Archive for May, 2009

The Empire of Sin

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

Romans 3:9 famously charges that all humanity is “under sin” (NIV, ESV, NET) or “under the power of sin” (NRSV, NLT) or “under the domination of sin” (NAB). The idea of course is that sin is a power—Sin—to which we are enslaved.

In preparing to teach in French-speaking Cameroon later this month, I have been reading the Pauline letters in the TOB (ecumenical French) translation. It renders the same phrase in 3:9 as “under the empire of sin” (“sous l’empire du péché”), which is unique, appropriate to Paul, powerful, and quite theologically insightful.

Bart Ehrman in the News (again)

Monday, May 4th, 2009

Thanks to Daniel Kirk over at Sibboleth for pointing out a recent brief essay on the Bible by Bart Ehrman. To the surprise of many, Bart was one of my good friends in seminary and grad school at Princeton, and he is an excellent scholar. But at times in his popular books and essays he tends to make mountains out of molehills; much of what he says is not even mildly shocking to anyone who’s been to seminary, even an evangelical seminary.

Sometimes Bart exaggerates the significance of an observation; for instance, I think he exaggerates the significance of the differences among the various NT writers on various topics, such as the meaning of Jesus’ death and the words Jesus spoke from the cross. (He did this recently again on TV and radio.) Sometimes, like any scholar, he is wrong. Often, despite all the hype, he is right, but what he says is nothing new.

In this particular essay, Bart makes some valid historical and theological points. Coming from him, these points sound radical and iconolastic, when actually they are not.

Theological Interpretation (pt. 4)

Monday, May 4th, 2009

(This post continues excerpts from the revised and expanded edition of Elements of Biblical Exegesis.) The subject is principles of theological interpretation.

On a different note: I have recently received a new New Testament introduction (text) and will be posting about it and about that genre.

5. The Coherence Principle
The principle of coherence follows from the canonical principle and is the theological conviction that, in spite of all its diversity, Scripture is one divinely given book that essentially tells one coherent story of the creator-God’s salvation of the world, culminating in Jesus Christ. It is not a collection of mutually competing or contradicting accounts of God and of humanity’s experience of God. This principle also has a corollary: that because of the guiding work of the Spirit throughout the history of God’s people (see the charismatic principle, next post), those who read Scripture theologically can and should be guided by the basic theological convictions of their reading communities (e.g., the Christian church), which are themselves derived from the Scriptures. These convictions have been set forth in the various Christian creeds, especially those from the earliest centuries of the church—to which most Christians give assent.

In a sense, this principle also widens the context within which Scripture is read to include the confessional expression (sometimes called “the rule of faith”) of the reading community named in the previous (canonical) principle and post. It means, for instance, that Christian readers will not be satisfied with readings of the text that stand at odds with their most fundamental convictions, such as the goodness of God and of God’s creation of the world. (NB: This perspective is directly at odds with the Enlightenment [and thus also the historical-critical] view that theological convictions should not guide biblical interpretation and that they, in fact, obscure rather than clarify. Many Christian theological interpreters would identify the Nicene Creed as the appropriate framework for interpretation.) This commitment will at times generate tensions between a “plain reading” of the text and the church’s theological convictions. This is nothing new; the theological interpreter joins the ranks of generations of faithful Jews and Christians who have participated in the same kinds of struggles.

Theological Interpretation (pt. 3)

Friday, May 1st, 2009

(This post continues excerpts from the revised and expanded edition of Elements of Biblical Exegesis.)

    The first post was general in nature; the second considered the Chalcedonian (or Incarnational) and the Catholic (or Universal) principles.

    3. The Communal (or Ecclesial) Principle
    The third principle is related to the second and refers to the significance of the church (Greek ekkl?sia), or community of God’s people in Christ, for theological interpretation. One way to describe this principle is to say that it expands the concentric circles of contextual analysis beyond even the canonical context and circle (see below) to include the circle of the universal church. The emphasis here, in contrast to the catholic principle, is not on the scope of Scripture’s reach but on the proper location for interpretation—within the church itself.

    This principle has two major corollaries. One corollary is the recognition that exegesis is not primarily an individual affair but an ecclesial discipline, something that happens in conversation more than in isolation. That conversation may take the form of scholarly theological debate, the reading of ancient interpreters, contextualized Bible study by lay people, and much more.

    The other corollary of this principle is an understanding of scriptural interpretation not merely as an academic exercise, but as an ecclesial practice. For theological interpreters, even the most technical and sophisticated academic biblical interpretation has the church as its primary location and ultimate focus. Good theological biblical scholarship is a form of prayer, communion (koin?nia), and, most importantly, service to the church.

    4. The Canonical Principle
    The fourth principle, the canonical principle, means first of all that scriptural texts can and must be heard, not only in their historical and literary contexts, but also in their canonical context. This principle permits and requires the theological interpreter to ask what role a text plays in the canon as a whole, understood theologically not as an arbitrary collection but as a divinely orchestrated whole that unveils the story and the drama of salvation. This principle also permits and requires the theological interpreter to ask questions about the relationship of various parts of the canon to one another (e.g., the imprecatory psalms and the Sermon on the Mount, or the teaching of Paul and the teaching of James)—to put the texts of Scripture in conversation with one another. Finally, this principle both permits and requires the theological interpreter to read the two Testaments in light of each other, asking, for instance, how the book of Genesis provides insight into the book of Revelation (and vice versa), and how the use of Isaiah 53 in the New Testament provides insight into Isaiah (and vice versa).

    Another way to describe the canonical principle, then, is to say that it expands the concentric circles of contextual analysis beyond the traditional literary framework of immediate context and larger context in a particular writing to include the largest literary context—that of the Bible as a single book. Non-theological interpretation does not recognize this context.