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Why both Bock and Borg are on my Ready-Reading Shelf

I have been wanting to respond further to the excellent discussion over at Reclaiming the Mind, to which I linked a couple of days ago, but I’m not really an academic, and Karl Barth notwithstanding, I’m not really a theologian either. (I now am close to 100 comments behind on keeping up with the thread a Reclaiming the Mind. It’s a great discussion.)

Nonetheless, I’ve been involved in Christian education at the congregational level for many years, most of my life, in fact, and I’m an avid consumer of Biblical scholarship. I think that the attitudes that folks are discussing there are evident in places other than academia. They show up in the books I read and often in Sunday School classes that I teach. So here goes with some comments from outside the academic environment.

Some points:

  1. Much of the discussion has centered on Dr. Wallace’s definition of a Christian. We have gotten so sensitive to definitions, that it seems that to define is to discriminate. If you think about it, defining is discriminating. Any definition includes some and excludes others.

    If Dr. Wallace had defined “scholar” so that it only included Christians who hold something like his own views, then I think that would have significant. He would be trying to exclude on a basis similar to the one about which he was complaining. But he didn’t do that.

    I might have a slightly broader definition of Christian, but any definition includes some and excludes others. If we didn’t do that, we couldn’t communicate. By letting us know his definition, Dr. Wallace let’s us understand what he has to say, which hardly seems inappropriate.

  2. In just about any group of people based on ideas there will be some who narrowly define an “in” and an “out” group. I experienced this in my own graduate education when a professor refused even to talk to me after he read a paper I had written (not for one of his classes, fortunately!) because I was using comparative material and critical methodologies to excess. As the story was related to me, he managed to prevent publication of the paper as well. But the key point is this: I learned a great deal from that professor as well.
  3. Presuppositions abound on all sides, and sometimes we just suppose things that others have studied because we have to start from somewhere. But there is great value in examining such presuppositions and making sure we are supposing things that really need to be supposed rather than examined and established. Interaction between people with different presuppositions sometimes forces such examination.

I think there is a distressing lack of building basic foundations in much of the literature, particularly literature written for a popular audience. Thus folks in Sunday Schools in both liberal and conservative churches believe that they are simply following the best scholarship, but they are often reading material that comes from a completely different set of scholars in each case, and those sets don’t agree.

In one Sunday School class in which I discussed historical Jesus research, the members generally had read something by one of the Jesus Seminar scholars, or someone with a similar approach, and they were very surprised to learn about scholars who disagreed not only with the details of any particular reconstruction, but also with the method by which the reconstruction was done.

In another class, members expected that I would dismiss Jesus Seminar material out of hand. They just wanted to hear that they didn’t have to concern themselves with any of that stuff. When I tried to explain the idea of criteria for historicity to them, I might as well have begun speaking Greek. They didn’t want to ask why one would take such an approach.

Both of these classes were in United Methodist churches within the same general area. There was an obvious difference in what these various people were reading. But they had something in common. Neither group could explain how the other one had come to their conclusions. Both groups thought that they had the backing of good scholars.

You may be wondering about my title at this point. I keep about six shelves of books within arm’s reach of the desk where I do my personal devotions and book study. There I keep those books that I look at regularly when I’m studying. Amongst the lexicons and grammars, I include some other works, one of which is Darrell Bock’s Jesus According to Scripture.

Now Dr. Bock is somewhat more conservative than I am. I’m much more willing to question the historicity of portions of the stories told in the gospels. But one thing I want to do is understand how these passages have been harmonized by others. In other words, I don’t want to say that two stories are irreconcilable in their current form without both trying myself and seeing how others may have done it.

That’s where Jesus According to Scripture comes in. Dr. Bock outlines the relationships between the various gospels for each pericope in the gospels. Once I have read that material I may not agree with any of the reconstructions, but at least I have considered the possibility.

Now I doubt that there are many historical Jesus scholars who have never given consideration to any of these options. But I’m certain that there are other areas where scholars have not fully considered alternative ways of looking at a text. I find this in some conservative commentaries in which historical-critical research is dismissed out of hand. Fortunately, there is a substantial crop of excellent recent commentaries where this is not the case. Those commentaries are matched by critical commentaries that do not take the time to cover the possibility of some conservative options, for example for dating or authorship.

But amongst the readers of this material, there are indeed many people who simply read one commentary or one book on a topic and believe they have a good view of what Biblical scholars believe on the topic.

I had this emphasized to me in a study group I once led. They had asked me to lead a study on the book of Revelation, so I proceeded to used multiple commentaries in my own preparation, and also to look at some of the background texts, such as portions of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and so forth. After a couple of weeks I was told I was making it much too complex. The majority of the group asked me to teach from David Jeremiah’s book Escape the Coming Night, if I remember correctly. They pointed out to me how simple he made it, and wanted me to follow that so that they could understand clearly.

I had to tell them that I really couldn’t teach that book because I very simply didn’t agree with it. It was a great shock to them. To them, this was what Revelation meant. It was the only way. There might be minor variations, but not a completely different approach. (I take a completely different approach in my study guide, Revelation: a Participatory Study Guide, for what it’s worth.) They pointed out where Dr. Jeremiah said that Revelation was really quite easy to understand once you knew how to interpret it.

In turn, I pointed out that I have a complete shelf of books on Revelation (and I still feel I need many more), and that many of them claimed it was quite simple, and no two of those agreed. Of course, quite a number quite correctly say it’s not simple at all.

This is why I think that there is a great need in our Christian education departments for teaching about the nuts and bolts of Biblical studies. It seems to me that much of what goes on in Sunday School classes is a sort of “vain repetition” reinforcing the stuff that we already know and have studied year after year.

So whatever needs to happen in academia–and I’d generally favor a great deal of openness–we need more dialog between various viewpoints in our churches.

Now here’s the hard question: Will we allow discussion of serious issues, complete with the possibility that people might come to “unapproved” conclusions in our churches? That’s perhaps a little tougher of a question than one about an academic environment. I have found that many quite liberal individuals in churches can get very wary of materials from any other denomination used in their churches. I even heard one liberal education director complain that a book had “too much Jesus” in it. (I must point out that I vigorously disagreed.)

On the other hand, I know of many conservative churches where similar materials would be rejected. I have worked with folks who would accept invitations to speak at my church in my education program but would never consider inviting me or anyone from my church to speak at theirs.

Which brings me to what I think is the most important point: This isn’t about quid pro quo or tit for tat. It’s not about whether liberals or conservatives are more closed minded. I kept right on inviting those folks who weren’t inviting me back. In fact, I had never imagined that they would invite me back. I and my students benefited from their expertise and from being exposed to their point of view. Not having a speaker come to their church that might reflect my perspective was entirely their loss.

High quality diversity is an advantage, and it needs to be pursued irrespective of how others behave. Those who pursue it will reap the benefits.

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