I’m a bit behind, but he’s still quite a bit wrong

I’m still not exactly sure when it happened, but at some point during my later College years I became an avid reader. And it was around the same time that I wanted to start my own personal library. My collection at the time boasted of the handful of theology and history textbooks that I decided to keep. Things grew from there at a slow pace, and they were growing alongside my interest in reading.

Fast forward a bit: during my doctoral program (and just before, if I remember correctly), my library began also went digital. I started gathering books that were open to the public (via InternetArchive and GoogleBooks) as well as journal articles–many of which had to be obtained via Seminary/University access. The digital book collection, to date, stands at just over 2000; the digital article collection, to date, stands at just over 5500.¹ All of that to say, I’ve got some reading to do and I’m slowly working through it. And that also means I’m a little behind in my reading, but oh well.

This morning I decided to tackle some of the articles, and one them was by Mark D. Chapman called, “The Shortest Book in the Bible” (ExpT 118.11 [2007]: 546-58). While the article itself was interesting, I could not get past the title. “Why not?” Because it’s simply wrong. “Why is wrong?” Simple: the article dealt with Paul’s letter to Philemon. “Why is that wrong?” A few reasons.

First, the text that Chapman uses for his article is a letter, not a book. Sure, many of us are accustomed (unfortunately) to calling the texts of the Bible “books” regardless of their specific genres. But this custom or tradition–like all customs or traditions held without good cause–needs to be taken out back and buried. A bit harsh, sure. But there it is. So, that being the case, the title of the article should have said, “The Shortest Letter in the Bible.” But even that leads us to the next problem.

Second, Chapman’s focus text (i.e., Philemon) is not the shortest letter. Yes, it is certainly the shortest of Paul’s letters–coming in at 25 verses, 334 words. But just because its the shortest of Paul’s letters, that does not make the shortest. Because, and as much as I love Paul’s writings, there are other writers in the NT; so at best, we could say Philemon is one of the shortest letters. The honor of the shortest letter/text goes to…well, it depends. If we go by verse numbers, then the prize goes to 2 John, which weighs in at 13 verses, with 3 John coming in second place at 15 verses. Or if we go by word count, then the honor goes to 3 John, which finishes at 219 words, with 2 John coming in second at 245 words. Either way, Philemon is only the third shortest letter.

Third, someone might come back at me and say, “Well, Prof Chapman does qualify himself by saying it’s a short letter written to a person.” Okay, fine: that might rule out 2 John, which is ostensibly written to an entire congregation of believers (despite it having a specific addressee [Ὁ πρεσβύτερος ἐκλεκτῇ κυρίᾳ καὶ τοῖς τέκνοις αὐτῆς, οὓς ἐγὼ ἀγαπῶ ἐν ἀληθείᾳ]), but that does not rule out 3 John, which is addressed to an elder named, Gaius (Ὁ πρεσβύτερος Γαΐῳ τῷ ἀγαπητῷ, ὃν ἐγὼ ἀγαπῶ ἐν ἀληθείᾳ). So, no dice. Philemon is still not a contender for the title of the shortest.

Fourth and finally, the title asserts a focus on the “shortest book in the Bible”, but the article never once focuses on the specific text that might fit that precise criteria. Because when one says, “Bible” that brings to mind at the very least the usual 66 texts of the Old and New Testaments–73 if we use the Catholic edition. Chapman’s focus was ultimately a NT text. Moreover, when one says, “book” that brings to mind a (more or less) specific kind of genre. As we’ve seen, Philemon does not fit that genre. And when one says, “shortest” that, as we’ve also seen, allows for a touch of ambiguity–i.e., it could be based on number of verses or words. But even with that ambiguity, there is only one text that better fits the description of “the shortest book in the Bible”, and that is the OT text of Obadiah: one chapter, 21 verses, 440 words.

So again, while Prof Chapman’s article was an interesting read, the title is an unfortunate gaffe.

¹ The real numbers are 2148 books and 5746 articles, but I’m rounding down because of the possibility of duplicates. Hey, I’ve been collecting them since c.2006 (for the books) and c.2004 (for the articles), and I’m still trying to name/label them properly, so it’s possible that I’ve forgotten which one’s I’ve already downloaded and thus have copies.

on affirming “non-credal” creeds

Not too long ago, while searching for employment, I happened upon a job opening that looked promising and appealing. It was in my field, it was at a good school, and it was in a city that we love (though I would certainly melt in the summer months). Yet two out of the four desired qualifications presented a challenge for me. One, the school wanted someone ordained in the Southern Baptist convention; two, the candidate needed to affirm, in good faith, the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message (2000 BFM).

Despite the fact that the first qualification had a “must” attached to it, I decided to see if there was any flexibility in the requirement. I asked because, while I grew up Baptist (here is my early childhood church) I neither remained nor was ordained in that denomination.[1] The kind and helpful people at this school responded by stating (quite understandably): since they are a Southern Baptist school, the ordination requirement is extremely firm; there’s no bending it. However, if I wanted to serve in an adjunct capacity, then the requirement would be lifted. Although, the second one would still apply–i.e. affirm, in good faith, the 2000 BFM–and a third one would be introduced: affirm, in good faith, the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI).

The requirement of needing to affirm, in good faith, the 2000 BFM and the CSBI struck me as rather odd for at least two reasons. On the one hand, historically and traditionally, Baptists have prided themselves on being non-credal;[2] their longstanding mantra was, “No creed but the Bible” (which, strangely enough, functions as a credal statement). On the other hand, the Preface to the CSBI clearly states: “We acknowledge the limitations of a document prepared in a brief, intensive conference and do not propose that this Statement be given creedal weight” (emphasis added);[3] yet the requirement of needing to affirm the Statement, in good faith, for the purposes of gaining employment sounds rather credal–not to mention in conflict with the nature and intent of the CSBI. This would seem to be reinforced not only by the implied corollary of the requirement–i.e. no affirm, no job–but also the qualifier, “in good faith.”

Tangent, but a necessary one: In 1798, Barton W. Stone sought ordination in the Presbyterian Church. In order to obtain that goal, he needed to pass a type of examination before a group of governing Presbyterian ministers.[4] One of the determinative questions in that examination was, “Do you receive and adopt the ‘[Westminster] Confession of Faith’ [WCF], as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Bible?” The problem was that Stone had two hiccups with the WCF: the doctrine of the Trinity (he didn’t understand it), and the doctrines of election, reprobation, and predestination (he rejected them). And Stone knew that if he said “No” because of these two points, he would fail the exam and not be ordained. So rather shrewdly, he said: “I do, so far as I see it consistent with the word of God.” He passed.

This type of response used to be acceptable–even commendable–for it represented the freedom of conscience, or: the ability and permission for ministers and/or teachers of the Bible to teach in accordance with faithful, disciplined interpretation and the guidance (or, “illumination”)[5] of the Spirit. However, in the case of the particular school I contacted, the inclusion of the qualifier “in good faith” in the required affirmation would seem to disallow that ability and permission. What do I mean? Would I be permitted to accept/affirm the two documents as guidelines for orthodoxy and not creeds with exclusionary powers–because that’s how they present themselves? Would I be able to say, “In good faith, I affirm the 2000 BFM and CSBI as far as I see them consistent with Scripture”? Or to come at this a different way: would I be free or allowed to disagree with parts of both “creeds” and openly discuss such things in the classroom if prompted?

If the answer is yes, then I will admit the error of my assessment. If the answer is no, then we have a problem, and the problem is twofold. First, “in good faith” no longer relates to acting in accordance with with one’s conscience, but comes to mean an “all-or-nothing” affirmation. This takes us right back to the issue of the documents functioning as creeds–i.e. determiners of one’s acceptance or exclusion.[6] Second, that “all-or-nothing” affirmation comes at the expense of one’s conscience and it winds up undercutting the nature of a “good faith” acceptance.

In other words: if I want the job, and yet I happen to disagree with either the 2000 BFM or CSBI (or both) in part or whole, I would have to affirm the entire contents and teachings of both documents, teach in accordance with them, and do so in such a way that I appear to agree with their entirety, when in reality I do not. Thus, while I would be conducting myself in a manner that reflects (or even exemplifies) the desired requirements of the school–i.e. acting “in good faith” (i.e. full acceptance)–I would be doing so in a way that is dishonest to my theological and academic conscience. In essence (or effect), I would be intentionally and knowingly misleading the institution and the students I might teach, giving the appearance of full acceptance of the 2000 BFM and CSBI when such acceptance does not exist. That, by definition, would not be acting “in good faith”.

Needless to say: I did not apply for the full-time version of the job, and I will not apply for the adjunct version. In good faith, I just can’t.

[1] If you’re curious, in 2002 I was (technically) ordained into the non-denominational Christian Church–which, strangely enough, is a classified denomination. To avoid confusion and strange looks, I usually tell people my ordination was into the Christian Church/Church of Christ tradition–i.e. the net result of the Restoration Movement in the US.
[2] Although, the Preamble to the 2000 BFM oddly says otherwise.
[3] Though, it is worth noting, the underlying tone of the CSBI Preface (and the Statement itself) comes across as a rather credal.
[4] For a fuller account, see John Rogers (ed.), The Biography of Elder Barton Warren Stone, Written by Himself (Cincinnati, 1847), 29-30.
[5] I’m going to side-step the idea of “illumination” as a valid doctrine. Suffice it to say that I have problems with it.
[6] And I’m setting aside the curious fact that the 2000 BFM removed a key statement from its earlier edition–i.e. the 1963 BFM. In the Preamble to the earlier edition, it was stated: “Throughout their history Baptist bodies, both large and small, have issued statements of faith which comprise a consensus of their beliefs. Such statements have never been regarded as complete, infallible statements of faith, nor as official creeds carrying mandatory authority.”

nothing new under the sun. including irrelevancy.

I’m sure the dude is a nice guy, and I’m sure he means well, and I’m sure he’s wanting to connect with people and present old ideas in an updated form. But frankly, this book‘s title borders on the ridiculous and its content is merely an echo and not a new song:

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Two things, with an underlying third, bother me about this book. First, there is an inordinate amount of endorsements for the book. There are 42! As I’ve noted before, including such a multiplicity of accolades suggests either a pathological need for praise or an attempt to get wide-spread recognition to help push an otherwise crappy idea. Or it’s just a sad marketing strategy. Probably one of the the most absurd is from Tony Nolan:

Read Static Jedi and you’ll experience Eric Samuel Timm dropping some Jesus power on you, Obi-Won Kenobi style! But the force you’ll get isn’t fictional; it’s authentic Holy Spirit power helping you master the noisy gauntlet of life choices. Read this book!

I’ll let the absurdity and poor theology of this endorsement speak for itself. And probably one of the silliest is from Dr Ed Newton:

Static Jedi is more than a resource on spiritual intimacy; it’s a paradigm changer that will hydrate your soul into spiritual renewal.”

“Paradigm changer”? Seriously? Have you not read any of the other spirituality-self-help-styled books on the market? How is Static Jedi, other than the ridiculous title, any different? Moreover, how is this book a break from the mold of the classics–i.e. Brother Lawrences’ (far better) treatment of the subject? Saying this book is a “paradigm changer” is like saying Neil Cole’s book, Church 3.0 is revolutionary for how to do church. I’ve read Cole’s book. It’s not. The same is true for Mr Timm’s book. It’s not new, and it’s certainly not breaking out of an existing mold and creating new ones. It’s essentially nothing more than old principles in new language.

Second, there’s decision to associate (if not conflate) “Jedi” with Christian spirituality (let alone Christianity)–even if only in passing. I say “only in passing” because, Mr Timm never really defines what a “Static Jedi” is (which is problematic for his first chapter, since he’s asking people if they are one or want to become one) or even why he chose that phrase. The closest he comes is: “Static Jedi: One who masters the noise. Noise, existing in many shapes, consumes our time, real life, and ability to hear God. A Static Jedi is a form of master, teacher, and sensei” (Kindle loc. 286). Wow. That’s helpful. Okay, if that’s the definition, why use “Jedi”? Why not one of the other (more benign) terms?¹

That aside, one problem with the association is that Jedi are fictional characters. Why not rely on and use real people? Moreover, Jedi from the Star Wars narrative, and the 20th century religion, Jediism that developed out of that narrative are “nontheistic”² in their “theology”. More problematic, the “force” Jedi tap into, harness, and use is simply that: an impersonal thing built into the fabric of the universe. So far, I’m not seeing any parallels or any sound reason to associate it with Christianity. This problem could have been avoided if Mr Timm chose a better descriptive term. But there seems to be an underlying reason for choosing such a designation: an unspoken need to be relevant.

And that brings me to the third problem. The need for being relevant, or at least desiring to make the gospel–and its associated ideas–relevant always runs the risk of (and usually ends up in) irrelevancy. This fact was ably presented and defended in Os Guinness’ book, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance (2003). Some insight from Guiness includes:

After two hundred years of earnest dedication to reinventing the faith and the church and to being more relevant in the world, we are confronted by an embarrassing fact: Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously; never have Christians been more irrelevant.

Our timeliness lies in the untimeliness of rejecting modern timeliness. Our moment and our hour depend upon our turning from the spurious models of the modern world to the real moment and the real hour seen only under God.

…many Christian leaders have become trendy. Obsessed with the new, they have produced only novelty. Staggering from one high of excitement to another, they have become jaded.

–Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness (2003), 12, 23, 77

With all due respect, Mr Timm would have done well to consult Guinness’ advice before pitching ideas about Christian Jedi.

¹ Incidentally, and for whatever reason, Mr Timm switches terminology at various times in the book–e.g. “Static Master”.
² Cf. George D. Chryssides, Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements (2011), 186.

two helpful resources on Revelation

Let’s be honest: the book of Revelation (or, the Apocalypse) is a bit wild and even tantalizing, often resulting in confusion and debate. Unfortunately, these results persist due to the rather unhelpful (and other “un-” adjectives) interpretations of people like CI Scofield, Hal Lindsey, John Walvoord, and Harold Camping (just to name a few)–all of whom seem to find delight in debates, and who tend to read the text of Revelation through a predetermined (or pre-established) theological grid for the sake of maintaining that grid.

Fortunately, there are a handful of people who are committed to reading the text in a way that is sensitive to the history, culture, and theology of the time in which it appeared, with the hope of alleviating (some of) the confusion and debate, while allowing (most of) the wild and tantalizing bits to remain–primarily because they serve a purpose. Two of these people have written on the book of Revelation, and both now have lecture files available online for intellectual (and spiritual) consumption:

  1. The first is by M. Robert Mulholland.  These are video files of his Seminary course at Asbury (KY).
  2. The second is by G.K. Beale.  These are audio files of his lectures given at Lanesville Church (MA), back in the early-to-mid 90s, .

I cannot recommend either (or both) of these highly enough. While I have not listened to his lectures (yet), Beale’s work (especially his little pamphlet in the NIGTC series) was influential in my earlier studies and subsequent teaching of Revelation. I can only imagine that the lectures stress the needed balance between scholarship and pastoral concerns. And I can say that Mulholland’s lectures are worth every minute. He is engaging, insightful, knowledgeable, and deeply considerate of the needs of the students.

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.

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.

Robinson adopting Paul’s style?

I may be completely alone in this, but I find humor in Paul’s remarks in 1 Cor 1.14-16:

I thank God that I baptized none of you except Cripus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other.

Every time I read this passage I hear the first bit (“I thank God . . .”) spoken with passion and definiteness. And then I imagine Paul thinking, “Oh crap, that’s not right”, before–under his breath, maybe or in hushed tones–mentioning the first half of the second bit (“Now I did . . .”), and then resuming the original passion and definiteness for the final claim, “beyond that . . .”.  It’s almost as though Paul’s desire to make a point got the better of him and he suddenly realized it, thus requiring some self-correction. (Or maybe Sosthenes chimed in and reminded Paul of what happened).

But there is something else about this passage that I appreciate, and that is Paul’s decision to leave the self-correction in the text for everyone to see. Sure, since this comment was early on the in letter, Paul could have said, “Scrap that and let’s start again.” But he doesn’t. It’s almost as though he’s saying: “See, I’m not perfect; I screw up from time to time. But I’m willing to own up to it.” Could this be a part (or an illustration) of the wider argument he is making to the Corinthians? Maybe.

However, answering that question is not the point of this post. This post is about something I noticed this morning while reading a little handbook on Romans. I found what looks to be John Robinson adopting Paul’s style:

Perhaps the easiest way to picture the progress of the epistle is as though you were making a journey by canal across an isthmus. You could imagine the epistle going from Corinth to Rome across the isthmus of Corinth, though the first canal was not in fact begun until about ten years after Paul was writing. It was started by the emperor Nero in 66-67 with a work-force largely composed of indentured Jewish slaves, and then abandoned unfinished. Until that time, smaller vessels were apparently dragged over bodily on some sort of slipway. But imagine, for the sake of the exercise . . .

–J.A.T. Robinson, Wrestling with Romans (1979), 9

It’s as though Robinson realizes, as soon as he writes it, that his analogy is crap–or at least historically inappropriate–and has to correct himself. Hence the over-qualification. As with Paul, what’s interesting in this case is that Robinson retains the analogy for the sake of his argument (which is quite good, by the way) and we get to see it–despite its inappropriateness. Any other writer today would rework the argument or come up with a different analogy for the final manuscript so as to avoid embarrassment. Not Robinson. And that’s commendable.