July 12-14 the Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) will host a 40-anniversary celebration and conference at Eastern University which includes a Friday night roasting of Ron Sider. Unfortunately, for me, this exciting event will take place 2 weeks after I move to New York! But if you can attend, I am sure it will be a memorable event.
I am looking forward to Kevin Vanhoozer’s next theological book, entitled Faith Speaking Understanding (WJK). Here is the description:
In this volume, highly esteemed scholar Kevin Vanhoozer introduces readers to a way of thinking about Christian theology that takes the work he began in the groundbreaking 2005 book, The Drama of Doctrine, to its next level. Vanhoozer argues that theology is not merely a set of cognitive beliefs, but is also something we do that involves speech and action alike. He uses a theatrical model to explain the ways in which doctrine shapes Christian understanding and forms disciples. The church, Vanhoozer posits, is the preeminent theater where the gospel is “performed,” with doctrine directing this performance. Doctrines are not simply truths to be stored, shelved, and stacked, but indications and directions to be followed, practiced, and enacted. In “performing” doctrine, Christians are shaped into active disciples of Jesus Christ. He goes on to examine the state of the church in today’s world and explores how disciples can do or perform doctrine. Written in an accessible and engaging style,Faith Speaking Understanding sets forth a compelling vision of what the church is and what it should be doing, and demonstrates the importance of Christian doctrine for this mission.
The only question is – when is it going to be released? The WJK website says January 1900. The CBD website says October 2014. Talk about an ancient-future faith!
This is the second post in two-part series. In the first post, I explained the purpose and perspective of the book Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not, edited by J. Modica and S. McKnight.
Now I would like to explain why I think the discussion and criticism of the book, a kind of caution against empire studies (but not a full-scale rejection) is a bit misguided, largely due to way we structure the debate.
First of all, let me say what many folks in the book have said.
1. They argue that “empire studies” people read too much into what is there – so minor characters and phrases are overloaded with anti-imperial meaning.
2. They argue that “empire studies” people read too much into what is not there – so, for example, when Paul writes to Rome, it is assumed the political stakes are higher because it is the imperial capital.
I agree that we need to be careful of over-interpretation. Not everything is intended by NT writers to be a slight against Caesar. Nevertheless, I simply do not like the wording often used to talk about this debate. Here are two problematic words:
Peripheral – to talk about “central” and “peripheral” is to make some things important that Paul (or John or Peter) says and other things less important. I think we throw around this language in a casual way, without offering a clear framework for how we consider something peripheral or marginal to an author. Also, to be clear, just because an author does not mention something frequently, or even explicitly, that does not mean it is unimportant to them.
Implication – we tend to treat political issues according to Paul as little more than an “implication” of the gospel, not the message itself. But, I would argue, not implications are alike, and they are not all of equal value. Some implications are very important and carry a lot of weight, and others do not.
Instead of referring to imperial matters as “peripheral” or an “implication” I would suggest that it is important for understanding the first century understanding of the gospel because it is structural. Mike Gorman uses the term “theopolitical” to explain the nature of the gospel. One cannot discard the political quality of the gospel when some of the key terms used for it involve “gospel,” “Son of God,” “Lord,” “Kingdom/Empire,” “Father,” “Savior,” and “God of Peace.” We don’t quite “get” how these words were popularized in Roman propoganda, because we don’t hear that gospel with their cultural experiences, but my own impression is that, even though these terms come from the Old Testament and Jewish ideology, is it an unfortunate or strange coincidence that they are Roman political terms as well?
Actually, Sylvia Keesmaat has a fine essay called “In the Face of the Empire: Paul’s Use of Scripture in the Shorter Epistles,” where she argues that Paul’s appeal to OT Scripture and the story of Israel “challenges the empire.” This essay is in Hearing the OT in the NT (Eerdmans, 2006).
Besides many of the most important words related to the gospel having a recognizably political public quality, I want to make 4 point pertaining to why I think empire studies (despite its penchant for exaggeration and parallelomania) is important for New Testament studies as a foundational concern (and not merely “peripheral” or “implicational”).
#1: The persecution against Christians in the first century (and into the second) had a fundamentally political nature.
From most of what we read in the NT, Christians like Peter, Paul, and John of Patmos were not persecuted for their strange religious beliefs (per se), but because it appeared dangerous to society. This is rather clear in Acts where angry crowds say, “They are acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying there is another king named Jesus” (17:7). Did they really say there is another king? Or did they say “Jesus is King” and it was taken as a direct threat?
This is one sign that dismissing imperial matters as an “implication” won’t do. It is not peripheral, it is, what I would say, “structural.” The Gospel imagery is “built” with the same epistemological framework as imperial ideology.
Or, consider Acts 16:20 – “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” Notice the accusations against the Christians. They are distinctive for their practices, not their beliefs (alone).
The other day, I was telling my freshmen the story of the martyrdom of Polycarp. While I had read this tale before, what struck me on this reading was that Polycarp was given the last opportunity before he was burned at the stake to “swear by the genuis of Caesar” and to renounce Christ. Thus, Polycarp makes his famous statement – “Eighty and six years have I served [Christ], and he never did me any injury; how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”
Again, you cannot separate religion and politics.
#2: Jews of the first century and before understood “salvation” often enough in political “this-worldly” terms.
If we believe that the earliest Christians continued within the streams of Judaism before a “partings of the ways” (whenever we might argue that was), could it be true that these followers of Jesus abandoned the “this-worldly” redemptive (and even political) components of the hopes of salvation? While many examples of Jewish political hopes could be mentioned, I will reserve it to one: the remembered words of the revolutionary who died in Masada (early 70sAD), Elazar ben Yair:
Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God himself, who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution in practice…We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.
Could the Jewish vision of freedom and redemption from God be that different than a “Christian” understanding of God’s salvation? I am not advocating a kind of Christian version of political revolutionary mentality, but I think we can take too big of a leap away from terra firma if we separate Jesus’ understanding of redemption (let’s say as spiritual) from a “normal” Jewish perspective.
#3: The “messianic” texts of the OT (as few as they are) tend to have an irreducible “political” dimension related to Israel’s hopes of restoration, freedom, and everlasting dynasty.
Consider Ps. 2: “Why do the nations conspire…The kings of the earth set themselves and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and his anointed…He who sits in the heavens laughs…he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”
One point I would like to make – notice how Yahweh announces the enthronement of his chosen king not before the ears of Israel, but presumably as something like a performative utterance to the world that simultaneous crowns the anointed as well as deposes the earthly kings.
#4: We need to understand just how “present” and “ubiquitous” the empire and emperor were to the people under rule.
Many scholars who balk at the claims of empire-studies proponents saying that they overdraw the importance of imperial rule. The argument is made (by Seyoon Kim for example) that the anti-kingdom of Christ’s rule is not that of Caesar, but that of Satan. For John Barclay, the emperor is insignificant to Paul because the real enemies (pulling the strings, as it were) are the “archic” (cosmic) powers.
I want to affirm, yes, Jesus and Paul saw Satan as the ultimate enemy of God. And, yes, any one earthly empire is seen as a fading and temporary ruler. But we need to try and understand what it was like to be subjugated under Roman rule for Jews (and for Christians in the first century). I think one of the best modern examples is Nazi Germany. Think about how much theological energy was spent by the likes of Barth, Bonhoeffer, Kaesemann, and others to show how Christians should resist the dictatorial will of Hitler.
I could go on and on about Bonhoeffer, but instead I will just say that when Kaesemann was arrested in 1937, it probably has something to do with the fact that just before that he had preached on Isaiah 26:13 publicly: “O Lord our God, other lords besides you have ruled over us, but we acknowledge your name alone.”
Now, when you live in an oppressive regime, it is hard to think outside of those pressures and injustices. It is hard to keep Caesar and Satan separate. You know they are not “one-and-the-same,” but you constantly deal with the “Caesar” in front of you so, for all intents and purposes, that is how you experience Satan.
In Modica and McKnight’s book, they argue (following the psychology of Maslow) that empire studies scholars only see empire and treat everything as reactionary – using only a hammer and treating everything as nails. But if we understand an oppressive context like the Roman empire well enough, it is not so much that all you have is a hammer – it is that everything looks like nails so you better get your worn-out hammer again!
Is there anyhing or any area of life that was “untouched” by the empire? Some say life was quite normal for some and people didn’t think about the empire in rural areas. I find that hard to believe. Does not every road lead to Rome?
Now, some have said that even Jesus shows a kind of casual political indifference in the text of John 18:36 (“My kingdom is not of this world”), but folks like Tom Wright have showed that Jesus did not say “My kingdom is not for this world.” Rather, it is not “of” this world. What does that mean? I think Moltmann gets this precisely right:
The oft-quoted saying…[John 18:36] does not signify that his kingdom is elsewhere, but that it is of a different pattern from this world. Yet, different as it is, it is in the midst of this world through Jesus himself. Thus it is not in accordance with Jesus’ preaching to call the kingdom ‘unpolitical’ or to banish it into another sphere, that of heaven or of the heart. The kingdom is political in a quite different way, and politically, it is quite different from the systems and rules of the struggle for world domination and revenge” (see The Crucified God, p 140)
Summary and Conclusion
Again I will say that I think empire studies has helped us see the political importance of the gospel. We must not allow that to be all “this-worldly,” nor blend religion and politics into civil religion. I like to say the gospel is [lower-case "p"] political, not [upper-case "P"] Political. There is an irreducibly theopolitical and even counter-cultural dimension to the gospel. It is not against culture as culture, but because so much of the way we do society is driven by power, greed, and lust, the gospel resists such things and calls for another way.
I am not satisfied with referring to “empire” or “politics” as central-vs-peripheral. Nor am I happy with calling it a mere “implication.” I think the best term is “structural.” Jesus preaches about the “empire of God” and he establishes himself as governor and sovereign of that empire. This must be a political statement because it is de-constructive. For Jesus to make himself out to be a universal ruler must, in some way, erode the authority of the currently-reigning regent. The language of the gospel itself is built around neo-political language and imagery.
When I spoke to a small group of students about this a couple of weeks ago, I gave this example:
Let’s say an employee of Lexus own an Audi and says to a friend at a work picnic, “I love my new Audi – it is perfection!” [Everyone there knows that Lexus' tagline is 'The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection.] So, what does his statement mean for Lexus? Is the man criticizing Lexus? Perhaps, perhaps not; his statement is about Audi, but it must be de-constructionistic. We may call this an implication, but it happens to be a major implication.
Now, at the end of the day, you may say, “big deal, who cares.” There are a lot of critical matters in scholarship where I think very little is at stake. However, with this matter, it can have quite a large effect on how one views the gospel and its relevance and impact on society. One of the reasons I am so appreciative of the proponents of empire studies is that this subject has inspired serious engagement between church and society. I think of people like Stanley Hauerwas. In his classic text (co-written with William Willimon), Hauerwas wrote several years back:
We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.” (48).
Last week I gathered together with a small group of theology students on a Tuesday evening to have a dialogue with my colleague Dr. Joe Modica (chaplain and assoc prof of NT at Eastern) about his new book, co-edited with Scot McKnight, Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (IVP 2013). Because I am “in” with a co-editor, IVP sent me a copy (even before Modica got his author/editor copies!). In this initial post, I will give a brief overview of the what this book is trying to accomplish. In the next post, I will give my own thoughts on “empire studies” and its benefits. (Spoiler: I do think that some empire scholars have imported things into NT texts that don’t belong there, but I think empire studies is much more important than the contributors and editors of this book think. I think the way we have framed the discussion makes it harder to understand how important imperial issues are to Biblical theology.)
Contrary to what you might guess, this book is not an out-and-out critique of “empire studies.” It is more of an occasion, now after a couple of decades of the boom of this discipline, to take stock of where it came from, how methodologically sound it is, what its benefits are for Biblical interpretation, and in what areas and ways it may need to be reined in hermeneutically a bit tighter. In that sense, the book intends to be, and comes across as, an irenic critique.
McKnight and Modica co-authored the introduction and conclusion. Sandwiched between we have 10 main chapters.
“We Have No King But Caesar: Roman Imperial Ideology and the Imperial Cult” (David Nystrom)
“Anti-Imperial Rhetoric in the New Testament” (Judith Diehl)
“Matthew” (Joel Willitts)
“The Gospel of Luke and the Roman Empire” (Dean Pinter)
“John’s Gospel and the Roman Imperial Context” (Christopher W. Skinner)
“Proclaiming Another King Named Jesus? The Acts of the Apostles and the Roman Imperial Cult(s)” (Drew J. Strait)
” ‘One Who Will Arise To Rule Over The Nations’: Paul’s Letter to the Roman and the Roman Empire” (Michael Bird)
“Philippians and Empire: Paul’s Engagement with Imperialism and the Imperial Cult” (Lynn Cohick)
“Colossians and the Rhetoric of Empire: A New Battle Zone” (Allan Bevere)
“Something Old, Something New: Revelation and Empire” (Dwight D. Sheets)
There is a foreword by theologian Andy Crouch which eloquently offers a broader statement that fits the perspective of most of the contributors. Crouch writes:
After all the scholarly examination is done, even with a stiff tailwind of intellectual fashion propelling the quest for signs of anti-imperial sentiment, it seems that the only fair conclusion is that there is a surprisingly small place in the New Testament writers’ attention for denunciations of Caesar, explicit or otherwise…The way of Jesus’ first followers was not to blaspheme Artemis or to denounce Caesar–it was to proclaim Jesus.
To put it another way, to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ does not seem actually to entail saying “Caesar is not [Lord].’ Rather, it entails not saying “Caesar is Lord.’ This minute grammatical distinction, simply a matter of where the negation is placed, seems to me to explain so much about the New Testament witness. The affirmation ‘Jesus is Lord’ requires not so much a strident denunciation of earthly lords as a studied silence concerning their pretensions. The answer to Caesar’s inflated claims of significance is further proclamation of Jesus the Messiah’s real significance (13).
A more directed methodological critique is raised by editors McKnight and Modica in the conclusion where they cite Maslow’s dictum: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail” (see Morna Hooker’s oft-cited essay “On Using the Wrong Tool”). So, “If all one sees is the Roman Empire while reading the New Testament, then everything becomes empire criticism.” (211). Here is their concluding statement:
We believe that the New Testament writers do indeed address the concern highlighted by empire criticism. But we also strongly suggest that this is not their primary modus operandi. The New Testament writers are cognizant of Roman occupation, aware of Roman customs and laws, but they fundamentally understand Jesus’ inaugurating of the kingdom of God in direct opposition to and in contrast to the kingdom of Satan (see Mt 12:26; Lk 11:18). The kingdom of God exemplifies redemption and life; the kingdom of Satan exudes sin and death. [Seyoon] Kim aptly notes: ‘Jesus fights the kingdom of Satan and redeems the sick out of it, but he does not fight the Roman imperial system and does not redeem the victims of its evil rulers’ (p. 212).
Some of the writers are more insistent that anti-imperial concerns are not present in the text (see, for example, Skinner’s chapter on John). Others recognize its presence, though caution against over-reaching (Bird on Romans, or Sheets on Revelation). This book represents a natural desire to sort out what the actually benefits and liabilities are of empire studies after the “we found something new” enthusiasm has died down.How much of it is scholars doing what scholars do best – coming up with theories that explain things?
Now, I have my own thoughts on empire studies, but I thought, in this post, to say a couple of words about this book itself. First of all, it is well planned and the introduction and conclusion do a great job of giving the reader a sense of closure as the editors take stock. Some of the main chapters are more thoroughoing than others, and some more cogent than others, but overall the kind of case is made relatively well for what McKnight and Modica say in the conclusion.
If there are a couple of things I was left desiring it was these:
-First, I think we should make a distinction between the kind of empire criticism done by people like Horsley (on the more extreme end) and that done by people like Michael Gorman (who is more balanced and moderate). Both of these men represent “empire studies” (I would argue), but what McKnight and Modica evaluate is primarily the former. I want to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater just because the most vocal proponents distract us from the actual wider membership and scholarship of this group.
-While they address 8 books of the NT (Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, Philippians, Colossians, and Revelation), I was disappointed not to see 1 Peter discussed. It seems like the perfect opportunity to see a key NT text deal with “Church and Culture” issues, theology and politics, engagement and power. Because of the Balch-Elliott debate, and contributions by theologians like Miroslav Volf, it would have been interesting to see what an analysis of the study of this letter would produce. There is much controversy over both the language of ktisis in 1 Peter 2:13, and the purpose of the household codes, that it would have made for a fascinating test case.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is (obviously) interested in how scholars do historical study and biblical interpretation together, but it is also very insightful regarding how we evaluate our own discipline and how we weigh the strengths and weaknesses of wider academic trends.
In the next post I will offer my own perspective on this issue of the validity and benefit of empire studies.
At SBL in the fall, Michael F. Bird will release his opus Evangelical Theology (Zondervan) which will be a brick to carry home from the conference at 800 pages even! Well, apparently while he was working on that he had some spare time, so he has done some “light writing” on Jesus in the Gospels. A couple of month’s ago, Mike came out with a book from IVP entitled Jesus is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels. In this short book, Mike makes the astounding argument that the four canonical Gospels present Jesus as “the Messiah.”
It is ridiculous to me that such an argument needs to be made, but Mike is absolutely right that the history of Jesus studies and Gospels scholarship has put this into question. Mike recounts an influential (but misguided) line of thought in this subject
A common script in scholarship, with variations of lines, has been something like this: Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah; in fact, he repudiated the title. Jesus only claimed to be a prophet of God’s kingdom. The crucifixion of Jesus on trumped-up charges of being a messianic pretender was undertaken by the Judean leadership in order to have the troublesome Galilean permanently silenced. (p. 3)
That means that the identification of Jesus as messiah by crowds and disciples was merely an “ad hoc addition to the tradition” (p. 3). In contradistinction to this scholarly theory, Mike sets out to argue that “The messiahship of Jesus comprises the primary framework in which the sum of all christological affirmations in the Gospels are to be understood, that is, all Christology is a subset of Messianology” (p. 4). The historical implications of this are clearly identified: “Jesus deliberately acted out of a messianic role, and it was this motif to his ministry that explained why the church began and why it took the shape that it did” (p. 10).
Mike does not see the identity of Jesus change drastically before and after Easter. He takes up the mission of the Messiah before, he is recognized as Messiah afterward by his disciples and followers: “The resurrection…sanctioned and so re-activated beliefs previously held about him. that is, post-Easter convictions confirmed pre-Easter expectations. The vindication of Jesus in the resurrection meant the vindication of hopes his followers had before the resurrection” (22).
Bottom line – while we recognize that the Evangelists were creative, they were not that creative, so conspiratorial that they set out to make a poor prophet into the risen Son of God (Kazantzakis style!). After this very well-reasoned introduction, Mike spends four chapters walking through the narrative of each Gospel, showing the centrality of Jesus’ messianic identity, though each Evangelist has a unique theme or perspective (Mark = “The Crucified Messiah; Matthew = “The Davidic Messiah”; Luke = “The Prophetic Messiah”; John = “The Elusive Messiah”). These fourfold chapters do precisely what Mike intends – they demonstrate that the Gospels’ messianism is not “a blanket thrown over the Jesus tradition” (143).
Now, if you are like me, you might be thinking - does anyone doubt anymore that the Gospels focus on Jesus as the Messiah? Isn’t that an outdated problem that nobody struggles with anymore? WRONG! Mike offers a choice word-byte from respected scholar Christophet Tuckett who writes: “Luke’s Jesus seems to be at most a Christ figure in name only” (see Mike’s pg. 95).
I think this a well written “semi-popular-level work,” with good dialogue partners and makes a very cogent case for a Messianic Christology (what a weird phrase, but strangely relevant to this discussion) at the core of all of the canonical Gospels. If I had one wish, it would be that he combined this book with his previous title Are You The One Who Is To Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Baker, 2009). While this newer book is more literary-theological and the previous one more historical, it is tough to keep them separate because the historical issues and literary issues intertwine in the debates. I was really impressed with the previous book, and I think putting them together makes his case in the second book much stronger and thorough - too bad they are with different pubs – I would want them sold as a two-volume set!
Well, I am glad to have this in my library, and that folks like Mike are fighting for what I think is a common sense reading of the Gospels. I think his next book should be - 99 Arguments That the Pope is Catholic.
The fine folks who convene the “Ecclesia and Ethics” Online conference have posted a provisional program for the conference (May 18 & 25). I am part of the “25th” crew and the day starts with Dennis Hollinger (“Creation: The Starting Point of an Ecclesial Ethics”), followed by me (Paul and discipleship), then Stanley Hauerwas (“Habit Matters”), a “parallel session,” Michael Barber (“The Beatitudes, the Church as the ‘Whole Christ’ and Ethics in the Gospel of Matthew”), and the day ends with two more parallel sessions.
Now, since I am involved in the event, I am a bit biased, but I really think this conference is a fantastic idea – both in its theme of ecclesia and ethics, and also its wallet-friendly and access-friendly nature. This is definitely the way of the future for conferences. SBL will still draw thousands of scholars from around the world, and there is something to be said about sharing a meal and meeting face-to-face. But I think the success of this online conference will pave the way for more “global” discussions and a wider range of participants, not held back by funding and lack of vacation days.
I am very pleased to report that my Smyth & Helwys commentary on Colossians is now published and I received my author copies yesterday. Unfortunately, Amazon hasn’t loaded it into their system yet, so for now the best way to order the commentary is through the publisher website. As most commentators will say, this was truly a labor of love. I enjoyed every single minute of it. S & H was wonderful to work with, editors polite and helpful, marketing staff capable and eager.
You can read an excerpt of the commentary here. Two of the endorsements can be found here. What makes this commentary unique or worth reading? Well, I will not say I came up with all new interpretations on key issues (though I do think I made a contribution to the “worship of angels” issue). I will say one thing – I tried very hard to engage in the text theologically (perhaps over-reaching at times, but with the best of intentions!). Also, I spent many hours (and pages!) wresting with “application” questions. I know some folks are sour on the idea of separating “exegesis” from “application” – I must admit it did at times feel a little “forced,” but you will notice how “theological” and “kerygmatic” my exegetical sections seem, so I tended to weave that through the exegesis anyway. In the “Connections” section (mostly intended to give counsel on application and advice for preaching), I took the opportunity to connect the exegesis to what’s going on in theology (Begbie, Barth, von Balthazar, Volf, Charry, Hauerwas, Mouw and more). The last thing I want to say about the commentary is that I appeal rather frequently to Bonhoeffer and his theological perspective. If the Colossians were acting very privatistic with their individual heads in the clouds, ignoring the life of the community and avoiding any hint of suffering, Paul told them this is absolutely not the way of Christ, the Son of God, the man from heaven, the revelation of the image of God. In a very similar way, Bonhoeffer rebuked the German church, even the confessing church, for singing chants in worship, but not being Christ-like enough to fight for dying Jews. While Bonhoeffer is most known for his interest in the Sermon on the Mount, he often appealed to Colossians in sermons and lectures precisely for its appeal to cruciformity (my word, not Bonhoeffer’s!) and rejection of isolationistic transcendence.
I hope I do get the chance to work on another commentary in the future, but for now I have a couple of other topic projects on my plate, including a dictionary article on the word “faith.” After the completion of a long project (2+ years?), it is nice to work on something rather short!