FIFA refs and The New Testament

Seeing the Word: Part 4.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with international soccer, FIFA has classically resisted the use of technology as an aid for regulating the game – i.e. unlike other professional sports, FIFA refs cannot use instant replay to review a call. This fact has resulted in a good deal of anguish for soccer players and fans in the 2010 World Cup. Most recently, English striker Frank Lampard’s goal against Germany was disregarded even though the cameras showed it was clearly a legitimate goal, and the header from Argentina’s Carlos Tevez was counted even though the cameras showed he was clearly offside. The refrain resulting from these two bad calls has sounded something to the tune of this: “The only people who missed those calls in the entire world were the referees.” In other words, those refs could not see from the subjective position in the game what everyone else could clearly see from the objective view of instant replay. Basically, fans and players are upset because they feel that FIFA has written their own version of “soccer history” which is based on the poor (perhaps biased) memory of those referees.

What I find striking (pun intended) in this story is that many people (scholars and laity alike) have the same sorts of feelings about the first few centuries of Christian history. The refrain goes something like this: “The orthodox Christianity we know today from the New Testament is really a product of the biased memories – history subjectively written by the winners. But through the objective work of historical-critical scrutiny, we can see what they couldn’t see – they were wrong.”

The point is not that those FIFA refs should be given more credit and are probably correct in their decision (although we could be more graceful in our critique – unless there is a conspiracy of course). Those were definitely bad calls. The instant replay makes this clear. The point is that some are looking at the reception history of the New Testament like they are looking at FIFA. Some scholars give the impression that the subjective bias of the early “orthodox” community is obvious – those early Christians had bad memories – while the objectivity and accuracy of historical deconstruction is also obvious – from our vantage point we can clearly see the facts. However, the story of some critics is not so obvious.

In the chapter “Living Memory and Apostolic History” Bockmuehl addresses the issue of the “reception history” or “effect history” of the New Testament. He writes, “When everything is said and done, can history generated by the text shed any light whatsoever on the history and world of meaning represented by the text itself?” (166) In short, the story that some scholars tell is what early Christians said about the text, or what the first believers wrote about Jesus cannot reflect the actual historical intention and reality. Both the effect of the text and the memory of its authors is the product of an optical illusion which takes place as time passes. In other words, as time passes memories of events tend change or grow to fit the ideological interests of the group (i.e. the fish gets bigger).

In contrast to this “evolutionary” reading of history Bockmuehl follows recent scholars (like Samuel Byrskog, Richard Bauckham, and Martin Hengel) in emphasizing the role that living memory plays in the evaluation of the first several centuries of Christian history. Bockmuehl argues for a 150-year window of living memory: the apostles of Jesus (e.g. John) – those who were taught by the apostles personally (e.g. Polycarp) – those who were in turn taught by these students (i.e. Irenaeus). This means that by around AD 130, the last eyewitnesses of apostles was very old or had recently died, and the “grandchildren” of these eyewitnesses were probably around until 200. That is, essentially, 150 years of eyewitnesses testifying to what was guarded as truth. The role of eyewitness testimony and of memory in ancient Jewish communities cannot be elaborated here but must be stressed as vitally important.

In an age when memory is both Freudinized and not widely practiced it is easy to miss and undervalue the significant role it played in the first few generations of Christian history. Early Christian history did not operate like the telephone game, and there is no instant replay that we can watch but the apostles cannot watch. Bockmuehl summarizes this chapter well,

Jean-Paul Sartre once said that whether the past lives or dies depends on the here and now…however, [we] have affirmed exactly the opposite: whether there is life in the present depends wholly on the remembrance of God’s saving acts – and hope in his promises. Until the end of the second century, that Christian point of view was rooted in part in a living memory of the original actors in the saving story of Jesus of Nazareth – those whom Irenaeus called the eyewitnesses of the Word of Life. (188)




Peter vs. Paul: Agree to disagree?

Seeing the Word: Part 3.

In Chapter 4, Bockmuehl explores the assumption in much of New Testament scholarship (since F. C. Baur) that there existed in the first century a deep rift between the law-free mission of Paul — “justification by faith alone” — and the Judaizing mission led by Peter, James and others in the Jerusalem church. In Galatians 2, some scholars argue, this theological disagreement is clearly demonstrated with Paul’s retelling of his feud with Peter at Antioch over the nature of Christian faith and the Gentile mission.

F.C. Baur (and his students) argued that Jesus preached/lived two contradictory conceptual worlds: universal morality and Jewish-messianic nationalism. Jesus’ followers then attached themselves to one of these two worlds. This factionalism, for Baur, is seen at Antioch and at Corinth – i.e. the Cephas party and the Paul party. It is a common refrain, but one worth repeating, that Baur’s view of early Christian history was deeply influenced by the Hegelian dialectic: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In this vein, Baur saw early Christian history as a struggle between the poles of the Gentile mission and the Judaizing mission. This struggle (thesis – antithesis) eventually gave birth to early catholicism: the inevitable synthesis of the tensions in the earliest Christian communities. This synthesis is represented in the book of Acts, which Baur dates conveniently to the mid 2nd century. In Acts, the tension between the two poles are watered down — Paul is made to look like Peter and Peter like Paul, the situation at Antioch is glossed over, and the church is unified in its mission. For Baur and some contemporary scholars, Acts does not represent history as much as it is just wishful thinking.

And so we come to our icon above. For the historical-critical school, which Baur represents, this icon of Peter and Paul would have no basis in reality. Are they correct? Criticisms of Baur’s reconstruction of early Christian history have been leveled frequently and (many would say) accurately over the past 100 years, and yet his influence still lingers. Do Baur and his sympathizers have insight into the first 50-100 years of the church that everyone before them missed? In the early church, it was only the Marcionites and the Ebionites who stressed the conflict between Paul and Peter. The early church actually took for granted that Peter and Paul were apostles of the same Christ to different people. It is this assumption which produced images like the icon above.

Although some scholars today stress this apparent gap between history and theology, careful reading of the New Testament and analysis of early Christian history effectively demonstrate the fact that the historical situation and the theological articulation of first several centuries is basically one and the same. The point of this piece is not to rehearse the details of that analysis (as important as it is) but to look at the conclusion that some scholars like Bockmuehl reach in this matter. In distinction from Baur and his constituents, Bockmuehl rejects the idea that the disagreement between Paul and Peter represented an irreconcilable disunity in the early church. He writes,

Against the inherent volatility of this construal of their relationship, it may be that the uneasy unity of Peter and Paul simply reveals the extent to which the life and health of the church has always, at its worst no less than at its best, depended on the creative negotiation of precisely that same tension between charismatic and episcopal polity. To dismiss one in favor of the other is always to court either the tyranny of convention or the tyranny of revolution. (133)

Bockmuehl writes about the tension between Peter and Paul at Antioch as if their argument resulted in a sort of negotiation – agree to disagree. The picture he paints is that although Peter and Paul are fundamentally in agreement regarding their belief in the gospel of Jesus, they are, nonetheless, in fundamental disagreement with regard to their understanding of the ecclesial outworking of that belief. Is the situation at Antioch an example of “unity in diversity” or of an apostle in sin? In Galatians it seems that the thrust of the story is not just that Paul disagrees with Peter, but that he thinks Peter is wrong: “I opposed [Peter] to his face, because he stood condemned.” Did Peter go away from the event perturbed because of minor points of disagreement, or did he go away in repentance?

If I understand Bockmuehl correctly, it seems that his reading of the relationship of Peter and Paul in the New Testament still goes against the grain of the text and the early church fathers. I do not think that we have to be so naive as to think that Peter and Paul were unified in every detail or even that Paul articulated every detail of the gospel precisely in the same manner as the Jerusalem church (although I would insist that the content of the gospel was the same). But can we conclude that the disagreement at Antioch was just that, a disagreement? Or was Peter fundamentally mistaken in the way lived out the implications of the gospel in that particular instance?

We really have two questions here. The first (micro question) is about Peter and Paul in Galatians 2. As I (and others) read the text, it seems that Peter was wrong. The second (macro question) is this: just how much disagreement existed in the first 50 years of the church? Even if we can conclude that the Gentile church and the Jewish church were basically in agreement on the most important issues of “the faith,” we still need to ask what (if any) areas of disagreement existed beyond this. And what difference would it make? This is a difficult and complex issue, and I don’t have the space to attempt an answer here (and I’m sure others can answer it better than I). My hope is that this will leave you asking questions like what does the New Testament actually say? what do the early church fathers say? and on what basis can we claim that there was disagreement?



How do we read the Word?

Thoughts on Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study: Part 2.

*Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the fact that after reading this post, some might say, “I didn’t know there was problem.” One of the unfortunate consequences of the gap between the academy and the church is the fact that each camp is often unaware of the other camp’s “big issues.” The major discussions or points contention in the ecclesial world often aren’t even on the radar of the academic world – and vice versa. This is a problem for a number of reasons, but for the following discussion I think it is best to point out that often the church should be aware of discussions taking place in the academic world even though those discussion might not have sprung from the immediate needs of the church. In other words, it is a healthy exercise to be pointed toward the things which we don’t know that we don’t know. I have a feeling that this is one of those issues.

In the chapter entitled “The Wisdom of the Implied Exegete” Bockmuehl writes,

At a time when even to sympathetic outside observers it often seems that modern theology is primarily the study of modern theologians and New Testament studies is primarily preoccupied with rearranging the deck chairs of New Testament scholars, it could be a fruitful exercise to take time out and ponder what has gone amiss. We have lost sight of the real thing. We are accustomed and indeed trained to confuse text and commentary, the Word and the words, contentedly submerging the former under the deluge of the latter.(89)

Bockmuehl is exploring how we should read the text of the New Testament (and really, all of Scripture). The history of New Testament interpretation over the past 200 years has seen a wide divergence in interpretive methodology (hermeneutics) – a polyvalence of “ways of reading” – which greatly contrasts the methods in the 1800-ish years preceding. Much can be said in this regard, but suffice to say that the past 200 years of reading have been characterized a hermeneutic that privileges the autonomous rational subject. In other words, the individual seeks to understand the text basically through the power of rational/intellectual faculties. More recently, these readings have given way to a “deconstruction” of the text which has led to interpretive pluralism: “the text demands nothing but can yield anything under the proper caress.”

Bockmuehl suggests that what the academy has (sometimes intentionally) ignored is that the implied interpreter of Christian Scripture is a disciple. The text is best approach not with reason, but with wisdom. Scripture itself offers little in the direction of critical reason and inquiry. In fact, both the New and Old Testaments are quite skeptical about autonomous reason (See Ecclesiastes and Romans 1). That is not to say that interpreters are to be un-reasonable, but that our reason needs transformation (Romans 12), and it is only the transformed mind that can discern and embrace the text. In other words, it is wisdom of God (Christ-centered and Spirit-driven) that the interpreter needs. “Only reason thus renewed by the Spirit can behold the beauty of God.” And, importantly, interpretation should be a communal and ecclesial task.  Why do even Christian scholars refuse to exegete this way?

Maybe this all seems rather obvious. The discussion is trickier and more complicated than I make it sound in 500 words, but perhaps all the complicated details shroud the fact that, to Christians at least, this task should be far more simple than the academy has made it. The academy wasn’t always to blame – for 1800-ish years the greatest Christian minds bathed themselves in Scripture and depended on the Spirit for guidance. It is actually the testimony of those saints that has recently prompted scholars to reevaluate what biblical interpretation is all about – to move aside all the debris of the Enlightenment and get back to reading what is there and listening to what the Spirit says.

Where do you fall in the midst of all of this? Do you see a problem with the way that we read Scripture?

grace and peace,


“Watching Luke Paint the Virgin”

Thoughts on Marcus Bockmuehl’s Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Studies – Part 1

The image on the front of the book is of Simon Marmion’s (Valenciennes, circa 1460) St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child. More than a trendy ancient-looking picture, Bockmuehl reflects on this image as an analogy for the Evangelists as “spiritual artists.”

Marmion’s painting depicts Luke painting the Virgin and Child (by the 6th century Luke was regarded as the painter of Mary and eventually as the patron saint of icon painters). On closer inspection one will notice that Luke’s painting differs ever so slightly from the flesh-and-blood Mary and Child. While the life-size figure portrays a realistic-looking girl, simple and somewhat fatigued by the playful child who tugs at her necklace, the portrait has the image reversed, Mary’s head is covered, her features less pronounced and skin more translucent, and the child is no longer mischievously grasping but peacefully resting. The portrait reflects what one might expect in an icon.

What do we make of the difference? Do we assume that Marmion is being playful? That he is an incompetent artist? Or that he is deliberately distorting the image with the intent to deceive? None of these options is viable for a 15th century Book of Hours, Bockmuehl says. Marmion’s depiction is thus “serious and deliberate.” Bockmuehl says, “In thus distinguishing the empirical subject from its artistic representation, Marmion draws out the exquisite and excruciating dilemma of the religious artist.” (18)

Bockmuehl’s point is that the work of the student or scholar is very similar to that of Simon Marmion: in interpreting the Gospels we are “painting the biblical author painting Christ.” In the painting, Luke is not giving a photographic reproduction but an exposition of the subject’s deeper, perhaps more real, significance. The analogy here is very important. Bockmuehl stresses the significance in the recognition of the difference and relationship between the two images. One misstep is the assumption that the two images must be identical. Another misstep is to stress the differences between the images by arguing for the significance of one over the other: the “real” Mary and child is the only one that matters, or the icon is the only one that matters. Bockmuehl argues that the two images only make sense in relationship to each other, thus the interpreter fails to do justice to the text if he or she denies either the difference or the sameness of the image of in the text.

The dilemma between the images, Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ, is of course not a new one. Does this analogy help us better navigate the conundrum? It is important to remember that when we read the Gospels, as when looking at Marmion’s painting, we are not looking at two separate images, but one painting. The Evangelists do not offer photographic representations of the historically reality. Can we admit that? The writers themselves are engaging in exposition of what happened in space-time history. I would argue, as does Bockmuehl, that the “artistic” depiction is not less real than the “historical” image but more real. Both Jesus of Nazareth and Christ the Son of God are true depictions of the same reality and must be held together.

This analogy doesn’t answer all the questions raised in regard to NT interpretation, but it is a starting point for engagement in that discussion. What do you think of the analogy? Can we see the writers of the NT as spiritual artists rather than neutral,objective recorders? If there are differences between the images, should we emphasize one over the other?

grace and peace,


“Book Reviews” or “Am I writing again?”

Over the past several years I have refrained, for the most part, from spilling my theological guts in the blogosphere. The reason for this threefold: (1) it is partly a conviction that far too much unmeditated gabbing is taking place these days, and this trend is degenerative in terms of spiritual formation and theological education, (2) partly an insecurity about the way in which my ignorance (despite my alleged education) will be exposed when my thoughts and opinions are open for scrutiny – there is something safe about never telling anyone what you think, and (3) partly a result of a lack of time.

However, in light of the fact that I have completed the coursework for my degree and am now at the stage of writing my thesis and studying for comprehensive exams, I figured that it would be beneficial to engage in critical thinking and creative writing by returning to my blog. I also figured  that my conviction with regard to blogging trends would be better observed with efforts to redeem that community via constructive and careful engagement rather than complaining about it as an outsider. Finally, it seems that my insecurity about my potential ignorance is really arrogance (or maybe delusion) that at the end of the day I really know more than everyone else. This arrogance is best submitted to my community of believers by becoming vulnerable enough to expose my thoughts and open myself up to truly being known.

The way forward here, at least in the beginning, is writing book reviews on my readings for my comprehensive exams. I know that such a subject matter will potentially limit my reading audience, but hopefully as the weeks pass those reviews will give way to more approachable content as the writing vein begins to pump more freely and naturally. My goal is not so much to shake this niche of the evangelical world (as some do very well), but simply to get myself writing and thinking again outside of what is required of me from professors.

Of course, I welcome your thoughts and comments along the way. Be patient with me as I figure out how this blogging thing works.

grace and peace,