Tuesday 31 March 2009

Glen H. Stassen on the Sermon on the Mount

[The following review was first published in August 2007 on the UK Christian Bookshops Directory website, which contains lots of helpful reviews, and is my first port of call for looking up the location of Christian bookshops. Thanks to Phil Groom for giving me the opportunity to review the book.]

Glen H. Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), xvii + 222pp., ISBN 9780787977368.

The constant stream of books and studies published on Matthew 5-7 shows the enduring appeal and challenge of the section commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. Now Glen H. Stassen, Professsor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, has added another contribution, which forms one of the volumes in the ‘Enduring Questions in Christian Life’ series from Jossey-Bass, nicely produced as a compact-sized hardback.

Although written in a clear and engaging style, this book comes with the significant academic reinforcement provided by the volume Stassen co-authored with David P. Gushee: Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003). This means that those who would like to do so may ‘graduate’ from this book to the longer, more detailed one; and those who for various reasons might deem Kingdom Ethics too unwieldy could find this one more useful for their needs.

Some of the points Stassen makes have been made before, but are worth making again. One is that the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) provides an organising centre for the whole sermon with its main themes picked up in the surrounding text. More significantly, perhaps, is the reminder that Jesus’ teaching comes with his claim that the kingdom of God has arrived in his ministry; and Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom needs to be understood in the light of the Old Testament, Isaiah especially, and its promises of salvation for the people of God. Some approaches to the Sermon on the Mount have tended to allow its teachings to float free as contextless ethical maxims. But Jesus understood his own mission in terms laid down in Isaiah, that God was reaching out to Israel and the nations through his own ministry of teaching and healing. This means the exhortations in the Sermon are not faceless demands, but presuppose certain things about Jesus and the kingdom he brings.

This alone should be enough to suggest that it would be hard to overestimate the significance of the Sermon on the Mount in reflections on Jesus’ teaching and Christian ethics. It’s also difficult to imagine there could be any fresh perspectives, but Stassen offers a distinctive view that the Sermon is not patterned in terms of ‘high ideals’ (that we don’t be angry, and don’t lust, and don’t take oaths, and don’t assert rights), but in terms of ‘transforming initiatives’.

So, in Matthew 5:21-26 (on murder and anger), Jesus is often interpreted as giving a command not to be angry and not to call anyone a fool. In fact, Stassen points out, what’s described in 5:22 is a vicious cycle we can get stuck in: we get angry, we insult one another, and it leads to trouble. Jesus does give commands, but they’re not found in 5:22, they’re found in 5:23-26, and they’re examples, says Stassen, of ‘transforming initiatives’; they are ways of deliverance from anger. They are not merely illustrations attached to a command not to be angry; they are the climax of the teaching. In this case, the angry person is transformed into an peacemaker who, in turn, transforms the enemy into a friend.

Stassen sees the teachings in the main body of the Sermon as a series of such ‘transforming initiatives’, where the main emphasis is placed on the third part of the sayings, not on negative commands but on the regular practices which enable us to participate in God’s way of deliverance from vicious cycles. Even if this pattern is not always as clear as Stassen makes out, it does shed helpful light on a number of passages.

The Sermon on the Mount not only shows us what Jesus is like, but what God is like – the one who brings the grace and deliverance mentioned in the subtitle. It’s a liberation which involves the things about which the sermon speaks: practising reconciliation, keeping our marriage covenants, telling the truth, making peace, loving enemies, forgiveness, economic simplicity. The challenge is not just to know these things but to live them out; hence the first word in the title – Living the Sermon on the Mount.

The book could profitably be used by housegroup leaders or preachers working through the Sermon on the Mount, or as a devotional aid for an individual, and comes highly recommended.

Monday 30 March 2009

The Jubilee Centre on the Fair Sex Movement

The Jubilee Centre is providing a range of resources for the ‘Fair Sex Movement’ to coincide with the publication of a book by Guy Brandon – Just Sex: Is It Ever Just Sex? (Nottingham: IVP, 2009).

According to the website, Fair Sex ‘is an informal movement that seeks to promote a greater awareness of the personal, social and economic consequences of sexual relationships’.

The resources include three short YouTube movies (linked here) with an accompanying lesson plan for a 45-minute session to help student groups, youth groups and PSHE classes to explore some of the issues surrounding sex and relationships that have come out of their research.

In addition, there is a set of three Bible studies on sexual ethics in 1 Corinthians 5-7, together with an accompanying set of leaders’ notes, suitable for church groups.

Christopher R. Seitz on the Old Testament and Theology

Christopher R. Seitz, Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), xi + 355pp., ISBN 0802843220.

[The following is a lightly-edited version of a review first written in November 1998 and published on London School of Theology’s website.]

The issues raised here by Christopher Seitz are vital for the self-understanding of today’s Christian community. If the Old Testament is the Word of God, then we are obliged to take it seriously as such. Theoretically, of course, Christians operate with a unified canon – Old Testament and New Testament. In practice, however, the Old Testament is frequently and effectively marginalised, which leads to little sense of the overarching sweep of salvation history from creation to consummation, and little understanding of the relationship between the old covenant and the new covenant. Seitz seeks to address this division.

But a recurring concern of the book is to assault the similar barrier between biblical studies (combining Old Testament and New Testament studies) and theology. Seitz urges ‘biblical studies to be more theological and theological studies more biblical’. Otherwise biblical studies will tend to focus narrowly on historical issues, and then attempt to make itself relevant by an ‘existential’ leap back to the twenty-first century, while theology will tend towards philosophical reflections on issues facing the church today, but will stay largely detached from serious exegetical engagement with the two-testament Christian canon.

The volume is made up of twenty-two essays (some of which have been published elsewhere – although the collection still provides a coherent work), divided into three parts: Biblical Theology, Exegesis, Practice. The shape is important. That there is a second part means that the Biblical Theology section does not stand alone in glorious theoretical isolation, but is expanded and illustrated in exegetical studies based in a specific Old Testament book (Isaiah). That there is a third part means that the biblical-theological and exegetical issues raised in the first two parts are earthed in a discussion of several pressing questions (ranging from the church’s lectionary to urban theology to homosexuality).

It’s clear from the title that Seitz is particularly concerned with the ‘abiding theological witness’ of the Old Testament. In the first part of the book (Biblical Theology), he argues that we need to hear a connected Old and New Testament witness to God in Christ. Historical criticism of the Old Testament has been too narrowly focused, and has effectively ignored significant links with the New Testament. The varied essays are united by a concern for a ‘canonical’ approach to Scripture, akin to the work of Brevard Childs. Seitz thus works with the unity of the Bible as transmitted by the church. When he tackles the vexed question of who the Old Testament belongs to, he thus argues for a Christian reading:

‘Though it should seem obvious, we should remember that a “historical” Jesus has never been the object of the church’s faith, but rather the triune God, revealed in Old and New Testaments and presently alive in the body of Christ through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, to search for a “historical” Jesus apart from the witness of Israel’s scriptures is to drive a wedge between the One raised and the One doing the raising. It is this avenue that Paul shuts off, as do the creeds, when they say that Jesus rose again “in accordance with the scriptures.”’

Overall, then, Seitz seeks to reconnect the Testaments where they have become disconnected. In his scheme, the witness of the Old Testament itself is affirmed, but it is also to be taught and experienced within a Christian framework – so that Christians may see the way the Old, in the light of the New, renders God.

In the second part (Exegesis), he works out these reflections, dealing mainly with the book of Isaiah, and especially issues of interpretation. Among other things, he draws interesting links between Isaiah and Lamentations, Isaiah and the kingship Psalms, and offers reflections on how Isaiah should be treated in church Bible study.

The essays in the third part (Practice) cover a range of issues. Seitz adds his voice to the ‘inclusive language’ debate, arguing that God must continue to be known as Father. He suggests that the church’s lectionary should have two readings (rather than three), in order to bring out the correspondence between the Old Testament and the New Testament. This section also includes two powerful and engaging essays, in which Seitz persuasively argues that same-sex unions may not be justified from a biblical and Christian perspective.

The book is not always an easy read, and perhaps a little uneven in places – but it is well worth working through. Anyone interested in the place of the Old Testament in the theological task will benefit from Seitz’s timely reminder for the Christian church to pay attention to the shape of its Scriptures – Old and New, New and Old.

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (1/50) – The Lordship of Christ

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the first of the fifty emails…

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… all things have been created through him and for him… And he is the head of the body, the church… God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Colossians 1:15-16, 19-20

Jesus… Well, where else could we start exploring the main contours of the biblical story? With creation, perhaps? Yes, and we will get to it soon – though we shall find Jesus there before us. Or, on the basis that we best understand the beginning from the perspective of the end, could we start with the consummation of all things? Again yes, and that will be in our sights – though we shall find Christ there ahead of us.

Paul wrote letters not narratives, but it is the biblical story that funds his pastoral engagement with churches, and that story sometimes bubbles to the surface as it does here in Colossians 1:15-20 (and Philippians 2:5-11), where we are taken from creation to consummation through the cross in six verses. And at the heart of it all is Jesus.

So, we begin with the one who embraces both beginning and end, who stands at the heart of God’s plan for the ages, himself the image of the invisible God, the Lord of creation and redemption – for the sake of his church. Since all things were made through him and all things will be finalised in him, there is nothing left that does not come under his lordship. The creator, sustainer, and reconciler of all is none other than Jesus, the Lord of all.

And what goes with the confession of Jesus as Lord is the assurance that there is no part of ordinary, everyday reality that falls outside the orbit of his loving oversight. As Paul makes clear in the rest of Colossians, Christ’s lordship has implications for every area of life – to the extent that what funds our discipleship, our marriages, our working days, and our engagement with culture is not just the truth about Jesus as creator and redeemer of all things, but our relationship with him as Lord and with each other as his people.

Jesus is Lord – begin here.

For further reflection and action:

1. How does Colossians 1:15-20 broaden our horizons, and what difference might that make to how we go about our next task, our next conversation, our next meeting, our next purchase?

2. Read and reflect on Philippians 2:5-11, noting from the immediate context (2:1-4 and 12-18) how those who are ‘in Christ’ are shaped by the story of Christ.

3. In the first-century Roman imperial context, where Caesar is in charge, there are political implications in confessing Jesus as Lord… What are the imperial rulers – the ‘Caesars’ – of today? How do they exercise their ‘lordship’, and how does Christ’s rule subvert theirs?

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Steven Childers on the Gospel

Steven L. Childers, ‘True Spirituality: The Transforming Power of the Gospel’.

Childers takes his title from a book by Francis Schaeffer, and begins by referring to Schaeffer’s observation that among those who had fought hard to uphold orthodox theology he had seen correct doctrine but little or no spiritual transformation, even in his own experience. Schaeffer came to realise that true spirituality is not only a matter of the mind and the will, but also a matter of the heart.

Childers outlines three counterfeit remedies to this problem:

• Intellectualism – which focuses on the mind, and reduces Christianity to a set of doctrinal beliefs to affirm
• Passivism – which focuses on the emotions, and relinquishes control, letting go and letting God
• Moralism – which focuses on the will, and seeks to try harder…

In response, Childers addresses two questions, taking his cue from Mark 1:14-15 in both cases:

• What is the gospel?
• How does the gospel change a Christian?

1. What is the gospel?

• Good news of a kingdom
• Good news of a king
• Good news of pardon and power
• Good news for the lost and found

2. How does the gospel change a Christian?

• Repentance: turning heart affections away from idols
• Faith: turning heart affections to Jesus Christ
• Obedience: nurturing faith by the means of grace

The whole thrust of the article is to make sure Christians do not disconnect their discipleship from the gospel. From Tim Keller comes the observation that the gospel is not just the ABC of Christianity, but the A to Z of Christianity. It’s not merely a plan or programme for spiritual self-development, but a person – Jesus Christ – who says not only ‘repent and believe the gospel’ (Mark 1:14-15), but ‘come to me… and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28-30).

Craig Bartholomew & Michael Goheen on the Drama of Scripture

Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids/London: Baker Academic/SPCK, 2004/2006).

This is still probably the best of an increasing number of works doing biblical theology by foregrounding the significance of the biblical storyline for developing a distinctively Christian worldview.

The book was first published by Baker in the USA in 2004; SPCK have republished it in 2006 in a different format. The SPCK version is shorter, has fewer endnotes, and contains sections of reflection on contemporary significance and study questions (which are not found in the Baker version); but the Baker version is fuller, and contains maps and diagrams (which are not found in the SPCK version). Confused?

A pdf sample of the SPCK version is available online to… well, sample...

Bartholomew and Goheen argue that in a culture where many stories compete in offering to describe the nature of reality, it’s the biblical story that should be central to the formation of a Christian worldview. They want to say that Scripture tells God’s story, the true story of the world. We shouldn’t try to fit the Bible into a convenient space in our world, but fit our world into the Bible, to find our place in the story of the Bible, to immerse ourselves in it, so to indwell it that we begin to think and live out its perspective.

They trace the biblical story in six acts:

Act 1 – God establishes his kingdom: creation
Act 2 – Rebellion in the kingdom: fall
Act 3 – The King chooses Israel: redemption initiated
Interlude: A kingdom story waiting for an ending: the intertestamental period
Act 4 – The coming of the King: redemption accomplished
Act 5 – Spreading the news of the King: the mission of the church
Act 6 – The return of the king: redemption completed

The book is also funded by a website – ‘Scripture and Worldview’ – which contains a number of helpful resources, including articles, slide presentations used in teaching through the book, and Bible reading schedules.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Word for the Week – Whole Life, Whole Bible: The Gospel of God

For more than eight years, LICC's free weekly email service – Word for the Week – has provided a short reflection on a passage from the Bible, noted for their profundity-in-brevity as well as being earthed in real-life contexts. Many of these are now available in an archive on the relaunched website.

The relaunched website coincides with the start of a new series of 50 Word for the Week emails – Whole Life, Whole Bible – designed to take subscribers through the main contours of the biblical story. The series hopes to show how whole-life discipleship is an integral part of the gospel and is woven through Scripture as a whole, from creation to new creation, from the garden of Genesis to the city of Revelation.

Questions will be included with every email, designed to stimulate further reflection and action, so that the engagement with God's word might affect the heart and hands as well as the head.

The following was published yesterday as a ‘bridge’ between the ‘old’ series and the ‘new series’…

‘Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God – the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son… Jesus Christ our Lord… God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness… I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes… for in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed…’ (Romans 1:1-4, 9, 14-17)

Again and again, I find myself needing to come back to what really matters. It’s all too easy for my faith to become about who I am and what I do – my values, my intellect, even my discipleship – when it is first and foremost what God himself has done – for me, for us, for the world – in Christ. Many religions begin by telling men and women what they should do; Christianity begins by telling us what God has done.

There is a word for it – ‘gospel’ – referring not to some abstract teaching about the nature of salvation, but to the proclamation of the good news that God saves.

In these opening verses of his letter to the Roman churches, Paul makes it clear that the gospel is focused on Christ and rooted in Scripture. It’s about what God has achieved through his son – Jesus Christ our Lord – the fruition of promises made long ago through the prophets. Nor is it merely a private claim, but one of public truth – good news for the whole world.

Small wonder, then, that the gospel defines Paul and his ministry, that he is set aside for it, that he is so eager to preach it. Recall what he says of the gospel: the declaration that God’s saving power is putting the world to rights through the work of his Son, not least by bringing men and women into a right relationship with himself, which comes about as it always has done – through faith, from first to last – and which is available equally to all who believe, breaking down barriers between ethnic groups in the process. How could he be ashamed of that?

And, since belief in the gospel comes bound up with a particular view of reality – of God, creation, humanity, sin, redemption – we discover that it provides the perspective from which to view the whole of life. Whole-life discipleship begins with the gospel.

Wherever we find ourselves today, and whatever we have to turn our hand to, may the God of the gospel of Jesus Christ be our strength, our joy, and our hope.

London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, where I work, has relaunched its website, including several domains – Bible, culture, work, youth – representing major areas of the ongoing work of the Institute; there is also a section devoted to the Imagine project, an initiative seeking to help churches nurture a culture of whole-life discipleship. It is hoped that each of the areas will be regularly updated, and some of those updates will also be featured on this blog.

Sunday 22 March 2009

Christ on Campus Initiative

The Gospel Coalition website contains a page on the Christ on Campus Initiative, ‘a ministry created for the purpose of preparing and circulating literature for college and university students, addressing an array of important intellectual and practical issues from an evangelical Christian perspective’.

Essays published so far include:

Harold A. Netland
One Lord and Savior of All? Jesus Christ and Religious Diversity

Chawkat Moucarry
A Christian Perspective on Islam

Graham Cole
Do Christians Have a Worldview?

Craig L. Blomberg
Jesus of Nazareth: How Historians Can Know Him and Why it Matters

Kirsten Birkett
I Believe in Nature: An Exploration of Naturalism and the Biblical Worldview

Christopher Ash
Christianity and Sexuality

Meredith G. Kline on Deuteronomy

Covenant treaties of different kinds between a suzerain and a vassal were well known throughout a significant period of the ancient Near East. The suzerain gave certain stipulations which the vassal was required to keep in order to uphold their side of the covenant. The vassal committed to being loyal to the suzerain, and the suzerain promised to defend the vassal.

These treaties regularly contained several elements:

• The preamble – which identified the parties in the covenant
• The historical prologue – which provided a brief account of the history of how the parties had come together
• The stipulations – the laws the vassal was to obey
• The witnesses – to the covenant, which are sometimes mentioned
• The sanctions – blessings and curses connected to the keeping of the covenant
• The document clause – which provided for a regular reading of the covenant

The late Meredith G. Kline argued that God, in his wisdom and providence, adopted this well-known treaty format to describe the relationship between himself and his people. He, the Lord, was their suzerain; and they, the people, were his vassal.

In his introduction to a commentary on Deuteronomy, Kline wrote:

‘Part of the standard procedure followed in the ancient Near East when great kings thus gave covenants to vassal peoples was the preparation of a text of the ceremony as the treaty document and witness. The book of Deuteronomy is the document prepared by Moses as a witness to the dynastic covenant which the Lord gave to Israel in the plains of Moab.’

Thus it has often been suggested (by others, including Kline) that the entire book of Deuteronomy can be seen as resembling the structure of a covenant treaty. It has a preamble (1:1-5), a historical prologue (1:6-4:49), a long list of stipulations (5:1-26:19), mentions witnesses to the covenant (4:26; 30:19; 31:28), lists sanctions, including blessings and curses (27:1-30:20), and provides instructions regarding the continuity of the covenant (31:1-34:12), including the storage and public reading of the document (31:9-13, 24-26).

Kline laid this perspective out in a number of places, notably in The Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy, Studies and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963).

This was largely made up of the following items, available online:

Meredith G. Kline, ‘The Two Tables of the Covenant’, Westminster Theological Journal 22 (1960) 133-46.

Meredith G. Kline, ‘Dynastic Covenant’, Westminster Theological Journal 23 (1960), 1-15.

Meredith G. Kline, Commentary on Deuteronomy in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Peter Barry on Beginning Theory

Peter Barry, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, Beginnings, 3rd edn. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009).

I bought this yesterday having previously bought the first edition in 1995 and the second edition in 2002. I think it ranks as one of the best introductory overviews of critical theory available.

It covers the usual suspects of liberal humanism, structuralism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, psychoanalytic criticism, feminist criticism, lesbian/gay criticism, marxist criticism, new historicism, etc., and does so lucidly with examples of how the approaches work in practice, as well as places to ‘stop and think’ to check one’s understanding along the way.

The second edition added a chapter on ecocriticism, acknowledging the burgeoning interest in ‘green’ approaches to literature, and added a chapter (an excellent brief treatment, in my opinion) on narratology as a branch of structuralist theory.

This third edition is also expanded rather than revised, and now includes a chapter outlining the story of recent literary theory in ten significant episodes, from the Indiana University Conference on Style in 1958 to the Sokal Affair in 1996. A second additional chapter provides a summary of some new ‘isms’ which have appeared since 2000 or so, not least at a time when a number of significant voices have been declaring that we now find ourselves in an ‘after theory’ period.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

J. Gary Millar on Deuteronomy

J. Gary Millar, Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy, New Studies in Biblical Theology 6 (Leicester: Apollos, 1998), 216pp.

[The following book review was first published on London School of Theology’s website in July 1998.]

Another volume in the ‘New Studies in Biblical Theology’ series, edited by D.A. Carson. The series attempts ‘do’ the crucial task of biblical theology, whether in discussing its relationship to other disciplines (e.g., systematic theology), or working out a theme across Scripture as a whole, or (as here) expounding the contribution of a particular book to the canon. This one takes an extended look at Deuteronomy and, apart from anything else, provides a good introduction to the literary and theological shape of the book.

After an introduction surveying the current state of research in Old Testament ethics, Millar deals with the ethics and theology of Deuteronomy in relation to five themes: covenant, journey, law, the nations, and human nature.

According to Millar Deuteronomy is not itself a treaty document, though it clearly draws on the covenant metaphor in speaking of Israel’s relationship to the Lord God. In particular, the book presents the covenant as a relationship with ethical consequences. The ‘journey’ motif in the framework of Deuteronomy (chs. 1-11 and 27-34) makes it clear that following the Lord means living obediently in changing circumstances. The laws in the middle of the book (chs. 12-26) are profoundly theological, related especially to worship, the land, and human relationships. And all of these are consequences of the great founding event of the nation – the Exodus.

‘The nation has been redeemed, and now belongs to God. As his unique people, they must submit to him in worship. He has redeemed them from Egypt to enjoy a relationship with him, and to do so in his land. In the light of his redemption, they cannot treat one another in a way which is incompatible with the way he has treated them.’

As well as calling the people of God to be different from the surrounding nations, Deuteronomy recognises that human beings are intrinsically flawed. Final hope is in the hands of the covenant-making and covenant-keeping God. Millar is thus not embarrassed to show how the various themes relate to the New Testament’s articulation of theology and ethics. On the question of law and grace, for instance, Deuteronomy is quite clear on the priority of God in initiating and sustaining the relationship with Israel; but it is equally clear on the place of the law in facilitating that relationship.

Perhaps most important of all, Deuteronomy provides not so much an ethical textbook, as a demonstration of ethics in operation. The theology of the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai are picked up and applied to what lies ahead for the people of God in the land. Without denying the possibility of constructing an ‘Old Testament ethics’, Millar places a healthy emphasis on the dynamic in operation in Deuteronomy. Such ‘ethics’ result from applying theology to changing situations. The biblical text reflects the ongoing ethical challenge of engaging with basic questions which are fundamental to the existence of men and women, as individuals and in community, in our relationship with the Lord.

Sunday 15 March 2009

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart on Deuteronomy

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 62.

‘Deuteronomy brings the Pentateuch to a conclusion with its constant reminders of God’s love and faithfulness despite his people’s constant rebellion, but the final word is one of hope that God will ultimately prevail with his people.’

Thursday 12 March 2009

Dennis T. Olson on the Theology of Numbers

Dennis T. Olson, ‘Negotiating Boundaries: The Old and New Generations and the Theology of Numbers’, Interpretation 51, 3 (1997), 229-40.

Hosea 9:10 alludes to the story of Israel’s worship of Baal Peor, narrated in Numbers 25, which ‘marks the transition from an old generation of rebellion to a new generation of hope’ (229).

Olson sees the transition from old to new generation as providing the main structure and theme of Numbers as a whole. The structure is marked by two major census lists (in chapters 1 and 26), dividing the book into the story of an old generation of death (chs. 1-25) and a new generation of hope (chs. 26-36).

The story of apostasy in Numbers 25 is bound up with the Balaam-Balak story in chapters 22-24 – partly through a recurring motif of ‘seeing’ and ‘looking’ (22:22-30, 31-38; 24:4, 15-17; 25:6-7), partly through the role played by Moabites and Midianites (22:4, 7; 25:1, 6, 17), and by Balaam too (who is the central character in chapters 22-24 and named in 31:8 and 16 as the one who encouraged Midianite women to entice the Israelites into worshipping Baal Peor).

Not unlike the contrast of scenes in the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32, ‘as God is struggling on the mountaintops surrounding the camp of Israel to bless God’s people (Num 22-24), the Israelites down on the plains of Moab are reveling in idolatry and disobedience (Num 25)’ (233).

In fact, Olson holds that the similarities between the Baal Peor and the golden calf incidents suggest that the two stories ‘function as bookends for the experience of the old generation from Mount Sinai to the edge of the promised land’, further suggesting ‘that the old generation of Israelites made little or not progress in their commitment to God’s covenant’, ending up where they began by breaking the first commandment (233-34).

The new generation begins with a new census (Numbers 26) – but will it repeat the rebellion and disobedience of the past?

As it happens, according to Olson, there are positive signs of life in Numbers 26-36 (231-32, 235). But he also argues that these chapters reveal something about the way this new generation is to carry on its life with the traditions that have come before it and the land that lies ahead of it; he calls this ‘dialogical negotiation’ (235-39).

For instance, there is a balance of care in deciding the distribution of the land (26:52-56). When the issue is raised of the inheritance in the land of Zelophehad’s daughters (26:33-34), the land is to remain in the family’s possession even if means controverting the custom that only men can inherit the land (27:5-7) (235-36). The additional complication of what happens when the daughters marry reappears at the end of Numbers (36:1-12), where again a compromise is reached, but where the overriding concern is for the land to remain in the possession of the tribe to which God originally gave it (36:9). The two accounts of Zelophehad’s daughters (27:1-11 and 36:1-12) ‘form a literary frame that holds together the texts related to the new generation’, with the narratives about the women and land inheritance serving as ‘positive confirmation of God’s gift of land to this new generation’ (236).

But, the compromise achieved in the face of new circumstances ‘affirms the flexibility of the tradition and the need for reinterpretation as new questions arise for succeeding generations of God’s people’ (236). Olson traces this in the similiarity-yet-difference of the leadership of Moses and Joshua (27:12-23), in the concerns for preserving order and holiness in chapters 28-30, in the holy war against the Midianites (ch. 31), in Reuben and Gad’s request to settle east of the borders of the land and how that is handled (ch. 32), and in the Levitical cities of refuge (ch. 35).

Olson concludes:

‘In the end, Numbers commends neither a model of rigid obedience to authority and tradition (Num 1-10) nor a model of flagrant rebellion against authority and tradition (Num 11-25)… In either case, whether rigid consent or thoroughgoing suspicion, the community may end up in idolatry like that of Baal Peor. A more hopeful and promising model involves the hermeneutic of dialogical negotiation portrayed in Numbers 26-36. Such a hermeneutic involves respect for tradition with a bold imagination that seeks compromise on the basis of mutually held values and commitments. Those of a new generation who engage in such a hermeneutic seek to worship neither the idol of tradition nor the idols of other gods. Rather, they seek the guidance of the one living God through the dialogical interplay of tradition, new circumstances, and the conflicting voices within the community in which they live and worship’ (240).

Elmer A. Martens on the Theology of Numbers

Elmer A. Martens, ‘Theology of Numbers’, Direction 29, 1 (2000), 54-63.

[This article was first published as the entry on Numbers in Willem A. VanGemeren (ed.), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), Vol. 4, 985-91.]

Martens begins with some standard comments on the outline of the book, noting that it can be structured according to geographical indicators, yielding three sections:

• Encampment at Sinai (1:1-10:10)
• Around Kadesh Barnea (10:11-20:13)
• En route to the plains of Moab (20:14-36:13)

Or it can be structured temporally, yielding a twofold division:

• The first census – old generation (1:1-25:16)
• The second census – new generation (26:1-36:13)

He helpfully notes the mixture of genres in the book, notably instructions and travel report, in both of which ‘is traced something of the dynamism between God and people’ (55). He suggests that the final verse provides a grid for a theological summary:

‘These are the commands and regulations the Lord gave through Moses to the Israelites on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho’ (36:13).

This, he holds, suggests a theology that will deal with the Lord, with leaders, and with people in the context of commandments and a journey toward a promised land (55). The bulk of the article is then taken up with exploring these themes:

• God: sovereign guide and lawgiver
• God: gracious provider and chastiser
• God: embodiment of holiness and sin-forgiver

• God’s people: united and organised
• God’s people: destined for messianic rule
• God’s people: both compliant and noncompliant

• Leaders: mediating
• Leaders: multiple and caring
• Leaders: privileged and responsible

• Law: not impersonal codes
• Law: precedent
• Law: the ten commandments

• Land: promise and gift
• Land: abundance
• Land: ethics

The two major genres – law and journey report – ‘each speak to the question of a dynamic (changing) relationship between God and people. The laws… are subject to modification as a result of circumstances’ (61).

Martens finishes with some comments on Numbers in its canonical context (61-62), noting that its laws anticipate Deuteronomy, and wilderness themes reappear in the prophets, in addition to typological links with Christ and the church.

Iain M. Duguid on Numbers

Iain M. Duguid, Numbers: God’s Presence in the Wilderness, Preaching the Word (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2006), ISBN 9781581343632.

Iain M. Duguid contributes the volume on Numbers to Crossway’s ‘Preaching the Word’ series; individual commentaries in the series tend to flow out of the writer’s own preaching through the book and are designed to help others in the preaching task.

Crossway make available the series preface, author’s preface, and chapter 1 (effectively amounting to an introduction to Numbers) as a downloadable pdf here.

Duguid writes of his experience:

‘What I found as I proceeded was that the book of Numbers confronted us week by week with the challenge to live faithfully as pilgrims and aliens in a wilderness world and the encouragement to look to the One who has gone through the wilderness world ahead of us’ (13).

He thus makes it clear that he does not see Numbers as ‘simply a book about ancient Old Testament history’ (16).

Although the book seems to lack order and a plot, it is clear that it starts and ends in the wilderness (the Hebrew name for the book is ‘In the Wilderness’), with the chapters in between covering forty years, the lives of a generation. Israel moves through three geographical stages – Sinai (1:1-10:10), Kadesh-barnea (10:11-20:1), and the plains of Moab (20:1-36:13), but comes back to where they started, still in the wilderness.

‘In fact, though, the end is not quite a complete return to the beginning. The book of Numbers is essentially the story of two generations. Each generation undergoes a census in the book: the first generation at the beginning of the book, and the second generation in Numbers 26. Numbers 1-25 is the story of the first generation – a story of unbelief, rebellion, despair, and death… Numbers 27-36, though, starts the story of the next generation, a story that begins and ends with Zelophehad’s daughters, whose appeal for an inheritance is the first issue to be addressed in the beginning of that story in Numbers 27 and the last to be covered as the book concludes in Numbers 36… So, in broad terms we may say that the story of the book of Numbers is the story of two consecutive generations, a generation of unbelief that leads to death and a generation of faith that will lead to life’ (18).

Duguid sees the people in Numbers as ‘living between salvation accomplished and salvation consummated’ (18-19), akin to Christian experience of living ‘between the times’. The chief temptation of life in the wilderness is to ‘lose the plot’, to doubt there really is a promised land ahead, that there is ‘a divine author, who holds the whole grand narrative in his hand’ (19-20). Hence the need to live by faith, ‘to affirm the reality of God’s plot for our lives even when we cannot see it with our eyes’ (20). As we journey, we orient our lives around the presence of God in our midst (21-22). We also remember that Christ has shared the wanderings, just as Israel did, and that he remained faithful to the end (Matthew 4:1-11), and has gone ahead to prepare a place for us.

Encounters Mission Ezine

Every two months or so, Redcliffe College publishes online Encounters Mission Ezine, a journal discussing some of the ‘big’ topics in mission via themed issues. Each edition usually contains three or more articles advancing a major thesis about mission today – sometimes helmed by guest editors who have expertise or experience in a particular field – along with a few book reviews.

The March 2009 edition is devoted to ‘Mission and the Environment in a Finite World’, and is edited by Andy Kingston-Smith, Assistant Lecturer in Mission at Redcliffe College.

This edition of the ezine reports from the annual Environment Day Conference held at Redcliffe College in January in conjunction with the John Ray Initiative. The issue contains articles by Dewi Hughes, Peter Price-Thomas, and Andy Kingston-Smith himself.

The whole edition can be downloaded as a single pdf here, whilst back issues of Encounters can be accessed here.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Princeton Theological Review on Theological Exegesis

The whole fascicle of Princeton Theological Review 14, 1 (2008), downloadable as a 4.55 MB pdf file, is devoted to theological exegesis, with some excellent articles for those interested in the topic:

Daniel Treier
In the End, God: The Proper Focus of Theological Exegesis

Murray Rae
On Reading Scripture Theologically

Angus Paddison
Theological Exegesis and John Howard Yoder

J. Scott Jackson
Jesus Christ as Humble Lord: Karl Barth and N.T. Wright on the Philippians ‘Christ Hymn’

Dennis T. Olson
Seeking ‘the Inexpressible Texture of Thy Word’: A Practical Guide to Brevard Childs’ Canonical Approach to Theological Exegesis

Richard Schultz
Brevard S. Childs’ Contribution to Old Testament Interpretation: An Evangelical Appreciation and Assessment

Philip Sumpter
Brevard Childs as Critical and Faithful Exegete

Later Childs
Daniel Driver

Other helpful themed past issues of the journal are available here.

Robert W. Wall on the Wisdom of James

Robert W. Wall, ‘The Wisdom of James’, Christian Reflection (2009), 27-37.

A 2009 issue of Christian Reflection is devoted to wisdom (Where Wisdom is Found), and includes an article by Robert Wall on James.

The Letter of James, he writes, ‘reverberates with themes from the rich biblical wisdom tradition – from the sages of ancient Israel through the teachings of Jesus and Paul’ (27). James sees Christian wisdom – in both its theoretical and practical dimensions – as embodied within a community that is ‘quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry’ (1:19).

This ‘proverbial rubric’, according to Wall, introduces the letter’s three ‘essays’ which expound the way of wisdom, with the first essay (1:22-2:26) interpreting and applying the wisdom of ‘quick listening’, the second (3:1-18) expanding the wisdom of ‘slow speaking’, and the third (4:1-5:6) exploring ‘slow anger’.

[I personally don’t think 1:19 bears the weight of the whole letter in this way, but I don’t have an alternative, and let’s stick with it for the moment anyway…]

This leads to a division of James as follows:

1. Nature and source of wisdom (James 1:1-21)
Wall sees two parallel statements in 1:2-11 and 1:12-21 setting out a vision of Christian existence marked by joy in response to trials of many kinds, and by the assurance that believers may ask God ‘for the know-how they lack in order to deal with their trials in a wise manner’ (30).

2. The wise community walks the talk (James 1:22-2:26)
The example of Jesus, as well as that of Abraham and Rahab, underwrites the wisdom of caring for the poor in their distress (cf. 1:27).

3. The wise community talks the walk (James 3:1-18)
The wisdom of ‘slow to speak’ is ‘the constraint a responsible teacher exercises’ (cf. 3:1), especially when they are tempted to slander one another to elevate their own status (cf. 3:14). The wise teacher ‘bears a skill that is not learned from experience or education; rather its source is a “wisdom from above” (cf. 3:14, 16a)’ (34).

4. The wise community slows anger (James 4:1-5:6)
Anger comes from desire for material pleasure, provoking the impulse to covet what others have (4:1-5), which tests our confidence in a God who promises to exalt the pious poor (4:6-12). The wise find satisfaction in God rather than material profit which ignores God’s existence (4:13-17), while the greedy will lose their wealth and their lives in judgment (5:1-6).

5. The future of the wise community (James 5:7-20)
The letter concludes, as it started, with the interplay of two parallel statements (5:7-12; 5:13-20), each with ‘a triad of exhortations that recall important catchwords from the letter’s opening’, forming an inclusio ‘that frames the three essays in between’ (36).

Monday 9 March 2009

Walter T. Wilson on Matthew 6:19-7:12

Walter T. Wilson, ‘A Third Form of Righteousness: The Theme and Contribution of Matthew 6.19-7.12 in the Sermon on the Mount’, New Testament Studies 53, 3 (2007), 303-24.

Aside from the introduction (5:3-16) and conclusion (7:13-27), the main body of the Sermon on the Mount is regularly seen as divided into three parts: 5:17-48; 6:1-18; 6:19-7:12. It has proven difficult, however, to detect the overarching structure, subject matter, and purpose of the third major section (6:19-7:12).

In this intriguing article, Walter T. Wilson compares the section with various examples of wisdom instruction, each of which deals with the moral issue of ‘goods’, broadly understood as ‘that which confers good standing or status, not only in economic terms but in social and spiritual terms as well’ (303).

That’s the nutshell version.

Here’s the more long-winded version…

He begins by noting broader considerations about the possible setting and character of the gospel of Matthew, holding that ‘Matthew’s community developed out of a Jewish matrix’, and that ‘its most recent history is one of antagonism with Judaism’; that there was also a ‘growing openness in Matthew’s community to the Gentile mission’; that, in comparison with Mark, Matthew ‘seems to address an audience that includes a greater number of prosperous members’; and that ‘strengthening communal solidarity is a special priority for Matthew’, encouraging an ‘egalitarian ethic’ (303-305). [Of course, all this is read from between the lines of the gospel text itself…]

He then highlights how some scholars (W.D. Davies, Hans Dieter Betz, Ulrich Luz) have sought to understand the place of 6:19-7:12 in the sermon as a whole, but remains unconvinced about their proposals (305-309).

Next he explores the compositional history of the passage, noting that the extent and nature of changes suggests ‘a rather high level of editorial involvement on the evangelist’s part’ (310). It is here he suggests that the reference to ‘righteousness’ (in 6:33) near the centre of the third section ‘raises the possibility that the question of the readers’ moral relationship to “goods”… and specifically how they are to practice righteousness with respect to such goods, is a unifying theme for the passage’ (310). The section, he suggests, can be divided into three parts corresponding to its major themes – dealing with mammon, judging others, and dependence on God (315).

Wilson then looks at ‘self-regard’ and ‘other-regard’ in wisdom instruction (315-19), observing (with Robert Guelich) that ‘most of this material [in Matthew 6:19-7:12] belongs in form and content to the genre of wisdom instruction’ (315). He notes some sections of wisdom literature which provide ‘a sustained critique of what we might call an ethic of self-regard, according to which the significance attached to advancing one’s own interests overshadows the development of proper moral relationships with God, neighbor, and wealth’ (316), where the starting point of walking in singleness of heart is ‘one’s attitude towards such basic human concerns as money, food, clothes, and length of life’ (318).

He also considers similar themes in the letter of James: a section which admonishes readers not to judge (4:11-12), a section which criticises those who in profit-making presume to have gained control over the future (4:13-17), and a section which condemns the rich (5:1-6):

‘Within a relative close proximity we have an admonition against judging “brothers” to the neglect of divine judgment (Jas 4.11-12; cf. Matt 7.1-2), directives regarding the proper attitude towards “tomorrow”, namely that it lies in God’s hands and not in efforts to gain material things (Jas 4.13-14; cf. Matt 6.34), and a warning not to lay up the sorts of treasures that will spoil (Jas 5.2-3; cf. Matt 6.19-21)’ (319).

Such wisdom texts, according to Wilson, ‘illustrate how exhortation on the proper attitude towards material wealth, towards others, and towards God could be integrated into a unified instruction organized around an ethic that is not self-regarding but other-regarding in its orientation’ (319).

‘As with the wisdom authors, for the evangelist this is an ethic that eschews greed and envy, disparaging speech, and the presumption that life can be determined apart from divine justice and benevolence, embracing instead practices grounded in contentment, generosity, tolerance, and humility’ (319).

Finally, Wilson avers that the mention of ‘righteousness’ in 6:33 links the third section with the other two sections of the sermon, where righteousness is ‘thematized’ (5:20; 6:1), suggesting that ‘the full import of this concept cannot be grasped without considering the coordination of the three parts’ (321).

He considers triadic schemes in Philo’s comments on the Essenes (highlighting what Philo sees as their three basic principles of the love of God, love of virtue, and love of others) and from Qumran’s Damascus Covenant, arguing that the three categories interpenetrate even while remaining distinct (321-22).

He concludes about the Sermon on the Mount:

‘The first part (5.17-48) offers instruction on how to practice righteousness in one’s relations with others, expounded as an interpretation of the law. The second part (6.1-18) turns to the community’s religious life, the ways in which the readers are to practice their righteousness, not before others, but before “your father in heaven” (6.1). And the third part (6.19-7.11) instructs them on practicing righteousness with reference to “goods”, referring in the first place to mammon, but including other measures of personal worth as well… Consideration of texts like this… suggests that a triadic schema organized around the categories of God, others, and “goods” would have lent itself to forms of discourse whose purpose was to summarize a body of teaching or a way of life’ (323).

Finally, the three forms of ‘righteousness’ are ‘mutually interpretive’: it’s clear, for instance, that the issue of ‘goods’ is taken up in part 1 (5:38-42) and part 2 (6:2-4), while part 3 also includes instruction on interpersonal conduct (7:1-6) and religious practice (7:7-11), all of which contributes to the internal coherence of the Sermon on the Mount as well as demonstrating some of Matthew’s ‘principal concerns in explicating righteousness’ (324).

Sunday 8 March 2009

Aspects of Theological Interpretation 2

[This is the second of twelve posts outlining a number of streams in the current interest in theological interpretation, paying particular attention to recent treatments. For earlier introductions to theological interpretation, see here, here, and here.]

#1 – Its uneasy relationship with historical criticism

#2 – Its disputed overlap with biblical theology

Related to the previous feature (its uneasy relationship with historical criticism) is the question of the relationship between theological interpretation and biblical theology.

[More generally on this topic, see Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 103-25, and (with a typology of different approaches to the issue) ‘Biblical Theology and/or Theological Interpretation of Scripture?’, Scottish Journal of Theology 61, 1 (2008), 16-31. See also Craig Bartholomew, Mary Healy, Karl Möller, Robin Parry (eds.), Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation, Scripture & Hermeneutics Series Vol. 5 (Bletchley: Paternoster, 2004).]

Some (e.g., James K. Mead, Biblical Theology: Issues, Methods, and Themes [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007], 1-12, 97) see or assume an overlap between the two disciplines.

Others see them as antithetical to each other, particularly where biblical theology is a historical, ‘scientific’ endeavour, cut loose from church dogma, after the fashion of Gabler, Wrede, and Stendahl.

A.K.M. Adam, for instance, criticises the programme of biblical theology as carried out under modernity.

[A.K.M. Adam, Faithful Interpretation: Reading the Bible in a Postmodern World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 19-36, ‘Biblical Theology and the Problem of Modernity’, and see his Making Sense of New Testament Theology: “Modern” Problems and Prospects, Studies in American Biblical Hermeneutics 11 (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1995) in which he seeks to show that New Testament theology does not need to be built on warrants derived from historical criticism.]

The discipline, as established by the norms of modern culture and progress, denies the continuity between the biblical text of the past and the believing community of the present (Adam, Faithful Interpretation, 12, 28-29; cf. Angus Paddison, ‘Scriptural Reading and Revelation: A Contribution to Local Hermeneutics’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 8, 4 [2006], 433-48, at 445-46).

Biblical theology, according to Adam, has proceeded in the light of Stendahl’s distinction between ‘what it meant’ and ‘what it means’, but this ‘quite arbitrarily concentrates on discontinuity in interpretation, without even considering the fact that when a text has been interpreted every day for over nineteen centuries, there will be important continuity of interpretation’ (Adam, Faithful Interpretation, 28; cf. Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study, Studies in Theological Interpretation [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006], 87, who writes that biblical scholarship ‘tends to take for granted a sectarian ecclesiology, presupposing unbridgeable discontinuity between the church who first believed and the church who now believes’).

Likewise for Fowl, ‘theological interpretation’ is not ‘biblical theology’, since the latter is mired in historical-critical retrieval of meaning of the text rather than churchly reading.

[Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation, Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 13-21, and ‘The Conceptual Structure of New Testament Theology’, in Scott J. Hafemann (ed.), Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect (Leicester: Apollos, 2002), 225-36. For similar sentiments, see Luke Timothy Johnson, ‘Imagining the World Scripture Imagines’, Modern Theology 14, 2 (1998), 165-80, at 170-71, 173, and R.R. Reno, ‘Biblical Theology and Theological Exegesis’, in Bartholomew et al. (eds.), Out of Egypt, 385-408.]

And for Joel Green too, ‘commitment to a linear methodology that prioritizes historical meaning has pushed the Humpty Dumpty of biblical theology off the wall, with no means in sight for putting the pieces back together again’ (Joel B. Green, ‘Scripture and Theology: Failed Experiments, Fresh Perspectives’, Interpretation 56, 1 [2002], 5-20, here 10). Though, elsewhere he insists that ‘if we are to engage in a genuinely theological exegesis of Christian Scripture, then both disciplines, biblical studies and systematic theology, must change’ (‘Practicing the Gospel in a Post-Critical World: The Promise of Theological Exegesis’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47/3 [2004], 387-97, at 387).

Current interest in theological hermeneutics has certainly influenced the discussion as to whether biblical theology should have a confessional character.

[Patrick D. Miller, ‘Theology from Below: The Theological Interpretation of Scripture’, in Michael Welker and Friedrich Schweitzer (eds.), Reconsidering the Boundaries Between Theological Disciplines, Theologie: Forschung und Wissenschaft 8 (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2005), 3-13; Henning Graf Reventlow, ‘Modern Approaches to Old Testament Theology’, in Leo G. Perdue (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 221-40, esp. 224-26.]

In this context, biblical theology has been reenvisioned in different ways (See Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation, 110-19). The reenvisioning has been seen in the calls of some evangelical scholars for biblical theology to be organised along salvation-historical lines, concerned with the self-disclosure of God through history, revealed in Scripture.

[So, e.g., Don Garlington, ‘The Biblical-Theological Method’, in Michael A.G. Haykin (ed.), Acorns to Oaks: The Primacy and Practice of Biblical Theology. A Festschrift for Dr. Geoff Adams (Dundas: Joshua Press, 2003), 25-42; Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centred Hermeneutics: Biblical-Theological Foundations and Principles (Leicester: Apollos, 2006); Elmer A. Martens, ‘Moving from Scripture to Doctrine’, Bulletin for Biblical Research 15:1 (2005), 77-103; Charles H.H. Scobie, The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), who views biblical theology as ‘a bridge discipline, standing in an intermediate position between historical study of the Bible and the use of the Bible as authoritative Scripture by the church’ (8). Even so, it is not at all clear that Adam and Fowl (for instance) would consider Scobie’s work an example of ‘theological interpretation’: see Karl Möller, ‘The Nature and Genre of Biblical Theology: Some Reflections in the Light of Charles H.H. Scobie’s “Prolegomena to a Biblical Theology”’, in Bartholomew et al. (eds.), Out of Egypt, 41-64. In a review, Walter Moberly comments that ‘although Scobie constructively presents the content of Scripture under appropriate theological headings, there is no real theological interpretation of Scripture in the sense of providing interpretations that in some way embody the content of Scripture in the very way the text is read and appropriated’ (Journal of Theological Studies 55, 1 [2004], 158-62, here 162).]

Not too dissimilar, according to Francis Watson (Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997]), biblical theology should be redefined as theological reflection on the Christian Bible in its canonical unity, finding Christ at the centre of Scripture, the proper interpretation of which should be the primary concern of Christian theology.

Perhaps most significant is Brevard Childs’ canonical approach to biblical theology, focusing on the final form of the text as the basis for exegesis and theological reflection, and seeking ‘to understand the various voices within the whole Christian Bible, New and Old Testament alike, as a witness to the one Lord Jesus Christ, the selfsame divine reality’.

[Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (London: SCM, 1992), 85. Rolf Rendtorff also offers a ‘canonical’ approach to Old Testament theology: The Canonical Hebrew Bible: A Theology of the Old Testament, trans. David E. Orton, Tools for Biblical Study 7 (Leiden: Deo Publishing, 2005).]

Somewhat differently, mention might also be made here of Philip Esler who adopts a ‘socio-theological model’ of persons in communion.

[Philip F. Esler, New Testament Theology: Communion and Community (London: SPCK, 2005), and ‘New Testament Interpretation as Interpersonal Communion: The Case for a Socio-Theological Hermeneutics’, in Christopher Rowland and Christopher Tuckett (eds.), The Nature of New Testament Theology: Essays in Honour of Robert Morgan (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 51-74.]

Emphasising the historical particularity of the New Testament authors, the knowability of the past, and the importance of authorial intention, it is ‘a model of dialogue and communion’ in which we converse with our forebears in the faith, seeking ‘to understand the original meaning of the New Testament as composed by persons who, like us, belonged (or belong?) to the body of Christ and experienced the same Holy Spirit in spite of the cultural chasm between us and them’ (Esler, New Testament Theology, 37).

[See also Christine Helmer, ‘Biblical Theology: Reality and Interpretation Across Disciplines’, in Christine Helmer with Taylor G. Petrey (eds.), Biblical Interpretation: History, Context, and Reality, Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series 26 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 1-13, for whom the experiences of individuals and communities recorded in biblical texts have shaped centuries of lives, and these religious perspectives are adaptable to new historical contexts. ‘The power of texts rests precisely in their transhistorical potential to speak to subsequent readers about the reality articulated in them’ (6). Cf. her ‘Biblical Theology: Bridge Over Many Waters’, Currents in Biblical Research 3.2 (2005), 169-96.]

Martin Pakula on Numbers

Martin Pakula, Numbers: Homeward Bound, Reading the Bible Today Series (Sydney South: Aquila, 2006), ISBN 1920935444.

The Reading the Bible Today Series provides brief-ish commentaries on biblical books, written at a semi-popular level (think a few notches down from IVP’s Bible Speak Today Series. Martin Pakula, a convert to the Christian faith from Judaism, writes the one on Numbers, based on lectures given to first-year students at Moore Theological College in Sydney.

Why read Numbers? According to Pakula, because it is our story, written for us and for our instruction (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:11), teaching us about ‘the church on its journey to God’s promised inheritance, with nothing to hold on to but the promises of God’ (2).

Like other commentaries in the series, this one seeks to move beyond explanation of the text itself to an exploration of its place in the Old Testament story and how it points to Jesus. It is a self-conscious ‘biblical-theological approach’, reading the book ‘in the context of the whole Bible, and as it finds its fulfilment in Jesus’ (7).

Numbers is part of the outworking of the promises made to Abraham in Genesis 12, and is linked to Exodus and Leviticus by the year-long stay at Sinai, ‘which set up the relationship between Israel and God’ (10).

He offers a three-fold division of Numbers based on geography, with two short travel narratives in between (15):

1. Israel at Sinai (Numbers 1-10)
1a. Travel from Sinai to Kadesh (Numbers 11-12)
2. Israel at Kadesh (Numbers 13-19)
2a. Travel from Kadesh to the Plains of Moab (Numbers 20-21)
3. Israel on the Plains of Moab (Numbers 22-36)

In a final chapter he highlights the two major themes of Numbers as Israel’s unfaithfulness and the faithfulness of God (161-65).

Saturday 7 March 2009

Global Missional Leadership D.Min

Jason Clark – husband, father, full-time pastor of Vineyard Church Sutton in the UK, coordinator of the Emergent UK online resource network, blogger-extraordinaire at Deep Church – is now also an adjunct professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, where he is lead mentor in a DMin in Global Missional Leadership.

Jason hosts a social networking site (gmldmin) for the cadre of students undertaking the GML D.Min programme, which is also open to a wider community of reflective practitioners and missional church leaders.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Richard S. Hess and Gordon J. Wenham on Making the Old Testament Live

Richard S. Hess and Gordon J. Wenham (eds.), Make the Old Testament Live: From Curriculum to Classroom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), x + 218pp.

[The following is a lightly-edited version of a review first written in February 1999 and published on London School of Theology’s website.]

Whether in the church or the classroom, the Old Testament (bar a few choice passages) is typically undervalued and underused, viewed largely as problematic and inaccessible. It’s such neglect that this collection of essays seeks to address and redress. It’s worth taking notice of such books – perhaps especially when they’re produced by evangelical scholars and teachers (many of the essays began as papers for the Old Testament study group of the Tyndale Fellowship).

And this volume has the added bonus of the contributions being drawn from those who teach Old Testament in different institutional settings (university, seminary, theological college), in various confessional contexts (e.g., avowedly Christian, and as part of a Religious Studies course), drawn from different geographical and situational contexts (Europe, USA, Latin America, Australia, South Africa). There are individual essays on teaching the Old Testament in the context of Islam, and in the Two Thirds World, along with reflections on being a research student and a research supervisor. Such ‘variety’ in background is an appealing plus to the collection, even more so that the variety does not prevent a general ‘unity’ of thought from emerging throughout.

The essays are organised under three headings – Content, Context, and Communication (the bulk of them in the second section) – although the three categories are inevitably blurred. The book tends to read a little like a serious after-dinner discussion with teachers of the Bible (the Old Testament, in particular) talking to one another along the lines of: ‘This is how I do it in my context, and here’s a brief outline of my course, and how I see it fitting into the larger curriculum.’

For me, that raises perhaps the main problem with the book: the question of its intended audience and goals. If interested ‘lay’ people would like the opportunity to eavesdrop on such a conversation between the professionals (and what a significant opportunity!), they might find this to be an interesting book. But it will take them only so far. There’s little here on practical points relating to reading and appropriating the Old Testament for aspects of life and spirituality today, or for working with integrity through some of the standard ‘hard’ issues (e.g., mass genocide, patriarchalism). In this sense, the title of the book fails to live up to initial expectation.

On the other hand, the book seems to address fellow academics and teachers. Such readers might enjoy hearing what their peers do elsewhere, and can imagine adding their own contribution to such a discussion. But, again, it will take them only so far.

With a few exceptions (Craig Bartholomew’s contribution springs to mind), the essays contain more descriptive statement than careful argument. To take one example, most contributors state the importance of relating Old Testament texts and theology to New Testament texts and theology; but there is little extended reflection on why we need to do so, how we do so, the possible dangers involved, and what differences it might make to Christian theology and ethics more generally conceived. This is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that the final section on ‘Communication’ contains only two essays – the first on learning and teaching biblical Hebrew, and the second on general pedagogy, with only passing reference to the Old Testament. Both are fine in their own right, but (alas) don’t really move the collection forward enough from ‘context’ to ‘communication’. Alongside this, there is little recognition – positive or negative – of current contributions from scholars working in literary theory and cultural studies (ideological criticism, for instance).

In short, much more is probably needed truly to ‘make the Old Testament live’, but the collection is extremely helpful as a first statement of the concerns of some evangelical Old Testament scholars, and as an indication of some paths for us to explore now and in the future.

Christian Reflection

Christian Reflection is published quarterly by The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University.

Each issue (made available as a pdf download) treats a theme through a variety of forms – articles, art, hymns and aids for worship, inspirational pieces, and book reviews.

Each edition also comes with a separate study guide and lesson plans for personal or group study.

Themes covered go from aging to wisdom, taking in cloning, global wealth, marriage, peace and war, sports, and more along the way.