The Conference Season is Upon Us

Many theologians of various types, including biblical scholars, will be converging upon Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for the Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting from 14-16 November, and then the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion annual meetings in Chicago, Illinois, from 17-20 November.

This confluence of conferences is an important time for scholars, who will deliver their papers to what they hope will be a positive and receptive audience, and who will probably sit through a lot of papers in the further hope that they will hear a few that spark some genuine discussion and interest.

McMaster Divinity College will have a large presence at both of these conferences this year. This is only appropriate for one of the leading evangelical seminaries in North America. We are one of the sponsors at ETS, which means that we will have some advertising representation in public places (so I am told), as well as hosting a booth in the exhibition hall. We are also sponsoring our annual dinner, when we meet with faculty members of other institutions who may wish to recommend their students to our programs along with prospective students themselves. We are doing similar things at SBL/AAR, including having an advertisement on the inside back cover of the program and an annual dinner. Those who are interested in knowing more about McMaster Divinity College and its programs should contact us to find out about next year’s dinners in Baltimore (sorry, we are full up for this year’s).

I am looking forward to several sessions at ETS this year, including one where a Festschrift will be presented to a scholar who is very deserving of the honour but who—at least to this point, hopefully—does not know that he is being feted in this way. I will also be presenting three papers at this conference—I am not sure why, but it seemed like the right and sane thing to do several months ago.

The Institute for Biblical Research squeezes its meetings in between ETS and SBL, so I will be driving furiously (but at or below the speed limit, of course) from Milwaukee to Chicago on Friday so I will be in time to respond to a paper in the evening session.

These kinds of conferences are important for scholars, as well as for administrators who are concerned to represent their institutions well in the eyes of others. Scholars have the opportunity to see friends and colleagues they would not otherwise normally see, they usually get invited to a number of receptions sponsored by various publishers where, even if they cannot convince someone to publish their manuscript, they can enjoy hospitality at someone else’s expense, and they of course can visit the exhibition hall to see not only McMaster Divinity College’s booth and find out the latest information about our programs but also get reduced prices on books from a number of publishers. The reduced prices on the books almost make the turmoil worth it all.

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Oshawa First Baptist Celebrates 142nd Anniversary

My wife, Wendy, and I were invited to participate in the 142nd anniversary service of Oshawa First Baptist Church on Sunday, October 14. Working together with Pastor Lisa Brewitt, Wendy, who is our Director of Music and Worship at McMaster Divinity College, planned and led the service, while I preached. Wendy of course is a natural musician and one of the finest worship leaders around, and I love expositing God’s Word to enrich His people.

We were honoured to be asked to participate in this 142nd anniversary service of a church that has been an important part of the Oshawa church scene for quite some time, including the parenting of two daughter churches along the way. This church was also the church home of a past member of the Board of Trustees of the College, Fred Crome. I got to know Fred while I was interviewing for my position at the College, and valued his contribution to the board. We attended Fred’s funeral at the church in 2010. Fred was one of the select few CBOQ people who had a vision that McMaster Divinity College could become a leading evangelical seminary in Canada and North America, a vision that is now being realized through the excellent work of our faculty and the ministry accomplishments of our graduates.

After the service, Wendy and I were guests at the church potluck dinner, where we enjoyed both excellent food and the opportunity to meet a number of people. This is a church that has had some challenges along the way—as have many churches—as demographics change and as society increasingly marginalizes Christian faith. Nevertheless, there are many faithful believers at Oshawa First Baptist who continue to respond to God’s love in positive ways.

I wish to congratulate Oshawa First Baptist for reaching this significant milestone, and to thank Pastor Lisa for the chance to welcome her during her first year of ministry there.

 

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Was Jesus Married? The Latest Coptic Papyrus Won’t Tell Us

The big news of the last week was the announcement of publication by Karen King of Harvard Divinity School of a Coptic papyrus, named by her the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (there’s a loaded title, if there ever was one) that has a line in which Jesus purportedly refers to his wife.

This revelation reveals much that is both good and bad with the instant communication world in which we live, including that of blogging. To summarize briefly, one blogger heralded this great announcement, only to find himself retracting in subsequent blogs. Another blogger spoke (over?) confidently about how he thought there were many questions about its authenticity, with many other bloggers joining in what was beginning to look like a feeding frenzy—of course, none of them had actually seen the papyrus, only a digital photograph. Along the way, some came close to calling into question the reputation of at least one major scholar who had thoroughly examined the papyrus—again, they had not seen the papyrus or even spent nearly as much time contemplating it as this scholar had. The one reaction I read that has the greatest plausibility is by Francis Watson, who argues that the papyrus may be a forgery because it seems at numerous points to be dependent upon the published (N.B.) edition of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.

So, what do I think? I don’t have a firm idea, because I have not examined the papyrus and have not had a significant amount of time to contemplate the various arguments—and neither have most of the others who have been so quick to respond so passionately.

I have to admit that there are more than a few suspicious elements to the papyrus. I too was struck on first examination of the digital photograph that the writing looked odd, almost like it was painted rather than written on the manuscript, and that the manuscript looked perhaps like it had been torn to contain the writing or the writing placed strategically on it. I am also a little suspicious of the timing—if the rumors are correct—that the revelation of the papyrus right now correlates with a television special to be shown sometime very soon. How opportune (or should I say, opportunistic)! Perhaps it is no wonder that there are also rumors that the scholarly journal that was scheduled to publish King’s article may be having second thoughts. However, that is the exact place where publication should take place and lead to sober further thought.

Even if the papyrus is shown to be authentic, however, that does not settle the issue of whether Jesus was married. The context of the papyrus is so limited that we can only say that Jesus appears to refer to “my wife,” but we do not know if this is a literal wife or a figurative one (for example, it might be a text in which Jesus refers to the Church as his wife, picking up on good New Testament language such as Ephesians 5). This papyrus may well be a gnostic text, in which case all sorts of unusual things might have been contained within it—if it is authentic.

Even if the reference is literal, the papyrus tells us no more than that some author in perhaps the fourth century (the dating of this manuscript is bound to be disputed) records Jesus as referring to his wife. So what? We have a lot of non-canonical and later documents referring to all sorts of things that Jesus said and did that have no real bearing on what he actually said and did.

The canonical Gospels do not explicitly tell us whether Jesus was married or not. They certainly do not say that he was married, and I suspect that he was not—although they do not say that either (to be honest, it is unlikely that they would, unless there was a good reason to say so), and this papyrus does nothing to clarify that situation. The text of this papyrus may have been written earlier than the fourth century manuscript on which it is now recorded (perhaps around the time of the Gospel of Thomas, if it is not plagiarizing from it), but that is also up for debate. It still does not give us any firm evidence either way, only one scribe’s statement.

At the end of the day, this papyrus looks like it is heading in the same direction as many other similar, previous finds—a lot of hoopla over nothing (remember the Gospel of Judas?). If it is authentic, it probably shows, at best, that some individuals and possibly offbeat groups within early Christianity in the second to the fourth or later centuries had great creativity and ingenuity. But we already knew that, and we don’t need a television special to tell us.

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1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Living a Holy Life by the Holy Spirit

I relish the opportunity to speak in the McMaster Divinity College chapel services. I do this as often as I can, usually several times a term.

This year I am continuing a series on 1 Thessalonians that I began last year. I only made it through the first three chapters of this incredible book by Paul. As I contemplated this year, I wondered whether I should select another book or continue in 1 Thessalonians, even though I was now about to begin the paraenetic section. Even though this is a tremendous letter, full of Paul’s thanks for the Thessalonians, the paraenetic section has a number of tough and controversial passages to stumble through.

After much contemplation, I felt God leading me to continue my preaching through 1 Thessalonians. I am glad that I did!

At first, I wanted merely to tackle the first two verses of 1 Thessalonians 4, and save the strong statements that follow on holiness for another day (or skip them altogether). God seemed to be leading me to preach on the whole section, so I took on all of the first eight verses of the chapter.

This chapter is so full of important and rich ideas for Christians today. Unfortunately the TNIV pretty badly messes with the first verse, so that we lose the smooth transition that Paul makes from the body to the paraenetic part. Rather than rendering it “As for other matters,” as if the things that follow are of random and lesser significance, I prefer the Common English Bible’s “So then” to emphasize the “furthermore therefore” of the Greek. This is because what follows grows directly out of Paul’s commendation and expressed joy for the Thessalonians. He wants them to continue to take their Christian walk seriously.

Paul emphasizes this with his double statement that “I ask you and urge in the Lord Jesus.” What exactly is it that he urges so strongly? He wants them to do more of what they are already doing. Even though Paul was only with the Thessalonians for a short time (see Acts 17) before leaving in a hurry, they clearly grasped the significance of what he had said and had come to exemplify what it means to walk or live as followers of Christ. They had even become models for other Christians.

The reason Paul can be so confident of this is that they know the instructions or commands that Paul has given them through the Lord Jesus. Paul is conveying what was given by God through

What is the encapsulation of this commandment? It is God’s will that they should be holy or sanctified. Ah yes, the forgotten doctrine of the church, holiness. We are often so busy parsing justification—whether it is initial salvation or descriptive of one’s entire salvation experience, individual or corporate, etc.—that we miss the importance of sanctification. God wants us to be totally and completely dedicated to him and live lives of purity.

Now comes the hard part—the specifics that Paul gives. These read like they could have been written for us today—and they were. We are to abstain from sexual immorality, treat our own bodies with honour, and not take advantage of each other. These are just representative—but poignant choices—of the kinds of things that we should not be doing. As I said last Wednesday when I preached this sermon, if there is some question in our minds whether we are doing one or more of these, then we probably are, and we need to stop. Paul does not entertain “shades of grey.” (I was told afterwards that there is a novel out that has a title something like this that illustrates my point all too well.)

Paul is not asking the Thessalonians to skate a fine line between right and wrong but simply to eradicate it from their lives. Why? He does not say because they can and will harm themselves physically, emotionally, and psychologically—though they will. No, he says it because God says don’t do it. That’s reason enough.

This is quite a shift from Paul’s thankfulness of the first part of the letter. At first it comes across as somewhat of a downer.

However, as Paul concludes, he notes that this life of holiness is made possible through God’s spirit. In other words, God does not ask us to do what he does not empower us to accomplish. Paul refers to the Holy Spirit with an unusual construction: roughly “his spirit, the holy one.” The word for “holy” is the adjective form of the same word used in its noun form for “holiness.” God’s Holy Spirit is given to us to transform us into the holy people that he calls us to be.

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Beginning a New Year

This September marks the start of my twenty-sixth academic year. That’s a lot of new academic years to greet and see through to completion.

We welcomed our new students to McMaster Divinity College this last week in an orientation session designed to introduce them to each other, to us, and to their academic programs. We had a full house, and there was plenty of excitement as we introduced faculty, staff, and fellow students. Our orientation is a little different than that at some other seminaries, where we have both our professional degrees and our research degrees participating together. That is also one of the strengths of the College—our professional programs keep our research students grounded in the church, and our research students challenge our professional students to keep thinking and not accept easy answers.

Our student retreat brought both new and returning students together for great times of worship and communion, plenty of activities to get to know each other (including our usual explosive game of football, led by some pretty competitive athletes), and much eating of good food. As a College, we are excited to welcome all of our students back.

One thing about this year is certain—we do not know all that it will hold for us. These are difficult times for theological education throughout North America. The current economy has not helped our financial situation. More importantly, changing demographics, including shifting views of the church and its role in our lives, have led to an increasingly negative evaluation of the importance of the church. Along with that there has been a revision of the value of theological education, whether it is at the undergraduate or graduate level.

I remain thoroughly convinced, however, that the theological seminary is the only institution on the scene right now that can provide the kind of training and the kind of atmosphere necessary for developing effective Christian leaders for the church, academy, and society—there’s a reason we have this as part of our mission statement.

Only in a good theological seminary can students and well-trained faculty dig deeply into Scripture, probe the intricacies of our Christian history and theological heritage, and establish sound patterns of pastoral ministry and theology. We are fortunate at McMaster Divinity College also to have a sense of community that welcomes students from widely diverse backgrounds, and invites them to explore and develop their Christian faith in conversation with those of similar and different perspectives on some of the tough issues of our day.

We do not know what God has in store for us this year—I am praying that this will be a year of great joy and fulfillment. I also realize that there may well be struggles, individually and corporately. Nevertheless, I am trusting God for a year of continued opportunity to serve him through the work we do together in training men and women for Christian ministry and service.

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Learning Lessons from the Past

Let me first of all apologize for not writing for the last several weeks. I have been busy with finishing two manuscripts and simply could not change gears sufficiently to write.

As a break from the mental grind, I went to one of my used bookstores the other day and discovered a book that has caused me to pause—and pause again.

The book is by Philip Schaff (1819-93), the well-known scholar. He is still well regarded for several of his volume on church history. However, the book that I bought by him is called Theological Propaedeutic (9th ed.; New York: Scribners, 1912 [orig. 1892]). The subtitle goes some of the way in explaining what this book encompasses: “A General Introduction to the Study of Theology Exegetical, Historical, Systematic, and Practical, including Encyclopaedia, Methodology, and Bibliography.” But wait, there’s more. It’s “A Manual for Students.”

As we know, theological education in North America has often been for those who have had no previous theological training. Whether the person was coming to do the B.D. or now the M.Div., the theological student will often not have previously studied any theology.

That is the situation for which this book was designed—so that the potential theological student would be adequately equipped for study. Schaff says in the Preface that this book was based upon a German model, although he wrote it uniquely for American theological students. They would apparently study this book for a year as preparation—that’s right, as preparation—before they undertook specialized and advanced theological study to be ministers.

When I took a closer look at all that this preparatory year was to include, I was astonished. The book is 536 pages, and has 287 small chapters, organized in five books. The introduction discusses the approach to a complete theological education (including an annotated bibliography on introductions to theology, with reference to works by John Chrysostom and Augustine among many others). Book I is on religion and theology, such as what religion is, the types of religions, the religious nature of humanity, and how theology fits into this.

Book II is on exegetical theology, and includes sections on biblical learning, biblical philology, biblical archaeology, biblical isagogic (historical-critical introduction), and biblical hermeneutic and exegesis. Book III encompasses historical theology in all of its types and branches. Book IV treats systematic theology, with sections on apologetics, biblical theology, dogmatic theology, symbolic, polemic, and irenic theology, ethics, and geography and statistics (I was shocked too, but he treats the present numerical condition of worldwide Christianity, just as it seems to indicate).

Just when you were thinking that the only thing Schaff was concerned about was the head-knowledge of the potential theological student, we arrive at Book V on practical theology, which comprises its many branches and sub-categories, such as the expected areas of ecclesiology, polity and homiletics (including 23 homiletic hints worth the price of the book), but also the less usual categories of Sunday school, liturgy, worship, hymnology, evangelism, and missions. At numerous points, Schaff also provides references to the major figures in the particular field of study, citing people now only occasionally discussed in graduate seminars. After the indexes, the book also has a 57-page list of books to help in building a ministerial library (and this is in 1912, one hundred years ago)!

This is one of the most incredible books that I have ever seen—and this is just meant as preparation for serious study of theology! No doubt, some of the ideas are expressed in now quaint language, and some of the ideas have been superseded.

Do I dare, however, say it? I think that probably many—perhaps most—North American seminary graduates today—those with M.Div. and other similar degrees—do not know many of the things discussed in this book at the conclusion of their degrees, to say nothing of at the beginning. Leaving aside the title of preliminary introduction, this book covers topics that many seminary students never touch, and the level of discussion of some of the material would clearly stretch many of our students today, and even a few scholars I know.

In comparison of this book to many of the seminary textbooks that are out there, these texts are clearly lightweight and superficial. Their scope of knowledge, the depth of treatment, and the biographical awareness are clearly inferior to Schaff’s single volume—and I am thinking of texts devoted to only one of the many topics that Schaff treats in his compendium. In fact, there are even some more advanced works that are not as astute as Schaff’s treatment of some issues.

Schaff’s book chimes a rude wake-up call for theological education and its supporting scholarship. It makes me wonder whether we have made any real progress, or whether we have in fact gone backwards in many ways in both theological education and theological scholarship.

Whose fault is it? It is the fault of teachers like me and my fellow theological educators who do not demand enough from our students and our institutions. It is the fault of our students for not demanding more of themselves and of us, their teachers. It is the fault of publishers who continue to value publishing drivel over serious work, and, finally, it is unfortunately the fault of the church for demanding so little of itself, its people, and its ministers.

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Continuing the Hermeneutical Discussion

I did not anticipate continuing to discuss hermeneutics, but I appreciate the opportunity to make some further comments. Throughout my academic career, I have been interested in the field of hermeneutics, beginning with when I was studying English literature, philosophy, and especially linguistics, and continuing to the present.

Students, however, are not always well served by various books that purport to be about hermeneutics. There are too many books that are more about interpretation—which usually means hermeneutics as technique or how to do it—than about what it means to understand as a human being. Many books that are used in seminary courses, even if they use the word hermeneutics, are often more about how to do interpretation—exegesis, if you will—than they are about what it means to understand. Some of these are books written by individual authors, and others are collections of essays with a little bit (often too little) on a wide range of topics. I won’t name names here, but such volumes are easily identifiable. They may be good for what they are, but they rarely address the major hermeneutical issues.

I would encourage students (and scholars, but that is another story) to gain a firm grasp of basic hermeneutical theory. I think that they will soon come to realize that there is no such thing as what is sometimes called the “plain sense” of a text, if by that one means a presuppositionless and contextless meaning of the text. Instead, interpretation encompasses a complex interplay involving at least the author, text, and reader, meanings mediated through language, socially and culturally influenced factors, and the relationship of past and present, among others. This is not to say that there is not meaning to be found in texts, but that the process of determining meaning is far more complex than many realize, and has been widely discussed and debated through the ages.

For those wanting guidance in hermeneutical matters, there are a couple of good, recent books I would recommend. I would begin with my former professor, Anthony Thiselton’s Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). This can be followed up with any one of Thiselton’s other major works, although be prepared for some serious reading. These include The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), and The Hermeneutics of Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007). An excellent collection of his individual essays is found in Thiselton on Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006). I do not get any kickback on recommendations of these books—only the satisfaction that readers are coming to grips with complex ideas in thorough and enlightening discussions.

I would, of course, be remiss if I did not mention a couple of my own works in the area of hermeneutics. These works differ from Thiselton’s in that they are less attempts to be synthetically encompassing , but more focused upon particular people and hermeneutical stances. I wrote with Jason Robinson, Hermeneutics: An Introduction to Interpretive Theory (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011) and co-edited with Beth Stovell, Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2012), where five ways that the Bible is approached hermeneutically are presented and analyzed. Along with Matthew Malcolm (also a former student of Professor Thiselton), I will also be editing (and contributing to) a volume that comes from the recent Thiselton conference, entitled The Future of Biblical Interpretation: Responsible Plurality in Biblical Hermeneutics (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, forthcoming 2013). For some of these books I do receive a kickback, I must admit. Nevertheless, I think that these books do some things that other volumes do not, in making clear not only the distinction between hermeneutics and interpretation, but also how they relate to and influence each other.

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