Category Archives: Uncategorized

Salvation by Allegiance Alone

I am pleased to announce that a new book is now available for pre-order:

Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, forthcoming).

BBates, Salvation by Allegiance AloneWe are saved by faith when we trust that Jesus died for our sins. This is the gospel, or so we are taught. But what is faith? And does this accurately summarize the gospel? Because faith is frequently misunderstood and the climax of the gospel misidentified, the gospel’s full power remains untapped. While offering a fresh proposal for what faith means within a biblical theology of salvation, Matthew Bates presses the church toward a new precision: we are saved solely by allegiance to Jesus the king. Instead of faith alone, Christians must speak about salvation by allegiance alone. Includes discussion questions for students, pastors, and church groups. Foreword by Scot McKnight.

OnScript, Podcast Conversations

OnScript with Matthew W. Bates and Matthew J. Lynch

OnScript with Matthew W. Bates and Matthew J. Lynch

Do you enjoy conversations about biblical scholarship?–especially about how the ideas of leading authors intersect with their own lives, church, and broader culture?  OnScript (www.OnScript.study) is a new podcast hosted by myself and my long-time friend, Matt Lynch, who is Dean of Studies and Professor of the Old Testament at Westminster Theological Centre. Our focus is author interviews regarding recent biblical studies titles.

We’ve had a terrific line-up of initial interviews, including Munther Isaac, From Lands to Lands; Joshua Jipp, Christ is King; David Lambert, How Repentance Became Biblical; Michael Gorman, Becoming the Gospel; Meghan Henning, Educating Early Christians through the Rhetoric of Hell; John Barclay, Paul and the Gift; Peter Enns, The Sin of Certainty; Matthew Schlimm, This Strange and Sacred Scripture; Joel  Green, Conversion in Luke-Acts; Brennan Breed, Nomadic Text.

We’ve got some great interviews on the near horizon: Jon Levenson, The Love of God; Crispin Fletcher-Louis, Jesus Monotheism; David Downs, Alms; and Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels.

Check out OnScript!

Interpretation and Implicit Images

After experiencing a deluge of delightful visitors and not so delightful term papers, I am finally finding a bit of space to read and write.  Over the last month or two, I have splashed about in Margaret M. Mitchell’s The Heavenly Trumpet: John Chrysostom and the Art of Pauline Interpretation (Louisville: WJK, 2002).Mitchell, heavenly  I haven’t had sufficient time (or strength!) to swim through the whole of it, but as I have dipped in a toe here, and a finger there, I have certainly found it thoughtful and insightful.

John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) was an eloquent and fiery preacher (nicknamed “golden mouth”), famous for his willingness to fearlessly confront all his listeners with the word of God, including various members of the imperial family and court in Constantinople.  His homilies were usually intensely exegetical, as John expertly drew forth the rhetorical potential latent in the biblical text–so much so that his sermons are still prized by biblical scholars today as valuable commentaries on the biblical text by a native Greek speaker.Chrysostom icon

Above all other saints, Chrysostom admired the Apostle Paul.  In fact, he wrote seven homilies in praise of Saint Paul (all of which Mitchell translates into English in an appendix).  In considering the portraits of Paul that Chrysostom paints in these homilies, I was struck by Mitchell’s insightful comments about the manner in which the mental images we hold of a biblical author impact our own textual interpretations when we are seeking to understand that author.  With regard to Paul, Mitchell states, “I would argue on principle that all exegetical projects depend upon some explicit or (more often) implicit mental image of Paul, the author” (p. xix).  All of this, of course, is not to say that we are caught in a vicious cycle in which the only Paul we can find is one that our own fancy creates.  But nonetheless, it was a good reminder to me that we need to be self-critical as we ponder the mental images that we have developed over time with respect to the various biblical authors–perhaps especially those, such as Paul, who have become most familiar.

Interpreting Scripture with Scripture, Part II

In my previous post I offered a quote from Origen’s Philocalia, in which he compares scriptural interpretation to a house with locked rooms and scattered keys.  Successful interpretation depends, then, on having access to all the keys (the entire Bible), so that less obscure verses from the Bible might serve as keys that can unlock the more obscure.  I want to offer a few additional thoughts regarding the promises and pitfalls of employing this “let Scripture interpret Scripture” reading strategy.

Most professional contemporary interpreters, especially those wedded exclusively to historical-critical methods of reading, are cautious with such a rule (and often rightly so!) inasmuch as it can cause a false harmonization of the different voices in Scripture.  It can force, for instance, the author of Genesis to agree with the Apostle Paul when in reality these two authors have their own unique things to offer, especially since the world of Genesis and of Paul are quite different historically, socially, and linguistically.  Historical-critical approaches emphasize that the Bible is a human cultural artifact and thus is appropriately understood only when the historical conditions surrounding its ancient production and reception are appreciated.  In other words, even if the Bible is God’s Word, it is nonetheless certainly a human “word” and must be understood in the first instance as such.  And even those open to other reading strategies beyond the historical-critical might fear ways in which this rule can be abused:  Scripture should not be Gumbi or Play-Do, frivolously shaped into whatever the contemporary interpreter desires.

Unlike many modern interpreters, ancient interpreters such as Origen felt the inspired nature of the Bible to be of paramount significance not just as a doctrine to be affirmed, but as a practical interpretative principle.  Accordingly, all the Bible’s various books, despite the diversity, are ultimately the product of a single divine author.  As such, if the individual human authors of the Scripture happen to strike what appear to be discordant notes, these notes nonetheless always turn out on closer inspection to be a part of the prearranged divine harmony.  Origen is convinced that we must know the entire symphony of Scripture intimately, so that we have a mental interpretative concordance that recognizes how the various notes and interior movements flow together into the whole.  Or switching the metaphor back to Origen’s own analogy of a palace with locked doors, we must acquire an enormous scripture-laden key-ring, so that we can readily select and apply the apt key to any puzzling lock that comes our way.

So, here’s the real question:  Can we hold together modern historical-critical concerns with Origen’s approach?  Some of the most interesting work in contemporary biblical scholarship is concerned with precisely these issues–I think especially of the celebrated canon criticism of the late Brevard Childs, not to mention the many, such as Joel Green and Christopher Seitz, who are making contributions to a new movement usually termed “the theological interpretation of Scripture.”  As a scholar who is deeply interested in the role of Scripture not just in the academy, but also in the church and the world, I myself have been laboring in hope that I can offer something helpful in this direction in my second book.

Interpreting Scripture with Scripture, Part I

While continuing my slow waltz with The Philocalia of Origen (see my previous post)–and it has truly been a slow waltz because our family has recently been blessed with a new baby girl–I suddenly found that I was spinning around the room with a passage from Origen with which I had enjoyed a brief, sparkling romance several years ago.  But apparently the flame of passion had spluttered, because I had nearly forgotten it, until it was surprisingly whisked into my arms again.  In speaking about how to interpret the Psalter, Origen says:

“Let us preface our remarks with a very pleasing tradition respecting all Divine Scripture in general, which has been handed down to us by the Jew.  That great scholar used to say that inspired Scripture taken as a whole was on account of its obscurity like many locked-up rooms in one house.  Before each room he supposed a key to be placed, but not the one belonging to it; and that the keys were so dispersed all around the rooms, not fitting the locks of the several rooms before which they were placed.  It would be a troubling piece of work to discover the keys to suit the rooms they were meant for:  It was, he said, just so with the understanding of of the Scriptures, because they are so obscure; the only way to begin to understand them was, he said, by means of other passages containing the explanation dispersed throughout them.  The Apostle [Paul], I think suggests such a way of coming to a knowledge of the Divine words when He said, ‘Which things also we speak, not in words which human wisdom teaches, but which the Spirit teaches; comparing spiritual things with spiritual’ [1 Corinthians 2:13]” (Origen Philocalia 2.3; trans. George Lewis, 1911 with slight modification).

Origen here endorses a traditional rule of biblical interpretation (a rule that became especially prominent much later as part of the principle of sola scriptura in the Protestant Reformation):  one should use Scripture to interpret Scripture.  That is, less obscure passages can be brought in to assist as we seek to unlock those that are more difficult, and thus, it is hoped, that Scripture will be found to have a certain self-interpreting and self-authenticating perspecuity.  I will have a few thoughts to offer about both the perils and possible advantages of this way of reading the Bible in my next post.

Literal Reading of the Bible?

Sometimes it is asserted that we should just take the Bible literally–as if it is obvious what a literal reading might entail.  For example, consider the following passage from Isaiah:

“Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, that pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over?” (Isaiah 51:9-10)

Now, if we are reading “literally,” should we determine on the basis of this text that the LORD (Yahweh) has an arm?  If so, what sort?  Well, if literal, then wouldn’t we expect a physical arm?  And if so, then how might one reconcile this with passages such as John 4:24 (“God is Spirit”)?  And when precisely did God “cut Rahab in pieces,” especially since this Rahab is further identified as “the dragon” (or sea-serpent)?  Obviously we are bumping up against something complex.  (Regarding how this passage connects to other similar stories in the Bible and the literature of the ancient Near East, consider Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988]).

origen

(Origen: image source unknown)

For devotional purposes, I have been working through The Philocalia of Origen. Origen was an enormously prolific third-century Christian writer, and The Philocalia (meaning “the love of the beautiful”) is an ancient compilation of some of his most profound work. The following quote, which pertains to this whole question of a literal reading, caught my eye:

“The word of God therefore arranged for certain stumbling-blocks and offences and impossibilities to be embedded in the Law and the historical portion, so that we may not be drawn hither and thither by the mere attractiveness of the style, and thus either forsake the doctrinal part because we receive no instruction worthy of God, or cleave to the letter and learn nothing more Divine.” (Origen Philocalia 1.16; trans. George Lewis, 1911).

Is Origen right?  Could it be that God has placed in the Scripture complexities, goads, and spurs that will deliberately trip up the virtuous reader–causing the reader to stop, ponder, think, and fervently pray for insight?  If so, what are the nature of these stumbling-blocks?  Undoubtedly I will have more to say about this in the future, but for now it suffices to ponder, along with Origen, the degree to which God rewards those who earnestly seek–those who when encountering puzzles in the literal sense or the basic narrative sequence of the Bible are willing to delve into God’s arrangement of all affairs (both in Scripture and in the broader world), and to “see” not just the surface, but how the surface is a sign that points beyond itself to the transcendent.  After all, Jesus does seem particularly keen to encourage us to pursue a deeper engagement with his constant refrain:  “The one who has ears to hear, let that person hear” (e.g., Mark 4:9, Luke 14:35).

Paul and the Origins of Christian Theology

Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God

(image source unknown)

Like every other scholar in the world whose research focuses on the Apostle Paul, I have been winding my way through N. T. Wright’s gargantuan scholarly masterpiece, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013).  Actually, since this 1700 page 2-volume monster-work is so large that it has its own planetary system, it is probable that even non-earthling scholars of St. Paul have been reading it.  (Indeed, I am tempted to quip that when I hold these volumes in my arms, they are like two rather squarish oranges on toothpicks).

Wright makes a claim that will undoubtedly prove to be provocative in New Testament studies.  He asserts that the titanic shifts in Paul’s disrupted worldview caused the category of “theology” (the study of God) to move to the foreground in a way previously unprecedented in Jewish or pagan antiquity:

It is precisely because of the major restructuring of Paul’s symbolic world that ‘theology’ comes to have a different, much larger and more important place in his worldview, and thereafter in the Christian church, than ever it had in either Judaism or paganism….  Jewish writers have often commented that ‘theology’, as that word is now understood, is largely a Christian construct, and they are right, for just this reason: that a fresh, reflective understanding of God, the world, the human race, and so on grew and developed to fill the vacuum left by the departing symbols of Judaism” (Vol. 1, p. 403).

I’m still processing Wright’s proposal, indeed, I am only now nearing completion of the first volume so I still need to weigh all his evidence.

Wright has long been one of my favorite authors–in fact, his brief The Challenge of Jesus (Downers Grove, Intervarsity, 1999) was one of the books that first got me interested in a career in biblical studies.  If you are interested in finding a place to start with N. T. Wright’s scholarship on the Apostle Paul, a good entry point is his somewhat pompously titled (but still excellent) little book, What St. Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).

Social Memory, History Writing, and the Gospel

Like many of you, I usually have several books I am juggling at the same time.  I always try to balance academic work with a novel or two.  Over the holiday break I have been working my way through a novel that marvelously combines poetic beauty and intellectual sophistication:  Michael D. O’Brien, The Island of the World: A Novel (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007).  Island of the World

The protagonist, Josip, is raised in a paradisiacal mountain-valley in rural Yugoslavia, but as war engulfs his country, he again and again loses all that he cherishes.  O’Brien masterfully shows the way in which suffering polarizes–either causing a spiral of hate or a purifying refinement.

A quote grabbed my attention, probably because the affect of social memory on historiography (history writing) has become a burgeoning field of research in Christian origins and New Testament studies.  I think for example of the work of Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), Dale Allison Jr., Constructing Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), Anthony Le Donne, The Historiographical Jesus (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press), and Robert McIver, Jesus, Memory, and the Synoptic Gospels (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), among many others.  Apparently, O’Brien has a handle on such issues too, and his prose sparkles:

“The isolated shape of each memory is more or less clear, but their context is altered by a history of subsequent interpretation.  Memories are reshaped simultaneously into what they are and what they are not–then pondered as actualities, which in turn are reshaped.  Within this laboratory of the mind, the scientific method deceives the scientist who fails to consider that his experiment is changed by his very presence within it.  The subtle arts of causality or the subtle causalities of the mind’s primary artform.  Or to put it another way: From the alpine peaks of old age one peers into the valleys of the past and sees indistinct forms, highlighted only by the most monumental sub-formations–the valley is a green blur, containing serene flocks of sheep, and buildings in flames.  A palace by a sea is an ivory carving, surmounted by an emerald hill, and beyond it a sheet of rippling phosphorous.  Within that miniature carving, countless dramas are enacted” (O’Brien, Island of the World, 337).

How, precisely, do our memories, both singular and collective, interface with God’s story?  The portraits of Jesus in the Gospels are a result of a refracted social memory-process, so how might understanding that process better help us appreciate the diverse portraits of Jesus in early Christianity?  Although some might fear the danger of asking such questions, the Christian story, including the Scripture, claims to be grounded in the real history of genuine people.  So in the spirit of faith-seeking-understanding, we must all continue to wrestle with precisely these sort of complexities.

My Apologia

I begin with an apologia, a defense of my actions.  Why blog?  The reality is I have wrestled with this entire blogging-business for quite some time.

This blog has pleaded with me for attention.Black_Labrador_Retriever_portrait  I have brought it up onto my lap and dandled it for a few moments, only to banish it whimpering away to the corner.  Then I have invited it back, embraced it, and hand-fed it scraps from my dinner plate, only to scold it and send it running away again.  In other words, although this is my first post, I have already had an ambivalent should-I or shouldn’t-I relationship with the blogging craft for several years.  After doing an invited guest post on another biblioblog (Dunelm Road, link here), I have finally decided that I can’t ignore the pleading eyes  any longer, so I have taken up my keyboard.

The question, “Why blog?” is especially acute since as a published scholar I have access as an author to traditional (purportedly “real”) publishing venues such as books and professional journals in order to disseminate my work.  In at least some of the hallowed halls of academia, it is fair to say that there is still a certain taint associated with blogging–as if in the act of publishing online somehow your skin picks up a faint yet unmistakable odor.  Eewwwhhh.  I think I can start to smell it beginning to ooze from my pores right now as I type my first post.  WHAT IS THAT?  I did shower this morning, didn’t I?  It reeks of oily rags, sweat, stale popcorn, hotdogs, bleacher-seats, and cheap beer.  Oh, I know what this is–the smell of the masses, of popularizing.

Real academics don’t popularize, they blaze the trail where others have not yet dared to tread.  They coin phrases, toss about specialized jargon, sprinkle in elitist Latin terms, and overwhelm the reader with a torrent blast of pedantic footnotes.  Above all, they publish only in peer-review journals and with university presses!  Although offering a slight lampoon of academia, I only half-jest.  (After all, I have titled this post my apologia rather than my apology).  Undoubtedly it is crucial that academics sometimes publish solely for other academics, as it is not always practical (or interesting) to lay a foundation by reiterating the basics every time a new scholarly proposal is advanced.  Yet, it is equally vital that these ideas, once sifted, weighed, and processed by scholarship, ultimately be communicated to a broader audience.

I plan to continue publishing books, articles, and book reviews with refereed academic presses, God-willing, as I have time, ideas, and energy.  And although most of my published work thus far has been aimed at other scholars, I do have a couple book ideas percolating that will bridge between scholarship and a more general theologically engaged audience.  So I hope this blog proves to be a helpful resource to other scholars, my students (both past and present), and any fellow pilgrims of goodwill.

The aim of this blog, at least as currently conceived, is to foster discussion (whether on this site or elsewhere) among anyone interested in the Bible, the apostolic tradition, the rule of faith, and the theological implications of early Christian literature.  I plan on reviewing books that I think are worthy of further attention or that I personally find stimulating.  Some of the books will be older classics.  Others will be new releases–sometimes books that I am reviewing for professional journals.  One advantage of a blog is that the reviews can be as long or as short as I judge to be helpful.  One disadvantage to writing reviews for professional journals is that these reviews are severely restricted in length and do not tend to be widely read even by other scholars.  So, in order for these reviews to gain maximum exposure, I will be posting these reviews or abridgements of these reviews on Amazon.com, and this site will aggregate all my reviews.  As I am reading, I will also sometimes add quotes or interactive thoughts.

Also, since I am not as well-known as Bart Ehrman or Kim Kardashian (I’ll allow the reader to determine whether or not these two names should in any fashion be linked together) and I am just starting this blog, it will probably take a while to develop a readership, but that is actually good because, as a new blogger, it will give me time to learn more about the mechanics of running a blog.  Thanks for reading!