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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Eternally secure; provided that

The debate over eternal  security among various stripes of evangelicals is unlikely to go away any time soon. Some assert that upon conversion believers are guaranteed their salvation cannot be lost. Others disagree by claiming that believers can fall from grace. One of my professors who takes this view is fond of saying, “No one is eternally secure until they are securely in eternity.” Both sides argue that their view accurately interprets the biblical data. Interestingly, these two variant perspectives come together in scripture in surprising ways. Take 2 Peter 3:17, for example:

“Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position” (NIV, emphasis added).

Did you catch that? Fall from your secure position! It would seem that Peter can speak of both security and falling away in the very same breath. We might be inclined to ask what sort of security this might be if one can indeed fall from it. But that’s just it. In this passage, security is not a matter of being once saved and thus always saved. The language of security is here used to describe the believer’s position, but that security is not understood by the author as something that cannot be lost. So, Peter understands security differently than proponents of the doctrine of perseverance. Perilous error appears a real possibility. The believer is secure provided that he does not fall. Language about security can be one of those places where we bring our presuppositions shaped by our theological system into the interpretation of the text. Sometimes it may even be the case that we presuppose a certain idea of eternal security to give ourselves a doctrinal safety net. However, texts like this one undermine such a view. This case provides a good example of allowing scripture to define its own terminology rather than importing our own systems and presuppositions onto our reading of scripture. In 2 Peter 3, security of salvation in this life is conditioned on steadfast faith in the promise of the Lord.

Rhetorical Criticism: An Appropriate Method for New Testament Studies?

I’ve been working through some material on rhetorical critical approaches to New Testament studies, as of late, in preparation for my presentation at SBL later this year.  While it seems to be gaining acceptance and adherents, rhetorical criticism remains somewhat criticisized as a lens for interpreting biblical texts.  Critics often argue that because our knowledge of the education of the biblical authors is limited, we don’t know whether they were trained in the canons of classical rhetoric.  Thus, they say, it is illegitimate to evaluate and interpret their writings based on those canons. 
A question may be posed in response, though: Do the writings of the biblical authors evidence an awareness of and proficiency in classical rhetoric?  If we answer this question affirmatively, then it would seem rhetorical categories are not only appropriate but called for with regard to the texts which would appear to use them.  If the writer evidences facility with ancient rhetorical convention, then to read the text through a rhetorical-critical lens would be to read the text on its own terms.  We don’t need to have explicit data about the author’s education to judge whether his writings indicate a knowledge of rhetoric.  In my current project, I aruge that 2 Peter 3 is structured with a rather elegant rhetorical transition device.  Is there external evidence that Peter had classical oratory training?  No.  But there is internal evidence that he was familiar with this particular device and put it to use in the letter.
Let me say as well that I find rhetorical criticism to be much more fruitful in the New Testament letters than I do other genres.  The letters were written to be delivered orally upon their arrival at their destination.  It makes perfect sense that they would include features to enhance the oral delivery of the letter/speech.  So, while I might read Romans through a rhetorical lens, I would hesitate to read Mark that way.
So, is rhetorical criticism an appropriate method for studying the New Testament?  The answer is that it is more appropriate in some places and less in others.  If the letters evidence rhetorical features, then we should allow the text to determine our method and analyze them in light of those features.  Evidence for rhetorical features is harder to demonstrate in narratives.  So, we should be more cautious as we approach those texts.

From Submission to Supremacy: the Work of Christ in 1 Peter

1 Peter 3:18-22 is one of the most obscure and difficult texts in all of scripture.  When did Christ preach to the spirits in prison?  What was the content of his preaching?  Where did he go to do this preaching?  There seems no end to the possible interpretive spins suggested by commentators with regard to this text, and the debate will certainly not be settled in a single blog post. 

The difficulty should not distract us from what is clear about the passage, though.  Three features of this text give it shape and movement.  The passage begins with the suffering of Christ in his death by crucifixion (18).  It then moves quickly to the victory of Christ in the resurrction when he was “made alive in the spirit” (18).  Peter then brings the text to a resounding climax by declaring the supremacy of Christ over every power as manifest through his exaltation to the right hand of power (22).  1 Peter 3:18-22, then, is a powerful declaration of the comprehensive victory of Christ through his death and resurrection and of his unmatched supremacy in all things through his exaltation to the right hand of God the Father.  As a part of that glorious good news, Peter highlights the saving benefit of Christ’s resurrection for those who belong to him.

Peter clearly understands the cross as functioning in a substitutionary manner.  Christ, the righteous one, died for the unrighteous (18).  As one undeserving of suffering, he submitted to suffering in the place of those who rightfully deserved it, namely everyone else.  The goal of this suffering was to reconcile estranged humanity to God. 

The work of Christ does not end in suffering, though.  Peter is happy to celebrate that Jesus was made alive through the agency of the Spirit.  Note the trinitarian framework of Peter’s soteriology here.  Christ died for sins.  He was raised by the Spirit.  He was exalted to the right hand of God.  The fullness of the trinitarian energy is here directed at the saving work accomplished in the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ and the movement from suffering to glory. 

Despite the interpretive difficulties that come with this brief passage, one thing is clear: the supremacy of Christ in all things.  The one who suffered for us now lives and reigns over all things.  Salvation comes to us through this one, through his substitutionary death and his all-victorious resurrection (22). 

As a result, Peter indicates that we ought to be deeply thankful for our baptism, which marks us out as those who have received the benefit of salvation through Christ’s resurrection.  Our consciences are clear because Christ suffered the penalty for our transgressions.  The saving work is complete because God vindicated Christ by raising him from the dead.  Our resurrection hope is certain because the suffering Lord has conquered and reigns supreme over all.

2010 SBL Paper

I recently got word that my paper proposal for the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature was accepted.  The title of the paper is: “Waiting for His Promised Coming: Eschatology and Ethics in Chain-link in 2 Peter 3.”  I’ll be reading it in the Letters of James, Peter, and Jude Program Unit.  Here’s the abstract:
The chain-link interlock is an ancient rhetorical transition device which, though long neglected in scholarship, has recently been identified by Bruce Longenecker. The chain-link transition involves two distinct textual units with overlapping material across the textual boundary which aims to effect a smooth rhetorical transition. This device is present in numerous New Testament texts and often effects how these texts should be interpreted and understood theologically. This paper will demonstrate that the transition in 2 Peter 3 from the argument of vv. 3:8-13 to the peroratio of vv. 14-18 is rhetorically structured by a chain-link interlock, and that this transition has been structured to link the author’s theology of the parousia with the ethical and moral development of the recipients’ character of life. The argument will progress by first presenting primary source evidence for the chain-link interlock from the ancient rhetorical handbooks. It will then be demonstrated that 2 Peter 3 fits the chain-link model and that the author intends this rhetorical feature to govern the way the peroratio is understood by the recipients of the letter. The paper will conclude by offering an interpretation of the peroratio in light of chain-link structure of the text.

Living as Aliens – Aliens from What?

In 1 Peter 2:11, Peter speaks of his audience “as aliens and exiles.”  This language has often been used to foster a dualistic approach to Christianity that sees believers as exiles on earth from their heavenly home.  The idea is summed up in the old gospel tune, “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.”  The problem arises when an escapist theology develops in which believers are simply biding their time until they are whisked off to heaven and away from this earth.  In such a framework, there is little to no thought given to the bodily resurrection or the new creation.  This perspective is radically dualistic and deeply unbiblical.  So, from what are Christians alien and exiled?  Peter gives three indications as to what he means, none of which have anything to do with our residence on the planet Earth. 

First, as aliens and exiles Peter encourages his hearers to “abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul” (11).  For Peter, this alienation and exile is to be understood in terms of the flesh or the life lived apart from the Spirit of God.  Unbelievers live in one way and nurture certain desires.  Believers are to live another way resisting ungodly desires which destroy their lives.  So, this exile is couched not in terms of where we live but of how we live, whether we live lives of godly character and holiness.  Christians are exiles because we are not at home with the values and desires of unbelievers.

Second, Peter instructs the aliens and exiles to live “honorably among the Gentiles (or nations)” (12).  Once again, the issue here is character.  Peter’s hearers are interspersed among the nations and he expects them to live a certain way.  Specifically, he expects them to live lives that glorify God.   The reference to the nations does not indicate that they are not at home on the planet.  It indicates that their honorable living sets them apart from those unbelievers amonst whom they live.  Once again, the matter of distinction and alienation is a matter of character, not location.  We are aliens becuase our living is distinguishable from the unbelievers all around.

Third, Peter exhorts his hearers to live honorably so that their deeds will glorify God when he comes (12)The perspective here is not one of escapism.  Rather, Peter, with the rest of scripture, looks forward to the day when God’s glorious presence will be manifest on earth to reign and judge without hindrance or opposition.  If God is coming to earth, one should not be hoping to escape it.  If God is coming to the world, then it will be both his home and the home of his people. 

Christians are not exiled from heaven on earth.  For Peter, Christians are exiles with regard to the values, desires, and character of those who do not belong to Christ.  We need to recover the concept that God made this world, declared it good, and is committed to its redemption.  He is working to restore it.  He has no plans to destroy it.  We are going to be here for a very long time, forever in fact, as will our Triune God who made us for fellowship with himself on this planet.  This earth is definitely our home.

A Balanced Doctrine of Salvation

I think its fair to say that evangelicals tend emphasize the cross of Christ to the neglect of his resurrection.  More hymns are written about the cross.  More sermons are preached on the cross.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not criticizing a cross-centered and cross-focused ministry.  But I do wonder if we have not lost a balance to which the New Testament holds firmly, a balance between the importance of both cross and resurrection for the full work of salvation. 

This balance shows up clearly in the opening verses of 1 Peter.  Peter affirms in one breath that the people of God are sprinkled with the blood of Christ (1:2) and given new birth through the resurrection of Christ from the dead (1:3).  For Peter, a holistic and fully developed doctrine of salvation maintains that we are forgiven through the atoning and substitutionary death of Christ on the cross and that we are given new life through Christ’s resurrection.  Death without resurrection is not good news.  And neither can you have resurrection unless first you die.  Both are necessary to a fully Christian and biblical understanding of salvation. 

I wonder if our emphasis on the cross to the neglect of new resurrection life is not behind a tendency in some quarters of American Christianity to focus on salvation as forgiveness while neglecting an understanding of salvation as transformation into a new life.  Its not a far stretch of the imagination to correlate this matter with an emphasis on justification to the neglect of sanctification which also characterizes some corners of American Christianity.  Again, let me say that I’m not arguing for a de-emphasis on the cross.  I am arguing for a balanced emphasis on both cross and resurrection.  The cross and resurrection of Christ is not an either/or issue; it is always both/and. 

So, let us, with Peter, maintain a fully Christian and biblically balanced understanding of this great salvation.  We have been cleansed by the blood of Christ shed for us on the cross.  We have been forgiven our transgressions and granted new birth into the new creation by virtue of union with our crucified and resurrected Lord.  We now look forward to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.