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One article in particular caught my eye. In the latest issue of Trinity Journal, Stan Porter asks (in essence), “Whatever happed to brevity?” His essay is titled, “Big Enough Is Big Enough.” He’s reviewing Craig Keener’s monumental 4-volume commentary on Acts (Baker).
Porter seems to think that commentators should stick “closer to the Greek text” than Keener has (p. 45). In addition, Keener’s work, at 4,640 pages, is deemed too comprehensive in scope – what Porter calls “mission creep” (p. 35). Porter also seems to think that commentaries should be primarily exegetical in nature. “Scholars who have innovative ideas about related historical, theological, and other issues – and I hope that there are still some who do – should use monographs and journal articles for such major and significant contributions” (p. 45).
There’s a lot of truth to what Porter is saying here – at least when it comes to book size. Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “The only art is to omit.” If it’s a choice between succinctness and verbosity, I’ll take the aphorist any day. “Bigger is better” may be a mantra among church planters and pastors, but too many writers seem to be afflicted by the disease of gigantism. Today’s writers bore on for far too long – including me (my book The New Testament: Its Background and Message tops out at a whopping 672 pages). So I’m not sure that Keener is the only one guilty of overwriting. In the menagerie of overweight books, one could perhaps include the most recently published “beginning” Greek grammars, including Porter’s Fundamentals of New Testament Greek, which consists of 492 pages. Rod Decker’s has even more: 704. Note that these are self-styled beginning grammars. Part of the problem is what I call “Got-To-Say-Everything-I-Know-About-the-Subject-Itis.” The result is often three books in one: a beginning grammar, an intermediate grammar, and a textbook on either textual criticism or linguistics. Keener, of course, is keenly aware of the breadth of his 4-volume commentary. In his own defense he writes (vol. 1, p. xv):
Had I put this material instead into 350 nonoverlapping twenty-page articles or 35 two-hundred-page monographs (with at least one on each chapter of Acts), this research might have sold more copies but cost readers many times more.
This statement is almost prescient: Keener seems to be anticipating Porter’s suggestion that scholars “use monographs and journal articles for such major and significant contributions.” Keener also directly addresses the issue of length when he writes (p. xv):
… I have preferred to provide this material as thoroughly as possible as a single work, and I owe my publisher an immense debt of gratitude for accepting this work at its full length.
That Keener combines exegetical insights with observations about theology, history, etc., should not surprise us. Keener is a self-confessed “generalist scholar” (p. 4, note 2) who grapples not only with the text but with sociohistorical questions as well. As he explains (p. 5), “While seeking to provide a commentary of some general value, I have concentrated on areas where I believe my own researcher’s contributions will be most useful.” His work therefore “…does not focus as much attention on lexical or grammatical details (a matter treated adequately by a number of other works).” In short, Keener views his work as “sociorhetorical” (p. 25), pure and simple. I therefore fail to see how one can fault him for not being “exegetical” enough when he himself makes it clear that he doesn’t deal simply with Greek exegesis. In short, I agree with N. T. Wright:
With this enormous commentary, Craig Keener deploys his breathtaking knowledge of the classical world to shine a bright light on both the big picture of Acts and ten thousand small details. Students of Acts will be in his debt for generations to come.
I for one have benefited greatly from Keener’s insights into the text of Acts. It’s one of the first commentaries I turn to whenever I need help in interpreting Luke’s history of the church. Keener does a fantastic job of explaining the text in a way that’s easy to understand. Used alongside the “Four Bs” (Barrett, Bock, Bruce, and Ben [Witherington]), I think you’ll find Keener’s work to be a rich source of information about Acts. Sociorhetorical analysis is Keener’s area of specialty and it shows. You would have to buy several commentaries on Acts to cover this much ground. Also worth noting is the fact that both Jimmy Dunn and Richard Bauckham have endorsed this commentary. Indeed, so did Stan Porter (at the Amazon site):
Early Christianity developed in a complex and multifaceted context, one that Craig Keener masterfully presents in this socially and historically oriented commentary on Acts. As one has come to expect from Keener, there is thorough knowledge and use of the best and most important secondary literature and abundant utilization of a wide range of ancient sources. This is a commentary that will continue to serve as a detailed resource for both scholars and students.
I can’t recommend Keener’s works enough. That goes for all of his books. Ditto for Stan Porter. His books are always extremely well-researched. We might disagree in terms of Greek pedagogy (there’s much to be said for brevity), but when grammatical issues arise, Porter’s voice is always a good one to take into account.
(From Dave Black Online. Used by Permission. Nov. 16, 2016.)
6:08 PM Today I started reading a wonderful little book called The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll, who is perhaps the doyen of American history among evangelicals today. It is masterfully written and brilliantly argued.
Noll tries to show how mid-19th century American Christians (both North and South) generally agreed that the Bible was authoritative but they differed on how that Bible should be understood. Not only this, but he shows how “the Book that made the nation was destroying the nation; the nation that had taken to the Book was rescued not by the Book but by the force of arms” (p. 8). He is so right about this! Indeed, how apropos to today’s political climate in the United States. Biblical interpretation in America today, even biblical interpretation by conservative evangelicals, has perhaps never been so divided and chaotic. Just as the American Civil War generated a first-order theological crisis over how to interpret the Bible, so this year’s presidential election is generating a first-order theological crisis over how to understand the work of God in our nation. The church of today has to a large degree become more or less subject to the controlling influence of public opinion rather than shapers of public opinion. The parallels with the 1860s are obvious. “Had white protestants been following the Bible as carefully as they claimed, they could not have so casually dismissed the biblical interpretations advanced by Pendleton and Fee and mentioned by Lincoln. The inability to propose a biblical scheme of slavery that would take in all races reveals that factors others than simple fidelity to Scripture were exerting great influence as well” (p. 56). I suspect that many Christians reading Noll’s book would be nodding their heads in agreement. I’m finding this book a compelling demonstration of this truth. That’s why today you will find leading evangelicals both defending Donald Trump and excoriating him, with both sides using the Bible to defend their actions. For my two cents, I cannot understand how anyone can defend Trump’s candidacy. Yet I want to end by saying that this doesn’t mean that I or anyone else has the right to condemn those who support Trump based on their own interpretation of “forgiveness,” “the God of a second chance,” “the sanctity of life,” etc. I thus have no right to judge my Christian brother or sister in these matters. But neither can I with integrity claim to understand how they can reconcile their views with the teachings of the New Testament. All of this suggests, I believe, that each of us has to wrestle with how to reconcile the facts of this year’s political cycle with the Scriptures. Above all, I hope we can all remember that we do not fight as the world fights — that is, by hatred and violence (2 Cor. 10:3-4). Instead, we are called to fight this battle by displaying God’s love to all people, including those with whom we might strongly disagree politically. My point is not that we shouldn’t have strong convictions about whether so-and-so is qualified to be president of the United States. My point rather is that we need to constantly distinguish between the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and the kingdom of this world. And to do this, we must be more about giving other people Jesus Christ — not rules, not entertainment, not partisan rhetoric. I have no confidence in the political system but I have every confidence in Jesus.
I encourage us all to keep the Gospel first. It really is a big deal!
(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)
I’m really looking forward to a fun and exciting fall semester, not least because I’m teaching NT Intro again for the first time in several years. The course covers Acts – Revelation, which means that, if I time things just right, the semester will end before I have to discuss the Apocalypse (wink, wink)! Let me tell you how we’re beginning the class. Day One consists of students reading the book of Acts and then also reading my Seven Marks of a New Testament Church – which, I would remind you, is nothing but an exegesis of Acts 2:37-47, eleven of the most action-packed verses in the entire New Testament. Students will then produce a “reaction paper” to what they have read and I’ll ask for a few volunteers to share with the rest of us what they learned. Thus, from the very first day of class, we’ll be asking ourselves the question: “What does an obedient church look like?” Christian discipleship means placing ourselves under orders. It’s not merely a psychological experiment in self-improvement (along with watching our weight and catching up on our Honey-Do lists). As disciples, we are not on our own. The goal is not self-actualization but obedience to the instructions of the church’s Head and only Boss.
That’s one reason I’m enjoying reading James Thompson’s new book called The Church according to Paul: Recovering the Community Conformed to Christ. Now if that doesn’t sound like an Anabaptist title!
How easily we profess a willingness to do church “God’s way” but forget the first condition of obedience: understanding what the Bible teaches about the church. Thompson’s book contains nine chapters, the final of which is called “Leadership Like No Other for a Community Like No Other.” He argues it’s time for all hands on deck. Alas, “church” for so many today means pastor-centrality rather than every-member ministry. Writes Thompson:
With few exceptions, two unintended consequences have resulted from the professionalization of ministry: (a) a failure to recognize that “member” is an image that suggests the indispensable participation of the body of Christ by each person; and (b) the loss of the focus on the cruciform nature of leadership.
Bingo! Paul understood what leadership looked like: “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” How odd this seems in the face of our sermon-centered lives. What makes the Gospel life-changing isn’t a message or a concept but the real-life person who has been radically changed by that message. As you and I enter post-Christian America and modernism, we understand that knowledge is no longer king as it was during the Enlightenment. People who don’t go to church don’t go for any number of reasons, but high on the list is probably the fact people no longer automatically assign authority to a building or to a man (whether he is wearing a collar or not). And I write that as someone who loves to give “sermons”! But to be a New Testament Christ-follower is to be a disciple of Jesus and not of any man. There are no two ways about it. Church can never be what its Head designed it to be without Christ assuming the role of “Commanding Officer” in my life and yours. This will involve nothing less than a transformed vision of reality that is able to see Christ as more real and more coveted and more powerful and more lovely than anyone or anything our churches can offer us. I know this is like asking my students to walk on water. But was not Peter able to do just that for those seconds when his gaze was locked on Christ’s, his mind set on things above? It is a profound moment in our lives when we realize that this pilgrimage of ours isn’t just about us or even our churches. My hope and prayer is that my students this semester will have the courage and obedience to launch out into the deep. Because it matters. It really matters.
During the Montreal conference a young man asked me what I thought was my favorite of all the books I’ve written. I replied that I thought the question was a bit unfair — akin to asking, “Which of your grandchildren do you love the most?” I confess to taking pleasure in each of my books, just as I love each of my grandchildren equally. I hope others have enjoyed my writings — and not just those who were forced to read them as required textbooks! Still, the question is a fair one. Without a doubt, I believe my most important book is one that only tangentially deals with Greek. It’s a book that recounts the quiet shift that happened in my heart many years ago now — a shift from law to grace, to freedom over fear, from orthodoxy to orthopraxy (without ever sacrificing my orthodoxy), from, if you will, Paul to Jesus and the Gospels. Like an earthquake destabilizing old power structures, the life of Christ crept into my consciousness. What I had to learn was that God delights in taking messes and making them into masterpieces. He began to open my eyes and allow me to see what He sees when He looks at me — a man forgiven and loved, God’s own dwelling place, a man destined to use his whole being (including his body) as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God alone. It seems too incredible to believe, right? But that’s why euangelion means Good News. Because of our union with this Lion-Lamb, we have a new identity, a new destiny, and a new purpose in life. It all comes down to the question, “Am I following Jesus with no strings attached?” Dallas Willard put it this way in his book The Great Omission:
The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as “Christian” will become disciples — students, apprentices, practitioners — of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.
As I peer into the past, I see now why God led me to write The Jesus Paradigm. He delights in taking damaged goods and making them into trophies of grace. And I pray that this book of mine will impact other damaged people the way it impacted my own life when I wrote it. I was no longer merely a consumer of Christianity. I realized that if I’ve received mercy, I needed to dispense it. Whether you are a plumber or a pastor, your calling (and mine) is a sacred vocation. God wants us to be like His Son — motivated by His glory to worship Him as we go about doing our daily work, whatever that is. Even if we’re not in what we would consider the “ideal” job, we can still do our best for His glory. Jesus fulfilled His God-given assignment with maximum effort. He gave 200 percent. His one goal was to do the Father’s will by serving others.
My friend, pause for a moment and contemplate the words of Jim Elliott: “Wherever you are, be all there, and live to the hilt whatever you are convinced is the will of God for your life.” And remember, as we do this – as we follow the Jesus paradigm – He is cheering us on.
In other good news, I see that Henry Neufeld has released the first of the interviews I was privileged to do with him in Pensacola a couple of weeks ago.
The topic was my book Seven Marks of a New Testament Church. I think you’ll enjoy the discussion. Frankly, I hope it raises more questions than it answers. In addition, Henry has begun a series of blog posts about the book — the first being on the subject of church pews (of all things). But I think he’s right. Pews are a good witness — to our lack of fellowship. They are designed to make it well-nigh impossible for us to see directly the faces of our brothers and sisters. The problem here, of course, lies much deeper than architecture — a subject that we get into in the interview. But pews are a witness that something is perhaps amiss. At any rate, check out what Henry has to say but remember that he is completely biased as the publisher of my book.
8:40 AM The Abnormal Anabaptist posts his thoughts about the SCOTUS decision in an essay titled What, did something just happen to change the world? You simply must read it. It’s important to note that the acceptance he’s talking about is not passivity, fatalism, or resignation. It’s not about putting our head in the sand. It’s not about ignoring reality. It’s not about capitulating to evil or a refusal to do what you can do to change things. Rather, it’s a placing of oneself completely at the disposal of the King and His kingdom. It springs from love and trust. We have been shown the pattern by the non-political Jesus, who deliberately laid down His life and now calls us to lay down ours. There is very different from capitation or Quietism. Where there is no trust, where there is no radical abandonment to Jesus’ upside-down reign, it is not to be wondered at that decisions by SCOTUS easily upset Christians. We forget how the kingdom of God operates. The Anabaptists of the sixteenth century — I devote an entire chapter to them in my book The Jesus Paradigm — saw suffering and self-abnegation as normal. Their heroism lay in their acceptance of circumstances that other Christians would have avoided at all costs. Continue reading Completely at the Disposal of the King
1:58 PM This week I completed the editing of what I believe may well become one of the most important and helpful books ever to have been written on the difficult subject of Christian marriage and divorce. The book is entitled Except for Fornication: The Teaching of the Lord Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage.
From the author page:
Dr. H. Van Dyke Parunak is currently the Chief Scientist at Vector Research Center with Jacobs Engineering Group, Michigan. He has an AB in Physics from Princeton University, an MS in Computer and Communication Sciences from the University of Michigan, a ThM in Old Testament from Dallas Theological Seminary and his PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University. Dr. Parunak has over 100 publications in journals and highly-refereed conferences.
This book strikes me as a model of exegesis and interpretation. Not all will agree with its conclusions, but few, I believe, will be able to ignore its biblical arguments.
6:45 PM I have a very good friend named Jon Glass. He’s served with us in Ethiopia on several occasions. He and his wife Matthea are super people. Jon was even kind enough to review my latest book over at his blog (Why you should read “Why Four Gospels?”). Yes, I like Jon Glass! But have you ever heard of John Glas? This “Glas” lived from 1695 to 1773. He was an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland. That is, until he was stripped of his ordination in 1727. His misdeeds? Continue reading John Glas
The Jesus Paradigm has been selected as book of the week by Energion Publications. This offer is only available via Energion Direct. That means it’s available today and tomorrow for $10 – shipped (within the U. S. + sales tax where applicable). International shipping is just $7.50, or $17.50 shipped during this sale. Sale ends at midnight May 14, 2010.
From Dave Black Online:
Thanks so much, Eric, for raising again the perennial question about the Reformers’ insistence on maintaining medieval ecclesiology. I attribute today’s neo-sacralism directly to the Reformers and their faulty theology of the church, against which the Anabaptists inveighed. Under the tutelage of such sacralism church leaders today continue to accommodate biblical Christianity to the Constantinian distortion. Not least is this seen in the return to medieval theology in which “the Son of Man goes forth to war, a kingdom to subdue.” I continue to maintain that the Anabaptists were not indebted to the Reformers, were indeed not even a part of them. I spend a whole chapter in The Jesus Paradigm on this subject mostly because missions cannot thrive in a climate of sacralism. The Anabaptists were oblivious to national borders, and so am I. The New Testament plainly teaches that every Christian is a fulltime minister of the Lord Jesus Christ, a missionary even, and that every true believer will experience something of the cross. To this day there is a hesitation, even on the part of Christians who plainly acknowledge a debt to the Anabaptists, to import biblical ecclesiology into their churches. I say shame on us. We should know better.