National ETS 2013 in Baltimore

I am heading for Baltimore this afternoon to attend the National meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. I always enjoy ETS, even though it is smaller than the SBL/AAR meetings later in the week.  I am not giving a paper this year, but I am a “moderator” for a Gospels/Acts parallel session tomorrow morning.

9780310331360Because I am serving as a moderator, I will not be able to attend what promises to be one of the main events of the conference. November 19 there will be a panel discussion featuring Albert Mohler, Kevin Vanhoozer, Michael Bird, Peter Enns, and John R. Franke onthe topic of Inerrancy. These five scholars are the contributors to Zondervan’s Five Views on Inerrancywhich is due be released December 10. This will likely be a heavily attended session, given the topic and participants.

The Bible Gateway is going to live-blog and live-Tweet (@biblegateway) the event from from 8:30-11:40 AM EST. If you are not in Baltimore for the meetings, be sure to  check out the Bible Gateway blog.

If you are in Baltimore, have a great time and enjoy the crab-cakes.

ETS Atlanta – Frank Theilman

Frank Theilman focused on a single issue which is important to the Justification debate without taking on Wright or Schreiner directly.  He was wholly concerned with the phrase “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17.  This is a well known debate, but Theilman resurrected a third option for the meaning of the phrase, which he called the “oldest perspective” on the righteousness of God.

Since the Reformation, the phrase “righteousness of God” was thought to refer to God’s gift of salvation, while in the 20th century several scholars (including Dodd and Käsemann) suggested that the phrase refers to the saving activity of God.  This is the well-known objective versus subjective genitive debate which dominates most commentaries on this verse.  Theilman’s way out of this dilemma is two-fold.  First, he re-introduces the view of Origen, the earliest known commentary on the book of Romans.  According to Origen, the phrase tells us something about God’s character.  God is ultimately fair / just / righteous in his dealings with humans.  In support of this, Theilman pointed out that the other two similar phrases in the immediate context (power of God and wrath of God) tell us something about God’s character.  “Righteousness of God” is positioned between these two genitives, so it is plausible that they all should be read in the same way, as describing something about God’s character.

In support of this point, Theilman points to the contemporary usage of the δικαιοσύνη on coins minted near the time of the writing of the letter to the Romans.  The rationale for this is that the people in Rome would have understood the term consistent with their culture, not the as the Hebrew term is used in the Hebrew Bible.  The word is used on tetradrachma minted in Alexandria from the fourth year of Nero’s reign along with an image of the goddess δικαιοσύνη holding a pair of even scales and a cornucopia.  The point of the propaganda here is that Nero will distribute the produce of Alexandria fairly and impartially.  Of course, in the context of the Roman Empire, this means that people will be treated fairly with respect to their social position.  Paul’s radical idea here is that God treats people fairly without respect to their social position, so that a Greek and a Barbarian will receive equal treatment before a just, impartial (δικαιοσύνη) God.

I was particularly interested in this argument and found it persuasive, although there is no certain evidence that the people who received the letter to the Romans had these coins or knew of this sort of propaganda from the Empire.  It seems likely, but ultimately impossible to prove.  On the other hand, it is possible that Paul’s letter to Rome was intended first and foremost to the elders of the (Christian) synagogues of Rome, people who were aware of the more forensic use of righteousness in the Hebrew Bible and LXX.

Theilman’s second way out of the debate over the meaning of “righteousness of God” was initially less satisfying to me, although it is anticipated by my brief critique of his first point.  He argues that the phrase is intentionally polyvalent.  Paul is fully aware that the phrase could be taken in several different ways and he makes no effort to clarify it since he will unpack several of the ways the phrase can be used in the rest of the letter.  It does refer to God’s gift of salvation as well as God’s saving power, but also his essentially fair character in rendering justice to all impartially. In his view, words like δικαιοσύνη would not have been as precisely defined as they are in modern scholarship, and an ancient reader would have not only understood the polyvalent nature of the phrase, but expected it in a programmatic statement like Rom 1:17.

At the end of his paper, I suppose I felt a little like the people in the crowd after Jesus said “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, unto God, what is God’s.”  Both sides can find comfort and satisfaction with Theilman’s view of the righteousness of God, and both sides probably think this suggestion strengthens their case.

ETS Atlanta – Thomas Schreiner

The attendance at last night’s first Plenary session was amazing. Rarely have I seen a nearly-full room for a Plenary session.  When the conference was originally announced, John Piper was scheduled to defend the traditional view based on his book contesting N. T. Wight.  When Piper stepped down, Thomas Schreiner was asked to fill the role of critiquing Wright’s view of Justification.  Schreiner is more than capable of this, although I must say that his approach is seems almost entirely from the perspective of systematic theology rather than biblical theology.  I am fully aware that he wrote a biblical theology of Paul, but his talk last night was extremely traditional and used language from systematic theology (imputation).  In addition, he really did little work on the text of Paul itself, much of his use of scripture was classic prooftexting.  I am not sure that I would have heard anything different from Piper, except that his delivery would have been more pastoral.

Schreiner had three main points of contention with Wright.  First, Wright sees justification as a part of Ecclesiological, how you can tell who is part of the people of God, rather than primarily Soteriological (how one gets right with God).  For Schreiner, Wright has it backwards.  Justification has to be about salvation first, even if it has dimensions which might be considered social.  I think that Schreiner is correct here, but I also think he overplays Wright by claiming he has created a false dichotomy.  If this is a false dichotomy, then it seems to me all Schreiner has done is flip it and emphasized the other side.  I think a better way to get at this is to realize that justification is about salvation, community and eschatology – salvation us ultimately future.  The terminology of justification appears in at least those three categories.

Second, Schreiner thinks Wright errs when he describes the failure of Israel as a failure to bless the world (Gen 12:1-3).  Schreiner dismissed this because, in his view, Israel was never supposed to bless the whole world, that was the role of the ultimate seed of Abraham, Jesus.  I thought this dismissal was odd, given the fact that Genesis has numerous instances where the Abrahamic blessing is extended to “the nations” because of their association with Abraham.  For example, Lot is blessed and rescued from danger twice because he is part of the family of Abraham.  Hagar is rescued by God and Ishmael is blessed and becomes a great nation because he is a son of Abraham.  Laban’s association with Jacob can be considered a blessing, even though in the end there is a loss.  Ultimately in Genesis, Joseph is a blessing to the nations (Egypt and Canaan) as God uses him in Egypt.

Third, Schreiner faults Wright for not thinking that justification includes imputation of righteousness as well as a declaration of right standing before God.  Here is where I think that Schreiner and Wright are probably talking about the same sorts of things, but with different language, giving the illusion of a huge difference.  Schreiner is looking for the reformation categories from systematic theology, Wright is working with terms drawn from the Bible as a good biblical theologian.  What is the difference between “you are righteous because god has imputed Christ’s righteousness to you” (Schreiner) and “you are righteous because your status is now ‘in Christ’” (Wright).  Either way, you have Christ’s righteousness and you can be described as “saved.”  One is working with Reformation terminology, the other is consciously avoiding it.

In the end, Schreiner seems to agree with Wright more than I expected.  His critique was friendly and appreciative of the work Wright has done.  I was disappointed with the lack of exegetical nuance and complete rejection of Second Temple Period sources which make Wright’s case so compelling.  A discussion of Wright and the New Perspective which fails to take account of 4QMMT, for example, seems to be ignoring evidence which is difficult to ignore.  I would much rather read Paul in the context of the Second Temple Period than the Reformation, even if Luther and Calvin did get most this right on Soteriology.  Given my denominational affiliation, my commitment is to the Bible, not to traditional reformed formulations of doctrine.

ETS Atlanta – Luke / Acts Consultation

I am at the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta this week, where it is “all justification, all of the time.”  At least that is true for the biblical studies papers. Attendance is high this year, breaking all records I am told.  Perhaps the opportunity to defend the Reformed Tradition against the New Perspective was tempting for many, but I am seeing quite a few dedicated followers of Wright as well.  I assume the bump in attendance has to do with the topic and plenary speakers, but also the location.  Atlanta is such an easy place to get to and is very convention-friendly.  One thing that is unforgivable is the lack of free wireless in the hotel.  I feel like I should have stayed in a much less comfortable hotel and got free wireless and a bagel for breakfast.

Last night we heard Thomas Schreiner for the plenary session, today after lunch it is Frank Theilman, and tomorrow morning we get N. T. Wright and a panel discussion.  I plan to make a few comments about each plenary session.

Wednesday afternoon I attended all four of the papers in the Luke / Acts Consultation.  All were excellent papers, well presented and thought provoking.  Osvaldo Padilla presented a paper on the speeches in Acts entitled “Reading Acts with the Chronicler.”  Padilla observed that the usual way of treating Luke as a historian is to compare him to Greco-Roman historians like Thuycidides, more or less because Thucydides gives us a nice methodological statement on how he wrote his speeches.  While there is nothing wrong with this, there are some problems, since not all Greco-Roman historians were as careful as Thuycidides.  Many embellish speeches with rhetoric in order to show-off their education and rhetorical skills.  A more profitable avenue of research, says Padilla, is to observe how the Chronicler handles speeches.  Luke was “steeped in the Hebrew Bible,” so the speeches in Chronicles may provide a model for Luke’s speeches in Acts.  Padilla chose the speech of the Queen of Sheba (1Kings 10:1-3 / 2 Chron 9:1-12) and concludes that the Chronicler was very conservative in treating his source.  The speech of Hurum in 1 Kings 10:14-29 / 2 Chron 9:13-28 is a littler different.  Here the Chronicler does slightly modify the speech, but he does so by using other scripture (Exod 35) which was more or less implied by the original context. He concludes Luke was very conservative in the use of his sources, using speeches especially from outsiders to highlight his theological agenda.

Brian Mark Rapske read entitled “Reading Acts in the Light of Contemporary Border Studies.”  Rapske summarized the contribution of this sociological field and showed that borders are both geographical and social.  Borders are never as stable as is often assumed, the are not solid lines, but rather airbrushed lines.  People that live along borders tend to challenge both sides of the border; they are “strangers” and “edge-walkers.”  While this was the first time I have heard of this sort of sociological study, I was fascinated with how this might be applied to what I called the “fringes of Judaism” in my survey of Acts 1-12.  I look forward to using some of Rapske’s insights when I return to Acts in the Spring semester.

Eckhard Schnabel presented a paper on “Fads and Common Sense: Reading Acts in the First Century and Reading Acts Today.”  He summarized seven different approaches to Acts, from the historical, literary, and narrative criticism, to the more radical approaches of feminism and post-colonialism. He rightly criticized any commentary on Acts that ignores historical issues, although it is possible that come criticism of recent Acts studies and overly interested in historical issues is well-taken.  I would certainly categorize my self as overly-interested in the historical details (over against the literary and sociological approaches) and find the warning to attend more closely to Luke’s theology a challenge.  Nevertheless, Schanbel’s conclusion is that no one method can fully unpack the book of Acts, a blending of any (or all?) of the methods is required.  I was handicapped for this paper in that I did not get a copy of his bibliography which was distributed.  There were a number of studies mentioned that I need to browse.

The final paper of the consultation was Jeff Hubing on the “Purpose of Acts: A Literary Study.”  Hubing argued that the prologue of Acts ought to include 1:1-22, not simply the first three verses.  The programmatic statement in 1:8 is a the center of this pericope and the whole unit is a “resumptive prologue” reminding the reader of what the author as already said (in Luke 24) and what he will be saying in the rest of the book.  This is something like “how did we get here, and where are we going.”  To a certain extent this is like the “programmatic statement” in Luke 4, Jesus reading Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth.  Hubing did an excellent job showing that the key vocabulary in Acts 1:8 (spirit, power, witness) is scattered throughout the book, but especially at key points.

Once again, the Luke / Acts Consultation provided four challenging papers which were all worthy of the conference.  I look forward to reviewing this material as I continue to work in Acts.

Friday at ETS New Orleans

I spent the day in the Synoptic Gospels section, which was divided into two separate topics.  The morning sessions were devoted to Klyne Snodgrass’ Stories With Intent.  I was already quite taken with this mammoth contribution to the study of the parables, as were the three presenters. For the most part, all three presenters were extremely impressed with the book and had only token criticisms and all concluded that everyone ought to own the book.  Snodgrass then gave a brief response and a panel discussion followed.  Most disappointing was the attendance of this session – maybe 30 people at the most.  The fact that VanHoozer was in the next room did not help us at all!

Mark Alan Powell gave an excellent and entertaining overview of the book, and responded to criticisms from an RBL review by van Eck of the book which he felt were unfair.  As Powell observed, every reviewer can complain that a book was “not they one they would write.”  With that in mind, Powell suggested that the book could have been better if Snodgrass had employed some form of Narrative Criticism to enhance his exegesis of the individual parables.

Scot McKnight dealt with the thorny problem of eschatology in the parables.  McKnight offered  the sharpest criticism of Snodgrass, although even here the differing viewpoints were obvious. This lead to a long (and rather interesting) exchange during the panel discussion on the eschatology of Jesus (or lack thereof).  Snodgrass refuses to see the destruction of Jerusalem as predicted by Jesus in the parables, while McKnight disagreed – pointed out that the Olivet Discourse says that says that “these things will happen” before the present generation passes away.  Since this is part of my dissertation topic, I was quite fascinating to see this discussion play out.  I happen to agree with Snodgrass here, especially in Matt 22, although I think the details are a bit different.  I think that I will digest this section a bit more and return to it after I get back to my office (and my own copy of Stories with Intent!)

Robert Stein wondered about the goal of the book, to get back to the intent of Jesus, as if that is separate from the intent of the Evangelist.  For Stein, one cannot say that the words of Jesus are “more inspired” than the words of the Evangelist, and thinks that any attempt to use “criterion of authenticity” or other tools of Historical Jesus research run the risk of making the words of the Evangelist “less inspired” than the words of Jesus.  This too was a fascinating exchange which was really about methodology and the uselessness of many Historical Jesus studies.  I think that I have a bit more use for these sort of studies, these warnings are appreciated.

The afternoon sessions were devoted to four recent commentaries on the Synoptic Gospels, although three were on Matthew and one on Mark.  Four short papers were presented reviewing Robert Stein (Mark, BECNT), R. T. France (NICNT), David Turner (Matthew, BECNT) , and Ben Witherington III (Matthew, Smyth and Helwys).  Other than France, each of the authors made a brief response to their reviews. Darrell Bock did a great job moderating this long session and moderated a panel discussion and Q&A with all the presenters.