writing things down…

Review of Cousar’s NT Introduction

An Introduction to the New Testament: Witnesses to God’s New Work, Charles B. Cousar, Westminster John Knox Press 2006 (0-664-22413-X), xv, 215 pp., $29.95.

Review in Reviews in Religion & Theology 14:3 (July 2007) 335–38.


Cousar’s ‘assignment’, as he describes it, was ‘to write a “postcritical introduction” to the New Testament for the life of the church’ (xi).  In the introduction to this volume he sets a postcritical approach over against the more common historical-critical introductions of the modern era.  Even the canonically focused introductions of the last half of the 20th century rehash the same sort of historical-critical questions.  Cousar’s postcritical approach is informed by two concepts of Paul Ricouer: ‘second naiveté’ and ‘surplus of meaning’.  The former is a postcritical stage in which the theological use of Scripture is held together with historical and literary engagements with the text.  The latter ‘pushes one back to the text time and again and invites fresh imaginative encounters’ (xiii).  Together these ideas give Cousar the freedom to attend to critical matters always with an eye on the world appropriated in front of the text.  In this way, a postcritical introduction is a theological introduction.

Cousar divides the volume into five parts, each corresponding to a different set of NT books, and all but the last beginning with a brief introduction.  Part one consists of the undisputed Pauline letters.  Cousar considers them in canonical rather than historical order since ‘scholars do not agree on the historical sequencing of the letters’ (xiii).  The introduction to these letters is actually a brief discussion about the study of Paul as a theologian.  Cousar reminds his readers that Paul 1) wrote letters displaying ‘a sophisticated and varied use of argumentation’ (5), 2) wrote ‘as a Jewish Christian to counter another Jewish Christian group’ (6), 3) identified himself as an ‘apostle to the Gentiles’, and 4) wrote not as a systematic theologian but as a pastor-theologian with an apocalyptic perspective and message of grace.

Part two turns to the epistles of the Pauline tradition, again taking the books in canonical order.  In part three, however, Cousar follows the historical ordering of the Synoptic Gospels, Acts and the Johannine literature.  Also, in this third part, after successive chapters on the three Synoptic Gospels, Cousar, provides an excellent and brief discussion of the history of historical Jesus research, noting especially how ‘the distinction between beliefs and facts is not so simple’ (135).  Curiously, Cousar ends part three with a chapter on the Gospel and Letters of John.  The Johannine epistles seem out of place here.

Cousar’s final two parts are the General Epistles and Revelation respectively.  At less than a page in length, the introduction to part four is the shortest in the whole volume.  Part five, on Revelation alone, does not have an introduction at all.

It is not clear how Cousar’s postcritical/theological approach influenced his structural decisions, if it did at all.  Why does he begin the volume with the Pauline epistles?  Why are the disputed letters of the Pauline tradition separated from the undisputed Pauline epistles, while the Johannine epistles are considered together with the Gospel of John?  Why are the Johannine epistles connected with the Gospel of John but Revelation is not?  One wishes some rationale for the structural decisions could have been explained in light of the postcritical stance.  Indeed, it seems likely that the canonical ordering would have been more influential on the ‘theological use of Scripture’ from which ‘the work of historical and literary criticism’ ought not be in isolation (xiii).

A few of the individual chapters on the NT books or groups of books briefly cover historical considerations necessary to place the books in their social and cultural settings.  However, the chapters, for the most part, consider the literary qualities and theological messages of the NT books with effective brevity.  Possibly betraying a Pauline bias, and curious nonetheless, Cousar devotes twice the space to Romans as he does to any other book.

The format for the chapters is inconsistent.  Blocks of chapters and verses of the NT book under consideration divide most of the chapters in the first two parts of the book.  The subheadings for these pieces often omit portions. For instance, the chapter on Ephesians contains six subheadings: 1:3-14, 1:15-23, 2:1-22, 4:1-16, 4:17-5:20 and 6:10-24.  Ephesians 3 and 6:1-9 do not get listed, although there is brief comment on each at the end of sections 2:1-22 and 4:17-5:20 respectively. Philemon, for obvious reasons, and Colossians, for no apparent reason, are discussed without the use of subheadings.  The chapters on 2 Corinthians and the Pastoral Letters, uniquely in the entire volume, utilize thematic subheadings rather than chapter-and-verse captions or nothing at all.  The chapters in parts three, four and five do not contain any subheadings, with the exception of the chapter on the Gospel of Mark, the shortest gospel in the NT.

The treatment of the General Epistles is perhaps most disappointing.  The chapter on Jude, for instance, includes two sentences by Cousar that introduce a comment on and rendition (read ‘paraphrase’) of the epistle by one of his former colleagues.  That is it.  The comment and rendition are beautiful, but one wishes that Cousar could have given the book a bit more attention than this.
The conclusion, on the other hand, is perhaps the most intriguing and helpful section of the entire volume.  In it Cousar reminds his readers that ‘the Bible is not a purely academic matter’ (184).  Expanding on the postcritical stance he established in the introduction, Cousar delineates nine principles for the study of the Scriptures: 1) an openness to the Spirit; 2) the rule of faith; 3) an intertextual reading strategy; 4) Jesus Christ as the center; 5) the Bible is the church’s book; 6) the rule of love; 7) reading in light of literary forms and socio-historical contexts; 8) every reading is provisional; and 9) reading the text for all its worth.  The conclusion would do well as an introduction.  It is a shame that readers must wait until the end of the book to get these principles.  If the book was ‘written with the assumption that users of [it] will need a Bible open before them at all times’ (xv), why not outline the principles for reading the Bible at the outset?

Cousar states explicitly who the intended audience is.  His introduction to the NT is ‘for use in the church, for seminary and church college classes, and for pastors who assume the regular responsibility of teaching and preaching in congregations’ (xiv).  Its use at the graduate level, however, is less likely than at the undergraduate level where it stands out as a recommended, but not primary introduction to the sacred texts of the Church.

(The definitive version is available at www3.interscience.wiley.com.)

[NB: I tried to follow my own suggestion and provide a link to the publisher’s website. However, I could not find the book on the Westminster John Knox Press site. I wonder if the book is out of print already.]


No comments yet»

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: