writing things down…

Archive for August, 2006

Lecture #1 – Initial Draft

I apologize. This is a long post. It is the initial draft of the lecture I will give on the first day of class for Exegetical Methods and Practice. If you are a future student, reading this does not give you permission to skip the first class day. We will do a lot more than listen to me. Plus, I am certain I will say more in some areas and less in others. Since I mean to use this blog as a place to work out some thoughts about my courses, I am going to post some prelimary thoughts from time to time. Again, what you find below is neither complete nor the full content of the first day of class. It would be a short class indeed. All I mean to do is set up the sort of mindset I think is helpful as one begins a life of exegesis. Also keep in mind that the course a part of the seminary curriculum, and it is an evangelical seminary. I do not then apologize for the God talk. If I were teaching the course in another setting I might consider a different approach. But for these seminary students the tension of God’s words written by humans in real historical situations is a real issue.

What is it we are doing when we read/interpret/exegete the NT texts? What are we after? Is there anything to be after in the first place? What is the best way to get after whatever it is we are after, if there is anything to be after?

These are important questions; they are hermeneutical questions, questions that reflect “upon processes of interpretation and understanding, especially the interpretation of biblical texts or texts that originate from within other cultures.” But hermeneutics is not something for texts alone. It can include all kinds of communication, “from signs and visual art to institutions and literary phenomena.”

The title of this course is “Exegetical Methods and Practice.” Yet, you may have also noticed that it fulfills a Hermeneutics requirement. That is because, I think, we believe as Joel Green puts it that “the act of reading…is always, at least potentially, an encounter with [the text’s author] in conversation.” Reading a text, any text really, is an act of communication. And as Green states, “as an act of communication our reading is not simply dispassionate, ‘for information only,’ but has the capacity to shape us in some way.” Isn’t this even more so for texts that we deem sacred, Scripture, God’s words? We expect these texts to shape us. We expect God to speak to us, shape us in our reading of the texts.

But we are still faced with the questions of what it is we are doing, what are we after, how best to get after it (whatever it is). Answering these questions is not easy. I’m not sure these questions can ever be adequately answered. Much depends on where the conversation with the text’s author is taking place.

I would like to introduce some images that I think will help us throughout the quarter: Circles and Lines. The most basic set of circles and lines is one that can represent the typical form of communication: (addresser)→(context/message/medium)→(addressee).

We can look at these circles as the places where conversations with a text’s author can take place. And once in those circles and in conversation we can have various lines of questioning.

  1. Is the conversation taking place BEHIND THE TEXT? Is the line of questioning trying to discern the intention of the original author? Is it more concerned with the character of the original community? What was the historical, social, and cultural situation in which the text was written and first read?
  2. Is the conversation taking place WITHIN THE TEXT itself? What are the structure, form, and genre of the text? What literary features does it have? How does it move, make an argument, or tell a story? What are key terms; what is the main point or thesis?
  3. Is the conversation in our own imagination and experience IN FRONT OF THE TEXT? What does the text have to do with me, my faith community, and the world we live in? What does the text have to do with readers other than the original ones?

For this course, and I think for most courses that wish to teach exegetical methods, most of the instruction will take place in the first two circles: Behind and In the text. There are things we can do and learn and practice that will help us explore those circles, ask the right questions and dig around to find the answers. I do not want to minimize the third circle and the questions there, but I am not confident I, or anyone, can address the complexity of that conversation. It is, for one, quite different for different communities, traditions, and cultures. However, we ought to be quite clear that the chatter from the conversations in that circle always, always, always, find their way into the conversations in the other circles. These are not and never have been soundproof cubicles. Who the interpreter is, where the interpreter comes from, what the interpreter has experienced and a whole lot more effect the sorts of questions the interpreter will ask and the ways in which the interpreter goes about answering those questions in the conversations behind and in the text. I will ask you to look at a few methods that take a stab at this third circle and the line of questions there. We will also remind ourselves from time to time how the chatter from that circle has and is influencing the explorations we are doing in the other two circles of conversations. But, most of our reading and instructional time will be in the circles behind and in the text.

So what is this class all about then? More circles and lines.

Why doesn’t God just shoot straight with us and speak directly to us as we read God’s word? Why this need for hermeneutics, exegesis and interpretation? Why the need for this class? What are we going to learn that is going to help us in the communication process that we couldn’t just acquire by reading the texts and nothing more? I mean, we learned a little Greek and we can now make our way through the text as it was likely written originally, right?

I suppose we could just look at this course as an advanced Greek course. And, to be sure, we will immerse ourselves in the Greek language. We will, I hope, become better readers of the Greek New Testament–straightforward reading, nothing more. The language is a circle where we will converse with the author. At first glance it is seems simple–we need to understand the language in which the author is speaking to us. The line of questioning can often be as straightforward as “Huh?” But that “Huh?” quickly opens up a several other lines of questioning. “How are you using that word?” “What point are you making with that phrase?” “Why did you use a perfect when you had been going along quite well with the aorist?” “When you use the genitive here, do you mean to denote that the genitive is the object of faith or do you mean to say that the genitive is the subject that has faith?” “Why have you placed this portion of your letter directly after the preceding part?”

As you will quickly see, straightforward reading is not always that easy. There are questions that inevitably arise. Plus, just reading words on the page is not a conversation. If you are not allowed to ask questions, make comments, raise objections and the like, it is one-sided and less fruitful. The word (God!) is more likely to shape you when you struggle with it. So, a good portion of the class will be concerned with asking and seeking answers to questions about the words, grammar, structure, etc. of the text itself. These questions will lead us into another circle of conversations.

Koine Greek is not our native language. It is not the native language of anyone in the world today. It is the language of people long since gone. It is a language of history, and so historical questions will need to be asked to understand it fully. How was that word, term, phrase used in the first century? How was this style of literature used in the first century? Not only is it a language of a different time, it is a language of a different culture. To carry on a conversation with the author we will need to better understand his (almost always males, sorry ladies. Now that times have changed, I expect you to make up for lost time with excellent writing!) era and location. How would Paul have understood this word and why would he be using it here? Is Luke addressing a well-known event of his time?

And once we start that line of questioning we don’t have far to go to questions about the specific circumstances behind the writing of a book. When we ask Paul or Luke or John why they say what they say in the way that they say it answers of grammar, word definitions, and general cultural references will only take us so far. We will have a deeper conversation with these authors if we can discern the circumstances that gave rise to the writing of the letter or gospel or other book. Was there something going on in the church in Corinth that precipitated the letters written to them? What was Corinth even like during this time?

So reading, really reading in a way that is conversational, in a way that embodies the full process of communication, is a lot more than knowing the language of your conversation partner. It is knowing your conversation partner, the world from which your conversation partner comes, the style of literature your conversation partner uses, the use of the grammar and vocabulary your partner makes, the original audience your partner was speaking to, and a whole lot more.

This class is about all of those circles of conversations that can be had. It is about the circles of influence that go into the text. It is about asking the best questions for communicating with these conversation partners that have departed but leave us their side of the conversation in a book or letter. It is about the best methods for answering those questions for ourselves since the authors are not around to answer them for us.

We will take a circle at a time, throw a line of questions at it, and do our best to find the answers. These circles are usually smaller parts of the bigger circles of Behind the text and In the text conversations. But, they are not always limited to one of these big circles alone. We will see that although we may be primarily interested in something that fits mostly in the conversation In the text that we will often ask questions from the Behind the text area or we will be influenced by the questions In Front of the text. Imagine that we are at a cocktail party, we’ll call the cocktail party—James 5:1-6. We are standing around sipping martinis or Shirley Temples (if you don’t consume alcohol). We happen to be in a small circle talking about the use of the term “poor” in James 5:1-6. Someone brings up the use of the term at another party they went to, James 2. Someone else brings up the juxtaposition of the term with other terms in James 5:1-6. Someone else, who is standing close to another circle overhears them talking about the social setting of first-century Palestine and wonders how the term “poor” was used in that place at that time. Someone else, having been poor by modern standards most of their life, wonders how her experience might shed light on the conversation. There is a constant buzz at this party, with many conversations, many overlapping conversations, conversations involving many people with many different experiences and conversational skills. But the party is all about James 5:1-6. It is our job to be a social butterfly and move about these conversations. Tomorrow, someone will ask, “How was the party?” What will you say? Hopefully, by the end of this course, you will at least be able to say, “It was fun!”

There are may things that can keep us from having fun.

  1. We don’t know the language in which the conversation is being held. This could mean that our Greek is too rusty. For that, see the syllabus. It could mean that we get overwhelmed with the specialized vocabulary that expert conversationalists have constructed. We will cover that vocabulary in due time. What you should remember is that most of the heady language is nothing more than a way to talk about circles and lines. Don’t leave the party without giving yourself some time to get acculturated to the language.
  2. There is too much noise at the party. This problem is true quite often. When we enter the party room for James 5:1-6 for example, we might feel overwhelmed by all the different conversations going on. Take it in pieces. Start where it seems logical for you to begin. If the noise gets too loud, pull your conversation into a quiet corner and finish it before going back out into the fray.
  3. We understand the language well enough, we’ve filtered out some noise, but still we seem to be from different worlds with our conversation partner. You are! Unless you grew up in the first century Roman Empire, specifically in the Palestinian areas, you are from a different world than Paul, and Luke, and John, and Peter and all of the other NT authors. Take this as an opportunity to get to know a new world. Listen to what your partners have to say. Ask questions about their world, and seek out answers from people who know more than you do. There is bound to be someone at the party who can help you understand the modes of worship in first century churches or the ways meals were shared (Da Vinci’s Last Supper is not the answer!).

There are also many things that can cause problems when we report how the party went.

  1. There are many other people who are at the party with the intent to report on its activity. You will not all agree about everything. There have been disagreements among partygoers for centuries: women, tongues, prophecy, baptism, eternal security, etc. And, there have been people who attend the party and completely misunderstand what the party is all about or try to create a new party altogether: health and wealth prosperity gospel, cults, etc. The thing is they are all appealing to the same text. Again, straightforward reading is not as easy or as peaceful as it looks.
  2. Part of the reason for all of this friction is that it is the nature of readers to also be interpreters. We cannot escape this. There is no neutral reader. We bring all sorts of baggage to the party. We also make all sorts of assumptions about the party: a) We assume that we understand what we read; b) we assume that how we understand the text is how the author and/or God wanted the text to be understood; and therefore c) we assume everybody ought to read the text and understand the text in the same way we do. Like all good parties there are some guidelines. There is often a dress code or a theme or implicit social rules to follow. A good party does not have everybody rush into the ballroom and do whatever they see fit. But, a good party also has a good mix of people, refreshments, music, etc. If everyone drank the same thing, ate the same thing, danced the same way to the same music playing over and over, it would be a boring party indeed. We should expect some diversity. We should expect different points of view, because we have different things we bring and we experience the party in different ways. We ought to recognize not only the diversity among the partiers, but also we ought to recognize the embedded theology with which we arrive at the party. (There’s that third circle, In Front of the text again!).
  3. Another factor we have to contend with is the belief we have as Christians that the party is God’s party, it just happens to have been organized by some first century men. In fact all of these parties, these texts, are part of a much larger celebration, a much larger story, a much larger message. It is one that God initiated at creation. Each of these texts/parties is God’s word, it is eternally relevant to all people everywhere. All are invited to the big celebration! But, each of the individual parties is also the product of a human who was a part of human history. This idea of human and divine is much like the orthodox views of Jesus Christ. It is mysterious that Jesus was both God and human. It is equally mysterious that the Bible is God’s word and the letters, poems, stories, songs, prophecies of humans. God saves us by becoming human; God speaks to us through human’s words. We can ask why all day long. The fact of the matter is that is the way it is. I could go on about how it shows God’s care and mercy for creation that humans and their words are God’s vessels. Or I could go on about how inefficient and complicated it is that humans are God’s vessels. But the fact still remains, what we believe to be God’s word, what IS God’s word is gritty and dirty and confusing and oh so human. When we report on the party of James 5:1-6 or whatever party we attend, it simply will not do to say this is James’ party alone, God had nothing to do with it. Such a party, for we Christians, might be a fun historical, linguistic, grammatical time, but we will leave the party with an empty feeling. It will have been sterile. But if we go to the party and forget that a person is in fact throwing it for other people and assume that it is divine only, eternally relevant with no historical or literary context, the party will become pandemonium. We cannot just lift out the pure essence of the text and apply it today. What criteria are used to pick and choose what are the relevant parts?

Exegesis is the process of “bringing out”—not so much bringing out “kernels of truth” or “relevant parts” but bringing out the description and tenor and feel of the party so that we can more fully or more properly participate in the grand celebration of life in Christ and so we can invite others to this celebration. To bring this out we have to get into the circles of conversation and ask lines of questions. We will want to report on some of the details of the party. Ultimately we will want to have participated in the festivities. Good exegesis requires one be a social butterfly and not a fly on the wall. It’s a party. Have fun!

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Ephesians & Community Exegesis

The ampersand in the title is not meant to connect two topics into one but rather to divide the two topics for this blog post. I suppose somewhere down the line, possibly as te Spring quarter approaches, I will give more thought to how these two actully do come together. At the moment I have the following on my mind.

I have almost completed my ECD for the Ephesians course I will be teaching in the Spring, but I am having a hard time deciding which Ephesians commentary to use as the class textbook. I am certain to use the following three commentaries in the class somehow, but I would like to assign one of them as the course textbook.

Peter O’Brien in the Pillar New Testament Commentary Series
Harold Hoehner published by Baker
Andrew Lincoln in the Word Biblical Commentary

I’ve listed them according to which I am most likely to choose right now. Parableman’s post was extremely helpful in ranking them as it were. It seems that O’Brien’s commentary will serve best as a reader for students. While the denser commentaries of Hoehner and Lincoln will help me prepare lecture notes. Plus, I do also plan to assign the second half of The Theology of the Later Pauline Epistles, which Lincoln wrote on Ephesians. I’m open to comments and suggestions. I’ve got about 4 weeks to make up my mind.

Now, this idea of community exegesis. As you may know from earlier ruminations on this blog, in theory I believe theological interpretation is not possible without the community of readers who deem the biblical text as sacred playing a central role. There is a lot more to be said about this. I have affinities toward a communitarian approach to reader-response sorts of methods, but I am not at all prepared to throw all of my eggs in that basket, or more properly, I think there are ways to conceive of communitarian exegesis that do not dismiss what we call more “traditional” approaches to the texts. Here’s my question. How does such a conception find its way into the goings on in a course on exegetical methods? In other words, how does this communitarian rubber hit the methodological road? I can talk about the ideas, concepts and theories all quarter, but I will have failed if the students are not actually able to DO something with all this. What should they DO?

To-do List

You may ignore this list. It’s for me. I figured if I made it public I would be more likely to get some of these things accomplished.

1) Apply for teaching positions: CV, Statements, References
2) Lectures for Exegetical Methods
3) ECD for Exegesis of Ephesians (Spring course; ECD requested before October): decide on textbooks
4) Add more to online resources
5) Plan Gail’s birthday party (I’m on this, just need a reminder)
6) Complete book proposal (Just needs a little tweaking)

Here’s where you, dear reader(s?), come in:

1) If you know of any NT posts for junior profs let me know. See my online CV.
2) I’m OK for the lectures I just need to get on them. However, if you have any helpful advice for a young lecturer, I am all ears (or eyes as the case may be here).
3) That’s right, unless I shoot myself in the foot with Exegetical Methods in the Fall and Winter, I’ve been asked to do the next course in the series, which is the exegesis of a NT book. I am a bit familiar with Ephesians and it is short enough for a class to actually read the whole thing in one quarter. Plus, as a disputed Pauline epistle, I believe we can dispense quickly with the question of authorship and move into the content of the book. Imagine that, actually reading an entire NT book in Greek and dealing with its content and not the questions that lie behind it.
4) Check ’em out. I am open to suggestions. I am not wanting to compete with Scholer, however; just enough to give the beginning student a good list of resources.
5) I’m OK just a bit nervous. I haven’t done so well with birthdays the last three years.
6) Not terribly hopeful, but I have a friend whose published and thinks its doable.

[Update: After re-reading this post I realize how terribly negative it feels. There are several things for which I am fairly upbeat. I am confident the online resources, ECD and lectures will come together nicely in due time. I am also certain that my wife will love me even if the party turns out to be a flop. I feel good about my dissertation even if it does not get published, and I trust my friend’s judgment, so I am going to shop it around. Unfortunately, I am less upbeat about the job search. I’ve heard too many war stories about too many recent NT grads and too few NT openings.]

Syllabus completed

The syllabus for Exegetical Methods and Practice is completed and available for viewing.

Some of the formatting may not show up as intended.  I think there is something lost in the translation from doc to html.

Also, I reserve the right to change any and all of the syllabus before the beginning of class.

I would appreciate some feedback on it if you are so inclined.

Book shopping in Victoria

I picked up a book at Munro’s in Victoria while on holiday. I am fascinated. I think I will have something to say about it in the near future.

Spoken Here

Spoken Here by Mark Abley

In short, the author explores a handful of dying languages around the globe. His experiences and observations are telling not only for the life of languages but also, I think, for the way we understand the interpretive process as a part of the life of a tradition and community.

O, Canada!

We’re off to Vancouver for a week. Maybe I will get inspired for some blog posts.

Mennonite Hermeneutics: A Reflection

In a previous post I mentioned that hermeneutics may be described as one’s placement of “Yeah, but…” A fellow anabaptist suggestedPerhaps the Anabaptist version would be: “Yeah, but Jesus says…”” I began a response to this suggestion and soon realized that maybe the reponse should become a post. So, the response/post follows. Please keep in mind this is a spontaneous reflection.

Your comment brings up an itch I have had since being a part of an anabaptist community for about a year now. The itch that I need to scratch here a bit is that when we say things like “Jesus says…” we must realize that whatever it is we think Jesus says comes to us only in the words of our sacred text, and as our sacred text the New Testament somehow hangs together as a coherent (loosely used term!) body of literature. What Jesus says can certainly take priority, much as what Paul says is an implicit priority for a good many folks. But in saying things like Jesus says or Paul says as our heuristic key we somehow undermine the coherency of our sacred text–we develop our own canon inside of the canon. The task then for me as a hermeneut is not to judge everything over against what Jesus says in the Gospels, but to judge everything over against what God says in the whole of Scripture. No doubt the Word sheds light on the word, I just need to remnd myself that there is more to the New Testament texts than the Gospels, and these other parts are God’s word as well. One thing I have noticed in my year as a part of a Mennonite community is that sermons are more often than not based on either Gospel or OT narrative texts. I recognize that anabaptists (myself included) are more responsive to a narrative base for theology–it feels more real when a theology springs from an actual life lived and now retold (thank Jim McClendon for that one)–but I wonder whether we are not neglecting other parts of the word. Just a thought, not an indictment.

Another thing these sorts of heuristic keys do is create a climate wherein we forever debate what Jesus REALLY said. The next thing you know we’ve got people casting votes with colored balls and color-coding the Gospels and other non-canonical texts in an attempt to say definitively what Jesus said. In this way we get a canon inside of a canon inside of a canon.

What I am driving at in all of this is a more holistic hermeneutical perspective. Any thoughts? While its on my mind, I do wonder how a holistic perspective could still allow for the distinctives of various traditions. Hmmm…