Saturday, November 14, 2015

Westerholm and Wright on Martin Luther and Pauline Exegesis

In a recent blog post, Scot McKnight quotes approvingly N.T. Wright's judgement on "Lutheran" N.T. scholars:
"[A]nyone trying to be a Pauline exegete while still in thrall to Luther should consider a career as a taxidermist. Heroes are to be engaged with, not stuffed and mounted and allowed to dominate the room." - N.T. Wright, Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 126.

Wright's comment is meant as a rejoinder to Stephen Westerholm's statement about the enduring value of engaging Luther:
"Students who want to understand Paul but feel they have nothing to learn from a Martin Luther should consider a career in metallurgy. Exegesis is learned from the masters." - Stephen Westerholm, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 173.

Leaving to one side Wright's unfair and muddled dismissal of Westerholm's own exegesis of Paul, I note here that both statements are correct: In the first place, heroes are of course "to be engaged with." What enlightened scholar would want to be "in thrall" to anyone? But Westerholm is not alone in thinking that something may still be learned from Luther's reading of Paul. Consider C.K. Barrett, one of the 20th century's finest exegetes:
"In the summer of 1953, in the University Library at Göttingen, I read through Luther's Scholia on Romans...with a sustained enthusiasm and even excitement which I never thought 400 large pages of medieval Latin could evoke. Less sound in detail than Calvin, Luther wrestles at perhaps even greater depth with sin and righteousness, grace and predestination, and rarely fails to reach the heart of the matter, and to take his reader with him. To have sat at the feet of these three interpreters of Paul [Luther, Calvin and Barth] is one of the greatest of privileges." - C.K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1971), vi.
Those who actually read Westerholm will know that his is no uncritical dismissal of the "new perspective", and no uncritical adoption of the old "Lutheran" view either. Here is the context of the passage I quoted above:
"There is more of Paul in Luther than many twentieth-century scholars are inclined to allow. But the insights of the 'new perspective' must not be lost to view. Paul's convictions need to be identified; they must also be recognized as Christian theology. When Paul's conclusion that the path of the law is dependent on human works is used to posit a rabbinic doctrine of salvation by works, and when his claim that God's grace in Christ excludes human boasting is used to portray rabbinic Jews as self-righteous boasters, the results (in Johnsonian terms) are 'pernicious as well as false.' When, moreover, the doctrine of merit perceived by Luther in the Catholicism of his day is read into the Judaism of the first Christian centuries, the results are worthless for historical study. Students who want to know how a rabbinic Jew perceived humanity's place in God's world will read Paul with caution and Luther not at all. On the other hand, students who want to understand Paul but feel they have nothing to learn from a Martin Luther should consider a career in metallurgy. Exegesis is learned from the masters." - Westerholm, Israel's Law, 173.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Socrates, Nicodemus, and Zacchaeus: Kierkegaard and Halík on Conversion and Offense

A public service announcement for sojourners in Southern Saskatchewan:

 Our final colloquium of the semester takes place this Friday, November 6, 2015 in Room 144. Our presenter is my colleague, Briercrest Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Dr. Grant Poettcker.

Grant's paper is entitled "Socrates, Nicodemus, and Zacchaeus: Kierkegaard and Halík on Conversion and Offense."

Please join us on Friday, in room 144 @ 12:30 PM if you can make it out.

If you can't join us on Friday, but will be in Atlanta in a couple weeks, you can take in Grant's paper in the Kierkegaard, Religion, and Culture group at AAR. Click here for details (and an abstract).

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Whose Promises are They?: Exploring Scriptural Fulfilment and Ethnic Identity in Acts

A public service announcement for sojourners in Southern Saskatchewan:

I am happy to announce that on Friday, October 16, 2015, my colleague, Dr. Susan Wendel, will be presenting a paper as part of this year's Briercrest College and Seminary Faculty Colloquium series.

Susan's paper is entitled "Whose Promises are They?: Exploring Scriptural Fulfilment and Ethnic Identity in Acts".

Please join us tomorrow, in room S113 @ 12:30 PM if you can make it out.

(If you can't join us tomorrow, but will be at SBL in at Atlanta next month, you can take in Susan's paper at the Book of Acts session on ethnicity. Click here for details.)

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A 3-minute homily: What does it mean for the gospel to be the "power of God"?

I was asked to contribute to a series of three-minute videos that were played as part of Briercrest's reThink conference last weekend:

Here is the written version of what I tried to say--for those, who, like me, prefer text to speech:

In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul declares, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” What does it mean for the gospel to be the power of God?

Our first thought might be: “What Paul really means is that the gospel tells us about God’s power at work in the death and resurrection of Jesus.” It is true that God’s power works through the death and resurrection of Jesus. But Paul is saying something else in the verse I quoted. In Romans 1:16 the power of God is the good news itself—not just the events but also the message about the events. Paul says the same thing to the church in Corinth: “The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). Do we live as if the message about the cross and the empty tomb is power?

Google “church growth” and you will learn that to build your church you need to find a bigger building, hire a music pastor, and improve your stage performance. Websites say church growth requires social networks, meeting felt needs, and relationships. Paul would say: Preach the gospel.

It’s not that the gospel is magical—as if all you need to do is hand out a tract to be an effective evangelist, or as if you can stand up on Sunday morning, say “gospel,” drop the mic and walk off stage. But if the good news about the Messiah’s shameful death and surprising resurrection is God’s power for salvation, then surely declaring that good news should be at the center of Christian preaching.  

 I’m afraid we forget this – that we try to move beyond the gospel in our churches and in our Christian lives. One of the reasons is that when we hear “power of God for salvation,” we assume “salvation” means the moment of conversion. Once we are saved, and have believed the gospel message about Jesus’ death and resurrection, we don’t need it anymore—right? Actually, when Paul says the gospel is God’s power, he is writing to Christians—to those who are “being saved”—and we who are “being saved” need to hear that message again and again. We need to hear the gospel week-by-week in our churches because the power of God for salvation is also the power of God for transformation, and we desperately need God to continue working in our own lives as well as in the lives of those around us. Evidence of the gospel’s transforming power in us, will contribute to the effectiveness of the gospel in those around us.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Richard Bauckham on being un-mastered by the text

I couldn't resist picking up a copy of John Byron and Joel N. Lohr's edited collection of mini-autobiographies, I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Sories of Faith and Scholarship (Zondervan: 2015). So far--one chapter in--it has more than lived up to the hype. I suspect Christian biblical studies type people will find it hard to put down. Here is an excerpt from Richard Bauckham that I haven't seen quoted yet:
"Another peril [of scholarly study of the Bible] is the sense of mastery of a text that may come with a successful attempt to understand it. I suspect that these perils are unavoidable along the path of rigorous scholarship, but if they cannot be avoided there are nevertheless ways beyond them. It helps to remember that the biblical texts are not unique in their ability to transcend their original context and to resist our objectification of them. Shakespeare's plays may seem to have all the life drained out of them by some kinds of classroom study, but they come to life again in performance. In performance the work of Shakespearean scholars makes a contribution but is also transcended. God addresses us through the Scriptures not because they communicate in some magically unique way but by means of all the ways in which texts communicate. A readiness to be un-mastered is required even for the kind of enhancement of life that poetry or philosophy or drama or nature may give us, not to mention personal relationships. In the case of Scripture, such readiness to be un-mastered is one reason why prayer and worship are the most appropriate ways in which to hear it as God's word.

"We also need to develop a broad understanding of what it means for Scripture to address us or for God to address us through it. Familiar texts do not need to surprise us with new relevance, though they may do so. Their very familiarity is their way of having deep effects in our lives. Texts do not only speak to us; they may also speak for us, enabling us to say more than we thought we knew. Texts may affect us by drawing us imaginatively into their world, if we give ourselves over to their narratives or their images. All these are ways beyond the distancing and objectifying of a text that are occupational hazards of the biblical scholar." (p. 28)

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Loose and Unconnected: Rousseau, the Imagination, and the Science of Consciousness

A public service announcement for sojourners in Southern Saskatchewan:

This year's Briercrest College and Seminary Faculty Colloquium series kicks off tomorrow with a paper by Dr. Joel From entitled "Loose and Unconnected: Rousseau, the Imagination, and the Science of Consciousness."

Please join us on Friday, September 25, in room S113 @ 12:30 PM if you can make it out.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Could ancient Jews eat with Gentiles without violating the law?

Peter's vision by Domenico Fetti, via Wikimedia Commons

Could ancient Jews eat with Gentiles without violating the law?

It is safe to say that most readers of the New Testament (and many New Testament scholars) assume the answer is no. After all, (1) in Acts, when Peter returns from visiting Cornelius he is criticized for staying with uncircumcized men and "eating with them" (Acts 11:3). (2) In Galatians, Paul equates eating with Gentiles to living "like a Gentile (ethnikôs) and not like a Jew (ioudaikôs)" (Gal 2:12-14). These two passages seem parallel. (3) Since Peter responds to his critics by telling a story about clean and unclean food that concludes with the declaration, “what God has cleansed, do not regard as defiled” (11:9), readers of Acts routinely conclude that, from Luke's perspective at least, accepting Gentiles into the church meant doing away with the food laws.

I am not so sure. For one thing, Luke never explicitly draws the conclusion from Peter's vision or his encounter with Cornelius that the food laws were set aside. To the contrary, in the latter chapters of Acts Paul insists on his own continued fidelity to the Jewish way of life: Paul participates in temple worship to show that he “guards the law” (21:24); he also denies that he has done anything against the law (25:8) or his people’s ancestral customs (28:17).

Outside the New Testament, passages that emphasize the strictness with which some Jews observed the food laws also demonstrate that it was possible to "keep Kosher" in Gentile contexts: (1) Daniel and friends refuse the king's food and wine, requesting a diet of vegetables and water, but it was still the king's vegetables and water that they ate (Dan 1:8, 12). (2) Josephus describes a group of priests imprisoned in Rome who survived on a diet of figs and almonds out of piety toward God (Life 14). Martin Goodman concludes: "For pious Jews to eat with non-Jews, sharing a convivial table, was possible, but difficult" (Rome and Jerusalem 119).

Moreover, the food laws were interpreted differently by different Jews:
"It is important to remember that--notwithstanding many wide areas of absolute conformity--evolving Jewish law, even within the normative Orthodox wing alone, has never been monolithic. As a result, it is usual for all popular guides to the practice of kashruth (including cookbooks) to contain strong disclaimers and exhortations to the reader to consult local competent rabbinic authority at all times." - Gene Schram, "Meal customs (Jewish)" Anchor Bible Dictionary 4.649.
If this is true for Orthodox Judaism today, how much more may we suppose that there was room for variety in the first century?

E.P. Sanders explains that in addition to the avoidance of pork, food sacrificed to idols and food containing blood posed "potential problems" for observant Jews. "There are possible problems with other foods, especially the main liquids, oil and wine. A libation to a pagan deity might have been offered from wine before it was sold; oil also might have an idolatrous connection." Aside from these restrictions, Gentile food could be fair game, although "some Jews were generally unwilling to eat pagan food, even when there might be no legal objection to it." On the other hand, Sanders suggests that Paul was not the only first-century Jew who advised eating whatever was set before them without asking questions of conscience: "In 1 Cor. 10.27, Paul advises Christians not to ask about the source of food when in someone else's house, and it is most likely that in the Diaspora some Jewish families followed the same practice" (E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief: 63 BCE – 66 CE. [Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992], 216).

To this evidence, we may add a passage from the Mishnah about Gentile wine and its use in idolatrous libations, which takes for granted that Jews could in some contexts eat with Gentiles:
"If an Israelite was eating with a gentile at a table, and he put flagons [of wine] on the table and flagons [of wine] on the side-table, and left the other there and went out, what is on the table is forbidden and what is on the side-table is permitted..." (Avodah Zarah 5.5).
However we understand NT passages such as Acts 10-11 and Galatians 2, we need to set aside once and for all the idea that Jews believed eating with Gentiles meant violating the law. That simplistic assumption rests on a failure to engage early Jewish sources--and a failure of historical imagination.