Why there's no such thing as non-anachronistic interpretation, and it's a good thing too: reflections occasioned by Wesley Hill's Paul and the Trinity

For some time now I have been convinced that the issue at the root of all conversation and controversy regarding historical criticism and theological interpretation of the Bible is anachronism. I'm hopeful that I'll be able to write an article on the topic in the next year or two; I've touched on the theme in a paragraph or two in a couple of articles already, but it deserves a treatment unto itself. Until then, let me use Wesley Hill's wonderful book Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters as an occasion to discuss what's at play here.

Programmatically: The fundamental hermeneutical first principle of self-consciously historical-critical study of the Bible is that such study must avoid anachronism. Two hermeneutical values underlie or spin off this principle: on the one hand, what makes any reading good is whether it is properly historical; therefore, on the other hand, all reading of the Bible ought to avoid anachronism—or to say the sa…

The Lord Reigns: A Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension

A sermon preached at the Round Rock Church of Christ, Sunday, 6 May 2018.

Opening reading

Hear this word from the book of Acts, chapter 1, verses 1-12:

In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God. And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive po…

On Paul, apocalyptic theology, and the rest of the New Testament

I'm nearing the end of a full academic year teaching the New Testament to freshmen. Many of my students are new to the Bible, or at least to reading the Bible. I taught the Gospels in the fall, focusing primarily on Mark, and this spring I've taught the rest of the New Testament, without skipping any books.

Usually, the way the spring course works is revealed by its traditional title: Acts to Revelation. Both sequentially and substantively, the class is defined by the history Luke tells of the church's mission after the ascension of Jesus, which crystalizes around Paul's work among the gentiles; this, naturally, is followed by an extensive reading of Paul's letters, beginning with Romans. Then the catholic epistles and Revelation invariably find themselves scrunched together at the end.

On a lark, I decided to try to de-center Paul from the course structure, and to see what would happen. Here's how I've taught the course:

Acts (2 weeks)

Jon Levenson on the costs and limitations of historical criticism

“Historical criticism has indeed brought about a new situation in biblical studies. The principal novelty lies in the recovery of the Hebrew Bible as opposed to the Tanakh and the Old Testament affirmed by rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, respectively. Jews and Christians can, in fact, meet as equals in the study of this new/old book, but only because the Hebrew Bible is largely foreign to both traditions and precedes them This meeting of Jews and Christians on neutral ground can have great value, for it helps to correct misconceptions each group has of the other and to prevent the grievous consequences of such misconceptions, such as anti-Semitic persecutions. It is also the case that some of the insights into the text that historical criticism generates will be appropriated by the Jews or the church themselves, and they can thereby convert history into tradition and add vitality to an exegetical practice that easily becomes stale and repetitive. But it is also the case that the hi…

Marilynne Robinson should know better

Like most seminary graduates and all theologians, I have long loved Marilynne Robinson. I read Gilead in the summer of 2005 and The Death of Adam shortly thereafter, and the deep affection created in those encounters has never left me. I have heard her speak on more than one occasion—at a church of Christ university and at Yale Divinity School, my two worlds colliding—and she was nothing but gracious, eloquent, and compelling in her anointed role as liberal Christian public intellectual. God give us more Marilynne Robinsons.

The beauty of her writing, her thought, and her public presence makes all the more painful the increasingly evident internal contradiction at the heart of her work. Others, with greater depth and insight than I am capable of offering here, have drawn attention to a related set of issues; see especially the reviews of her most recent volume of essays by Micah Meadowcroft,James K. A. Smith,B. D. McClay,Doug Sikkema, and Wesley Hill (alongside the earlier critique of…

Defining fundamentalism

What makes a fundamentalist? It seems to me that there are only two workable definitions, one historical and one a sort of substantive shorthand. The first refers to actual self-identified fundamentalists from the early and mid-twentieth centuries, and to their (similarly defined) heirs today. The second refers to those Christian individuals or groups who, as it is often said, "lack a hermeneutic," that is, do not admit that hermeneutics is both unavoidable and necessary, and that therefore their interpretation of the Bible is not the only possible one for any rational literate person (or believer).

In my experience, both in print and in conversation, these definitions are very rarely operative. Colloquially, "fundamentalist" often means simply "bad," "conservative," or "to the right of me." I take it for granted that this usage is unjustified and to be avoided by any Christian, scholarly or otherwise; it is not only imprecise, it is l…

The thing about Phantom Thread

is that it's one of three things, none satisfactory. Either:

1. It's a profound meditation on the nature of love, on something intrinsic to love between men and women, a kind of unavoidable, even beautiful, crack in the surface of what is usually presented as seamless, without defect: in which case the film is false, self-deluded, and self-serious. Or:

2. It's a cheeky close-up, not on love in general, but on this particular couple's "love," doomed to dysfunction, an eternal power-play, in which the would-be submissive learns how to gain the upper hand, and the otherwise dominant, now dominated, accepts this kink in the relationship with a wry ardor: in which case the film is vile, an unserious exercise in sadomasochism either metaphorized or taken to an absurd extreme. Or:

3. It's nothing more than funny (and it is very funny), using the trappings of prestige film and high fashion and world-class acting and audience expectations as a Trojan horse for av…

C. S. Lewis on the fumie

Meanwhile, in the Objective Room, something like a crisis had developed between Mark and Professor Frost. As soon as they arrived there Mark saw that the table had been drawn back. On the floor lay a large crucifix, almost life size, a work of art in the Spanish tradition, ghastly and realistic. “We have half an hour to pursue our exercises,” said Frost looking at his watch. Then he instructed Mark to trample on it and insult it in other ways.

Now whereas Jane had abandoned Christianity in early childhood, along with her belief in fairies and Santa Claus, Mark had never believed in it at all. At this moment, therefore, it crossed his mind for the very first time that there might conceivably be something in it. Frost who was watching him carefully knew perfectly well that this might be the result of the present experiment. He knew it for the very good reason that his own training by the Macrobes had, at one point, suggested the same odd idea to himself. But he had no choice. Whether h…

Just published: a review essay of Patrick Deneen and James K. A. Smith in the LA Review of Books

I've got a review essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books of Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed and James K. A. Smith's Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology. It's called "Holy Ambivalence." Go check it out.

Principles of Luddite pedagogy

My classes begin in this way: With phone in hand, I say, "Please put your phones and devices away," and thereupon put my own in my bag out of sight. I then say, "The Lord be with you." (And also with you.) "Let us pray." I then offer a prayer, usually the Collect for the day from the Book of Common Prayer. After the prayer, we get started. And for the next 80 minutes (or longer, if it is a grad seminar or intensive course), there is not a laptop, tablet, or smart phone in sight. If I catch a student on her phone, and Lord knows college students are not subtle, she is counted tardy for the day and docked points on her participation grade. Only after I dismiss class do the addicts—sorry, my students—satiate their gnawing hunger for a screen, and get their fix.

For larger lecture courses (40-60 students) with lots of information to communicate, I use PowerPoint slides. But for smaller numbers and especially for seminars, neither a computer nor the internet n…