Encountering Luke’s Portrait of Jesus: A Review of John T. Carroll’s Commentary on the Third Gospel

“Luke,” Richard Hays remarks in one of his books, “is above all a storyteller” (2016, 275). This characterization, brief as it is, highlights what might be the most important dimension of the lens that Union Presbyterian Seminary professor John T. Carroll brings to the table in his book, Luke: A Commentarywhich was published in 2012.

A number of New Testament scholars—maybe most prominent among them James Dunn—have highlighted the importance of remembering that the materials we read in the Gospels were in all likelihood first passed on as oral traditions by the earliest communities of Jesus followers. This insight is important at the very least because it prevents contemporary readers from making anachronistic assumptions about how the canonical Gospel texts were formed, but it doesn’t take away from the fruits that can be gathered by also exploring their literary shape and texture. Recognizing the predominantly oral origins of the Gospels and studying the narrative dynamics of their final forms aren’t mutually exclusive tasks. After all, the Gospel writers, in their own distinctive ways, were creative theologians in their own right, not merely haphazard compilers of community traditions.

This gives us one helpful way of framing how Carroll’s commentary fits into the ongoing stream of scholarship on Luke: while some commentaries devote most of their pages to reconstructing the historical world behind the text, and others delve most deeply into the twists and turns of interpretation history that have developed in front of the text, Carroll focuses his critical efforts on narrative analysis on the nuances of meaning in the text itself (9). Continue reading

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Election and Reversal in Genesis and Romans: Exploring Robert B. Foster’s “Renaming Abraham’s Children”

Paul’s Letter to the Romans deals with themes central to the Christian faith, which helps explain why, even after being read and reflected upon for nearly two millennia, lively conversations about how to best interpret it continue to take place. In his dissertation on Romans 9, Renaming Abraham’s Children, Robert B. Foster joins the time-honored tradition of “trying to think Paul’s thoughts after him,” to borrow N.T Wright’s turn of phrase (2009, p.x), attempting to show how Paul’s understanding of election was shaped by his prior engagement with the foundational stories of the patriarchs in Genesis (pp. 1-2). By tracing Paul’s interpretation of these narratives, Foster aims to help uncover a level of theological coherence in chapters 9-11 more frequently sought after than actually found (p.3).

The attention Foster gives to Paul’s usage of the Abrahamic narratives places him within a larger school of thought in scholarship, represented by figures like Richard B. Hays and N.T. Wright. These writers emphasize the idea that many of the more puzzling elements in Paul’s letters can be clarified when viewed as being undergirded by a deeper narrative-driven substructure (for an interesting set of essays examining this trend, see Narrative Dynamics in Paul, edited by Bruce Longenecker). Narrative approaches to Paul are often insightful, but they are sometimes criticized for being too subjective, unable to adequately deal with questions like, “when is a passage’s narrative substructure deftly submerged below the surface, and when is it just not there?” To make his proposal compelling, Foster has to show that he isn’t deaf to these concerns in Renaming Paul’s Children. 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

Attending to God’s Address: A Review of Craig Bartholomew’s “Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics”

introducing biblical hermeneuticsWhat should healthy biblical interpretation look like? Craig Bartholomew’s Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics addresses this question head on, giving a sweeping introduction to the subject that both explains the history and importance of various academic approaches while also developing for readers a vision of biblical hermeneutics that is trinitarian in shape and aimed ultimately at enabling “obedient attention to God’s address through his Word” (p.10). Bartholomew was born in South Africa in 1961 and now teaches at Redeemer University College in Ontario, Canada.

Hermeneutics deals with the study of interpretation, especially in regards to works of literature. Therefore, it’s a particularly relevant area of study for Christians given the uniquely authoritative role Scripture plays in shaping the beliefs and practices of the Church. Bartholomew invokes the words of Karl Barth to make clear the kinds of demands made by the Bible on its readers, “If Scripture is the Word of God, then, as Karl Barth rightly observes, no one can stand before it as a spectator” (p.45). Hermeneutics might seem intimidating and irrelevant, but Bartholomew argues that it actually is “the theory of a practice,” adding that when it’s done well, “hermeneutics deepens and enriches our practice of engagement with the Bible as Scripture” (p.12). Continue reading

Do Paul’s Letters Have a Narrative Substructure? A Review of “Narrative Dynamics in Paul”

narrative dynamics in paulIn 1980, J.C. Beker declared in Paul the Apostle that, “Paul is a man of the proposition, the argument and the dialogue, not a man of the parable or story” (p.352). At the time, he was far from the only one who took that as an assumed position. A few short years after those words were written, though, the winds of change began to blow.

Over the last few decades, significant parts of Pauline scholarship have drawn enthusiastically from the field of literary theory, resulting in an increased amount of attention being given to the evocative ways in which Paul’s language engages with and alludes to earlier biblical narratives, among other things.  Continue reading

The Tales of Jesus: A Review of Stephen Wright’s “Jesus the Storyteller”

jesus the storyteller

In Jesus the StorytellerStephen Wright takes a fresh look at the parables of Jesus, focusing particularly on reading these stories as stories. The first part of the book is a wide-ranging, though necessarily incomplete, survey of how past historical Jesus scholarship has understood the parables.

Since the time of Augustine, these stories of Jesus have often been seen as highly allegorical, making The Good Samaritan, for instance, primarily an allegory for the drama of salvation, with the Samaritan being a symbol for Christ (p.9). Regardless of how spiritualized or overly-imaginative some of these interpretations may have been, they did at least preserve the rich narrative dynamics of these stories, something that was often a casualty of the 19th and 20th century “quests” for the historical Jesus (p.9). Continue reading

Love One Another: Craig Koester on Discipleship in John

the word of lifeAmong the four canonical Gospels, John’s account has long been seen as distinctive. His narrative is suffused with poetic symbols, dualistic language, and vivid imagery. The parables we find Jesus telling throughout the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are for the most part nowhere to be found in John. Instead, we find extended discourses from Him exploring the various dimensions of His relationship with the Father and the rest of the world. John’s Gospel also has a number of unique stories about Jesus. These episodes include the “I am” statements of Jesus (ex. “I am the light of the world” or “I am the bread of life”), as well as Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus and His wedding miracle at Cana. All of these things help make John’s written portrait of Jesus unique and valuable, but they can also make reading John a disorienting experience, especially for those used to the language and rhythms of the Synoptic Gospels. Craig Koester’s book, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel, is a great introduction that helps perplexed readers familiarize themselves with the major themes and distinctive features of John.

In the preface, Koester explains that reading John theologically means having the courage to ask questions. Questions like, “Who is the God about whom Jesus speaks? Who does the Gospel say that Jesus is? And how does the Gospel understand life, death, sin, and faith?” (p.ix). Because these sorts of questions get raised repeatedly throughout the narrative, thinking through them necessitates reflecting on the Gospel as a whole, rather than just focusing on one or two single passages and extrapolating from there. This is what Koester attempts to do throughout the book, looking at the entire Gospel to investigate how John’s portrayal of Jesus forms answers to these questions. In this post, we’re going to spend our time exploring Koester’s perspective on the life of discipleship in John, looking especially at some of the lesser known stories and metaphors used by Jesus to help His disciples get a clearer picture of what following Him is supposed to look like. Continue reading