theologians

relying on a bad/faulty premise

If you want to have a go at Dispensationalism, then you need to be prepared to account for a number of eschatological topics and their (assumed necessary) relationship with each other. (You also need to be ready to deal with questions of interpretative approach, but that’s a different ballgame). For example, if you start an eschatological discussion with a Dispy, you are bound to be asked about (at the very least): Daniel’s 70 weeks, the focus of Matthew 24-25, the (so-called) “rapture”, the (so-called) “millennium”, the (so-called) “great tribulation” and when it occurs, the “great white throne of judgment”, the (supposed) battle of Armageddon… you get the idea.

In some ways, it can be overwhelming and even exhausting to get through this type of discussion simply because of the tangled web of ideas and theology that Dispensationalism has weaved. Thus, instead of going at the thing whole-hog and dismantling Dispensationalism in toto (quite frankly: you’d have an easier time convincing a Jehovah’s Witness that “Jehovah” is not even a word), it’s better to examine the individual parts and discern their respective validity. The one I want to focus on in this post is the so-called, “Restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6. Here is a more or less standard (Dispensational) approach to this issue:

Our identification of the Restrainer must ultimately be determined by the question, What person is able to hold back the efforts of Satan?  To effectively counteract and restrain the personal activities of Satan demands a person, and one that is more than human.  Only a supernatural person can truly frustrate the supernatural workings of Satan.  This would at once rule out human agencies as well as all evil supernatural agents.

–D. Edmond Hiebert, The Thessalonian Epistles: A Commentary (1971), 313

The stuff that follows Hiebert’s question is understandable and, in the main, a reasonable conclusion. And a number of scholars (mostly Dispensational) contend that only the work/power/person of the Holy Spirit fits the needed criteria to restrain Satan.[1] However, there are serious theological problems with seeing the (so-called) “restrainer” as the Holy Spirit, but I will have to side-step that conversation for now. I will simply echo John Chrysostom who said: “if [Paul] meant to say the Spirit, he would not have spoken obscurely, but plainly” (NPNF 1.13: 388).[2]

My issue is that there is a more fundamental problem with Hiebert’s argument. Despite the understandableness and even the reasonableness of Hiebert’s observations, all of it ultimately relies on a bad or faulty premise–namely: 2Thess 2.6 is in fact talking about “the Restrainer”, and this (supernatural) person can be identified. To put it more bluntly: the legitimacy of his question and the proposed conclusion are dependent upon the validity of the presupposition that drives his question and conclusion. Without the presupposition, his argument falls flat at best or becomes meaningless at worst.

I am working on a longer treatment of this discussion, so if you want the details: please be patient. Until then, I will summarize things by saying: 1) the identity of “the Restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6 is not as clear-cut or obvious as Hiebert (and his fellow Dispys) believe, and 2) the rendering “the Restrainer” is not the only option for how one can translate the Greek verb, κατεχω (especially in the light of grammar and syntax). With regard to the first point, a number of suggestions have been made throughout the history of interpretation; the Holy Spirit is only one of those. In other words, we cannot (as Hiebert and his Dispy friends have done) conclusively assert unambiguously or unequivocally that Paul is talking about the Holy Spirit in 2Thess 2.6.

With regard to the second point,[3] in terms of Greek grammar and syntax, κατεχω does mean “restrain” (or “hold back”), but only when it is accompanied by an object. At this point, Hiebert and his Dispy buddies seem to be vindicated because nearly every English translation of the passage mentions a “him” as the recipient (i.e. the object) of the Restrainer’s efforts. However, this vindication is valid only if we rely on English translations. Things change when we look to the original Greek text. In the Greek of 2Thess 2.6, there is no object associated with κατεχω. And in terms of Greek grammar and syntax, when this happens κατεχω means “prevail” (or “rule”). And just in case Hiebert et al think I’m being overly pedantic or liberally inventive, this intransitive use of κατεχω is not without support in Greek literature.[4]

Now, those holding to a “Restrainer” interpretation might come back at me and say: “Ah, well, you see, you’re forgetting one of the cardinal rules of interpretation, which is to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. In every other instance of κατεχω in the NT, it means ‘restrain’ or ‘hold back.’ Thus, when we use ‘restrain’ or ‘hold back’ in 2Thess 2.6, we’re simply following Scriptural precedent.” To which I would respond: “Fine, but you not only become guilty of committing the ‘illegitimate totality transfer’ fallacy[5]; you also fail to recognize that the other instances where κατεχω appears in the NT, it has an object associated with it. Thus, the translation ‘restrain’ or ‘hold back’ in those cases is appropriate. But 2Thess 2.6 is completely unlike those other instances for one simple reason: it has no object.”

I would think Paul, being a fairly educated man, would be aware of the transitive and intransitive uses in Greek and the differences in meaning they convey. Moreover, the intransitive use of κατεχω (and the switch from neuter in 2.6 to masculine in 2.7) does better justice to Paul’s argument in 2Thess 2.3-10. In other words: the “mystery of lawlessness” (neuter) is what now prevails, as  illustrated in 2.3-4, but which is currently unseen for what it truly is; and the “man of lawlessness” (masculine) is the one in charge of what prevails, and the one who will be revealed/exposed and defeated at the end, as noted in 2.8-10. This reading also prevents really wild and wicked views about the Holy Spirit and his role in salvation–views that I cannot, in good conscience (let alone academic integrity) support or even entertain.

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[1] See e.g. L.S. Chafer, “Dispensationalism,” (1936): 428; E.S. English, Re-Thinking the Rapture (1970), 70-71; R. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation (1973), 125-28; J. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit (1977), 115; R.L. Thomas, “1, 2 Thessalonians,” (1978), 325; M. Rosenthal, Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church (1990), 257-61; C.E. Powell, “The Identity of the ‘Restrainer’,” (1997): 327. Cf. also C. Ryrie, First and Second Thessalonians (2001), 114-16.
[2] R.L. Thomas tries to wiggle out of this by claiming (without any support whatsoever): “It appears that to katechon (“what is holding back”) was well known at Thessalonica as a title for the Holy Spirit on whom the readers had come to depend in their personal attempts to combat lawlessness” (“1, 2 Thessalonians” [1978], 325).
[3] Here I am relying on the arguments of C. Wannamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians (1990), 250-54 and J. Weatherly, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (1996), 258-62.
[4] See e.g. Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 1.10, 3.89; Andocides, Speeches, 1.130; Aristotle, Politics, 1307b; idem, Meteorology, 345a; Lysias, Speeches, 3.42; Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae, 434; cf. Homeric Hymns, 2.126; Herodotus, Histories, 7.188; Polybius, Histories, 1.25.7; Plutarch, Lives: Theaseus, 21; Sophocles, Philoctetes, 221; Euripides, Heracleidae, 83; idem, Helen, 1206; idem, Cyclops: Odysseus, 223; Antiphon, Speeches, 5.21.
[5] See J. Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961).

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wrangling with wrede

Last night I started re-reading a book I read years ago, although at that time I understood very little of it. (The book is, The Nature of New Testament Theology: The Contribution of William Wrede and Adolf Schlatter [ed. R. Morgan; London, 1973)]). This happens from time to time, where I will begin reading something and set it aside because I get bogged down by the complexity of it. Admittedly, I occasionally get frustrated with myself because I don’t “get it” on the first go and thoughts of giving up completely do cast their ominous shadows.

However, it was instilled in me never to give up simply because something is hard or difficult. There is nothing wrong with stepping back, getting better equipped and returning to the task with new eyes and a (slightly) stronger mind. The hope, therefore, becomes: with the passage of time and further development in study, the shadows would have retreated and my re-reading would be more fruitful. That was indeed my hope when I decided to pick up Morgan’s book once again.

Because of time and mental exhaustion, I was only able last night to make it through the first major section of Wrede’s essay (entitled: “The Task and Methods of ‘New Testament Theology’,” 68-116).¹ However, nearly half way through this first section, I found myself becoming more awake and mentally stimulated because of some frustrations with Wrede’s argument. My vexation this time stemmed not because of me being haunted by shadows but from his line of argument and its presuppositions (which were occasionally stated). A somewhat benign example can be seen with his claim:

So long as New Testament theology retains a direct link with dogmatics as its goal, and people expect from it material for dogmatics to work on–and that is a common view–it will be natural for biblical theology to have an eye on dogmatics (p. 69)

This argument is so patently obvious that it was hardly worth Wrede stating it. (I think when I read this line I audibly exclaimed, “Well, duh!”). It would be similar to me saying: so long as I have the happiness and well-being of my wife as basic goals in our marriage, it would make sense (and be expected) that everything I do will be directed toward achieving those goals. Wrede’s argument and my parallel would be more provocative if something was amiss between stated goals and chosen methods. For example: NT theology has dogmatics as its goal but instead focuses its attention on estimating the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. That would be worth stating. (Well, maybe not; but you see the point).

There must be a reason why Wrede flaunts what is otherwise commonplace. I didn’t have to wait very long before finding that reason. In fact, it was in the same paragraph. Wrede first declares that biblical theology concerns itself with dogmatic questions. (Duh). However, for Wrede, the Bible cannot necessarily answer these questions (because, presumably, the text precedes the questions); yet dogmatists need biblical support for the answers (i.e. beliefs) they espouse. From this Wrede implicitly accuses dogmatists of approaching the biblical text as a repository for dogmatic theology rather than what it truly is–i.e. a collection of historical texts, illustrating the views and ideas of an ancient religion. Then comes the indictment:

The writings which contain the material are burdened with definite dogmatic predicates like “normative”, which say nothing about their character as documents. So long as this continues to be the case, it is at least psychologically probable that New Testament ideas which go contrary to expectation will be worked on and arranged till they fit those predicates (p. 69)

In not so few of words, Wrede criticises dogmatic theologians for engaging in eisegesis for the sake of sustaining dogmatic traditions. The criticism is accurate insofar as it signals a methodological tendency that should be avoided–if not repudiated.  However, two questions are worth asking about Wrede’s assessment: 1) is his critique based on objective findings or it is merely an interpretation of an observation; and 2) in criticising theologians of being influenced by certain presuppositions, does Wrede see himself as innocent of being influenced by purely historical/a-theological presuppositions?

While Wrede goes on to say the reader of the NT “must be able to keep his own viewpoint, however precious, quite separate from the object of his research and hold it in suspense. Then he will indeed know only what really was” (p. 70);² it is not quite obvious that Wrede succeeds in this regard when he assesses both the biblical text and biblical, dogmatic theology. He admittedly comes to the study with his presuppositions about the biblical text (i.e. a purely historical set of documents, questions of inspiration are ridiculous) and allows them to dictate his investigation. Moreover, Wrede (implicitly) prioritises scientific analysis rather than theological study of the biblical text on the basis that it is the most objective tool for historical criticism.

However, and to be rather bold (or academically suicidal), that in itself is a presupposition that cannot be either maintained absolutely or held as free from its own biases. In other words: the very claim, “scientific analysis of the NT is the most objective method of study” is a presupposition, and “scientific analysis” of the NT brings with it certain presuppositions (or groundrules) that will dictate how the study is performed, and these presuppositions are influenced by prevailing ideas or philosophies of the time (in this case: empiricism, rationalism, and even positivism). Wrede reveals his acceptance of these influences when he characterises the NT texts as merely historical documents, and when he not only reduces the theological content of the NT to ideas or beliefs once held by the historical figures noted in the texts but also sees such theology as passé because the omniscience of scientific analysis says so.

I will abruptly end on that point, mainly because I need to attend to other responsibilities but also because I need to finish reading Wrede’s article.

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¹ The German original of this essay was published in 1897. The original title (Über Aufgabe und Methode der sogenannten neutestamentlichen Theologie) reveals more of Wrede’s feelings on the subject–i.e. “sogenannten” = “so-called”, thus intimating his dislike for the phrase “New Testament Theology” as a description for an academic discipline.
² The context of this expectation is worth repeating: “The first thing which must be required of anyone who wishes to engage scientifically in New Testament theology is, accordingly, that he be capable of interest in historical research. He must be guided by a pure disinterested concern for knowledge, which accepts every really compelling result. He must be able to distinguish between the alien modern ideas of his own thought and those of the past” (p. 70). Then comes the above quotation. Here we can see the groundwork for Bultmann’s later essay, “Ist voraussetzungslose Exegese möglich?” (TZ 13 [1957]: 409-17).

oversensitivity or ignorance of the rules

A curse of ADD is that while doing one thing, something will catch my attention and I’ll want to pursue it in more detail. On some days this sort of thing is really bad–not to mention mentally exhausting–while on others it can be quite rewarding. (I’ve thought about attempting a written documentation of what happens in my head on a bad day. Maybe one day I’ll try it). Today seems to be riding the fence.

In the past I have pointed out instances of what very well appears to be plagiarism (see e.g. here, herehere). Whether stated or not, I maintain that plagiarism is not only sloppy, poor scholarship and unacceptable; it is also theft, pure and simple. In the words of Ron White: ‘I tell you that story to tell you this one.’ While following up on a minor detail in my research, I ventured (briefly) into the ‘Jesus and Paul’ debate–i.e. how much of the historical Jesus did Paul know–and came across something rather troubling. This is an occasion where I’m not 100% sure what to conclude.  I’ll let you look for yourselves first.

First, check out Richard Longenecker’s book, Studies in Paul, Exegetical and Theological (2004) and begin reading on page 2, under the heading: ‘Saul and the Historical Jesus’ (specifically the second paragraph in that section).  Once you’re done with that, check out J. Stanly Jones’ book, A Study of Pauline Interpretation: Ethical Sayings in ‘Q’ and Its Significance in Today’s Indian Context (2007) and read footnote 76 on page 19. Look familiar? Granted, Jones’ reference is to an earlier work of Longenecker, which, if you read it here (pages 19-20), mirrors exactly what appears in the 2004 work.  (I originally mentioned the 2004 work because that’s what I read first; I only came to know about the 1997 after reading Jones’ entry).

Now, before going any further, let me be clear about one thing: I am not accusing J. Stanly Jones of plagiarism. (Read that again in case there is any confusion or uncertainty in what I’m saying). Completely unlike the examples in my earlier discussions on plagiarism, Jones openly and willingly gives the reference from which he is drawing his information. So, that being said: because Jones provides the source, how are we to deal with the similarities in content? Is there a grey area in this regard? I ask because I am genuinely concerned and want to make sure I do things properly in my own writing.

Any thoughts?

bittersweet progress

Early on in my research, I had to resign myself to the fact that there are very few (if any) ‘original’ ideas or arguments,[1] and the more I have pressed on with my writing, the more I become aware of that truth.  For starters, my specific focus of 1 Cor 2.1–3.4 began with the prospect of representing a unique way of situating the argument, but Joseph Fitzmyer’s 2008 commentary quickly deflated my hopes of originality in that regard.[2] 

Then, I offered a critique of the usual arguments for and against a particular reading of 2.1 before offering my own conclusions, which I thought were (more or less) distinctive.  However, Veronica Koperski’s incisive 2002 essay[3] and Benjamin Gladd’s wonderful 2008 monograph showed my offering to be rather delayed and not atypical.

Not too long afterward I attempted to plow new ground with another tricky passage in the argument (i.e. 2.4), but quickly learned that James Dunn’s 1975 work (reprinted in 1997) already created adequate trenches and that Wolfgang Schrage’s 1991 commentary had brought in the crop and made a fine meal of it. 

The most recent occasion took place while attempting to provide a unique explanation for the apparent shift in style and content of 1 Cor 2.6-16.  I ran with a line of argument that seemed to offer a strong enough defense against those critical of this particular section of text (e.g. Widmann, Walker).  The quick version is that the wisdom of which Paul speaks in 2.6-16 is theological descriptor for the nature of the gospel he proclaims, thus maintaining a continuous line of argument from 2.1 onward.  For a while I thought I was onto something, but then I read this:

In v. 6-16 erläutert Paulus die Verkündigung und die Erkenntnis des gekreuzigten Messias als rettende Weisheit Gottes.

 –Eckhard Schnabel, Der erste Brief des Paulus an die Korinther (2006), 163.

Translation: ‘In verses 6-16 Paul explains the proclamation and the recognition of the crucified Messiah as the saving wisdom of God.’  Schnabel also contends that there is no need to argue for discontinuity in Paul’s argument; the apparent shift at 2.6 and the apparently diverent content of 2.6-16 can be explained by seeing Paul defining the nature of the gospel in terms of God’s wisdom, a gospel, as he says in 2.1-5, he proclaimed during his time in Corinth. Application (or significance): Schnabel beat me to it.

I freely confess that these sorts of things do bother me from time to time, and I admit to occasionally wrestling with the question: ‘Why even bother, if everyone else has said what I want to say?’  But then I am reminded of two things. First, and this is my alloted arrogant moment for the month, I remember that many of the conclusions or arguments I reach precede my awareness of them elsewhere.  While I may not come to an original idea, I did come to it via my own wrestling with the text and my own reasoning ability, and I need to take pride in the fact that the fruits of such labours are in the same basket of scholars who have gone before me. 

Second, I remember something one my previous professors once said.  To paraphrase (and adapt) slightly: doing a PhD is not so much about finding a great idea or a new way of arguing a point; doing a PhD is about examining and (re)finding yourself and learning from the incredible and new experiences such a process offers.  It is from that process that you begin to see not only who you are but who you have the potential to become.  Moreover, in seeing that reality and hope, you realise the uniqueness that God has given you and continues to shape; and it is from that realisation that a distinctively unique voice begins to be seen and heard in all that one does, especially one’s writing.

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[1] Admittedly, this resignation was also prompted by many seasoned scholars telling me that exact thing. 
[2] He is the only other scholar I’ve encountered who isolates 2.1–3.4 as a distinct ‘rhetorical’ unit.  
[3] ‘ “Mystery of God” or “Testimony of God” in 1 Cor 2.1: Textual and Exegetical Considerations.’ Pages 305-15 in New Testament Textual Criticism and Exegesis: Festschrift J. Delobel. BETL 161. Edited by A. Denaux. Leuven.

from a goldmine

This past weekend I attended the annual British New Testament Conference, which was held at the University of Nottingham. Aside from meeting new people and rubbing elbows with the greats, I was really looking forward to perusing the bookstalls. Even though I have my areas of study and personal interest, I always try to set such things aside when seeing what’s on offer. While a number of books outside of my usual subjects certainly grabbed my attention, I ultimately settled upon the usuals and the ones I could afford. Below is the small pile that will be added to my library:

The first is the acclaimed (more or less) translation of the New Testament by NT Wright. I sat in on his brief campfire-like session about this work and he did a fine job explaining his method and aims for this translation. A testament(!) to the ease and readability of Wright’s translation is the fact that I made through Matthew’s Gospel in just under two hours–something I would not see as possible with any other translation.

The second intrigued me not just because I’m always interested in books on Paul but also because this one is from one of the great Pauline scholars.  So far it’s a very readable treatment on Paul, although I occasionally get the sense that Thiselton is having to restrain himself from going too deep into a given topic. (That need for restraint is necessary for an introductory work such as this one). At present, I’m about two chapters in so I will have to postpone more informed reflections until later.

The third is a gift for my brother. I confess that I did not start reading that one, so I do not have any thoughts on its contents. Sorry.

The fourth was actually my first, in terms of purchasing. (It is where it is in the pile mainly because I’m a tad anal and wanted the picture to have clean lines). This one represents my ongoing interest in the field of ‘Second-Temple Judaism’ and, quite honestly, I find Grabbe rather fun to read. I’m nearly finished with the first chapter, which is not only a whirlwind tour of the history of the period (i.e. c. 539 BCE–135 CE . . . in 29 pages) but also a rather brief look at relevant sources for studying this period (5 and a half pages). So far so good.

I bought the fifth partly because it turned out to be quite different that I expected, with my expectations being set by my assumptions about the title. Okay, I’m speaking a bit prematurely (sort of): my assessment about its difference is based on the first chapter, a chapter which I devoured in less than 10 minutes. (It is that engaging and that well-written). However, because this is a published PhD thesis, that first chapter sets out not only the basic substance of the argument but also how it will unfold. Thus, I know what Dr Cho wants to say and how he’s going to say, and I am impressed with and intrigued by both.

Admittedly, the ones by Brondos and Barnett were my last purchases and I have not yet had time to give them the attention they deserve. I purchased the Barnett work primarily because it’s a treatment of Paul’s life and mission–two things that are integral for my studies and future career–and I’m always interested to see how scholars deal with both. I bought the Brondos work in mainly because of the tagline (which you cannot see in this picture): ‘Reconstructing the apostle’s story of redemption.’ I’ll let you know how it goes.

Finally, the work by Dunn. In some respects the reasoning behind this purchase was simple: (seeing the title) ‘Oh, that looks good’; (seeing the author) ‘Ah, even better.’ Quiet a rigorous process, as you can tell. While this is a bit lighthearted, I did choose the book partly because it’s an accessible introduction to NT theology and partly because it’s written by a scholar who, contrary to the size of his other works, knows how to write scholarly in an accessible way.

unsurprisingly well done

Between October 2006 and August(?) 2007, I led a (rather protracted) study of the book of Revelation at the chuch of a dear friend of mine. In preparation for that study, I surveyed a number of commentaries and scholarly books on Revelation–of which there are many. My aim for doing this survey was not so much to see what scholars are saying about Revelation; instead it was more about seeing how they made their case.

One of the commentaries that I initially feared using was the massive tome by G.K. Beale. I feared using it partly because of its size (over 1200 pages) and also because of its scholarly depth. (The NIGTC series tends to be one of the more technical commentaries). After nearly straining my wrist taking it off the shelf, I wondered if it would be useful for the simple study I was planning to do. Would it make things more difficult and ‘too heady’?

The more I read through the commentary, the more I found myself drawn in by how well Beale argued his case and overjoyed by how applicable his arguments were for the church.[1] Yes, there is an enormous amount of scholarship packed into the commentary, but there is also invaluable insight for the church’s mission that cannot be left to its pages. I couldn’t not use it. Beale’s commentary not only served as a informative guide for my own thinking about Revelation, it also provided an example of scholarship written from a pastor’s heart–something I hope to be able to do some day.

Move forward a few years, and several thousand miles. Yesterday afternoon, I stumbled upon this website, which contains five lectures from Beale on significant portions of Revelation. Since time was precious yesterday, I was not able to listen to anymore than 15-20 minutes of the first lecture. This morning, however, I made time to listen to one of Beale’s lectures in full, although I did not return to the first one. Instead, I checked out the final one (i.e. ‘The Two Witnesses’). Simply incredible. Beale is a scholar with a pastor’s heart.

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[1] Admittedly, Beale’s commentary was my introduction to his work.

how you like them apples?

On top of my usual (research) responsibilities, I have been doing some reading of 19th century NT scholarship, especially as it relates to the life and teaching of the apostle Paul.  Last night, I came across an interesting comment regarding the argument about using the book of Acts as a ‘reliable’ source for the life of Paul. 

The context for the comment deals with the assertion that Paul trained under the supervision of Gamaliel (Acts 22.3),* and whether or not we can accept this as true in light of Paul’s initial persecution against the early church (Acts 8.1-3; 9.1-2; contra Gamaliel’s advice in Acts 5.35-39).  The comment is a response to this issue and it reads thusly:

That even this fact, attested in Acts xxii.3, should be questioned, is a proof of the quality of the criticism, now fashionable, which I cannot refrain from noting here.  Paul’s subsequent persecuting zeal does not agree with the tolerance of Gamaliel, therefore we must distrust the account of the Acts; that is to say, the developed character of Alexander the Great does not agree with the philosophy of Aristotle, therefore it is false that Aristotle was his teacher, etc.

– W. Beyschlag, New Testament Theology (1895), 2.7 n.1

I love old scholarship.

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* Some shameless advertising: I have an article on ‘Gamaliel’ (along with three others) coming out soon in the Dictionary of the Bible and Western Culture: A Handbook for Students (eds. M.A. Beavis and M.J. Gilmour).