writing things down…

Archive for October, 2006


1. Class is more than halfway over. I am learning more than the students, I think! I’ve shifted from less lecture to more discussion. We’ve finished the general methods and we have moved into the genre-specific conversations. Two points I’ve stressed about NT epistles: 1) there is a basic structure to letters and we can learn a lot by looking at how closely or how loosely the NT epistles stick to that structure; and 2) all NT epistles are occasional. Tonight we’ll talk about some of the implications for the occasionality (is that a word?) of letters.

2. I have signed a book contract with T&T Clark. Manuscript is due by mid-December. Lots of formatting and revising to be done. Working title: The Bible and the Crisis of Meaning: Debates on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture.

3. I have sent out about 10 cover letters, CVs, etc. Now I pray.

4. I’m looking forward to AAR/SBL. I’ve never been to Washington D.C. and I have friends I have not seen in months.

5. I’ve posted my ECD for the Spring course on Ephesians. I’ll try to add links to the textbooks later. For now I have lots of work to do on the class syllabus.

Old Book Review

The following review was one that I wrote over 10 months ago for another blog. I came across it and thought it fit in well here at katagrapho.

Modified scanning review of The Last Word : Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture by N.T. Wright, following some of the guidelines set out in Reading on the Run, Continuum Reading Concepts by J. Robert Clinton.

1. Info about author N. T. Wright is the Bishop of Durham, England and one of the most prolific NT scholars today. He has written over thirty books. Of his many works he is probably best known for his series on the NT, which includes so far The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and Resurrection of the Son of God. He taught for over twenty years at Cambridge, McGill and Oxford.

2. Author’s perspective, intentions and thesis Wright observes that most churches make strong statements about the centrality of scripture and its authority in the mission, life, discipline and doctrine of the community. However, there is no agreement on what this might mean or how it might be practiced. He describes how both evangelicals and liberals misread scripture, and he tries to restore the Bible to its rightful role as a guide for the church. Wright believes we are asking some of the questions regarding authority in the wrong way. “How can what is mostly a narrative text be ‘authoritative’?” (xi) Authority, for Wright, belongs to God alone, and is now embodied in Jesus Christ. So, the question becomes, “What might it mean to think that the authority of Jesus is somehow exercised through the Bible?” The authority of scripture must be understood as part of a larger divine authority.

3. Methodology and organization Wright’s method is not complex. His is a historical sketch of the reading of scripture, which is held up to his major theme that the authority of scripture is best understood under a larger divine authority. He thus traces, in chronological fashion, the place of scripture within Israel, the NT, apostolic churches, and the first sixteen centuries. At the point of the Enlightenment the long-held ideas about scripture were challenged. The challenges led to misreadings, which are still observed today in the battles over the Bible. Wright organizes the book into eight chapters with a prologue. The prologue sets the scene by briefly sketching the place of the Bible within the Christian church and the role of the Bible within contemporary culture. In the prologue, Wright touches briefly on scripture in the church, in culture, in politics, in philosophy, in theology, and in ethics. He ends the prologue by asking three key underlying questions, which become the focus for the rest of the book: 1) In what sense is the bible authoritative in the first place? 2) How can the Bible be appropriately understood and interpreted? 3) How can its authority, assuming such appropriate interpretation, be brought to bear on the church itself, let alone on the world? Chapter one’s primary purpose is to describe Wright’s thesis: “the authority of scripture can make Christian sense only if it is a shorthand for the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.” (23) Scripture itself understands authority to belong to God alone. The very word “authority” today does not resonate well with the idea of “story” envisaged in Scripture. We need to understand then, not so much the authority of scripture, but rather the authority of God. This entails seeing God’s authority as his sovereign power accomplishing the renewal of all creation. The authority of scripture is a sub-branch of several other theological topics. The Bible is not simply revelation or a devotional manual. Beginning then with Chapter two, Wright steps back and reflects on God’s Kingdom and the role of scripture within it. Chapter two outlines the way various forms of Judaism sought to live under scripture and wait for God to rescue his people and complete creation. In Judaism, scripture’s authority operated to form the controlling story of God’s people and the call to a present obedience through which they could respond. Chapter three seeks an understanding of Jesus in his historical context as the accomplishment to which scripture had pointed. The sense of fulfillment in Jesus is more narratival. Chapter four traces the notion of “word” in the apostolic church, where preaching described Jesus’ story as the fulfillment of the OT story. This of course sets up much debate about the idea of canon. Wright summarizes thusly: “the New Testament understands itself as the new covenant charter, the book that forms the basis for the new telling of the story through which Christians are formed, reformed and transformed so as to be God’s people for God’s world.” (59) Chapter five compresses “a very long and complicated story.” (60) It highlights 1) the early appeal to scripture itself to meet challenges, 2) the whole scriptural narrative over against alternative Christian stories, 3) the slowly diminishing appeal to the narrative that began with Israel, 4) the development of imaginative ways of reading scripture that on the one hand tried to deal with the complexities and opaqueness of scripture within a rule of faith, but on the other hand often neglected to understand how scripture itself actually worked, 5) the development of “tradition” that made anything authoritative if established in ecclesial tradition and backed up with clever exegesis, 6) the Reformation establishment of scripture over against tradition, by a stressing of the literal sense and a continuity with early church fathers, 7) the way in which the reformation and counter-reformation understood authority to mean “the place where you could go to find an authoritative ruling,” 8 ) the loss of an ongoing narrative and the rise of reason. Chapter six turns its attention to the Enlightenment, of which, Wright claims, we are all products. Though it brought many blessings to the world, it also spawned “a rationalistic skepticism which has chipped away at the very foundations of Christianity itself,” (82) deconstructed the very phrase “authority of scripture”, created an alternative view of history’s climax and the problem of evil, muddled debates, and ultimately led to dichotomies of literal vs. non-literal and modern vs. postmodern. Chapter seven offers misreadings of the “Right” and the “Left” and challenges us to involve ourselves in kingdom-oriented, historically rooted exegesis. More precisely, Wright claims a “critical realist” reading can take the modern skepticism and the postmodern critique and still make a strong case for a “genuinely historical understanding.” (111) Finally, chapter eight proposes ways to remedy the misreadings, by first developing an integrated view of the phrase “authority of scripture.” This integration highlights the role of the Spirit, focuses on the goal of God’s Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus, envisages the church as characterized by a listening, wrestling with, obedience before, and proclamation of scripture. The Chapter then offers suggestions on this theme. We must understand the authority of scripture as God “at work through scripture to energize, enable and direct the outgoing mission of the church, genuinely anticipating thereby the time when all things will be made new in Christ.” (138 The helpful appendix offers further reading suggestions for bible study and more in-depth exploration of the themes in the book.

4. Final Assessment Ministers and laypeople alike should read and discuss this book.

Hermeneutics, Interpretation & Exegesis

I have written a lengthy reply to a question in Wess’ “Ask a Theologian” series. The question was “What are some good books (and why) that can help me get started in biblical hermeneutics?” My answer was too long for one blog post so you can read the first part of the answer here and the second part here. As the title to this post implies, I answer the question by briefly differentiating between hermeneutics, interpretation and exegesis.

Hermeneutics at the Crossroads: Vanhoozer

First entry in a series exploring various chapters of Hermeneutics at the Crossroads.

Chapter one of the book, Hermeneutics at the Crossroads, is the only chapter that was not a part of the original summer seminar of 2002. Rather, Kevin Vanhoozer, the convener of the seminar, wrote the chapter after the summer conversations were completed. In many ways, I think, the chapter is an opportunity for Vanhoozer to flesh out and clear up some of his earlier conclusions. He refers to some of his prior commitments by hinting at a possible attitudinal if not conceptual shift: “While I am not yet ready to recant, I now see the need to supplement…”; “my earlier work suffers from certain conceptual imprecisions.” I am excited to follow his progress. I get the sense that he is beginning to think more seriously about the role of community in the interpretive process (and maybe in the concept of meaning?). This does not come completely clear in this chapter, but the impulse is there.

“Discourse on Matter: Hermeneutics and the ‘Miracle’ of Understanding,” is Vanhoozer’s initial go at a “descriptive” account of understanding as opposed to the more “normative” accounts found in his earlier work. Roughly, Vanhoozer distinguishes the two: “normative accounts tend to be epistemological; descriptive account tend to be ontological.” In a circular sort of way, Vanhoozer wants to UNDERSTAND how the Sache (the matter of the text) makes itself UNDERSTOOD. He asks, “to what extent is the event of understanding intelligible without recourse to the notion of authorial discourse?”

Vanhoozer’s structure is threefold. First, Descartes and Barth serve as case studies that introduce differing terms (“discourse” and Sache) as well as different approaches to understanding. Second, Vanhoozer examines Gadamer’s miracle of understanding and puts it into conversation with Descartes’ discourse and Barth’s Sache. Finally, Vanhoozer criticizes Gadamer’s appropriation of theological categories for philosophical hermeneutics.

Vanhoozer argues that Descartes understands understanding as something that subjects do by following method. But, the issue is muddled in Descartes. Vanhoozer is not sure if clarity, in Descartes’ Discourse on Method, appears or is achieved. One is not to accept any idea that does not appear “clearly and distinctly to the mind.” Yet, one is to follow a method to discover truth. The central question, for Vanhoozer, is how Gadamer would describe Descartes’ idea of understanding.

Vanhoozer gives considerably more space to Barth’s reflections in his commentary on Romans on authorial intention and the subject matter of Scripture. Several highlights are worth noting here, but they all ultimately point to the following conclusion: “The Sache of the Bible is not an object at our disposal. Interpreters are not merely ‘spectators’ of God’s Word but, in God’s grace, participants who may be caught up into the the subject matter (viz., the fellowship-creating triune economy).” That the subject matter of Scripture is itself an active subject is a central concept for Barth. Thus, the subject matter and not a method is normative for biblical interpretation. “The Word of God creates, as it were, its own hearer,” Vanhoozer summarizes. In response to the criticism that Barth too quickly moves to the revelatory referent, Vanhoozer notes that interpreters are not meant to interpret the author’s world. Instead they are to interpret the author’s word “in light of the subject matter to which the words bear witness.”

Gadamer’s Truth and Method develops a notion of understanding as participation in a conversation about the Sache. Understanding in Gadamer’s program is primarily agreement. Interpretation is engagement with the Sache. Gadamer promotes an openness to the other, but, as Vanhoozer notes, “it is not quite clear just what he locus of this otherness is.” It would seem to be that the Sache itself is an other. It is the agent of communication, not the author. “In sum,” Vanhoozer writes, “Gadamer describes the event of understanding as the self-presentation in language of the Sache to the interpreting subject.” Vanhoozer concludes that for Gadamer “the interpreting subject is caught up in a process that transcends his or her individual agency.”

One problem Vanhoozer has with Gadamer is that Gadamer does not apply his general hermeneutic to biblical interpretation. He has an “escape clause” claims Vanhoozer. Understanding Scripture for Gadamer “is ultimately a matter of faith and hence pure passivity.” Ricoeur, in like manner, perceives the event of understanding as a miracle. “Readers appropriate,” says Vanhoozer in describing Ricoeur’s notion of understanding, “but the text discloses; what is made one’s own is paradoxically given to the subject.”

Understanding = methodical plodding or miraculous revelation?

The last third of Vanhoozer’s article is spent trying to “activate theological categories, to make them operational rather than merely notional.” With Gadamer and Ricoeur, Vanhoozer believes “hermeneutics is ultimately a matter of discerning the discourse–what someone says to someone about something–in the text as work.” Thus for Vanhoozer, over against these two earlier hermeneuts, “one has to discern what the author said and did with regard to a particular subject matter.” The text is discourse; the text is the “site for a work of meaning”; the text is someone’s performance. We can understand authorial discourse. We should try to understand authorial discourse.

The notion of “miracle” in Gadamer’s account of understanding is faulty on several fronts. Primarily, though, Gadamer’s idea of understanding is “the self-presentation of the ‘inner word’ or Sache.” In this way, the author’s work is insignificant. The Sache is incorporeal and corporeal discourse is irrelevant; it is a means to an end. Vanhoozer finds it “difficult to see how an impersonal process could have the ability to disclose truth.” “The Sache itself does not literally speak or show itself to us,” writes Vanhoozer, “except when the subject is the sovereign speaking God (so Barth).” He eventually concludes that “Gadamer’s description of the hermeneutical condition ultimately fails unless it employs Christian categories and makes them not simply illustrative but operational.” Grace is that theological category Gadamer’s description suggests but never quite names.

Vanhooozer is emboldened enough to propose “that we employ specifically Christian categories not only notionally but operationally for the sake of a description of the miracle of understanding and of the being whose being consists in understanding.” Let us end with a quick look at these Christian categories.

First, if since Gadamer, hermeneutics is ontology, and if Christians believe that all things are new in Christ, then Christian notions of ontology should hold some significance for hermeneutics. Second, Vanhoozer proposes that we “explore the category of effective pneumatic consciousness.” Those virtues necessary for understanding to happen are fruits of the Spirit. Third, and in connection to the notions of ontology and pneumatology, Vanhoozer comes back to the agency of understanding. Here he resonates with Eberhard in saying, “Christian faith does not only seek understanding; it mediates it.” And, to this end, while hermeneutics says we are in conversation, a Christian hermeneutic understands that we are in Christ. Faith (one’s ontological location) is a Sache that the “subject gets involved in but never controls.” Fourth, Vanhoozer questions the notion that understanding is a “fusion of horizons” and appeals rather to the idea of love for an other. He writes, “Understanding requires love: not just interest in a person in abstracto but interest in and patient attention to what that person is saying.” Finally, Vanhoozer ends the chapter by drawing a line between understanding and salvation. Understanding, like salvation, is “an impossible possibility.” “In both cases,” Vanhoozer surmises, “there seems to be a kind of ‘grace’ involved, one moreover that involves both faith (being caught up in, an active surrendering to) and works (an active participation in) the ‘matter’ at hand.”

In sum, Vanhoozer acknowledges in these hermeneuts an agreement “that the miracle of understanding involves a kind of enlightenment.” But of what sort? For Descartes and his modern Western progeny, understanding is “a by-product of the active subject’s agency on the matter.” For Gadamer enlightenment is not something we do but something done to us; “it is the matter that enlightens the subject.” This makes perfectly good sense to Barth (and Vanhoozer!) “but only perhaps with regard to the matter of Scripture…for no other book has the self-communicating presence and action of God as its Sache as does Scripture.” In the end, understanding for Vanhoozer (and Barth!) is “conformity to Christ” that happens as the interpreter is neither wholly passive or wholly active, but rather as “the interpreter is located in an all-encompassing process (or rather a person?)”

I would like to end with one quick note about being in Christ. I would like to see Vanhoozer say more about how being in the all-encompassing process/person–how being in Christ!–necessarily involves some reflection about being in a community that is the body of Christ. Still, I am more than a little excited and impressed with Vanhoozer’s ideas in this chapter.

Dinosaur Teeth or Frog Legs?

The other night after class I had a student approach me about the big picture of exegesis.  He was wondering what these various methods we were studying had to do with the larger enterprise.  He posed this image.

Suppose we found a dinosaur tooth at a dig.  We could extrapolate all sorts of information about the dinosaur from which the tooth came by looking at the size of the tooth (how big could this animal have been?), the wear on the tooth (how old might the beast have been? what sorts of things would it have eaten?), and possibly the place where the tooth was found (warm weather creature? are there other bones around?).  The student wondered if we were doing similar things when we explored the text critical questions or examined the structural make-up of a passage.  I think this student’s notions are too common among many new exegetical students.  What I think they fail to remember is that we are not finding teeth in a swamp somewhere.  I proposed a different image, though it is one that I would not want to take too far for fear of becoming too atomistic.  Still…

What we are doing is a bit like exploring a frog in middle-school science class.  But, we are interested in what the whole frog was/is like, and not just one part of the frog.  Nevertheless, to understand the whole frog we will at some point want to cut it open and examine its different parts.  The difference between looking at a frog’s leg and a dinosaur tooth is that we have the whole body of the frog; we know what part of the world it came from; we can know something about the function of the leg by seeing it on the body, and by looking at the context from which the frog came.  In other words, we have a much fuller contextual picture with the frog.  We do not have to re-create the context as we would with the dinosaur.

Thoughts on the Suburbs

I won’t normally cross-pollinate my two blogs. Ekballo is a place for me and Gail to vent, share and do whatever strikes us at the moment. However, I posted something there the other day that the 1-2 readers of this blog might be interested in reading. I’d love to hear what you have to say about the following. Comment freely.

Today, when I had some free time, I pulled out the now tattered but infrequently used Moleskine and read something I had written on my last trip to what may very well be the mecca of suburbs, where overhead photos resemble some sort of microscopic view of mitochondria.

“Creating space before community seems backwards. Everything is laid out before people get there. It feels too canned and inorganic.”

After returning from our church retreat I began to wonder if churches aren’t often like suburbs. Let me explain.

Pasadena Mennonite Church is going through a transition. It is both exciting and anxiety-inducing. The retreat reminded me of one of if not THE thing that attracts me to the fellowship there: community comes before construction. People before programs. Too often, as I see it, suburbs and suburban-like churches lay all of the well-designed streets, create beautiful green spaces in among the cookie-cutter homes and establish neighborhood regulations to keep everything in order. At PMC, we seem to move forward, mess up, back up and try again. Or we proceed knowing that we will flesh out all the details as we go. We have some basic structure in place, but it never preempts the primacy of community. Sometimes we design the structure as we move along. This approach gets a little messy and confusing and frustrating and protracted. But we are a community through it all. Gail and I did not commit to the church because it had laid out all the streets and parks and buildings beforehand.

This could be misread to mean that I think planning is nonsense. That is not the case. It is rather a case of WHO does the planning. Does the community itself do the planning or does some oxymoronic “community” developer draw up the plans before a community even exists? Many people seem to love the ease of life in the mapped-out suburbs and the over-programmed mega-churches (often found in the suburbs, by the way). I do not deny that people flourish in these contexts. But, to have genuine community there one must work hard to share life with others. It is quite easy to stay in one’s SUV and drive down nice wide boulevards, get directed to the extended lot at church by someone in the parking ministry, catch a shuttle to the sanctuary, grab one’s bible by the handle on its cover, sit through an entertaining service, and maybe even feel convicted to share the gospel more with the neighbors who live next door in a house whose floor plan matches one’s own. Much of the “community” structure has already been created. It is safe and clean and well-presented, but it can also be sterile and lifeless without some effort at making connections.

This is also not to say that non-suburban churches and neighborhoods have it any easier. But, it seems to me, that community is built into their very DNA. The communities create the structures and programs as they encounter things in their midst. No pre-designed template will fit.

NA27 v. UBS4

Here’s a nice short piece on some of the differences between the two standard critical editions of the Greek New Testament. Although, for my money, I think the introductions to the NA27 & the UBS4 do a better job of explaining their differences.