In thinking about scholarship in service of the church, I thought it would be great to get a scholar’s opinion who I know thinks in terms of the benefit of the church (as do my previous two interviewees).
David Alan Black is Professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina. He blogs avidly at www.daveblackonline.com/blog. His love for missions and his walk with his wife’s cancer have been an inspiration to me. He has shared his academic pilgrimage here. It’s a pleasure to interview him on the topic of scholarship.
AR: How would you define scholarship?
DB: Great question! Well, we live in a day of anti-intellectualism, do we not? Many of our ills stem from false philosophies and just plain biblical ignorance. History is divorced from theology. When I was a doctoral student at the University of Switzerland I was told many times that you could not be a Christian and a university student at the same time. Christianity was only for children and the elderly – i.e., people who don’t know any better. At the same time, I recall listening to Francis Schaeffer tell his audience in Basel that the contradiction between faith and reason was a false one. “When you become a Christian you don’t have to put your mind in park or neutral.” And he was right. Mark Noll once put it this way (my paraphrase): “The question today is not between faith and reason. It is between a faithless reason and a reasonable faith.” The great and good Charles Malik echoed these remarks in an address at Wheaton College, noting that he craved to see “an institution that will produce as many Nobel Prize winners as saints.” For a follower of Jesus, then, scholarship is nothing but acknowledging the two-way causal connection between thinking and doing. I, for one, am very thankful for evangelical scholars who have modeled for me responsible intellectual existence. Oh goodness, how we need scholarship in the evangelical church today. Ideas have consequences, and the truly integrated life will always eschew intellectual apathy.
AR: Is scholarship a benefit to the church and how should it serve the church?
DB: “Is” or “should be”? Frankly, Andrew, I think we so-called scholars can do a much better job of placing our knowledge in the service of the Body of Christ. I tell my students that the key to being an effective preacher/teacher is being simple without being simplistic. Someone has said, “Great preachers are like an iceberg: you only see 10 percent, but underneath you sense the other 90 percent.” I personally use the KISS technique when preaching: Keep It Simple Stupid. People aren’t even faintly interested in “the aorist passive imperative means ….” They want to know two things: This is what the text means, and this is what it is telling us we must do.” Of course, I have been the chief of sinners in this regards. When I was in grad school I had a great deal of difficulty navigating the treacherous intellectual waters there. Passages such as Ephesians 2:10 (“For we are His masterpiece, created in Christ Jesus for good works”) are all too often forgotten in a discussion of the synoptic problem or verbal aspect. Did I mention verbal aspect? Grateful I am for my friends who are on the front lines in this battle to understand verbal aspect in Koine Greek. Have the fruits been noticeable? Not in my opinion. I urge myself and every other student in the academy to ask ourselves with all honesty whether we are only playing intellectual games with the scholarly guild or whether we are committed to placing our knowledge at the feet of King Jesus. An Old Scottish proverb says, “Hebrew, Greek, and Latin all have their proper place, but it is not at the head of the cross, where Pilate put them, but at the foot of the cross, in humble service to Christ.” Incidentally, it is for this reason that my books are becoming shorter and shorter. I am also writing less for the scholarly guild and more for my students. To be fully integrated biblical scholars, we must integrate (or at least try to integrate) what we do in the study with what we do in the church and on the mission field.
AR: Is scholarship something that is misunderstood by many in the church? If so, does it matter?
DB: Yes, indeed – and both by pastors and laypeople. Pastors, for their part, often abuse scholarship. It’s like when I heard a famous radio preacher wax elephant against the ordination of women to ministry because the Greek of 1 Tim. 3:1 disallowed it. “The word for ‘any man’ here is tis, which is a masculine pronoun,” he said. “Therefore the Bible excludes women from holding the highest authoritative teaching office in the church!” The pronoun tis, of course, can be either masculine or feminine (or gender neutral – the context telling us which one is in view), but this pastor felt led to use Greek to support his own a priori conclusion as to what the text meant. This is what I call “evangelical Greek.” And it is anathema. Pastors should know better these days. After all, Don Carson has published his Exegetical Fallacies, and I discuss, in detail, lexical and syntactical fallacies in the fifth chapter of my Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek. As for laypeople, I believe there is a tendency toward cultism as more and more people follow their favorite Bible teacher almost blindly. After all, the man has a doctorate and knows Greek! How can he ever go awry? This is why I enjoy teaching Greek to lay people so much. Greek does two things simultaneously: it equips and empowers you to do your own study of the New Testament, and it begins to wean you from your slavish overdependence on your favorite teacher or study Bible. This includes the ESV Study Bible, to which I contributed an essay but which some students almost think was handed down on Mount Sinai.
AR: Should every Christian be a scholar?
DB: Yes. Or better, a disciple. As I mentioned above, I have taught a Greek class in my local church. Of course, the Bible draws no distinction between clergy and laity, even if our churches do. Every Christian is called to serve, and every Christian needs training to serve effectively. Certainly Greek is not a requirement for everyone. But for those who desire to tap into this wonderful resource I am always eager to make myself available to help. Actually, I am quite diffident about the location. The training may occur in a college setting or a local church setting or a home setting. Let training be available to all — without fees for students and pay for teachers! Of course, Greek is no Open Sesame to biblical interpretation. Yet I cherish the hope that a reading knowledge of the language might drive us back towards New Testament principles.
So what’s the point of training? It is to help us become more like our Master. And it is to equip us to serve Him skillfully. God warns us not to waste our talents. In the Gospels we find that Jesus was indeed a master teacher. He trained His disciples by pouring out His life into theirs and then asking them to pour out their lives into others. In so doing He made one thing abundantly clear: the kingdom of God is not comprised of kings and warriors but of servants and children.
I know that Greek can be tough. If anyone ever experienced a sinking feeling while studying this language, it was me. I dropped out of my beginning Greek class at Biola after only three weeks! Thankfully I went on to take Moody Bible Institute’s correspondence course and, by God’s grace, aced it. Remember what Peter’s problem was when he was walking on the water? He took his eyes off the Lord.
And that just about says it all.
I have found something to boast about on the blog: the interview series is off to a great start thanks to my interviewees Stan Porter and now Ian Clary.
Ian Hugh Clary is a doctoral student in historical theology at VU Amsterdam where he is working on a dissertation on Alexander Carson as an evangelical response to the Enlightenment. Ian lives in downtown Toronto with his wife Vicky and their two children Jack and Molly. Together they are members of New City Baptist Church in the city core. I have asked him questions about historical theology and its relation to the study of the Gospel of John.
AR: What is historical theology and how does it differ from other related disciplines?
IC: The theological disciplines are often broken down into various parts. They include such things as systematic theology, biblical theology, practical theology, and historical theology. Of course this oversimplifies and leaves a lot out, for instance exegesis, which typically falls under biblical theology, or philosophical theology, which could be categorized with systematics. Ideally a good theology is grounded in biblical theology and exegesis, is informed by history, is summarized systematically, and is practical for the life of the Christian and the church.
Historical theology itself relates to how doctrine has developed across church history, looking at how different Christians in different periods understood theology, from specific doctrines, to theological method. R. Scott Clark and Carl Trueman explain that historical theology “is the discipline of fairly determining and describing what was.” Because it is description, historical theology is not taken up with evaluation, which is the task of dogmatics (or systematics). Clark and Trueman point out the disparaging, if not hilarious, complaint by Gerhard Ebeling who said that historical theology has become a refuge for “those who cannot manage theology.” For me, that’s like complaining about the bass player in Led Zeppelin—as though John Paul Jones couldn’t hold his own with the other genius’ in the band (This is a little like the Synoptic Problem applied to classic rock)!
AR: How would historical theology help us in our understanding of John’s Gospel?
IC: Biblical interpretation, to borrow a cliché, is not done in a vacuum. As important as current exegetical studies are today, to neglect what Christians in days past have had to say about a text is somewhat akin to saying that the Brits shouldn’t worry about what Lord Nelson had to say about naval combat. Sure, his methods reflect an antiquated era, but the man didn’t make the Royal Navy into what it was by being a bad admiral. Likewise, we need to know what greats like the Cappadocians, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Owen, or Bavinck had to say about any given doctrine, even if their methods aren’t always what we would today consider sound.
John’s gospel is especially interesting in this regard when one considers its place alongside the synoptic gospels. Since the rise of historical criticism, John has been relegated to a place of its own (though theologians before this method recognized the differences between John and the other gospels). While the events are often recorded differently, or appear only in this gospel, its high Christology has made it suspect. To understand why John is important not only for the canon, but also for the life of the church, we can turn to historical theology and text critics like Lightfoot, Westcott, Hort, etc. The high Christology matches the early church’s understanding of Jesus’ divinity, and the interpretation of John can be traced through the writings of fathers like John Chrysostom, who preached homilies on it. Chrysostom is especially useful, as Moises Silva has pointed out, because he preached in what we now call koine Greek. So when the “Golden Mouth” discusses the meaning of a word, we are getting it from the horse’s mouth so to speak. We can also learn how early apologists used it to combat heresies, like Gnosticism or Arianism, and how those same arguments were picked up in later periods against similar groups like the Socinians or Unitarians.
AR: Are there any instances that come to mind where an understanding of historical theology aids us in interpreting John’s Gospel?
IC: While I’m sure that a whole dissertation could be, and probably has been, written on this subject, I can come up with a couple of examples. In terms of the early church, one thinks of Irenaeus of Lyons and his important work Against Heresies that is a major collocation and refutation of what we call Gnosticism. He is useful when it comes to the question of the authorship of John. Who the gospel writer was is subject to debate, and while internal evidence is unclear—though I think it affirms the traditional view—external evidence like the writings of Irenaeus indicate that it was the apostle John, the “beloved disciple” who was the penman (that is, unless he used a scribe!). Irenaeus validates for us that Polycarp, whom he knew, sat at the feet of John “who had seen the Lord.” Based on this, Irenaeus tells us that John, who “leaned on the breast” of Jesus, wrote the Gospel of John while he was in Ephesus.
Another example is a bit more basic to the task of sermon preparation. John Calvin is well-recognized as a sound interpreter of Scripture, and that his methods and conclusions remain relevant today. Calvin, as a humanist and reformer, embodied the best that scholarship had to offer in his day, and reflected the cream of biblical teaching from those theologians who went before him. Calvin was as in tune with Augustine or Bernard as he was with his Reformation colleagues like Bucer or Melancthon. So, when a difficulty arises in interpreting a passage from John, it is as useful to turn to Calvin’s commentary on John as it would be to turn to Don Carson. While Carson would be a first choice because he is more up to date, and would be able to point out flaws even in Calvin, it is still very important to meditate on and consider what the Genevan Reformer had to say—especially on major passages like the Prologue, where the richness of biblical Christology is encapsulated in the Reformer’s thoughts, or on the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6 and the debated notion that it reflects John’s Eucharistic theology. Even being able to see where an interpreter from church history went wrong, as in the case with much of the allegorizing from the early church, is helpful as we think through the meaning of a passage.
AR: Are there any resources you’d recommend to help a reader of John’s Gospel become acquainted with the history of interpretation of the Gospel?
IC: The first source I would recommend is the two-volume commentary on John in the Ancient Christian Commentary series that is edited by Tom Oden. The first volume, also edited by Oden, goes up to John 10, while the second, edited by Joel Elowsky, finishes the gospel. The whole commentary set that goes from Genesis to Revelation is worth owning. The two volume set is basically a collection of quotations from various church fathers on each verse in John. Because each verse is treated to a host of quotes, it is helpful to see the range of interpretive options available in the early church. You can see what Chrysostom said about a passage, and skip down a quote to read Augustine. While you might not agree with what is written, it is still helpful in your preparation. At the very least, you can find some great quotes to spice up your sermon. The danger is that if you use it in every sermon, your congregation might take you for a patristics scholar!
A book for the specialist in historical theology, and for one with a hefty wallet, is Craig S. Farmer, The Gospel of John in the Sixteenth Century: The Johannine Exegesis of Wolfgang Musculus in the excellent Oxford Studies in Historical Theology series. The book is fantastic on many levels: it sets Musculus in his historical setting, so there is lots of discussion of medieval and Reformation exegesis; it deals with particular issues in John, like the wedding feast at Cana, the raising of Lazarus, etc.; and Farmer really shows Musculus as an important Reformation exegete who stands alongside others like Calvin. This is one of those books that makes me salivate when I think about it, but not all of your readers may be interested.
I am excited for this inaugural interview here on the blog. Dr. Stanley E. Porter is President, Dean, and Professor of New Testament at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He is recognized as an expert in many areas of research, especially in linguistics and Greek grammar. His publishing record is second to none and more can be read about him on his faculty page here.
Dr. Porter is also now a blogger! I highly recommend following his blog which can be found here.
As a student of his it is an immense pleasure to get to interview him for this and continue to learn from him. Since the current thrust of the blog is to work through the Gospel of John, I have tailored a number of my questions to this topic. I trust you will find it as interesting and helpful as I have.
AR: You’ve spent a good deal of your career studying and writing on linguistics and Greek grammar. What does the discipline of linguistics and the study of Greek contribute to our interpreting the Bible?
SP: Study of the Bible is first and foremost a language-based discipline. I know that there are those who are heavily promoting the so-called theological interpretation of Scripture and other attempts to ground interpretation in social backgrounds and various types of other criticisms–and some of these are very important and helpful–but at its heart when we read the Bible we are at the least engaged in a linguistic interpretive exercise, or at least first we are doing so. As a result, it stands to reason that we need to bring to bear the most important and recent advances in linguistic thought. I firmly believe that most of our interpretive difficulties have been caused by language and can only be solved by the interpretation of language, so we need to invest our efforts in such linguistic matters. I often get frustrated to see how neglectful contemporary biblical scholarship is of matters linguistic, whether this means making linguistic judgments (i.e. statements about language and how it functions) on the basis of no determinable linguistic basis, or simply invoking grammatical works now long superseded. Many of these works may well have been excellent for their day, but we have made significant advances in our linguistic thinking, and appealing to traditional grammar or some earlier paradigm is no longer sufficient–especially as some of these earlier models are incommensurable with our current understandings. In other words, to offer a short answer, I think that linguistics is fundamental to interpreting the Bible, and a necessary starting point for everything else we do, including responsible theologizing.
AR: Does understanding the genre of the Gospels help us interpret them? What can we say is the genre of John’s Gospel?
AR: Do you have an opinion on when the 4th Gospel was written?
SP: I don’t have a firm opinion on when it was written, although I hope to have a firmer idea once I have written a major commentary that I am wishing to write in the next few years or so. At this time, I am convinced of several things, however. One of these is that developmental or evolutionary models of interpretation have had far too important a role to play in determining the date of John’s Gospel and its relationship to the other Gospels. Hence, many say John must be late because it has a more developed Christology than the other Gospels, or it must be late because it seems to have developed further material found in the Synoptics, or whatever. I think these developmental models assume far too much. I also think that John’s Gospel is related to the Synoptics as probably availing itself of common tradition. Other issues that push for a late date of John’s Gospel (such as synagogue expulsion, John 9) are not necessarily indicative of this when one considers other evidence. Many dates typically used for New Testament documents are less about firm evidence than creating compromises regarding supposed extreme positions (the date of Acts is a classic in this regard), so I want to rethink these. As a result, John may be relatively late (e.g. around 90), but I am very much open to it being much earlier as well, even before AD 70 and the fall of Jerusalem.
AR: What advice would you have for a reader of John’s Gospel in the 21st century church?
SP: I would recommend that a reader of John’s Gospel pay attention to the text, worry less about how John’s Gospel may “sound different” than the Synoptics, and observe and listen closely to Jesus as he speaks and acts throughout the book. John’s Gospel is a phenomenal narrative and exposition of the life and ministry and teachings of Jesus. Though the author used a restricted number of vocabulary items–in my mind because he chose to limit his lexical repertoire, not because of any personal linguistic shortcoming–he has created an expansive and inspiring portrait of Jesus as God’s divine son, from beginning to end. In many ways, there is no other account of Jesus that can compare with John’s Gospel. I think if you approach the text from this angle, questions of meaning and significance, then and now, etc., tend to dissolve into the direct presence of Jesus.
AR: Are there any books (commentaries/monographs/light studies/etc.) that readers of John’s Gospel might find helpful as they read along?
I have a few threads working through this blog but they all centre around the study and expounding of the Bible. In the next day or two I will release the first text study in John, having dealt with a few introductory issues in brief already. I have also decided to start incorporating study methods and study helps as the blog moves along as well.
But one of the things I’m excited about is hearing from other people. As such, I’ve decided to incorporate interviews with scholars, students of the Bible, and pastors. In the scholar and student category some may be well known and well established, others will be students who, in their MA or PhD programs, are already showing they can truly be called scholars as they contribute meaningfully through publishing and academic life. I hope to cull input especially related to the study of the text in these interviews. In the pastor category, I hope to cull input related to the application of the Word of God to all of our lives.
I have no set schedule for these but they will be interspersed from time to time. I hope you enjoy them.