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Category: Biblical Criticism

Discussion of the historical-critical method and its various methodologies and their application to Bible study and formation of doctrine.

The Authority of the Longer Ending of Mark

The Authority of the Longer Ending of Mark

Here’s an interesting post on the longer ending of Mark and snake handling. (HT: Dave Black Online, Why Four Gospels?)

There’s obviously a serious question about hermeneutics lurking in the discussion, but what I would like to see discussed is just what text of Mark is authoritative. We tend to assume that what we want is the most original text. What did Mark write?

But we count as scripture what was recognized by the church councils as scripture. (I ignore here whatever reasons they may have had for their choice.) The Gospel of Mary or the Gospel of Peter are not authoritative, but Mark is. What text of Mark were the church fathers looking at when they made it canonical? Does that matter?

I think it would relate (in a distant way) to the question of whether a gospel retains its authority if one thinks it was authored by someone other than the traditional one. If the church fathers canonized a gospel they believe to have been written by Mark, and then it turns out he didn’t write it, should their decision be reviewed?

I ask these questions because we often try to dodge doctrinal difficulties through textual criticism. I think that is not always (or often) the right approach. It has its value, but creates its own difficulties.

Worth thinking on, I think.

On Character, Discontent, and the Old Testament

On Character, Discontent, and the Old Testament

I have somewhat of a tradition of reflecting somewhere on my blogs about books I am about to publish. So today I want to look at Allan R. Bevere’s new book The Character of Our Discontent.

Allan is a primarily New Testament trained preacher who has decided to take on some major passages in the Old Testament in preaching to his congregation. In turn, he has collected them to share with others.

My friend Alden Thompson, who is author of Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?, also from my company, generally leads off weekends of discussion of the Old Testament with a litany of the reasons that people don’t like the Old Testament. He then takes a look at the Old Testament in the New, and especially in the teachings of Jesus and then he’ll say something like: “So you may not like the Old Testament, but Jesus did!” Now he says it so nicely that nobody is offended, but he certainly catches people’s attention.

I specialized in Hebrew and ancient near eastern literature, so I tend to lean toward the Old Testament in my own study and teaching. But amongst those who teach outside the seminary, that is all too rare.

I had a conversation just days before I accepted this manuscript for publication. A pastor with many years of experience lamented the lack of collections of good sermons, sermons that could provide an example to new preachers. I had to agree with him. In my experience, many people end up as pastors with much too limited knowledge and experience in some of the basics. I think preaching is better taught in most seminaries than subjects such as prayer, spiritual gifts, or even church management, but nonetheless there is a great value in having more material that covers some of the basics. So I found this combination irresistible, even though sermon collections often have poor track records for sales.

There are two values in this collection that I want to emphasize. First, these sermons introduce some Old Testament characters and situations in a way that is easy to understand. They are worth reading on their own. This book isn’t heavy reading. You could read one of these sermons for a quite reasonable devotional. Second, they provide examples for people who may be afraid to start preaching from the Old Testament because they didn’t specialize in it. Now these are not sermons that come from hasty or light preparation. What they are is solid sermons that come from a non-specialist who put in the time to produce a good sermon on each topic.

The presentation is easy to follow. The illustrations are good and to the point. You’ll find yourself directed to some good resources as you read. Allan doesn’t try to solve all the problems of Old Testament interpretation. What he does is apply some of the principles and lessons of these passages to the people found in the pews today.

I’ve mentioned some books that I agonized over before publishing. I’ve even had some I expected would offend some folks. I didn’t have to agonize over this one. I was certain almost from the start that I was going to publish it. Oh, it might offend you in some places, though if so I’d take it as conviction. Some of those Old Testament characters provide quite a challenge to our very un-heavenly way of life here in the American church.

So if you’ve been neglecting the Old Testament, here’s a chance to remedy that situation. My wife tells me that she feels that before she started getting involved in reading and studying the Old Testament she feels she was missing out on half the power God had for her in his Word.

Or, as Dave Black said in commenting on the release of The Character of Our Discontent:

An Old Testament-neglecting Christian is a contradiction in terms.

Bruce Waltke Resigns from RTS

Bruce Waltke Resigns from RTS

Reformed Theological Seminary has announced that Dr. Bruce Waltke has resigned his position as professor of Old Testament at their Orlando campus. The blogosphere is pretty active on this story, including a story at Inside Higher Ed and a note on the BioLogos blog.

The apparent starting point for this was a video of Dr. Waltke endorsing evolutionary theory in a conference sponsored by BioLogos. (Please note that the RTS statement does not mention this reason.) The video has since been removed. As noted again on the BioLogos site, Dr. Waltke stands by what he said, but was concerned about the way in which he expressed it.

I want to note here that RTS is a confessional seminary, and I believe they have a right to hire seminary professors who will teach in accord with their confession. Others, of course, have the right to judge the education provided based on that criterion as well, and for those who support RTS, that sort of doctrinal protection is expected.

I personally find it unfortunate, as I would like to see Christians agree to disagree agreeably on the issues of creation and evolution. Within the church we should, I believe, have some freedom to discuss this sort of issue. Since Dr. Waltke is by just about any measure someone more conservative than I am, I have to feel some concern about this kind of issue. (Note that I am self-employed, so nobody is going to ask for my resignation, and I’m a member of the United Methodist Church, which has many ministers who make me look very conservative.)

In 2008 I reviewed, or more accurately wrote a few notes on Dr. Waltke’s An Old Testament Theology. My view was not entirely favorable, including some of his comments on naturalism and evolution. It appears that I may have been a bit more critical than I should have. I would note, as I did there, that it is perhaps a bit arrogant of me to be so critical of someone with Dr. Waltke’s stature. I keep his An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax within arm’s reach when I’m studying, and his scholarship is outstanding.

I guess what I’m saying here is that if Dr. Waltke can’t be part of the conversation in evangelical Christianity, then we’re in some trouble. I certainly hope he continues to write and speak. I would like to continue to be challenged by his scholarship, and I’m sure there are many, many others.

Interpreting the Bible IV – Scientific Statements

Interpreting the Bible IV – Scientific Statements

In my daily reading I encounter many different types of literature, each of which relates to the science I know in a different way. For example, I might read a newspaper, in which case the question is just what is an article about. Is it about art? I will look at it through one set of glasses. A report on a scientific discovery? My expectations change substantially. I might read a book of fantasy, in which case I expect very little relationship to real science. If I read a science text, however, I am going to judge it very critically on how well it conveys scientific information.

In each of these cases, what constitutes a “mistake” is going to differ greatly. “The sun sets in the west” is very proper in popular speech, in art, or in poetry. It’s questionable in a story about science, and in general would only be used as an example of how inaccurate popular speech can be in a science text.

If one criticized a poem for its scientific inaccuracy for such a statement, one would be viewed as odd. Viewing the Bible that way is pretty standard. Now I’m not denying here that the Bible has different types of literature in which scientific statements might be seen differently. What I will say, however, is that the Bible has nothing in it that qualifies even as a popular news story about a scientific discovery. It certainly has in it nothing close to a textbook on a scientific topic.

Yet many people expect a specifically scientific type of accuracy when they read the Bible. I believe this comes to some extent from the modern view of scientific knowledge as the best type of knowledge available. We want scientific proof that God exists or that miracles happen, because we believe that’s the best category of evidence available. We think the Bible should talk about science in some way, because science (in the modern science, not the older “general knowledge”) is the best type of knowledge there is.

Of course, God may have a different idea. Personally I would argue that God does talk about science, and he does so in the fabric of the universe. We hear that message through scientific study. I don’t want to get into the details of such a view here; suffice it to say it exists.

But we still must be careful in saying that the Bible does not make scientific statements. I’ve gotten into trouble on this before, because people often hear that as “The Bible doesn’t say anything correct about the physical world.” That’s not the case and it’s not my point. What I mean is that the Bible doesn’t make statements either with scientific precision, i.e. intended as testable hypotheses properly qualified, nor does it attempt to advance specifically scientific knowledge.

Now there’s a lot of room for disagreement there. Just how precisely must the Biblical statements agree with a modern scientific view? Laying aside the question of whether the modern scientific understanding of any topic is correct (what will people think of our current knowledge in another 200 years, not to mention 2,000 or 4,000?), one can at least divide that between those who believe that the Bible need not agree with scientific knowledge in any particular way (though it may) or those who believe that where the Bible makes a statement that impinges on science in any way, it must be accurate.

Let’s take a quick example, which I already mentioned previously. We know that the Bible is not a mathematics text, yet it almost accidentally mentions the ratio that is PI, though not providing us with a number calculated to any decimal places in 1 Kings 7:23:

Then he made the molten sea; it was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high. A line of thirty cubits would encircle it completely. (NRSV)

I know of some Biblical critics who are embarrassed that people bring this up as an objection to the Bible, and well they should be, because it really causes nobody any actual problems. On the other hand, it illustrates what I am talking about quite nicely.

There are several things that one might think about this statement:

  1. The writer is using approximations in his numbers
  2. The brazen sea isn’t precisely round, but perhaps oval, another type of approximation
  3. These are not builder’s plans, and thus the precise number is unnecessary
  4. There is no particular reason for the writer to provide us with the value of PI

All of which are quite possibly true. Some others have brought up issues such as measuring from the outside or the inside of the rim. I would note that Biblical Hebrew doesn’t have an easy means of expressing decimal places, and fractions are a mite wordy. So what is the difference here? PI is 3.1416, which is itself rounded from 3.14159, which is rounded from… Why do I choose a particular precision? I do so according to my need, in this case my need to show how we approximate numbers on a regular basis.

One could quite reasonably read the passage as “The sea was round, about 10 cubits across and about 30 cubits around the rim.”

My point? The precision of our statements of such topics depends on the need. I heard a similar example yesterday in a store. One of the clerks was giving directions. He said, “You turn right and then go 2 or 3 miles, and you’ll find Walmart on the left.” Is he giving lousy directions if Walmart is 3.3 miles? 2.7? 1.9? Actually, if he follows the directions he’ll find where he’s going.

Now compare this to directions I got about a year ago to find someone’s house. I was told to turn right and then check my odometer, because I needed to go precisely 1.1 miles and turn right on a road that didn’t have a clear road sign. I did so, and at 1.1 miles I turned right onto the specified road, and only saw the sign with the road name on it after I made the turn. The clerk’s directions were good for his circumstances, but would have failed for mine. On the other hand, giving a precise number to the tenth for finding Walmart would simply be distracting.

To get back to Genesis 1, if one assumes it is intended as a scientific treatise, one should be concerned with things like how days would be calculated before the fourth day when the sun was created. (Though I would note that one does not have to conclude from the text that the sun was actually created on the fourth day; it might be a case of revelation.) One might also be concerned with what “day” was before the fourth day. After all, the sun is created to “rule the day” suggesting that “day” already existed before the sun was there. But now I’m descending into silliness.

If, on the other hand, Genesis 1 is liturgy, there is no reason to expect a logical and scientific progression in the events. But between these views we have any number of senses in which Genesis might be heard as a form of narrative history, in which case, while it need not make scientifically precise statements, it could well make statements that would impact scientific data. For example, if the story says, “the sun set,” even if we allow the non-scientific nature of the way of indicating the end of the day, if there is no sun, the statement would be false–no sun, no setting.

In each case one must look at the particular genre and the nature of what the author is trying to communicate within that genre (witness my two instances, both of giving directions, but with different requirements), in order to determine what type of statements to expect, and the precision one must expect of them. A man describing the temple has no need to communicate the precise value of PI, while someone celebrating God’s creation of the world has no need to describe orbits or solar fusion.

Now I personally believe that not only does the Bible not make scientific statements as I have described, but that it speaks its message into a context of the knowledge of the audience. In other words, as God wishes to communicate things about his order, his control of creation, and his plan for humanity, he doesn’t distract them by saying that they don’t understand yet that the world is a sphere (though they did think it was round like a dinner plate), that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the reverse, or that stars were light years away.

Those points, as interesting as they would be to us today, would be a distraction. In fact, I would suggest that they would completely take over the more important message that the Bible has to deliver.

We think scientific knowledge is the most important; God doesn’t agree, and he communicated according to his priorities, not ours.

Book Notes: Theology of the Old Testament (Brueggemann)

Book Notes: Theology of the Old Testament (Brueggemann)

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-8006-3087-4.

As is usual, note that I’m calling this book notes, and to some extent a response, rather than a review. That is more necessary in this case than most because the book is not aimed at a popular audience, and I am not a theologian, much less a specialist in Old Testament theology, and thus not qualified to write a formal review. I’d also be rather late, given publication in 1997!

That’s one of the key things that struck me while reading this book–the rather substantial difference between Biblical exegesis and even hermeneutics used in its broadest sense and theology. To many, the term “theology” simply refers to any kind of religious studies, but as a technical term it is much more specific than that.

For example, I can study Isaiah or Ezekiel, look at their historical situation, inquire as to the meaning of particular texts and passages, view them sociologically as a phenomenon of their time(s), and yet not get down to their theology, what they said or tried to say about God. In fact, it’s not even quite that simple, in that one can dispute whether theology is primarily a study about God, or more a study of what certain people said about God.

In the case of Old Testament theology the question gets thornier, as one asks whether one is studying about God, what individual authors had to say about God, or an overall Old Testament view of God. To divide this further, is one studying the “Old Testament”, which has a name indicating its an element of Christian scripture, or is one studying the Hebrew Bible, in which case one’s study lenses might be quite different. One can even differentiate, I think, between studying the Hebrew Bible as Israelite theology as opposed to Jewish theology, modern Rabbinic Judaism being different from Israelite religion.

Several elements of my immediate past reading came into play as I read this volume. First, through an accident of how interlibrary loan books arrive, I read Brueggemann’s work shortly after that of Bruce Waltke. It is nearly impossible to compare the two books, though I will try. First, Waltke writes at a more basic level. Neither work is popular, but Waltke’s would more suitably address beginning students in theology than would Brueggemann.

Waltke is more conservative and traditional. In fact, despite his conservative credentials, Waltke gives more credit to historical-critical methologies than does Brueggemann, though it would be hard to nail that down. Both give some credit to the methodologies, and both criticize them. Despite statements regarding such methodologies, however, I think Brueggemann was more dependent on the results. The division of Isaiah into at least First (1-35[36-39]) and Second (40-55 or 40-66) Isaiah, and possibly Third Isaiah (56-66) is a critical element of Brueggemann’s theology, which he places at the time of the exile. Situating those texts elsewhere, for example in the traditional dating, would make a hash of his theological plan which assumes formation of the canon around the experience of the exile. That is, of course, one of the more obvious results of critical scholarship, but I think it demonstrates that no matter how much we may want to escape the historical questions, it is impossible to do so. More minor examples abound throughout the book.

In addition, Waltke’s form, which includes individual theologies of the various books, as well as basic introductory material, would work well for a textbook for those without a strong background in Old Testament. Brueggemann, on the other hand, would not be suitable for students who had not worked through a good Old Testament introduction first.

There was only one negative for me about this book, so I’m going to mention it first. A great deal of the post-modern vocabulary simply gets on my nerves. This may be a personal problem, as I was generally agreeing with the major points made, but I found the vocabulary a bit heavy in comparison to the freight it was carrying. Frequently, I would find that a passage that was quite convoluted in form, and mega-multi-syllabic in vocabulary, produced a fairly straightforward point. (Note to self: Do I do this unto others???) This included the double metaphor of testimony and grammar around which the book is woven. On the other hand, while many of the points were simple and straightforward, they were simultaneously quite profound.

The organizing metaphor of the book is stated in the subtitle: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Brueggemann reads the Old Testament as Israel’s testimony regarding Yahweh. That oversimplifies it a bit, so let me expand. He sees Israel testifying in various voices, and he places this specifically as courtroom testimony. (Please leave all atonement theories out of this; the purpose is different!) In a courtroom an attorney weaves a case out of the testimony of many people, no one of which knows the whole case, but each of which has some piece to add. They may not all meet smoothly at the edges, but the attorney making the case pulls them together.

Well, not so much with the pulling it together part. Though he uses the metaphor, Brueggemann does not pretend to pull Old Testament theology into a coherent whole in the sense of making a unified case about God. Thus he avoids my usual criticism of Biblical theology, which is to say that the more systematic the theology, the less Biblical. The Bible is simply not systematic in its theology. He uses the term “thematization” as opposed to “systematization” in what may be one of the most profound suggestions of the book.

He does this by first looking at Israel’s core testimony. I would note again, in passing, that in locating Israel’s core testimony, Brueggemann is most dependent on historical criticism. He then responds with Israel’s countertestimony. This is a very helpful approach, because there is a tension in scripture between the testimony of who God is and how God is experienced. We talk about loving heavenly parent, and at the same time experience the times of God’s silence and even abandonment.

Israel’s experience in the exile testifies against their core testimony that God is eternally faithful and will not abandon them. It’s profoundly important in understanding Israelite theology, I think, to recognize that many of the strongest proclamations of the faithfulness of Yahweh to Israel were made in the face of actual experience. Some of the strongest statements come from Second Isaiah, for example, and are made from exile in Babylon. This countertestimony is discussed in the second section, from page 317-403.

Part III discusses Israel’s unsolicited testimony, following the same courtroom metaphor, in which a witness adds things that he things are important, but which were not requested in order to make the original case. The key theme here is partnership, along with the suggestion that Israel comes to demand of God the faithfulness reflected in the core testimony. Brueggeman sees Israel in exile essentially waking God up to his obligations.

I think this latter point, which is intricately woven into the book through the testimony metaphor, is quite important. Theologians, especially of the more systematic type, often subjugate the actual statements in the text to the demands of the theological system. For example, God can’t possibly change is mind (Genesis 6:6 / repent) or forget something and then remember it (Genesis 8:1). People can’t really be righteous, as was Job. So we try to make the text mean something else. Brueggemann let’s it say what it says, even in some cases where that grates.

In a final section, Brueggemann discusses how the testimony is embodied, looking at worship, the canon, kings, priests, and so forth. This is probably the most straightforward section of the book, but is a necessary effort to tie things together.

One point Brueggemann attempts to avoid is reading the Old Testament through supercessionist eyes. He does not see Christianity as a necessary result of Israelite religion as would Eichrodt, for example. He also resists the Christological interpretation of the Old Testament that is espoused by Brevard Childs, with his canonical approach. I would have to say, however, that Childs does have a very strong point to make, in that if one’s canon includes the New Testament, there is no way to conduct canonical criticism without seeing Old Testament passages as part of that canon.

My own solution here is to use two terms. I use “Hebrew Bible” when looking at it as a document of the historical Israelite religion, and “Old Testament” only when reading it as an element of Christian canon. I believe one’s reading in those two cases is sufficiently different that one must practically regard the source as two different books. Though they contain the same words, those words take on a sufficiently different meaning that dangerous confusion results from pretending they are the same.

I still regard both uses as legitimate, however, because I see canon as a product of community, rather than the reverse. Each book had its own place in history, but when they are made into a canon, they change roles. This applies even to smaller sections. Isaiah, Ezekiel, or Jeremiah, read as part of the canon, make very different points from what they would read as individual texts from their own historical time.

In general, I found this book useful, but it also made me quite glad that I specialize more in exegesis than in theology. At the same time it reminds me of how much my role as a popularizer forces me to do theology on a daily basis no matter how I feel.

Nova: Buried Secrets

Nova: Buried Secrets

I had an unfortunate brain failure (probably need to reboot!) and missed the first part, then I was interrupted twice more, but what I did see of the Nova show The Bible’s Buried Secrets looked pretty good.

Since for similar reasons (messed up time and all) I didn’t record, but it looks like the site will have the full program available online tomorrow. Once I watch the rest, I may comment some more. In the meantime, it looks like it might not be a bad idea to watch this.

What Have They Done with Jesus – Roundup

What Have They Done with Jesus – Roundup

I have delayed the final post in my notes on Ben Witherington’s book What Have They Done with Jesus? for quite some time. In the meantime I have read Backham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses [my review].

Bauckham provides a much more coherent account of the principles that it appears Witherington is using, partially because he writes for a somewhat more scholarly audience. His purpose is to lay out the nuts and bolts. As I read it, Witherington’s purpose is to use those principles to paint a portrait of Jesus. For an extended discussion of Bauckham, see my review above. In summary, however, while I believe there is some point to the method, I don’t think it accomplishes what Bauckham (or Witherington) think it does.

Frequently when I’m discussing the historical Jesus I suggest that the best antidote to any portrait painted by a scholar is to read another scholar. They tend to do a pretty good job of critiquing one another. In general, however, someone else can do the same to them in turn. This has resulted in a certain amount of agnosticism on my part regarding our ability to perceive the historical Jesus, and I also question the need for any level of precision.

Witherington is a good writer, and I confess to enjoying a great deal of this book even when I was disagreeing. He does not lay out the principles as clearly as does Bauckham, but that is not his purpose. There are elements of the book that I found very helpful, others not so convincing, and a few annoying.

What is most helpful in the book is the very thorough examination of the evidence that we have regarding very early figures in the church. Whether one agrees with conclusions or not, the information is quite good for a book aimed at non-scholars (though at educated non-scholars!). I found the two chapters on Paul and those on James most helpful in their combined look at the major divisions (factions? groups?) in early Christianity. I found those chapters generally sensible and balanced, probably meaning no more than that they suited my prejudices.

I do think that Witherington paints a more unified view of the early church than was most likely the case, and was more critical of those who date non-canonical gospels early than I would find justified. Nonetheless, most early dates for those gospels are unjustified in my view, and some serious critical examination is called for.

The “not so convincing” part is what appears to be the intent of the book–presenting a historically probable picture of Jesus. The subtitle suggests the goal: “BEYOND STRANGE THEORIES AND BAD HISTORY–WHY WE CAN TRUST THE BIBLE.” As a matter of history, I remain unconvinced. I trust the Bible with my faith, but I question historical details. For more details on this, find the links to earlier posts at the end of this one.

For what I find slightly annoying, let me simply quote a paragraph from the Appendix:

It is not a good historical principle to rule out causes of events in advance of examining the evidence, especially when none of us has an exhaustive knowledge of either historical or natural causation. The proverbial anti-supernatural bias is no more a good historical presupposition than the naive assumption some people make that everything requires a miraculous explanation, as when someone talks about a demon or spirit causing him to catch a cold, and so on. All data needs to be critically analyzed, of course, but no one should rule out the miraculous from the outset.

On its face this sounds so objective, but I believe it presents some grave difficulties. The first sentence reminds us that we do not know all natural causes. But that should suggest that we might hold out for a natural cause that we don’t know before we resort to a supernatural explanation. Witherington instead uses this excellent principle to suggest that we should be open to supernatural causes.

Now I believe that we should leave open the possibility of supernatural occurrences, as long as we do not possess exhaustive knowledge of the natural world. But at the same time miraculous causes simply can never be the most probable explanation for an event. If a miracle were probable, it would cease to be a miracle.

The assumption that no miracles are possible is not the equivalent of the reverse–the assumption that everything requires a miracle. We do know the causes of colds (Witherington’s example) and thus we know that no specific miracle is required. We know of many other things that are naturally caused (at least in a contingent sense, but that’s way beyond the scope of this post).

But even if I do not rule out the miraculous from the outset, it seems difficult to make it the most probable explanation. I recall a conversation of the virgin birth in which one of the participants was a OB-GYN specialist. He made an off-hand remark that in his office there were a couple of virgin conceptions reported each week. The point here is that out of these many reports even those of us who are believing Christians would reject every one out of hand–except one.

Would we suggest that the OB-GYN consider seriously the option of a miracle every time a pregnant young patient suggests she has never had sex? Probably not. But in one case we make an exception. And while I am willing as a matter of faith to make an exception, there is no way that I will claim that is either history or science. In fact, I see no merit in making such a claim.

I believe that Jesus rose from the dead (to move on to another big one!) not because I believe that missing bodies are best explained miraculously, but rather because my prior faith and spiritual experience inclines me to that belief. I don’t call this rational. I’d prefer it not be called irrational, but rather non-rational, but I understand that many who don’t share my faith won’t be that kind!

I think Witherington is doing much the same thing. I don’t think he would be as kind to claims of the miraculous in other ancient cultures. But in the case of Jesus, miracles get a higher probability rating.

Irrespective of any other factor, this one fact would mean that I would find it difficult to produce a picture of Jesus that was both historically probably as a whole, and also in accord with orthodox Christology. Face it, the idea of God in the form of a human is inherently improbable, extremely improbable, and the orthodox picture of Jesus simply doesn’t make sense unless one believes that picture is true even though it is improbable.

Thus from an historical perspective I remain skeptical, while at the same time remaining a believer. It is faith and the witness of the Holy Spirit, not any sort of historical reconstruction that convinces me. History convinces me that there is room for the physical events such miracles provide (the body of Jesus was not there, the disciples did indeed change their character as they might had they encountered the risen Jesus), but history cannot make the impossible probable.

Previous posts on What Have They Done with Jesus? in reverse order:

Book Notes: God’s Problem (Ehrman)

Book Notes: God’s Problem (Ehrman)

Ehrman, Bart D. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question-Why We Suffer. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-06-117397-4. 294 pp.

I have previously noted that Bart Ehrman’s books are much more controversial on their jackets than on their pages (see notes on The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot and Response to Misquoting Jesus). This is not to say that there is nothing controversial. Rather, well-known issues are stated in a stark and controversial way.

This book is no exception to this prior experience. I was both amused and annoyed that my copy from the library had been “annotated” by some previous user. That always annoys me, because defacing library books is vandalism and I don’t like it. But the form it took is interesting.

On the title page the words “fails to” are crossed out of the subtitle, and and “s” is added to “answer” to that it says “How the Bible Answers Our Most Important Question.” Then there is a note that says simply “sin, In the 1st Book Genesis 3.” Of course, as any competent scholar would, Ehrman covers the role of sin in human suffering according to various Biblical authors.

In the conclusion he also notes how people are divided between two groups. Those who announce their answer as though it was conclusive and obvious, as this annotator did, and those who really don’t want to discuss the topic at all.

I have thought a great deal about the problem of suffering and am willing to talk about it a great deal, but I don’t actually think I have any very good answers. It was interesting to me that neither Ehrman nor I will give a definitive answer, but we have a certain amount of affinity for similar answers. The bottom line for me is simply, “That’s the way the universe works.”

Of course there is also suffering caused by human evil, so the “sin” solution is certainly a part of suffering. But any of these leaves one with the question of just how God fits in. And there I would differ with Ehrman considerably. The problem of suffering itself is one thing; one can even ask the question why we should not suffer. The problem of suffering when one also believes in a “good” God is another matter entirely.

And that’s why the book is titled “God’s Problem.” On one level this is simply a summary of how the various Bible writers answer the question of why we suffer. On another, it is Dr. Ehrman’s journey in dealing with the fact that we do suffer and the implications of that fact for our understanding of God. Some may dislike the idea of mixing one’s personal experience with a book of scholarship, even a popular one. I would disagree. I think the personal reflections, however much they differ from my own, enhance the book and help one to connect the various scriptural responses to real life.

Let me look at these two levels separately. It was interesting to read this book nearly simultaneously with Bruce Waltke’s An Old Testament Theology. The books differ a great deal in size, intended audience, style, and the level of presentation, yet they very clearly illustrate a significant divide in Biblical scholarship. Do we look try to see the scriptures as ultimately unified, and thus reconcile apparent differences theologically or do we lay out those difficulties as starkly as possible?

That question outlines extremes. There are many variations along the way, including a kind of unity in diversity. I like to refer to the unity of a large river system, rather than that of a carefully delineated pathway. But Waltke approaches the Bible as a unity to be brought into subjection to his christology, while Ehrman sees the Bible as many individual schools of thought and tends to demarcate these schools rather strictly.

As an outline, I’m rather happy with Ehrman’s work. He points out what the major positions are. I think there could be some more work done on seeing how those positions might coexist. For example, the view that suffering is a punishment for sin can co-exist with the apocalyptic view that sees suffering as something inflicted by evil forces. I know people in real life who will respond with either of these options according to the circumstances. They don’t always have any logic other than whether they feel that a particular person is deserving of “discipline” or is demonstrating strength as they face the forces of evil.

Scholars tend to try to keep things more logically disciplined than that, which is probably a good attitude for a scholar to have. But it can get in the way of describing real people who are quite frequently a great deal messier.

In particular, I question some of Ehrman’s work on Job. I think he takes a view on Job that would require the final redactor to be some sort of idiot. See my notes on this on my Participatory Bible Study Blog.

Those who would be very critical of Ehrman’s approach, however, should consider the almost casual way theologians often try to brush aside such objections. I did not include this topic in my notes on his book, but Waltke brushes aside major issues in this fashion, particularly when talking about genocide in Joshua.

There he dismisses the problem by suggesting that those who were willing to repent and convert, such as Rahab were subject to destruction, while those in Israel who failed to maintain the standards, such as Achan, were also destroyed. Many people, myself included, would not see a “convert or die” approach as substantially more acceptable than genocide. In fact, any theory of inspiration that does not take adequate account of human failings and ideas runs aground on this problem. If God in fact said “kill them all, even babies” and intended this as a good thing, then God is monstrous. It is possible that God allowed them to think that, because that was what they were inclined to do. It is sufficiently difficult to explain God allowing such a thing, much less explaining why he would positively demand it.

Yet of course the text says that God did just that. For me, that is a strong sign of how the Bible deals with people, still steeped in the culture and moral standards of the time, struggling with what God would have them to do. This is an aspect of the problem that Ehrman only touches on as part of the punishment for sin view.

As for Ehrman, just as I noted in my review of his book Misquoting Jesus, I think he responds largely to a fairly conservative evangelical view of Biblical inspiration, such as would be espoused by Waltke. I don’t mean that a bit of adjustment in one’s view of inspiration solves all the problems. Hardly! But it does make the discussion much more interesting and offer more avenues for a solution.

And this is where we come to the more personal issue. While I did not go on to get a doctoral degree, nor have I written such popular books, I really empathize with Ehrman’s experience. I came out of seminary with a “this can’t be” kind of feeling, and departed the faith at that point. Twelve years later I came back, but to a much more liberal theology. I came to the realization that I did believe in God, however much I might prefer not to, and thus I would have to deal more with my concept of God.

I’m not trying to present my position as the better option, though obviously I prefer it since it’s mine! But if I’m to believe that the physical universe reveals its creator, then I have to be willing to adjust either the adjectives I use in referring to God or the meanings of those adjectives. In general, it may be more honest to use different adjectives.

That’s why I have written that God is more interested in freedom than comfort. Ehrman discusses the “freedom of the will” explanation for suffering, though he correctly points out that the Bible isn’t that much concerned with such an explanation, and also that it fails to deal with natural disasters that are chosen by nobody. At the same time the Bible does address this issue from the direction of responsibility. Sin comes through one man and thus death (Romans 5:12). But the Bible tends to lay responsibility without really acknowledging freedom, something that puts Paul into contortions in chapter 9, from which he extracts himself (if one is generous) by breaking into a bit of doxology.

By freedom, however, I mean something more than freedom of choice. Rather, God constrains the universe within laws rather than directing particulars. God didn’t want Hurricane Ike to destroy so many homes on the gulf coast; he wanted each hurricane to behave as hurricanes do. If you want to see God as loving, you also have to see him as willing to allow hurricanes to be hurricanes.

Is that a solution? All I can say is that it works for me, but I know plenty of people, my wife being one, who do not find that very satisfying. I found it interesting that Dr. Ehrman and his wife also differ, more profoundly than I do with my wife, on the very issues involved.

The bottom line here is that I deeply appreciate this effort to discuss such a difficult problem, and to relate it to one’s personal struggle. I disagree substantially with the conclusions, but largely because I start with different premises. My belief in God, with the kernel being “ground of all being” (Tillich) is fundamental, while my concept of God is more flexible. I’m much less likely to say, “I see that my old concept of God won’t fit with the suffering in the world, so there must not be a God” than to say, “My concept of God doesn’t fit with the suffering in the world, so I must have misunderstood God.”

That difference is personal and experiential at root, I think, and would be very hard to reconcile. It lies way too far outside the realm of “mostly certain” knowledge. In the meantime, you could do worse than to read this book and see how it helps you think about the problem of suffering.

Book Notes: An Old Testament Theology (Waltke)

Book Notes: An Old Testament Theology (Waltke)

Waltke, Bruce K. with Charles Yu. An Old Testament Theology: an exegetical, canonical, and thematic approach. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007. ISBN: 0-310-21897-7. 1040 pp (940 excluding front and back matter).

I’m going to complain a bit about this book, so first let me tell you the good things about it. It provides a solid introduction to the scope and theology of the Old Testament from a confessional point of view, starting from Christian orthodoxy. The tendency is the conservative edge of evangelicalism. It is not fundamentalist, and struggles with many issues that one might expect fundamentalists to ignore.

In addition, there are several very strong points about this:

  • Waltke clearly expounds his approach and the understanding of inspiration on which he bases it. He then consistently applies that throughout.
  • The discussion of narrative theology and how one goes from narrative all the way to application. I don’t always agree, but the discussion is enlightening.
  • The chapter on creation has much to commend it, though it features in my complaints as well.
  • Chapter 16, The Gift of Liturgy is again excellent.
  • The overall theme of covenant theology is well-done and will be very helpful along with the discussion of alternatives.

A substantial portion of the book is taken up simply narrating the story of the various Old Testament books and providing an introduction and background. Thus there is less on the theology of a book than there is simply bringing the reader to the point of understanding. This is probably required in an introduction of this sort, though ideally I would hope someone would take an Old Testament introduction before taking Old Testament theology.

The confessional approach is not precisely one that resonates all that well with me in the study of the Hebrew scriptures or the Old Testament. This should not be a complaint because one can hardly criticize a book for being what it sets out to be. One should, however, note that Waltke is quite serious about this and that the confessional approach shows through.

The book is also true to its title as an Old Testament theology, and not a theology of the Hebrew scriptures. In other words, the Old Testament passages are read Christologically, and chapters frequently conclude by discussing how these concepts carry through into the New Testament. Again, this is an approach that is clearly stated in the early stages of the book, and then carried through consistently.

Though I personally would prefer more discussion of the theology in the historical context rather than the context of Christian canon and theology, this is again a stated goal of the book as a whole. You will find the justification for that approach in the preface and the first several chapters.

Now for some complaints:

  • The author affirms Biblical inerrancy. While I do not, that is not the complaint. In his support of inerrancy and the unity he expects as a result, he seems to gloss over differences in theology between various books with very limited explanations. For example, the difference in perspective on marriage outside of Israel between Ruth and Ezra/Nehemiah is not so much as given a routine dismissal.
  • The author is very much opposed to the historical-critical method, but doesn’t really bother to explain very much of it. I would expect that if one dismisses a particular method in an introductory work, one needn’t go into depth on it, but he repeatedly references and disparages the method, almost exclusively by discussing naturalistic presuppositions, yet fails to provide sufficient foundation in my view.
  • The discussion of creation is really quite good, but is marred by a dismissal of “evolutionism” based again on its supposed naturalistic assumptions. In fact, some varieties of theistic evolution would fit quite well with the interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis provided.
  • Chapter 9, The Gift of the Bride is dismal throughout, in my view, as Waltke embraces patriarchy with both arms. That is too long of a discussion to go into here. Suffice it to say that I disagree with almost the entire chapter, including the notion that Deborah is the “exception that proves the rule” (p. 245).

I just reviewed DeSilva’s New Testament introduction, which is also from a more conservative perspective than my own, though not as conservative as Waltke’s. Yet DeSilva managed to present a variety of viewpoints while at the same time letting you know where he stood. He provided enough material for the student to evaluate without even going to the references. That is a quality I really appreciate in an introductory work.

I am not a fan of purported neutrality. The author does have a viewpoint, and I think it is better to let the reader know what that is. Yet advocacy can be combined with a broad coverage of alternatives that give the student a good perspective. I know a number of liberal works that write as though all conservative views can be dismissed. For example, one will search in vain for defenses of Mosaic authorship in many critical commentaries on the books of the Pentateuch, even defenses presented for the purpose of refutation. This book appears to be a good example of the reverse.

It’s a bit cheeky of me to review the work of so well-respected a scholar as Waltke, whose Biblical Hebrew Syntax I consult regularly (it’s on my “constantly available” shelf). But while I did find considerable here that was helpful, the items I mentioned detracted substantially from the value of this experience. Were I asked to teach Old Testament theology (much more likely than that I would be asked to teach New Testament intro!–see my comments on DeSilva), this would not be my text.

Book Notes: An Introduction to the New Testament (DeSilva)

Book Notes: An Introduction to the New Testament (DeSilva)

DeSilva, David A. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods, and Ministry Formation. Downers Grove, IL, 2004. ISBN 0-8308-2746-3. 974 pp. (904 without front matter and indexes).

This is a bit out of place for review here and by me, but I wanted to write a few notes about it anyhow.

If I were to teach an course in New Testament Introduction, admittedly not all that likely, I would want to use this text. I’m not an NT specialist, and this book is not well suited to the groups I usually teach. It’s designed for the seminary student, and I wish I’d had it as a text at that time. Alas, that was the 70s, and the copyright date is 2004.

Why do I like it? The primary reason is that it covers issues in New Testament criticism effectively and practically. By “effectively” I mean that various critical methods are described briefly and clearly so that the student can grasp both the origins of the method and how the method might be applied even by those who don’t accept all the presuppositions of those who originated it. The description is rounded out by examples. By “practically” I mean that each such section concludes with practical exercises.

I had to figure a great deal of this stuff out by working backward from commentaries. There are, of course, a number of rather good books which I discovered along the way (Augsburg Fortress’ series Guides to Biblical Scholarship comes to mind), but both my undergraduate and graduate experiences generally involved hearing or reading the claims, struggling with the material, and then finding the good explanations afterward.

These sections don’t just cover a few traditional critical skills. They range from textual criticism to feminist criticism with the positive and negative aspects of each, and all those between.

A secondary reason to like this book is the emphasis, indicated in the subtitle, on ministry formation. I work largely with lay audiences, but I do frequently get to talk with pastors, and one great weakness of seminary education, from my unscientific survey, is a lack of practical application. I can do [something taught in seminary], but how will I use it? Each book of the New Testament has a discussion of how it can be helpful in ministry formation.

These sections are good. I would think that a good seminary student would want to keep this one for his library shelves. If he or she did not, it would set off alarm bells for me.

Just to give an example of the types of topics, let me look at the book of Romans, since it’s one I’m studying for personal devotions at the moment, as well as at church. We encounter a full page excursus on the literary integrity of Romans, a slightly longer one discussing faith in Romans, another titled “Grace and Justification in Jewish Sources”, one on “Paul’s Hermeneutics and the Pesharim of Qumran”, another on “The Enigma of Romans 7:7-25” (he and I would disagree in part there, but it’s a pretty thorough discussion), and “The Law: Catalyst for Sin or Divine Remedy.” The “EXEGETICAL SKILL” section is a bit over 2 1/2 pages on social-scientific criticism discussing analysis of ritual. The Ministry formation section covers a bit over seven pages. All of this is the extras that frame an excellent introduction to the book and to tendencies in interpretation. DeSilva even manages to discuss homosexuality, though doubtless due to the nature of the topic, nobody will be satisfied!

Not being a specialist in this area, I really haven’t surveyed the full field of New Testament introductions–there are quite a number of them–but I have read a few, and none matched the quality of this one in all ways.

I should note that DeSilva is clearly more conservative theologically than I am and more negative on the values of some of the older forms of criticism–form, redaction, and source, for example. But that does not prevent him from presenting both the positive aspects and the nuts and bolts methodology, within the scope to be expected of a work of this size. I would not be uncomfortable basing a class discussion on his material on any of the topics, even homosexuality.

Unfortunately, as I said, I won’t get much opportunity to use this book, but I did enjoy reading it, and I do recommend it as a way to kind of round up your New Testament exegetical skills, especially if you’ve gotten stuck a bit in a specialist’s rut. If you are an NT specialist about to teach NT introduction, check it out.