – an Excerpt from Paul as a Problem in History and Culture

The following is an excerpt from Paul as a Problem in History and Culture by Patrick Gray.

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While the notion that Paul founded Christianity should not be rejected out of hand as patently ridiculous, neither is it as self-evident as its proponents seem to think. Paul may be the earliest Christian writer, but he indicates that the movement was already up and running by the time he stopped persecuting it and became a member. He claims to be handing on traditions that he has received from others, not introducing novel teachings. Furthermore, as the ardently pro-Paul author of the Acts of the Apostles indicates, he is not the first follower of Jesus to reach out to non-Jews.

And it should not count for nothing that very few Christians—and even then, only very recently—have ever thought of Paul as the founder of their faith. That title is reserved for Jesus. It may not be found in Scripture or in any of the historic creeds, but most Christians of most times and places reserve that title for Jesus.

Cover ArtWho deserves the title? Answering this question is not as straightforward as it may seem. It may be the case that key terms in the debate, such as “founder” and “Christianity,” are not defined with sufficient clarity to yield a single correct answer. But this observation is hardly satisfying. Semantics are only one variable in a more complicated equation. There is something other than purely objective historical investigation going on in the various attempts to solve it.

When it is said that Paul is the founder of Christianity, much more is implied than that a particular name belongs in a particular box on an organizational flowchart. Neither is giving the title to Jesus free of historical and theological presuppositions. Because Jesus is the default choice, however, it is clear that Paul’s “advocates” are trying to say something more. Indeed, they are saying more, and usually more than they realize. To call them Paul’s advocates, of course, is a bit misleading since they are certainly not his defenders. Almost without exception, to refer to Paul as the founder of Christianity is to pay him a backhanded compliment.

This is just one of many ways to register one’s protest against the outsized impact Paul has had on the church and, through the church, the rest of the world. Criticism of Paul is almost as old as Christianity itself, but it can be found with increasing frequency over the past two centuries. The sources from which it issues can be surprising.

According to Adolf Hitler, “The decisive falsification of Jesus’s doctrine was the work of St. Paul,” who “used his doctrine to mobilize the criminal underworld and thus organize a proto- Bolshevism.” David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of the State of Israel, comments that while “Jesus probably differed little from many other Jews of his generation.” it was Paul’s “anti-Jewish emphasis” that “gave Christianity a new direction.”

According to Sayyid Qutb, who deeply influenced Osama bin Laden and has been called “the philosopher of Islamic terror,” Paul’s preaching “infected” Christianity from the beginning because it was “adulterated by the residues of Roman mythology and Greek philosophy.” And when Mahatma Gandhi explains, “I draw a great distinction between the Sermon on the Mount and the Letters of Paul,” he leaves little doubt as to which one he prefers.

Who would have guessed that a loathing for Paul is the one tune that this unlikely quartet would sing in harmony?

©2016 by Patrick Gray. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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For more information on Paul as a Problem in History and Culture, click here.

Unity, Holiness, and the People of God – an Excerpt from The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life

The following is an excerpt from N. T. Wright’s essay “Paul and Missional Hermeneutics” in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life, edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph Modica.

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One of the great benefits of some kinds of “new perspective” reading (note that there are many different kinds of reading which come under that umbrella) is that, without losing the importance of every person having a living faith (as some wrongly imagine), we can grasp Paul’s constant emphasis on unity, starting (for instance) with Galatians, where it is absolutely central. In addition, without going soft on Paul’s insistence on “faith alone” as the marker of justification, we can leave behind the threat of antinomianism that comes from a low-grade, would-be Reformational reading of that doctrine.

Cover ArtFor Paul, justification by faith is the demarcation of the sin-forgiven people of God. People in this category are, on the one hand, the “circumcision of the heart”: though not having the law, they keep it because the Spirit has written it on their hearts (Rom. 2:25–29). They are, on the other hand, the inaugurated new creation, living from within the resurrected Messiah. They stand under the mē genoito of Romans 6:2, and their lives are to embody before the watching world the signs of new creation, including kindness, generosity, abstention from anger and malice, and not least sexual purity, whether in marriage or in celibacy. This kind of a way of life, of community, was more or less unknown in the ancient world. This is why the church was, for Paul, the sign and symbol of the new covenant and the new creation.

But Paul does not mention mission—except perhaps in one passage to which we will come presently. This has worried me, because as a bishop I used to tell people that the church should be shaped by mission, and that mission should be shaped by eschatology. We used to warn against imagining that the first task was to sort out the church and only then, if there was any time left, which often there wasn’t, one might get around to some mission. But the more I have studied Paul, the more I have become convinced that for him the fact of this symbol—of the united and holy community in the Messiah—was itself the mission, or at any rate the heart of it.

Paul knows of other “evangelists”like himself; that was a specific commission. He never suggests that all Christians possessed that calling (another puzzle for some traditional readings). But he sees the church itself as the powerful sign to the watching world, and for that matter to the watching principalities and powers, that a new way of being human has been launched upon the world, and that this is because there is a new kyrios, a new sōtēr, embodying the power and love of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

©2016 by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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For more information on The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life, click here.

The Limitations of Debate – an Excerpt from Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian

The following is an excerpt from Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian, by Michelle Lee-Barnewall.

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In her book The Argument Culture, linguist Deborah Tannen asserts that our culture is permeated by a “pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight.” While she acknowledges that such an approach is useful in the right context, it has become overemphasized to the point where it often gets in the way of solving problems rather than aiding. The assumption is that opposition is the most desirable option (ibid., 3–4), and Tannen suggests that other means, such as “exploring, expanding, discussing, investigating, and the exchanging of ideas,” may yield more fruitful results in some endeavors (8).

The answer may not be the exclusive domain of one side but rather may lie elsewhere. If this is the case, we cannot discover the entire truth in a debate in which the only option is to choose from two positions. Tannen explains, “Opposition does not lead to the whole truth when we ask only ‘What’s wrong with this?’ and never ‘What can we use from this in building a new theory, a new understanding?’” (19). Limiting ourselves to an either/or choice does not leave enough room for improving either side or exploring a different understanding.

Cover ArtAs Tannen further observes, “When the problem is posed in a way that polarizes, the solution is often obscured before the search is under way” (21). Our methodology should make room for a different kind of answer, but a “culture of critique” does not allow for another position. Although criticism certainly has its place, so do other methods such as integrating ideas from different fields (19).

Some evangelical scholars have expressed similar concerns about the gender debate. Timothy George calls for the pursuit of truth in a context that recognizes individual fallibility and the potential contribution from those of the opposing position. He also states his concerns for the effect of the conflict on relationships among the members of Christ. In searching for a “way beyond the polarization,” George discusses three questions for those involved

1. “What do I owe to the person who differs from me?” While we are not obligated to agree with that person, we do owe him or her love. As a result, we are to be good listeners, seeking to understand the person’s aims and asking whether there is anything valid in his or her position.

2. “What can I learn from those who differ from me?” In recognition of his or her own fallibility, each interpreter should be prepared to learn that he or she is wrong and the other person is right. Seeking after truth is more important than winning discussions or protecting reputations.

3. “How can I cope with those who differ from me?” We must remember that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. Consequently, our goal is not to demolish our opponent but rather “to win him or her over to a new and, we trust, better understanding.”

He calls for both sides to recognize their mutual commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy and to allow this greater context to be the basis for a unity under which differences can be discussed. With this underlying unity, perhaps there can then be “honest confrontation of ideas and truth claims as well as a conciliatory spirit that is open to convergence and reconciliation.”

As Tannen and George have noted, there are significant limitations in assuming that the truth of an issue is to be found in one of two sides. As a result, the contours of the debate may be in need of reexamination and adjustment. A more fruitful approach at this point may be to expand or redesign the shape of the gender discussion rather than simply reinforcing the two current positions. In searching for the most accurate way to understand the biblical text, we must be open to exploring another way of viewing the issue itself.

©2016 by Michelle Lee-Barnewall. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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For more information on Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian, click here.