Gordon McConville on "The Challenge of Being Human"

I was excited to learn last night that Professor Gordon McConville of my own University of Gloucestershire will deliver the annual lecture at the upcoming meeting of the Institute for Biblical Research (IBR) later this year. My own research is in the area of Pauline anthropology and the question of what it means to be human particularly with regard to embodiment; so I was also excited to find that Professor McConville will be delivering a paper entitled, “‘How like an angel!’: The Challenge of Being Human.” Here’s the abstract:
Hamlet’s take on Psalm 8:5 (Act 2 Sc. 2) highlights the contradiction between the enormous potential of human beings and their mortality, ‘this quintessence of dust’. A biblical theology of humanity also moves between these poles. Human destiny is written in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. But what does this leave to be said about human potential in a fallen world, and related concepts such as creativity, excellence, professionalism, and power? The lecture explores what the divine ascription of ‘goodness’ might mean for the human being’s sense of purpose in the world (Gen. 1:31). It finds its resources mainly but not exclusively in the Old Testament, and aims to make a contribution to Christian thinking on the subject. Key words in the approach taken are ‘embodiment’ and ‘engagement’. 
I had the chance to meet Professor McConville during a visit to the University last fall, and I found him to be very kind and personable. He is certainly a world-class scholar of the Old Testament, and I’m confident that he will deliver a very stimulating lecture. Other IBR sessions are on also on the topic of “Biblical Conceptions of Humanity: The Image of God.” So, if you are going to be at SBL, it looks like the IBR sessions will be well worth attending. 

SBL Suspends New Student Restrictions

Late last year the Society of Biblical Literature imposed new restrictions on student paper presentations and participation at the SBL annual meeting.  These changes did not come without controversy.  Indeed, a number of students registered their displeasure with the SBL Council’s decision.  You can find my own disagreement with the Council’s decision here.  In light of my earlier concern, I was pleased to get an email today from John Kutsko, Executive Director of the SBL, notifying student members that the Executive Committee of the Council had suspended the earlier changes implemented by the Council.  I am very glad to hear that student concerns are being heard and am appreciative to the SBL Student Advisory Board for representing the interests of student members.  The issue will be up for further discussion at the spring meeting of the Council.  Full participation of student members is in accord with the agreement for membership in the SBL and provides important opportunities for student advancement, professional experience, and valuable feedback.  It is my hope that the changes will be permanently revoked and that students will continue to enjoy full rights as members of SBL.

SBL Student Survey on Policy Changes

The Student Advisory Board of the SBL is conducting a survey of student members on their perceptions of the policy changes regarding student presentations at the annual meeting.  I found the survey through Michael Halcomb’s website: Pisteuomen.  Here’s what he says:
As many of you may know, there has been considerable conversation about new policies regarding students and student paper presentations at the SBL Annual Meetings. The Student Advisory Board (SAB) has been collecting feedback for a response to be sent to the SBL Executive Council. As part of this response, we would like to include the results of a short survey gauging your responses to these new policies. This will allow us who are on the SAB to present hard data alongside written feedback. If you can, please take just a couple of minutes and fill out this survey.
Here’s the link to the survey.  I hope student members will make their voices heard.  Perhaps these policies will be changed.

SBL Restricts Student Participation

Along with other student members of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), I recently received an email letter from John F. Kutsko, Executive Director of SBL, informing me of changes that have been made by the Council of SBL to the way in which student members may participate in the SBL Annual Meeting.  Here are those changes:
1. All students without a doctoral degree are required to submit to the Program Unit Chair the full text of the paper they will read. The paper will be submitted at the time of proposal. Student proposers will submit the paper they intend to read, not a full-length article intended for written distribution.
2. The number of sessions students can participate in will be limited to one. This policy pertains to participation as panelist, presenter, and respondent.
As a student member of SBL currently at work on my doctoral degree, I was extremely disappointed over these changes.  These restrictions put students at a disadvantage in the presentation proposal review process and, if maintained, will ultimately lead to reduced student participation in the Annual Meetings, a consequence of which will be less interaction with and feedback from other scholars which is so valuable to ongoing doctoral research.  Let me flesh a few of these points out in more detail.
  1. Student participation will be reduced.  If students are required to turn in their full paper at the time of proposal, then their time to conduct and complete their research is reduced by more than eight months.  Research that will not be presented until November is now due in February.  I finished the final draft of my 2010 paper presentation only days before the conference.  I had expected to get to work on some other ideas for 2011, submit them as proposals, and, if accepted, be able to conduct and finish the research over the course of the next year.  The idea of having all the research completed and written up by the first of March is crippling and near impossible given the responsibilities of my work and as a student.  This change in SBL policy is demoralizing and discourages me from attempting to put the work together in less than half the time to which I am accustomed.  This sadly means that it is unlikely that I will submit a proposal for next year.  From the looks of things circling on the blogs, my fellow student members feel the same way.  What is said to be an aid to students will ultimately strip us of previous opportunity and valuable experience.
  2. If student participation is reduced, students will have less opportunity to receive feedback on their work.  My first presentation at SBL was in 2008, while I was an M.Div. student at Asbury Theological Seminary.  It went very well, and I had some very interesting and helpful interaction during the Q & A time after my presentation.  Given the significantly increased difficulty in gaining acceptance at the Annual Meeting, I can kiss such feedback and interaction goodbye.  The SBL is supposed to be fostering biblical scholarship and the next generation of biblical scholars.  To implement restrictions that will inevitably decrease student participation is a contradiction to the stated mission and vision of the SBL. 
  3. In the past, the peer reviewers of the paper proposals did not know which proposals came from students and which came from senior scholars.  Now that students have to submit full manuscripts as opposed to titles and abstracts, it will be quite clear who the students are.  This will make it impossible to prevent biased decisions against student papers and in favor of those written by holders of the Ph.D. and places students at a distinct disadvantage in the review process.  This undermines the credibility of SBL as an unbiased organization that professes to value inclusiveness, collegiality, and scholarly integrity.
  4. These changes may qualify as a breach of contract.  I registered as a student member under the condition that I would “receive all the same benefits as a full member.”  Now that student members are not granted all the benefits of full membership (e.g. reduced appearances and increased proposal requirements), it would seem that the SBL has violated the terms of our membership agreement and may be legally liable for that infringement.  It doesn’t appear that they really thought this one through. 
For these reasons, the new restrictions to student involvement at SBL meetings are an insult to student members and a stain on the reputation of the Society of Biblical Literature. So much for fostering the future of biblical scholarship.

Belated ETS & SBL Reflections

I’m a bit behind most in the blogosphere who have already posted reflections on the recent annual gatherings of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta.  Nonetheless, here are a few thoughts:
1. This was the first year I attended ETS.  I was struck by the charity and reverence throughout.  You might be surprised to hear that I was struck in this way, ETS being a confessional professional society composed of people who are supposed to be, well, evangelical.  Academic conferences are not always the most charitable gatherings with many eager to present their work and critique that of others.  But this was different.  There was a certain attitude about the place, a certain holiness; this was a gathering of people who typically seemed to love Christ and his church, a gathering of people who desire to serve Christ and his church.  That would not be typical of academic conferences, even in theology.
2. As many have written, one of the best things about these conferences is the opportunity to gather with old friends and make new ones.  I enjoyed catching up with many I’ve not seen since these conferences gathered last year.  Catching up with classmates and professors at the Asbury reception is always a highlight.
3. Speaking of Asbury, let me say that I was quite glad to see a number of Asbury Seminary people at ETS.  In the past, you might only find one or two Asbury profs present.  I was happy to see several of Asbury’s doctoral students and hear a paper from Dr. John Oswalt, who is now in Wilmore once again.  Asbury’s president, Dr. Tim Tennent, was slated to present as was Dr. Robert Coleman, who has also moved to Wilmore.  I’m not sure if he’s teaching or not, though I imagine many would hope for it.  This is significant because Asbury has had a reputation for a bit of a leftward shift in recent years.  In light of that, I was very encouraged to see an increasing Asbury presence at ETS.  Wilmore seems to have gotten an evangelical influx in the last couple of years, for that we can be thankful.
4. I thought the plenary discussions on “Justification by Faith” at ETS were especially helpful and served to move forward what has, at times, become a stale conversation.  Thomas Schreiner’s presentation was very clear and kind.  Frank Thielman’s proposal that dikaiosune theou (righteousness of God) is polyvalent and includes the concept of “God’s fairness” was highly stimulating, entirely fresh, well-argued, and carried significant potential for common ground in the justification debate, if, of course, he is right.  I’m not ready to pronounce a verdict; his proposal needs time to simmer.  I was a bit surprised at how close Thielman landed to Tom Wright, which brings me to his presentation.  Wright surprised me as well.  I somewhat expected him to dig his heels in and simply restate what he had said in the past; this, of course, is basically what he did in his last book on justification, which disappointed me.  If one is going to take the time to write a book, then he ought to be sure to move the discussion forward.  But Wright really answered some questions this time.  Two particularly surprising moves were his statements (1) that final justification would be in accordance with works rather than on the basis of works and (2) that he might be comfortable with imputation language depending on how carefully it was defined.  These are movements towards the middle of the debate for Wright.  If you want more see the summary post by Andrew Cowan and a clarification post by Wright himself.  To my Southern friends, let me apologize now, but it cracked me up when Wright suggested some neo-Catholicism lurking behind closed doors at Southern Seminary (UPDATE: more on Wright at ETS here). 
5. Last and most likely least, my paper presentation at SBL was largely uneventful.  It went smoothly, and no one challenged my thesis.  No one said anything actually, which means either that the paper was not all that significant or that it was so clear and precise that everyone was stunned silent.  I’ll opt for the latter.  There was one senior scholar present who was nodding as I read the conclusion; so I’ll take that as encouragement and roll with it. 

2010 SBL Program Online

The preliminary program book for the 2010 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature has been put online.  Here’s a summary of the unit in which I will be presenting:
Letters of James, Peter, and Jude
11/21/2010
9:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Room: Room TBD – Hotel TBDTheme: Open Papers
Peter Davids, St. Stephen’s University, Presiding
David A. deSilva, Ashland Theological Seminary
James and the Testament of Job: The Evidence for Intertextuality (30 min)
Patrick Egan, University of St. Andrews-Scotland
An Epistle for All Christians: Considering the Ethnic Identity of the Audience of 1 Peter (30 min)
Travis B. Williams, University of Exeter
A New Perspective on “Good Works” in 1 Peter (30 min)
Matthew P. O’Reilly, Jay United Methodist Church
Waiting For His Promised Coming: Eschatology and Ethics in Chain-Link in 2 Peter 3 (30 min)
E. Bruce Brooks, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
The Position of Jude (30 min)
A couple of comments on the lineup:
  • I’m excited to be presenting in a session in which Peter Davids is presiding.  He’s an outstanding scholar and I’m looking forward to making his acquaintance.
  • I’m also looking forward to meeting David deSilva and, perhaps, getting some feedback from him.  This paper is my first real attempt at rhetorical criticism, and deSilva is well regarded in that area.
  • Also, I’m glad to see that we have 30 minutes for the presentations.  The last presentation I made was alotted only 20 minutes.  This paper is already a good deal longer than that one was, and I’ve been planning to cut some big chunks for the presentation.  Now I won’t have to cut quite as much.
Should be fun!

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.