Biblical-theology

writing assistance needed

I need your help and would greatly value your input/insight. For the past two years (maybe more), I’ve been toying with the idea of writing commentaries on the NT–primarily, to begin with, the letters of Paul. I know: go figure. My plan is to start small(ish) and work my way toward the longer Pauline letters. I should say this plan also involves a consideration of the level of theological detail/content of the letters. In other words: I want to begin with letters that address only a small handful of topics and work my way through those where discussion is more involved. (NB: this is not to suggest that the ones with fewer topics are less important than the others). Accordingly, my tentative schedule is as follows:

  • 1-2 Thessalonians
  • Ephesians
  • Philippians
  • Galatians
  • Colossians and Philemon
  • Pastorals (i.e. 1-2 Timothy, Titus)
  • 1 Corinthians
  • 2 Corinthians
  • Romans

However, when it comes to coverage and content, I’ve been rather stuck on what to include. There are loads of details that I find fascinating but would surely bore the socks off of just about everyone else. That is to say: I realize and accept that commentaries are not everyone’s cup of tea (or coffee) and that their often technical nature tends to be kryptonite for most would-be readers. Because of this, I thought it best to ask around and see what would be interesting or of value to readers. Hence, I need your help.

In the main, and if you are unfamiliar with commentaries, most writers will adhere to a general two-part format, which might include any number of sub-topics:

  • Introductory matters
    • Authorship
    • Date and place of writing
    • Audience
    • Occasion (i.e. why the letter was written)
    • Major themes
    • Structure (i.e. outline of the letter)
    • Placement in the canon
  • Detailed comments on the text/document
    • Text-critical issues (i.e. dealing with variants in the Greek manuscripts)
    • Analysis of key words, phrases, clauses, sentences–usually referring to the Greek
    • Connections with (similar) NT ideas/themes/teachings
    • Relevance for the church–whether past, present, and/or future

Riveting stuff, I know. By and large, this format and many of its features, specifically their content, reflect the ongoing dialogue between scholars in the field, with the hope that non-specialist wanderers will find it interesting or even informative. Moreover, the kinds of topics discussed–and the level at which they are discussed–are often determined by the aims or purpose of a given commentary series.

For example: the International Critical Commentary (ICC) series is geared more for academics while the Interpretation (Int) series is orientated more for pastors and church-goers. (NB: this is not to suggest that the Interpretation series is not academically minded; all of the contributors in this series are experts in their respective fields). For comparison, with regard to the letter to the Galatians: the ICC¹ expends 65 pages on introductory matters, while the Int² covers just shy of 11 pages. And in terms of total coverage, the Int falls short of 160 pages (excluding bibliography) and the ICC swells to just over 500 pages (excluding bibliography and indexes).

So, to come back round to my request for assistance: what kinds of things, or level of details, would you like to see in a NT commentary? What interests you? What bores you tears? What would be something that would enhance your reading and/or understanding of a NT text? What questions would you like answered–or at least addressed? What about style and/or format? I’m looking for insight from anyone who is willing to offer it, no matter if you are an expert in NT scholarship or if you have a scintilla of understanding about Christianity or somewhere in between. I would love to hear from you so that I can write for you.

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¹ This refers to E. de Witt Burton’s 1920 commentary in the ICC series.
² This refers to C. Cousar’s 1982 commentary in the Int series.

literary license, or forgot to read the whole thing?

Monday, 06-Jan-2014 marked the beginning of my first (official) online course that I’m teaching for Johnson University. The course is a 7-week intensive study of 1 Corinthians for the MA in Intercultural Studies program. To be fair, the course is really a 5-week intensive on 1 Corinthians, seeing that week 1 deals with introductory matters and week 7 is missions orientated–in view of what we learn from 1 Corinthians, of course.

While preparing for/writing the course, I had the opportunity to revisit the text in a rather detailed manner–something that I have not done since the middle of October. (I took a break from 1 Corinthians because I needed to, seeing that I spent nearly 5 years exegeting the thing). In this revisiting, I was also able to look at a few things more closely–things that I could only consider briefly when doing my PhD. One of these bits was the Thanksgiving portion of the letter (i.e. 1 Cor 1.4-9), which contains a number of salient details relevant to what Paul argues in the letter.

In my preparations for this course, I wanted to interact with English translation and consider how they deal with certain portions of the text. When I did this with the Thanksgiving section, something struck me as rather surprising. The specific passage in mind is 1 Cor 1.4-5, which I translate as: “I always give thanks to my God concerning you for the grace of God that was given to you in Christ Jesus, since in all things you were made rich in him [Jesus]–in all speech and all knowledge” (εὐχαριτω τω θεω μου παντοτε περι ὑμων ἐπι τη χαριτι του θεου τη δοθειση ὑμιν ἐν Χριστω ͗Ιησου, ὁτι ἐν παντι ἐπλουτισθητε ἐν αὐτω, ἐν παντι λογω και παση γνωσει).

By and large, the majority of English translation agree on the big ticket items in this passage: God is always the recipient of Paul’s thanksgiving, the Corinthians are always the indirect object, God’s grace is always the “thing” given to the Corinthians, Christ Jesus is always the agent through whom God’s grace comes, the Corinthians are always rich in/because of Christ, and there is always something about “speech” and “knowledge.” Admittedly, some will add a flourish here and there, ostensibly to make the text “come alive” to its readers, and these flourishes range between “Hey, that’s quite good” (e.g. “Every time I think of you–and I think of you often!–I thank God for your lives of free and open access to God, given by Jesus” [MSG]) and “Okay . . . I think I see what you’re doing” (e.g. “I never stop thanking my God for being kind enough to give you Christ Jesus” [CEV]).

Moreover, especially when comparing translations on the final clause (i.e. “in all speech and all knowledge”), there are a few that offer what look to be explanatory interpretations of what (they think) Paul is saying. For example, while the Greek simply says, “in all speech and all knowledge”, others will suggest further details:

  • Amplified Bible: “in full power and readiness of speech (to speak your faith) and complete knowledge and illumination (to give you full insight into its meaning)”
  • Complete Jewish Bible: “particularly in power of speech and depth of knowledge”
  • Darby’s Translation: “in all word (of doctrine), and all knowledge”
  • Living Bible: “He has helped you speak out for him and has given you a fill understanding of truth”
  • New Living Translation: “with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge”[1]

All of these kinds of flourishes and explanatory interpretations could be seen as exercising artistic or literary license, which is sometimes needed when doing translation. However, in one translation it appears as though the excitement of receiving their literary license caused the translators to forget everything else. The translation in question?  The New International Reader’s Version (or NIrV)–published by the same people who did the NIV (and tried to corner the market with multiple types of it) and the late TNIV.[2] The over-exuberant reading? Here you go (with reference to the Greek for comparison):

  • Greek: ἐν παντι λογω και παση γνωσει (“in all speech and all knowledge”)
  • NIrV: “All your teaching of the truth is better.  Your understand of it is more complete”

Excuse me?! How the . . . Have you read 1 Corinthians!? Did you happen to pick up a commentary on 1 Corinthians or even a scholarly article and, I don’t know, see what scholars have to say?! “Better” and “more complete” than what–a rock? Two minutes more reading of the letter will demonstrate that the Corinthians’ teaching and understanding are precisely what Paul addresses. And it’s clear that he ain’t happy with either (or both). “All your teaching of the truth is better. Your understanding of it is more complete.” Give me a break. You should have your license revoked, or at least suspended.

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[1] I happen to like this one, mainly because I think it brings out Paul’s sarcasm, which obviously appeals to mine.
[2] Although, you can still access this version online.

ignoring context to sustain an existing interpretation

On two separate occasions now, I’ve heard and read persons appealing to 1 Cor 3.10-15 in ways that make me a bit unsettled–or at the very least, a little worried. In both cases, the ultimate focus of the discussion was the same: the (eternal) status of believers before God. However, the specific emphases of the two persons were distinct, and one’s appeal to the text was more explicit than the other.

In the first instance, I heard a pastor[1] use and teach through 1 Cor 3.10-15 to support 1) the conjoined ideas of “the judgment seat of Christ”–not to be confused with the “great white throne of judgment”, which is (supposedly) separate–and “the judgment of believers” on the basis of (good, faithful) works, and 2) the heavenly “rewards and responsibilities” that come as a result of that works-focused judgment.[2] In fact, this pastor confidently asserted that this text is one of roughly two dozen passages that speak directly to the judgment of believers before/at the (so-called) millennial reign of Christ. What is vitally important to note is that the pastor made it abundantly clear that the notion of rewards is separate from one’s salvation-status before God. Specifically, an eternally secured “saved” status is assumed for all believers and the kinds or levels of reward do not affect that status.

In the second instance, I read a scholar[1] who used 1 Cor 3.10-15–specifically 3.15–as support for reading Heb 6.1-8 as referring to a believer’s “loss of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ” due to his/her hardheartedness, which inhibits faithful “progress in the Christian life”. (This scholar appeals to the Corinthian text because he sees it speaking to the very idea of [loss of] rewards). Specifically, this scholar reads Heb 6.1-8 as addressing the issue of believers regressing to and being content with the elementary “doctrines of the faith” and their subsequent neglect of “the more complicated doctrines at hand”–i.e. those that presumably foster progress in the Christian life.

With regard to the first instance, the gist of 1 Cor 3.10-15 does appear to support 1) the idea of heavenly rewards on the basis of faithfulness post-belief in the gospel, and 2) the assurance that one’s status before God is secured regardless of the degree of faithfulness. Paul’s argument does seem to suggest that those who build (i.e. live their lives) on the foundation already laid (i.e. belief in Christ) in complete faithfulness and obedience (i.e. using the best materials) will receive a better reward at “the end” than those who build with weak or shoddy materials (i.e. live their lives with minimal faithfulness and reluctant obedience). And it does seem that Paul emphasizes the fact that the second builder is not the recipient of condemnation; only his crappy work is punished. Thus, the builder’s status before God remains intact while his efforts are less fortunate.

I could accept this type of reading and interpretation and the theological/doctrinal teaching that follows from it–i.e. the one advocated by the pastor–only if I read 1 Cor 3.10-15 as a stand-alone passage, divorced from its surrounding context. I know that might sound harsh but after spending nearly four years with 1 Corinthians,[3] specifically 1 Cor 1-4, I cannot read the metaphor of 1 Cor 3.10-15 as referring to rewards given to believers before/at the millennial reign of Christ on the basis of faithful works. Paul’s specific argument in 1 Cor 1-4 does not advocate or even deal with that idea. I would be willing to bet that if Paul were alive and someone said, “This is how I read your argument” he would say, “Excuse me?”

Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 3.10-15, as read within the surrounding context of 1 Cor 1-4, is primarily (if not exclusively) about the way or manner in which the gospel of Christ crucified is proclaimed and subsequently judged–both by the Corinthians and by God. Specifically, Paul asserts (cf. 2.1-4) that his original proclamation of the gospel lacked rhetorical flare (and even without the need for such flare), a lack that the Corinthians–relying on worldly wisdom–now judge as evidence of a worthless and substantively foolish message. In their minds, Paul built a house with hay, wood, and straw. By contrast and implication, Apollos[4] continued the message of the cross but (presumably) did so with his usual rhetorical eloquence (cf. Acts 18.24)–a method that the Corinthians, again relying on worldly wisdom, now judge as evidence of a meaningful and substantively wise message. In their minds, Apollos built with gold, silver, and precious stones.

Paul’s (implied) counterargument that in terms of proclaiming the gospel of Christ crucified–i.e. the foundation for one’s faith–the manner of delivery is ultimately of little to no consequence in the eyes and/or judgment of God. Part of the emphasis in 1 Cor 3.10-15 is that if Apollos proclaimed the gospel with rhetorical giftedness, then bravo to him. Well done. And if Paul originally proclaimed the gospel without needing to rely on rhetorical skill or conventions, then so what? Christ was proclaimed! (cf. Phil 1.12-18). Judgments about the method or means are inconsequential and ultimately superficial in relation to judgments about the substance or content of what is proclaimed. The problem, and the other part of the emphasis in 1 Cor 3.10-15, was that the Corinthians were casting judgments about the substance of the message on the basis of the method in which it was delivered. Thus, Paul’s message was deemed foolish only because it lacked eloquence. Paul’s point is that while it may be the case that he lacked eloquence, the foundation he laid remains (3.10) and he himself is unscathed in judgment (3.15; hence 1 Cor 4.3).

With regard to the second instance (i.e. the Heb 6.1-8 passage), I have to be somewhat brief–primarily because this post is getting away from me but also because it dips into a discussion that requires its own post. Suffice it to say that the scholar’s reading of Heb 6.1-8 as referring to a believer’s “loss of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ” due to his/her hardheartedness, which inhibits faithful “progress in the Christian life” is also based on overlooking (or dare I say, ignoring?) the surrounding context. Such a reading the text overlooks a key point about the argument: nowhere in Heb 6.1-8 is the discussion of rewards on the basis of faithful/good works mentioned. The focus of the argument in Heb 6.1-8 deals with the consequences of a believer’s rejection of the salvation they originally accepted (cf. 2.1-4; 3.7-4.13; 5.11-6.20; 10.19-39; 12.12-13.19).

However, in what appears to be an attempt to sustain a particular interpretation of Heb 6.1-8–an interpretation that sidesteps the obvious reading of the text so as to maintain a pre-existing theological position–1 Cor 3.10-15 is brought in as supporting the idea of a loss of rewards but the eternal security of the believer despite the loss. The problem with this should be obvious: that type of appeal only works if 1) the idea of eternal security of believers is accepted unequivocally, and 2) the argument of 1 Cor 3.10-15 does in fact refer to rewards as distinct from one’s salvation status. You already know my thoughts about the second point. I’ll withhold my thoughts on the first point for now.

My aim for this post was not to debate the idea of eschatological rewards for believers or even the question of one’s eternal secured vs. conditioned status before God, specifically in the Hebrews passage. Rather, my point was to say that I do not see 1 Cor 3.10-15 as directly (if at all) speaking to either rewards or status in the way the above pastor and scholar interpret it.[5] Specifically, to ignore the surrounding context (i.e. 1 Cor 1-4) and thus read Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 3.10-15 as primarily about–or to assume that his argument advocates–one or both of these points is to misread or even misconstrue Paul and to impose on his argument a pre-existing set of theological/doctrinal presuppositions that are essentially foreign–or at least unrelated–to the substance of the text.

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[1] This individual will remain unnamed because of my respect for him.
[2] For the record, I do not think the NT is clear or definitive enough about the notion of “rewards” in heaven based on a believer’s faithful works while on earth to form a theological or doctrinal position. Specifically, I see the bulk of the passages brought to bear on this idea as being interpreted in such a way that they validate an existing conclusion rather than forming the basis for a conclusion.
[3] Cf. my PhD thesis, when it gets published.
[4] In contrast to some recent commentators (e.g. R. Collins), I see Paul’s remarks in 1 Cor 3.10-15 as relating primarily to his work and that of Apollos. Thus, while I do think the implications of Paul’s argument can be extended to Christians in general, I see it as only that–i.e. an extension.
[5] At best, we could say the ideas of rewards and/or status are tangential to the wider argument.

Louden Downey, εκφρασις, and Phil 3.13-14

For a multitude of reasons, one of my favorite movies is “A Few Good Men.” Jenn and I, for a while, watched it as a weekly (or at least bi-monthly) ritual. Along with eating pizza. And quoting the entire movie. One of the more tragic exchanges in the movie is the cross-examination of Pfc. Louden Downey, especially right near the very end of it, which goes like this:

Ross: Now you say your assault on Private Santiago was the result of an order that Lt. Kendrick gave in your barracks room at 16:20, am I right?
Downey: Yes sir.
Ross: But you just said that you didn’t make it back to Windward Barracks until 16:45.
Downey: Sir?
Ross: If you didn’t make it back to your barracks until 16:45, then how could you be in your room at 16:20?
Downey: You see, sir, there was a blowout…

And it goes downhill from there (fast). I say it’s tragic because Downey quickly realizes that he’s put himself in an inescapable position, one that has dire consequences, all the while believing he’s done the right thing. You’d have to see it, if you haven’t already.

In 2011, I attended the famed British New Testament Conference, that year held at the campus of University of Nottingham. For those unfamiliar with it, the Conference holds a handful of main sessions on random (but profound) topics and a number of seminar-like sessions devoted to specific topics in the NT. In the latter, the sessions could involve 1) seasoned scholars communicating their recent findings on a given subject or 2) doctoral students seeking an audience (and feedback) for their research topic.

One difficulty with these sessions is making choices, for a handful of topics might all sound interesting but their respective times overlap. I remember that year illustrating that very problem–i.e. there were a lot of good-sounding topics and many of them conflicting with each other, thus making my decisions difficult. One of the decisions, however, was easy to make and it fortunately did not overlap with another session. The topic (or, title of the paper): “Pressing on Towards the Goal: Ekphrasis in Phil 3:13-14 and the Aim of Philippians.” For us nerdy NT folk, such topics can be enticing.

The gist of the presentation was: 1) εκφρασις is a rhetorical device used as “a descriptive speech which vividly brings before the eyes [of the audience] the subject shown [by the speaker]“; 2) Paul’s letter to the Philippians elucidates a particular message for its audience, one that is to be grasped and implemented; 3) while the metaphor of Phil 3.13-14 is brief, it is used by Paul to illustrate concisely his overarching point; 4) thus, Phil 3.13-14 is an example of εκφρασις. Or to quote the presenter: “Paul is using vivid language to bring before the eyes of his audience an image of himself as a runner aiming his life singularly at the goal of gaining Christ.”

I have no real issues with the first three points of the argument, especially points 2 and 3. In fact, I appreciate what this reading does for understanding the letter as a whole. My beef, however, is with the final point. “Why?”, do you ask? Two related reasons: provenance and chronology. A third reason might be, weak (or unsubstantiated) assumptions, but I’ll leave those alone for now.

Throughout the presentation, the speaker (we’ll call him, “Joe”) used εκφρασις as though it were common-coin in the ancient world, especially among rhetoricians and thus knowable (and usable) by Paul. However, the above definition comes from a chap called, Aelius Theon and it is found in his book entitled, Progymnasmata. I should point out that “Joe” knows this to be the case, for he cites Theon’s work when he gives the definition. My problem is that “Joe” nowhere argues a case for Paul’s knowledge of Theon’s definition; he simply assumes that Paul uses it.

Moreover, what “Joe” does not disclose is that, on best guesses, Theon’s teaching (and writing) on rhetoric–and thus specifically the rhetorical use of εκφρασις–post-date Paul’s letter to the Philippians. So, if (according to the presenter of the paper) Theon’s teaching on the rhetorical use of εκφρασις post-dates Paul’s letter to the Philippians, how can we accept the conclusion that Paul uses εκφρασις–as defined by Theon–in his letter? This, to me, looks a lot like the Louden Downey problem all over again. My hope is that “Joe’s” (full) dissertation spells things out a bit more, thus avoiding this dilemma. I’ll have to wait and see, once he finishes it.

trying to see it from all sides, and not just from the stands

This is something I wrote for my brother early last year. It’s a brief(ish) exposition on John 3.16–the favorite verse placarded at football games. This exposition was mostly me thinking out loud. I’m completely open to further insights and/or criticisms.

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1. Historical Setting
The meeting with Nicodemus takes place early in Jesus’ public ministry.  To summarize: in Galilee, Jesus calls a small handful of disciples; with his disciples and mother, Jesus attends a wedding-feast in Cana (of Galilee), at which point he performs his first miracle—although the source or cause of the miracle is known only by the disciples; he then makes a short stay in Capernaum (15 miles east of Cana) before traveling roughly 80 miles south to Jerusalem, in order to attend the Passover.  However, instead of celebrating Jesus is enraged by what is being done in the Temple, and his actions bring him into immediate conflict with the religious elite.

It is on the heels of this conflict that the meeting with Nicodemus occurs.  Since 2.23 says Jesus remained in Jerusalem for the Passover, and since 3.22 says Jesus and his disciples traveled into the region of Judea, and since the encounter with Nicodemus falls between these passages; it is safe to assume that the conversation takes place while Jesus is still in Jerusalem.  Whether or not the conversation occurred specifically in the Temple proper, we cannot be absolutely sure; it seems reasonable enough to assume that it happened somewhere within the Temple complex.

With regard to the meeting itself, two points should be noted.  First, Nicodemus comes with an awareness of the “signs” (or miracles) that Jesus performed in the Temple (see 2.23).  We can assume either that news about the “signs” quickly spread to Nicodemus or that he himself witnessed the “signs.”  Second, Nicodemus meets with Jesus at night, most likely in an attempt to safeguard himself from the Jews, those angered by Jesus’ previous statements (see 2.18-20; cf. 19.38).  Although it is entirely possible that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because it would ensure an “uninterrupted conversation” (Beasley-Murray 1987: 47).  Both of these points (i.e. “signs” and night-visit) will be crucial when we come to the question of theological themes.

2. Literary Relationship
John 3.1-21 is both preceded and followed by a discussion of Jesus’ identity, a discussion that pervades the entire Gospel narrative and one that has a specific goal (see 20.30-31).  At the start of chapter 1, we read a theological summary of Jesus’ true identity, one that remains virtually unknown to many throughout the narrative.  (Only the readers of the Gospel have knowledge of Jesus’ true identity).  Following this we read various testimonies about Jesus, although they tend to be quite vague and even cryptic.  Moreover, it becomes apparent in these instances that those testifying about Jesus are unaware of the full implications of what they are saying.

In chapter 2, we find illustrations of Jesus’ identity revealing itself in what he is able to do—e.g. water into wine, prophesying, performing signs and wonders.  It is here that we find evidence of the disciples (and others witnessing the words and deeds of Jesus) as not fully aware of Jesus’ true identity; they simply marvel at what he does.  In one text, John provides a parenthetical statement about the disciples’ later understanding of the events they witness now—see e.g. 2.20-22 (cf. 12.16).  Then, following the dialogue with Nicodemus, we have John the Baptizer’s testimony about Jesus’ identity, although once again we are confronted with vague and cryptic remarks (see 3.22-36).  However, despite the vagueness, these testimonies function as clues for understanding Jesus’ identity as the Gospel unfolds.

Between the descriptions of what Jesus is able to do and who he is, there is a discussion of why Jesus came.  This specific discussion is the dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus, where the conversation begins with a question of identity but quickly moves to the topic of purpose.  To say this differently: we see how Jesus’ identity is necessarily connected with his role in God’s plan of salvation, a plan that remains hidden but is being revealed in and through Jesus.  Absolutely central to this conversation is the dilemma of how one is able to know Jesus’ true identity and purpose, and it is here we find a necessary distinction between ways of knowing.

3. Logical Structure
Based on the content and flow of the passage, John 3.1-21 divides fairly evenly.  In the first half (3.1-11) we have Nicodemus (and ostensibly a select group of Jews—many of the pronouns in this section are plural) expressing a particular view of who Jesus is.  It becomes obvious that this view is inadequate or even faulty, and the failure stems from an improper way of understanding or interpreting reality.  In the second half (3.12-21) we have Jesus (and ostensibly his disciples—cf. 3.11 and Jesus’ use of “we”) expressing an alternate view, one that is perfectly adequate or reasonable—and not simply because Jesus is the one giving it.  It is adequate or reasonable because it is consistent with the proper way of understanding or interpreting reality, and in this case that proper way is shaped by God’s revealed wisdom.

4. Theological Themes
In terms of order, the first theme to recognize is the tension between darkness and light.  As noted earlier, Nicodemus “came to him [Jesus] at night” (3.2).  While it might be historically the case, John’s interest in the time of the encounter is more theological.  John has already used “darkness” as a description for the state of the world at the time of Christ’s incarnation, which he further describes as “light” coming into the world (see 1.4-5, 9-10).  Moreover, the “darkness” is portrayed as unable to know (or comprehend) the “light,” and as a result the “darkness” rejects the “light.”  The sting of 3.11 is that while Nicodemus and some of the Jews are sympathetic to Jesus because of his deeds (cf. 2.23; 3.2b), they remain opposed to him because they reject his testimony concerning who he is (see Lincoln 2005: 152).  This introduces the second theme.

John 2 ends with Jesus not trusting those who only came to him because of the “signs” he performed (see Haenchen 1984: 1.192), a theme that reappears in the Gospel (e.g. 4.46-48; 6.14-15, 25-27).  In short: faith dependent upon “signs” (or miracles) is neither a stable nor adequate faith (see Bultmann 1971: 131).  Moreover, such faith operates according to a particular way of understanding or interpreting reality—especially the things of God—and this way is insufficient.  However, it is this faith (or belief) and this particular way of understanding that stand behind Nicodemus’ question and dialogue with Jesus.  Nicodemus understands only on a superficial (tangible?) level, which therefore hinders his ability to understand Jesus’ (hidden) meaning.  For Jesus, true belief (or true faith) is about seeing beyond the “signs” and coming into the presence of the one who has the power and authority to perform them (see 6.32-40, 51-58).

This (in)ability to see beyond the superficial represents the third theme: the tension between ignorance and knowledge.  Jesus’ refusal to trust those only seeking “signs” is said to be rooted in his knowledge of “what was in man” (2.25), which suggests a knowledge of identity and purpose, whereas Nicodemus’ failure to understand Jesus’ teaching is rooted in an improper way of knowing.  In other words: Nicodemus is ignorant of God’s revelation in Jesus whereas Jesus has full knowledge of God’s wisdom.  To put it yet another way: Nicodemus attempts to know God’s wisdom via human efforts or reasoning (bottom-up), while Jesus says such wisdom can only be known by God’s revelation (top-down).  Thus, only by a transformation of mind can one know God’s wisdom and thereby his salvation, which results in entering the kingdom (see 3.3, 5; cf. 3.13; Rom 12.1-2; 1 Cor 2.10-12).  Hence, one must be “born from above” (3.3).

Closely associated with this is the last theme: the tension between death and (eternal) life.  Throughout the conversation the emphasis falls on (eternal) life, with death being primarily an implication (cf. 3.16, which contains the only [direct] reference to death in the entire passage).  It is worth noting that the discussion on (eternal) life occurs in the context of God’s kingdom, God’s revelation, God’s salvation in Jesus, and the appropriate way for understanding all of these things.  Moreover, it is no mistake that only here in John’s Gospel is (eternal) life necessarily linked with Jesus’ identity and purpose (see Brown 1971: 1.147; Ridderbos 1997: 136-39) and true belief in Jesus’ identity and purpose as the only way to (eternal) life (cf. Acts 4.12).  We see this in 3.14b where Jesus affirms: “it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up”, with the reason for the necessity given in 3.15: “so that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.”  Thus, the possibility of (eternal) life is dependent upon Christ being “lifted up” (i.e. crucified) and participation in that (eternal) life is dependent upon belief in both the purpose and work of Christ.

a peculiar omission

In the introduction to the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), it announces the following:

The Bible is God’s revelation to man. It is the only book that gives us accurate information about God, man’s need, and God’s provision for that need. It provides us with the guidance for life and tells us how to receive eternal life. The Bible can do these things because it is God’s inspired Word, inerrant in the original manuscripts.

Fair enough. Standard apologetics on the nature of the Bible. This then is followed with:

The Bible describes God’s dealings with the ancient Jewish people and the early Christian church. It tells us about the great gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who fulfilled Jewish prophecies of the Messiah. It tells us about the salvation He accomplished through His death on the cross, His triumph over death in the resurrection, and His promised return to earth. It is the only book that gives us reliable information about the future, about what will happen to us when we die, and about where history is headed.

Once again, fair enough–although there are a couple implications that I would dispute. In general, though, it’s Bible basics 101. But it was because of this paragraph that I was a bit troubled. Not one mention of the Holy Spirit. I think I recall something about the Holy Spirit playing some sort of role in God’s overall plan… And I think there was a dude called, Paul who talked a bit about that role in some random letters… I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Sarcasm aside, it was the peculiar omission of the Spirit’s role as a part of what the Bible describes that bothered me. I thought: “Surely, the HCSB intro has something more substantial to say about the Spirit.” Fortunately (sort of), further down, in the “translation philosophy” portion of the intro, the HCSB does says this:

Often called ‘word-for-word’ (or ‘literal’) translation, the principle of formal equivalence seeks as nearly as possible to preserve the structure of the original language. It seeks to represent each word of the original text with an exact equivalent word in the translation so that the reader can see word for word what the original human author wrote. The merits of this this approach include its consistency with the conviction that the Holy Spirit did inspire the very words of Scripture in the original manuscripts.¹

But guess what? You know the next time the Spirit shows up in the HCSB intro? Nowhere! Seriously?! You’re going to reduce the role of the Spirit simply to inspiring the writers/original manuscripts? Poor form, guys. Poor form.

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¹ With a statement like that, one wonders why the driveling Driscoll didn’t blather on about this translation instead of the ESV.

 

why just those two?

This is nothing but a quick rant. More like a sucker-punch, really. While reading through Carson & Moo’s, An Introduction to the New Testament (as you do on a Wednesday morning), particularly the chapter on the Corinthian letters (go figure), I found this rather strange observation:

Both Corinthian epistles are occasional letters, that is, they are letters addressed to specific people and occasioned by concrete issues

–Carson-Moo, Introduction (2005), 415.

This is strange because, with the possible exception of Ephesians (though I’m not convinced that it is an exception), all of Paul’s letters are occasional.[1] So why specifically designate–or single out–only the Corinthians letters as “occasional”? Is it because those letters address more problems in one go than the other letters do? If so, that in itself does not necessarily make them more “occasional” than the others and thus worthy of the description. It simply means the Corinthians had more problems, and the proliferation of problems in one location is (essentially) the occasion for writing… four letters.

Poor form, guys. Poor form.

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[1] Admittedly, Carson-Moo acknowledge this point later (see 490), but they hardly do anything with it. In fact, the acknowledgement reads more like a throw-away line than anything else.

feeling feisty

Ever since a well-meaning individual tried to convince me of the merits of Dispensationalism,[1] I have done my best (when I have the spare time) to become acquainted with its ideas/teachings/hermeneutic/etc. I do this because I want to be sure that I am either accepting or rejecting something for the right reasons. That study began just over 6 years ago, and I’m sure it will continue for many more–and I’m okay with that.

What I’m not okay with are the repeated attempts by some Dispensationalist scholars to (try and) substantiate a position or interpretation that is otherwise passé or even unsustainable. In particular, I am thinking of the twin (and necessarily linked) ideas of: 1) a clear and essential distinction between Israel and the Church, and 2) the pre-tribulation rapture of the Church. To put it mildly: both of these are crap (especially the second one) and there is no biblical support for either one–or both. The only way one reaches something remotely close to these ideas is if one presupposes the “truth” of both and then imposes them onto a small handful of text(s) that supposedly teach them.

However, throughout 6 years of studying Dispensationalism and reading through countless books and articles on the subject, I cannot begin to recall the number of times I’ve seen people still trying to uphold these two points and claiming them as taught/supported/proved in the Bible. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why this sort of thing persists. The only guess I can fathom is that such scholars are seeking to preserve loyalty to Dispensational teaching rather than allowing Scripture to speak for itself. (That may be a tad extreme…). One fairly recent example should suffice, which comes from an article by the late Zane Hodges (1933-2008).  Please note the assumptions and presuppositions driving his entire line of argument:

A growing number of evangelicals question the doctrine of the Pre-tribulation Rapture of the Church, claiming that the New Testament nowhere teaches it.  Even proponents of the Pre-tribulation Rapture often defend it as if it results from a series of inferences drawn from scattered biblical texts.  Or, they may cite a few isolated proof-texts (like Revelation 3:10).  Unfortunately, few pre-tribulational expositors attempt to justify this doctrine by appealing to a coherent exegesis of an extended passage of Scripture.  Yet, the apostle Paul directly teaches the Rapture of the Church as a deliverance before the Great Tribulation’s judgments in one such passage, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.

–Z. Hodges, “1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and the Rapture,” CTS Journal 6 (2000): 22

There are so many things I could say about this paragraph, but for the sake of my own sanity I will confine my remarks to Hodge’s final point: “the apostle Paul directly teaches the Rapture of the Church as deliverance before the Great Tribulation’s judgments in one such passage, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.” Let me see how I can say this… Paul teaches no such thing–not in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 or anywhere!  (I think that works). In order to say that Paul does teach such a thing, one has to presuppose a clear and essential distinction between Israel and the Church, which further presupposes (and requires) separate divine agendas for each, and then read 1Thess 5.1-11 through that lens.  Moreover, one has to do all of this in spite of the fact that Paul would never endorse that twofold presupposition–in fact, his arguments (elsewhere) about “Israel” and the church obliterate the foundation for such a distinction. Thus, if Hodges is going to follow the principle of “interpreting Scripture with Scripture”, then he’s going to have a difficult[2] time squaring what Paul does say about “Israel” and the church with what Dispensationalism assumes the Bible/Paul says about them.

I’ll finish reading Hodges article, primarily because I already started it but also fairness dictates I consider the whole of his argument. However, I have terrible suspicion that it’s going to be nothing but a Dispensationally-driven eisegesis of a Pauline text that deserves more respect than that.

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[1] I should point out that, based on several conversations with the individual noted, the “Dispensationalism” in question is an amalgam of the Classical and Revised (or Modified) varieties.
[2] On this point, I’m being kind.

quote of the day

The fact that such theories are now fashionable should put us on our guard against adopting them too readily. It is fatally easy, when a theory is in vogue, to read it into the Bible, in a manner which would have astonished the sacred writers, and to find evidence for our belief in a mere turn of phraseology.

–D.E.H. Whiteley, The Theology of St Paul (1964), 45.