I am going away on holidays! See you in September.

The Academy and the Church: Different Methods

In the last post, I looked at one of the major goals of the academy and the church. In this post, I will look at the methods we use to arrive at these separate goals.

To make a potentially persuasive case in academia, I think that it is important to do two things. First, outline clearly what methodological approach you are utilizing. Are you engaged in a historical argument, looking at what historical reconstruction of specific events makes the most sense of the surviving data we have or asking specific questions about a source (e.g. what oral or written traditions influenced it, who wrote or edited it, when and to whom was it written, how was it received down the centuries, etc.)? Are you looking at the final form of a text and asking the kind of questions about its narrative that would interest a literary critic? Are you using models informed by social theory to examine the social makeup of ancient Christian congregations or how they might differ from their modern counterparts? Are you bringing your data into dialogue with a later interpretative community in order to see what new meanings may be unearthed when a new set of lens is applied to it? Whatever theoretical approach you take, it is important that it is falsifiable, and hence testable, whether at the level of the theory itself or of its explanatory scope in regards to the actual data.

Second, since scholars do not all share the same background, it is necessary that the arguments I make or the evidence that I cite can be evaluated by my academic peers who may or may not share my own presuppositions. An example would be if I did research on the Nag Hammadi Library. I do not personally hold these writings as divinely inspired and they do not inform my own Christian beliefs and practices at all. However, if I am to act as a historian, I need to study these texts with empathy and use my historical imagination to ask what historical and social factors explain the production of these texts and their positive reception among some ancient (and some modern) readers. Someone who identified as a contemporary “Gnostic” may have a love for and a thorough knowledge of these texts, but I can only engage his or her scholarship on them if we are playing the game using the same rules or standards of evidence, regardless of our private beliefs about these texts.

What about the theological interpretation of the Bible? In this case, I am cognizant of the fact that I am located within and trying to build up a specific community of faith. Given the shared theological worldview that the biblical writings are Scripture for the church, I am concerned about the implications that biblical scholarship might have for how to better understand these texts and how it might impact contemporary Christian beliefs and practices. Since there is a historical gulf separating the world of the biblical authors from the present, a key interpretive concern is how to translate scriptural principles for contemporary Christians living in a very different cultural context. Moreover, the scholarship that I produce within the church may be explicitly built on Christian presuppositions that are also held by my (intended) readership, but with the recognition that this is what I am doing and that it may not get traction among scholars outside my faith tradition (or I may become “data” for Religious Studies scholars answering a different set of questions).

I am just thinking aloud in these last few posts. Does it help to clarify what I see as the distinctive yet equally valuable work that goes on both the academy and the church or have I just muddled the waters further?

The Academy and The Church: Different Goals

In light of the online debate about whether there is an anti-traditional bias in biblical studies, I wanted to write a few brief posts outlining my thoughts as someone who works in both the academy and the church. This post will look at the different goals of each institution and the next post on the different methods to achieve these goals.

As I see it, the purpose of the Humanities in the University is to study different subjects that help to illuminate what it means to be human, including the psychological, social, cultural, and ethical dimensions of human existence. Religious Studies is one branch of the Humanities that examines the formation and development of particular human communities around a set of beliefs and practices in specific contexts. The ultimate goal of the academy is to produce new knowledge, whether breaking down older paradigms or advancing new lines of research based on different ways of interpreting the same data or fresh discoveries.

Churches, on the other hand, act as custodians that guard what they see as the treasure entrusted to them (2 Timothy 1:14) or the faith handed down to the saints (Jude 1:3). This is preserved and protected by a canon of scriptural writings, creeds, common rituals, and trained clergy. However, it is also true that churches will always be changing as they enter into dialogue with the traditions that they inherit from within different historical, social, and cultural contexts.

It may seem like the goal of these two institutions, the academy and the church, are antithetical. Indeed, there may be some core convictions by which a certain Christian scholar has been shaped that may differ from his or her peers coming out of a different tradition. However, from my Christian standpoint, I think we ought to acknowledge that our understanding is always only limited and partial, that we see through a mirror dimly and know only in part until eternity when we see face to face and have complete understanding (1 Corinthians 13:12). Thus, this can be an invitation to continually explore and test what we think we know and to see if we can arrive at a greater understanding of some matters in every generation. All truth is God’s truth, even in the areas that have yet to be explored or fully grasped.

July Biblical Studies Carnival

The Biblical Studies Carnival for the month of July has been posted by Reuben Rus at Ayuda Ministerial/Resources for Ministry. It highlights a select number of posts and will not take too long to go through all of the links, so check it out.

Anti-Traditional Biases in Biblical Studies?

Joshua Berman charges the biblical studies guild with an implicit bias against allegedly “conservative” approaches that defend the coherence, antiquity, or historicity of a biblical narrative, while not critically interrogating readings that may support allegedly “liberal” agenda, in his essay “The Corruption of Biblical Studies.” This provoked several responses from all over the scholarly spectrum including Marc Z. Brettler’s “Biblical Studies: No More Corrupt than any Other Discipline“, Jon D. Levenson’s “Deeper Reasons for the Bias in Biblical Studies“, David M. Carr’s “Academic Biblical Criticism is not Corrupt“, Craig Bartholomew’s “Why Biblical Scholar’s Should Declare their Worldviews“, and Benjamin D. Sommer’s “Biblical Scholars are Open to Self-Correction, and They Listen to Conservatives, Too.” As a New Testament scholar, I do not share the expertise in the Hebrew Bible exhibited by the distinguished scholars who have written the pieces above. I do, however, have some thoughts about the relationship of the academy and the community of faith since I have one foot each in both worlds. Before I offer some thoughts, have a read though the articles to see what you think about the issue.

Upcoming Plans

There may be a little less activity on this blog in the next few months, so here are the reasons why:

  • I am going overseas sometime in August for an on-campus interview for a full-time Professor position at a Seminary. The position would start in January 2018 if I get it.
  • I am preparing to teach the introductory Greek course in the Fall for the Christian University where I am currently employed as a sessional lecturer.
  • I will be proofing my forthcoming book on the Gospel of John, particularly on the “disciple whom Jesus loved” and why this figure became identified as the evangelist who wrote the Gospel and as the Apostle John. I will probably be advertising this project more in the coming months.
  • I am working on a few articles and a book review relating to the subject of Christology.

Constructing Boundaries between Orthodoxy and Heresy

As a reminder of the basic point made in the first post of this series, the language of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” is boundary-making discourse. None of the individuals that have been under consideration woke up one day and determined that they wanted to be a “heretic.” Instead, they may have seen themselves as reformers recovering what they perceived to be the original message, or passing along what they had been taught, or promoting new revelations that they thought they had received, or bringing Christian faith into dialogue with new intellectual or cultural currents in their own social contexts. Nevertheless, centrist (or proto-Orthodox) Christians responded by constructing more sharply formulated boundaries and placing other self-confessing Christians outside these boundaries:

  • They reiterated their points about the distinction of the eternal Creator God (including the Word and the Spirit) from the rest of creation that came into being, the goodness of the physical creation that fell into sin, the roots of the Christian revelation in the antiquity of the story of Israel, the dual nature of Jesus (fully divine and human), the salvation effected through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the guidelines for scriptural interpretation.
  • They made decisions about what Christian writings were authoritative alongside the Jewish Scriptures and, eventually, the Christian canon was closed. Note Irenaeus of Lyon’s assumption that each of the four Gospels were privileged by some faction – Matthew by the Ebionites, Mark by those who had a possessionist Christology (e.g. Carpocrates), Luke by Marcion, and John by the Valentinians – whereas the practice of the universal (Catholic) church is to read all four in harmony (Against Heresies 3.11.7-8). Moreover, Paul’s letters are read alongside the letters of other apostolic figureheads (Peter, John, James, Jude) and preceded by the narrative of Acts that stresses the unity of the church from Jerusalem to Rome.
  • They established a more organized, hierarchical ecclesiastical structure to protect the Christian laity from external threats (e.g. persecution) and internal threats (e.g. false teachers). In an monepiscopal system, the chief overseer or bishop governs a region and is assisted by local presbyters. The overseer was seen to be part of a chain of “apostolic succession” inasmuch as an apostle supposedly installed a bishop who installed the next successor in line.

The Enduring Influence of the Second-Century Christian Sects

Many of the ideas we have been reviewing over the last month may have seemed strange to some readers. We heard about complex cosmologies and an unknown god that transcends the ignorant or malevolent god who created the material universe. We encountered views about Jesus that fall short of the full understanding of the Incarnation, either by denying Jesus’ divinity by treating him as a human who was adopted at his baptism and exalted to his heavenly throne after Easter or by downplaying his humanity by arguing that Jesus’ body was temporarily inhabited by a spiritual being or that Jesus only “appeared” to have a physical body. We grappled with esoteric doctrines and diverse social or ritual practices. While some of these views have long been abandoned, other ideas may continue to find traction among modern Christians:

  • Contemporary Messianic Jewish congregations that combine acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah with a Jewish way of life marked by Torah observance is reminiscent of groups such as the Nazoraeans and the Ebionites. Just as the Nazoraeans held views about the deity of Christ that was aligned with the greater majority of Gentile believers and the Ebionites did not, a similar spectrum of belief may exist among Jewish Christians today.
  • The popular caricature that the “Old Testament God” is all about rules and wrath and the “New Testament God” is all about love and grace shows that Marcion’s thought endures. Whenever I teach my intro Bible course at my current theological institution, I make sure to balance this distortion with the numerous examples of grace in the Hebrew Bible and the warnings of divine judgment in the New Testament.
  • Apart from the contemporary congregations that explicitly identify themselves as “Gnostic” today, or April DeConick’s efforts to show Gnostic influence on “New Age” thought more generally in her book, there may be other popular conceptions among Christians that have affinities with the ancient “Gnostics.” For instance, some modern Christians equate the gospel with correct “knowledge” of certain dogmatic statements and salvation with the escape of souls to heaven to the exclusion of the resurrection of our human bodies and the full redemption of the physical cosmos.

What do you think: is this a fair list of some of the ways these theological ideas have endured? What would you take away or add?


Valentinus (ca. 100-165 CE) was a Christian scholar educated in Alexandria and founder of a school in Rome whose prominent pupils included Ptolemy, Theodotus, and Heracleon. Valentinus, or the school that developed his thought, is probably the most famous exemplar of what modern scholars have categorized as “Gnosticism.” We see the following elements of Valentinian thought:

  • there is an ineffable transcendent divinity whose self-revelation is through a series of emanations or Aeons
  • there is a total of 30 Aeons in male-female pairs that comprise the totality of the Godhead in the plērōma (fullness)
  • there was a primordial error in judgment committed by the youngest aeon Sophia (wisdom), resulting in the exclusion of Sophia Achamoth from the plērōma and the generation of the ignorant creator of the material world (“Demiurge”)
  • the pneumatic body of Jesus did not inherit the Virgin Mary’s humanity, for he passed through her like “water through a pipe,” and the divine Christ was distinguished from the man Jesus as the former possessed the latter at Jesus’s baptism
  • there is a division of humanity into the fleshly, the soulish or psychical (i.e. lay Christians), and the spiritual or pneumatic (i.e. Valentinians) based on their receptiveness to higher “knowledge” (gnosis) and the last group has the divine spark within them longing to return to their spiritual home
  • the goal of salvation was liberation from the material cosmos, pictured as the reunification of Sophia with her bridegroom the Saviour and the elect with their angelic counterparts  

Valentinian cosmology, Christology, anthropology, ecclesiology, ethics, and exegesis is too complex a topic to summarize in a blog post. Thus, here are some links that will aid you for further study:


Carpocrates was a teacher in early 2nd century Alexandria. According to Irenaeus (Against Heresies 1.25; cf. Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 7.22; Epiphanius, Panarion 27), he held that the world was created by inferior angels, that Jesus was an ordinary human whose soul remembered what it witnessed in the spiritual realm of the unknown Father, that a divine power descended on Jesus (at his baptism?) that taught him how to escape the clutches of the world creators, and that souls transmigrate from one human body to another until they too learn how to be liberated from the material world. The secret to gaining this freedom is to reject human-made moral distinctions and participate in every possible action or way of life.

Clement of Alexandria supplements this with excepts from On Righteousness [or Justice], a treatise written by Carpocrates’ son Epiphanes. It endorses the unity and equality between all creatures and the communal sharing of property and even spouses. Finally, the Letter to Theodore ascribed to Clement reviews an expanded, esoteric edition of Mark’s Gospel that elaborated on how the young man in the linen cloth (see Mark 14:51-52) had been resurrected by Jesus before he was initiated into the “mystery” of God’s kingdom. The letter goes on to accuse Carpocrates of illegitimately appropriating the text and adding controversial additions to it such as the line “naked man with naked man” (e.g. were the Carpocratians implying a physical relationship between teacher and pupil, was this some kind of ritual like a baptism, or was nakedness a metaphor for relinquishing material possessions or liberation from the mortal coil). However, there is much controversy over whether this last text was a piece of ancient correspondence or a modern forgery and I have compiled an extensive scholarly bibliography.

Although Carpocrates only had a small following that did not have a lasting influence, his reputation has become synonymous with moral and sexual libertinism. Did he really teach that one has to perform every sort of deed, even if it is conventionally judged as evil or impious, so that the soul will not be compelled to return to the body and will ascend to the divine realm? Or was this a distortion of what may have been the Carpocratians radical communitarian ethic that held all things in common (i.e. no private property or monogamous marriages). Thomas Whitley’s article “Who Was Carpocrates” for Ancient Jew Review argues for the latter approach and I would be very interested in reading his dissertation when it is published.