I want to elaborate more fully on the classes that I am preparing to teach. After I teach the first semester of New Testament Greek as an adjunct lecturer, I will be taking up my new full-time position after Christmas. I will be teaching two units on a yearly basis – “Jesus and the Gospels” and “The Early New Testament Church” – and upper level exegetical classes with options in both English and Greek (the latter includes translation exercises) offered on a rotating basis. The content of the first main unit includes a literary analysis of each Gospel with their distinctive features, the interrelationships between the Gospels, the kingdom message of Jesus, the ethics of Jesus, the parables of Jesus, the miracles of Jesus, the Christological titles of Jesus, and the passion and resurrection narratives. In the second main unit, the first half is devoted to the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles (the Jerusalem Church, Stephen and the Hellenists, the Pauline Mission and Churches, the Jerusalem Council, the Early Christian Preaching, and schisms/external threats) and the second half will be an exegetical survey of at least seven New Testament epistles. The major exegetical course that is coming up is on the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews. My blogging activity over the next several months will involve reshaping the tab “My Courses” to fit these guidelines and blogging through the Epistle to the Hebrews.
Jason Gardner at his blog Eis Doxan has posted the latest Biblical Studies Carnival here. It is a good roundup of posts including those on the Hebrew Bible, LXX, New Testament, academia, archaeology, or recent publications. I was away on holidays for much of August, so I was happy to see that two of my entries made it in. Enjoy.
I am pleased to announce to readers that I have just signed a contract for the full-time joint role of New Testament Lecturer and Dean of Students at Vose Seminary starting in January 2018. Thus, my holiday in Perth Australia earlier this month also involved attending a panel interview, speaking in a chapel service, and giving a guest lecture for a class on Christology. I am excited to partner with Vose and the Baptist Union of Western Australia to explore the world of the New Testament along with other early Jewish and Christian literature with all interested students, to train students to enter the ministry, to take on research students (especially if you are interested in the origins and reception of Gospel literature, Christian identity formation, and the development of Christological views), and to contribute to student life on the campus. I will get back to regular blogging in September.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?