Westmont Magazine From the Faculty Bookshelf
How should Christians read the Old Testament? Does its interpretation come entirely from the New Testament or does it stand on its own?
Tremper Longman III suggests a middle way: The New Testament informs the reading of the Old but doesn’t impose a meaning foreign to the text.
“The movie ‘The Sixth Sense’ offers an interesting analogy here,” Longman notes. “The first time you see it, you don’t understand. But the second time, you watch it differently because you know the ending. We understand the Old Testament better when we know the New Testament.”
Robert Gundry professor of religious studies at Westmont, Longman is a prolific writer and speaker who published two books in 2001. Both illustrate his approach to the Old Testament.
The first book, “Song of Songs,” examines the Song of Solomon and is one of two that Longman has written for the series the New International Commentary on the Old Testament. The other book is “Ecclesiastes.”
“There’s been a lot of disagreement over the Song of Songs,” he notes. “Is it an allegory? Is it the love story of a particular couple? I argue that it’s an anthology of love poetry and identify 23 separate love poems.”
He favors a natural reading of the richly poetic text, which he believes refers to the marriage relationship. “By describing a love that is intense, exclusive, and faithful in spite of obstacles, the Song indirectly but passionately reveals God’s will for that special relationship between a man and a woman,” he says.
Lacking explicit theological language, the Song still belongs in the canon, Longman says. “[It] presents us with both celebration and warning concerning that most intense and fragile of all human emotions, romantic love, and its physical expression, sexuality.”
He argues that human love poetry plays a crucial role in the Bible. “Sexuality is a major aspect of the human experience, and God in his wisdom has spoken through the poet(s) of the Song to encourage us as well as warn us about its power in our lives.
“Read within the context of the canon, the Song has a clear and obvious relevance to the divine-human relationship. After all, throughout the Bible, God’s relationship to humankind is likened to a marriage.”
A co-editor of the series “The Gospel according to the Old Testament,” Longman has written one of its volumes, “Immanuel in Our Place: Seeing Christ in Israel’s Worship.”
Designed for lay people and pastors, the series encourages “Christ-centered reading, teaching, and preaching of the Old Testament.”
In his book, Longman describes four aspects of Old Testament worship: sacred space, sacred acts, sacred people and sacred time. After recounting the Old Testament sacrificial system in lucid detail, Longman shows how it reveals Christ. Questions at the end of each chapter make the book useful for Bible study.
Noting that the ritual prescribed in the Old Testament may seem strange to us, Longman affirms that it carries deep meaning.
“The remarkable teaching of the Bible is that Jesus provides all the resources we need for the worship of God,” he writes. “He is the place of worship, as well as the means and the mode of worship.”
“God does not leave it to human beings to define the type of worship they will offer him,” he adds. “God knows what is best and told Moses in detail.” Longman’s book makes that detail understandable and meaningful.
The most famous passage in the Gospel of John begins, “For God so loved the world . . .” In a new book, “Jesus the Word according to John the Sectarian,” scholar-in-residence Robert Gundry makes a startling claim: “Although God loves the world, the Jesus of John does not. He even makes a point of not praying for the world, eats only with his disciples, and tells them to love one another, not the world.”
Combining scholarly exegesis with sociological analysis and application, Gundry argues that John exhibits a strong sectarianism. He then identifies this approach as a much-needed corrective to acculturation in American Evangelicalism. In his opinion, exegeting the culture is just as important as exegeting the Bible.
“We have to see the Bible for what it is: a collection of books written for certain times, places and people. While unifying themes are present, the emphases are very different. We need to notice these differences and determine which ones speak to our situation. American Evangelicals tend to homogenize the Scriptures, which dulls the sharp edges of these emphases.”
Noting that fundamentalists withdrew from the world to preserve their beliefs and that evangelicals reversed that trend so their scholarship would wield greater influence, Gundry suggests it is once again time for separation.
Trends that disturb him include a shift from preaching to sacramentalism, de-emphasis of eternal punishment, a move toward universalism, less missionary zeal, and increasing worldliness.
John’s emphasis on eternal destiny is sadly lacking today, Gundry notes. Christian books focus mostly on our present existence. He asks, “Is it time for some Johannine counterbalancing that puts emphasis on other-worldliness, on the final fate of human beings, and on the authoritative Word?” He thinks it is.
The book also provides a thorough and convincing argument that John’s Word-Christology permeates the entire gospel.
Gundry notes the close association between Jesus and his words and concludes, “His identity as the Word provides the subject matter of his speech.” John pays much greater attention to the words of Jesus than do the authors of the Synoptic gospels. “Knowing God through the truth of Jesus’ verbal communication is a prominent theme in Johannine theology,” he writes. Gundry’s words inspire us to greater reverence for the Word.
Does a Christian perspective shed any light on the impact of mathematics on culture? Russ Howell, professor of mathematics at Westmont, thinks it does. He has co-edited “Mathematics in a Post- modern Age,” which includes chapters by members of the Association of Christians in the Mathematical Sciences. Written for college students and professors, the book examines the integration of mathematics and the Christian faith.
“We make a serious attempt to ask whether any ideas that might spring from a Christian faith commitment can enrich our understanding of mathematics, and whether the ideas of mathematics can contribute to and enlarge our understanding of the Christian faith,” Howell wrote in the introduction.
The book disputes the notion that mathematical and religious thought belong to different realms. Chapters examine a range of issues: artificial intelligence, the mathematization of culture, the relationship between mathematics and values, the ontology of mathematical objects, and the detection of intelligent design.
Concluding that mathematicians hold presuppositions that can’t be proved to be completely consistent, the book notes that Christians live with the same tensions.
As a pastor turned scholar, Jonathan Wilson attempts to make scholarly work accessible to lay people and pastors.
“I’m not sure I ever left the pastorate,” he laughs. After six years as a pastor and chaplain, Wilson earned a Ph.D. in theology at Duke University. Since 1989 he has been teaching at Westmont and writing books. Two have focused on the church; he is writing a third, “Practicing Church,” to complete the series.
The second book in this series, “Gospel Virtues,” focuses on faithful Christian living. “This book is in part an ethic of virtue and in part a critique of culture,” he says. “But its primary aim is to enable the church to witness faithfully to the gospel through the way that we live.”
Noting the popularity of virtue, Wilson argues that virtue ethics can help Christians practice the gospel by focusing on the kind of people we must be to be moral and recognizing that we must be trained in the moral life.
To apply virtue ethics to Christianity, Wilson examines the central virtues of the gospel: faith, hope and love. He pairs each one with a practice, agreeing with Alasdair MacIntyre that virtues and practices are “mutually corrective and sustaining.”
The analysis begins with faith, the Christian way of knowing. Wilson identifies the practice of education as the means of forming faith. Education is broader than the classroom; it is cosmic, communal, personal, and a gift.
Thanks to the virtue of hope, believers patiently do God’s work in expectation of Christ’s return. The practice of worship sustains this hope by helping us to see our eternal destiny through the gospel.
The virtue of love lies at the heart of faithful witness to the gospel. Love is “the Christian way of giving ourselves for the sake of the gospel.” The practice of hospitality is a powerful way to live out this love.
Wilson concludes, “What we need today are not better lives but new lives, not a more moral society, but a more faithful church.”
Like Wilson’s books on the church, “God So Loved the World” focuses on Christian living. How do we live out the good news of God’s love? The purpose of the book is to explain the gospel to those who have committed themselves to Jesus Christ.
Wilson structures his Christology uniquely by dividing it into sections on story, images and practices.
Identifying the gospel as the story of the truth, Wilson says we should learn it so well that we continually live it. This new reality has been planted in the world, and we must tell and retell the story of Jesus carefully, faithfully and truthfully. Wilson worries that Christians know more about sports, hobbies and their jobs than about Jesus, and he hopes his book can help.
The second section focuses on images the church has used for understanding Christ’s death: victory, sacrifice and example. Wilson explores the biblical basis for these images, how they relate to the story of Jesus and how they have developed in the history of theology.
Believing that theology is a church practice, he identifies three practices of Christology: proclaiming and realizing the Kingdom of God, living faithfully in the world, and being conformed to Christ through participation in the life of the church.
“In the end, we come to know Christ not by reading a book but by living in him,” Wilson writes. “Doctrine is for life. As we follow Jesus Christ, we come to know him more fully. We live in the midst of a world that has little or no understanding of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ. Our calling as his disciples is to make that love real in our lives so that the world may come to know Jesus Christ as the one in whom there is life everlasting.”