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On Annotating Books

James Smith, who teaches philosophy at Calvin College and blogs—all too infrequently—at Fors Clavigera, was recently asked how he annotates primary texts. 

It was an interesting question, because annotating books is certainly one of the central practices of my scholarly life–and yet it’s not something I was ever explicitly taught, nor is it something I’ve attempted to teach it to others.  I suppose I (mistakenly) thought it was somehow “natural,” or that annotation practices were so idiosyncratic that it would be presumptuous to even try.

On the other hand, the question got me wondering whether this isn’t one of the sorts of concrete aspects of study and scholarship that professors should spend more time talking about.  So, with just that notion in mind, I’ve here gathered a few random thoughts about how I approach the annotation of texts.  And I’ve included a few examples, not because I think my approach is exemplary, but only to give some concrete pictures to consider.  I’m sure others have both more elaborate and more efficient procedures.

What a wonderful gift for bibliophiles! Here‘s Smith’s system, complete with pictures!

How do you annotate books?

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Getting Started with Luther

After I gave a talk on The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther at my church last week, one of our congregants, who is fairly new to Lutheranism, asked me where she should look to learn more about Luther’s theology. Here are a few things that I came up with.

Aside from that talk, I’ve written a couple of other things that are not exactly about Luther but engage with his theology: including this essay on fasting which deals with Luther’s ethics and this blog post which tries to present Luther’s view of baptism.  I’m also working on a post on Luther’s Eucharistic theology, coming soon…

If you’re interested in the life of Martin Luther, sort of the standard biography is Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand. Some question whether Bainton really understood Luther’s theology, but the history is spot on. And he’s a delight to read—a real wordsmith. Also, PBS produced a really nice documentary on Luther a couple of years ago.

 If you’re more interested in Luther’s theology, the best introduction I know of is Phillip Cary’s lectures for the teaching company, but their pretty expensive. If you’re willing to buy it used, you can get a much cheaper copy here. And if you want just a little taste of what Cary will have to say, you can check out his interview on Homebrewed Christianity. Also, there is a series of books called Armchair Theologians which are supposed to be scholarly but easy-to-read introductions to various theologians written for lay people. I haven’t actually read Luther for Armchair Theologians, by Steven Paulson, but in general I’ve liked the series. 

Probably the best thing to do, though, is skip the introductory stuff and read Luther himself. Really that’s a good rule of thumb for most great thinkers. Usually their works have stood the test of time for a reason: because they’re a pleasure to read. And when you read the great thinkers themselves, you don’t have to worry about getting caught up in all the debates, which inevitably cloud the introductory works, about how to interpret them. So, start with Luther and use the introductory stuff only if you get in over your head.

 Most of what Luther wrote was short little essays or letters or sermons, so you usually find them in collections. The best anthology in English is Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy Lull. Go ahead and read anything in there that strikes your fancy, but here are the ones I would start with:   

 The Freedom of a Christian

You should start here. This is the probably the fullest and most concise statement of Luther’s theology.

Two Kinds of Righteousness

Luther distinguishes between what he calls “alien righteousness” (i.e. righteousness that is imposed on us from outside of us), and “proper righteousness” (i.e. righteous that we can truly call our own). Later Protestants tend to prefer the words “justification” (for what Luther calls “alien righteousness”), meaning that God imputes to us Christ’s righteousness giving us right standing before God, and “sanctification” (for what Luther calls “proper righteousness”), meaning that after we are justified, slowly but surely, we actually become better people—we have a righteousness that is our own.  Even though Luther basically invented this distinction, later Protestants took it much more seriously than he had intended. It turns out that Luther actually thought the two kinds of righteousness were really the same thing, because Christ’s “alien righteousness” is the thing that makes us properly righteous. So this essay is actually more famous for the way it has been used in history than for what it actually says, but it’s still a worthwhile read.

 A Brief Introduction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels

This is Luther’s introduction to the Gospels from his German translation of the Bible. It’s where he makes his famous distinction between gospel and law.

 The Bondage of the Will

Luther is firmly planted in the Augustinian tradition that God elects some for salvation.  This doctrine scares Luther, so he really doesn’t like to talk about it much, but he can’t get away from it because he is convinced that apart from God’s grace our free will isn’t good for anything except sinning—it’s “bound” by it’s falleness, and need to be healed by grace.  Toward the end of his life Luther once said that he wished that people would burn all of his books and just read the Word of God, then he said “Well, maybe they would keep The Bondage of the Will.” He really liked this one.

 Sermon on the Afternoon of Christmas Day

If you’re like Luther and your tendency is to be terrified of God, then a swaddled baby is the best place to look for a sweet and tender and merciful God. Luther loved Christmas, and it’s when he did his best preaching. 

 The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

This is a pretty strongly worded critique of the Roman Catholic Church. (It’s one of Luther’s earlier writings. Once the Reformation picks up a little steam, he stops worrying so much about the pope). But it leads into Luther’s early theology of the sacraments. Remember, Luther became reformed by turning to the Catholic sacraments.

 Concerning Rebaptism

This one and the next two were written a little later than The Babylonian Captivity. They represent Luther’s more mature theology of the sacraments. Interestingly, by this time (1528-1529), Luther is no longer debating Catholics about this stuff, but other Protestants. This essay is a critique of the Anabaptists (groups like the Amish, Mennonites, Brethren, etc.) who, like modern Baptists, do not count infant baptism as valid.

Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper

Luther’s mature Eucharistic theology.

The Marburg Colloquy

In 1529 Protestants from all over Europe got together at what was called the Marburg Colloquy to try to codify 6the movement. They ended up agreeing on most things, but Luther got into a famous argument with Ulrich Zwingli over the nature of the Eucharist.

Lectures on Galatians

Luther’s ethics are a particularly interesting aspect of his theology. His Lectures on Galatians, along with The Freedom of a Christian, and the best places to start for that.

That should get you started.  Happy reading!

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Soteriology Chronicles: On Rob Bell

I finally read Rob Bell’s Love Wins.  This year I’m reading several books on soteriology, with the intention of blogging my way thought them—a sort of self-directed class on soteriology. Even though I have failed in the latter, I had not planned to stray from my reading list.  But I just had to slip this one in. What with all the controversy surrounding Bell right now, the fact that the book is at least tangentially related to my reading project for the year and that a friend gave me the book for free…it seemed like a no brainer. I actually rather enjoyed it. It’s a quick read—you could probably finish it in a single setting if you’re committed. And I found myself in agreement with Bell through most of the book. Now I know that’s a controversial statement so I’ll make a couple of quick comments about the book generally before I get on to my real intent for writing this post: to pose to you a few questions this book helped me to raise.

As you know, debates about universalism have raged in the blogosphere and even made their way to major news outlets in the weeks before the book even hit the shelves—all the result of one conservative bloggers heated response to a promo video released by the publisher.

I vowed not to get involved in the debate, but that was when I thought the debate was properly about universalism, and I just did not feel ready yet to make any sort of decisive statements about that issue. But I was mistaken. So, before I get on to the real point of this post—to pose for you some questions that this book helped me to raise and which are relevant to my soteriology “class”—allow me first to make a few comments as a sort of outside observer. After reading Love Wins, I don’t have any idea why there remain debates about universalism surrounding it. Bell makes no claim anywhere in the book that sounds even remotely like universalism. To the contrary, he explicitly denies it. “Love demands freedom. It always has and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want” (p. 113). I could site others, but why don’t you just read the book?

Don’t get me wrong, this is a hard-hitting book. Bell is stunningly frank and people will find lots that they might take issue with. For instance, some might think that Bell has an unbiblical view of both heaven and hell. “Here is the new there,” he says. Heaven is not somewhere “out there” beyond the spacio-temporal word where disembodied souls float up to be with God. Heaven is about God’s kingdom come on earth (his will be done on earth as it is in heaven). It’s about resurrection life. Heaven is a physical, local reality that is both here and now as well as extended into the future (see chapter 2). So also, hell is not a place of eternal, conscious torment for those who have rejected Christ after they have died. Hell is the torment, suffering, violence and heartbreak that is the result of rejecting Christ’s way of love. Hell is a physical, local reality that is both here and now as well as extending into the future (see chapter 3). So heaven and hell are right here together. If C. S. Lewis wrote of the “great divorce” of heaven and hell, Bell writes of their marriage. Both the younger brother and the older brother are “at the party,” he notes, echoing the story of the prodigal son. But for the older brother it’s not much of a party.

It’s important to note that Bells teaching on these points is well within the broad stream of historic Christianity, and I for one tend to think that he is closer to the biblical account than many of the alternatives. Those who would oppose Bell on these grounds will have to deal with the relevant passages of scripture at least as thoroughly as he has—and that’s no small feat!  But at least then they might have a case.

Still others may take issue with Bell’s affirmation of “inclusivism”—the teaching that “Jesus is the way, but…the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people,” including those who do not call themselves his followers or even know his name (p. 155). Again, I suspect it would be no small task to make a case from scripture negating inclusivism as strong as Bell’s case for the affirmative, but the charge of inclusivism is at least a legitimate one. (For Bell’s argument for inclusivism see chapter 6). The charge of universalism, on the other hand, is completely unfounded. I really don’t understand why we’re having the conversation. The only explanation I can come up with is that those people who jumped the gun and reviewed the book before it was released were successful in hijacking the conversation and distracting us from the real issues. They owe us all an apology.

Lest you think I just some die-hard Rob Bell supporter who thinks he can do no wrong, let me say that there is one entire chapter in the book that I thought was totally misguided. In chapter five Bell writes about how the entire universe is structured around the great mystery that death leads to life. Leaves fall to the ground and die causing new ones to spring into life. Gradually every few years we slough off our old skin cells making room for new ones to emerge. “This is true for ecosystems, food chains, the seasons—it’s true all across the environment. Death gives way to life” (p. 130). So far, so good. But Bell asserts that the ultimate example of this universal pattern is the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  “Although the cross is often understood as a religious icon, it’s a symbol of an elemental reality” (p. 131). A symbol of an elemental reality? So the cross is just a symbol of the pattern which exists intrinsically in the universe? Karl Barth would roll over in his grave! Look at the evidence another way. Yes there is a cycle that moves from death to life, but at other times in the cycle it is moving from life to death. Sure those leaves that fall to the ground make way for new life, but they’re dead—gone forever! When you and I take our last breath our organic material will eventually break down and become the food of the earth, but does that really feel like life the loved ones of the lost? The fact of the matter is that the evidence is neutral. Life springs forth all around us—but there is death, too.  We Christians understand that the universe arcs toward life only because the resurrection of Jesus makes the case.  It is the hope that the cycle will end in life, not death. The resurrection is not the prime example of some universal truth. It is the key fact around which all the evidence is organized. Bell gets it backwards. Now that’s a legitimate critique of one of Bell’s premises but it is about the doctrine of revelation—and it has absolutely nothing to do with universalism. Let’s be a bit more precise in our theological language, shall we? Otherwise we lose the legitimate points of contention and launch pads into rich conversation amid the wild goose chase for universalists statements that do not exist.

Okay, now onto the point. Before reading Love Wins I was working with theological framework pretty similar to Bell’s (with, of course, the exceptions noted above), but reading it has caused me to ask a couple of questions, and I’d like to know what you think. One quick disclaimer: If you’ve read the book, say whatever you want. If you haven’t read the book, I don’t care what you have to say about it, about Bell, or about universalism. Write it on your own blog. That said, whether you’ve read the book or not, I’d love to hear your thoughts about these questions.

  1. My first question is about the nature of judgment. The good news about judgement—and, I take it, part of what makes heaven heaven, whether it is here or somewhere else—is that is that evil and violence and chaos will be banished. (The biblical way of saying this is “and there was no more sea”). Bell clearly understands this (see pp. 37 ff; p. 113), though he never offers any clear account of what this great and final judgement will be like. So, then, how can both heaven and hell be here and now and extending into the future? If heaven and hell are physical and local realities, then wouldn’t those who continue to choose violence, oppression and evil have to be in a separate physical locality? Otherwise what’s to keep them from rendering heaven unheavenly? My suspicion is that if you push this question too far you end up having to say that heaven and hell are internal realities. I’m not sure that Bell would want to go there…I know I wouldn’t.
  2. The second is like it. If the gates to heaven are “never shut,” as Bell say, quoting the Revelation of St. John, then can and will those who would seek to cause chaos and war be exiled peacefully? If the division between heaven and hell is permeable, as both Bell and Lewis affirm, can judgement be non-violent? How, in other words, do justice and mercy embrace?

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Re: Theology Nerd Book Survey

Renowned Christianity homebrewer, Tripp Fuller has put out a call for theology nerds everywhere to cite their favorite books by answering these questions.

  1. A book you get excited just looking at
  2. Your favorite book by your favorite living theologian
  3. A classic you can’t leave behind
  4. Best book to cross your eyes in 2011
  5. Favorite book to give a budding theology nerd
  6. A book you can’t wait for!

And my own addition to the list…

7.    The book that was most formative for your theological perspective

So what are your favorites?  And remember, it is for freedom that Christ has set us free, so introduce your own categories too!

Here are my responses…

  1. Karl Barth’s Community, State and Church (especially for the essay “On Gospel and Law”)
  2. Stanley Hauerwas’ A Community of Character
  3. Anything by Martin Luther, but especially On the Freedom of a Christian
  4. I know it’s vintage, but I’ve just gotten around to Gustaf Aulen’sChristus Victor.
  5. Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society or Phillip Cary’s Good news for Anxious Christians
  6. Phillip Cary’s The Meaning of  Protestant Theology (working title)
  7. George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine

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Contemporary Historical Jesus Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography

Two recent conversations with friends have prompted me to write this post. One was with a seminarian whose dissatisfaction with the methodology of The Jesus Seminar, had turned him off completely to the historical study of Jesus. For what it’s worth, I think my friend was right to question some of the methods employed by The Jesus Seminar and I told him as much. But, if it is in fact Jesus’ whole life that is redemptive, then wouldn’t it be important for us—not least for an aspiring minister—to explore from every possible angle what Jesus actually did and said while he was here as well as the meaning of those word and actions? Of course, historical Jesus scholarship is like anything else in theology: one should soberly and prayerfully consider the arguments being made and then take what seems wise and fruitful and leave the rest behind.

The second conversation was with a lay person who, after reading Marcus Borg’s account in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (co-authored with N. T. Wright), was relieved to find a biblical scholar who affirmed her suspicion that some of what she read in the gospels was embellished or even invented make a point, but that she did not, therefore, have to leave the whole thing behind. Imagine how she perked up, then, when Borg suggested that most “mainline Jesus scholars” agree on at least the foundations of his picture of Jesus, (a claim that could be true depending on how broadly or narrowly one defines “mainline”). “Who are these ‘Jesus scholars’?” she wanted to know.

That is the question that I have set out to answer all too briefly in this post: Who are these “Jesus scholars”? And what is the landscape of contemporary historical Jesus scholarship? For the most part, I have refrained in the present post from making judgments about which constructions of the historical Jesus I think “get it right.” This is not because I don’t have an opinion. To the contrary, there is quite a lot in contemporary Jesus scholarship that I find to be poor history supporting and supported by poor theology. But even with the presence of what I find to be a wrongheaded theological perspective, I think the historical Jesus quest itself is extremely important. Moreover, I have found almost all of the contemporary Jesus scholarship with which I am familiar to be, in one way or another, very enlightening. So, I have tried to keep most of my opinions to myself because what I hope you will do with this post is not agree with my judgments, but actually read some of the books!

A fair warning: you will not agree with everything you read about the historical Jesus. You can’t—I don’t care where you are on the theological map—because the pictures of Jesus that contemporary scholars present are far too varied and disagree between one another at too many points. What you will do is dive into the texts of the gospels and into the world of first century Palestine and you will come out on the other side, I have no doubt, with a deeper and richer understanding of what the man Jesus of Nazareth did and who he was. And that brings us to one place where I just have to tell you my opinion: The more you know who Jesus was and is, the more you’re going to like him! So, if St. Augustine was right—any interpretation that leads to greater love of God and man is a good one—then all historical Jesus scholarship must be worthwhile!

Let’s dig in! There are three classic texts that everyone cites because together they got the ball rolling on the contemporary quest for the historical Jesus: Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Geza Vermes’ Jesus in His Jewish Context and perhaps most importantly E. P. Sanders’ The Historical Figure of Jesus. Each of these books is, among other things, a reminder that Jesus was a first century Jew and that we must, therefore, understand everything he thought, said and did within the matrix of first century Judaism. The cumulative effect of their arguments was enough to convince everyone and thereby to open up a whole new set of questions for Jesus scholarship. Because so much of what was innovative about these works is taken for granted in recent writings, my judgment is that if you’re reading the later stuff you really don’t need to read these unless you really want to dig deep into the quest.

Probably the work that best represents the majority of mainline American contemporary Jesus scholarship is The Jesus Seminar, a collective of about 150 mostly liberal biblical scholars, historians and lay people who got together to try to peel back the layers of Christian tradition and construct an historically accurate picture of Jesus of Nazareth. Their first accomplishment was a really interesting, modern American-English vernacular translation of five gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the Gospel of Thomas, complete with curse words and racial slurs. The translation is published in their book The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? in which they also vote (based on historical criteria which you can find on their website) on whether Jesus really said something like the words in these gospels, line-by-line. In a second volume, The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do? they vote on what they think Jesus really did.

Two important critics of The Jesus Seminar, both British, are James D. G. Dunn and Richard Bauckham. James Dunn, who has been on the cutting edge of developments in New Testament studies for the last four decades, argues that one of the seminar’s primary assumptions, that the gospel stories are late developments in the Christian tradition, is faulty because they failed to account for the efficiency of oral tradition in traditional cultures. So, while he grants that the gospels may have been written late in the first century and perhaps even into the early part of the second century, Dunn argues that the stories which comprise them go back to Jesus himself. Dunn’s big, fat scholarly book on this is Jesus Remembered. His shorter, popular-level book is A New Perspective on Jesus: What the Quest for the Historical Jesus Missed.

In his book, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity, Richard Bauckham examines the theological corollary of Dunn’s historical argument. According to The Jesus Seminar, since the New Testament is a tradition that developed over a long period of time, we can discern developmental trends over this time period and, thus, determine the kinds of statements do not go back to the historical Jesus, but are embellished or invented by early Christians. One such trend can be observed with affirmations of the divinity of Jesus. It seems, to seminar scholars at least, that while such affirmations are ubiquitous in John (our latest gospel), they are far less frequent in Matthew and Luke and nowhere to be found in Mark (our earliest Gospel). Bauckham argues, however, that this proposed trajectory is specious and only seems to be the case because we are used to looking for such affirmations of divinity in Greek concepts of ontology. (Jesus is “of one being with the Father,” so goes the creed). But when we think instead in Hebrew concepts of identity, argues Bauckham, we find that the New Testament is teeming with affirmations of Jesus’ divinity. The trajectory, in other words, is not increasingly insisting on Jesus divinity, but doing so in increasingly Greek language.

If we stopped there, it might seem like all Jesus scholars fit neatly into two camps: on the one hand a groups of liberal American historians in The Jesus Seminar who deconstruct the biblical narrative to re-construct a historical picture of Jesus of Nazareth, on the other a handful of conservative British New Testament scholars who trust that the gospel stories offer and an early and reliable picture of Jesus. But, of course, nothing is that easy! The fact is that there are historians plotted at almost every point along a massive scale of how much of the material in the gospels can be attributed to Jesus himself and, even when they agree on which word and actions are historical, they cannot agree on their meaning. There are as many pictures of the historical Jesus as there are historical Jesus scholars. Below I have listed a few of the most important (or at least the most widely read) of these scholars. If you want a more thorough introduction to the diverse views within contemporary Jesus scholarship, the best place to start is Mark Allen Powell’s Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee.

If the classic texts were a catalyst for the study of Jesus’ Jewish context, John Dominic Crossan has done the same for his Roman context. Palestine was after all under the controlling arm of the powerful Roman Empire during Jesus’ life time. As it turns out, Jesus had quite a lot to say to and about these powers. Crossan has done as much as anyone to help us see this aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Corssan’s big, fat, scholarly and frankly almost-impossible-to-read book is The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. His slim and very readable, popular-level version is Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.

To Crossan’s account, the archeologist Jonathan Reed and adds an interesting perspective, employing a host of first century artifacts in Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts, (co-authored with Crossan).

Bishop N. T. Wright synthesis the Jewish-Roman matrix with an implicit trust in the reliability of the New Testament documents to construct a picture of Jesus as a Jewish eschatological prophet declaring that both God’s final judgment of Israel and God’s promised return to Jerusalem had in fact come in Jesus’ own life, ministry and death.  Wright’s big scholarly book on this topic is Jesus and the Victory of God, the second in a four-volume series on Christian origins. His smaller, popular-level book is The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was & Is.

Finally, Marcus Borg broadens the conversation by adding to historical Jesus research the cross-cultural study of religious mystics, healers and charismatic leaders. Borg’s most complete book is Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it should get you started. Happy reading!

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