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As A New Semester Begins…

I wonder what the apostle Paul might make of the critical study of the Scriptures?

In my mind there is no doubt that this mode of study is a double-edged sword. Critical studies of Scripture have expanded our knowledge of the Bible, its backgrounds and contexts, its grammatical and rhetorical features, its varied interpretive possibilities, and so on, with the result that our understanding of it can now be better supported than perhaps ever before in history.

Yet critical studies of Scripture can so multiply theories of backgrounds and contexts, and ideas concerning interpretive approaches, that the unsuspecting reader is somehow set adrift, rudderless, in a great ocean of interpretive possibilities. In some cases this leads not to the strengthening of Christian faith and witness but to its diminution.

This is a very real risk faced by all seminarians as they commence their theological studies: will their studies build their faith and contribute to a robust life of faithful Christian discipleship, or will their study have a more corrosive effect, undermining their faith and perhaps lead them away from Christ and his church?

The problem has several aspects, notably the unique dynamics of the knowledge of God who is never an ‘object’ under our control. We know God only as God gives himself to be known by us. This knowledge is on God’s own terms, so to speak, and is a knowledge grounded in humble faith. Because of this we must be careful to distinguish between knowledge of Scripture or about Scripture, and knowledge of God; the one does not equate to the other.

It is not unusual for students to be thrilled in the knowledge of and about Scripture that they gain in their studies—truly a ground for rejoicing. But if this knowledge is merely intellectual development without a corresponding and deepening participation in and with God, its effect may be more to ‘puff up than to build up’ (1 Corinthians 8:1). Jesus’ words in John 5:39 are instructive: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about me.” We study, therefore, not merely to establish doctrine, explore history, identify life principles, or find ideological support for a cultural—or even ‘Christian’—programme of action. The ultimate aim of the study of Scripture is to bear witness to, and lead us into a faith-relationship with, Jesus Christ.

Second, critical study introduces a ‘distance’ between the biblical text and the interpreter in which the reader ‘stands over’ the text, examining and questioning it, treating it as an artefact or an object of enquiry, weighing and evaluating its features, and assessing its various interpretive possibilities. In this process, the interpreter becomes the master and primary agent with respect to the Scripture. And it becomes possible that the habit of thought that one learns in critical study—this ‘distance’—may turn out to be also a controlling feature of one’s relationship with God. Indeed, sometimes this is the point, as Richard Bauckham (paraphrasing Søren Kierkegaard) has warned:

Biblical scholarship is the human race’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the New Testament, to ensure that one can continue to be a Christian without letting the New Testament come too close, or to ensure that one can continue not to be a Christian by not letting the New Testament come too close (Bauckham, James, 2; see my post on Kierkegaard and Christian Scholarship).

How might seminary students navigate this inherent danger in theological study? Some quite obvious responses come quickly to mind: by maintaining a consistent devotional life of prayer, praise, corporate worship, and Christian service; by applying different and complementary practices with respect to Scripture such as lectio divina, a slow, prayerful and meditative reading of the Bible in which we sit ‘under’ the Scripture, listening and waiting to see what it might speak to us; by retaining a sense of the Bible as Scripture, as holy, as inspired by God, and not merely as ‘text’; and by becoming at least as self-critical of one’s own presuppositions, purposes, and power, as one is of the tradition and others’ interpretations.

I began this post by asking about what Paul might make of critical study. Although I will not presume to answer that question, it arose for me as I reflected on his writings in 1&2 Timothy—although critical scholarship wonders whether in fact Paul is actually the author of these books! In these letters to his protégé Paul (let’s assume) continually exhorts Timothy to the preaching and teaching of sound doctrine, and to resist

A morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions… (1 Timothy 6:4)

Rather, Timothy is to guard

What has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter (“godless philosophical discussions” Jerusalem Bible) and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’—which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith (6:20-21; cf. 2 Timothy 2:16-18).

He is to remember that

The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion (1 Timothy 1:5-6).

He is also to

Remember Jesus Christ . . . according to my gospel. Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. . . . Refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels (2 Timothy 2:8, 14, 23).

Timothy is reminded that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable . . .” (3:16-17), and he is to “preach the word” for the time will come

When they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths (4:2-4).

Even though Paul is writing for a pastoral rather than academic context he has nevertheless quite accurately pinpointed the temptation and danger to which modern theological students are exposed. In formal theological study one will inevitably read and think through many different ‘disputes about words,’ and consider various ‘godless philosophies.’ This is as it should be, though hopefully we will never be enamoured with them. Nevertheless his words help the modern theological student ‘fight the good fight of faith’ (1 Timothy 1:18; 6:12) by reminding us of the goal of theological study, and by positing the gospel of Jesus Christ—as it has been mediated to us in the inspired Scriptures, and by the apostolic witness and tradition—as the canon within which we assess every teaching, and to which we adhere as a treasure that has been entrusted to us (2 Timothy 1:13-14).

Thus, at the beginning of a new semester, Remember Jesus Christ . . . according to my gospel.

Kierkegaard on Christian Scholarship

I found this marvellous quote from Kierkegaard in Richard Bauckham’s monograph on James:

Christian scholarship is the human race’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the New Testament, to ensure that one can continue to be a Christian without letting the New Testament come too close.

Bauckham cites Kierkegaard, and does so at the start of each chapter of his book because the first chapter of James was the Danish philosopher’s favourite chapter. He recognises Kierkegaard’s comment as an over-reaction, as a statement of hyperbole, necessary as a corrective, but an over-reaction all the same (Bauckham, James, 8).

He identifies Kierkegaard’s real target as the isolation of biblical studies, or more particularly, the biblical scholar, from subjective engagement with the biblical text. The aim of nineteenth-century biblical interpretation by means of historical criticism was the establishment of the objective meaning of the text, independent of confessional and dogmatic presuppositions. In Bauckham’s view, biblical scholarship has failed in its attempt to reach this goal. (I might note that many evangelical scholars also aim at establishing the objective meaning of the text, though by means of a different method.)

The trouble with the quest for objectivity, as understood by Kierkegaard in his own day, is that one relates to the Bible but not to Scripture. Such scholarship faces, and often succumbs to, the temptation to substitute study for faith and obedience. One only reads Scripture as Scripture if one takes it to heart and lives it.

One reason Kierkegaard appreciated James 1 was because of James’ use of the mirror analogy. The concern Kierkegaard has with Christian scholarship is that in the quest for objectivity, scholars spend their time examining the mirror. The purpose of a mirror, however, is not to examine the mirror itself, but to look at oneself. Thus Kierkegaard warns the scholar:

If you are a scholar, remember that if you do not read God’s Word in another way, it will turn out that after a lifetime of reading God’s Word many hours every day, you nevertheless have never read—God’s Word. 

Kierkegaard suggests that this is, in fact, the intent of Christian scholarship: to keep God’s Word at bay, so that it is not heard, so that one is not confronted by its claim and its command, so that one can continue as a Christian without hearing and taking to heart its message. Christian scholarship achieves this by raising so many questions about the text, about its context, about its interpretation, so many “new lines of supposedly objective enquiry that its effect is to postpone faith and obedience to God’s word indefinitely” (Bauckham, 3).

But our world is very different to that inhabited by Kierkegaard, and so, in a stunning adjustment, Bauckham has updated Kierkegaard’s provocation for our own age:

Biblical scholarship is the human race’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the New Testament, to ensure that one can continue to be a Christian without letting the New Testament come too close, or to ensure that one can continue not to be a Christian by not letting the New Testament come too close (Bauckham, James, 2).

A Prayer for Sunday

I found this little prayer in a book of prayers given to me recently by dear friends at church. Every line is meaningful. Primarily it is a prayer of wonder and implicit thanksgiving, with the sole line of petition occurring in the second-last verse.

Oh, Lord my God,
You called me from the sleep of nothingness
merely because in your tremendous love
you want to make good and beautiful beings.
You have called me by my name in my mother’s womb.
You have given me breath and light and movement
and walked with me every moment of my existence.
I am amazed, Lord God of the universe,
that you attend to me and, more, cherish me.

Create in me the faithfulness that moves you,
and I will trust you and yearn for you all my days.
Amen.

Joseph Tetlow, SJ

“Critiquiness”

Volf & Croasmun have a bit of fun critiquing critique, and introduce a new term coined by Christopher Castiglia to describe the “unmistakable blend of suspicion, self-confidence, and indignation” sometimes found in those who love to critique others, especially traditional biblical interpretations and theological formulations.

Conservatives like jeremiads; progressives relish critique. They interrogate and unmask; they trouble and problematize; they expose and subvert; they demystify and destabilize. For theologians no less than for nontheologians who practice it, critique is often infinite; it applies to everything—to biblical texts and biblical figures, to the church today and throughout its history, to God and to all aspects of modern societies—and it never stops.

Some of the progressive critical impetus comes from the Christian tradition itself, not just from the prophetic castigation of misuse of political power or religious rituals, but from the conviction that sin is most powerful when it appears as goodness, and therefore it conspires to present itself as godliness. And yet there is a fundamental difference. Today’s critique, as a rule, offers no positive alternative; its normativity is antinormative. Unlike the prophets of old, many theologians today engage not just in criticism but in what some critics of critique have called “critiquiness.” They shy away from offering a positive vision in whose service they undertake their critique; for then this vision, too, would recursively become a target of the critique. In the absence of a positive vision, critiques easily devolve to mere griping, knocking things down. Unmasking gives the impression of intellectual profundity, and griping offers the cheap thrill of understated self-righteousness. Both get old quickly and accomplish little; in fact, as the biblical admonition regarding exorcism suggests, they often make things worse (Volf & Croasmun, For the Life of the World, 54-55).

I remember my first theology teacher (John Yates) telling me many years ago that I needed to develop skills of critical thinking. He was right, for such skills are crucial intellectual tools in any field of study. But any good thing taken too far becomes a fault. Critical thinking that devolves into “critiquiness”—an intellectual habit of endless deconstruction and criticism sometimes undertaken simply for the fun of undermining the position of another—is a sign of intellectual laziness and a sense of personal superiority. It becomes a means of closing down rather than opening dialogue and discovery on the quest for truth. It may give the impression of intellectual profundity, but it is merely that: an impression, a mask better discarded altogether, not least in theological studies where the truthfulness of the Christian claim is the object and criterion of our study.

Ben Witherington III to Lecture at Vose Seminary

Now this is happy news!

Ben Witherington is one of the foremost New Testament scholars working in the world today, author of numerous books including a commentary on every or just about every New Testament book.

Ben is delivering the Vose Annual Lecture for 2019 on Friday evening August 2, and will follow up with a session on Paul and the Law at Vose Seminary on Saturday morning, August 3.

Be sure to take advantage of this opportunity by registering here.

A Prayer for Sunday


Lord, teach me to be generous,
to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to look for any reward,
save that of knowing that I do your holy will.

(Attributed to Ignatius of Loyola,
but likely appeared much later,
perhaps inspired by his life and work)

The following prayer, however, was used by Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.

A Prayer for Sunday

Lord,
In this bounded space of just a few days,
As I begin a process of temporary withdrawal
from the world of endless activity and pressing engagements;
As I begin, too, a withdrawal from the endless noise and distraction of the world,
and an addictive attachment to its bustling ‘importance’ and allurements—
ephemera at best;

In this liminal space of just a few days,
Still my heart and quiet my soul
And let my whole self be centred afresh and anew in you.
Open my heart to God—Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, and
Open my soul to all that is good and true and beautiful
in this world, my companions, and my neighbour.

Speak, Lord, and give me the hearing heart of a servant.
Amen.

Hiatus – and Rebirth

It has been a year since my last post.

I never intended to have a break really, and especially such a long break. But I was about to go on holiday last year with a lot to get done before the holiday, and then I went on holiday. I thought I would post during the holiday, since I wanted to get to 500 posts before the fourth anniversary of the blog. But instead I had a holiday!

This was probably a good choice, because once I returned to work, the load was heavy. My first semester was very hard, and my second while not so hard, still demanding. In addition to regular work at the Seminary, I wrote and presented five conference papers. I haven’t had time to get back to the blog, even though I thought of it several times, especially once semester one was over.

And now a year has passed. It has not at all been like the picture suggests, which is more a wish-dream! But perhaps the time has come to begin a regular practice of writing again. I will return to the focus that I had when I began the blog: simply to write, to gather and write my thoughts, to develop habits of regular writing, to write what may one day find its way into publication.

If anyone chooses to read what I write, that will be a blessing – for me at least, and perhaps to them!  But the main thing for me is once more to carve out a little space to write, and to do so for an audience of One.