Westmont Magazine Should We Read the Bible Systematically or Selectively?
Alumni scholars answer Robert Gundry’s question about the relationship between New Testament studies and theology with a book of essays dedicated to the eminent New Testament professor
The idea surfaced at lunch in Scotland. Ben Reynolds ’99 and Brian Lugioyo ’99 both earned doctorates at the University of Aberdeen in 2007 and often ate together. The Westmont classmates had reunited after completing master’s degrees in theology, Brian at Fuller Theological Seminary and Ben at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary (he also got a Master of Divinity). As they recalled their experiences at Westmont, they discovered that Professor Robert Gundry had inspired them both to pursue biblical studies, a somewhat surprising decision given that Brian majored in communication studies and Ben double-majored in economics and business and religious studies. They decided that editing a book of essays by Gundry’s former students who had embraced New Testament scholarship and theology would offer a fitting tribute to a professor who had influenced their lives and careers.
After they graduated from the University of Aberdeen with their doctorates, Ben and Brian presented their idea to Kevin Vanhoozer ’78 and asked him to assist them in editing the work. Kevin proposed the theme, a question Gundry raised in his 2002 book, “Jesus the Word According to John the Sectarian: A Paleofundamentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelism, Especially Its Elites in North America,” about the way Christians view the Bible and the relationship between systematic and biblical theology.
“Does the Bible present theological data to be organized neatly, or a range of canonical options to be kept discrete? To what extent should the theological enterprise be systematic? To what extent selective? Ought systematic theology to dominate biblical theology, or vice versa? Or ought they form a partnership of equals, or go their separate ways? What weight should be assigned to theological common ground in the Bible? What weight to theological peculiarities? How important to good theologizing is a perceptive exegesis of the world, or worlds, in which we live as well as a perceptive exegesis of the Bible? And in practice, if not expressly, what answers to these questions has recent evangelical theology given?”1
The three editors recruited seven other alumni scholars (see the sidebar on page 18 for a list of contributors) to write essays, and they presented a table of contents to Gundry on his 80th birthday in 2012. The book, “Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars” (Mohr Siebeck), appeared in July 2014.
Stan Gaede ’69, a sociologist and a former provost and president at Westmont, wrote a postscript, and Tremper Longman III, Robert Gundry professor of biblical studies at Westmont, wrote the foreword. The contributors include Gundry’s daughter, Judith Gundry, who is also a New Testament scholar.
“This volume is dedicated to a scholar and friend, who for over four decades dedicated his life to unwrapping the world of the New Testament to benighted undergraduate students,” Brian wrote in his introduction. “Robert H. Gundry, professor emeritus of New Testament and Greek at Westmont College, patiently guided and deeply shaped the minds of this volume’s contributors. As their essays demonstrate, Bob has and continues to challenge the minds of his students to think about the relationship between theology and the New Testament.
“As some of Gundry’s former students (who went on to pursue scholarship in New Testament studies and theology) we have taken up this challenge and seen these questions as a new homework assignment. Each essay in this volume has attempted to wrestle with one or more of these questions concerning the relationship between biblical and systematic theology using a particular topic or text as a vehicle into this discussion.”
Ben devotes a chapter to a survey of Gundry’s scholarship and career, spent entirely at Westmont teaching undergraduates. “To many of those undergraduates, Gundry was a larger-than-life professor who embodied the academic pursuit, the challenge of learning, and the integration of faith and learning,” Ben says. “For many students, Gundry was the first to introduce them to the scholarly study of the Bible.
“Considering Gundry’s efforts of teaching, advising, talks to the incoming first-year classes, chapel and baccalau-reate messages, participation as a judge or participant in Westmont’s annual Spring Sing event, and his teaching and preaching in local churches, it is a wonder that he did any academic writing at all. But write and publish, he did. Gundry’s academic writing has been prolific and spans not just the decades but the breadth of New Testament scholarship.”
Two excerpts from the scholarly work illustrate Gundry’s influence on his students and the kind of scholarship they pursue. In his essay, Webb Mealy presents two ways of interpreting the millennial reign in Revelation 20. But before he tackles his topic, he explains his personal approach to the Bible and to Gundry’s question.
Roger Newell recalls his reaction to Gundry’s conclusion that the church would not be raptured before the Tribulation begins and his subsequent understanding of the significance of suffering for Christians. His essay includes a survey of historical thought on the issue and some lessons for the church, reprinted below.
1 Robert H. Gundry, Jesus the Word according to John the Sectarian: A Paleofundamentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelism, Especially Its Elites in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 95.
“Revelation is One: Revelation 20 and the Quest to Make the Scriptures Agree” by J. Webb Mealy, Executive Director, Share First Oakland Inc.
Remarks on the Impulse to Make Sense of “The Totality of the Bible”
Bob Gundry became my mentor as a biblical studies student the moment I stepped into his Introduction to the New Testament class at Westmont College in 1975. I have eagerly sought and appreciated his critique of my work down through the years, and am pleased to respond to some of his searching questions in the “Postscript on Some Theological Desiderata” in his “Jesus the Word According to John the Sectarian.”
The first thing that I note as I read the Postscript is the fact that he is addressing his Christian readers as Christians: “As Christians, should we….” To me, this immediately hints at the conundrum that he is going to pose. Scholars of the Bible have, over the past two and a half centuries or so, been enculturated into a schizophrenic sense of what they are and what they are doing in relationship to the Bible. The Enlightenment, along with its understandable skepticism in relation to the established church’s sometimes arbitrary and byzantine customs of Bible interpretation, also brought with it the ideal of science as the shining path to a humanly achieved golden age. It held aloft the ideal of the scholar (including the Bible scholar) as an objective, disinterestedly curious scientist. What it did not typically notice was that religion, as the realm of faith, implicitly embraces an epistemology with what might be called two standards of proof.
People of faith—scholars and lay people alike—are not involved in a faith-based worldview and a faith-based community of worship for the purpose of expanding knowledge for its own sake, but for the sake of discovering, along that trajectory of faith, a deeper connection to life for themselves individually and as a community. Thus, as a Christian interpreter of the Bible, I do not seek to discover the meaning of texts for the intellectual satisfaction of the literary-critical quest, but for the purpose of my own enlivening and the enlivening of my companions in religious faith.
My faith, informed by and continuously informative of my experience, holds that the scriptures are a channel of life-enhancing revelation from God via the thoughts and words of human beings. Consequently, my standards of proof in matters of scripture study and interpretation are not always going to be identical to those of a secular person who has not experienced the same power of life in relationship with God through Christ, through Christian community, and through the reading of scripture. The reality is that I am not studying the scriptures for the science of it, but for the edification of it. It is certainly worthwhile to bring to bear, in my interpretative efforts, as much relevant knowledge and critical thinking skills as I can muster. But as a person of faith, I cannot submit to the Enlightenment’s (and now Postmodernism’s) demand that I assert no claim that I would not be able to demonstrate to the satisfaction of anyone, whatever their rational posture towards my faith.
The quest to be “more scientific” in biblical studies can be seen as a major source of the impetus towards biblical theology on the one hand, and the eventual strangulation of biblical theology, on the other hand. Prior to the Enlightenment, systematic theology had traditionally helped itself quite unselfconsciously to text plots large and small, related and unrelated, nearby or distant in time or literary context. The Bible was universally acknowledged (within Christendom) to be a divinely inspired sourcebook, and the interpretative methods applied to it were various and permissive.
Biblical theology, growing out of a scholarly tradition that increasingly stopped to examine the particularity of things, essentially stood up to say first, “An Isaiah (or a Mark or a Paul) is a theologian in his own right. Let us not simply co-opt his voice to create a systematic theological structure to please ourselves, but let us also attune our ears to his unique contribution to the whole that is scriptural revelation.” But there inevitably followed, in the same historical progression of thought in the scholarly community, the challenge, “How can you really listen to the uniqueness of Isaiah’s voice if you approach everything he says with the a priori conviction that he ultimately agrees with three dozen other people he never met, who lived in different (sometimes rival) nations and epochs?”
The answer to this question, for those enculturated into the ideal of the scholar as the objective-minded scientist, was, “Obviously you cannot. You are bound to chop off a bit here and add a bit there, magnify this piece out of proportion and minimize that piece, resulting in a gross distortion of each individual’s perspective.” And of course, astute individuals (James Barr in particular comes to mind)1 found it easy to demonstrate the pervasiveness of this kind of distortion. The resulting collective sigh of resignation in the scholarly community, and the profound publishing lull in its wake, came to be known as “the death of the biblical theology movement.”
At this point, rather than going on to generalize about the proposed reenvisionings of biblical theology spearheaded by figures like Brevard Childs, Krister Stendahl, and Henning Graf Reventlow, I want to turn a corner and characterize how I personally, as a reader and expositor of the Bible, respond to the challenge that critics like Barr have put forward.
First, I remain convinced that all the writings of scripture have something in common, some ability to speak together in ways that their authors sometimes anticipated, and sometimes did not. All texts have a potential life of their own that transcends their authors’ thoughts and intentions –the more so when we are talking about oracles, human messages that are purported to contain revelation from God. Millennia-long common experience convinces people of faith that the scriptures are nurtured by and useable by the Spirit of Truth for the edification and enlivening of human beings.
Secondly, it is to be admitted that there will always be such a thing as distorting what any author writes. The very real risk exists that I, in my inordinate fondness for my own ideas and for my own preferred systemization priorities, will misunderstand and misrepresent what any or all of the scriptures say. I guard against this risk not by surrendering to the supposedly irreducible particularity of every text and every author’s perspective on faith, but by making myself accountable to the critiques of other scholars who look at the large and small scales of biblical materials through different eyes.
By positioning myself this way I find that I have answers for some of Professor Gundry’s questions. For example:
Does the Bible present theological data to be organized neatly, or a range of canonical options to be kept discrete? The business of trying to make edifying sense of the scriptures as a whole – or of as much of their witness as we can – is likely to remain central to the Christian quest to combine faith in God with knowledge of God’s ways. At the same time, our tradition holds that the scriptures present countless unique points of meeting with God’s revelation. It is clear that one portion of scripture can be used to overwrite another, to distort the interpretation of another. But faith insists that the Spirit can sensitize those who are teachable to the unique contributions of each inspired voice.
Ought systematic theology to dominate biblical theology, or vice versa? I am inclined towards Professor Gundry’s optional answer that they ought to form a “partnership of equals.” We have clearly learned from the rise and fall of the biblical theology movement that systematic theology and its assumptions should not dominate biblical theology. Indeed, Professor Gundry’s option of “going their separate ways” seems to imply that systematic theology, to the extent that it uses the Bible at all, can only set a bad example for biblical theology. I suppose the safest relationship would be for systematic theology to fortify itself with knowledge gained from biblical theology, but for biblical theology to be very wary of “homogenizing” tendencies within the systematic theology project.
1 James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (London: SCM Press/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961; repr. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2004); The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1999).
“Instead of Sentimental Exegesis: The Significance of Suffering for Christ and his Church” by Roger Newell, Professor of Religious Studies, George Fox University
During my first semester in college, Robert Gundry put a serious challenge to the eschatology I had learned in the church of my youth. To put it simply, I had been taught that the final seven years preceding the return of Christ, known as the Tribulation, were the exclusive property of unbelievers. Prior to these years all true followers of Christ would be gathered up into heaven (raptured) until Christ’s final coming to judge the earth. Gundry challenged this paradigm, arguing that such warnings about tribulation(s) made better sense not as punishment for unbelievers, but as part of an ordinary disciple’s journey through time. “In the world you have tribulation” (John 16:33). “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). “We also exult in our tribulations” (Rom.5:3).”1
Though not eager to surrender the comforts promised by my belief in the pre-tribulation rapture, Gundry urged us to have better reasons for embracing the rapture paradigm than “timorous feelings” about suffering. Risk-avoidance hardly seemed a credible starting point for either hermeneutics or for bearing witness to the gospel before the world. In fact, to pursue a pain-avoidance strategy seemed more a sign one had left the narrow path than one had somehow made a perfect vaulted landing upon it.
Lessons for Today’s Church
- A believer’s pilgrimage to Easter suggests our primary connection to Jesus Christ is not through intellectual assent to doctrinal statements, but rather through a personal connection of love and trust in the one who became human, suffered and died for us. Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, continually reminds Christian theology that thought, language and life are inseparably related. Hermeneutics and theology divorced from practical living have lost their raison d’etre. The New Testament and the early church fathers use a variety of concepts, metaphors and models to bear witness to Christ and his work for us. But they point to the imprinting of a specific form upon the church’s witness, past, present and future. The tragedy of orthodoxy without orthopraxis leads to the kind of “cheap grace” which Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw as the great crisis of the German church during the Nazi era. This is the pastoral context of his classic reflection on the Christian life, “The Cost of Discipleship.”23
- God has invited his church into a cruciform encounter with his world, not an escape from it. To respond to Christ’s invitation is to share in God’s way of connecting to the world. As the gift is not given without pain, so the disciples’ welcome of that gift into their lives will not be without cost.24 “The Son of man suffered unto the death not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like his.”25 This means that throughout the church’s journey through time, it will be the center of her mission to follow her master by entering into solidarity with those who mourn, who are persecuted, including all who are victims of injustice. This is the cross-shaped way that unites us in Christ’s love for the world. It is the opposite of abandoning the world. By this way the church joins with Christ’s suffering love to accompany the world in its travail. Taking up the cross, we thus join Christ in his way of meeting the sin of the world. A believer’s victory, like Christ’s, is a way of vulnerability, courage and self-sacrifice.
- Hence we must always ask cruciform questions regarding the church’s witness in every era, including our own…. We must ask, when the world sees the church, does it see any sign of Christ’s passion, any tangible expression of suffering love for the world? Or does it see a gathering of anxious souls eagerly anticipating their escape from the tribulations soon to immerse the world? The logic of the New Testament is unavoidable: as the Son represents the Father, so the church is called to represent Christ to the world. Can it be an accident that just before Jesus said these words, he showed the disciples his hands and feet? In retrospect, I would commend the evangelical church of my youth for faithfully teaching its children the importance of Christ’s death on the cross for our salvation. It was not as faithful in teaching us that our mission was meant to be shaped by his, that we were called to a lived connection to Christ’s death and resurrection, shaped daily by taking up our little crosses and following in his steps. “That I might know Christ and the power of his resurrection” was often spoken, but whether by avoidance or incredulity, the rest of the text was passed over in silence—“and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10). God makes Christians by sending them to the cross, not by sending Jesus to the cross and Christians in the opposite direction.
Today I see the warning against “timorous feelings” which Robert Gundry addressed thirty-five years ago as a warning against Christian sentimentality; sentimentality because it prematurely resolves the crisis of the Christian’s journey through time. Given the endless recurrence of docetic tendencies in the church, it is fair to ask: how can the church go about its mission of witness in the face of our basic human fear of suffering, which if we are honest, is never entirely absent from any of us? Perhaps we can start by simply accepting the suffering journey rather than holding onto false hopes for premature rescue.
1 R. H. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973).
23 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).
24 Jean Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John (New York: Paulist Press, 2004), 330.
25 Quoted by C. S. Lewis as the epigraph to The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962) from George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons. First Series. 26 Cf. Dorothy L. Sayers, The Emperor Constantine (London: Victor Gollancz, 1951), 147. 27 For a penetrating exposition of this parallel, see Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God (London: SCM Press, 1954), 61.
Gary W. Deddo – B.A. Westmont College, 1973; M.Div. Fuller Theological Seminary, 1976; M.A. Azusa Pacific University, 1978; Ph.D. University of Aberdeen, 1991; currently theological advisor and assistant to the president of Grace Communion International denomination; faculty member at Grace Communion Seminary; President, Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship.
Stan D. Gaede – B.A. Westmont College, 1969; M.A. Vanderbilt University, 1971; Ph.D. California State University, Northridge, 1974; currently President, Christian College Consortium; Scholar-in-Residence, Gordon College, Wenham, Mass., USA.
Judith M. Gundry – B.A. Westmont College, 1978; M.A. Fuller Theological Seminary, 1980; Th.D. Eberhard-Karls-Universität, Tübingen, 1988; currently Research Scholar and Associate Professor (Adjunct), Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Conn., USA.
Roy D. Kotansky – B.A. Westmont College, 1975; M.A. Fuller Theological Seminary, 1977; M.A., Ph.D. University of Chicago, 1988; currently independent scholar of classics and biblical studies.
Tremper Longman, III – B.A. Ohio Wesleyan University, 1970; M.Div. Westminster Theological Seminary, 1974; Ph.D. Yale University, 1983; currently Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, Calif., USA.
Brian Lugioyo – B.A. Westmont College, 1999; M.A.T. Fuller Theological Seminary, 2003; Ph.D. University of Aberdeen, 2007; currently Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics, Graduate School of Theology, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, Calif., USA.
Jennifer Powell McNutt – B.A. Westmont College, 2000; M.Div., Princeton Theological Seminary, 2003, Ph.D. University of St. Andrews, 2008; currently Associate Professor of Theology and History of Christianity, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Ill., USA.
- Webb Mealy – B.A. Westmont College, 1978; M.A. Western Kentucky University, 1983; Ph.D. Sheffield University, 1989; currently Executive Director, Share First Oakland Inc., a California Public Benefit Corporation; Seminary of the Street, Oakland, Calif., USA.
Roger Newell – B.A. Westmont College, 1974; M.Div. Fuller Theological Seminary, 1977; Ph.D. University of Aberdeen, 1983; currently Professor of Religious Studies, George Fox University, Newberg, Ore., USA.
Benjamin E. Reynolds – B.A. Westmont College, 1999; M.Div., Th.M. Gordon- Conwell Theological Seminary, 2003, 2005; Ph.D. University of Aberdeen, 2007; currently Associate Professor of New Testament, Tyndale University College, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Mark L. Strauss – B.A. Westmont College, 1982; M.Div., Th.M., Talbot School of Theology, 1985, 1988; Ph.D., University of Aberdeen, 1992; currently Professor of New Testament, Bethel Seminary, San Diego, Calif., USA.
Kevin J. Vanhoozer – B.A. Westmont College, 1978; M.Div. Westminster Theological Seminary, 1982; Ph.D. University of Cambridge, 1985; currently Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Ill., USA.