Four or five years ago I was invited to sit on a panel at an inter-faith event. Sat alongside Jewish, Muslim and Hindu panelists we we were each asked to begin with a short reflection on a piece of our own Sacred texts. I chose the Magnificat. I had prepared carefully and everyone present was given a card with the Magnificat on it. However, I was dissatisfied with what I did that day. Each of the other panellists presented a careful, close reading of their chosen texts, appropriately quoting the text in the original language. I felt my piece seemed distinctly light-weight in comparison—very much in the three minute ‘thought for the day’ league.
Since then I have made a concerted effort to get my biblical languages up to speed and always to have some serious biblical scholarship in my reading. I’ve also been reading and thinking more about the art of preaching, reading appropriately, trying to listen to sermons and seeking to develop a more expository style, one which is more closely drawn from the text I am preaching on.
As part of this development of my work (at Ian Paul’s suggestion) I attended, for the first time last year, and for the second last week, the Tyndale Fellowship New Testament Conference in Cambridge. I wrote about last year’s conference here. I won’t repeat what I wrote there.
Like most Christians I believe that Scripture is fundamental to who we are, the revelation of God himself. Not only is Scripture important for my ministry as a priest, but also as Director of Education. If what we offer children and staff in our schools is not the living Word of God then we are lost.
Attending anything for the second time is always a relief. Anxieties about the practicalities removed and familiar faces. Several people I had met last year were present at the conference again and it was good to renew old acquaintance. This year’s conference was all based on John’s Gospel which seemed to give it a stronger sense of a single event than last year’s and those giving papers stuck more tightly to the topic. Several of the papers covered overlapping areas and this too added interest.
As last year there were very few women which is disappointing. But this year there was an impressive paper from Charlie Butler, a student at Oak Hill theological college, that took feminist readings of the Samaritan woman seriously. Two papers addressed the issue of the alleged anti-semitism of John’s gospel. These were very helpful and also contributed to a sense that contemporary issues of diversity were very much part of the agenda. The conference was international; as far as it was possible to know most participants were non-Anglicans from a variety of Reformed traditions, and one Roman Catholic layman. This ecumenism among people who I would not otherwise meet is one of the key benefits of this conference for me. Conversations over dinner, into the evening and at coffee breaks are always among the most rewarding elements of conferences and this was no exception. I was able to talk to Christians from the United States, the Netherlands and Australia. With a few exceptions the conference was not racially diverse and non-European cultures were not well represented.
Once again, I can thoroughly recommend attendance at the conference.
Who and What?
Richard Bauckham, ‘Cana in the Gospel of John’. Richard is one of the foremost New Testament scholars of our time. His magnum opus is Jesus And The Eyewitnesses, it is a long, detailed read, but in it he substantially proves the closeness of the New Testament texts to the events described. This is an important work that needs to be better known in our culture as well as in the church. There is material here for preaching and teaching in schools and parishes. His paper at the conference dealt simply with the account of the wedding at Cana, locating Cana and examine the purpose of the stone water containers and the nature of the household. In a sense it presented in miniature what his book presents across the board. Several elements stood out for me: in particular the use of archaeological evidence, we need to see much more of this in schools. The Bible is true at an historic level and young people need to hear that. Bauckham was also suggesting that the family at whose house the wedding was occurring was more than likely a priestly family, which would account for the very large stone jars containing water for purification purposes. It hadn’t occurred to me previously that Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose cousin Elizabeth was married to a priest was, therefore, quite likely to have been born into a priestly family herself.
Pete Phillips, ‘Seeing, Believing, Abiding: Experiential, Conceptual and Post-Conceptual notions of Faith in the Fourth Gospel’. Peter presented his paper with great passion and enthusiasm. He showed how the use of belief in John’s gospel is about very much more than rational assertions. In particular he demonstrated that use of ‘abiding’ acts as a synonym for faith, for that sense of allegiance that the disciple has in Jesus.
Andrew Byers, ‘Theosis and the Jews’: Divine and Ethnic Identity in the Fourth Gospel’. This longer paper, which was the annual Tyndale New Testament Lecture, was a detailed study of the texts which are usually accused of being anti-Semitic in John’s gospel. Byers showed well how the sense of creation/giving birth that occurs in the Prologue is an important theme for establishing that the Jesus Community is about believing, not about ethnicity. He used the – dangerous in Protestant circles – notion of theosis as the best available description of our incorporation into this new, non-genetic community of believers: “theosis trumps genetics” as he memorably put it.
Two excellent papers started the second day, Bruce Henning’s ‘The Rhetorical Effect of Typology Shifting in 12:38-41’ and Chris Seglenieks’ ‘Faith and Narrative: A Two-Level reading of Belief in the Gospel of John’. It was good to see overlapping themes emerging here. I was particularly interested in the division between story and discourse genre texts. In my work in education I have become fascinated by memory and the significance of memory as the fundamental unit of learning. Some scientists divide memory into episodic and semantic and I suspect there is a link here to the division between more narrative style passages and more discursive. It is interesting to see John balancing the two.
Tom Wilson’s ‘Reading John in the Company of the Jews’, brought alleged anti-Semitism to the fore again. John works in inter-faith contexts in the diocese of Leicester and he raised a number of practical issues about the use of texts. Over coffee he pointed out how other well-known texts can be heard anti-semitically, notably the parable of the Good Samaritan, which easily reads as anti-Jewish and is, therefore, a most unfortunate text for use at inter-faith events. Hospitality is a key theme of his work and he has published two excellent Grove booklets on the subject. Essential reading for anyone involved in church schools in multi-faith situations.
Charlie Butler, ‘John 4 for all Christians? Integrating feminist insights with a developing paradigm of the Fourth Gospel’s audience’ was superb on acknowledging the complexity of Christian interpretation of the life-history of the Samaritan woman, often being nothing more than labelling her as a fallen woman, the perpetrator of sexual immorality. Given historical realities it is far more likely that she was the victim. He also drew analogies between Roman ideas of masculinity and imperial power and the Jesus in the first part of the gospel who gives way to a new, more vulnerable Jesus later. This was a less convincing reading and at least one person present thought Jesus as pious Jew was a much more likely masculinity for the author to have had in mind.
Oliver Davies has written widely and I know his work on Eckhart and Celtic spirituality. He is a major theologian of our time and I particularly value his work on Transformation Theology. (For a good introduction to TT see here). I couldn’t resist slipping upstairs from the New Testament conference to the Doctrine conference which happens at the same time, to hear him. I was not disappointed. The Doctrine conference was responding to the recently completed five-volume systematic theology of Pentecostalist theologian Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen who was present for the whole of the conference. I won’t write here why I thought Oliver’s paper and Kärkkäinen’s work is so important because I want to write more about them later – both on Mindfulness and education.
Fred Sanders, ‘The Theology of Divine Blessedness’ was the second evening’s talk, the Tyndale Doctrine Lecture, and competing with the England game. It was a brilliant account of theologies of the nature of God, or rather how we can describe the nature of God. Deeply Trinitarian and biblical, I was particularly interested in the Reformation take on the place of the cross in describing what God is like. The questioning and discussion afterwards particularly highlighted Luther’s demand that God can only be understood in reference to the cross and that God’s glory can never be described/seen directly. That discussion made me want to return to Moltmann.
I missed the papers by Matthew Williams (‘The Johannine literature and Socio-economic ethics’) and Cor Bennema (‘Moral Transformation in the Gospel of John’) so that I could attend another doctrine session.
Jonathan Black is a Pentecostal pastor (Apostolic Church) and recently appointed professor of Systematic Theology at Regent’s College, the Elim/Pentecostalist training college in Malvern. His paper examined the relationship between theosis and justification, in particular Kärkkäinen’s presentation of this. I found his illustration of theosis in the hymns of early twentieth century Welsh Pentecostalism especially fascinating. I was particularly interested in his take on the link with the Welsh hymn writing tradition of Ann Griffiths and Pantecelyn as mediated by Donald Allchin and the place of Calvinistic Methodism in the emergence of Pentecostalism. (See my post on this here).
J W Bunce on ‘St John’s Gospel: Liturgy of a Primitive Christian Synagogue’ was the final paper. Jim presented his argument that John’s gospel is entirely an early liturgical text with great style. I am not sure that he proved his point but he certainly demonstrated how bringing his background in civil engineering, where form follows function, could refresh biblical scholarship.
I’m enormously grateful for the opportunity to engage with such high level theologians and biblical scholars. I am already mining Richard Bauckham’s website for insights to ensuring my preaching is properly expository. Tom Wilson and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen have both challenged my thinking on the place of hospitality in our theology of church schools and what that hospitality might look like. Hospitality is a key element in Kärkkäinen’s systematic theology, which is the first to take seriously the World Church and the existence of other religions.
Many of the conversations, not least with Jonathan Black, continued my own personal dialogue with the Pentecostal tradition that began practically when I started work as Head at Trinity, Lewisham. I have no doubt that theologies of Pentecostalism are going to be of huge significance in the emerging church.
The New Testament sessions, particularly Bauckham on Cana, challenged me to think about the place of archaeology in our RE teaching in schools and whether we are forthright enough about the Gospels as eyewitness accounts to the truth of the historical Jesus. The doctrine sessions and conversations challenged me to extend further my own theological exploration and the need for a systematic approach to the theology of church schools and education. Oliver Davies has challenged me to extend further my work on a theology of Mindfulness for Mission.
On all these topics I hope to learn and write more.
To sit and talk with Christians in traditions so different to my own is deeply enriching. I am immensely grateful to Ian Paul, aka @Psephizo for suggesting I attend last year and for organising these conferences.
Next year’s Tyndale New Testament Study Group will take place on Wednesday 26th to Friday 28th June 2019 in Cambridge, and we will be exploring issues of orality and writing in the first century and the formation of the New Testament canon. Put it in your diary—I look forward to seeing you there!
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