Interpretation as Craft: Looking at David Starling’s “Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship”

hermeneutics-as-apprenticeshipIn the introduction to Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship, David Starling suggests that scriptural interpretation should be thought of as “requiring not just sweat but skill, and not just skill but character” (p.17). Throughout the book’s pages he emphasizes that readers should consider biblical hermeneutics to be, not merely an austere set of rules for interpreting the Bible, but also a craft that one participates and grows in.

Part of what Starling seeks to address in Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship is the problem of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” present in Protestant and evangelical hermeneutics (pp.7-8). One way of defining the issue can be found in Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible. In this book, Smith essentially asks how it can be that, given the claims made by many evangelicals about the clarity and accessibility of Scripture, there are still significant disagreements amongst sincere, devoted, and intelligent evangelical readers about how to best understand and interpret it (The Bible Made Impossible, p.17). Continue reading

A Review of John Goldingay’s “Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel”

israels-gospelFor some people, their initial forays into the Old Testament go something like my first attempt at reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. It was one of the first real works of theology that I ever read, and I began with much enthusiasm. However, due to a combination of inexperience with studying theology and the fact that I was reading a work translated from German, my progress slowed the farther I got into the book. I completed The Cost of Discipleship—a challenging and truly worthwhile read—fully aware of the tenuous nature of my understanding of Bonhoeffer’s words.

I think the Old Testament can sometimes seem similarly foreign and intimidating, and some Christians get discouraged when they immerse themselves in it for the first time. For readers in this situation, a wise guide is helpful. I found John Goldingay’s Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel, the first book in his sprawling three volume series on the Old Testament (which he prefers to call the First Testament), to be a helpful resource for becoming better acquainted with shape and nature of the Old Testament’s story. Continue reading

Reading Paul Missionally: A Review of Michael Gorman’s “Becoming the Gospel”

Gorman_ecoming the Gospel_wrk02.indd*Note: we previously looked at Cruciformity here, and Inhabiting the Cruciform God here.

Michael Gorman’s 2015 book, Becoming the Gospel, takes an illuminating look at Paul’s perspective on the Church’s participation in the mission of God (missio Dei). It forms the final entry in what Gorman calls a “partly accidental” trilogy—the first book being Cruciformity (2001) and the second Inhabiting the Cruciform God (2009) (pp.2-3). In Cruciformity, Gorman argued that the cruciform, self-giving love of Christ found in Paul’s writings, and especially expressed in the Philippian Christ Hymn (Phil. 2:6-11), formed the center of both Paul’s theology and spirituality.

Inhabiting the Cruciform God extended the main argument of Cruciformity by seeking to show that, “For Paul, to be one with Christ is to be one with God; to be like Christ is to be like God,” meaning that “for Paul cruciformity… is really theoformity, or theosis” (Inhabiting the Cruciform God, p.4). Starting from this premise, he developed a reading of Paul’s letters that weaved together the (sometimes) seemingly opposed frameworks of legal/forensic and participatory understandings of justification and salvation, arguing that far from being opposed to one another, these forensic and participatory categories are more like two sides of the same coin. Therefore, one can say that justification in Paul can also be understood as the beginning of “an experience of participating in Christ’s resurrection life that is effected by co-crucifixion with him” (Inhabiting the Cruciform God, p.40). Continue reading

Introductory Patristics for Regular People: A Review of Bryan Litfin’s “Getting to Know the Church Fathers”

church historyFor many of those cracking open the pages of Bryan Litfin’s book, Getting to Know the Church Fathersthis is their first real glimpse of the ancient Christian church. Rather than returning to old, familiar friends, they are embarking on an exploratory journey that will hopefully enrich and deepen their appreciation for the church fathers (p.1).

As the book’s subtitle indicates, it’s oriented towards evangelical readers who might not know much about the Patristic era. Litfin, who is himself an evangelical professor at Moody Bible Institute, has a task made more difficult by the suspicion and skepticism towards the early church fathers held by some parts of the evangelical community. It seems that keeping his audience in mind is important for properly understanding the purpose of Litfin’s efforts. He is striving to accomplish two main goals: acquaint readers with some of the early church fathers (and a mother), and dispel harmful misconceptions held about them by some (though not all) parts of contemporary Christianity. Continue reading

Reviving the Church’s Imagination: A Review of Kevin Vanhoozer’s “Pictures at a Theological Exhibition”

pictures at a theological exhibition

In the eyes of a fair number of Christians today, the imagination doesn’t seem to count for very much—or at least that’s how Kevin Vanhoozer describes the current landscape in the introduction to his new essay collection Pictures at a Theological ExhibitionHe believes that many evangelicals unfortunately view the imagination essentially as “a factory for producing images of things that are not there” (p.18). “Maybe it’s important for telling good stories at night or writing gripping novels, but it’s not that important for theology,” they might say.

When the imagination isn’t considered theologically useful, it seems like the value of analytic activities like systematic theology tend to get over-emphasized while artistic expressions like poetry get marginalized. For Vanhoozer, though, both systematic theology and poetry have important roles to play in the Christian life. He writes, “We need both the clarity of crisp concepts and the intricacy of lush metaphors in order to get sound, life-giving doctrine” (p.13). His overall indictment is that many contemporary believers don’t think having a developed biblical imagination matters. In a world where “many Christians are [simultaneously] suffering from malnourished imaginations, captive to culturally conditioned pictures of the good life,” this is a sadly ironic state of affairs (p.20).

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Four Gospel Texts and One Christ: A Review of Francis Watson’s “The Fourfold Gospel”

fourfold gospelA few years ago, Francis Watson penned Gospel Writing, a mammoth-sized piece of scholarship that investigated the origins of how the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) became a fourfold collection placed at the head of the New Testament. In The Fourfold Gospel, therefore, Watson chooses to dwell not so much on the origin of the fourfold gospel as on its theological “form and significance” (p.viii).

The gospel narratives have long been considered by Christians to be both four individually distinctive accounts and yet also one unified whole. In other words, Watson explains, Christians can both speak of four gospel accounts and “of a singular ‘gospel according to…’ in four different versions” (p.vii). What is the significance of this? And what, theologically, does it mean to affirm that these gospels speak most truly of Jesus when read canonically, in conversation with each other? These are the kinds of questions Watson explores throughout The Fourfold Gospel. Continue reading

Reading as a Communal Activity: A Review of C. Christopher Smith’s “Reading for the Common Good”

reading for the common goodReading normally seems like a pretty private affair, something one does late into the night after everyone else has finally fallen asleep, or in order to better pass the time on a train. While it’s not that hard to find people (rightly) arguing for the importance of thoughtful reading habits when it comes to becoming more deeply rooted theologically on a personal level, it seems more unusual to find it regarded as something with significant implications for community life.

In his new book, Reading for the Common Good, C. Christopher Smith acknowledges this fact, but nevertheless develops a compelling case for why reading can (and should) play an important part in helping local church communities discern wisely how to take part in God’s work in the world (p.20). Near the beginning of the book, Smith makes clear one of his main points: when the practice of reading is done well, it can do much to help local churches and their surrounding neighborhoods flourish. He clarifies what he means by adding that:

The term flourishing comes from roots that mean “flower”‘ to flourish is to bloom, to emerge into the full glory for which God has created us… Thus in these pages we will explore the sort of reading that moves us toward flourishing in our churches, our neighborhoods and the world at large. (p.21).

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Spiritual Formation and Theology: A Review of Keith L. Johnson’s “Theology as Discipleship”

theology as discipleship

Academic theology is dry, irrelevant to the rhythms of everyday life, and even potentially detrimental for those seeking to pursue a life of deep discipleship. These kinds of charges might strike some as strange, but in the first chapter of Theology as Discipleship, Keith L. Johnson notes that, unfortunately, they are surprisingly common in the contemporary Church. “In fact, many smart and faithful Christians cringe when they hear the word theology due to the negative connotations the discipline carries” (p.20).

For Johnson, the fact that these charges are plausible in the eyes of so many suggests that, sadly, a perceived divide has developed between the world of academic theology and the everyday practices of Christian life (p.11). He acknowledges that:

It is possible for a Christian to participate in the church for years and never engage in disciplined theological thinking about core Christian doctrines or the history of the church’s debates about them. It is also possible for academic theologians to devote their entire careers to the discipline and never be asked to translate or apply the content of their scholarship to the concrete realities that shape the daily life of the church. (p.12)

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Reading Israel’s Scripture with Fresh Eyes: A Review of Richard B. Hays’ “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels”

echoes of scriptureIn the Gospel of John, Jesus makes a pretty astonishing claim: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (5:46, NRSV). Similarly, Luke remarks in his account of Jesus’ conversation with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus that “he [Jesus] interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (24:27, NRSV).

In one way or another, this claim that the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection took place “according to the scriptures” sits at the heart of the Christian confession. But what does it mean to say that Moses wrote about Jesus? In the modern era, these sorts of claims have fallen on rather hard times. In the introduction of Echoes of Scripture in the GospelsRichard B. Hays brings up the German scholar Udo Schnelle, who brushes aside the possibility of doing “biblical theology” because “the Old Testament is silent about Jesus Christ” (p.3). Hays suggests that the writers of the New Testament would be surprised to learn this. For them, Christ’s resurrection provided the integrative “hermeneutical clue” that allowed them to reread Israel’s Scriptures with fresh eyes and find Jesus prefigured in them (p.3). Hays explains that one of the goals of his book is to offer: Continue reading

Participating in the Theater of Redemption: A Review of Kevin Vanhoozer’s “The Drama of Doctrine”

drama of doctrineIt was the 2nd century church father Tertullian who asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Readers coming to Kevin Vanhoozer’s dense and immensely rewarding The Drama of Doctrine might initially voice a similar question: “What does Broadway have to do with Jerusalem?” In other words, what does the church have to learn about its task from the theater? I believe that Vanhoozer’s reply would likely be something along the lines of, “Actually, more than you might think.”

The core of Vanhoozer’s proposal consists in a series of striking theatrical metaphors for theology, Scripture, interpretation, the Church, and even the pastor (p.xii). For him, these metaphors are appropriate because the world of “faith seeking understanding” is itself dramatic. He explains, “At the heart of Christianity lies a series of divine words and divine acts that culminate in Jesus Christ… The gospel—God’s self-giving in his Son through the Spirit—is intrinsically dramatic” (p.17). As a theological metaphor, the theater can also help show “how we come to know things not simply by beholding and contemplating them but by indwelling and participating in them” (p.79). Continue reading