Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Dunn's Christology in the Making (4)

For the last three days I have been reflecting on a different book by Jimmy Dunn, who passed on Friday. Here are the books so far:

1. The Evidence for Jesus (1985)
2. Baptism in the Holy Spirit (1970)
3. Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (1977)

On the fourth day of Jimmy, his writing gave to us, Christology in the Making: An Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation, whose first edition came out in 1980.

1. Once again, Dunn somehow managed to write a book to which anyone writing on Christology would have to refer. A lot of people disagreed with key parts of it, but you had to engage it. Not that Dunn did this, but if you have a unique, perhaps controversial position, if you defend it really well, then everyone will quote you, refer to you, ask you to appear on panels, write chapters in compilations, etc.

Growing up, I might have just assumed that the disciples knew Jesus was the pre-existent divine second person of the Trinity from the start. Without thinking, I would have referred to Moses and David as Christians--the question wouldn't have occurred to me of how you could be a Christian if you'd never heard of Christ because he hasn't come yet.

If you'd have asked me at 20, I would have assumed (though I had never asked the question) that the disciples had a full knowledge of Jesus' divinity from the moment of his resurrection. There are indeed many scholars right now who would say that's not far off. We might call those scholars the "early high Christology club." That may actually be the majority of scholars right now.

2. Dunn did not take that position. Dunn was in the "late, low, and slow" Christology camp, as David Capes has described him. Dunn believed that the initial Christology of the earliest Christians was not unlike the Jewish groups that would come to be seen as heretics in the second century, groups like the Ebionites. He thus saw the worship of Jesus and the divinity of Jesus as an understanding that did not really blossom until the late first century. The Gospel of John for Dunn was thus the end of a decades long development of Christological thinking.

Here we should point out that this perspective was very common among biblical scholars of the mid-twentieth century. In that sense, Dunn might perhaps be seen as one of the old guard who lived to see the work of Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham win the hearts of the next generation. Who knows if the endless sinusoidal wave of scholarship will eventually swing back in the other direction.

It is an intriguing question for those of us who believe in both the full humanity and divinity of Christ. "What did Jesus know and when did he know it?" Mark 13:32 seems to indicate that Jesus did not access his omniscience when he was on earth. So when did he come to know he was the Messiah? At his baptism? Presumably he did not come out of the womb speaking fluent Aramaic. When did he realize he was the second person of the Trinity? After the crucifixion?

3. There are arguably many insights to be had from this book, many of which I have passed along to my students these last 23 years. When you consider chapters two (The Son of God) and three (The Son of Man), I have consistently taught my classes that their initial impressions of these expressions are likely to be different from those of the New Testament audiences. Son of God might suggest to us that Jesus was fully God. Son of Man might suggest to us that Jesus was fully human.

Of course we believe he was. But Dunn rightly raises the question, "What would those who first used this language about Jesus expect their hearers and readers to understand by the phrase?" (13). For example, Son of God was a royal title. If you look at Old Testament texts like Psalm 2, they were originally about human kings. This is true even of Psalm 45, which flat out called the human king "God" as it celebrated his wedding.

Dunn details the difference between Jesus' sonship in the Synoptic Gospels and John. "In the Johannine writings the divine sonship of Jesus is grounded in his pre-existence" (58). Contrast this fact with the earliest New Testament writings, where "the resurrection of Jesus was regarded as of central significance in determining his divine sonship" (35).

The model of development that Dunn concludes was not unique to him. He unfolds a scenario where the earliest Christians identified the locus of Jesus' sonship with his resurrection, with passages like Acts 13:33, Romans 1:3, and Hebrews 1:5 in view. Correlate this with Jesus' Lordship also finding its focus in the resurrection (Acts 2:25; Phil. 2:11; Rom. 5:9).

Then in Matthew he sees Jesus' divine sonship brought back to Jesus' birth. Then in Hebrews and John it is brought back to Jesus' pre-existence. In all this he considers John a later development (thus late and slow high Christology). "The style is consistent in John... and so consistently different from the Synoptics that it can hardly be other than a Johannine literary product" (30).

I might add that, whether Dunn is correct or not, the question of whether a high Christology is correct is a different question from when the church came to fully understand it. Those of us who are Nicaean Christians believe a high Christology is correct. This can be true whether the earliest Christians immediately understood so or whether it took a few decades for all the lights to come on. The biblical texts can obviously be read in terms of a high Christology whatever might have been in the bubbles above their author's heads.

4. "Son of Man" similarly takes on some different connotations when you know some of its background. The term at least at some points alludes to Daniel 7:13, where one light a "son of man" comes riding on the clouds to the earth in judgment. It can thus be a fairly exalted referent.

Now Dunn's book has a bit of evidence that early twentieth century scholar Rudolf Bultmann did not have in his early career. [1] The parts of 1 Enoch that speak of a heavenly Son of Man were not found at Qumran among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Dunn leans toward dating this part of 1 Enoch, the Similitudes, to the late first century. He thus attributes those parts of the Gospels that think of Jesus as the heavenly Son of Man to a time decades later than Jesus. Accordingly, he does not see Jesus' self-referential use of the expression "Son of Man" as an indication that Jesus believed he was pre-existent.

5. One of Dunn's most distinctive positions comes in chapter 4. I don't know of any prominent New Testament scholars who have followed him on his "last Adam" interpretation of the Philippian hymn of Philippians 2:6-11. However, he shows us how there can be different interpretations of a text whose meaning seems obvious to us. Sometimes what is obvious to us is as much a matter of our inherited "glasses" as what we are actually seeing.

Dunn takes the logic of the hymn to be, "Although Jesus was the image of God (like Adam), he did not consider equality with God something to try to grasp (unlike Adam)..." On this approach, the hymn need say nothing of Jesus' pre-existence at all. It can be read as a statement that "Jesus is the last Adam" who did not repeat Adam's failure.

This is probably not the logic of the hymn, but it is darn clever. :-)

I will say that Dunn does give what I think are some penetrating interpretations of other passages that probably do allude to Adam or allude to Adam in a way that does not imply pre-existence. Both here and later in his Romans commentary, Dunn gives a persuasive interpretation of Romans 3:23 as all humanity lacking the glory of God than was intended for Adam a la Psalm 8. And I find quite convincing that 1 Corinthians 15:47 is not about incarnation, but resurrection.

Indeed let me say that Dunn provides in this chapter what is to me convincing exegesis in every instance except Philippians 2. This suggests that we are prone to see the pre-existence of Christ in many passages because of the hindsight of the Gospel of John rather than from careful exegesis of these passages in context. Paul's Christology, one might argue, was far more oriented around the resurrection than the incarnation.

6. It is with allusions to Jesus as the wisdom of God that Dunn finally sees the pre-existence of Christ entering into early Christian thinking. At first he would see such language as somewhat metaphorical. Yes, 1 Corinthians 8:6 speaks of Christ as the one "through whom God made all things," but Dunn thought this was an identification of Jesus with "the creative power and action of God" (182). Similarly, he interpreted Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1 to think of Jesus as "the eschatological embodiment of the wisdom of God" (211).

Dunn thus concludes that "the earliest christology to embrace the idea of pre-existence in the NT is Wisdom christology" (209). But he did not believe Paul, Matthew, or Hebrews understood this language literally in relation to Jesus as a person. He was hardly alone at that time to think such things. Eduard Schweizer in 1959 wrote that "The idea of the pre-existence of Jesus came to Paul through Wisdom speculation" (163).

7. We thus reach chapter 7 and the background of the Logos, the Word of God. The Gospel of John gives us the clearest expression of the pre-existence of Christ in the New Testament. And we are not surprised to find that a number of pages in this chapter are devoted to Philo.

From the Joseph Beth bookmark still in this book, it's clear I read a good deal of it before I went to England. Philo appears throughout the pages of this book. No doubt my interest in Philo was significantly piqued by this book. It was here that I was introduced to someone I would conclude was quite wrong about Hebrews, L.K.K. Dey. [2]

In the end Dunn reduces the logos in Philo to metaphor: "in the end of the day the Logos seems to be nothing more for Philo than God himself in his approach to man [sic], God himself insofar as he may be known by man" (228). I think Dunn was mostly right here, although I myself would later conclude that there are a few places where this understanding of Philo may fall a little short, especially when Philo is mixing the Pythagorean with the Stoic (cf. Quest on Exod 2.68).

Another reason I suspect Dunn took me on as an advisee was that I played the C.K. Barrett card of a combination of eschatology with Platonism in Hebrews. Throughout Christology and also in Partings, he espouses a view of Hebrews as the wed-ding of these two worldviews. I did not quite end up supporting his interpretation, although perhaps I came closer to him than others.

8. In the end he concludes that it is only really with the Gospel of John that we find full personal pre-existence in the New Testament (thus slow, late, and low). "The author of John 1:1-16 was the first to take that step which no Hellenistic-Jewish author had taken before him, the first to identify the word of God as a particular person... The Fourth Evangelist was the first Christian writer to conceive clearly of the personal pre-existence of the Logos-Son and to present it as a fundamental part of his message" (249).

At the time he wrote, his scheme of development fit the Zeitgeist well, a Christology that started with the resurrection, worked back to the birth, and finally ended with pre-existence in John. In some ways, Dunn was one of the last major proponents of this perspective. In 1988 Larry Hurtado would write, One God, One Lord. Then Richard Bauckham would begin a series of studies that have coalesced in Jesus and the God of Israel.

The early high Christology club currently holds the day.

[1] Bultmann used texts from 1 Enoch, Philo, and elsewhere to synthesize a "Gnostic Redeemer myth." He saw a high Christology as early on the basis of a home-brewed synthesis of background texts. His schema, however, was not unlike the kind of hermeneutical synthesis I described in relation to dispensationalism and nineteenth century entire sanctification--it is a synthesis done from outside these texts looking in rather than exegetically from inside these background texts.

[2] I worked through Dey's monograph my first semester in Durham. Let's just say I learned a lot more about Philo from his book than I did about Hebrews.

Monday, June 29, 2020

On the third day of Dunn...

On Friday the magisterial scholar James Dunn passed. For twelve days I am highlighting different works of his that have influenced me. Previous posts so far include:

1. The Evidence for Jesus
2. Baptism in the Holy Spirit

Today I want to highlight his 1977 work, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament.

1. Before I get to Unity, I want to point out that he wrote an intervening book. After Baptism had explored what baptism in the Holy Spirit was in contrast to the understandings of Pentecostals and sacramentalists, his final sentences promised a work that would explore what those experiences looked like for the early church. The result was Jesus and the Spirit. In this 1975 book, the numbered sections first appear to help hold our attention and show us the logical flow. I use these too and suspect I got the idea from Jimmy's work.

His italicized key points also appear for the first time in this book. Let me just say that if you want people to quote you, this is helpful. Some writers write in an intentionally difficult way to filter out only those who are "worthy" (e.g., Hegel). I have little time for them. It is no coincidence that Dunn's writings had such a following. He actually wanted people to understand him.

Jesus and the Spirit finds the spiritual experiences of Jesus himself as the paradigm for early Christian experience. This focus on the experiential side of the early church strikes me as somewhat unusual among the scholars of the seventies. The early Christians were not ideas for Dunn but real people with real spiritual experiences. In the end Dunn favors the experiential vision of the church found in Paul's writings, a vision that he thinks began to wane and institutionalize in the second generation. It is there or later that he would place the Pastorals, which he considered pseudonymous.

2. Now on to Unity and Diversity. 

I did not grow up reading the books of the Bible in context. I defined its words according to a mixture of the tradition I had inherited growing up in church and the way I understood English words as an English speaker. I also used Scripture to interpret Scripture--a verse in Genesis might help me understand a verse in Hebrews and vice versa.

The path toward reading the books of the Bible in context involves a certain disconnecting. First you realize that an English dictionary is not a good source for knowing the meaning of Greek and Hebrew words. You realize that Paul does not approach things exactly the same as John. You realize that the Ancient Near East of the Old Testament was a different setting than the Mediterranean world of the New Testament or the Galilee of Jesus. You realize that varying situations even change Paul's rhetoric from letter to letter.

3. Once you begin to read the words of the Bible in their original literary and historical contexts, you eventually face what we might call the problem of biblical theology. The unity of the Bible can begin to fall apart. The more detail-oriented a scholar is, the more they may struggle to find a unified theology in the Bible at all. There are few whole Bible theologies written, especially by scholars with a strong historical awareness.

Old Testament theology has always been a challenge, given the scope of the Old Testament writings. We can name on one hand the masters who have tried (von Rad, Eichrodt, Bruggemann). New Testament theology has typically disaggregated into "Pauline theology," "Johannine theology," and so forth. A hyper-detail oriented scholar like Heikki Räisänen had a difficult time even identifying a coherent Pauline theology among the Pauline letters.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Unity and Diversity ends with the question, "Has the canon a continuing function?" To give away the end of the story, he answers yes in that "the NT in all its diversity still bears consistent testimony to the unifying centre" (376). That unifying center was "the unity between the historical Jesus and the exalted Christ" (370).

4. We can thus locate Dunn's Unity and Diversity in the New Testament within a quest to find unifying elements within the early church. One aspect of Dunn's greatness is that he not only could handle the details of the biblical text and a myriad individual scholarly opinions, but he could find overarching patterns to see a coherent big picture. This drive to see the big picture is yet another reason why I was drawn to his work and thinking.

Some scholars might consider this drive for overarching coherence and for applicability a negative. The guild of biblical studies is full of experts on minutia and extremely competent technicians. "Generalist" is not typically a compliment. Dunn knew the details, but his ability to move beyond them made him a great scholar rather than just a run of the mill one.

5. Unity and Diversity was intended to be a textbook. I smile again at Dunn's canny to see a felt-need and respond. But this was not a run of the mill New Testament Survey or introduction. It was meant to be a "second level" introduction. It does not focus on the individual books of the New Testament. His concern is to get behind the literary evidence we have to the very "character of earliest Christianity." And he seeks a unifying core in history more than in the text of the New Testament itself.

No doubt if Jimmy had written this book in the year 2000 it would have looked differently. Even when the second edition came out in 1990 he acknowledged that developments in sociological and literary studies, not to mention the epochal work of E. P. Sanders in 1977, could have prompted a complete rewrite. The discussion changes. New evidence often arises.

This book is not an easy read out of the blue. It is like the kinds of math and science courses you take after calculus or first year physics. The first step to reading the New Testament in context gives you a sense of the situations under which the books were written. Dunn now goes beyond the books to the people and strands of tradition of which those books are instances. If you want a baptism by fire into seeing the early church from a historical perspective, this book is one way.

6. He begins the book with a significant question. "Is orthodoxy a meaningful concept within the New Testament period?" He will conclude that it is an anachronistic concept. After the whole book is through he concludes that "there was no single normative form of Christianity in the first century" (373). He concluded that what we now call "orthodoxy itself is based on a canon within the canon." [1]

His second chapter looks at the content of the various kerygmata or proclamations in the New Testament. He sees significant differences. He does not believe that Paul would have agreed with Matthew or James' version of the kerygma. (Here we might remember that he first wrote this before the new perspective really got going.) Then there is the fact that "Jesus proclaimed the kingdom, the first Christians proclaimed Jesus; Jesus called for repentance and faith with respect to the kingdom, the first Christians called for faith in Jesus..." (31).

You can see where he will see the unity of the New Testament in the person of Jesus rather than in the content of what was preached.

7. Part I of the book looked for unity in diversity. He continues through early confessions, concepts of ministry, patterns of worship, sacraments, experience, Christology, and more. Again, the unity he finds is that between "the earthly Jesus and the exalted one" (57). The highlighted material in this section shows that I read it before going to Durham (I started exclusively taking notes exclusively in pencil from then on), probably between 1990-93.

This was next level thinking for me. Dunn was looking at the New Testament as a sort of archaeological dig, hypothesizing about development lines that became fossilized in the collection of writings bequeathed to us in the canon. Take his concluding remarks on baptism and the Lord's Supper. First, he notes a complete absence of sacramental practice by Jesus himself. He does not see baptism as a practice of Jesus' ministry and what we call the Lord's supper was a one time event.

Then he sees that the initial emphasis of baptism and the Lord's supper was eschatological. Then, he argues, it "was increasingly replaced by the backward look to Jesus' death" (172). This historical, developmental way of looking at the New Testament was completely different from the static, pre-modern way I had read the Bible growing up.

When I first began teaching New Testament survey, the question arose, "Do I teach the books of the New Testament in their canonical order or their historical order?" The same question arose when I wrote my New Testament survey book. Each time I teach, it is paradigm shifting for my students to realize that the Gospels were not written until after Paul was dead, that Paul's letters are arranged by length rather than historical order, that Mark was likely a source for Matthew and Luke.

8. Part II of the book then looked for the diversity in the unity, focusing especially on sociological groups. These groups are "Jewish Christianity," "Hellenistic Christianity," "Apocalyptic Christianity," and "Early Catholic Christianity." It would be interesting to know if he would have stuck with these headings if he had written the book at a later point.

For example, the Hellenistic Christians to which he refers were also Jews. Language of early catholicism is strange, perhaps a fossil of the significantly debunked F. C. Baur from the late 1800s, who imposed a Hegelian dialectic on early Christianity. There is a great deal of discussion of gnostic tendencies, perhaps an artifact of that mid-twentieth century period when Gnosticism was a major filter in processing the New Testament.

But when you dive into the chapters themselves, the excesses of the titles are not there. For example, "no NT document can properly be described as gnostic in character" (306). And we are delighted to find that Dunn does not formulate early catholicism in the way Baur did. There is much food for thought in these last chapters.

9. Unity and Diversity is full of seeds that would blossom in Jimmy's later writings. For example, his chapter on Christ and Christology, as well as his chapter on primitive confessional formulae, would expand to form his next work in 1980, Christology in the Making.

[1] His approach to the canon begins with the claim that "all Christians have operated with a canon within the canon" (374). He thus cleverly suggests that the validity of the canon is found in its very diversity. "To recognize the canon of the NT is to affirm the diversity of Christianity" (377).

Sunday, June 28, 2020

On the second day of Jimmy...

1. Baptism in the Holy Spirit was James Dunn's first book. It was also the book that first drew my attention to him and was the spark that led me to ask to study with him. It came out the year that he started teaching at the University of Nottingham in 1970, two years after finishing his PhD at Cambridge. In the intervening two years he had served at Edinburgh as a chaplain to overseas students.

He had quite an impressive doctoral lineage. Dunn did his doctorate under C. F. D. Moule at Cambridge. I had thought that Moule studied with C. H. Dodd there as well, but now double checking. I'm afraid the doctoral line ends there on my branch, unless Cambridge wants to hire me for the last couple decades of my career. :-)

I remember Jimmy telling of a time when Moule had him and Meta over to his house with Dodd also present. Apparently Dodd was a very short man and sat at the head of the table. What exegetical giants were the stuff of his daily life! One of the benefits of studying at Durham was the chance occasion to meet other retired giants Kingsley Barrett and Charles Cranfield. What a tremendous privilege!

2. In this very first book, Dunn showed from the start his ability to wed scholarly excellence with the clarity needed to address popular trends. The sixties were a time of charismatic renewal and controversy. The phenomenon of speaking in tongues was rapidly spreading across the English-speaking world.

Dunn was right there at the right moment, speaking with great clarity, using sound historical-cultural exegesis, to meet a strongly felt-need of the culture.

My own interest in the book came from my exposure to it at Asbury Seminary, where Bob Lyon had presented his own succinct version of the evidence from Acts. When I wrote to Dunn, I indicated that the ideas of his book had been very significant in my own pilgrimage, since I came from the holiness tradition. A key element in the history of that tradition was a particular understanding of entire sanctification in relation to Acts 2. This connection may have been one element in him accepting me as a student.

Jimmy was, by the way, a lay Methodist preacher both in Nottingham and then later in 1982 when he moved to Durham as Professor. Professor in England is almost the reverse of its connotations in the States. In the States one might be a professor without a doctorate. In England, Professor is a distinguished position above that of a mere lecturer/reader.

Jimmy used to say that he was Presbyterian north of the border and Methodist south of it. Of course it was possible to be a little more Calvinist as a Methodist in England. These two fit together more easily theologically in England than in the States. The fact that we were both Methodist was another point of contact we shared. [1]

3. I had been troubled in seminary by one aspect of the doctrine of entire sanctification with which I had grown up (which was much more nineteenth century holiness than John Wesley, by the way). But this one aspect even bothered me with regard to Wesley. If the doctrine of entire sanctification was the right interpretation of the Bible, why was it pretty much absent for some 1600 years of church history?

I made a similar comment just last week in a class in relation to the United Pentecostal Church's claim that 1) the Trinity is wrong and God is just one person changing roles, 2) combined with the belief that one must speak in tongues when you receive the Holy Spirit. If this is the right interpretation of Scripture, why did this synthesis only really appear around 1916?

These sorts of questions gnawed at me in my seminary days. There was a volume put out by the Nazarenes that traced Christian perfection in the early church fathers and medieval authors to Wesley, but it did not satisfy me. My training in the scientific method ultimately wouldn't let me settle for just an answer. It had to be a compelling answer. Tribal scholarship was quickly becoming anathema to me.

I would eventually work out my own logical basis for affirming the doctrine of entire sanctification, not unlike the logic John Wesley himself used. And I will soon enough mention what I consider the greatest blot on Dunn's Romans commentary, namely, his interpretation of Romans 7. Meanwhile, I consider the core features of entire sanctification--the power of the Spirit over willful sin and a mind renewed according to love--to be completely biblical.

But I do not think the biblical authors would recognize the specific form this doctrine took in the hands of John Wesley or Phoebe Palmer. In college and seminary I was learning how to read the Bible in its literary and historical contexts rather than defining the words from the dictionary in my head, based on my inherited traditions. The meanings of verses like Matthew 5:48 and Hebrews 6:1 began to take on their contextual nuances rather than their traditional ones.

4. The nineteenth century holiness movement followed John Fletcher in connecting entire sanctification with the Spirit-fillings of Acts. It is a testimony to the breadth of Dunn's knowledge that he actually mentions this fact in his introduction (1-2)! This was not the way Wesley promoted Christian perfection, by the way. But it was an incredibly powerful connection, for it provided a ritual, narrative model for becoming entirely sanctified. The late Mel Dieter once mourned that Bob Lyon's paper on the Spirit-fillings of Acts marked the beginning of a marked decline in the holiness movement. There is some truth to this claim.

However, I believe a person with fresh eyes will see that Acts connects the Spirit-fillings primarily with conversion. [2] Acts 4:31 is the only exception, and it does not use the language of baptism with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit-fillings in Acts are not connected with love or perfect love (although unity is a result). The word sanctification is not used in Acts in relation to it. [3] Its primary manifestation is power, with only one side-statement in Acts 15:9 mentioning purification of heart as an element in the equation. [4]

But this post is supposed to be about Dunn so I will stop there. Let me simply say that the nineteenth century understanding of holiness would make a fascinating case study in pre-modern hermeneutics! It is not unlike the hermeneutics of dispensationalism where 1) words are re-defined in terms of a particular theology, 2) passages across the Bible are spliced to each other into an ideological system, and 3) that system is directly related to present circumstances and events.

5. Dunn indicates from the outset what I believe is clear in the book of Acts if one comes to it with fresh eyes. Baptism with the Spirit in Acts is understood as an initiatory experience. He has two main conversation partners in this book. The one is the Pentecostal who says that baptism in the Spirit is an event subsequent to conversion. The second is the "sacramentalist" who fuses baptism with the Spirit into water baptism. Neither perspective is that of the New Testament.
  • "Baptism in the Spirit was not something distinct from and subsequent to entry into the Kingdom; it was only by means of the baptism in Spirit that one could enter at all" (22).
  • "Baptism in Spirit does not refer to water baptism." 
As I look through the book, I see the same arguments I have made in similar conversations. Here is just a sampling from chapter 4:
  • Luke-Acts is a coherent literary unit. Its story world does not include the breathing of Jesus on the disciples in John 20:22. These are separate exegetical domains. In the story world of Luke-Acts, Pentecost is the fulfillment of the promise of the Spirit in Luke 3. "The appeal to John's Gospel raises a basic methodological issue: Are we to approach the NT material as systematic theologians or as biblical theologians and exegetes?" (39).
  • "Pentecost is a new beginning--the inauguration of the new age, the age of the Spirit--that which had not been before" (44).
  • "Pentecost inaugurates the age of the Church" (49).
6. Chapters 5-9 then proceed through Acts, covering the same data that I went through in my honors thesis at Southern Wesleyan University. In that project, I argued for the "second, later experience" perspective, but there was also that gnawing inside that it could be interpreted a different way. At Asbury I conceded to the other way of reading Acts.

The event at Samaria (chapter 5) is the crux of the issue. Was the failure of those baptized at Samaria to receive the Holy Spirit a problem to be solved or a normal distance in time between conversion and a second experience of the Spirit? In seminary I came to think it most natural to see that Samaria was atypical and problematic in Acts. The normal pattern is for baptism in the Spirit to parallel water baptism as two distinct moments that are associated with each other. Acts 2:38 is paradigmatic: "Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the Holy Spirit."

Dunn ends chapter 5 on Samaria with an appropriate conclusion: "It is God's giving of the Spirit which makes a man [sic] a Christian, and, in the last analysis, nothing else" (68). He states the same in his conclusion: "That man is a Christian who has received the gift of the Holy Spirit by committing himself to the risen Jesus as Lord, and who lives accordingly" (229).

7. Let me say that I grew up associating the Holy Spirit almost entirely with a second work of grace. I have no animosity toward that teaching. But there are important aspects to New Testament teaching that you may miss with that emphasis. In college I did learn that the Wesleyan tradition believes in an initial sanctification at conversion. However, it is ironic that the emphasis on a later work actually blinded me to one of the richest and most central features of New Testament pneumatology, namely, that the Spirit is the key identifier of Christian incorporation into the people of God!

Dunn proceeds through Paul's letters in chapters 10-13. What a rich theology I missed here growing up! Romans 8:9 is blatant--"If someone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not a Christian" (paraphrase, see Dunn 148). In 2 Corinthians 1:22 and Ephesians 1:13/4:30, the Holy Spirit is that which seals God's ownership of us. [5] The Holy Spirit is the arrabon which both guarantees our future inheritance and gives us a down payment, a foretaste of glory divine, an "earnest."

A few years ago I marveled at Richard Peace's book, Conversion in the New Testament. He hardly mentions the Holy Spirit at all in this book. Yet the Holy Spirit is the sine qua non of being a Christian in most of the New Testament! What a massive and essential omission! Repentance and faith are precursors. Baptism is corollary but the Samaritans realized was insufficient. When Cornelius has the Spirit, his heart is cleansed and he is in the people of God, even though he is not yet baptized.

8. I suspect this post has been more personal than ones to come. The level of my engagement reflects Dunn's uncanny ability to address the felt-needs of a moment in history, to do so with immense clarity, and to do so with a penetrating objectivity.

[1] The closest Wesleyan Church was hours away in London or Birmingham. So I was known as a Methodist in Durham, even preached once in a country Methodist church outside of Durham once. I attended the evangelical Anglican services of St. John's College during the week and on Sundays attended the United Reformed Church on Claypath, which was also evangelical. Of course "evangelical" in England meant nothing like what it has come to mean in the US right now.

[2] I use the term conversion in its popular sense, without delving into debates over whether these were more callings than conversions, as in Stendahl's approach.

[3] This is one of the fascinating features of pre-modern interpretation. The core and fundamental language of such interpretations can be completely absent from a biblical text and yet be considered the key topic of the text.

[4] The distinction between purifying hands and purifying hearts (cf. James 4:8) is sometimes applied to two works of grace. However, this is a distinction inferred in the text rather than stated. It seems far more likely that these are parallel and synchronic rather than events separated in time.

[5] Occasionally, the holiness tradition interpreted this verse as a seal on a container, that as it were completes the jar. The seal is rather that of a seal on a scroll that authenticates and indicates the author of the letter. It is closer to a branding or a seal embossed on a book, not a seal on a jar.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Twelve Days of Jimmy!

1. Yesterday, Professor James D. G. Dunn shuffled off this mortal coil. He was my doctoral advisor at the University of Durham from 1993-96. Those were the great years of my late twenties. Although I was on a budget, trying to say something intelligent in a dissertation, wrestling with issues of my faith, and longing for a life-long partner, they were great years. :-)

At the beginning of this year, I wrote a little about my England days, so you can find some memories of my interactions with "Jimmy" there. He and his wife Meta treated his former doctoral students a little like their own children and he followed our families as they grew. Many years at the annual Society of Biblical Literature meeting there was a Dunn Reunion where we all got back together.

In my first years at Indiana Wesleyan, Jimmy connected me to adjunct some for Notre Dame. In those days I would occasionally send a hail Mary of an application to a research institution, and he and Loren Stuckenbruck were always willing to brush off the old reference for me. Jimmy was instrumental in getting me my first sabbatical in Tübingen in 2004, and of course it was he who connected me with St. John's College in Durham at the very beginning.

He once said that he and I had a similar faith pilgrimage. I took him to mean that he started out with a somewhat fundamentalist background and wrestled through its inadequacies toward a more historically grounded faith. He was very much a "modernist," although perhaps not quite as "chastened" a modernist as I like to think I am. He began in the more mathematically oriented field of economics and statistics, as I started off with chemistry. He thus had a quasi-scientific approach to interpretation, which is what attracted me to him as a scholar.

2. For the next 12 days, I thought I would pick a book a day of the great Jimmy Dunn and feature it. He had a way of approaching a question that I found deeply attractive. He truly tried to be objective. Of course none of us are completely, but some of us do much better job than others. He did better than most. You almost could not predict where he would come down on a question until after he had studied it and come to a conclusion in the light of the current evidence. I certainly don't feel that way about a whole lot of scholars today.

In light of the hope of resurrection, I want to start with The Evidence for Jesus. It was one of the first of his works that I encountered. In the early 90s, I was looking for historical arguments for the resurrection. I had come to the conclusion at Asbury that the resurrection was the cornerstone on which Christian faith rested. Perhaps I might nuance that today and say that the resurrection is the key historical datum in relation to Christian faith.

For example, you cannot prove the incarnation by way of history. Even if you could prove the virgin birth, that would not necessitate incarnation. Matthew and Luke do not mention the incarnation, and John does not mention the virgin birth. I do not think you can demonstrate the divinity of Christ by way of history. Even C. S. Lewis' "Lord, Liar, Lunatic" argument may come up just a little short of fully persuasive for reasons that may be clear by the twelfth day.

But you can show the historical plausibility of the resurrection. It still requires faith, to be sure--if you don't believe resurrections happen you will come up with a different explanation. But there is significant historical evidence in its favor. If you allow for the real possibility of resurrection, the resurrection of Jesus is very likely. And if the resurrection of Jesus happened, then it is very easy to believe that we shall also bear the image of that heavenly man (1 Cor. 15:49)!

3. The book, The Evidence for Jesus, came out in 1985. It illustrated Dunn's canny to ride the wave of educated popular interest. His books were more advanced than your average popular Christian book, but they appealed greatly to a certain educated, faith-filled, non-fundamentalist audience. Actually, it was always interesting to me how his work remained of great interest to "conservatives" even though it usually seemed to stand just across the border. Most of his doctoral students were people like me, coming from a conservative background. I should make clear that, when you take into account the full spectrum of scholarship, his actually is more on the "conservative" side.

I remember the Evangelical Theological Society asking him to speak once. I don't remember the subject. Perhaps it was on the new perspective on Paul. You had to sign a belief in inerrancy to participate, I guess. I remember him saying he just didn't look down while he was signing. But it showed that his voice was in demand even in circles a little more conservative than he was.

In 1984, there had been a series on British tele called Jesus: The Evidence. Apparently, they had some crazies on. For example, one of them argued that Jesus wasn't even a real person. That's not liberal. It's incompetent scholarship.

As I look over his response, I see comments that have been evident in my own teaching. For example, he quickly dispatches the idea that several decades between Jesus and the writing of the Gospels would automatically imply inaccuracy. "In societies where the spoken word was the chief means of communication... memories were better trained and almost certainly a good deal more retentive" (2).

However, his chapter on the historicity of the Gospels does not simply reinforce tradition. He also concludes--after very detailed comparisons of the Gospels--that the Gospels do not present the words of Jesus with "pedantic precision" (27). I will return to some of his later work in relation to the "historical Jesus" during these twelve days of Jimmy.

4. I must have read this book before I went to Durham, for my notes are in pen in cursive. I started taking notes in pencil in my books after a snide remark from fellow John's tutor Helen Fox. :-) I found the book persuasive on the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection.

I'm pretty sure that it was from this book that I took the arguments I have given ever sense when I get to 1 Corinthians 15 in any New Testament Survey or when I am presenting arguments for the existence of God in an introductory philosophy class. It is a two pronged argument.

First, there is the empty tomb. Dunn goes through the accounts. He puts them side by side and shows their tensions. He does not shrink back from showing what is there. But in looking at the report of the guards in Matthew 28, he concludes, "the emptiness of the tomb was not a point of controversy, only the explanation of why it was empty" (67). I have made this point as well. The only evidence we have of disagreement on the resurrection from that period assumes that the tomb was empty.

Similarly, Dunn notes that "women were probably regarded as unreliable witnesses in first-century Judaism, simply because they were women" (65). Another point I have regularly made. If you were going to make up an empty tomb, would you have women as your first and key witnesses?

The second prong in the argument are the eyewitness accounts. People would not normally conclude that someone has risen from the dead when they find an empty tomb. Such a conclusion, Dunn suggests "is without any real precedent" (73).

He does, however, draw a debated conclusion on the nature of Jesus' resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15. "Paul's understanding of the resurrection body as a spiritual body strictly speaking does not require an empty grave" (75). I'm not sure I find that conclusion the most natural way of reading Paul.

The number of separate resurrection appearances is quite remarkable. If this were a trial, "the counsel for Christianity would want to argue that such a sequence requires a starting event of sufficient significance to explain what followed" (60). We might add here that our traditions suggest that many of these witnesses were willing to die for what they believed they had seen. The core of these traditions seem very likely (e.g., the martyrdoms of Stephen, James, Paul, and Peter).

5. And so we look for the hope of resurrection, including the resurrection of Jimmy Dunn. We want to know "the power of Christ's resurrection, becoming like him in his death, if somehow we might attain to the resurrection of the dead" (Philippians 3:10-11).

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Inspiration, Infallibility, and Inerrancy

1. Anna Gaiser asked me how I defined words like inspiration and inerrancy. [1] I have sometimes called these "power words" because they have been very important words to say in certain faith communities over the years. A more cynical person might call them "shibboleths" based in Judges 12. Those among Gideon's troops who were not able to say this word properly were killed as the enemy. In that regard, sometimes it has been less important what you mean by those words as to whether you could say them.

I had a professor in seminary who said being able to say the Bible was inerrant was important for him to be hired. Given the way he thought the word was defined, he told his interview committee that he couldn't in good conscience confess it. The response was, "What if we define it in this way..." The person then went on to give a different way of defining it. The candidate said, "Well, if you define it that way I can say it." They were satisfied and he taught there his whole teaching career.

There were great wars over these things in the seventies in evangelical circles. One thing I have noted is that I do not believe that these battles brought anyone to Christ. I would more guess the opposite. I have not found that one's spirituality or depth of faith maps to one's position. Those with a more "restrictive" view (notice I didn't say "higher" view) do not strike me as being more Christ-like than those with a more complicated view, nor do they strike me as more faithful to God.

When I was at Asbury Seminary, then president David McKenna told the faculty that Asbury simply wouldn't get into those debates, and I think rightly so. People like to argue. People like to define boundaries so they can say who is in and out. These debates don't really bring anyone closer to God. They represent a "bounded set" mentality rather than a "centered-set" one. I'm told that for a while there it seemed like the main item on the Evangelical Theological Society's agenda was to decide who they would try to kick out each year.

A key mistake in these debates is thinking that spirituality or salvation is primarily a matter of belief and the mind. This is neither biblical nor informed. The Bible repeatedly indicates that it is the orientation of one's heart that is the basis for one's virtue and relationship with God. David was not a man after God's own mind. It is not out of the mind that murder proceeds. Sound doctrine is not a fruit of the Spirit. Renewing of the mind in Romans 12 is primarily about our dispositions, as is seen in Romans 12-15.

What's more is that this sort of cognitive approach doesn't fit reality. People act from a deeper place than their intellect. In fact their intellect is usually just a puppet of deeper desires. Nor does intellect correlate with virtue. Don't get me wrong, I love intellect. I love learning. I love the life of the mind. I love ideas. But this is not where virtue or faith lies.

2. Well, I didn't plan on that preface. This was going to be a quick set of definitions. Here goes.

Inspiration evokes the image of breathing. God "breathed" the biblical text. And of course God continues to breathe through the biblical text.

The key verse here is 2 Timothy 3:16: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is beneficial for teaching, for correction, for redirection, for training in righteousness."

However, this verse has been used to say things it doesn't say. Paul of course did not always feel God's breath in the literal meaning of the Old Testament texts. This verse thus can't be used to police a literal interpretation of biblical passages, for example.

Since the books of the Bible have different literary styles, inspiration probably doesn't mean that the minds of the biblical authors went blank and that we are getting a divine writing style. Even those who hold to a "dictation" view of inspiration usually accept that the personalities and styles of individual authors were involved.

And they could use sources. Inspiration doesn't mean that Mark couldn't have been a source for Matthew and Luke. After all, the book of Joshua tells us it used the book of Jashar as a source.

Another verse often connected to inspiration is in 2 Peter 1:20-21 -- "No prophecy of Scripture comes into existence by one's own unloosing, for prophecy was not brought at some time by the will of a person but, being brought by the Holy Spirit, people spoke from God."

So when Amos spoke to the people at market in the northern kingdom, he was speaking for God. It does get complicated when the New Testament authors hear meanings that a prophet like Isaiah would not have understood--"fuller senses" of the same words (sensus plenior). Many of the words the New Testament applies to Christ are such spiritual readings that go beyond what the original speaker understood.

And of course Amos spoke oral oracles. Likely someone else put his words into a book form. Then that book form was passed down and translated. There were likely multiple, slightly different versions of Old Testament passages in circulation in the centuries before Christ.

All that is to say that it gets messy when you get into the details. God breathed words through prophets and priests and scribes. God breathed new meanings through those same words to various New Testament authors. God breathes through Scripture to people doing lectio divina today.

Yes, Scripture was, is, and will be inspired.

The hermeneutical dimension that may not be foreseen by everyone is that words take on their precise meanings in a specific context. Accordingly, the same words can mean significantly different things to different people. The meaning of the words of the Bible can change in the eyes of the reader. This is both a tool the Holy Spirit uses to keep Scripture a living word and also a reason why there is so much disagreement over what the Bible actually means. It had a first "breathed" meaning. It has arguably had many other "breathed" meanings since.

3. Scripture is authoritative. Authority implies that a posture of submission is implied. Submission pertains especially to commands and instruction. One can have a reverence for things that aren't commands, but of course we are not called to worship the Bible.

With regard to obedience, I must first make sure that I am understanding the nature of biblical instruction appropriately. After all, I am not the direct Y-O-U of any passage in the Bible. The Old Testament was written to ancient Israel, and I personally am not even Jewish. The New Testament says it was written to Romans, Thessalonians, Corinthians, seven churches in Asia Minor. None of those are me.

2 Thessalonians 2:5 captures this truth well--"Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?" Obviously he was not talking to me or anyone alive today.

So I must process the instruction of Scripture with a view to who its original audience was and how that instruction connects to me and us as a whole today. This is simply the hermeneutical situation. It may mean that God expects more restrictive behavior for us today (for example, I am not supposed to be polygamous like Abraham). In other cases it may imply less restriction (for example, a woman can have short hair today).

The process of discerning the way the authority of Scripture plays out for me/us can be complicated. For one, there is instruction in the Old Testament that the New Testament appropriates differently (e.g., eating pork). There are commands that were culture-specific (e.g., we should not start up slavery again). There were commands that were situation-specific (God probably doesn't expect everyone to sell all they have and give to the poor).

There is a lot of discernment involved in figuring out what God instructs us today. It is best done in a community of faith where you "work out y'alls salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12). We take into account the flow of revelation in the Bible, since the understanding of some things becomes more precise as we move through its pages (e.g., on Satan, on the afterlife, on individual culpability...). We take into account what the kingdom of God will be like (e.g., there will be no subordination of wives to husbands in the kingdom). We take into account the character of God (which keeps us from using Scripture as a weapon in the manner of the biblical Pharisees).

Yes, the Bible is authoritative for believers.

The hermeneutical complication is the realization that the Bible was written to ancient audiences and that the meaning both of the words and the significance of the instruction was a function of what words and actions meant in those contexts. Doing what they did isn't doing what they did if it doesn't mean the same thing.

4. Scripture is infallible. That is to say, Scripture never fails to accomplish what God wants it to accomplish. The key verse here is Isaiah 55:11 -- "My word will not return to me empty but will accomplish what I intent and succeed in the purpose for which I sent it."

Of course "word" here is not limited to Scripture. In context this verse is referring as much to God's command, his will, as to any written word. Here is an example of the principle mentioned above, namely, that we tend to define the words of the Bible from our "dictionaries" rather than read them for what they actually meant originally.

The word infallible was anathema in some circles in the culture wars of the 70s. It was viewed as a second rate view of Scripture. The reason was that people used it to say that the Bible was only expected to be correct in matters of faith and practice, not in matters like history or science.

Such an approach seems to miss the point made above that all the language of Scripture was "incarnated" in the flesh of the categories of those to whom it was first written. Otherwise they wouldn't have understood it. The Bible operates with a geocentric view of the universe. Why wouldn't it? So the way matters of faith and practice are presented came in the language and paradigms of the original audiences.

Kevin Vanhoozer has suggested a much more profound and appropriate way to approach the notion of infallibility. First, there was a profoundly puzzling sense of some previous thinkers that the purpose of language was merely informative. This perspective is so wide of the obvious diverse uses of language it is dumbfounding. A work like J. L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words now seems so basic as to boggle the mind that anyone would even question its basic premise.

That premise is that words do things. Yes, they can inform. But they also promise, command, reassure, express emotion, etc. When you say, "I do" at a wedding, you are doing something much more than informing your spouse of your belief!

So God had and has many purposes with Scripture. God makes promises (which, by the way, are often conditional on our response). God makes commands (but he gives us the freedom to disobey). The psalms express praise, thanksgiving, anger, lament. It's not that we cannot learn things from the psalms, but this is not their primary purpose. It makes little sense to say that the purpose of God in Psalm 137:9 is to inform the Babylonians or Jews of something!

Scripture does not fail to accomplish God's purposes for it.

What is hermeneutically profound is to realize how varying these purposes are. Words do far more than merely inform.

5. Finally, Scripture is inerrant. In the words of one seminary, "It is without error in all that it affirms."

In the light of what it means for Scripture to be infallible, we can now put this more precisely, following Kevin Vanhoozer. When the purpose of Scripture is to convey information, that information is without error.

There are three important considerations here. The first is simply to reiterate what we said about infallibility. Not every word of Scripture is meant to affirm something. For example, Psalm 137:9 is not informing or commanding the Jews to kill Babylonian babies. Its function is expressive, expressing a combination of despair and anger. The word inerrant is a mismatch to this verse. To use it of this verse is to miss the point of the verse.

A second consideration is that a biblical point sometimes comes in ancient clothing. When Paul says he visited the third heaven, his point is not cosmological. He is saying that he was in the very presence of God. He is not making a point about the structure of the universe, as if the universe was simply a matter of going up through two layers of sky until you reached God in the highest sky.

Discerning the point can be a slippery thing, which is why again the Bible is best appropriated in communities of faith. One can say, "That isn't the point" to try to get away with things you shouldn't be able to justify. But the potential abuse of a truth does not negate the truth. The literal understanding of Genesis 1 is not necessarily the picture some are going for. Genesis 1 seems to picture the stars in a dome with the waters that came down in the Flood above it.

Genre also comes into play here. You would not fault a parable for not being historical. A parable is "fictional" in genre. So we must consider the parameters of ancient history when we interpret biblical histories. If in fact it should turn out that Esther or Job were meant to be read as novellas, that would not be in any way a statement that they were untrue.

Here is an important point. These modern shibboleths were probably in part meant to restrain interpretations of the Bible. The idea was, "If we force a person to say Genesis 1 is inerrant, then we can stop belief in evolution." But the shibboleths really don't pull it off. If you are saying some aspect of the biblical text was a matter of the intended genre, you are not accusing that text of an error. You are implying that the interpretation of the person who disagrees with you is in error, not the Bible.

A third consideration involves locating an individual passage within the flow of revelation. The idea of God sending an evil spirit on Saul is a less precise sense of temptation than 1 Chronicles 21:1's sense that it was more precisely Satan that tempted David or James 1:13 sense that God doesn't tempt people to do evil. We should never apply a verse directly to ourselves today without first locating it within the whole counsel of God in Scripture.

The Bible is without error in all that it affirms.

Now, let us pray and work together to discern what it affirms and how God would have us appropriate it in our contexts today as communities of faith.

[1] See my earlier post on Wesleyans and inerrancy.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Sermon Starters: The Prodigal Parent

Houghton Wesleyan Church
June 21, 2020, Father's Day
Text: Luke 15:11-32

  • Happy Father's Day. It's not technically part of the Christian calendar, but fathers are in the Bible.
  • Reflected on a number of fathers... considered Eli in 1 Samuel. My son thought that would be interesting, but probably not uplifting.
  • I finally felt peace about the story of the prodigal son. You'll notice I've titled the story of the Prodigal Parent. I'm not the first to notice that the father in this story may seem quite reckless in more than one way. More on that in a moment.
  • A family had two sons. The daughters aren't mentioned. They must have been perfect.
  • It is an ancient story, so the father had control over the property, and who inherited it.
  • The elder son seemed perfect, although we will soon find not quite. He was the kind of child that you didn't have to ask if they had done their homework. You never worried about him getting a speeding ticket or getting drunk. They used to call him a "goody two-shoes" (and since I was once called that, there's nothing wrong with that :-)
  • The younger son was quite different. He was the kind of child that gave you gray hairs prematurely. Notice how brown my hair is, a sign that I have perfect children. The younger son didn't do his homework. He was the kind of child that kept you up late at night worrying if he was ok. You might even get up and drive around looking for him, hoping that he was alright.
The Younger Son
  • When I think of the younger son, I think of that first seed in the Parable of the Seeds, the one that falls on the path and the birds eat it up immediately. It doesn't have any time at all to take root. I call this sort of person a "spiritual Teflon head." Nothing spiritual sticks to them. They have no interest in God or spiritual things (and they're certainly not interested in the liberal arts).
  • Kierkegaard considered this stage of development something like the "pleasure" stage. For those of you who grew up in the 80s as I did, you might call it the "girls just want to have fun" stage. You'll be glad to know I won't be singing it for you.
  • So he comes to the father and says something like, "Dad, I noticed you're not dead. Could we pretend you are and give me my inheritance now?"
  • It's quite an insolent thing to ask. I would be deeply hurt. Another father might be very angry.
  • But the father in the story seems quite even-keeled about it. I was in a discussion with Houghton's Michael Jordan recently about the word confident. According to his definition, the father in the parable is a confident father who is not rattled by situations that would make other people melt in fear or blow up in anger.
  • I will say that I am struck that the younger brother is receiving anything at all. You will remember the story of Jacob and Esau in the OT, where it seems pretty much all or nothing.
  • This leads me to one of my first observations in this story: Our prodigal parent loves us all equally.
  • By the way, I used the term "parent" in the title as a reminder that, while it is Father's Day and we are focusing on fathers, God (whisper) does not have a male anatomy. God's maleness is a picture, not literal. This story could just as well be about mothers as fathers and about two daughters as about two sons. 
  • And the father gives it to him. This is quite remarkable. I don't think I would have. Somewhere we could tell another parable where the father says, "Son, it's not going to be good for you if I give this. You would later regret it if I did." Certainly the elder brother wouldn't have given it to him. 
  • This brings me to another take-away from the story. Our prodigal parent doesn't always protect us from our own foolishness.
  • The older brother no doubt thought this was a reckless decision. What a waste!
  • You may know Cory Asbury's song that marvels at the "overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God." There are some who don't like this song (including my wife, so I have to be careful here). Mostly they don't like the idea of God's love being reckless. I've seen some heated Facebook debates about this concept (which is funny because nothing is ever heated on Facebook). The elder brother certainly didn't like that song. What kind of reckless father "leaves the 99"?
  • As I reflected on the father giving him the money, a slightly different perspective did occur to me. What if the father had waited? What if the son had inherited the property and possessions after the father was gone? He would have still wasted it. But then, he would be dealing with his older brother, not his father. His older brother either would have flat out told him no or might have taken him up on his offer to become a servant. And he would have never let him forget it. By giving the inheritance now, the father leaves room for his full redemption.
  • There are two reasons God lets us go. The one is the Romans 1 reason. There is nothing left to redeem in us because we have set our course and hardened our hearts. God lets us go, lets us spiral out of control, and the penalty is entailed within our own course.
  • The other reason is redemptive. God wants us to wake up. This a third take-away I have from this story. Our prodigal parent is patient with our foolishness, and eagerly longs for us to wake up.
  • We know the story. The younger brother goes to a far off country. He has truly left the building. I don't think we naturally get the level of offence that he does here. His world is an honor-shame world, not a world of individual guilt where it's all about being true to your principles. He insults and disgraces not only his father, not only his family, but he is an affront to his people and his God.
  • The fact that he is in a place where they herd pigs is significant. I used just to think "Yuck, smelly pigs," but there is something more significant going on here. There were no pigs in ancient Israel. This is one of the ways that archaeologists can tell that an ancient site belonged to Israel and not, for example, to Philistines. There are no pig bones in ancient Israelite settlements.
  • So this son has left Israel. And since the ancients lined up gods with peoples, he has left his God. He has insulted his father, his family, his village, his people, and his God.
  • Finally, the son hits rock bottom. We know the story. The father takes him back, even throws him a party. What a reckless father!
The Older Son
  • Most of you know the story. The older brother is not pleased at all. We might call him the "law and order" son. To him it just isn't fair. And of course it isn't.
  • He seems to relate to Kierkegaard's second stage. If the younger son lived for pleasure, the younger son is oriented around duty. This is better than living for pleasure because you are living for something bigger than yourself. But because you are focused on rules rather than people, you can become oppressive to others.
  • I find the Parable of the Prodigal Son deeply subversive. The father doesn't say, "Well, I'd love to take you back but first you need to find someone to pay. Maybe your older brother will do it."
  • There is a kind of theology that looks at the atonement a little like this, like there is an angel accountant somewhere in heaven keeping track of the units of sin (maybe, "sin-ons") that Jesus has to mathematically atone for. Then on the cross, God calibrates the sun gun and zaps Jesus with exactly the right amount of penalty, as if Jesus has to dip his toe in Gehenna hell just long enough to pay for all that sin.
  • But the parable knows nothing about this sort of necessity. The father is sovereign and has the authority simply to choose to forgive. Don't get me wrong. We need the cross even if God didn't. Perhaps C. S. Lewis gave us the best picture of Aslan's death working a deep magic. The sense that Christ's death satisfies the sense of justice God has built into the universe is also true.
  • And Terry Paige would be upset with me if I didn't at some point give the original connotations of this story. It is of course a great story about how God will take us back if we leave him and how we should be happy when God forgives others we don't want to be forgiven.
  • But the Prodigal Son represents the tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners of Israel. They weren't even trying to keep the covenant. They weren't even trying to follow the Old Testament. They were the spiritual cast-aways of Israel... and of no interest to religious leaders.
  • There is a shorter version of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Matthew. There was a father who had two sons that he asked to go work in the field. One said he would but didn't. The other said he wouldn't but did in the end. These relate to the reactions to Jesus. The tax collectors and prostitutes are those who weren't even trying to be righteous, they they accept Jesus and go work in the field. 
  • The Pharisees, scribes, rabbis, and religious leaders were the "healthy" that Jesus shouldn't have needed to minister to. They were voted "most likely to be righteous in high school." But the funny thing is, they don't accept Jesus' reckless love, and they don't accept Jesus.
  • But our prodigal parent is God and isn't accountable to his law and order children.
  • The elder brother also disgraces and insults his father, because he refuses to join the party for the sheep that was lost and now found. We don't feel his shame, in part because we identify him and in part because we don't get the shame dimension of the story.
  • The older brother in story story reminds me of the priest and Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Some scholars say they didn't have a legitimate purity reason not to help (Amy Jill Levine), so that can't be the meaning. But since when have people not used Scripture as an excuse not to do the wrong thing. I think these two were hiding behind a purity argument not to help.
  • Jesus makes a Samaritan the good guy. They certainly weren't thought to be "good." Pick the person you least want to love, the person you least want to be the good guy. That's who the Samaritan represents.
  • But our prodigal parent is patient with children who think they know law and order better that our reckless father.
Kierkegaard's Third Stage
  • I'm not a full blown Kierkegaardian. His third stage is a blind leap of faith. But there is a stage beyond pleasure and duty. A stage of surrender to God as our reckless parent.
  • The younger son in the pleasure stage only lives for himself and eventually crashes in self-defeat.
  • The older son in the duty stages does live for something bigger than himself, but it is not the person of God. It is the rules, and those rules are unforgiving and rigid. 
  • Our higher calling is to be like the prodigal father. We submit ourselves to our reckless Parent, who loves even those who are foolish and stubborn.
  • Now may the God who is patient with foolish prodigals and stubborn older brothers, receive you into his kingdom of reckless love and welcome you with open arms into the eternal celebration. Amen.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Book Review: The Cross and the Lynching Tree

I went through James Cone's classic book this last week posting summaries on Facebook. Here are those notes.

First Post
A while back I read about half of James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Seems like a good time to finish it. I used the connection last night in class to try to get a sense of the dynamics of a Roman crucifixion.

First, crucifixion was about power. It showed Jews who was boss, and it wasn't them. Cone says of growing up in Arkansas, "White people were virtually free to do anything to blacks with impunity."

Second, a cross was about shame and disgrace. The Romans crucified people along a main route to enter a city like Jerusalem. The victim was naked, completely exposed. People watched, just as in the 1930 picture of the lynching in Marion, Indiana.

If this comparison angers some, we begin to understand what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 1:23 when he said that the cross was a stumbling block to Jews.

Chapter 1
I reviewed the first chapter of James Cone's book The Cross and the Lynching Tree this morning. It gives a small taste of the slavery and post-slavery struggles of African-Americans in the south. As the great-grandson of an Union soldier whose roots are in Indiana, these were not my struggles.

(I might add that my great-grandfather and his generation would be infuriated to see confederate flags in Indiana and the north. In the comments I made it clear that the north was full of its own hypocrisy, with the KKK, redlining, and other racist features.)

I grew up with little sense of how the lives of others with a different color skin are usually more complicated (which is what is meant by the phrase "white privilege," something you don't even know you have--it is more about subtractions that are not added to your life than additions of negatives of which you are aware).

The sentences I want to quote from chapter 1 are these:

"They found in the cross the spiritual power to resist the violence they so often suffered."

"Faith was the one thing white people could not control or take away."

Chapter 2
"Between 1880 and 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus."
Cone spends this chapter reflecting on Rienhold Niebuhr, who had much to commend him but was still not a perfect man when it came to race.

"Man's [sic] capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." Niebuhr

"Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime." N

"People without imagination really have no right to write about ultimate things." N

Niebuhr was a gradualist when it came to matters of race.

Cone concludes: "Niebuhr had 'eyes to see' black suffering, but I believe he lacked the 'heart to feel' it as his own." "Niebuhr took no risks for blacks."
MLK disagreed with Niebuhr's gradualist approach.

"It is hardly a moral act to encourage others patiently to accept injustice which he himself does not endure." MLK

"It has always been difficult for white people to empathize fully with the experience of black people." Cone

"There is no justice without power."

"There is very little justice in any educational institution where black presence is less than 20 percent of the faculty, students, and board members."

This was an interesting and convicting chapter.

Chapter 3
Chapter 3 of Cone's book focuses on MLK.

The chapter begins with the story of Emmett Till, who visited Mississippi in 1955 and was killed for whistling at a white girl. This would be something like the last straw. "If lynching was intended to instill silence and passivity, this event had the opposite effect."

Much of the chapter sketches MLK's relation to his fears and potential death. His home was bombed early on in 1956. And of course he was assassinated in Memphis. One theme he both inherited and continued was that the cross is the answer to the lynching tree.

Here are some quotes:

"Suffering always poses the deepest test of faith."

"We do not know what we truly believe or what our theology is worth until 'our highest hopes are turned into shambles of despair.'"

"In the end there was no way to prevent someone from killing him." "Suffering is the inevitable fate of those who stand up to the forces of hatred."

"He did believe that his suffering and that of African Americans and their supporters would in some mysterious way redeem America from the sin of white supremacy."

Benjamin Mays said of Jesus -- "The chief trouble with Jesus: He was a troublemaker."

Chapter 4
Chapter 4 of Cone's book was difficult because within it you could see the faith crisis that white ("Christian") violence caused in African-Americans of the early 1900s and even to today. To see a lynched individual as a "recrucified Christ" helped because in this image Jesus identifies with suffering rather than being the perpetrator of it.

One startling aside is that I grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida without (as far as I remember) ever hearing of Rubin Stacey, who was lynched there in 1935.

The chapter addresses the way black artists like W. E. B. DuBois and Langston Hughes interplayed the cross and the lynching tree. It was hard for both of them to detach Christianity from the white oppressors who so strongly espoused it.

"The church to-day is the strongest seat of racial and color prejudice," DuBois wrote. He also wrote, "If Jesus Christ came to America, He would associate with Negros and Italians and working people."

Thinking of Langston Hughes, Cone wrote, "It was not easy for blacks to find a language to talk about Christianity publicly because the Jesus they embraced was also, at least in name, embraced by whites who lynched black people."

A final note is the irony that it was only last Wednesday that Congress finally passed an anti-lynching bill. Such a bill was first introduced into Congress 120 years ago. Imagine that. Cone mentioned its failure to pass over the years when he wrote this book 15 years ago.

What is wrong with this picture?

Chapter 5
Chapter 5 of Cone's book looks at the struggles and contributions of black women toward the achievement of the Golden Rule in American society and thus the realization of a truly Christian nation.

Langston Hughes put it this way: "Let America be America again... America never was America to me." MLK also sought "to redeem the soul of America."

Black women made up about 2 percent of blacks killed by lynching. On the other hand, there were those individuals who did not believe a black woman could be raped by definition.

Women played key roles in voicing the need to see the Golden Rule played out for all America. Ida B. Wells was so vocal that she was often marginalized even within the black community. Here are some of her words: "The nation cannot profess Christianity, which makes the golden rule its foundation stone, and continue to deny equal opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to the black race."

She was critical of D. L. Moody, who segregated his revivals to appease whites in the South. "Our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hellfire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians." In this chapter Cone is critical of liberal theologians like Rauschenbusch who said nothing.

Billie Holiday's song Strange Fruit is an example of black women using song to draw attention to the evil of lynching. The words to the song were written by a Jewish man in New York after seeing the famous picture of the lynching in Marion, Indiana in 1930. At the 1964 Democratic convention Fannie Lou Hamer gave a speech called, "Is this America?" LBJ was not pleased, but the Voting Rights Act would be passed the next year.

Finished the conclusion of James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone was born in 1938 (recently died in 2018). His childhood memories stretched back into the time before the civil rights movement, to a time when he could be nervous if his father did not come home on time.

Clearly, although Cone was a Christian and taught at a Christian seminary, he wrestled with Christian faith because of its close association in his world with lynching and white supremacy. But he had an experience of God's transcendence in worship. As Mircea Eliade has said, "once contact with the transcendent is found, a new existence in the world becomes possible."

"God was also present at every lynching in the United States." "Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus." "As I see it, the lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians."

"Blacks and whites are bound together in Christ by their brutal and beautiful encounter in this land."

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Docherty 4: Septuagintal Studies

Chapter 2: Previous Scholarship
Chapter 3: Developments in the Study of Midrash

1. I found this chapter the most helpful so far. Docherty potentially challenges something I have said quite often, namely, that the New Testament authors felt free to modify the text of the Old Testament. Instead, she argues that the text of the Greek Old Testament was already pluriform and varied somewhat significantly. Thus, while New Testament authors may cite texts that differ from the Septuagintal text as it coalesced by the time of the great codices, she would imply that, at least as far as Hebrews is concerned, the author was probably not very innovative with the text.

First, she uses the word Septuagint in reference to "the whole transmitted tradition of Greek versions" (123). "Old Greek" thus refers to the earliest stage of Greek translation that can be reconstructed for any book. This follows Leonard Greenspoon's 1987 distinction.

Similarly, she follows with most scholars the sense of Paul de Lagarde that the Greek translations of each book likely began with an Urtext, a single individual translation of each biblical book. This is in contrast to the theory of Paul Kahle, who proposed multiple original translations that eventually coalesced. However, once the original text began to circulate, revisions began almost immediately.

2. The result is to see a lot of options in the mix from early on. Symmachus, Aquila, and Theodotion are no longer seen as new, late, and independent translations but continuations of previous revisions (125). Even some of the revisions of the Lucianic Recension of the 300s may actually be witnesses to the Old Greek (128). "The serious exegete can no longer be content with comparing the textual form of Old Testament citations in the New Testament with only the major Septuagint witnesses like Codices Alexandrinus and Vaticanus" (125). Even the NT itself serves "as a witness to textual plurality in the first century CE."

I must say that while I must be willing to swallow this pill, I want to see more evidence. For example, the last sentence is not evidence but could be a likely conclusion. She has me listening, but I'm not just going to take the word of the footnotes without further evidence.

3. She goes through some of the key psalm citations in Hebrews. She does convince that in most of these cases Hebrews is following some Greek text rather than freewheeling. One of the most interesting case studies is the use of Deuteronomy 32:43 in Hebrews 1:6. The Dead Sea Scrolls have, I think, shown that the author is following a form of the Greek that is actually more faithful to the original Hebrew than the Masoretic text.

The peculiarity is the subject "the angels of God" found only in the Odes and Ethiopic text, both of which are late (400s). Was this an invention of the author of Hebrews or another Greek tradition. I'm quite open to it being an alternative Greek tradition.

4. Aland's Greek New Testament has "like a garment" as an addition by the author. It is possible. It doesn't change the meaning. However, there is a DSS that has it (11QPsa). This suggests to me that the author was following an exemplar here.

Docherty apparently didn't know that Philo quotes Genesis 2:2 exactly like Hebrews 4:4 does. (She would have heard me say it at SBL last fall though :-) I thus think that the author of Hebrews was following an exemplar here as well. Her mention of how the slight modification adding "God" to the verse could arise might just as well have been an Alexandrian modification.

In any case, her claim that Hebrews does not freewheel in its quotations is true. However, this does not prove her case that the author "held a very high view of the inspiration of scripture, scripture in its Greek as well as Hebrew form" (141). An atheist might be inclined to quote texts word for word.

She concludes: "The new research discussed in this chapter now places the burden of proof on those who would argue against a variant reading and for a definite theological alteration of a biblical source" (142).

I will mull this over. I will say that I would want to ponder beyond citations to allusions and echoes. She has just worked with quotations. She does mention in the chapter that she is just speaking of Hebrews and not the rest of the New Testament in this study.

Docherty 3: The Study of Midrash

Chapter 2: Previous Scholarship

Chapter 3: Developments in the Study of Midrash
1. We now get to the good stuff, although I was a little disappointed. It has felt like Docherty was building up to our need to take on board recent developments in the study of midrash. But she does not go into great detail about its specific content. Maybe she will get into more detail when we get to her analyses of Hebrews. I feel like I keep waiting for what she's building up to.

I was eager to read this chapter because I am one of those NT people she mentions who is not greatly acquainted with rabbinic studies. I am also one of those who wonders whether it is anachronistic to bring too much of rabbinic Judaism into the study of the New Testament. The Mishnah dates to around AD200--nearly two centuries after Jesus walked the earth. Much of the rest of rabbinic literature is later... often by centuries.

I accept that there is likely tradition that goes back to the Tannaim of the second century, even to the time of Jesus. But it has surely been colored through the filters of later tradition in good Gadamerian fashion. And I do not personally think of the rabbis or church fathers for that matter as having a good deal of objectivity or historical consciousness in their processing of earlier material.

Let me attempt to record the scholars she catalogs:
  • Renee Bloch - focus on the historical development of tradition from biblical times. She died in tragic plane crash on its way to Israel at about 30 years old, shot down over Bulgaria.
  • Geza Vermes - over-played historical continuity, seeing it going even back into the Bible
  • Isaac Heinemann - first theoretical description of midrash (1949). Focus on haggadah. Draws on middot (interpretive rules found in rabbinic literature, e.g., Hillel). Saw a creative element in rabbinic interpretation, as well as an awareness of the "plain sense" of Scripture. She critiques unquestioning use of the middot.
  • Michael Fishbane - His classic is Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel. It deals with reinterpretation within the biblical texts themselves. Intertextuality. Creative exegesis - "exegetical imagination" involved.
  • Daniel Boyarin - postmodern influence--rabbinic interpreters actualizing the polysemy of the texts. Midrash is "a radical intertextual reading of the canon, in which potentially every part refers to and is interpretable by every other part" (93). Midrashic exegesis both 'disrupts' and 'reconstructs' the meanings of biblical texts."
  • Jacob Neusner - The authorship of midrashic documents involves a "coherent programme of themes which runs throughout the work" with consensual decisions about the organization of the material and its literary form. Neusner overreaches here. Too synchronic. Did contribute a good notation system.
Let me pause here because clearly Docherty means to promote the "Goldbergian School." The above scholars are preface.
  • Arnold Goldberg - She likes him especially for his precise delineation and definitions of exegetical techniques as well as his interest in theological presuppositions inherent in those methods.
  • A midrashic sentence is the fundamental unit. It involves a lemma (L) or small scriptural segment, on which a hermeneneutic operation is performed (o) producing a dictum (D).
  • Because the same words can be employed to say different things in different contexts and arrangements, there is the expression itself (Aussage in German) in distinction from its meaning in a particular location (Bedeutung).
  • "The editors of the rabbinic works were in fact not interested in what their citations were meant to say in their original contexts, but in what they can say now" (103). 
  • Alexander Samely - pupil of Goldberg, introduced categories from linguistics. Identified over 100 different exegetical techniques in the Mishnah. The rabbis "privilege the linguistic signs above the meaning of the word as a whole" (110). "The presuppositions most important for rabbinic exegesis were an absolute belief in the relevance and consistency of scripture."
  • Philip Alexander - Docherty's Doktor Vater. Has criticized the loose use of the word midrash among people like me. :-) Distinguishes between midrashic form and midrashic method. 
  • "Midrashic texts always have the literary form lemma plus comment" in addition to other features like stringing numerous verses together, giving alternative interpretations, and quoting named authorities.
  • Alexander has also catagorized other genres like rewritten Bible, pesher, and anthologies.
  • With regard to underlying axioms, he has noted that midrashic interpretation is based on "the rabbinic belief that scripture as divine speech is polyvalent, containing innumerable latent meanings to be exposed by the authoritative interpreter, and that even apparent contradictions in scripture can be tolerated as they exist only at the human level and not in the mind of God" (113).
Helpful chapter in learning the lay of the land.