Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Hebrews and Divine Speech, Book Review

Title: Hebrews and Divine Speech (Library of New Testament Studies)
Author: Jonathan I. Griffiths
Publisher: T&T Clark, 2014
Price: $112 (amz)
Binding: Hardcover
Pages: 216
The book of Hebrews opens with a majestic declaration.

The God who spoke “in many times and in many ways” in the past has now “spoken in a son.” In a revision of his 2010 Cambridge University dissertation, Jonathan Griffiths seeks to grapple with the impact and significance of this revelatory claim. In particular, Griffiths asks, what does the writer mean when he says that God speaks, and how does this theology of divine speech relate to the rest of Hebrews?

Griffiths pursues his study along several distinct lines of inquiry. His primary focus is on the theology of God’s speech in Hebrews. One feature of this discussion is whether there is a logos Christology at work in Hebrews, where Jesus is identified as the “word of God” incarnate (see esp. pp. 42-48). Griffiths argues that while many texts in Hebrews imply this connection (e.g., Heb 1:1-2, 4:12-13, 11:3), the writer “stops short of making an explicit affirmation of that kind” (p. 162). Rather, throughout Hebrews, “the Son’s person and work are presented as the means by which God has spoken his eschatological word” (p. 162). Griffiths concludes that while Hebrews is not dependent on Philo or too closely aligned to the thinking of John’s Gospel, Hebrews does contain a “discernible and sustained ‘word’ Christology” (p. 162).

In pursuing this theology of divine speech, Griffiths limits the scope of his investigation to the key terms λογός and ῥῆμα (both of which are usually translated as “word”). In doing so, Griffiths seeks to allow the details of the text to shape the contours of his theological conclusions about the nature and function of God’s speech. This criteria also narrows the focus of the study to the manageable scope of the eight passages in Hebrews that feature these key terms.

Framed by an orienting introduction and conclusion, the bulk of the work consists of eight chapters devoted to one of these passages: Heb 1:1-4 on God’s speech “in” his son; Heb 2:1-4 on God’s spoken salvation; Heb 4:2-16 on God’s living word; Heb 5:11-6:12 on the form and expected effect of God’s word; Heb 6:13-7:28 on God’s spoken and effective oath; Heb 11:3 on God’s word of creation; Heb 12:18-29 on God’s saving and judging word from Zion; and Heb 13:7, 17, and 22 on God’s word in relation to the community’s leaders.

In each chapter, Griffiths briefly exegetes the given unit, analyzes the use of the key words, and then considers their contribution to a theology of divine speech. Though a narrow focus on key terms can fall prey to the vagaries of word-studies, Griffiths intentionally keeps his eye on the broader discourse context and the relationship between words and concepts (see pp. 7-27). His limited scope also allows him to keep his treatments of each passage succinct and building toward his theological conclusions.

From these exegetical investigations, Griffiths observes that in Hebrews the term λογός does not directly “identify” Jesus as the divine word, but rather the writer uses this word with “almost complete consistency to identify forms of divine speech” (p. 162). The term ῥῆμα, too, is used exclusively to denote some type of divine discourse (Heb 1:3, 6:5, 11:3, 12:19). Sharing a similar but distinctive function in the writer’s strategy, these two words complement each other with λογός emphasizing the message communicated and ῥῆμα highlighting the experience and physical manifestation of God’s speech (see pp. 62-63, 126-30, 140-41). According to Griffiths, whenever the writer uses λογός in a phrase, “it serves to identify the speech form that it modifies as divine speech and to draw attention to its character as such” (p. 163).

A theological implication from this conclusion is that, in Hebrews, to encounter the divine word “entails an encounter with Christ” and access to “the reality of salvation” (p.165). Conversely, this encounter can also be an occasion for judgment (see esp. the analysis of Heb 12:18-29 on pp. 131-52). Thus, Griffiths here demonstrates that Hebrews’ theology of God’s speech relates directly to the primary purpose of the epistolary sermon, namely, to exhort the hearers to “Press on!”

After considering the theology of divine speech in Hebrews and working through the relevant uses of λογός and ῥῆμα, Griffiths considers the relationship between God’s word and the writer’s word of exhortation. Does the writer of Hebrews consider his homily “to the Hebrews” to be included in the category of divine speech? In other words, does the writer consider his words to his hearers to be part of God’s word to his people?

With the appropriate nuance, Griffiths answers in the affirmative. Because of the careful way that the writer characterizes God’s speech in Hebrews, Griffiths insists, the phrase “word of exhortation” (Heb 13:22, τοῦ λόγου τῆς παρακλήσεως) is a critical feature of his compositional strategy and loaded with theological freight. Indeed, Griffiths argues that his analysis “raises the possibility that the writer wishes to signal that his own discourse forms part of the complex of divine speech presented in Hebrews” (p. 163). From this perspective, this word of exhortation represents the speech of God himself (see also Griffiths’ treatment of Heb 4:13 and 5:11).

Because of its character as a divine word of exhortation, too, Hebrews embodies a sense of urgency and authority. This divine word is also a contemporary word. Through the Old Testament Scriptures, the writer insists, God still speaks to his people. For Griffiths, the writer furthers this theological connection by locating his own written sermon within the long line of divine discourse found in the biblical canon. As Griffiths articulates, “in the moment of the delivery of the Hebrews sermon, the writer is himself the exhorter, and it is to him that they are listening ‘today’” (p. 165).

Arguing that the ambiguity of Heb 12:25 is intentional (i.e. who is the one speaking?), Griffiths contends that the writer “wishes to imply that as the addressees hear his sermon, they are hearing God’s voice” (p. 165). Accordingly, those who hear Hebrews spoken “today” are also forced to respond to God’s word “today” (see pp. 55-60, 79-89). In this light, the writer “clearly holds high expectations for the effectiveness of preaching the divine word” (p. 167).

Griffiths’ argument here has substantial implications for the doctrine of revelation and Scripture. If Griffiths’ basic analysis is correct, then Hebrews represents an instance within the New Testament where a biblical author himself conceives of his writing not only as the “word of man” but as the very “word of God.” This volume, then, will be a strategic resource for those searching for signs of a canon-consciousness among the New Testament writers and also for those striving to find fresh ways of formulating a high view of Scripture.

In sum, Griffiths’ study of the theology of God’s speech in Hebrews has a clear structure, a manageable scope, and produces measured but meaningful conclusions. Further, he keeps his analysis rooted in specific passages in Hebrews but also branches out to the theological forests of Christology, soteriology, and bibliology. These features make Griffiths’ volume a fruitful contribution to Hebrews studies, New Testament theology, and theological interpretation.

Also in Themelios 40.2 (August 2015): 305-06.

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Friday, December 04, 2015

Still Sick in the Bay of Biscay: An Unremarkable Reflection


“Still sick, -in the Bay of Biscay - Lat. 47 N. Long. 3 W.”
–William Carey, Journal entry for June 15, 1793.

I heard these words in the Angus Library at Regent's Park College in Oxford, UK where the original manuscripts of many of William Carey's letters and journals are housed.

This particular entry resonated with me at that particular moment, not the least because I was still experiencing the drag of jet lag and flirting with a migraine. Pro Tip: This is not the best disposition for a walking tour of the city! I was initially intrigued by Carey’s statement and upon further reflection, I think his terse journal entry is instructive for a fully formed understanding of the missionary and pastoral task.

One of the reasons Carey kept the journal was to keep his supporters back home informed of his mission work during his trip to India. In the previous entry for June 14, Carey grimly recounts, "Sick, as were all my family and incapable of much reflection." The next day on June 15, the effect lingers, "Still sick," followed by the latitude and longitude. All Carey records is where he's at and how he feels. The entry itself is sparse, unglamorous, and strikingly unremarkable.

No, "Though my physical body grows sick of the sea with each tumult of this billowing ocean, my soul sallies forth on the waves of supernal bliss as I sojourn to the mission field on celestial wings fueled by the verve of my Spirit-wrought blood-earnestness . . ." Not even a, “You call me out upon the waters . . .”

Just, "Still sick."

A few days later, an entry reads, "Nothing remarkable."

If you’ve been in ministry for any length of time, you’ve likely had more than one “still sick in the bay of Biscay” type of day. The minister or missionary must be fueled by more than the "thrill" of adventure when the only thing on the horizon is the "chill" of illness or a long string of unremarkable days.

If we could see Joseph’s journal entry about a decade into his imprisonment in Egypt, it might read, “Still wrongly accused and misunderstood. Still in prison.” Centuries later an apostle under house arrest might have recorded on his parchment sometime after his third denied request, “Thorn still in place. Still hurts.” Sunburnt and weary, a Jewish carpenter waiting and wandering in a Judean wilderness might have written, “Day 39. Still hungry. Nothing remarkable.” Before Jesus faces the devil on day 40, he endures the drudgery of day 39.

In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul connects the task of living out the gospel to the work of making a living. Paul and his co-workers were not idle among them, but “with toil and labor” they “worked night and day” so that they would not be a burden (2 Thess 3:8). They even reasoned, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (3:10). Some among them were walking in idleness, “not busy at work, but busybodies” (3:11). Paul strongly encourages them “in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (3:12). After this specific admonition, Paul backs up and gives a general application. He urges, “Do not grow weary in doing good” (3:13). Fittingly, then, Paul begins his conclusion to the letter by saying, “Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all” (3:16).

The believer who toils and labors, who works quietly and earns a living, and who does not grow weary in doing good is able to do so precisely because of the promise of the Lord’s continuing presence in those moments. Union with Christ means the Lord of peace remains present in your joy, in your pain, in your liftoffs, and in your layovers.

The Christian life is exhilarating. But every journey includes the trial of transit, and sometimes those lulls can make you seasick. The glories of the gospel oftentimes (perhaps most of the time) are proclaimed in the throes of weakness and within the steady rhythms of the unremarkable. The gospel is not only big enough to leap the gap between departures and destinations; it’s also able to settle into the strain of the mundane.

One of the lifelines for the minister who is “in it for the long haul” is the confidence that the God of this gospel grants perseverance in the pastoral task even when you’re still sick and there’s nothing remarkable to report.

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Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Confessing the Trinity as the full-orbed center

The thoughtful person places the doctrine of the Trinity in the very center of the full-orbed life of nature and mankind. The confession of the Christian is not an island in mid-ocean but a mountain-top overlooking the entire creation. And it is the task of the Christian theologian to set forth clearly the great significance of God’s revelation for (and the relation of that revelation to) the whole realm of existence. The mind of the Christian is not satisfied until every form of existence has been referred to the Triune God and until the confession of the Trinity has received the place of prominence in our thought and life.
—Herman Bavinck, Doctrine of God, 329.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Colossians (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), Book Review

Title: Colossians (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible)
Author: Christopher R. Seitz
Publisher: Brazos, 2014
Price: $29.99 (amz)
Binding: Hardcover
Pages: 217
Volumes in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series aim to interact with biblical books while spanning the horizons of biblical studies and theological interpretation of Scripture. Each entry has attempted this task from a unique approach. In this volume, Old Testament scholar Christopher Seitz comments on the New Testament epistle to the Colossians.

In Prophecy and Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), Seitz sought to re-evaluate the typical critical issues involved in an “introduction” to the prophetic writings. In this study, he pursues a similar task for the New Testament letters. As part of the Brazos series, Seitz’s assignment was to “throw off” the “usual patterns of commentary design” and pursue “some fresh angles of vision” (p. 16). Seitz himself cautiously outlines his “canonical approach” as one that seeks to assure that the historical setting stays “in proper proportion to what the text actually highlights and prioritizes in its final total form” (p. 51).

Accordingly, one of his guiding presuppositions is that “Paul’s letters come to us in a given canonical form” and that this form “foregrounds certain things and lets other things fall out of specific focus” (p. 20). In other words, the issues that need special attention are those that are especially emphasized in the text somehow. Otherwise, for Seitz, certain critical issues get “hyperextended” and receive a level of focus “arguably in disproportion to their significance for interpretation” (p. 20, 22). This network of assumptions informs his “canonical reading” of the letter and also governs the critical issues he chooses to examine.

Many in the field will immediately balk at Seitz’s downplaying of the relevance of historical background for the interpretation of the letter. In particular, many will want more examination of the contours of the “Colossian Heresy” that Paul is responding to in Col 2. Seitz demonstrates an awareness of the current scholarly discussion on this issue, but he focuses on what he sees as the more pertinent task, tracing Paul’s argument within the horizon of the letter itself. Thus, rather than reconstruct a profile of Paul’s interlocutors, Seitz argues that Paul himself is perhaps aware of a specific unified body of false teaching but intentionally does not address its details directly. Rather, Paul articulates the scope and impact of the work of Christ and then uses this blazing center to demonstrate the emptiness of any alternatives. Along these lines, Seitz detects three “factuals” about the one cross of Christ that refute three corresponding “counterfactuals” that represent salvific alternatives (see pp. 119-43). For some, this will be the most contested section of the commentary, but this careful way of perceiving the totality of Paul’s argument here is particularly cogent.

One question that hangs over any approach that seeks to take into account the broader canonical context is the question of authorship. Further, study of the New Testament epistles often wades through the quagmire of arguments regarding pseudepigrapha. On this account, Seitz contends that arguments for Colossians as pseudonymous have insurmountable difficulties with the textual presentation of the letter (see pp. 45-56). Beyond this, Seitz enters the question of authorship tentatively. Part of Seitz’s perspective is that the notion of authorship itself is much more complex than often admitted. As he notes, “authorship as meant in the antique world and in our own are very different conceptions” (p. 48).

This grappling with authorship and composition is important, although Seitz’s own solution also participates in this “agony of authorship.” On the one hand, Seitz insists, “a text has an author of some description” (p. 55). For instance, he quotes a number of authors who speak of “Paul” as author with great hesitation and comments, “That is a lot of words to conclude that the use of Paul without scare quotes is an appropriate way to speak of the letter’s author“ (p. 55). However, his comment here might also reach his own articulation of this issue: “There are far fewer problems with simply using the word ‘Paul’ than the alternatives” (p. 55).

In this discussion, Seitz convincingly demonstrates that even for those who reject the presence of pseudepigraphy in the New Testament, further work is needed in articulating the notion of authorship, the nature of composition, and the impact that a collection has on the concept of authorial intention when interpreting the epistles.

A further feature of Seitz’s approach is his sustained attention to the impact of reading Colossians within an established Pauline corpus. He shares a pre-modern emphasis on Colossians as part of “a literary collection that orients” the individual letters “toward one another as a totality” (p. 23). Similar to the book of the twelve Minor Prophets, Seitz sees the letters of Paul “as individual writings subsisting in an ordered canonical collection” (p. 23). This move means first that he considers the shape of the Pauline corpus to have interpretive significance.

Detecting development in Paul’s thinking (early and late) is common fare in Pauline studies. From Seitz’s approach, the Pauline corpus locates this development in Paul’s maturing understanding of his apostolic office. The letter collection itself, Seitz insists, “guards the historical specificity” and also “allows for development and movement” (p. 42). This development is coherent and organic rather than contradictory or a sign of pseudepigraphic imposters toward the end of the collection. In other words, the shape of the Pauline collection highlights a shift in emphasis in Paul’s thinking, one that accords with the historical transition in Paul’s role from itinerant preacher to imprisoned letter-writer. Paul’s apostolic mission, then, is embodied and made available for future generation by means of the “legacy of his letters” (p. 42). For Seitz, this type of movement is part of the “hermeneutical challenge of the canonical reality before us” (p. 37).

Along these lines, Seitz regularly utilizes other Pauline letters as interpretive aids in understanding what Paul is on about in Colossians. He rejects that this move is simply a synchronic harmonization but rather argues that it is actually rooted in the historical realities of the early church that received multiple letters from Paul. Indeed, for Seitz, the broadening scope of the intended audience of letters like Ephesians and Colossians indicates that “canonical shaping is extending beyond individual letters and has to do with the phenomenon of an emerging collection as such” (p. 37). These shared features are compositional and strategic rather than ancillary by-products of occasional correspondence. The “concern for preservation” and association in a collection, then, is possibly at work “in the very act of conceiving and composing a letter” (p. 37n26).

To give an example, Seitz points out words, phrases, and the theology in Colossians that is echoed in Ephesians. Seitz thinks that the “letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16) is the letter we know today as Ephesians (see p. 109, 117, 180n6, and 190-91). In this view, then, the parallels with Ephesians are part of a compositional strategy where Paul envisions these letters as literary companions. The setting of Philemon and the other “prison epistles” also form a fitting and natural backdrop to a Colossian correspondence written “in chains” (see pp. 28-31, 179-84). Seitz notes the historical discussion that seeks to reconstruct and identify Paul’s specific imprisonment, but he then quickly highlights the way Paul himself accounts for his various imprisonments theologically. For Seitz, “the canonical form brokers basic historical information but at the service of theological significance” (p. 31).

“The traditional position of Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians as written by Paul in Rome,” Seitz asserts, is the one “suggested by the presentation of the letters themselves, given what they choose to share with us” (p. 30). The letter to the Colossians, then, is particularly suited to highlight the function of canon because it is written by Paul from prison to a congregation he has never visited. Part of the message of Colossians is Paul’s theological reflection on the way that the gospel will continue to spread after his apostolic ministry has ended (see pp. 32-35). His presence is mediated by his letter.

In marked contrast to his wide-ranging missionary journeys, Paul’s final phase of apostolic ministry is prayer, intercession, and letter-writing. For Seitz, the fact that Paul is in prison shapes the way he understands his apostolic role: The apostle Paul is not travelling to new places with the gospel, but his letters are! These examples of Seitz’s perspective on the relationship between historical reconstruction and textual interpretation possess the most potential for fresh readings but also represent some of the most debated aspects of his approach.

A related contribution Seitz makes is his reflective account of Paul’s nuanced use of the Old Testament in Colossians. Why does Paul only allude to the Hebrew Scriptures and not cite them directly? For Seitz, Paul does not present Jesus as a replacement of Torah, but rather, Paul makes theological moves that “accord” with the texts, theology, and themes of the Old Testament. While he does not directly quote the Old Testament, throughout the letter, Seitz explains, Paul embodies the theological judgments and Scriptural logic that is present in important Old Testament texts. In this sense, the allusions cannot be “mapped on a tidy exegetical grid,” but rather “indicate an allusive penetration of [Paul’s] thought and argument” (p. 45). In this way, Paul is able to bring the meaning of the Scripture to bear in a letter addressed to gentile believers who would gradually encounter the Old Testament through the preaching of the New Testament churches.

Seitz also articulates an Old Testament perspective on several interpretive and theological issues in the letter. To give just a few examples, Seitz explains the parallelism of Hebrew poetry that Paul echoes in the “Christ hymn” in Col 1:15-23 (pp. 86-101), demonstrates that Paul’s high Christology here is deeply compatible with the monotheism of the Hebrew Scriptures (pp. 100-101), and repeatedly points out the interpretive relevance of Gen 1-3 as an intertextual backdrop for the letter.

The commentary itself progresses at a brisk pace with a clear focus on certain elements. For instance, Seitz consistently examines the nature of textual transitions. As he moves through the letter, Seitz keeps the larger argument in view and relates the passage at hand to that broader purpose. In this vein, Seitz strategically uses the “excursus” to allow the commentary proper to flow and read as a “single sustained argument” (p. 56). Seitz is convinced that in Colossians there is a “coherence to the units when taken in relationship to one another” (p. 54). The commentary consistently reflects this concern for the design of the discourse. These features make the commentary refreshingly readable and appropriately succinct.

In my opinion, Seitz’s commentary on Colossians represents the kind of contribution that the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible envisions: a refreshing interpretation of the letter that is informed by multiple interpretive horizons and also makes several suggestive advances in Pauline studies. As Seitz memorably orients his readers, “At some point the canonical portrayal sits there before us and requests that we take it seriously as a factor in interpretation” (p. 25). This commentary will surely prove fruitful for those who are serious about pursuing this particular task.

Also in JETS 58.3 (September 2015): 655-58.

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