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

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Initial Thoughts on Paul and the Gift by John Barclay #PTG @eerdmansbooks

I’ve recently begun working through John Barclay’s highly anticipated new book Paul and the Gift. And at 582 pages (not counting bibliography and indices), it is quite a tome. Barclay is Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University in the UK. He has given a decade to researching and writing this book, and the quality of his research and argumentation is evident from the first page. Rather than waiting till I’ve finished to review it here, I thought I’d offer impressions and reflections along the way. After all, a full review would likely be somewhat lengthy for a single blog post. Instead, think of the series as a travelogue for a long journey. That said, let’s be off.
First, the book is a study on the concept of grace in the letters of Paul. It is titled Paul and the Gift because the Greek word for “grace” is charis, which was the typical way to speak of a gift in the Greco-Roman world. Barclay argues that any Pauline theology of grace should be understood in light of the ancient context of gift-giving. That argument is rather straightforward and not all that surprising; that is, until we dig deeply into context of gift-giving in the ancient Mediterranean world, which takes us to the next reflection.
Second, the giving of gifts in the Greco-Roman period was radically different than the giving of gifts in the modern period. This is the argument that Barclay makes in chapter 1. We tend to think of gift-giving as something that is done out of sheer gratuity with no (or at least very few) strings attached. We often think in terms of “pure gift” or “free gift.” Giving a gift to another person places no obligation on that person to reciprocate the gift. And when we come to the language of gift/grace in the New Testament, we read that language in light of our present day understanding of gifts – freely given, freely received. The problem, Barclay argues, is that our contemporary attitude toward gifts is substantially different than the attitudes toward gift-giving in the world of Paul and his contemporaries. In Paul’s day, gifts were part of a culture-wide system of reciprocity and came with many a string attached. To give a gift was to place the recipient under obligation. This, of course, has implications for choosing the recipient of a gift, because you would want to make a gift to someone who could fulfill the obligation placed upon them. Typically, then, gifts were given to people in relatively similar social situations. To receive a gift was to receive the message that the giver considered you a person able to reciprocate the gift. Such a gift creates a social bond, because it is a way of recognizing the value or worth of the recipient.
Some implications of this should be clear even before getting to the exegetical portions of the book. What would it do to our theology of grace if the gift of God in Christ comes with strings attached? What if receiving the gift of grace puts us under obligation both to honor God and to obey him? There are implications for pastoral ministry, too. How many sermons have we heard that declare grace to be a “free gift” or a “pure gift” that depends on nothing in us and requires nothing from us? Working out the particulars of these questions will have to wait, but you see the importance of reading Paul’s language of grace/gift within the context of Greco-Roman gift-giving.
Third, the scope of this book is remarkable. It is not merely a study of Paul in his context; it is also a reception history of Paul’s theology of grace beginning with Marcion and proceeding through Augustine and the Reformers before moving to modern interpreters including Barth, Bultmann, Kasemann, Martyn, and those associated with the New Perspective on Paul, E.P. Sanders not least. This reception history is followed by an extended section on “Divine Gift in Second Temple Judaism,” in which the diversity of Jewish views on grace are considered. At this point, you are 300 pages into the book, and you are just getting the New Testament exegetical portions which focus primarily on Galatians and Romans. Here’s the point: Barclay has produced a methodologically robust study that deals with Paul in his context, through history, and in our contemporary context. And he is only focusing in depth on two letters. Imagine the possibilities of digging into the other Pauline epistles. Might there be a follow-up volume in the works?
Fourth, the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). I’ll be brief here because I’ve only thus far read the introductory and concluding statements on Barclay’s interaction with the NPP. Here’s what he says to expect: E.P. Sanders and other advocates of the NPP argue that Judaism in Paul’s day was a religion of grace. Barclay responds by arguing that “Grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism but not everywhere the same” (6). His point is that the NPP has given us a picture of Judaism that is insufficiently diverse. Paul was one voice in the middle of a debate on the nature of grace. Sanders made the mistake of reading different attitudes toward grace onto the Pauline texts without considering the extent to which Paul and his contemporaries might agree that God acts graciously toward his covenant people even though they disagree on the particulars of that grace. If this argument turns out to be successful, it will be a big problem for the NPP. I’m eager to dig into the details of that one, and I’ll be interested to hear responses from NPP advocates.
I’ll finish by saying it is very tempting to skip ahead to certain parts of this book that relate directly to my current research. And I may very well do that in order to keep my work moving at a good pace. Nevertheless, the quality of this volume makes me what to read it carefully cover to cover. So, even if I skip ahead, I’ll be certain to go back and catch up anything I may have skipped over. There is much to be learned here.  

Book Note: Hermeneutics by Porter and Robinson

I’ve recently had the chance to review Hermeneutics: An Introduction to Interpretive Theory by Stanley Porter and Jason Robinson, and wanted to call attention to it here, because I’ve found it to be an altogether helpful book. Many readers of this blog will have had a course in theological method which surveyed Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment theories of critical interpretation, and they will know that it’s not easy to get a handle on the major figures and the schools of thought they represent, not to mention their relationship and attitudes to one another. Porter and Robinson have provided an outstanding tool intended for students in advanced undergraduate and graduate studies that maps out the major players in modern hermeneutics, introduces their contribution, and provides a solid critical analysis of their method. If you are in seminary or graduate school in theology or biblical studies, this book will help you understand why your discipline is where it is today.

Theory or History? The Difference is Important

It has become common in theological circles for historic doctrines related to the work of Christ to be described as “theories.” Different aspects of the atonement have been commonly referred to in terms of models or theories for some time (e.g. penal substitution, Christus victor). Now, especially it seems since the release of Douglas Campbell’s latest book, justification is being increasingly discussed in terms of “justification theory.”
It’s one thing for this to be the language of professional academic guilds, but I hope this language doesn’t work it’s way into the Church. Why? Well, I’m glad you asked. It’s important because atonement and justification have to do with how we come into a right relationship with God. And from a pastoral perspective, I don’t want to leave that up to theory.
Paul wrote of sinners that, “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Romans 3:24-25). And whatever that means, it is no mere theory. It is history; it is simply what happened. How do we gain access to God? Through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. How are we justified? By his grace as a gift. These are not theories for Paul. They are theological truths grounded in the historic event of Christ’s death and resurrection. I don’t want my relationship to God through Christ dependant on someones theory; I want it dependent on something that Jesus actually did.
The language of theory grants competing interpretations of atonement and justification some level of mutual credibility. The problem is that not all competing interpretations are credible. Not all are to be believed. Did Jesus propitiate the wrath of God or didn’t he? Does God justify sinners or doesn’t he? And the matter of whether and how he does that is not simply a matter of theory; it is an issue of what actually happened. It is a matter of what transpired on the cross, of what happens when a person believes the gospel. We must do the hard work of understanding what scripture means when it speaks of what Jesus actually did and what actually happens to us. Theories are of limited help; history is the key thing. There is a difference, and the difference may very well bear eternal significance.
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Richard Bauckham on the History of Universalism

In light of the recent buzz over Universalism, I want to call attention to Richard Bauckham’s article Universalism: a historical survey. As the title indicates, it surveys the general approaches to and important historical representatives of Universalism. Bauckham, formerly of the University of St. Andrews and an internationally respected scholar of the New Testament (and many related fields), makes a couple of points that I have found quite helpful.
First, Bauckham opens the essay discussing whether Universalism has really been an orthodox option for Christians in previous centuries. In this discussion, he says that throughout history there were a few Christian theologians here and there who held to Annihilationism and even fewer that held to universal salvation. Eternal punishment even appeared in several creeds (e.g. Athanasian Creed, Fourth Lateran Council, Canon I), which indicates to Bauckham that “It must have seemed as indispensable a part of universal Christian belief as the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation.” Only since the 1800’s has this situation changed with many Christians adopting Annihilationism or Universalism.
Second, he argues that after the upheaval of the nineteenth century, the twentieth century brought general  acceptance that any case for Universalism made on the basis of the biblical text would be an artificial one. Universalists basically agreed that responsible biblical exegesis would conclude that scripture taught a final judgment and ultimate division of humanity into the saved and the lost. In short, Universalism is not a defensible biblical option. At this point, the Universalist’s strategy simply became to disregard those biblical texts which speak clearly of eternal punishment in favor of those which seem to support universal salvation.
At the end of the day, for Bauckham, Universalism is outside the bounds of historic Christianity and generally characterized by disregard for serious interaction with the Bible.
The article, published in Themelios 4:2, will benefit non-Universalist Christians who may feel themselves the minority in today’s cultural climate by showing just how insignificant is its number of adherents through history. Bauckham argues that Universalism has never been held by anyone in the main stream of Christian thought. For Universalist leaning Christians, the article will be of benefit in providing a broad scope lay of the land on which they can then place themselves, and it is helpful in recognizing that serious Universalists don’t try to make the case biblically. Either way, the article is well worth reading in full.

Do you agree with Bauckham? Is Universalism really outside the mainstream of historic Christianity? If it is, how important is that? Is Universalism biblically defensible? Or do Universalists need to admit that it isn’t?

Pauline Eschatology: A Question on the History of Interpretation

It is now axiomatic in Pauline studies that eschatology is central to the Apostle’s theologizing. Any serious study of his thought must reckon with his belief about the future; it is pervasive in his thought.
Such was not always the case in critical studies of Paul, though. Indeed, it was not until the early 20th century that Pauline scholarship really began to wrestle with the eschatological dimension of Paul’s letters. Albert Schweitzer is largely credited with establishing the importance of eschatology for the study of Paul, but, as far as I can tell, Geerhardus Vos was doing the same thing at about the same time. Vos’ monumental volume, The Pauline Eschatology, was first published in 1930, the same year as the German edition of Schweitzer’s influential The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle. In the foreword of the 1979 reprint of Vos’ book, Richard Gaffin suggested that while Schweitzer is more frequently credited with “leading the way in bringing about a widespread awareness of the pervasively eschatological character of Paul’s teaching,” Vos did so more faithfully to Paul without some of the weaknesses Gaffin finds in Schweitzer’s understanding of Paul’s Christ-mysticism. Gaffin goes on to point out that Vos articulated many of the central issues in his 1912 essay, “The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Conception of the Spirit.” Schweitzer, however, also raised the issue in that same year with his Paul and His Interpreters, in which he concluded that Paul’s theology is essentially eschatological.
So, here’s the question: Did Vos and Schweitzer place this initial emphasis on the importance of eschatology for Pauline theology simultaneously, or did one of them publish something prior to 1912 that should be credited as being the pioneer study on the matter? Some of you Paul scholars out there, help me out.

Penal Substitution: Theological Innovation or Ancient Doctrine?

Is the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement a novel idea held mainly by the Reformers and their theological offspring? This is indeed the charge that is sometimes leveled against the argument that penal substitution is an essential element of a biblical view of the atonement. But can the historical evidence bear the weight of the charge? In this post, I want to draw your attention to a few major historical figures whose writings reveal that substitutionary atonement has been an important part of the Church’s understanding of the work of Christ since its earliest years. I intend to offer little in the way of commentary. My aim is primarily to draw attention to a few representative sources to counter the suggestion that substitution is not a truly ancient Christian understanding of the atonement.

The citations below are drawn from Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Crossway, 2007) by Steve Jeffrey, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach. Chapter 5 provides a thorough survey of historical figures which demonstrates that substitutionary atonement has characterized all periods of church history. This is a highly important work with which any serious critic of penal substitution must reckon, and I commend it as a thorough and persuasive defense of a biblical understanding of the atonement. And now, ad fontes.
A key figure from the early second century is Justin Martyr, who was one of the most important Christian writers from that period. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin writes:
For the whole human race will be found to be under a curse. For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.’ And no one has accurately done all…If, then, the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that, after He had been crucified and was dead, He would raise him up, why do you argue about Him, who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will, as if he were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves (Ante-Nicene Fathers I.247, emphasis added).
For Justin, then, the whole of humanity is under the penalty of the curse of God that is the consequence of their sin. The work of Christ is to bear that curse on their behalf.
Eusebius of Caesarea lived and wrote in the late third to early fourth century. While he is best known for his Ecclesiastical History, his penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement appears in his Proof of the Gospel:
And the Lamb of God…was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us, and drew down upon Himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us (10.1, emphasis added).
Note the precise use of penal substitutionary language: Christ suffered a penalty on our behalf. That penalty was itself death, and Christ’s bearing of that penalty is the cause of our forgiveness. Here we have evidence from none other than perhaps the most well-known church historian writing in the early fourth century using the precise language of penal substitutionary atonement.
Not to be overlooked is the influential Athanasius, who also wrote in the fourth century. In his all-important work On the Incarnation, Athanasius developed the consequences of sin in terms of corruption leading to non-existence. In light of this problem, Christ “surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father” (sec. 7, emphasis added). He then says further:
He assumed a body capable of death, in order that, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all…when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required (sec. 9).
As the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions point out, the notion of substitution is present in the use of “in place of all” and “exchange”, while the Son’s offering of himself “in death” establishes the penal element (172).
The fourth century preacher John Chrysostom likewise demonstrated his affirmation of penal substitution in a sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:21:
If one that was himself a king, beholding a robber and malefactor under punishment, gave his well-beloved son, his only-begotten and true, to be slain; and transferred the death and the guilt as well, from him to his son, that he might both save the condemned man and clear him from his evil reputation; and then if, having subsequently promoted him to great dignity, he had yet, after thus saving him and advancing him to that glory unspeakable, been outraged by the person that had received such treatment: would not that man, if he had any sense, have chosen then a thousand deaths rather than appear guilty of so great ingratitude? This then let us also now consider with ourselves, and groan bitterly for the provocations we have offered our Benefactor; nor let us therefore presume, because though outraged He bears it with long-suffering; but rather for this very reason be full of remorse (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, set 1, I.12).
Chrysostom’s story of a king who transfers the guilt of a criminal to his own son is a perfect illustration of the doctrine of penal substitution, which, he asserts, should shape our understanding of how God relates to us.
One final quote will firm up the case. The following is from Augustine’s Against Faustus:
But as Christ endured death as man, and for man; so also, Son of God as He was, ever living in His own righteousness, but dying for our offences, He submitted as man, and for man, to bear the curse which accompanies death. And as He died in the flesh which He took in bearing our punishment, so also, while ever blessed in His own righteousness, He was cursed for our offences, in the death which He suffered in bearing our punishment (14.6, emphasis added).
Augustine could not be more clear; Christ died to bear the curse for our transgressions.

The authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions also draw on the work of Hilary of Poitiers, Gegory Nazianzus, Ambrose of Milan, Cyril of Alexandria, Gelasius of Cyzicus, and Gregory the Great, who all wrote between the second and seventh centuries, to make their case that penal substitution is not only ancient but an ongoing way of understanding the biblical doctrine of the atonement. While penal substitution is certainly not the only way of speaking of atonement, it is certainly one of the most ancient ways the Church has thought about the atoning work of Christ. The idea is neither new nor novel. Rather, some of the greatest minds in the history of early Christian thought have seen in the scriptures the truth that God allowed the penalty of death for human sin to fall upon Christ who stood condemned as a substitute in our place. And those who maintain this truth today do so in accord with the Church through the ages.