Archives of Reception of the Bible

Past blogging in more ways than one.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

My early experience of reception - Jonathan Edwards

To give you an idea of how my earlier interests turned to reception of the Bible, here is an adapted excerpt from an early piece on the interpretation of the words of Gamaliel in Acts 5.38-39 (written in 1996, published in 1998 in ‘The Gamaliel Principle,’ in The Mark of the Spirit? A Charismatic Critique of the Toronto Blessing [ed. L.K Pietersen; Carlisle: Paternoster Press], 92-121).

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

In 1741, during a time of revival in New England, Jonathan Edwards published a three-part work entitled ‘The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God’ (On Revival [Banner of Truth, Edinburgh: 1965] pp 75-147). Part 1 outlined marks that could not be used to argue that something was not of the Spirit (89-108). In the second part Edwards outlines scriptural evidences for distinguishing a work of the Spirit of God; here he argues that these marks can discern a work of the Spirit from the work of Satan as an Angel of Light (109-20).

Having outlined these marks Edwards draws some inferences from them in a final section. The first inference is that the present events in New England were of the Spirit of God; Edwards includes details to support his claim (121-30). His second inference begins;

Let us all be hence warned, by no means to oppose, or do any thing in the least to clog or hinder the work; but, on the contrary, to do our utmost to promote it. Now Christ is come down from Heaven in a remarkable and wonderful work of his Spirit, it becomes all his professed disciples to acknowledge him, and give him honour (130).

Edwards begins by discussing the failure of the Jews to acknowledge Jesus and the works of the Spirit at Pentecost. He then turns to what he sees as the parallel failure amongst the ministers of the Church of his day, those who are failing to recognise the Spirit of God, who are ‘prudently’ keeping silent and who are, in some cases, claiming to await the issue (fruits) of the work. According to Edwards, their prudence in avoiding commenting on this clear work of the Spirit is, in fact, a secret kind of opposition to God that really hinders the work. Further, those who await the issue of the movement will await a clear sign in vain, as the Jews did, alway seeking further signs. Edwards wonders that those who pretend prudence in this way are so easy in the thought that they may be missing what he terms ‘the most precious opportunity of obtaining divine light, grace, and comfort, heavenly and eternal benefits that God ever gave in New England’ (134), having made no attempt to see for themselves.

Edwards now turns to those who have spoken contemptuously of the work in New England. These people would have done better, says Edwards, to have learnt prudence from an unbelieving Jew, Gamaliel, and cites Gamaliel's advice for them. They should not ‘oppose [the work in New England], or say anything which has even an indirect tendency to bring it into discredit, lest they be found opposers of the Holy Spirit’ (134). Those who speak contemptibly of the work are one step from the unforgiveable sin; that step being to call the work Satanic against their inward conviction that it is of the Holy Spirit.

Edwards appears to be guilty of a gross contradiction here. It is impossible to reconcile his advice to the scoffers to be prudent like Gamaliel with his condemnation of those ‘prudent’ men who are keeping quiet about the present work of the spirit; in the book of Acts, Gamaliel's advice is not to make one's mind up about whether or not a work is of the Spirit, but rather that no decision is necessary at all, ever. Such an attitude should surely be condemned by Edwards; remember his words, ‘Now Christ is come down from Heaven in a remarkable and wonderful work of his spirit, it becomes all his professed disciples to acknowledge him and give him honour (130). Gamaliel, then, should actually be Edwards’ prime target for his own refusal to recognise the words of the apostles as God’s prophetic voice!

I'll comment on this later.

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Friday, January 27, 2006

Why blog?

Well, let’s give it a shot.

Why write a blog?

Recent discussion by among others Mark Goodacre on the future of blogging on the Bible and Biblical Studies seems to suggest that wherever blogging on that subject was going, it was unlikely to take off in a big way. This may well be true for a number of reasons. One that I hope Mark will forgive me for raising is the sheer quality of some of what is already being done. Looking at his and Jim Davila’s blogs, I am overwhelmed by their dedication (and sometimes concerned for their families!) Blogging as they do is clearly very hard work (as Mark’s recent experience of falling behind after his move to the States shows), and it is easy to imagine many academics being put off blogging by time considerations. On the other hand, other blogs seem to stop and start, and your careful academic can worry even about that—how easy is it to keep writing? How embarrassing would it be to quit? Thankfully, blogging permits a range of commitments. For now, I’ll say that this won’t be a daily update blog, but nor will it be written once in a blue moon (brave words, eh?)

I have to say that I am fairly positive about the future of blogging. This is in part due to one of the peculiarities of life in a British academic institution. Pressures on academics in the UK at least seem designed almost to prevent an easy exchange of ideas between academics and the popularisation of their work to others. The temptation to ‘guard’ one’s work until it is nearly ready to publish and to refuse to write popular books until likely RAE requirements are fulfilled can lead to a rather defensive attitude (the truth is that possible financial penalties mean that only the sufficiently prolific can now afford to do as they wish)—not a very satisfactory situation unless you are totally addicted to life in the ivory tower! (An additional problem for academics, of course, is the chance of getting into trouble over blogging. Anyone reading Colby Buzzell’s book on blogging in Iraq [‘My War’] or who has seen recent coverage of people disciplined for blogging about work can easily imagine the potential problems involved. “Do I really want to put my head over the parapet and go on-line,” careful academics can ask themselves?)

Blogging, it seems to me, is one way to escape this aspect of my academic situation. It is a chance to think out loud in public and, hopefully, to put some positive thoughts into circulation. I hope no-one on-line will be offended if I say that one of the attractions of blogging for me is that it will be refreshing not feel that I have to fit what I think into certain restrictive academic formats (monographs, research papers, peer-reviewed journal articles). What I want to do is simply talk about what interests me in the hope that it will interest others.

So what does interest me? Real readers of the Bible interest me. I was trained to do historical critical work on ‘original meanings’ and still do it occasionally. I also teach such approaches. But what really interests me is seeing how people encounter texts and what they do with them. My PhD work was on the work of Brevard Childs and his canonical approach to the Sodom Narrative (published as 'Canon and Exegesis: Canonical Praxis and the Sodom Narrative' [London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002]). At the same time, I wrote articles on other subjects for publication, figuring that I would need them to get a job (I was certainly right on that). What I eventually came to realise was that the readers I had studied in the latter were no different to the canonical reader I had studied in the thesis. From Biblical Theology and Childs’ Canonical Approach I moved increasingly towards ‘Reception’ as a catch-all for what I wanted to do (hence the title for this blog).

Since I am interested in readers of all kinds, no time period is beyond the pale. I aim to be a dilettante, studying things that are of little or no concern to either traditional exponents of Biblical Studies or historians of the periods involved. This is not for me anything to apologise for, but rather something to be extremely happy about. I am able to ask questions no-one else thinks to ask, and in the process it seems to me that a new discipline can appear. After all, New Testament studies is a very crowded discipline and I have little interest in adding my own small contribution to that particular pile, worthy as that task as a whole is. Instead a largely unstudied history of effects is there for those who want to examine it (imagine having no critical editions of texts, for example).

Currently, I am looking at certain aspects of the reception of Acts in the Early Church and have recently taken on the Hebrews commentary in the Blackwell Bible Commentary series (see for further details). Of all the commentary series in production—someone once told me that about thirty series were in production—this one seems to me to be the most genuinely innovative. Impossible to ‘finish’, I would agree. But a real gift to the dilettante. Just think of the possibilities opened up for further study both by academics and interested others by a series focused on the reception of the Bible.

Anyhow, more on that later.

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