Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Burridge Day

The King's College London Richard Burridge day was a success. Throughout the day different speakers examined aspects of Richard's work and we together celebrated his reception of the Ratzinger Prize. Most of the papers examined his game changing monograph, What Are the Gospels? To this end Steve Walton did a very good job at showing just what an impact Richard's work has had on scholarship. Of course, it was pointed out that not everyone has been convinced by Richard's work, that they remain a minority. Andrew Lincoln's paper was perhaps the most meaty and well crafted, and raised some fascinating questions relating to the truth of John's Gospel and the synoptic birth narratives.

But rather than go on about the individual papers, something Chris Keith has nicely done already, I will simply mention a couple of highlights. It was, of course, great fun to sit next to and banter with Chris K, and I also enjoyed time chatting with Francis Watson about his book, Gospel Writing. I was left with a number of questions at the end of reading that book, and I tried as best as I could - with a head full of wine - to give some of my thoughts voice!

I also appreciated how Richard engaged with the critical aspects of the papers in the final session. In response to Watson's point that the Gospels are called euangelion, not bioi, Richard responded by speaking of the genre in terms of intersecting circles, and in the end Watson and Richard were in agreement. In response to Robin's question (the chap who chaired the first session - here was the schedule), Richard once again nuanced what his claim implies with regard to genre identification.

Prof Jan van der Watt gave a moving paper about the impact of Richard’s work in the South African setting, and one phrase stuck with me: “this vision [i.e. of an inclusive community ethic] works!”. I introduced that session by briefly summarising Richard’s book, Imitating Jesus with these words:

“In this section we look at Richard's important work relating to the ethical dimensions involved in his narrative biographical reading of the Gospels, with special reference to Imitating Jesus, short listed for another award, this time the Michael Ramsay Prize.

In this volume, in many ways, the rubber hits the road! Here Richard wrestles away the word "biblical" from exclusive fundamentalism, and negotiates a way forward towards responsible biblical ethics. But instead of capitulating to what he calls liberal Christianity, he encourages an ethic grounded in an inclusive and open community of Christ followers, one informed by his genre studies, and therefore richly christological. He poignantly shows how his approach would have refuted the painful history of apartheid in South Africa, precisely where people were claiming that pro-apartheid doctrine of separate development deserved the honorific label, "biblical". In Imitating Jesus, over against this, we find a deeply christological, and delightfully attractive ethical vision.”

The absolute highlight of my day, however, was to  have a seat at the "Dean’s Dinner" in the evening, where not only did Richard speak well, but I also had a great chat with Steve Walton.

Once again  congratulations to Richard Burridge for his achievements and Eddie Adams, Paul Joyce and the crew for organising a fine day.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Ontologically twofold?

“To be a creature is to be constituted, to be made what one is, by and in a network of relationships. For want of better words, and provisionally only, we can say that these relationships are, ontologically, twofold: vertical and horizontal. I am using the terms as a metaphorical way of indicating relations with, respectively, God and the rest of creation”

Colin Gunton, Christ and Creation, p. 36.

Wright’s impressive achievement

Just started skimming the long-awaited Wright book. Given NTW’s impressive clarity and his numerous popular level books, I think many of us have a fairly good idea what to expect in terms of the general contours of his argument. But dipping my toes into Paul and the Faithfulness of God nevertheless left me extremely impressed. Not only can one deeply respect his eloquence, but at so many points Wright has shown himself to be an astute exegetical observer. Upon reading the first few pages of pts 3-4 my eyes alighted on:

Ho monos … ho monos … ho monos. ‘Monotheism’ indeed: neither a philosophical speculation nor an easygoing generalized religious supposition, but the clear, sharp, bright belief that Israel’s God was the creator of all, unique among claimants to divinity in possessing all those specific attributes, in the middle of which we find the politically explosive one, basileus, ‘king’” (from p. 621)

I’m reminded of Baulkham's language of “transcendent uniqueness”. A clear grasp of what Paul’s God-language entails both illuminates and is illuminated by his Christ-language. So he’s on to something crucial, here. Wright often seems to have a “nose” for such things. It remains to be seen if Wright’s work on divine Christology actually accounts for Paul’s own emphasis. We shall see.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Who wrote these lines? It may surprise you!

"A free theologian does not deny, nor is he ashamed of, his indebtedness to a particular philosophy or ontology, to ways of thought and speech. These may be traditional or a bit original, old or new, coherent or incoherent. No one speaks exclusively in Biblical terms”

Yes, these words come from the pen of Karl Barth, and his essay "The Gift of Freedom". Barth was not opposed to indebtedness to philosophy! But, he goes on to add, their philosophy etc. "will be subject to criticism and controlled by his theology, and not conversely". This latter claim is not entirely unproblematic, but that is an issue for another day.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

If biblical studies scholars received a Nobel Prize …

… then the Ratzinger Prize may well be it! And it was a huge delight in October to learn that the Revd. Prof. Richard Burridge, Dean of King’s College London, had been awarded this illustrious recognition for his work!

Benedict XVI instituted the Foundation on 1 March, 2010, and the committee was to recognise and award scholars who have distinguished themselves in the areas of publication and/or academic research. On the 26th October, the Pope himself awarded Richard the Prize:


You can watch the Ratzinger Prize ceremony here.

This was, as Richard tells us in my video interview below, a huge honour and we are all immensely proud of Richard for this achievement. King’s College are also running a day conference on 13th December which will explore and celebrate Richard’s work. Find out more about the event, ‘The Gospels connection to Jesus of Nazareth’, here. And I hope to see some of you there!

I video interviewed Richard during SBL about the prize. Here is the result:



Proof I was the one making the video!

Justification with an injection of dogmatic reasoning? (and why Allen completely misunderstands Campbell)

In this way R. Michael Allen hopes to make a contribution in his new book, Justification and the Gospel. And I couldn’t agree more with his general claim: dogmatic reasoning is surely going to prove vitally helpful in disentangling some of these important issues. I have been looking forward to this book for a while, not just because of glowing endorsements from some brilliant theologians (Kelly Kapic, John Webster, J Todd Billings etc.), but also because I have benefited from Allen’s previous works.

Why will dogmatic reasoning help? Because justification language involves claims about the activity and identity of God! Simples! Self-critical employment of certain systematic distinctions together with awareness of the theological commitments involved in our exegetical endeavours will surely lend clarity to NT debates, especially when they concern “paradigmatic” and theologically pregnant propositions. Much exegetical mischief has been perpetrated by those unskilled in systematics, whether motivated by naive biblicism, historical-critical commitments (at least those ones living under the illusion that “theology” and “historical” work exist in hermeneutically sealed and separate compartments), or a flat and reductionist grasp of “narrative readings”. I can therefore only welcome Allen’s voice into this lively debate.

But now to get a bit grumpy.

When skimming a book for the first time I tend to see how the author interacts with those I consider to be key dialogue partners, as well as with those whom I think I understand best (Wright, Barth, Bultmann, Campbell, Webster, Dunn etc.). So, turning to the index I find very little interaction with Wright. Fair enough, I suppose. “Perhaps he is making a barbed point?”, I wonder. But what about Dunn? Again, only one reference. Fine, Allen’s work is operating out of a dogmatic perspective so let’s see what he makes of Campbell given that he is the most important dialogue partner in this discussion when it comes to the link between dogmatics and exegesis

And sadly I found that Allen completely misses the mark with Campbell, despite his importance for Allen’s theme, which in turn makes me wonder what else his book will bungle. I’ll get over this and read the rest of the book, but let me explain why Allen has royally botched this one.

All of this is in one footnote on pp. 42-43, in which he thinks that Campbell’s “justification theory” (JT) is a “historical bogeyman that does not exist as such”. It finds backing only in the work, Allen tells us, of James and Allan Torrance and therefore is not “an example of interdisciplinary cross-pollination” but “manifests the effects of sloppy engagement of a related field”. Some rather robust claims! How does Allen back them up?

First, “‘Justification theory’ renders the Trinity and the life of Christ unimportant … Yet these Protestant theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries began their confessions and dogmatics with statements about the Trinity” etc. Second, Campbell’s account of JT’s anthropology (grounded in Rom 1-3) “fails to see that Protestant theology classically construed has understood the teaching of Romans here to be about divine revelation”. Furthermore, these Protestants don’t subscribe to “belief voluntarism”. With a bit of bite, he continues: “One wonders if Campbell has heard of books like Luther’s Bondage of the Will or Calvin’s The Bondage and Liberation of the Will …”. A few more poorly chosen accusations follow, but this summary seems to get to the heart of the matter.

What has happened? The first major error is to think that Campbell’s JT is a description of the theology of the Reformers in toto. Of course Campbell is aware that these theologians held profoundly Trinitarian views! I am amazed he believes Campbell would think otherwise! Rather, JT explains the theo-logic employed in construing Romans 1-3 which, in turn, contradicts precisely those wonderful (yet incompatible) Trinitarian views. I really don’t know why this is so difficult to understand! Surely Campbell’s lengthy sections on Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon and Augustine would have clarified the matter? Apparently not! This also means that to suggest JT is supported only by James and Allan Torrance is – at least if I understand Allen correctly – simply bizarre. Has Allen ever read a commentary on Romans 1-3 and asked what sort of theology is manifesting itself? (try Moo, for starters). One in turn must then ask whether Trinitarian theology has actually shaped one’s understanding of “justification” language, or whether it inhabits a different theological universe (the point behind Campbell’s contrast between JT and the “alternative theory” drawn from Romans 5-8). And if we must name some key supporting theologians for Campbell’s project, need I remind Allen - of all people - of Barth?! I actually think Campbell’s work is probably best called Barthian, especially as the label “apocalyptic” has created such confusion. (Allen’s claim that Protestants don’t subscribe to “belief voluntarism” involves the same misunderstanding of the role and import of JT as well, of course.) Allen’s comments simply show that he has not understood what he is criticising and yet he then happily dismisses Campbell as a result. Bad move.

On the second point, Campbell is well aware of the ways some scholars have sought to deal with the difficulty of reading Romans 1-3 in terms of JT, he doesn’t “fail” at this at all, hence his lengthy discussions relating to “reframing” etc. And when it comes to the actual exegesis of Romans, are the proposals of the Reformers so smooth and theologically consistent (see the examples Campbell lists in chapter 10, but also in chapters 8-9 etc)? Allen can’t just clam what he does here without explaining away the many examples Campbell provides. This misreading, too, stems from a misunderstanding of the meaning of JT for Campbell. But perhaps another problem is involved here. Reading Romans requires close exegetical work – difficulties are not so easily dismissed with an “it’s about divine revelation” wand. This needs to be demonstrated in the text. Perhaps here we encounter one weakness with Allen’s particular theological approach to the issues, which can, it seems from these comments, sit lightly to the text.

This then leads to questions as to whether Campbell has read Luther’s Bondage of the Will etc., and at this point I start to wonder whether Allen has read Deliverance, or just a few pages and a (poor) review. But why would he do this? Chapter 7 of Deliverance should be enough to highlight that Campbell’s project is the key dialogue partner for Allen’s approach. I have no reason to suspect that Campbell’s work “manifests the effects of sloppy engagement of a related field”, but I now have reason to think that Allen’s project slops. And one doesn’t even need to agree with Campbell’s proposals; it is a duty, however, to represent his arguments fairly and not engage with “a bogeyman” (I’m sorry, but he has made turning his own criticisms back on himself too easy). I hope that Allen’s engagement with Campbell is not representative of his work generally, but botching it on Campbell is a big disappointment.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Allen. Even NT scholars have missed Campbell’s point on numerous occasions. But what wound me up was the dismissive and slightly rancorous nature of Allen’s comments. Either way, whether we agree with Campbell or not, I do want to recommend Allen’s work generally and please do pick up a copy of Justification and the Gospel. I am confident that there will be gems in these pages that exegetes will benefit greatly from pondering.

(I also hope that my forthcoming ed. volume Beyond Old and New Perspectives on Paul will help clarify some matters!)