Book Review: Paul and the Faithfulness of God

9780800626839.jpghTitle: Paul and the Faithfulness of God

Author: N.T. Wright

Bibliographic info: A gazillion pages

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Fortress Press for the digital review copy!

First there was James Dunn’s Large (900 page) book on Paul, The Theology of the Apostle Paul. Then came along the larger book (1,400 pages) by Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God. Now we have the largest book on Paul from Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God coming in at 1,700 pages.

Many of us eagerly waited years for Wright’s magnum opus on Paul to be published. Seeing the length of it explains why we had to wait so long! (Interestingly, I remember reading somewhere that Paul and the Faithfulness of God would have been even longer, but Wright excised some material and turned it into the forthcoming companion volume, Paul and His Recent Interpreters). I received this book in about November last year and it has taken me this long to read through it (off and on of course). Since one can find plenty of lengthy reviews of this volume by performing a simple Google search, I will keep this one brief and just provide some random thoughts on it.

If you’ve read Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God, you can pretty much go ahead and skim read the first eight chapters (chapters 1-5 are “Paul and His World” and 6-8 are “The Mindset of the Apostle”), unless you really want to see Wright’s new insights and how he has refined his views over the years. Actually, on second thought, I would definitely recommend reading the first chapter where Wright discusses Philemon. He compares and contrasts Paul’s brief letter to Philemon with an epistle of Pliny that also discusses a slave, noting their superficial similarities, but pointing out the extraordinary degree of social realignment that has taken place in Paul’s mind due to the gospel. Wright also discusses Pauline sources in this first chapter and argues for Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians.

Chapters 9-11 (“Paul’s Theology”) are the essential reading and chapters 12-16 (“Paul in History”) are also good reading, but just as chapters 9-11 of Romans are the heart of that epistle, so too chapters 9-11 are the heart of Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Here Wright discusses Paul’s theology under three main topics: (1) The One God of Israel, (2) The People of God, and (3) God’s Future for the World.

After reading this volume the phrase “God’s covenant faithfulness” is permanently seared into my brain. This is obviously because God’s covenantal dealings with humanity play a key role in how Wright reads Paul. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced that God’s covenant with Abraham and Israel is the bedrock underlying everything Paul says, but Wright does make a compelling case at times (of course, though, God’s dealings with humanity in Abraham, Israel, etc., does have a role to play in Paul’s theology, but the question is to what degree does it undergird all of Paul’s thoughts and writings).

One aspect of this volume I enjoyed is Wright’s ability to turn a good phrase and his ability to succinctly summarize a complex issue into a nice one-liner. For instance, he says: “The post-Enlightenment world has squashed all options into the two boxes of a ‘Constantinian’ compromise and an ‘Anabaptist’ detachment.”

On the topic of election, I enjoyed how Wright’s emphasis isn’t on God choosing individuals in order to show his saving grace (while letting everyone else reap their just reward in hell). Instead, Wright sees election as being more about how those elected/chosen by God (e.g. Abraham, Israel) were elected in order to bring blessings to the world and getting the world on the right track.

All in all, I quite enjoyed this book as I have most others of his I have read. There was plenty I agreed with and learned from, but also plenty I am on the fence about or disagree with to some degree (e.g. some of his views on the development of early Christology). This book was worth the wait and is, of course, Wright’s definitive treatment of his perspective on Paul.

Thoughts on the Mormon Church (Part IV) – Are Mormons Christians

Are Mormons Christian? Depends. Give me your definition of Christian and I will give you my answer.

Are Mormons Christian? This is the type of question that can easily get conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists riled up, especially if you answer, “Well of course Mormons are Christian!” And it is a question that probably sounds stupid to Mormons (they must be thinking, “Well of course we are Christians. We believe in Jesus and the words ‘Jesus Christ’ are part of the name of our church!”).

Personally I don’t really give a crap. Mormons want to call themselves Christians? Sure, who cares. You think Mormons deviate too much from historic Christianity and don’t qualify for the label? Sure, that makes sense too.

In the end I guess my answer to the question would be both yes and no.

The Affirmative Aspect of My Answer

The way in which the general populace understands the word “Christian” is simply a person who believes and follows the teachings of Jesus Christ, along with maybe a belief in Jesus being god (in whatever sense) and that he was raised from the dead. Granted, most people have a pretty piss-poor understanding of what Christ’s teachings were actually about and wouldn’t be able to articulate how they are distinct from the teachings of other religions and religious figures, but that is irrelevant because the fact remains: in society “Christian” has a pretty broad meaning that easily allows Mormonism to be subsumed under it.

I know there are some who would just poo-poo the idea that society’s definition of Christianity is meaningful and that we need to go back to scripture, but what they usually wind up doing is importing their own brand of Christian orthodoxy back onto scripture. For example, I have seen some say that Peter’s confession in Matt. 16:16 provides a basic understanding of what is a Christian, yet in the next breath they will define “the Christ, the son of the living God” in a fashion that is simply anachronistic (in other words, when Peter declared Jesus to be the son of God it had nothing to do with some incipient Trinitarianism).

If someone wants to prohibit the label “Christian” from being applied to people who don’t pass certain theological litmus tests (such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Niceno-Constantinopolitano Creed, and the Chalcedonian Definition), then they can do that, but this idea of a cognitive salvation –i.e. giving mental assent to a list of doctrines as being determinative for one’s redemption and is the determining factor in how others can determine if you are “going to heaven when you die”– is merely theological superstition and is not the emphasis of Christ’s teachings in the New Testament. Ultimately, it is the true God who gives his divine ‘Yes’ to people as he sees fit. And I think that if you are look at people and wonder whether God has given or will give his divine ‘Yes’ to them, their adherence to creeds and confessions of faith is not the primary thing you should be looking at.

The Negative Aspect of My Answer

Mormonism isn’t just simply another denomination of Christianity along the lines of Lutheran, Episcopalian, and so forth. Joseph Smith was given revelation directly from God and Jesus. Why? Apparently Christianity underwent a “great apostasy” at the time of the death of the apostles, leaving only a thoroughly corrupted version of the Christian faith, thus God needed to restore the fullness of the gospel and chose to do so through Joseph Smith. This idea of the great apostasy, along with the unique restoration doctrines and scriptures that resulted from the restoration of the church through Joseph Smith, makes me think it is best to maybe treat Mormonism as if it were something altogether new.

To illustrate this further, take the case of Judaism and Christianity. The latter started as a sect of the former, yet even though I consider the Christian faith as the authentic continuance of Judaism, I don’t go around saying I’m a Jew because obviously I accept beliefs and scriptures –that are reliant upon additional revelation from God– that historic Judaism rejects. In a similar manner, while Mormonism may have arisen as simply a new sect of restorationist Christianity, it quickly transformed into something else (e.g. there seems to be a decisive break in the Mormon understanding of God in pre- and post-Nauvoo periods with the pre-Nauvoo understanding not being quite as unorthodox as post-Nauvoo Mormonism).

Mormonism has beliefs and scriptures that historic Christianity rejects; just as this transforms that little Jewish sect into something new, so too for Mormonism, thus making it inappropriate to label Mormons and Mormonism as Christian.

[Digression]

In my readings of early Mormon writings there seems to have been a distinct pride in distinguishing Mormonism from historic Christianity. The opposite almost seems to be the case today. It is as is there is some real hesitancy in the Mormon Church to divorce itself too far from mainstream Christianity. For instance, in 1997 the previous Mormon Prophet, Gordon Hinckley, gave an interview with Time Magazine, in which he was asked about God being a man before he became God and his answer comes across as if he is passing it off as some sort of peripheral belief that just isn’t important to Mormon theology:

Question: Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?

Hinckley: I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse.…

What the?!

For the unaware reader, the Mormon belief in exaltation can perhaps best be summed up in the well-known couplet by past Mormon President Lorenzo Snow: “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.”

A Mormon apologetic I have encountered runs that this doctrine of exaltation is simply a recovery of the early church’s belief in theosis/divinization. While the idea of theosis is practically unheard of in Evangelicalism and broader Protestantism, it is nevertheless a key feature in the theological diet of the Orthodox Church (maybe this is due, in part at least, to how the Eastern and Western parts of the church came to have different conceptions of essence and energy). In fact, for many years after becoming Christian I had never even heard of such a notion as theosis, and if I had I would have recoiled in horror. It was only when I started to get to know the Christian faith from outside of my own very narrow stream that I happened upon this idea and came to see that not only does it go back to the early Patristic literature (e.g. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria), but there are even passages in the New Testament (e.g. John 17:21-23, 2 Cor. 8:9, 2 Peter 1:4, and Rev. 3:21) which could be taken as early antecedents to theosis (or, if not theosis, then at least a more weighty doctrine of the future of man than the flaccid going-to-heaven-when-you-die-and-floating-on-a-cloud-for-all-eternity position that is the default Christian position).

The Mormon belief in exaltation is quite distinct from the Orthodox belief in theosis. A key distinction is that in theosis we partake of God’s energies, not his essence (in Orthodox thinking God’s energies are not separate from God’s essence but are the way God manifests himself within creation). Hence, in theosis we remain human in our essence and do not unite with God’s (uncreated) essence, only with his (uncreated) energies. Whereas in the Mormon teaching of exaltation, divinization is an innate capacity in every person because humans and God are essentially of the same species (humans and deities are ultimately all eternal “intelligences” as Joseph Smith put it).

An interesting study on the topic is Jordan Vajda’s, “Partakers of the Divine Nature”: A Comparative Analysis of Patristic and Mormon Doctrines of Divinization” (available online here). Vajda says: “This difference—the difference between participation [i.e. Orthodox thesosis] and growth [i.e. Mormon exaltation]—can be rooted in two very different ontological understandings of divine nature and human nature.”

[/Digression]

All this is to say that while historic Christianity and Mormonism have a lot in common, there are important differences between that shouldn’t be swept under the rug. And it is because of these differences that I think one could argue that Mormonism should be classified as something new apart from Christianity. Who knows, maybe in a century or two –if Mormonism experiences a significant growth in adherents and doesn’t shy away from what makes it unique from historic Christianity– maybe Mormons will no longer desire to be called Christians.

The Long and Short of It

I really don’t care whether Mormons go around calling themselves Christian. I have no problem calling them Christians but that is probably because I don’t see the term as a magical talisman denoting that you fall into doctrinal orthodoxy and/or are a citizen of the New Jerusalem. I’m sure there are Mormons who really are Christian. Heck, I’m sure there are even some evangelicals who are really Christian too!

I think that instead of focusing upon such matters as whether it is alright to apply the label “Christian” to various groups, we should be more focused upon whether it applies to ourselves. In the words of Paul, we need to “examine ourselves to make sure that we are in the faith” (2 Cor 13:5). Because it doesn’t really matter a single iota whether you say you’re a Christian or whether you don’t think someone else is a Christian; all that matters is whether Christ himself will say that you are a Christian (see Matt 7:21-23; that is perhaps the scariest verse in the entire Bible, with Matt 10:37/Luke 14:26 being a close runner-up).

Thoughts on the Mormon Church (Part III) – More on the Missionaries

There are several questions I like to ask the missionaries when they come calling, not necessarily because I think they will break through the unassailable logic of the fundamentalist mindset but simply because I am interested in seeing how much (and to what depth) they understand their own doctrine (and its evolution), and how much they know about the prophets of their church (particularly Joseph Smith and Brigham Young; though I’m resigned to the fact that it’s a rare missionary who knows anything about Mormonism after Young).

Whenever I speak to missionaries for the first time, one of the first things they try to tell me is that their church has a prophet of God. So naturally I have to ask something to the effect of:

  • What is a specific doctrine or teaching from God that the current Prophet has spoken that you liked?

The only answer I get is some variation of how everything the Prophet says is inspiring in general. Apparently the days are long gone when the LDS Prophet received profound insights from God. Now it sounds like the LDS Prophet is no different from a regular pastor/motivational speaker.

The missionaries tell me that the Prophet and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles guide the church and are given revelation from God, yet it seems like the past LDS Prophets and Apostles are simply thrown under the bus because they taught things that are regularly rejected by the contemporary church leadership and laity. So in that spirit I like to ask this question:

  • How do you tell that what a Prophet says is truly revelation from God and not just his own personal opinions? For instance, Brigham Young taught the Adam-God doctrine -that Adam was God- and he declared it as having been revealed to him by God, yet it was later rejected by the Church.

Brigham Young’s Adam-God doctrine is my favorite example of this, though many of the things that the past LDS Prophets and Apostles get thrown under the bus for could be argued to be relatively trivial (such as the belief that the hill Cumorah is in New York). Yet the point remains: seemingly nothing the LDS Prophets and Apostles say can really be trustworthy. What they teach today may very well be tomorrow’s heresy (or at least toilet paper).

By the way, only one missionary I’ve encountered had any idea of what I was talking about when I brought up Brigham Young’s Adam-God teaching, though he was actually a returned missionary that the missionaries had brought along to answer some of my “tough questions” (and his answer was essentially, “well not everything the Prophets say is revelation,” which of course neglects the fact that Brigham Young said it was revelation). Other than that returned missionary, I don’t think I’ve ever had a missionary know what the hell I’m talking about. [For the interested reader see this link for some of what Brigham Young said concerning Adam-God]

This isn’t uncommon as there are many other issues which the missionaries never know what I am talking about, e.g. the Kinderhook Plate fiasco, the problem of deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, and Brigham Young’s teaching of Blood Atonement.

Another question that I like to ask is:

  • So which apologetic theory do you subscribe to in order to explain how the Book of Abraham was translated from some Egyptian papyri that were not a document written by Abraham as Joseph Smith claimed, but are rather run-of-the-mill ancient Egyptian funerary documents?

Surprisingly, there was actually one missionary who knew what I was talking about. He held to the “well we don’t have all the papyri and so the Book of Abraham came from those missing papyri” apologetic. Though he had no answer to the follow up question of, “So how do you explain that Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the three vignettes from the papyri that he included in the Book of Abraham are demonstrably incorrect?”

On a related note, the LDS Church recently released an essay (found here) on the historicity and translation of the Book of Abraham. Interestingly, it gives the thumbs up for the idea that Joseph Smith was not actually translating the Egyptian papryi but that they served as a “catalyst.” In the words of the essay: “[The papyri] catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.” Pity. And here Joseph Smith and cohorts were thinking that he could translate Egyptian hieroglyphs. Ah well, we know that position isn’t tenable today, so lets just throw past teachings under the bus.

Ultimately, while I enjoy talking with Mormon missionaries (and they are always very polite chaps and much more personable than the Jehovah Witnesses), it’s pretty much impossible to have a real discussion about their religion with them (such as discussing its difficulties, contradictions, evolution, and so forth). This is simply due to their lack of knowledge. But what they lack in knowledge they do make up for in their earnestness to bear their testimony about how they know the Book of Mormon is true, that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that the LDS Church is true. Their bearing of their testimony is also a common response to questions they don’t know how to answer, although the last missionary pair that I met with (a few weeks ago) just upped and left when it became evident that I wasn’t going to be an easy convert and knew more about their church history than they did (they said that they had an appointment to get to. Yeah, right).

Of course, it goes without saying that not all Mormons are fundamentalists. Not by a long shot. From my talks with Mormons in real life and from reading a copious amount of literature (both in print and online), it is manifestly evident that Mormonism is just like any other religious tradition in that its adherents occupy a vast range of perspectives, from the uber-conservative fundamentalist to the disagree-with-standard-Mormon-doctrine-on-everything liberal. But why, O why, do all the missionaries that come to my door have to be of the fundamentalist variety who have no depth of knowledge of their own religion!

Thoughts on the Mormon Church (Part II) – Meeting with the Missionaries

Over the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of encountering many missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka the Mormons or Latter-day Saints). Almost all of the Mormon missionaries I’ve encountered were 20-21 year old males, hailing from the Mormon bastion of Utah (though there was that one guy from Washington who broke the mould). This isn’t surprising when one learns that Mormonism is primarily centered in Utah, Idaho, and Montana, and that most Mormon missionaries (about 80%) are young men.

I don’t think it is a stretch to say that almost all of the Mormon missionaries I have talked with are essentially the Mormon version of fundamentalists and, to put it bluntly, are pretty damn clueless about their own religion (just like good old evangelical fundamentalists). They really seem to know next to nothing about the formative years of the LDS Church (e.g. the life and times of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young), and even less about church history after that time.

For instance, the missionaries I encountered did not know some basic facts about Joseph Smith such as the fact that Smith had multiple wives (over 30). The majority of the missionaries I talked to were apparently unaware of this and seemed to think that the polygamy started in Utah under Brigham Young. Some of the missionaries did know about Smith’s polygamy but didn’t believe me when I mentioned the number of women he had married, and really didn’t believe me when I mentioned that about a dozen of them were already married to other men.

I don’t bring up such topics to the missionaries because I think it will cripple their faith. It’s moreso because I am curious as to what level of knowledge the missionaries have regarding their church. I know that in “mainstream” Christianity (e.g. good old American evangelicalism) there is an abysmal knowledge of understanding of matters related to Christian origins (including basic knowledge of the New Testament). But, and maybe I am silly for thinking this, shouldn’t one expect missionaries to have at least a somewhat decent understanding of some basic things about the key figures of their religious tradition, especially given the fact that (from my experience) every single one of the missionaries was born and raised as a Mormon.

Anywho, moving on.

Before the missionaries go on their missionary they spend some time at what is known as the Missionary Training Center. Considering that a lot of the missionaries have thrown out the exact same arguments to me, I would assume that this is where they learn the methods and “facts” to employ while proselytizing.

Here are a few arguments that are repeated ad nauseum by the missionaries:

  • I know/testify that the Book of Mormon is true.

When I ask how they know it is true I invariably get the response that God has revealed it to them that it is true. Naturally my follow up question is how did God reveal this to them. Most of the responses I’ve received involved the phrase: “a still, small voice which testifies to me that it is true” (cf. 1 Kgs 19:12; but they don’t mean an audible voice, just something more akin to a happy and peaceful feeling). Another typical answer I’ve received is, “it makes me a better person” (which is nice, but reading the Qur’an and Bhagavad Gita can also have the same effect).

There are two other similar statements I hear just as often from the missionaries:

  • I know/testify that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.
  • I know/testify that the [LDS] Church is true.

In regards to that last statement, I haved ask how they know “the Church is true” and the only answer I’ve received is essentially “because I know the Book of Mormon is true.” I don’t see, however, why that means the mainstream LDS Church is true and not one of the other Mormon sects which also upholds the Book of Mormon as the Word of God (such as the Community of Christ, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Strangite branch, the Apostolic United Brethren, the Centennial Park group, and the Temple Lot branch). I mean, for all they know the Book of Mormon may very well be true but the mainstream branch of Mormonism may have apostatized from the truth and one of the other denominations is in fact the true continuation of the Church. (I’ve actually had some missionaries try to convince me that there are no other denominations or branches of  Mormonism).

A frequent argument I’ve heard about the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as the Word of God is:

  • Joseph Smith didn’t go to school so how could he have come up with the Book of Mormon?

I’ve heard similar things regarding Mohammed and the Qur’an –Mohammed apparently couldn’t read or write and yet he produced the Qur’an– so does that mean we should all convert to Islam?

If memory serves, while Joseph Smith may have only had a few years of formal education he was nevertheless raised in a household where his father and his brother taught in schools, so I don’t think it is stretching the imagination to assume that despite his lack of formal education, Joseph nevertheless grew up in a household where education was important and that he developed a good ability to read and write.

Another thing I’ve heard on two or three occasions is in the spirit of the following (I think this is a quote from one of the current Apostles of the LDS Church):

  • Either the Book of Mormon is the most ingenious fraud ever concocted, or it is what the Church believes it to be – the very Word of God given to Joseph Smith.

I really don’t see what is all that special about the Book of Mormon, especially when you take into account that the plot and certain aspects of the language of the Book of Mormon have been found in other works available in Joseph Smith’s time (such as the Bible and The Late War). When you take that into account you are left with a book that by no means necessitates a supernatural source. (And yes, I have read arguments from Mormon apologists claiming the Book of Mormon is filled with Hebraisms, but no, they are not compelling).

In a nutshell, I think the Book of Mormon is basically the biblical version of fan-fiction.

Other random things I have heard multiple times from the missionaries are arguments along the line of:

  • “The Bible (or New Testament) was put together by Constantine and left out many books which should have been included.”

I’m unsure of what is the better response here. Should I bite my tongue and say nothing, or give a ten minute rundown on the formation of the NT?

  • “The Christian doctrine of the Trinity comes from Greek philosophy.”

In a way this is accurate because the hammering out of the doctrine of the Trinity amongst the early church fathers utilized Greek philosophical language, categories, and so forth. Yet it is far too simplistic of a statement to make it useful in accurately portraying the evolution of Trinitarian doctrine. Additionally, simply stating that the Trinity (or whatever doctrine) is the result of Greek philosophical thinking only gets you so far… you still need to show why that means that doctrine is in error (i.e. it is not a good argument to simply say, “that doctrine results from Greek philosophy, therefore it is wrong”).

Also, doesn’t this Greek philosophy argumentation essentially undercut the Mormon position too? It seems to me that Mormonism also contain beliefs that one could rightly say are the offspring of Greek philosophical thinking. For example, the Mormon doctrine of a pre-mortal existence of the soul is a thoroughly platonic idea (stemming from Plato’s theory of forms and ideas). In other words… we can all throw around the “Greek philosophy” argument.

Thoughts on the Mormon Church (Part I) – Holy Envy

A concept I’ve come to embrace as a damn good way of studying other religious traditions is to “leave room for holy envy” (to borrow  a phrase from NT scholar Krister Stendahl). The idea behind “holy envy” is that one should have an open mind concerning other religious faiths to the extent of being able to identify beliefs or practices in other religions that one wishes could be reflected more in their own religious tradition.

Over the past few years, ever since the Mormon (or Latter-day Saints) missionaries first knocked at my door in 2011, I’ve spent what must be hundreds of hours reading Mormon literature and talking with the missionaries and other LDS folk (I even got to have dinner at the Bishop’s house one time!). So I like to fancy that I have a somewhat decent understanding of the LDS Church. So here are just a couple of things about the Mormon Church to which I have a degree of “holy envy.”

  • The emphasis upon orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy.

Creeds and systematized theologies are not prized that highly in the LDS Church. In fact, apart from this list of Articles of Faith I don’t think I’ve seen much else in the way of elaborate statements of faith that one must adhere to in order to be a Mormon.

Mainstream Christianity loves to bandy about creeds and confessions of faith as some sort of doctrinal litmus test one must pass before one can rightly label themselves “Christian.” While I can see the usefulness of creeds and confessions of faith for ecclesiological purposes (i.e. marking out the boundary lines for a community of faith), they seem to be too often viewed as soteriological statements (i.e. you must believe x, y, and z in order to be a real Christian). So if someone were to say, for example, that they don’t agree with or even care about the Chalcedonian formulation of Christ, then that is seen in the eyes of many as being the equivalent to purchasing a ticket to the eternal lake of fire. In other words, creeds and confessions of faith are all too often wielded about as rhetorical bludgeons in order to cast people into the outer darkness.

All of this is to say that I can definitely appreciate the focus in the LDS Church upon “likening Scriptures to oneself.”

  • The universalistic outlook on the fate of humanity.

In LDS theology there are three heavens (or “degress of glory”): the Telestial, the Terrestrial, and the Celestial (with even the lowly Telestial heaven apparently “surpassing all understanding”). Basically, as I understand it, pretty much every human gets to hang out in one of these heavens for eternity (except for maybe a small minority of humans, such as Cain and Judas, who get to enjoy the Outer Darkness).

For the past 2,000 years there has always been a trajectory of Christian thought that has been either outright universalistic, implicitly universalistic, or at least possessing a universalistic hope. When I’m not reading news stories about some of the utterly depraved people that inhabit this planet, I typically fall into the category of having a universalistic hope. So naturally the hopeful outlook of Mormonism’s universalistic theology resonates with me.

There are probably other things I could list but those are two that leap out at me off of the top of my head. Stay tuned for more random thoughts on Mormonism, such as my thoughts on the missionaries and the question that some people care far too much about…. “Are Mormons Christian?”

Yoder’s Sexual Violence

For quite a while I knew of John Howard Yoder and his writings on Christian pacifism, yet I also knew to associate him with phrases like “sexual misconduct” and “abuse of power.” This was the reason why I put off reading his stuff for quite some time. Eventually a mentor of mine had me read Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. I found it quite a satisfying read and so I went on to read more of Yoder, and I am still reading his books to this day.

I have found in Yoder’s writings some fine theological expositions on issues such as Christian discipleship, violence, power, servanthood, and the error of Constantinianism. The main foci of his theological project seem spot on, though there seem to be some gaping lacunae. Despite the fact that I am deeply disturbed by Yoder’s coercive behavior and abuse of power (and his seemingly pathological lack of empathy toward women), I nevertheless have gleaned much from his writings.

I have heard of other notable theologians having sexual foibles, e.g., the womanizing and sadomasochistic practices of Paul Tillich, the apparent live-in-mistress of Karl Barth, and the sexual failures of Martin Luther King. Yet, of course, Yoder’s behavior is not on the same level with these other men, for it is more coercive than the others – though I don’t think the reported behavior of the others –if accurate– is anything to gloss over either. For instance, concerning Martin Luther King, having a position of prestige and power in the church and society –and being the center of a cult of personality– introduces a clear power differential that should not be abused and manipulated (whether unknowingly or not) to one’s advantage in order to bed women. From the little bit of literature I’ve read on the issue of power dynamics and relationships, it sounds like there is no such thing as a truly consensual relationship between two people (even if both are adults) when there is a power differential between them (whether it be doctor-patient, student-teacher, celebrity-fan, and so forth).

Yesterday, a new article, Scandalizing John Howard Yoder, was posted at The Other Journal on Yoder’s sexual violence by two PhD students and two associate Professors at Baylor University [note 7/9: it looks like the article has been taken down]. The article says:

Yoder’s actions toward these women, including students, ranged from verbal sexual innuendo to physical sexual acts, including intercourse.

Until I read that I had been under the direct impression that the allegations against Yoder did not include any physical sexual acts (just many failed attempts at using his position of power to try and bed women, even married women).

For anyone wanting to know about the other side of Yoder’s legacy, I highly recommend reading that article in its entirety. One can too easily fall into one of two extremes of understanding Yoder: one is to paint him as a convicted sexual felon and the other is to avoid the matter entirely and provide a hagiographical telling of Yoder’s life that neglects this sexualized violence. The Scandalizing John Howard Yoder article avoids both and provides a fair assessment of Yoder’s disgrace.

For those wanting to read more on it, here is a list of a handful of articles from a variety of perspectives. I am sure I missed out on some useful pages so feel free to drop links to anything of relevance in the comments.

First up are the articles from The Elkhart Truth (from 1992) on Yoder’s sexual misconduct. The following are a few quotes showcasing what it is that Yoder did:

The women … said the allegations included improper hugging, use of sexual innuendo or overt sexual language, sexual harassment, kissing or attempts to kiss women, nudity and violent sexual behavior. Sexual intercourse was not among the allegations.

“[This behavior] can range from suggesting, ‘sit on my lap,’ to actually pulling people down on his lap, inappropriately kissing and hugging,” one of the women said.

Joe [the victim’s husband] was away for most of the weekend leading a retreat and wasn’t due back until Sunday afternoon. “I had no reason to mistrust John [Howard Yoder],” said Colleen, who then had two small children. “After I had put the kids to bed, I came down to the living room. John was sitting on the couch. He moved closer to me as we were sitting on the couch. He kept coming closer and closer to me and eventually pushed me over and lay down on top of me. I was very afraid. I began to push him away. He began to shake violently…When I pushed him away and confronted him, he denied there was anything sexual about it.”

Barbra Graber provides us with posts here and here. She says:

Let’s all be clear and truthful about what actually happened in the case of JHY. People still ask me what he actually did that was so bad. Words like “inappropriate”, “liaisons”, “dalliances”, “alleged abuses”, “crossed boundaries”, “improprieties”, and “misconduct” to describe Yoder’s actions are highly misleading. The actions of JHY reported to me, beginning in the 70′s, were sexually abusive assaults, sudden acts of aggression. They were obscene and persistent sexual harassments. They were clear perpetrations of sexualized violence. Women don’t write letters of complaint to powerful institutions about liaisons with powerful men. They usually don’t bother to write complaint letters about improprieties. An impropriety is a sexist joke. Stop the whitewashing. The man committed crimes and was very lucky to have been spared a jail sentence.

Dr J. Glenn Friesen provides this article in an attempt to add some nuance to Yoder’s behavior (it is touched upon in the Scandalizing John Howard Yoder article).

Mark Thiessen Nation’s thoughts on the subject can be found here, here, and here.

Andy Alexis-Baker provides an article here.

Ted Grimsrud provides us with a series of reflections on Yoder’s sexualized violence: part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4; and part 5. He also has these other two pieces on Yoder here and here. He also provides us with a PDF of the relevant pages in Stanley Hauerwas’ autobiography which touches upon Yoder’s behavior (Hauerwas was a good fried of Yoder and, if I’m not mistaken, helped him get his teaching position at Duke).

In reading Yoder, I respect his ability to turn a theological phrase and think he provides good insight into the Bible and the teachings of Christ, yet what does one do with his writings in light of his behavior towards women and the harm that he caused them? Even though I have learned a lot from Yoder’s writings, I do not consider myself a Yoderian (nor even a Barthian or Moltmannian), yet I nevertheless think that Yoder’s writings can still be used to stimulate further theological discussion in the church. One must, of course, read Yoder critically in light of his actions, but I do not think that one should necessarily jettison Yoder’s writings from their library.

To quote the Scandalizing John Howard Yoder article:

The Politics of Jesus is one of the great texts of Christian discipleship, and it will remain that way, not because Yoder’s life warrants that place in history but, just the opposite, because God providentially uses the fallen for good. Some will take this as bad news. We see it as good news. We do so because we see in Yoder’s theological legacy, as we have just laid out, the Lamb of God made victorious.

Review: The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research

holmes_ehrman_textofNTTitle: The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis (Second Edition)

Editors: Michael Holmes and Bart Ehrman

Bibliographic info: XII + 830 + 53 (indices)

Publisher: Brill, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon or Brill.

With thanks to Brill for the review copy!

Ever since I first got involved in serious biblical studies and bought the wonderful NET-NA27 diglot, I have been enraptured with New Testament textual criticism. To borrow the well-known saying about the Gospel of John, “it is shallow enough for even babies to wade in, but deep enough for elephants to drown in.” Similarly, New Testament textual criticism is simple enough for the armchair student of biblical studies to get a good enough grasp of it, yet it also offers up deep complexity that one can spend years studying.

This volume is the second edition of The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research. This new edition is called for due to important advancements that have been made in the field of New Testament textual criticism in the years since the publication of the first edition in 1995. The twenty-eight studies in this volume, from many well-known figures in the field, aims to present a thoroughly updated edition to reflect this advancement in knowledge and methods (e.g. the ECM, CBGM, stemmatics, and so forth).

This edition is over twice the size of the first edition, with several new chapters added and all of the recurring chapters being revised and updated. As with the first edition, each chapter concludes with a lengthy bibliography for further reading. One chapter found in the first edition but excised from this updated edition is the study on the use of computers in New Testament textual criticism. Though an unfortunate absence, the preface notes that this deletion was due to “the impossibility of any print resource keeping up with the rapid pace of development and change in this field” (ix).

The first four chapters in the volume discuss the different types of Greek witnesses to the New Testament that we possess, with the chapters having the same authors as they did in the first edition. In order to give an idea of how much these chapters have been revised and update, I have provided the differences in chapter sizes between the first and second editions in parentheses.

  • Eldon Jay Epp on papyrus manuscripts (18 vs. 39 pp.)
  • D.C. Parker on the majuscule manuscripts (20 vs. 27 pp.)
  • Kurt and Barbara Aland on the miniscules (17 vs. 22 pp.)
  • Carroll Obsurn on the lectionaries (13 vs. 20 pp.)

After reading through the chapters in this new second edition and then flicking through the same chapters in the first edition, the structure of these chapters seems pretty much the same yet they have obviously been reworked to provide up-to-date information on the topic at hand, such as how the subject-matter of each chapter has been impacted by various new aspects of research such as the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method.

The next eight chapters are on the various early versions of the New Testament. A notable difference is that the Armenian chapter nearly tripled in size and another being the addition of a chapter on the Gothic version. Out of these eight chapters, seven of them are by a different author than those in the first edition.

  • Ulrich Schmid on the Diatessaron of Tatian (19 vs. 27 pp.)
  • Peter Williams on the Syriac versions of the NT (15 vs. 23 pp.)
  • Philip Burton on the Latin version (17 vs. 33 pp.)
  • Christian Askeland on the Coptic versions (10 vs. 28 pp.)
  • Rochus Zuurmond (revised by Curt Niccum) on the Ethiopic version (14 vv. 21 pp.)
  • S. Peter Cowe on the Armenian version (15 vs. 39 pp.)
  • Jeff Childers on the Georgian version (14 vs. 34 pp.)
  • Carla Falluomini on the Gothic version (21 pp.)

The chapter on the Diatessaron was particularly helpful, for the question of how it can be used in the textual criticism of the Gospels is a difficult one (due to us not even possessing an extant continuous text of the Diatessaron, not to mention there still being debate over whether the Diatessaron was originally written in Syriac or Greek). Schmid approaches the Diatessaron in the chapter by employing an “old perspective”-“new perspective” structure (with the new perspective basically being research from 1995 onwards).

The next four chapters examine the state of the New Testament text to be found in the Patristic witnesses and other important Greek witnesses. Three are revised chapters from the first edition, with the fourth chapter being a new contribution.

  • Gordon Fee (revised by Roderic Mullen) on the Greek fathers (16 vs. 22 pp.)
  • H.A.G. Houghton on the Latin fathers (15 vs. 30 pp.)
  • Sebastian Brock on the Syriac fathers (12 vs. 21 pp.)
  • Peter Head on additional Greek witnesses, e.g., ostraca, amulets, inscriptions, and other types of witnesses. (31 pp.)

Peter Head’s chapter on additional Greek witnesses is a welcomed addition to this edition because not every witness to the New Testament text can neatly fall under the categories of papyri, majuscules, minuscules, lectionaries, patristic citations, or versional evidence. These other Greek witnesses to the New Testament text also bear witness to the Rezeptionsgeschichte of the text and thus should have a role to play in New Testament textual criticism. For instance, an amulet of Mark 1:1-2 from Oxyrhynchus (P. Oxy 5073) is a good example; Head says that it is “our earliest manuscript witness to this passage by a century, and clearly reflects a form of the text lacking the words “Son of God” from 1:1″ (442).

The next eight chapters are on various tools and aspects of New Testament textual criticism. Five of them are new contributions not found in the first edition (the chapters by Haines-Eitzen, Epp, Wasserman, Krans, and Holmes).

  • James Royse on scribal tendencies in the transmission of the NT text (13 vs. 17 pp.)
  • Kim Haines-Eitzen on the social history of early Christian scribes (17 pp.)
  • Thomas Geer Jr. (revised by Jean-Francois Racine) on analyzing and categorizing NT Greek manuscripts (14 vs. 21 pp.)
  • Eldon Jay Epp on textual clusters (38 pp.)
  • Tommy Wasserman on the criteria for evaluating readings (33 pp.)
  • Jan Krans on conjectural emendation (22 pp.)
  • Michael Holmes on the traditional goal of NT textual criticism (51 pp.)
  • Juan Hernandez Jr. on modern critical editions and apparatuses of the Greek NT (13 vs. 21 pp.)

Holmes’ chapter is a much needed study in this volume (he discusses whether the goal of New Testament textual criticism is seeking after the “original text”, the “initial text,” an “authorial text,” etc). Epp’s contribution is another one I’m glad was included. Basically, his idea of “textual clusters” is an updated (and more flexible) version of the now outmoded concept of “text-types.”

The next three chapters are on the three standard methodological approaches to New Testament textual criticism, all of which are revised versions of their first-edition counterparts.

  • Daniel Wallace on the Majority text theory (23 vs. 33 pp.)
  • J. Keith Elliott on Thoroughgoing Eclecticism (14 vs. 25 pp.)
  • Michael Holmes on Reasoned Eclecticism (24 vs. 31 pp.)

The final chapter is Bart Ehrman’s discussion on the New Testament text as a window into the social history of early Christianity (28 vs. 27 pp.).

When I originally looked at the table of contents I was somewhat surprised there wasn’t a chapter on the the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method and its application in the Editio Critica Maior. When one considers the number of times it is mentioned throughout the book, I figured it would have merited its own chapter. Thankfully, though, there are several pertinent discussions on it strewn throughout the volume, with a notable examination of it provided by Wasserman in his chapter on the criteria for evaluating readings (see pp. 595-607).

All in all, this volume provides in-depth studies on New Testament textual criticism from a variety of perspectives. Each chapter truly provides the status quaestionis (“state of the question”) for the subject-matter under discussion by highlighting and expounding upon current thinking in the field of New Testament textual criticism. This is a wonderful update to the first edition and is surely one of the most important books on textual criticism that a New Testament student or scholar could have on their bookcase – and the relatively inexpensive paperback version allows this to become a reality!

 

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