An Argument Against Academic Elitism from a Young Academic

This is not to discredit biblical scholars and theologians with academic training–these are, after all, the people I look up to as a young scholar. There is obviously a very real benefit to formal scholastic training when it comes to biblical interpretation. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t have spent the last decade in an academic setting learning from biblical scholars and theologians shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to do so. I am speaking as an academic (a baby though I might be). However much credibility a Bachelors degree in Biblical Languages and Christianity, a Master’s degree in Biblical Languages, and 15 additional graduate hours in Theological Studies with a half-written thesis might give me, I am speaking as one how has academic training. And from this perspective I still argue that academics do not have a monopoly on the biblical texts. There is no room for academic elitism when it comes to reading the scared scriptures; the spirit of elitism does not exist alongside the Holy Spirit and the work the Spirit does in whom the Spirit desires. So, while formal scholastic training is beneficial to the individual reader of scripture, the lack thereof does not automatically disqualify one from the ability to grasp the biblical texts nor should it automatically disqualify one’s contributions to a discussion or argument or whatever.

Does not the Holy Spirit play the primary role in our ability to read and understand the scriptures?

Despite what some might assume, I would not argue that any and every interpretation is credible. For one, I prefer the language used in theological interpretation of “better” readings rather than correct or accurate. I might even differentiate between plausible and implausible readings. Furthermore, I am not arguing that the best way to read the Bible is alone in isolation with just you and the Holy Spirit. To the contrary, I actually believe that to read Scripture well we need to read it in conversation with tradition and with the church, not alone in a vacuum.

What I ultimately take issue with is the idea that someone can automatically be disqualified not based on their arguments and/or methods, but on their pedigree or lack thereof. This is a shame, it reeks of academic elitism and arrogance, and does not take into account the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual believer as well as the wide access we have to information today.

A PhD does not guarantee someone is a good reader of scripture. Unless you’re N.T. Wright, of course.

– Jessica Parks (written in 2015)


N.T. Wright on Matthew 10:28 – Satan or God?

An important question: who is Jesus referring to in Matthew 10:28 – God or Satan?

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your heard are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

As I surveyed my classes today (we are studying the Gospel of Matthew), a good 90% of my evangelical students quickly declared that Jesus was referring to God.  The small handful of students who suggested that the reference was to Satan were then pleased to know that they were in the company of none other than Tom Wright.

Wright states the following in JVOG:

“Some have seen ‘the one who can cast into Gehenna (from Luke’s wording of this passage) as YHWH, but this is unrealistic.  Jesus did not, to be sure, perceive Israel’s god as a kindly liberal godfather who would never hurt a fly, let alone send anyone to Gehenna. But again and again – not least in the very next verse of this paragraph – Israel’s god is portrayed as the creator and sustainer, one who can be lovingly trusted in all circumstances, not one who waits with a large stick to beat anyone who steps out of line. Rather, here we have a redefinition of the battle in terms of the identification of the real enemy. The one who can kill the body is the imagined enemy, Rome. Who then is the real enemy? Surely not Israel’s own god. The real enemy is the accuser, the satan.”

and discusses this passage in his Matthew For Everyone commentary by saying:

“Why would Jesus tell his followers not to be afraid, then to be afraid, then not to be afraid again, all in the space of a few sentences?

Jesus believed that Israel was faced in his day by enemies at two quite different levels. There were the obvious ones: Rome, Herod, and their underlings. They were the ones who had the power to kill the body. But there were other, darker enemies, who had the power to kill the soul as well: enemies who were battling for that soul even now, during Jesus’ ministry, and who were using the more obvious enemies as cover. Actually, it’s even worse than that. The demonic powers that are greedy for the soul of God’s people are using their desire for justice and vengeance as the bait on the hook. They people of light are never more at risk than when they are lured into fighting the darkness with more darkness. That is the road straight to the smoldering rubbish-tip, to Gehenna, and Jesus wants his followers to be well aware of it. This is what you should be afraid of.  

At the same time, to balance that fear – and indeed to outweigh it altogether – we have one of Jesus’ most striking promises about the detailed love and care of God, not only for every one of his creatures, but for every hair on their head.

It’s important to be clear at this point. Some people think that when Jesus urges us to fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell, he is referring to God himself. But the point here is the opposite. God is the one we do not have to fear. Indeed, he is the one we can trust with our lives, our souls, our bodies, everything.”  

As far as I can tell, not many other interpreters agree with Wright besides Ben Witherington III (see this post).  I can understand the exegetical argument for seeing God as the reference: “Rather than worrying about the limited power of the Roman/Jewish authorities, we should worry about the unlimited power of God, who loves us and desires us to follow him but will disown us if we are unfaithful [see v. 32-33].”  However, I do worry that this interpretation is also (whether explicitly or not) contingent on foreign assumptions outside of the text [such as spiritual hierarchy and the inner-workings of hell].

I think Wright makes cogent points as well: his interpretation is consistent with the immediate literary context [Beelzebub is mentioned in previous pericope (v. 25), the Synoptics do portray Jesus as identifying Satan as the real enemy behind Rome, and Jesus consistently describes the Father in more “flattering” terms].  Likewise, the progression of commands could be seen as fairly awkward or confusing if Jesus is referring to God: “Don’t fear murder from Roman/Jewish leaders. Do fear God who can murder you more completely. But don’t be afraid because God loves you and will take care of you.” Which is it? Should the disciples be afraid of God because he can destroy them in hell or should they not be afraid because he intimately loves and cares for them?

I’m still not sure what I think is the best exegetical decision.  But I often worry about the evangelical tendency to reduce all actions/characteristics to God (and effectively ignore the free agency of persons working against God’s will).  My fear is this:

What are the consequences if we mistakenly attribute characteristics/actions to God that are meant to be given to Satan and the Powers?

There seems to be a knee-jerk interpretive tendency in evangelicalism to eliminate any other genuine wills/agencies in creation. I think this is a reflection of the fact that there resides deep in the conscience of evangelicals a haunting fear of dualism (positing a cosmic struggle between equal gods of good and evil). However you slice it, though, the story of the gospels (and indeed the entire canon) makes no sense outside of some sort of legitimate and genuine struggle between God and the forces of evil.  We must be careful that in our efforts to avoid dualism (an effort I heartily affirm), we do not attribute characteristics/actions to God that should more properly be attributed to Satan.  This is a problem that at least goes back to the oral/written tradition of David’s census (cf. 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21) and continues to this day (see the different interpretations of “natural disasters” such as tornadoes or disease between reformed and arminian/open theist camps) with various texts [cf. 2 Cor. 4:4].

Obviously, the devil is in the (exegetical) details (no pun intended). So let’s start with Matthew 10:28. What do you think?

 Is Jesus referring to God or Satan as the one who can “destroy both soul and body in hell” (and why)?   

Paul and Scripture

Like seemingly most things Pauline, Paul’s use of Scripture is an oceanic field of study. A steady stream of books, articles, and lectures flow from what seems to be an endless high tide of material.

Obviously, there are several reasons for the great interest in this subject but these three quotes help in finding a bearing:

N.T. Wright –  One of the central tensions in Paul’s thought, giving it again and again its creative edge, is the clash between the fact that God always intended what has happened in fact happened and the fact that not even the most devout Israelite had dreamed that it would happen like this. (Paul: In Fresh Perspective)

Richard Hays – The message Paul finds in the Old Testament is the gospel of Jesus Christ proleptically figured, a gospel proclaiming the inclusion of the Gentiles among the people of God…He saw himself…carrying forward the proclamation of God’s word as Israel’s prophets and sages had always done, in a way that reactivated past revelation under new conditions. (Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul)

Steve Moyise – Paul believed that the Scriptures were the very ‘oracles of God’ (Rom 3:2) and thus carried supreme authority in all matters. However, he had also come to believe that the divine plan revealed in Scripture had taken a significant step forward in the coming of Jesus Christ…This revelation caused Paul to look at the Scriptures with new eyes, sometimes clarifying what was written and sometimes reinterpreting it. (Paul and Scripture) 

Paul redefines, reactivates, even reinterprets scripture in light of God’s revelation of Jesus Christ. While his readings may not seem that foreign to many of us, that is only because we are conditioned to read the Old Testament through the eyes of Paul. Paul was our original guide through the Old Testament and so it hard for us to imagine how shocking many of interpretations must have been to the first hearers of his letters.

So how did Paul arrive at his conclusions? Steve Moyise (Paul and Scripture) lists three modern approaches to Paul’s use of scripture: 

  1. Intertextual –  A text is not discreet packet of meaning but part of web of other texts. Quotes/Allusions bring in more than cited words but also associations from surrounding verses. (e.g. Richard Hays)
  2. Narrative – A text (quote, allusions) brings with it is a narrative framework. The key to understanding its meaning is finding the larger story on which it hangs not in investigating the surrounding context. (e.g. N.T. Wright)
  3. Rhetorical –  Highlights what Paul does with the text in order to persuade his readers to accept his interpretation. Rhetorical views focus on those things to which Paul draws attention and not to those things he conceals. (e.g. Christopher Stanley)

Which view (or whose view) do you find the most helpful? Which views (or whose views) do you find the most suspect? Is there a view missing from the list?

The Righteousness of God…Three Views

Last week I posted some concluding thoughts from my summer research on ‘in Christ’ in Paul.  I wrote,

“…Paul incorporated three central realities into those found ‘in Christ’: righteousness, baptism into death, and an exalted newness of life.”

As I was writing these, I had to chuckle because each of these three ‘realities’ reside in infested waters in Pauline scholarship. For example, Douglas Campbell writes, “The current debate concerning the meaning of dikaiosune theou in Paul is immense.” Nevertheless, I am going to swim with the sharks to highlight three views on what the righteousness of God means.

The debate concerning dikaiosune theou predominantly centers on whether the ‘righteousness’ of God is retributive/punitive and/or gracious/benevolent in nature. Additionally, scholars dispute as to whether dikaiosune theou describes an attribute of God, the activity of God, or relational aspects of God. The complexity of the issues surrounding the translation and interpretation of dikaiosune theon make it impossible to offer a detailed account of the whole debate, but Douglas Moo, N.T. Wright, and Douglas Campbell’s respective depictions serve as a suitable introduction.

First, Moo represents a conventional interpretation of the phrase. Next, Wright’s reading offers a reframing of the conventional reading, often referred to as a “new perspective.” Finally, Campbell’s apocalyptic reading of the passage demonstrates a “new paradigm” not reframed within the traditional understanding. Each perspective will be evaluated according to three categories – character, activity, and product – to allow for a consistent comparison.*

Douglas Moo defines God’s character, in regards to dikaiosune theou, as one who will always do what is right according to the divine nature. At first glance, this is seemingly a common understanding among the three viewpoints until the term ‘right’ is defined in any particularity. For Moo, ‘what is right’ entails God “always acting in accordance with the norm of his own person and promises.” God’s activity of doing ‘right,’ however, is not limited to saving work, instead it includes both God’s saving actions and God’s justice. Thus, God’s activity is to establish the ‘right’ by vindicating some and judging others based upon a determined standard, which according to Moo is justification by faith in Jesus Christ. Consequently, the product of God’s ‘right’ activity is that those who have been justified by faith receive God’s character; in other words, they attain the moral righteousness required by God.

N.T. Wright works chiefly within these same categories, except he places them within a predominantly covenantal framework.  Simply stated, dikaiosune theou is God’s sure and steadfast love of Israel, which Wright deduces from tying together the interrelated dimensions of covenant, lawcourt, and apocalyptic. The covenantal aspect is that God designed a once for all plan for salvation through Israel to bless the world and God remains exceedingly faithful to this plan. Wright states, “The point of the covenant always was that God would bless the whole world through Abraham’s family.” The lawcourt dimension displays the character of God as that of an impartial judge, who as the creator of the world must rule and judge all creation justly. Thus, God’s activity is focused on a single plan to put the world right, which God established through the covenant with Israel. For Wright, the decisive, apocalyptic act was that God dealt with sin and rebellion through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, through Jesus Christ, as a faithful representative of Israel, God’s covenant with Israel has been fulfilled and the world has been declared ‘right’ and granted access to the blessings of the covenant. The product of God’s saving action is not, however, that one’s character is changed into the character of God, rather, her status is changed before God. In other words, she is vindicated by the judge, through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, and brought into the family of God.

Douglas Campbell’s understanding of dikaiosune theou draws specifically from Paul’s understanding of Christ as the definitive display of God’s righteousness. He states, “If we know what Christ is, we can infer immediately the content of dikaiosune theou.” Thus, he concludes that the definitive character of God is benevolent because Christ exhibits no retributive characteristics in Paul’s writing. Furthermore, drawing from the Old Testament’s picture of divine kingship, Campbell determines God’s character to be a compassionate king whose sole concern is to act to save an oppressed humanity. God’s kingly activity then is a “saving, liberating, life-giving, eschatological act of God,” which delivers his oppressed people. Campbell defines this activity in the singular work of Jesus Christ whose death and resurrection liberates a captive humanity. The product is “fundamentally liberative” and humanity is ontologically transformed, receiving a new flesh – free from the powers of death and sin.

*Campbell’s methodology for defining dikaiosune theon differs considerably from the other two views. Campbell’s method starts with Christ as the definitive disclosure of dikaiosune theon and from this extrapolates its meaning by referring to how Christ is described in Paul.  he other views draw on the phrases textual history to elucidate Paul’s meaning.  Thus, is a little tenuous to fit Campbell’s definition into these three categories.

**Primary sources for this post: Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans; N.T. Wright, “Romans” New Interpreters Bible; Douglas Campbell; The Deliverance of God.