Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Unfortunate Class Photo

Note the text just to the right of the instructor's head (that would be the guy in the blue vest, back row). Explanation below.

We'd been discussing the position of the opponents in the Johannine epistles, and I believe they held a docetic christology. That is, they believed Christ only "seemed" human; therefore the mortal "Jesus" could not be the "Christ." However, anyone who wants to put a cold stop to giving at Lancaster seminary might publish this!

A joyous Christmas to all!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Reading Hebrews Theologically

I just submitted a review of the anthology, The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Eerdmans, 2009). The chapters started out as papers at the 2006 St. Andrews Conference on Scripture and Theology, the second in a series of such events. The first (2003) involved the Gospel of John, and a third (2009) Genesis.

What's special about this book -- and these conferences -- is that it puts biblical scholars in direct conversation with doctrinal theologians. I've heard, from one of the book's editors, that the conversations were sometimes contentious. But the main thing is, this book testifies to the range of ways we might engage the Bible theologically.

I like to think of it as a spectrum.
  • On one end, usually inhabited by biblical scholars, we have the inductive-thematic approach. Here we look at Hebrews with a specific question in mind (the trick is how to identify the right questions), and we sift through Hebrews for passages that relate specifically to that question. A little mixture of historical- and rhetorical-critical analysis might help, too, but basically the approach amounts to gathering the passages, interpreting them, and weighing the evidence. Richard Bauckham's essay on christology provides an example of an excellent scholar doing this sort of work.
  • Theologians might be more comfortable at the other end of the spectrum, with its more tradition-sensitive approach. Here you begin with the "rule of faith" or a doctrinal tradition, bring it to Hebrews, and see how that theological tradition enlightens the text. Bruce McCormack's essay works through key figures in Reformed christology to ask how the death of God's Son relates to God's eternal and unchanging being in Hebrews. Brilliant stuff.
Conflict. Inductive-thematic people are gonna look at the tradition-sensitive ones and say, "You don't even listen to the text; you just impose your doctrine on it. The text has no autonomy with you." In reply, the tradition-sensitive folk will say, "You're so naive, you don't realize that interpretation without presuppositions is impossible. That's why your interpretations don't speak to the life of the church."

But here's the thing. You can't find a "pure" example of either approach in this volume. Both ends of the spectrum, the open-ended curiosity and the tradition-grounded engagement, are necessary for any enlightening interpretation of the Bible. Some of the essays in the volume (John Polkinghorne's, for example), work both ways -- and with insight. That's why I recommend this book -- it demonstrates the variety of approaches to theological interpretation, but it doesn't provide a too-easy answer to our questions.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Apocalyptic Preaching

For next week's class on the Book of Revelation, I've assigned a couple of essays from the excellent preaching and lectionary resource, workingpreacher.org. Both Anathea Portier-Young and I have contributed short essays on "Apocalyptic Preaching" (Thea) and "Preaching Apocalyptic Texts" (Greg). Read carefully, and you'll notice we're talking about different things.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Jewish Jesus People and Paul

This post isn't for scholars so much as it is for students, pastors, and the like. In my teaching -- on campus and off -- I continue to encounter powerful negative stereotypes about Judaism and Jews, including the Jewish followers of Jesus we encounter in Paul's letters. They're historically inaccurate, insulting to Jews, and harmful to Christian faith.

Here's the stereotype. Jews were all tied up about the law. They followed it because they feared they wouldn't pass the final judgment. As a result, they followed the law out of fear rather than devotion, or (healthy) pride. They thought they were superior to the Gentile Christians.

Paul's letters do indicate that some Jewish followers of Jesus expected Gentiles to convert to Judaism as part of their devotion to Jesus. We see this in Galatians, Philippians, and maybe 2 Corinthians. But that's some Jewish Jesus people; we don't know how many. And we might consider their motives.

When you read the Jewish literature of Paul's day, you see that (by and large) people observed the law because they loved it. God had given the law as part of Israel's election, and that gift ordered Israel's life. The law was a source of wisdom and guidance (Psalm 105 and 119, anyone), not a source of fear.

The law also provided identity for the Jewish people. Countless ancient ethnic groups vanished as identifiable peoples during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, but Jews had the law to maintain their identity. When tyrants sought to abolish ethnic distinctions, Jews lived, fought, and died for their faithfulness to the law. It wasn't out of fear. It wasn't out of rigid legalism. It was out of devotion and love.

So when some (remember: some) Jewish Jesus people wanted to continue observing the law, they were simply honoring the tradition in which Jesus himself was born. They didn't think they were "better" than Gentiles, but they did understand the Jesus movement to be a Jewish movement. So did Paul, though his understanding of what that meant led in a different direction.

Preachers, students, and (a few) colleagues, it's time to stop describing ancient Judaism as fearful, elitist, and self-righteous. Look at Paul himself: Jesus people are to remember that we depend on Judaism for our lives, we are not to judge our sisters and brothers, and -- consider how many times Paul says this -- the gospel does not abolish the law.