New Beginnings

Since my last blog post on this site, I have officially started a PhD program at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis as a reduced residency student. I am concentrating on the History of Exegesis. I have long desired to further my education, even though I am happily situated in a parish in Iowa. A couple of times I was close to taking that step, but one thing or another prevented me from doing so. After spending a couple of weeks in South Sudan last Fall teaching a seminary class on the Gospel of St. Matthew, I decided that I either needed to do it now or not at all. I applied, was accepted in March, and decided to enroll in the Fall quarter. So I am currently taking two classes, Problems in Hermeneutics with Dr. James Voelz and Studies in the Theology of the Early Church with Dr. Joel Elowsky and Dr. Robert Wilken. In January and June I go to the campus for two week seminars. Additionally, I am taking a German exam preparation course by correspondence.

So far, I am thoroughly enjoying the reading assignments for my classes, as well as studying German again. It has been a real joy to read about the exegetical approaches of Cyril of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, and other church fathers. I will share more of my thoughts about these writings in future posts. I have also enjoyed reading a bit on the role of semantics in the task of interpretation (Voelz, What Does This Mean?). Initially, I had thought that I would find this topic to be somewhat boring, but I gained some helpful insights from his book. I appreciate his repudiation of Plato’s idea that the larger whole is the sum of the smallest individual parts. I also found his argument that the meaning of words is determined by the context to be quite helpful.

I have also been reading Terrence Keegan’s Popular Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics. I have discovered, for one thing, that I am not much of a fan of Reader Response criticism–the idea that a text’s meaning is to be discovered in part in the experience of the reader. An analogy that is used is that of sound. There is no sound apart from the reception of the sound waves by the hearer, whose brain then processes these waves and they become “sounds.” So also, argues the Reader Response critic, a text has no meaning apart from its reception by a reader. Certainly we can say that no one benefits from a biblical text if one does not read or hear it. But can we say that a text’s meaning is found in the reader? I think of Luke 24, when Jesus “interpreted for them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” The disciples who heard this teaching were effected by it, so that their hearts “burned with in them.” They certainly experienced a shift in their thinking. Christ opened the Scriptures to them. But the meaning of His words was granted to them. It wasn’t latent in them. It is possible that I am not fully understanding the concept of Reader Response Criticism yet. But at first glance, I’m wary.

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More on Brown’s Christology

One thing I appreciate about Raymond Brown’s evaluation of the christology of the evangelists is his ability to analyze the differences between the synoptic writers. Though I don’t accept Markan priority like he does, it is still an interesting and often helpful exercise to compare/contrast the themes and literary art of each evangelist. For example, in Matthew, the disciples pray, “Lord, save us; we are perishing.” But in Mark, the disciples seem to criticize him, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?”

In Mark, Jesus doesn’t seem to know who touched him in the crowd of people, nor does he seem to know who has received the benefit of his power. In Matthew, however, Jesus wastes no time and heals the woman whose thoughts he already knows. There is value in pondering why these differences exist in each case. What purpose is being served by the omission or the inclusion of this or that detail.

I’m not sure how to take Brown’s assumption that Matthew is reading into the Ministry of Jesus the post-resurrection faith of the disciples. He uses the example of Peter’s confession of Jesus. Matthew has Peter saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Mark, on the other hand, has Peter only say, “You are the Christ.” Brown, of course, sees Matthew as adding to Mark’s account, and reading into the story the disciples’ post-resurrection faith. Evidently, what is recorded in Mark’s Gospel is historic, and what is recorded in Matthew’s Gospel is what one might call editing. Or maybe Brown would even say that Mark’s account is even nuanced by the Evangelist.

I recognize that the evangelists are not simply writing historical narratives. I learned this when I studied the infancy narrative of Jesus. Just as the Prophets often spoke of what was happening currently or of what was to come in terms borrowed from earlier stories (like the Exodus, for instance), so also did the evangelists see in the life of Jesus certain narratives being replayed and repeated.

But this brings up a difficult question–if Matthew is not simply recording historical events and words, either of Jesus or of the disciples, then where does one draw the line? How can we be certain that any of the evangelists is recording things as they actually happened or as they were actually spoken? It sure leaves a lot of unanswered questions. I guess I would ask, is it possible that Brown is right? Is it possible that Matthew is putting something onto the lips of Peter in Matthew 16 that he did not actually say at that point? And if so, then why? I find that hard to swallow.

For one reason or another, the Holy Spirit chose to include what He did in each Gospel. Once you start down the path of trying to determine what is authentic and what is not, you open up a “pandora’s box.” Still, it is intriguing to say the least to see how each evangelist records the events and the words of Jesus and the disciples. It is something I need to do more often when studying texts for the purposes of preaching and teaching.

I’m almost done with Brown’s Introduction to Christology. I have received a few other books from the library that I am itching to read.

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Raymond Brown on New Testament Christology

Currently reading Raymond Brown’s Introduction to New Testament Christology and marveling at the difficulty that liberal interpreters of the Bible have with the idea that what was said and taught by Jesus and what is found in the NT Gospels is (GASP!) one and the same thing! Is it so hard to accept this possibility? Apparently so. Brown is what he might call a “scholarly liberal,” and says that one cannot be sure, in many cases, if what is found in the Gospels is actually what Jesus said. But then, to use the same argumentation, one cannot be certain that it is not the same, or at least very similar.

There seems to be this need to see a linear development in Christology from the ministry of Jesus to the writing down of his words and deeds, and then even beyond that, to later doctrinal formulations found in the ancient Christian creeds. Isn’t it just as possible that Jesus taught his disciples and others the truth about himself, and what he came to do, and that this teaching, though perhaps not fully understood at the time it was given, is what the biblical writers are seeking to record? I have no problem with the idea that they had eye-witness sources, as Richard Bauckham argues in Jesus and the Eye-witnesses, and even that they arranged their material theologically, even catechetically. Nor do I have a problem with the idea that the apostolic writers drew upon the Old Testament and other Jewish literature and narratives to answer the question of who Jesus was and what He came to do.

But who’s to say that what is recorded in the Gospels is not only the Jesus of faith, but the Jesus of history as well? Why is there this need to see such a separation between the two? What good does it do to try to look through the text of the Gospels to see something beyond that doesn’t exist? There can be no end to speculation on what sources or traditions lay behind the text of Jesus’ words or deeds.

My theory is that later church dogmaticians were saying the same thing as the biblical writers in speaking about Jesus and his relationship to the Father, his humanity and his divinity but simply using different language. The Nicene Creed speaks of the Son being homoousious with the Father. Perhaps a first century Jewish Christian might understand the oneness of the Father and the Son in terms of a shared identity. Nevertheless, it is interesting and valuable to read a book that is written from a different perspective. Brown is more conservative than some, but one can still detect a pretty strong bias towards the idea of an ‘evolution’ of sorts in Christology.

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Planning and Preparing

My father used to say that God laughs at our plans. He was probably right. But, the reality is, you still have to do it. Now that I’ve read from several blogs and the book mentioned in my previous post about what is essential for preparing for PhD work, it is time to start planning. There seems to be a consensus that it is very important to (1) be very familiar with primary texts like the Greek NT, Apocrypha, DSS, Pseudepigrapha, etc. (2) be well-read in your area of interest, and even other areas outside of your interest, and (3) be competent in the biblical languages and modern research languages. In light of this, I am attempting to make for myself a daily schedule that will allow me to make significant progress in these areas before starting a PhD program. First, I made a list of all the things I would like to do daily, and tried to think of creative ways to fit those things into my day.

Every day I would like to do the following:

  1. Spend some time in the Greek NT just reading.
  2. Read through the OT and Apocrypha in English
  3. Work on German and Latin language study
  4. Read Chemnitz’ Examination of the Council of Trent, Gerhard’s Loci, and some Luther to keep me grounded in the confessional Lutheran doctrine.
  5. Read 2-3 hours/day in the area of New Testament Studies

The way I have arranged for this to happen throughout my day:

Before breakfast/kids waking up:

  • Read from my Greek NT for about 1/2 hr. to :45 min.
  • Study languages

After Morning Prayer, in my study:

  • Personal reading, Chemnitz, Gerhard, Luther, etc. for 1 hr.

At Lunch

  • OT and Apocrypha (DSS once finished with Apocrypha, following the plan that I found on Ben Blackwell’s blog.
  • Review vocab from languages, if there is time.

After kids go to bed

  • Read for a couple of hours in my field of interest. (Several books have been suggested by Nijay Gupta in his book on preparing for PhD that are meant to increase one’s knowledge base in the area of biblical studies.)

Once a week, maybe Saturday mornings, instead of the normal routine, pick up a journal or two and read some recent articles or book reviews.

Of course, I realize that it will not always work out this way. One has to be flexible. But it is a plan. And, when you have a full time calling as a pastor, husband, and father, you have to be creative in organizing your day. You also have to be disciplined. My tendency over the years has been to get started on something, but not follow through. My goal is to be consistent, and to keep my eyes looking ahead.

Perhaps someone else might find such a schedule useful. It works for me, but it may or may not work for someone else. I prefer to do the language study and reading of the Greek in the morning, when my mind is fresh. And, I prefer to have a set time, not during my normal work hours, to do the additional reading for academic purposes. It is always quiet in the house in the evening once kids are asleep, and no distractions generally speaking.

I am very appreciate of those who have provided tips and ideas on what one should do to prepare for a biblical studies degree. As my father used to say to his students, “Onward and upward!”

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Academic Teaching v. Churchly Teaching

I’m getting my first taste of classroom teaching this semester, and though I am enjoying it, I am learning just how much work it involves. Teaching in the classroom is a whole different “ball of wax” than teaching in the Church. Though I am teaching Introduction to the Old Testament, I am teaching it at a state-run institution, to students who are paying money to get college credit (as opposed to Christians who come because they want to grow in their knowledge of God’s Word). Most of the students have some exposure to the Bible, but they come from a variety of backgrounds and traditions, so I have to try to keep the teaching somewhat ecumenical.

So far, I think it has gone pretty well. There are days when I feel like things really clicked, and there are days (like today) when it seems as though the minutes drag by. Trying to cover the entire Old Testament (and Intertestamental Period) in one semester is a quite a bite to swallow. Determining what material to teach and what to leave out can be a frustrating endeavor. There is so much that one could say! I do try to weave into my lectures various Christian themes and parallels to the New Testament. It’s hard not to when you see the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. I make no bones about the fact that everything in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms points to and is ultimately about Christ (Luke 24; John 5). Peter Leithart’s book A House for My Name has come in handy in understanding the “storyline” of the Old Testament.

Needless to say it is a constant learning experience. I use all sorts of resources to prepare my lectures. I try to use some power point presentations to supplement my lectures. One of the things that is challenging for me is that I am used to having a lot more discussion when I teach. In Bible classes I tend to engage the people a lot more and they tend to offer a lot more throughout the course of a Bible study. So far I have not been able to do this successfully in my class. I realize this goes with the territory, but I am not used to standing up and speaking for an hour and fifteen minutes.

I’m sure things will improve over time. I hope to gain more experience with this in the future. And I hope I’m not completely boring my students to death!

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Moses: a New Noah

I’m reading a delightful book right now by Peter Leithart called A House for My Name (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2000). It’s a required text for my Introduction to the Old Testament course. Leithart’s grasp of the relationship between Old Testament figures and events is remarkable. While writing my S.T.M. thesis I dabbled quite a bit in the textual and thematic parallels between the Patriarchal Narratives, but Leithart takes it to a different level. Here is one snippet that really caught my attention regarding Moses and his basket:

Jochebed puts her “beautiful son” in a basket lined with pitch. This reminds us of Noah’s ark. In Hebrew, the word for “basket” is the same as the word for “ark,” and this word is used only in these two places in the Old Testament. Noah’s ark, like Moses’, is lined with pitch (see Genesis 6:14). Moses is a new Noah. All around him the children of Israel are drowning, but Moses’ ark passes through the waters of death and gets to safety. The same water that kills other Israelite children saves Moses. After the flood, Noah and his family come out from the ark and enter a new creation. Moses, the one who has passed through the waters in an “ark,” is going to bring Israel out of Egypt and into a new world.

I’ll post a few more nuggets as I encounter them.

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Irony in John 18

As I was reading John 18 during Morning Prayer today, I was struck by the irony of John’s description of Peter and the Jews who were accusing Jesus. First, John writes that Peter wasn’t allowed in to the Praetorium at first, but after the “other disciple” spoke to the girl at the door he was let in. Then, John says that the servants and officials were warming themselves at a fire they had made, “And Peter was there with them warming himself.” John writes this almost as if Peter, in the midst of his denial of Christ, is actually taking the side of those who had arrested him. He is pictured as being one of them. “Peter was with them.”

The other ironic thing about this chapter was that the Jews, fearing ceremonial uncleanness, do not go into the headquarters of the governors, “so they would not be defiled.” And yet they are holding the Lord prisoner, accusing him before the Governor, and preparing to have him crucified. I know there is nothing novel about seeing irony in the Passion account, but these details just stuck out as I was reading this morning.

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