Book Review: Abner Chou, The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers

Chou, Abner. The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers: Learning to Interpret Scripture from the Prophets and Apostles. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Academic, 2018. 251 pp. Pb. $23.99   Link to Kregel Academic

This new monograph from Aber Chou has its origins in an undergraduate class in hermeneutics taught by William Verner at The Master’s University where he is now associate professor of Bible. Chou’s task in this study is to describe what he calls the prophetic hermeneutic (chapters 3-4) and demonstrate the apostolic hermeneutic evidenced in the New Testament was essentially the same (chapters 5-6). With this biblical foundation, Chou then develops a Christian hermeneutical strategy (chapter 7) which he argues is faithful to how the Old Testament prophets read earlier Scripture and how the New Testament apostles read the prophets.

Abner Chou, Hermeneutics, IntertextualityChou claims “Old Testament intertextuality demonstrates the prophets were exegetes and theologians” (93), they were “scholars of Scripture (47). In the New Testament the “apostles used the Old Testament contextually” (121) and were “remarkably consistent with each other in how they interpret and apply the Scriptures” (196). For Chou, the “Christian hermeneutic follows the prophets and apostles, and is thereby a hermeneutic of obedience” (23). In order to demonstrate the first two points, he marshals evidence of inner-biblical exegesis (to use Michael Fishbane’s term). Chou begins with clear examples drawn from the prophets using earlier texts and demonstrates there are trajectories from earlier texts to later ones. For example, the prophets use the Exodus events to describe a future “new Exodus.” This is new revelation, but the later prophetic writer did not find a hidden meaning in the earlier text nor did the later writer change the meaning of the original text. As Chou says, the later writer draws out certain consequences from the earlier revelation (91).

In his second chapter he states three presuppositions. First, a reader ought to seek the author’s original intent. The task of hermeneutics is to trace the author’s logic and clearly understand what the author intended his readers to understand from a text. Second, there is a difference between meaning and significance. The task of exegesis is to understand the meaning of the text, but Scripture has significance for the lives of contemporary Christians. The meaning of the text has ramifications for Christ-followers in other contexts. Third, intertextuality is found throughout Scripture. Later in the book he argues every Old Testament book alludes to every other book (53). For the most part these presuppositions are not problematic for conservative scholars or evangelical in general.

Since Chou uses the term intertextuality throughout the book, he ought to carefully define what he means by this often used word. Unfortunately, he does not contrast his view of intertextuality with reader-response criticism or other more radical uses of the term. One common problem in intertextual studies is demonstrating an allusion to another text exists. By way of methodology, Chou briefly endorses a modified form of Richard Hays’s now standard set of criteria (39-40). In practice, Chou has a conservative view of intertextuality (not surprising given his evangelical commitments). The examples given throughout the book lean toward quotations and clear allusions and rarely fall into Hays’s category of an “echo of Scripture.”

Chou uses intertextuality (as he defines it) to map redemptive history and to read Scripture in light of previous revelation. This raises the issue of “going beyond the Bible” or what Chou calls “Trajectory Hermeneutics.” He is clear his method is not the same as William Webb in his Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals (226-7). Chou finds this method problematic since it misconstrues the redemptive historical trajectory with “movement in redemptive history” (228). He is concerned the trajectory some writers trace in Scripture results in a non-biblical conclusion. Given his interaction with Webb and others who use a trajectory method to support a more egalitarian view of the role of women in ministry, it may be the case in that particular issue Chou disagrees with the end point of the post-biblical trajectory rather than the method itself.

Since the prophets “intentionally positioned their writings for later writers to use” (119) The New Testament use of Old Testament texts underscores the continuity between the Testaments. Chou focuses on quotations and clear allusions to Old Testament texts to demonstrate his point that the New Testament is the exegetical foundation of the Old Testament prophets in both the “big picture” of the Old Testament narrative as well as the details of individual texts. This is true for the Gospel writers as well as Paul, James, Peter and John. Chou gives examples for each demonstrating how the author reflects both the redemptive history of the Old Testament as well as citing (or alluding) to specific texts to make their theological points.

Chou makes his case that later writers built on earlier texts and interpreted them within a redemptive biblical theology. The broad examples he uses in the book are designed to support his thesis, although for any given example someone might raise objections. For example, within the canon of the Old Testament there is always the question of precedence. For example, did Joel use Isaiah, or was Joel written before Isaiah? Arguments can be made for either direction of inner-biblical exegesis in this case, or even for a common source. A second problem for Chou is oral tradition as opposed to textual tradition. Intertextual studies by definition focus on the exegesis of a text, but it is quite likely Isaiah 40-55 is using Exodus and wilderness traditions rather than citing verses from a physical copy of the Book of Exodus as we know it today. Even in the New Testament texts were more often heard than read. If Jesus alludes to a text in his teaching, his audience would quite literally “hear the echo” of Scripture. But modern readers only have the report of the allusion as recorded by a Gospel writer. This adds a second layer of possible inner-biblical exegesis.

Despite these reservations (which in many ways go beyond the scope of the book), Chou’s The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers is a good introduction to the complexity of the intertextual nature of both the Old and New Testament.

 

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

Book Review: John M. Frame, Christianity Considered: A Guide for Skeptics and Seekers

Frame, John M. Christianity Considered: A Guide for Skeptics and Seekers. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2018. 140 pp.; Pb.  $12.99  Link to Lexham Press

This short book covers a wide range of issues which may be raised by someone who is interested in Christianity but has some intellectual reservations. Although Frame usually writes lengthy works on theology and philosophy from a Reformed perspective, this book is designed to reach most readers. Chapters are short (usually three or four pages) and there are only limited notes (three pages of endnotes for the whole book). For a more in-depth discussion of many of the issues in this book, interested readers should read Frame’s Apologetics to the Glory of God (P&R Publishing, 1983) or the more recent Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief (P&R Publishing, 2015).

John Frame, Christianity Considered, Lexham PressComing from a Reformed background, it is not surprising the first two chapters of the book concern the rational basis for Christian belief and the following four chapters flesh out what Frame means by belief. Frame observed the success of early Christian preaching was not based on rational arguments for the existence of God or detailed theological arguments, yet apostolic preaching was accepted as credible. Although this is true from the perspective of modern theology, Peter did amazed the religious Jewish leadership by speaking boldly even though he was an “uneducated, common man” (Acts 4:13) and Paul certainly held his own among both Jewish (Acts 13) and Gentile (Acts 17) intellectuals of his own day. Nevertheless he is correct this process “may seem somewhat mysterious” to the modern intellectual.

What Frame does in this book is to present a biblical apologetic which is grounded in the Bible’s own epistemology (3). In doing so he is rejecting relativism (does Christianity have the right to assert truth?) and the skeptical conclusions of the Enlightenment (does Christianity have enough evidence to support its claims?) What Frame wants to do in this book is place the argument into the world of the Bible and to challenge readers to reconsider their “web of commitment,” the wide variety of things which push and pull people to believe what they believe. There are feelings involved in a belief in God, but there are rational reasons as well. Some beliefs are more satisfying to both and are chosen. Once this “new mind” begins to develop, other strands of the web may be challenged.

Frame then presents the core of Christian belief over the next ten chapters (the existence of God, the nature of the Bible, Jesus’s death and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit). Unlike most apologetic books, Frame does not offer complicated arguments, partly because a “web of belief” is unlikely to change by considering that sort of argument. He does devote a chapter to the problem of evil, one of the most difficult problems for non-theists. Remarkably Frame considers the existence of evil to be an argument in favor of the existence of God (52).

The next four chapters develop what a Christian life might look like. Here Frame covers Reading the Bible, Praying, Going to Church, The Church in the World (evangelism) and religion as a personal relationship with God. There is nothing surprising in these chapters, but some seekers may be puzzled by the lack of emotional or ecstatic worship found many evangelical churches these days. Church is not a long speech preceded by a rock concert in the New Testament, but rather the place where Christians gather to support one another (90).

The final group of chapters develop out of Frame’s view of the relationship of the church and world (Philosophy; Morality; Politics; Science; The Return of Jesus). Although philosophy is not controversial issue, Frame argues philosophy is a reasonable pursuit for Christians since he understands it as a defense of a worldview (97). Again, a seeker may be pleasantly surprised by Frame’s positive view of science and lack of “silly predictions” concerning the return of Jesus (111).

In a book this brief, there is the risk of under-arguing a point. For example, while discussing the nature of the Bible, Frame says “if someone objects to a Bible story on the grounds that it is a miraculous or supernatural event, we can dismiss that objection quickly. We know that the miraculous is possible because God exists, and the evidence for his existing is overwhelming” (62). This is the reverse of saying “I do not believe in miracles because I know miracles do not exist.” There is far more to the objection to miracles going on; even if God does exist, there is nothing in his existence which demands he do the occasional miracle. This is a matter of dealing with a problem with a three page chapter rather than a book, but sometimes brevity undercuts the argument of the book and put off a genuine seek.

On the other hand, this sort of book is idea for someone who has been a Christian for some time and needs to be assured this is a rational faith. Given the sheer lunacy associated of some who claim to be Christians, a book like this will offer assurance to the believer that biblical Christianity is not at all what the media says it is.

 

NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

In Today’s Mail: Markus Bockmuehl, Ancient Apocryphal Gospels

ancient-apocryphal-gospelsThanks to WJKP for sending along a review copy of this new textbook by Markus Bockmuehl. This is the latest in the Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church series, which is itself a subset of the Interpretation commentary series.

The book begins with a 54 page chapter defining an ancient Christian Gospel. Since there are about eighty documents which fall under the category “gospel,” Bockmuehl must carefully define what he will include in this book. In his conclusion he comments “the canonical gospels appear to be unique and distinctive” (226). There are no narrative apocryphal gospels which attempt to tell the story of Jesus from baptism to resurrection, although they all seem to presuppose the general outline of the canonical gospels.

After this introduction, Bockmuehl offers a chapter infancy gospels (such as James and Thomas), ministry Gospels (Egerton and “secret Mark”), Passion Gospels (such as the Gospel of Peter), and post-resurrection gospels (such as the Gospels of Thomas and Philip).

Bockmuehl also concludes these apocryphal gospels were not suppressed from the canon and the evidence overwhelmingly indicate no one thought these gospels would supersede the canonical gospels. Many were in fact produced as private literature and intentionally hidden. As Bockmuehl says, these gospels did not “become apocryphal but remained so” (232). This is important since much of what is written on these gospels is sensationalism at its worst. These are the lost gospels, or the gospels the Church did not want people to read. In fact, only a small percentage of the literature surveyed in this book could be considered subversive by the orthodox church. For example, Bockmuehl considers the Gospel of Jesus as “antagonistic” (234), but most of this literature is not dark, heretical knowledge.

So why read this literature? The non-canonical gospels bear witness to a wide variety of early Christian thinking. The first few centuries of the church were far more diverse than many overly-optimistic church histories would lead you to believe. This diversity also indicates the difficulties of dealing with who Jesus was as presented by the four canonical gospels.

The book includes an extensive 47 page bibliography may be worth the price of the book by itself.

Look for a full review soon.

 

Book Review: Michael J. Gorman, Becoming the Gospel

Gorman_ecoming the Gospel_wrk02.inddGorman, Michael J. Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 351 pp. Pb; $28.   Link to Eerdmans

In this new monograph Michael Gorman asserts the apostle Paul wanted his communities to not only believe the gospel but also to become the gospel by participating in the life and mission of God (2). Gorman describes local churches as “colonies of cruciformity” Gorman has already contributed two books with similar themes (Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross, Eerdmans 2001 and Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology, Eerdmans 2009). This book intends to develop this view of Paul’s theology of participation by reading Paul missionally. After two introductory chapters, Gorman examines becoming faith, hope and love in 1 Thessalonians, the story of Christ in Philippians, the gospel of peace in Ephesians, and the justice of God in 1-2 Corinthians and Romans.

In this book Gorman argues Paul “expected the salvation of God to spread throughout the world not only by means of his own Gospel ministry but also by means of the participation of his converts in various house churches” (61). In fact the church was to be a “living exegesis” of the gospel of God (43).

Gorman uses Philippians 2:6-11 as a model of the gospel several times in the book. He calls this text a “missional Christology for a missional people” (109). The pattern of these verses is “although [x] status, not [y] selfishness, but [z] self-renunciation and self-giving.” In Philippians, Jesus has the status of “form of God” [x], but did not consider that status as something to be exploited [y], but rather he emptied himself so he could give himself on the cross [z]. Chapter 4 contains a careful exegesis of these verses and Gorman describes them as Paul’s master text. Gorman shows how Paul’s example in 1 Thessalonians 2 or 1 Corinthians 9 follows this same pattern (87), but also Paul’s expectation for his churches are similarly modeled.

Gorman is not advocating some bland lifestyle evangelism. Using the Thessalonian church as an example, it appears their faithfulness to the gospel was public and in some way brought them into conflict with their culture, perhaps even leading to the death of some members of the congregation because of their faithful witness (74; although he admits this is a minority view in footnote 24; I am inclined to agree). In addition to this, those who have expressed public faith in the gospel would have faced questions from friends and family about their abandonment of cultic activity. This would include a rejection of family gods, but also civic and imperial worship. This would be interpreted as impious and unpatriotic behavior, potentially leading to persecution (95). Gorman says “one cannot speak of the ‘good news’ of Jesus as ‘Lord’ without focusing on the countercultural religious and political claims of this story” (134). The gospel itself challenges the false master story of the Roman world. If the church is actually living out the gospel in their lives then they will challenge culture in very real ways which will lead naturally to persecution.

Gorman spends two chapters on the church as the embodiment of peace. Chapter 5 is a biblical theology of peace which defines peace as shalom, the fullness of life promised by God (143). Although Western Christians tend to think of peace in the Pauline letters as “peace with God,” Gorman follows N. T. Wright in arguing peace is central to both Paul’s soteriology and ecclesiology. Certainly reconciliation with God is important for Paul, but peace within the community is constantly repeated throughout Paul’s letters. If a local church is an embodiment of the gospel, and peace with God is central to that gospel, then peace with one another must be an important component of how a church lives out the gospel in a community. Gorman sees the peacemaking mission of the church as an anticipatory participation in the coming eschatological kingdom of peace (162, almost an “already/not yet” argument).

To support this, Gorman offers a detailed reading of Ephesians. Ephesians refers to peace eight times, including the introduction (1:2) and conclusion (6:15) of the letter. Before looking at the way Ephesians describes peace, Gorman must deal with several obvious objections to using Ephesians as a model for Pauline ecclesiology. He deals with the authorship problem briefly by stating Paul is the genius behind the letter regardless of who wrote it. A second problem with Ephesians is the alleged patriarchy of Ephesians 5:22-6-9. Although there are various ways to deal with this problem, Gorman points out the peace of the gospel ought to effect all relationships in which believers participate, so if a male head of a household is acting peaceably, then he cannot mistreat his wife, children or slaves (186).

He then argues the book of Ephesians demonstrates Christ’s death reconciles people to God, but also people to one another (192). To emphasize one or the other is to miss the point of “Christ as peacemaker.” But the church is not simply to “be peace” rather they are to keep the peace. If shalom means harmony, then the local church ought to be a place characterized by the same cruciform love that created the church (196). Peacemaking cannot be reduced to a nebulous imitation of Christ or God, although it certainly includes “putting on” Christ.

Each chapter concludes with a brief example of a ministry which is “being the gospel” in a particular community. For example, after arguing Paul expects his churches to be peacemakers, Gorman illustrates this by describing Christian Peacemaker Teams, an ecumenical ministry which seeks nonviolent alternatives in Palestine, Iraq, Columbia or other war-torn regions. For the church as the justice of God, Gorman draws attention to Mary’s Cradle in Bluefield, West Virginia, a ministry associated with Trinity United Methodist Church. The ministry provides assistance for pregnant women and offers a range of services for women. These illustrations are helpful because they provide concrete examples of how local churches can think creatively to be the gospel in their communities.

Conclusion. I have always been associated with Christian organizations which were decidedly evangelistic although not always intentional in how they live out the gospel in a community. Missionaries went off someplace and did missions and the local church supported that mission with prayer and money. But this is not what Paul envisioned when he planted local churches in specific communities. Gorman shows Paul’s “missionary strategy” was to create local manifestations of the gospel, local churches, which could then reach into their communities as a living gospel. I agree with Gorman’s assessment that some churches are hearing a call to be the gospel through a “renewed imagination.” In Becoming the Gospel Gorman provides a solid exegetical, biblical foundation for local church involvement in local communities.

The Eerdmans podcast has a two-part interview with Gorman (episodes 14 and 15) and Gorman answered a few questions on Eerdworld about this book.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: Randolph and O’Brien. Paul Behaving Badly

Richards, E. Randolph and Brandon J. O’Brien. Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk? Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. 224 pgs., Pb.; $16.00 Link to IVP

This book follows Mark Strauss’s Jesus Behaving Badly (IVP 2016, I review this book here) and David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly (IVP 2011). In many ways this new book is similar to an earlier volume written by Richards and O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (IVP 2012). The goal of this book is to offer some explanation for some of Paul’s writings which strike the modern (and politically correct) reader as not just difficult, but impossible to apply. In the conclusion to the book, they state “Paul was a product of his time—like everyone else” (194).

paul-behaving-badlyIn the introduction to the book, the writers set up the “problem of Paul” by describing their own misgivings about Paul. On the one hand, Paul does say some rather disturbing things. Most Christians struggle with Paul’s command for women to remain silent in church because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church (1 Cor 14:3-35). His commands on head-coverings (1 Cor 11:2-16) are difficult to apply in a modern context. Paul can certainly be abrasive and downright rude, calling be infants or foolish (Gal 3:1). There are many Christians who prefer the kind, loving Jesus to a cranky, autocratic Paul. In the conclusion to the book the authors express their hope that this book does not “hate on Paul” (193),

But another serious problem is that Paul is intimidating! Reading Paul can be a difficult slog in terms of both content and theology. Following the argument of Romans can be challenging, and unpacking Paul’s logic in a way which resonates with a modern reader is not always possible. For many Christians it is far easier to understand a parable of Jesus and immediately apply the parable to a situation in their life than to wade through the thick theological argument of Romans or Galatians.

Richards and O’Brien, begin with the way Paul communicates with his readers. Sometimes he seems to be “kind of a jerk.” This is certainly true when Paul’s letters are compared to the popular image most people of Jesus. Another aspect of Paul’s letters which is hard for some to handle is arrogance. Rather than following Jesus, Paul regularly tells his readers to follow him. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, for example, Paul demands his readers follow his example as he follows Christ. Despite demanding peace in his churches, Paul occasionally bullies his opponents (24), calling them names and mocking their views. Richards and O’Brien point out that Paul makes a great deal out of his calling to be the Apostle to the Gentiles and he seems to put his own agenda ahead of the leading of the Holy Spirit (citing Acts 21:4). Richards and O’Brien conclude “there is no way around it. Paul thought he was special” (36). At least some of Paul’s bluster can put explained as Greco-Roman rhetoric, and put into the context of other Roman writers, Paul is not that much different (perhaps he is less of a bully that some!)

Chapters 2-6 deal with specific issues in the Pauline letters which are difficult to apply in a modern context (Paul was a killjoy, racist, pro-slavery, a Chauvinist, and homophobic). In each case Richards and O’Brien set up the issue by citing several passages in Paul which imply he was in fact a racist, etc. After examining these passages within the cultural context of the first century, Roman world, they conclude Paul is not guilty as charged. At least not by the standards of the first century Roman world. This is a key observation for each of the issues Richards and O’Brien cover in chapters 2-6. If Paul is understood as a Second Temple period Jew living in the Greco-Roman world of the first century, then his “politically incorrect” sayings are perfectly understandable.

For example, Paul did not “support slavery” in the same sense than nineteenth century Southern Americans did. Certainly Paul did not demand Christians release their slaves, and he did tell slaves they ought to obey their masters. But in the context of the Roman world, slavery was not always an abusive relationship nor would every slave desire to be free! Although Richards and O’Brien do not mention this, it is worth noting that Jesus never demanded his followers free their slaves. Many of Jesus’ parables include slaves, although it is hidden behind the softer translation “servants.” So Paul could be charged as “pro-slavery” if his words are taken out of context, but within the correct cultural context, he is neither for nor against slavery.

With respect to chauvinism and homophobia, from a modern perspective Paul may be “guilty as charged.” But again, Richards and O’Brien work to set some of Paul’s difficult anti-women and anti-homosexual statements into their proper historical context. With respect to women, the writers conclude that Paul does come across badly, but Paul’s Jewish culture would have not been pleased with the level of freedom and responsibility Paul suggested women have in the Body of Christ (122). With respect to homosexuality, it is absolutely true that Paul considers homosexuality a sin, but his view stands on the foundation of the Jewish Law. Paul’s view was counter to the morals of the Greco-Roman world, but as Richards and O’Brien conclude, homosexual relationships acceptable in the Roman world did not include gay relationships between equals (gay marriage).

The two final issues in the book are more difficult. First, was Paul a Hypocrite? The issue here is Paul’s ministry strategy of being “all things to all men” (1 Cor 9:20-21). Did Paul tell to live one way, while living a different way himself? In some letters, Paul refuses to take money from his churches, but in others he thanks the churches for their gifts. The issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols seems odd to us today, but it is was an important issue in the first century since Gentiles had no problem with the practice, Jewish Christians would have thought it was a sin. Richards and O’Brien offer an interesting analogy, should Christians practice yoga? Most Christians would answer like Paul, it depends. Since the origins of yoga are part of a non-Christian religious practice, could a believer do yoga as recreation without all of the pagan baggage? What if you listen to Chris Tomlin while doing yoga? For Paul, the wise answer for some practices depends on the situation (164).

Second, did Paul twist Scripture? There are a few places in Paul’s letters where he seems to read the Old Testament in ways which the original text did not intend. The allegory of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4 is an example of this, since Paul uses the two women (and their children) as an analogy for a change in God’s plan from Promise to Law to Grace. I have occasionally joked that if my exegesis students turned in papers using the same methods Paul did in Galatians 4, I would probably fail them! But as Richards and O’Brien point out, Paul is reading the Old Testament as a Jewish Christian. He was a trained Pharisee who was thoroughly trained in rabbinical techniques including midrash and pesher. As with virtually every section of this book, reading Paul in the context of the Second Temple period helps us to understand what Paul is saying. They conclude Paul did not twist Scripture, “but he did squeeze every last drop out of it” (190).

As a conclusion to the book, Richards and O’Brien offer a short reflection on whether we ought to be “following Paul” or “following Jesus.” Like most of the questions in this book, the question is set up in order to generate the discussion which follows. Of course we follow Jesus, but we imitate Paul has he followed Jesus. It is true Paul may have been a “bull in a china shop” at times, but he was called by God to suffer for the sake of Jesus.

Conclusion. As with any book of this kind, chapter titles are set up in order to catch the reader’s attention and make the answer to the question applicable to a modern reader. So, “Was Paul a homophobe?” suggests to the reader perhaps he was, although the answer is always comes down to careful definition of terms. The cover of the book and the promotional material which will accompany the book are intentionally shocking. This book would make an excellent small group Bible study since the chapters are set up to generate discussion Paul’s views on controversial issues and how those issues ought to be addressed in the church today.