The State of New Testament Studies: A Quick Review

The field of New Testament studies is vast. And it’s growing at a remarkable pace. That reality is both exciting and discouraging. Exciting because these all-important documents are getting the attention they deserve and the field as a whole continues to thrive. Discouraging because no single person could possibly keep up with all the literature. In light of that, we can be grateful to Scot McKnight and Nijay Gupta for editing a new book titled The State of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Current Research (Baker Academic) which brings together a top-notch group of New Testament scholars to survey the major developments in their areas of specialization.

The contributions fall into four major sections. Part 1 is on the ancient context of the New Testament and attends to the relationship between early Christianity and the Roman Empire along with attitudes toward women in the ancient world. Part 2 takes up questions related to interpretation with chapters focused on hermeneutics, Old Testament use in the New Testament, the genre of the canonical Gospels, and developments in the study of Greek. Part 3 contains essays generally oriented around the relationship between history and theology in scholarship on Jesus, Paul, eschatology, and ethics. The final section is Part 4, which contains chapters surveying scholarship on most of the New Testament texts.

I found the book fascinating. One of the challenges with edited volumes is maintaining a sense of coherence between chapters written by different authors. This navigates that challenge well. In general, the chapters do a good job surveying the major movements in each area. They consistently relate newer scholarship to older scholarship and every chapter draws attention to voices that have been marginalized in the interpretation of the New Testament. The chapters focused on my area of specialization (i.e., Paul) helpfully clarified a few matters regarding how different streams in Pauline scholarship relate to one another. And the chapters focused on areas of the NT beyond my specialization were particularly helpful in orienting me to the major emphases in those discussions.

I will say that I would have liked to have seen more on Paul in Part 4. The only text from Paul that gets serious and extended treatment as a text is Romans, which means the rest of the Pauline corpus (and the extensive scholarship on it) was dealt with to a lesser degree than other New Testament documents. I think I understand the editorial choice here. Romans is useful for orienting people to Pauline scholarship, and more chapters on other letters in the Pauline collection would have made an already lengthy book even more so. Nevertheless, I would have very much enjoyed a chapter on the Corinthian correspondence and some attention to the shorter letters. Of course, this is no reason not to read the book. If anything, it’s a testament to its value. Upon reading a nearly 500 page book, I found myself wanting more.

The book will be most useful to graduate students in biblical studies. Every New Testament PhD student should read the whole thing. It will be immensely valuable in navigating the intimidating mountain of secondary literature with which students need to become familiar, and many chapters draw attention to potentially fruitful avenues for future study. Established scholars will already be familiar with much of the material, and will find the book most helpful in orienting them to areas of the New Testament that might lie outside their established research agendas. Academically-minded pastors may also find the book of interest.

All in all, I’m happy to recommend The State of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Recent Research. I plan to keep my copy close at hand and expect to consult it often.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

Not Rapture, Rescue (It’s Good to Be Left Behind)

Plenty of people are expecting the rapture, an event in which Christians are all taken up from the earth into heaven. The problem is that the Bible knows no such event. Yep, that’s right. There’s no rapture in the Bible. And the passages sometimes thought to be about the rapture are about something else entirely. In this video, Dr. Matt O’Reilly walks us through one such passage – Matthew 24.36-42. He explains why these verses teach that it’s actually a good thing to be left behind.

Interested in more? Here are two books that critique the rapture.
The Rapture Exposed by Barbara Rossing
The Problem with Evangelical Theology by Ben Witherington

And here are two books for an alternative (and optimistic!) biblical eschatology.
Heaven Misplaced by Douglas Wilson
Deep Comedy by Peter Leithart

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

Deep Happiness, John Wesley, and the Beatitudes

“Failure to thrive” is a medical diagnosis for children who aren’t growing as they should. If you’ve ever taken a child to the pediatrician, you know about growth standards. Every parent is eager to see which percentile their kids are in. 75th percentile? We may have a ball player on our hands! Every parent gets excited when their kids are above average. Kids who are low on the chart are diagnosed with a condition called  failure to thrive. It’s not a disease. It’s not a disorder. It usually has to do with environment. Maybe a kid isn’t properly nourished. Maybe he’s experienced some deep emotional stress or trauma that’s affecting his development.

As a pastor, I can’t help but think how many Christians might – at one time or another – diagnose their devotional (un)health with failure to thrive. It’s easy to imagine. You’ve experienced the new birth. You’re excited. You’re growing in your newfound faith. Then a little time passes. Maybe you get out of the habits that fueled your experience of grace in the beginning. You don’t read the Bible like you once did. You haven’t gathered to worship with the church in a while. Maybe life has dealt you unexpected  circumstances that left you struggling to hold on. You haven’t given up on following Jesus. But you sure wouldn’t say you’re thriving.

Beatitudes as Growth Chart

The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most famous passages of scripture. The Beatitudes are one of the most famous parts of the Sermon. There are two approaches to the Beatitudes. Some say they are ordered steps on the path to Christian maturity. Others say they are each always presents to some extent in every believer. John Wesley saw no reason to pick one approach over the other. He took a both/and approach:

It is undoubtedly true, that both poverty of spirit, and every other temper which is here mentioned, are at all times found, in a greater or less degree, in every real Christian. And it is equally true, that real Christianity always begins in poverty of spirit, and goes on in the order here set down, till the “man of God is made perfect (Sermon XXI).

So if the beatitudes are intended to be taken in order, then perhaps we can think of them as a spiritual growth chart. And as you develop along the growth chart, you grow into a thriving follower of Jesus and a full experience of human life. Want to escape the failure to thrive diagnosis? Spend some time in the beatitudes. Immerse yourself in Jesus’ vision of flourishing.

Absolute Helplessness

If the Beatitudes are all about thriving, then the first one might seem counter-intuitive. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). We don’t normally think of poverty as thriving. So what does it mean to be poor in spirit? And how does poverty of spirit lead to a full and thriving human life? Let’s start with the notion of poverty. Poverty means a person doesn’t have the resources to meet their basic needs. It means they are helpless. And it’s not just a matter of finances. There are plenty of people with plenty of money who are impoverished relationally, emotionally, psychologically, or in other ways. This helps us understand poverty of spirit. To be poor in spirit is know we don’t have the resources to meet our spiritual needs. We don’t have the power to atone for our sins. We don’t have the ability to free ourselves from slavery to sin. We come into the world spiritually destitute, and we don’t have what it takes to fix our problem. When Jesus talks about “the poor in spirit,” he’s talking about the people who understand that.  Here’s Wesley again:

Poverty of spirit then, as it implies the first step we take in running the race which is set before us, is a just sense of our inward and outward sins, and of our guilt and helplessness.

So the first step to thriving is understanding that we can’t thrive on our own. We are absolutely helpless. We need someone to do something we can’t do.

Ultimate Happiness

Now you may be thinking: If the beatitudes are all about blessing, why am I hearing so much about what a mess I’m in? Well, the blessing comes in what Jesus can do for people who are in a mess (and who know they’re in a mess). When our eyes are opened to our desperate state, he meets our poverty with the riches of the kingdom of heaven. He does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He forgives our sin. He frees us from slavery. He reconciles us to God. And he graciously begins to reproduce his own character of holy love in us. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, he’s talking about the reality of the reign of God coming to bear on this world. “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). The will of God is done on earth when human beings surrender their bodies to God’s purposes for them. And as more and more people surrender more and more of themselves, the kingdom spreads. And it will continue to spread until that day when Jesus returns to make the kingdom complete and perfect. Participation in that project is happiness. Not the shallow and fleeting emotion of happiness, but the deep and abiding happiness that comes with the knowledge that we are living into God’s best for us, even if our circumstances are not what we expected or what we may have once preferred. The path to that deep happiness starts with embracing our spiritual poverty. Put differently, ultimate happiness depends on absolute helplessness.

For more on the beatitudes, check out the latest episode of the So What? Podcast.

 

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

Introducing the So What? Podcast (@sowhat_podcast)

I’m excited to share with readers that I’ve recently begun contributing to the So What? Podcast, which is produced by People of Mars Hill here in Mobile. We are currently working through the Apostles’ Creed line by line. Episode 4 has just been released, which is on the creedal affirmation that Jesus Christ is God’s only Son and our Lord. I’m grateful to KyleDave, and Brad for the opportunity to take part in this, and I’m very excited about plans for upcoming episodes. So keep an eye out for future posts to stay up to date with the news. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. And be sure to check out the website, especially if you might be curious to know what I look like as a cartoon. Here’s the audio stream for the new episode in which we dig into questions of what it means for Jesus to be both Christ and Lord. And why does it matter? How does our creedal confession about Jesus relate to what scripture says about him? And is the Creed simply a matter of mental assent? Or is something more going on? Be sure to listen to the end for a few extras. Enjoy.

Easter Means Mission

Our celebrations of Christ’s resurrection at Easter tend to be narrowly focused. The focus, all too often, drills down onto the individualistic issue that the resurrection makes personal salvation possible. Christ has been raised so that you can go to heaven. Now don’t get me wrong. I happily affirm that the salvation of each person depends on the historical bodily resurrection of Christ: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). The problem comes when we fail to consider how the implications of the resurrection extend beyond individual salvation. And in doing so we don’t have to worry about overlooking or neglecting the personal saving power of the resurrection. To the contrary, we establish it. 
So, what is the resurrection about? If we turn to the Gospel of John, we soon discover that the resurrection of Jesus is the basis for the Church’s vocation in the world. Easter means mission. Consider the words of Jesus to his disciples on the evening of the day of his resurrection: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). The first thing Jesus does is set before his closest followers the task he intends them to fulfill. He is sending them out into the world with a mission, a mission that flows out of and is similar to the one for which Jesus himself was sent into the world. And what is this mission? John has at least two things in mind: reconciliation and new creation.
Mission as Reconciliation
Twice during this first post-resurrection meeting, Jesus tells the disciples, “Peace be with you” (20:19, 21). His mission to them is a mission of reconciliation. And rightly so, for all human beings come into the world estranged from God. To draw on John’s own language, “No one has ever seen God” (1:18). God is light. We stand in darkness. Jesus comes to make peace between God and us so that we can become the children of God, so that we can experience the pure and unqualified joy of seeing God’s glory. 
And he does this reconciling work in his own body. This is why the incarnation is so important. This is central to the significance of the Word made flesh. Because he is fully God and fully human, he brings the two disparate parties together in his body. God and humanity are reconciled in the very body of Jesus that died on the cross and was raised from the dead. Without the incarnation and bodily resurrection, there is no reconciliation between God and humanity. This is what the Father sent Jesus to do, and Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” If the Father sent the Son to work peace between God and the human race, then Christ sends his Church to be agents of that peace making mission to the rest of the world. 
Mission as New Creation

But the mission goes much deeper than any initial reconciliation between God and humanity. John also gives us a few clues to help us understand that our mission is to cultivate the new creation that God is working through Christ and the Spirit. We know John likes Genesis. No first-century Jewish writer starts out a book with the words, “In the beginning,” and does it on accident. He is intentionally drawing on the creation narrative in Genesis 1 to inform our reading of the Gospel. And if Genesis 1 is telling the story of creation out of nothing, then John 1 is telling the story of new creation out of the old. John 20 offers a couple more clues that Jesus has been sent to work new creation. Ever notice that John is telling us about the most important day in the history of the world and never says a word about anything that happens while the sun is up? The story starts in the dark of early morning only to jump forward to the dark of evening. Morning, evening; evening, morning. That John is drawing on Genesis 1 ought to be clear. If it isn’t, John repeatedly reminds his readers that this is the first day of the week. If Genesis 1 tells story of cosmic creation structured by seven days of evenings and mornings, John 20 sets up the story of the resurrection as the work of God on the first morning and evening of the new creation. And as the Spirit hovered in the darkness over the face of the primordial waters, so now the Spirit is at work in the darkness of that first Easter morn raising the dead as the first act of God’s new creation. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” If Jesus has been sent by the Father to inaugurate the new creation, the Church has been sent by Jesus to cultivate it. 
The Whole Easter Package

If our job, then, is to be agents of reconciliation between God and the world and to cultivate the new creation everywhere we go, then personal salvation is obviously included in that along with much, much more. And our vision of salvation is enlarged way beyond the old “go to heaven when you die” sort of “fire insurance” that has so often characterized American Christianity. The mission is to facilitate peace between God and the nations. That peace is part and parcel to personal salvation, but it is neither a salvation of mere forgiveness nor is it a salvation of escape. Rather, it is salvation in which we are made new creatures for life in the new creation. It is incarnational. It is transformational. It’s the whole package. Easter is mission.

Here’s My New Seven Minute Seminary: Resurrection and the Christian Afterlife (@OfficialSeedbed)

Here’s the latest installment of Seedbed’s Seven Minute Seminary series in which I discuss several questions related to life after death, bodily resurrection, and the pastoral significance of the Christian hope. Watch to the end to discover why this doctrine is so very near and dear to my heart. Be sure also to check out this great little discussion guide that the Seedbed team has put together to accompany the video for use in a small group setting.

Check out my other contributions to the Seven Minute Seminary project:

New Podcast: Body of Christ, Bread of Life @StMarkMobile #UMC

http://www.podbean.com/media/player/audio/postId/5402610/url/http%253A%252F%252Fstmarkumc.podbean.com%252Fe%252Fbody-of-christ-bread-of-life-john-11-5-10-18-648-58-1272014-rev-matt-oreilly%252F/initByJs/1/auto/1

When we want to read about the birth of Jesus, we usually turn to Matthew and Luke. After all, that’s where we find angels and shepherds, magi and the manger, Mary and Joseph, and, not least, baby Jesus himself. We don’t usually turn to the Gospel of John. John doesn’t have all the nativity stuff. Nevertheless, the opening chapter of John is telling a Christmas story, because it’s telling the story of the Word of God made flesh in the person of Jesus. It’s the story of the incarnation. And Christmas is about nothing, if it’s not about the incarnation. John is not quite so interested in who was there when Jesus was born. He is more interested in the implications of God taking a body in Christ. And one of the reasons John is interested in what it means for God to take a body in Christ is because John understands that the body of Christ is the bread of life. And John wants to be sure the sheep are fed. 
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