Category Archives: Biblical Studies

The Myth of Objectivity

Eric Vanden Eykel posted a Tweet thread on a recent blog post by Tavis Bohlinger on the Logos Academic Blog. The post in question was Joel B. Green’s answer to the question: “What makes a good biblical scholar?” Joel has clarified in the comments to that post that he was addressing a similar but different question, namely: “What makes a good scholar of the Bible understood as the church’s Scripture?”

My concern isn’t with the post itself but rather with one of the comments that followed the post. Someone named Matt West said the following in response:

What makes a good Biblical scholar is someone who studiess [sic] the writings in terms of their origin, history, and intent; someone who strives to comprehend the material and its impact on history, literature, and philosophy. What you describe in your essay is what makes a good Christian scholar. There is a huge difference between these two. The first is objective and scientific, the second is subjective and done with prejudice.

I wish I had the time to adequately unpack everything that’s wrong with this comment but I’m writing this on the fly before I head off to work. I will say two things. First, objectivity is a myth. What do I mean? I mean that there is no such thing as a “brute fact,” that is, an uninterpreted fact that has no reference to some other fact. Any-and- every-thing has to be interpreted and every interpretation will be contingent upon the facts that one has already acquired or the beliefs that one already holds.

An atheist who interprets the Bible does so through the lens of their disbelief. A Christian who interprets the Bible does so through their lens of belief. There’s a lot more to be said about this (especially in terms of autonomous reasoning versus thinking God’s thoughts after him) but I’ll have to say those things at a different time. The point is that Bultmann was right when he said there is no presuppositionless exegesis. This idea that one can just read the text and understand it without coming to the text with both hidden and apparent presuppositions is preposterous.

Second, Mr. West seems to say, or at the very least imply, that a Christian is not capable of this so-called scientific and objective scholarship. Christians, you see, approach the text subjectively and with prejudice. One could reason that as long as you’re not a Christian then you’re good to go and can understand the text for what it’s really saying. I mean, Christians don’t study “the writings in terms of their origin, history, and intent” and they certainly don’t “[strive] to comprehend the material and its impact on history, literature, and philosophy.” Why would they?

I’d love to take a moment to note how absolutely arbitrary this list is anyway, but I really do have to get to work. I’d argue that Christian scholarship is even more concerned with getting to the truth of the biblical text because they’re the ones who think this stuff actually matters! The believing scholar genuinely cares (or should) about what the original author intended to communicate to his audience and is constantly asking what impact this has on the community of believers today. Asking that question forces the believing scholar to look at the impact of the text throughout history.

Okay, I really gotta go. More anon…

B”H

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Just Ordered (and, Just Picked Up)

Indulge me a quick(ish) preface to this announcement of recent purchases. Today marks exactly one year since I stood before a room full of witnesses and made vows to my wife. I mention this firstly because it’s one of the more monumental moments in my life and secondly because it brings to mind something that we were told during out premarital counseling. The pastor who married us shared a story about how him and his wife have made it 40 years without impulse buying. They agreed that anything they wanted but hadn’t already planned for would be written down on a list in the kitchen and if they still wanted it after a day or two then they’d get it. He said that in all those years they never got anything off the list.

I’m not nearly as disciplined, but I have tried to implement that advice when and where possible. I share this anecdote because more than a week ago my buddy Michael Burgos started talking about getting a premium Bible. That sparked my interest and I began perusing evangelicalbible.com’s offerings. I found a couple that I liked but I determined that I wouldn’t get anything because I didn’t really need another Bible and I had no good reason to grab another at this moment in time. Well, after a week I still wanted one and I kept reading reviews, watching videos, and looking at pictures before finally deciding to pull the trigger.

I went with the Ocean Blue goatskin Crossway ESV Heirloom Legacy Bible. Now I’ve had an ESV Legacy before and I hated it. I ended up giving the thing away. It appears that this is an update and the major things that irked me are no more. I also went with this version because I had my heart set on blue (it really is quite striking!) and I’ve come to know and love single column texts over the years. As of late I read my Bible almost exclusively in my many Reader’s editions from Crossway. And though I haven’t handwritten anything in a Bible in quite a long time, this particular Bible has plenty of room in the margins and footer for note taking. I think I will pick the practice back up once I get it.

In addition to this premium Bible, my wife and I spent our first anniversary together out and about doing all manner of things. Our first stop was a Barnes & Noble for some Starbucks and book browsing. I ended up grabbing a copy of H. A. Guerber’s Classical Mythology for $7.98. I saw it the last time I was there and wanted to grab a copy but never did. I also opted to order a bunch of books from CBD’s Spring Sale before we went to see Death Wish, which was great, by the way! Here’s what I got from them:

The Structure of Sacred Doctrine in Calvin’s Theology

Translating the New Testament: Text, Translation, Theology

Rowan’s Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury

Evangelizing Catholics: A Mission Manual for the New Evangelization*

The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church

What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat? Diet in Biblical Times

ESV Gospel of John, Reader’s Edition

Friends of Calvin

The Fourth Cup: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper and the Cross*

Abraham Kuyper: A Pictorial Biography

An Outline of New Testament Spirituality

Romans: Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scriptures*

Treasures Old and New: Essays in the Theology of the Pentateuch

The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass As Heaven On Earth*

At the Heart of the Gospel: Suffering in the Earliest Christian Message

Consuming the Word: The New Testament and the Eucharist in the Early Church*

Qumran and Jerusalem: Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the History of Judaism

The Gospel and The Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life

The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship: Essays in the Line of Abraham Kuyper

God Speaks: What He Says, What He Means

I got too many to link them all. Most of them ranged in price from $0.99 to $2.99. The notable exceptions are the volumes by Scott Hahn*, but I’m trying to get my hands on everything he’s ever written so I’m willing to pay the price for those. I’d love to say that this should hold me over for a while, and while it probably should, it definitely won’t. Until next time…

B”H

Diligence and Vices: Andreas Köstenberger on Plagiarism

In light of the recent discovery of Andreas Köstnberger’s plagiarism of D. A. Carson’s Pillar commentary on John in his own BECNT volume I thought I’d check what he had to say on the issue in a book of his that I recently picked up called Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue. In a section entitled “Diligence and Vices” Köstenberger says:

The lack of diligence leads to such vices as plagiarism and laziness. Plagiarism generally becomes a temptation when a student of scholar fails to put in the diligent work necessary and suddenly finds that the deadline is fast approaching. Once there is no time left to do original research, plagiarism can seem like the necessary quick fix, but there is hardly a more deadly ethical violation of the ethos of academic work. If you plagiarize, you are engaging in a form of theft, stealing the intellectual property of others.

What is more, once a scholar’s reputation has been marred by plagiarism, it is virtually impossible to regain credibility. Even if those whom you harmed by plagiarism forgive you and you avoid losing your job and you avoid being expelled from an academic program or institution, you can never turn back the clock, and your reputation will likely suffer permanent damage. What is more, you bring dishonor to the God whom you serve and with whom you have chosen to publicly identify. Of all students, it is those engaged in biblical and theological studies who should hold to impeccable standards when it comes to respecting and referencing the work of others.

Like other forms of sin, plagiarism may seem appealing when tempted, but it is never worth it. Why would anyone working on a theological degree plagiarize? As mentioned, as a form of intellectual theft, plagiarism is completely at odds with the study of God and his ways. Ultimately, plagiarism is a selfish act that says, “I want a degree, or recognition, without putting in the work, and I don’t care if I hurt or deceive others in the process, as long as I get what I want.” This hardly is good character, and even if repented of, still casts doubt on the character of a person who committed this kind of act, especially if repeatedly and egregiously.

Andreas J. Köstenberger, Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 98-99.

This reads like both prophecy and memoir. I wonder if it ate at him while he penned these paragraphs knowing that he had stolen from one of his mentors. I wonder how readily he’ll accept the reproach brought on his name and character by his intellectual theft. Also, I’d note how easy it was to attribute this material to its author. It’s not a difficult thing to do and there is absolutely no harm in quoting others. Just give them the credit for the things they’ve said.

B”H

Home Library/Office Tour

I wanted to do this for a while. I had some time today. One day I’ll get a good camera and give this thing some real production value.

B”H

The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary

Hultgren, Arland J. The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000. Pp. xxix + 522. Paper. $42.00. 

For the last few months we’ve been doing a Bible study series on Jesus’ parables at my church. As I’ve prepared to teach there have been three books that have become indispensable. The first has been Klyne Snodgrass’ Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, which I reviewed a few years back. The second is Eugene Peterson’s Tell it Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers, which was graciously given to me by my friend Robert Jimenez. The third is the title under review, Arland J. Hultgren’s The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary.

Hultgren’s volume was published in 2000 and sat on my shelf for a few years before it got any regular use but has since become invaluable in my preparation to discuss Jesus’ most popular form of teaching. This book served as the basis for the introductory class I taught that gave us the basics on how to read and interpret Jesus’ parables. Hultgren begins with an introductory chapter that gives the reader the who, what, when, where, and whys of parables in the Gospels, namely how to identify and interpret them and what makes Jesus’ parables unique (or not).

The working definition that drives Hultgren’s study is that “A parable is a figure of speech in which a comparison is made between God’s kingdom, actions, or expectations and something in this world, real or imagined” (3). He says that there are two types of parables: narrative parables and similitudes, which is somewhat simplistic compared to the categorization that Snodgrass uses, but workable in a general sense. Under this definition and these categories Hultgren identifies 38 units that can be treated as parables.

He separates them thematically and treats them as:

  1. Parables of the Revelation of God
  2. Parables of Exemplary Behavior
  3. Parables of Life Before God
  4. Parables of Final Judgment
  5. Allegorical Parables
  6. Parables of the Kingdom

There are also chapters on the Evangelists as interpreters of Jesus’ parables as well as parables in the Gospel of Thomas. Each individual parable receives the same general treatment although the length of the treatment varies from one parable to the next. But Hultgren’s approach is to first provide a translation of the parable followed by notes on the text and translation. He then gives exegetical commentary before moving on to exposition while rounding the studies out with select bibliographies. Sometimes he provides general comments on the texts when a parable appears in more than one place (e.g., “The Lost Sheep” in Matt 18:12-14//Luke 15:4-7; Thomas 107; Gospel of Truth 31-32).

It’s quite helpful to see how non-canonical material draws certain parallels with the Gospels but also where that material differs. For the most part Hultgren doesn’t go into the depth that Snodgrass does but his volume is half the size so we wouldn’t expect him to. Where I find him to be at his best is in the exposition, which is full of theological reflection and insight for practical application. He makes it clear early on in the book that his approach is to interpret the parables in light of the canon and for the benefit of the church. He does this well by building the foundation for his exposition on exegesis.

Is there room for disagreement in his interpretation of certain things? Of course! But that doesn’t detract from this volume any more than it detracts from others with a similar focus. Perhaps the section that will receive the least disagreement from scholars but possibly the most from those steeped in tradition is the chapter on the Evangelists as interpreters of the parables. Here Hultgren assumes Markan priority and proceeds to discuss the ways in which Matthew or Luke adapt, revised, or altered Mark’s material. This is in no way certain and it could have been helpful to see the alternatives explanations based on Matthean or Lukan priority. But this is a minor complaint.

In all, this is a wonderfully helpful commentary that is sure to aid anyone who is studying or teaching the parables. I wouldn’t say that it should be the only volume you should consult but in the event it was the only volume you could consult then I wouldn’t be too worried. Hultgren’s evenhanded discussions are more than enough to get the student heading in the right direction.

B”H

On Bultmann’s Clarity

30 years ago today Rudolf Karl Bultmann died. I’ve noted many times on this blog that he was an exceptionally clear communicator and I thought to commemorate the anniversary of his death that I’d mention it again. He was a biblical scholar and theologian of the first rate. Sure, many of his ideas are quite simply wrong, but he was able to put them across in such a way that one doesn’t have to guess at what he’s saying. This is quite different from many of his German contemporaries (e.g., Karl Barth) or those who came after him (e.g., Pannenberg or Moltmann). It is my honest opinion that he was the best German to ever put pen to paper when it comes to biblical studies and theology. Not because I agree with so much of what he says—I don’t—but because I can understand it (at least in English translation).

B”H