What does detailed biblical study offer ministry?

Father Richard Peers offers this review of the Tyndale Fellowship NT Study Group at the beginning of July:

Anyone following current education debates on Twitter or in the blogosphere will know that there is a revolution taking place in schools. The old progressive ways of discovery learning are giving way to knowledge-based learning. Facts, memorisation and ‘chalk and talk’ (without the chalk) are in fashion. Throughout my adult life I have stood with one foot in the world of education and one in the church. I have tried to integrate these overlapping worlds and allow one to inform the other. Despite being trained as a teacher (in the 1980s) in progressive methods of education, I am completely convinced that we were wrong and that knowledge-based learning is essential if we are to give our children a good education.

I have attended innumerable clergy retreats, conferences and events where the discovery-based methods in education have been very evident. I have held innumerable pebbles and lit a lifetime’s supply of tea lights. I was delighted, therefore, when Ian Paul (who chairs the NT Study Group) tweeted information about the annual Tyndale Conferences. Although I am in no sense an academic or NT scholar he encouraged me to book, and I did. Week by week I preach on the Scriptures and I wanted something intellectually challenging and meaty. I was not disappointed. The Tyndale Fellowship study groups are a series of mini, overlapping conferences. New Testament and Biblical Theology were occurring simultaneously while I was there and Old Testament had just concluded allowing some people to attend Old and New Testament sessions. There was some movement between the sessions and I attended two Biblical Theology events.

Tyndale House is a residential library in Cambridge, a two minute walk from Wolfson College which provided the accommodation, meals and bar – not much used by college delegates, a clear difference from most of the conferences I attend. Although Tyndale has strong Anglican links, many of the delegates at the NT conference were not Anglicans and the Tyndale Fellowship statement of faith feels rather fiercely Protestant. It was a very international gathering – Finland, Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany and a strong contingent from northern Ireland. I don’t know exact figures but I would guess that fewer than 20% of those attending were women.

The basic format adopted in sessions was paired 30-minute papers followed by questions. The pace and variety was extremely stimulating. Like good knowledge-based learning there were no break out groups, paired work or other delights of progressive education. The intellectual level was demanding but not exclusive. I have a little Hebrew and more Greek; most people had Greek New Testaments with them but I was not embarrassed to have an interlinear NT in front of me. Most delegates were academics in Christian institutions or PhD students. I had many stimulating conversations throughout the three days and everyone I spoke to seemed interested in how I might apply their interests in my work in schools. No one was anything less than welcoming and friendly to this intellectually lightweight, generalist in their midst.

The sessions I attended all provided material that would easily be adapted to work in schools. An excellent introduction to the Jewish Jesus in Acts was followed by a fascinating study of the Matthean Beatitudes by David Wenham. A study of the use of Isaiah 61 as applied not just to Jesus but also the whole apostolic community was fascinating and I enjoyed Kent Brower (from the Nazarene College in Manchester) on Identity and Mission in Mark.

Some will know Christopher Shell as a senior member of staff at St Paul’s Bookshop at Westminster Cathedral. He presented some of his work for a PhD, on underlying structures in the four Gospels, with great aplomb and energy. I (like most people present) was unconvinced by his argument that this was an intentional structure of the evangelists, but it would be easy to use this material to help understand and learn the Gospels better, something very feasible with children 11 and upwards.

I wanted to hear Ian Paul speak so attended his session on Revelation (his doctoral study) in the Biblical Theology group and was not disappointed. He is an excellent teacher and he helped me see Revelation as very much in the mainstream gospel tradition.

On the final day after excellent sessions on the, sometimes under-appreciated, letter of James and Jesus’ self-denial sayings, I once again abandoned the New Testament group for Biblical Theology and two really superb presentations, one on the contemporary city and the second on marital imagery as the lost meta-narrative of the Bible by Colin Hamer, a session which completely convinced me, and which has sent me scurrying to numerous texts. It was also a session that highlighted the importance of marriage as the fundamental relational covenant in the Bible and, therefore, the significance of the desire of people in same sex relationships to identify these as marital. I was particularly struck by Hamer relating marriage to the atonement through the mohar, the price paid by the father of the groom to the father of the bride.

The Tyndale Lecture at the end of the first day was given by Dr Armin Baum on 1 Tim 2:14. It was a challenging session played as a mind-game on the capacity of women to preach and lead given the possible biblical (and social scientific) claim that women might be more easily influenceable than men. The evening was saved, for me, by the deep wisdom of David Wenham in chairing the session who constantly returned it to the women present and by Ian Paul and others’ contributions drawing attention to the whole biblical narrative and especially the New Testament narrative that highlights the role of women in the church. It was, intentionally, an uncomfortable session but I would have been more comfortable if a woman had produced the material – which would not happen, and that perhaps says all that needs to be said.

It was a deeply wonderful three days. I was surprised that there weren’t more opportunities for worship but delighted to be invited by Ian to share in leading morning prayer on the final day. I imagine that it would change the nature of the conference if there were too many non-specialists like me present—but I thoroughly recommend the conference as an opportunity to do serious biblical reflection in a faith-filled context.

I gained a great deal from the conference and would love to go again next year although I might be more comfortable with Biblical Theology than the very detailed work of New Testament. Tyndale is, of course, not my natural milieu but, as always, I was struck by the way in which orthodox Christian belief provides a deep fellowship. I met many people with whom I enjoyed talking and getting to know. It is probably just a personality thing—but I especially loved the lack of apparently clever cynicism that all too often pervades Anglican gatherings; there was no attempt at pretending other than that we were a group of people who love to talk about Scripture. There was no embarrassment, over meals or walking between sessions, at talking about this endlessly fascinating subject.

There is much talk in the Church of England about mutual flourishing. I spend a considerable amount of my time and energy trying to ensure that it is a reality. I am convinced that if it is to be real it must mean not that groups each flourish separately but that the ‘mutual’ means that we flourish because we gain from each other. I gained much from this conference and am grateful that I have had this enriching experience.

Father Richard Peers is Director of Education in the Diocese of Liverpool, and tweets (often!) at @educationpriest

The Study Groups at held in the last week of June and the first week of July each year. The New Testament group will be looking at the Gospel of John in 2018 and Writing, Orality and the Composition of the New Testament in 2019.

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12 thoughts on “What does detailed biblical study offer ministry?”

  1. Thank you for this report – it sounds great.

    I note your disparagement of ‘progressive’ education. I have noticed a growing (and polarised) debate at school level between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘progressives’. Not being part of that world, there is no doubt a long history of why the debate has ended up where it has.

    But some of it seems a little bizarre from the outside. ‘Chalk and talk’ on its own doesn’t guarantee learning; neither does being nice and lighting tea-lights.

    The evidence suggests (as you say) that facts are important for learning. But so too is wrestling with those facts – and here breaking out into pairs or small groups can allow this to happen (and it also enables quieter or shy members to take part more easily).

    My understanding is that the evidence shows that collaborative learning is an effective strategy (with others) in learning (see, for example, the Evidence Based Teachers Network).

    To sum up – I see both traditional and progressive approaches as having babies within their bathwater.

    • Jonathan, thank you. I tend not to favour the ‘let us do a bit of everything approach’, I think there is real evidence that traditional methods work much better than progressive ones and that we do young people a disservice when we use progressive approaches and don’t learn as well. I agree that ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ are not at all useful labels but as you have noticed they are the ones that seem to have attached themselves to these positions. To read about one school that has really implemented knowledge based learning methods whole-heartedly see the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers ed by the Head Katherine Birbalsingh. It also has good referencing to the key research and theoretical basis.

      • Dear Richard,

        Sounds like a brilliant conference and time will spent.

        I look forward to discussing the knowledge based approach and what it might mean in our Liverpool schools. I have been inspired by your encouragement to really stretch children in their thinking and learning in churches – in the same way that good schools are doing,

        Over the years, I have been very influenced by the competency based approach – which is looking at skills needed to getting on well in life, work and society. Communication, Problem Solving, Analysis, Logic, Listening, Negotiation – but then grounded in an ethic in terms of formation of character – perseverance, integrity etc.

        Not being an educationist – I wonder how does the new- knowledge based approach help the development of competencies and character?

      • Thanks for the reply. ‘Progressive’ vs ‘traditional’ in schools education seems to be almost tribal. Fortunately I am in higher education, which isn’t polarised on this.

        It’s funny – I am very happy being a constructionist who appreciates Freire, but I don’t see this as at all opposed to believing that knowledge and skills are important and that there are better and worse ways to impart them, and that we have evidence about how to do that.

        And as someone who studied experimental psychology many years ago (and was lectured by Alan Baddeley) it is strange to find other people only now discovering the importance of not overloading working memory (seems to be hot in education currently).

  2. Thanks Richard. My PhD was on another topic (ecstasy); I left Cambridge in 1999 having finished PhD years. The templates topic (together with interrelated mainly structural work on John; Revelation; the Synoptic Problem; the sources of Matthew ‘what is new and what is old’ and why he dares to prioritise ‘new’ here; and dating the NT) is a hobby, although it ends up being quite a big hobby and I have certainly worked a lot more on it, and at a higher level, than I did on the PhD. But again most of the work was done in the last millennium before I got married and had children.

    For the record I append what I think are the main (and fairly comprehensive) arguments in favour of the proposed OT templates:
    -There is exactly one OT passage that has been, considerably more often than any other, seen as an overarching background (or, often, template) for each gospel.
    -This exactly matches up with the most-proposed identity for Jesus in each gospel.
    -These identities are complementary which is striking given that the gospels themselves are often the opposite (synoptic).
    -The OT passage proposed is in each case precisely the main OT passage for that identity;
    -The identities in question are no more and no less than the list of those who ‘were to come’. One can imagine that the apostolic preaching worked out these systems (fulfilment-programmes) to some degree, lessening the importance of the actual final author (hence anonymity?). Not that we are in most cases unaware of who the authors are. Matthew is the most shadowy here.
    -The tablular correspondence of the above is entirely matched by a ‘structure’ column which notes the main agreed structural features of each gospel (agreed by others before I ever came along);
    -Source / form / redaction tables giving the new contributions of each evangelist in these 3 areas provide 3 more match-ups.
    …Sources (on assumption of Markan priority): Mark’s new contribution is the structural elements; John’s is what some people call the signs-source (not actually a source probably: one said ‘he wrote all his sources himself’); Matt’s is the teaching in 5 blocks i.e. the new Moses material; Luke’s is particularly the parables that show the closest sequential Deut-correspondence.
    …Forms (mini-genres): Mark takes the palm for initiating the written-gospel genre, and his narrative is interconnected rather than piecemeal: the very word gospel derives from his template Isa 40,52; John with his signs has new miracle stories and their related discourses; Matt has teachings, rabbinic accretions (including 4 parables expanded from a Markan aphorism), and scripture-fulfilment; Luke adds new infancy material (Samuel); widow’s son and lepers (Elijah/Elisha); freedom from oppression as Isa 61 (chs 13-14 female-male pairing), forgiveness from debts as Isa 61 (sinner woman and Zacchaeus pairing), sequentially-Dt-related parables as mentioned.
    …Redaction and central emphases: Mark has gospel – kingdom of God – watchmen – apology for the Cross (Isa 53); John has the overall central message (Neyrey, Rae, Moore) that Jesus proves his divinity by doing the same works done by God, ‘that you may believe’ – 10 or so references to this; Matt emphases include keeping law, righteousness, Mosaic mountains, spectacle, teaching, wisdom; Luke emphases are mostly Isa61- derived (except Samaritans and women and gentiles which are closer to Elijah cycle) – poor, forgiveness and mercy, Holy Spirit, tax-collectors/sinners/the indebted. Prayer emphasis cf. Hannah.
    To this we add that the templates in each of the four cases are overarching, because they begin at the very beginning of *both* OT and NT passages; they end at the very end in *both* cases; and they are evenly spaced out and distributed in the middle portions.
    But the main point is that competing theories would have to present a paradigm or theory with a comparable degree of internal coherence, neatness, economy, and textual evidence; and it needs to be said what those competing paradigms or theories are, if this one is not to be our working hypothesis.

    It is always hard to present succinctly a paradigm-type presentation since the terrain is so large, so I apologise if it is (as of course it must be) still harder to comprehend than it is to present! At least it has its own simplicity, which counts in its favour provided that the data are covered. Some NT thinkers are of course that way inclined (big-picture) e.g. Dunn, Wright.

      • Thanks! What I have written here in summary is incredibly garbled unless one knows which 4 OT passages and 4 Christological figures are being spoken about. Mysteries only decipherable by Tyndale Fellowship probably.

      • Just to slightly tweak the perspective given in the review:

        I mostly wasn’t making a new proposal, but rather synthesising familiar proposals; mainly, moreover, those familiar proposals on which there exists *most* agreement. Laying on the non-controversial with a trowel.

        The synthesis was necessary. As we all know (!) the scholarly community, dealing in minutiae (and nowhere more minute than in NT studies) is notoriously bad at seeing the wood for the trees. The evangelists had limited life-spans and would not have been able to think more than a small fraction of the thoughts that have been attributed to them.


        (i) The John 1 microcosm creation pattern was noticed earlier and more widely than the more basic John’s Gospel macrocosm creation pattern (of which the former is just a microcosm).

        (ii) Luke’s use of Deuteronomy is treated as a separate topic from his use of the Elijah cycle etc..

        (iii) And both are treated separately from Matthew’s use of the Moses cycle.

        (iv) Finally: redaction, form, source, structure criticism are done only one at a time, without searching for a uniting theory.

        (A) Templates

        -Regarding Mark, Isaiah 40-55 is already agreed since Rikk Watts’s thesis to be the main single overarching OT background; though my noticing a Servant-Songs structural template may have been original.

        -John’s Genesis 1[-2] structure is fairly new to the mainstream; but of course there is a large difference between a theory’s not having been considered at all and its having been considered and rejected. Its *independent* discovery by such a large number of people (Kym Smith, Harold Saxby, Geoffrey Williams, Bruno Barnhart, John Pople, myself, Anthony Moore etc.) is in my experience quite without parallel (and of great evidential value), unless similar examples can be cited of such multiple independent discovery.

        -Matthew’s Moses-cycle is widely recognised and would be hard to deny.

        -Luke’s use of Deut. 1-26 in his central section is not disputed (though its extent and its sequential nature sometimes is). Nor is his use of Samuel, Isaiah 61, and Elijah material disputed.

        So in each case the proposed template passage is the one that scholars would already agree is best template candidate insofar as there are template candidates at all (and it is remarkable that templates have been proposed for all or almost all the gospels, given that the vast majority of writings don’t have templates).

        Each also ‘happens’ to be the chief available OT passage that represents the 4 gospels’ respective main Christological identities (Servant Messiah; God; new Moses; expected Prophet), in the identification of which identities again scholars would already agree.

        I’ve only combined the piecemeal together.

        (B) Structure and Structural Innovation

        The other large piece of positive evidence is that the least controversial gospel-analysis data of all (re the ways the 4 gospels differ from each other and evince distinctive structural features), namely:

        that Mark’s main breaks are (approx.) 6.29, 8.31, 10.52;
        that the signs are John’s main structural feature;
        that Matthew has Moses material in the birth narratives;
        that Matthew has 5 teaching blocks with an identical phrase at the end;
        that Luke’s Nazareth sermon is ‘programmatic’;
        that Luke has a new travel narrative largely consisting of differently-ordered sayings;
        that Luke adds a male-female pair of forgiven debtors (chs 7, 19: cf. Isa. 61 ), a male-female pair of freed captives (chs 13-14: cf. Isa. 61 again), and a pair of Elijah/Elisha miracles (chs 7, 17)

        -are the very data that would be expected if the 4 writers were using the said templates.

        (C) Redaction Criticism

        Further, what we call ‘redaction criticism’, like structure criticism, is also to a significant extent subsumed under this one ‘template’ umbrella. The emphases in question are (not by coincidence) the *most* central emphases not only (a) of the template-passages but also (b) of the gospels themselves. Think of:
        -Mark’s apology for the Cross;
        -John’s insistence that Jesus is God precisely because he does the works of God.
        -Matthew’s righteousness, attention to Torah and Scripture;
        -Luke’s nonIsraelites and women (Elijah; Lk 4.26), Spirit (Isa. 61).

        (D) Source Criticism

        The missing piece in our jigsaw is that Matthew (whose 13.52 was already realised to be programmatic) is attaining his 5-teaching-blocks goal (which requires a hefty increase in sayings by comparison with Mark) by using a number of apostolic/Jerusalem NT sources (James, 1[-2] Peter, John, Revelation, John, 1 John – especially in the Sermon on the Mount). With that piece we have our large-scale source-critical picture, which shows that the larger adjustments of structure and content made by each new gospel are essentially just those required by the particular OT template. (For smaller adjustments, much more needs to be said: e.g., on Matthew’s use of Aesop and of commonplace oral accretions.)

        Thus source-criticism, like structure-criticism and (to an extent) redaction criticism, is subsumed into template-criticism.

        (E) The Evidential Force of Simplicity

        To this we add the simplicity of a theory that has the advantage over its competitors (provided the data backs it) that it can be summarised in one sentence:

        ‘Mark’s structure is the Servant Songs (with Isa 40 preface);
        John’s is Genesis 1-2;
        Matthew’s is the Moses cycle (from Joseph’s dreams to Josh 1.9);
        Luke’s structural adjustments arise from his employment of a composite protoprophet template combining (at the appropriate junctures) Samuel, Isaiah 61 preface, Elijah, and the Moses of Deut. 1-26.’

        In each of the 4 cases, both the starting point and the ending point of the chosen template are the most intuitively likely and neatest points of those that could be chosen.

        This is a theory of structure, not of content. Of course, structure is itself one kind of content (structural content); and of course there are times when the structure generates new content (parables towards the end of the Deuteronomy template, for example: Luke wants his correspondences to be evenly spaced so far as possible, without glaring gaps). For the ‘kernel’ content of Mark we again go with the mainstream: that it derives from the logia compiled by the apostle Matthew (this may be regarded as being the same source as Casey’s ‘Aramaic Mark’), whose reality is so sure that Papias wrote commentaries on it, which he could not have done on anything non-existent.

  3. “I have held innumerable pebbles and lit a lifetime’s supply of tea lights.” – its when you have to suck the pebbles and sit on the candles that you know we have gone too far, to quote the hilarious and remarkable Canon Robin Gamble. 🙂

  4. On Armin Baum’s paper, & your comments thereon:

    (1) I don’t know that the session was ‘played as a mind-game’, but (more importantly) none of us can know this apart from the speaker. This commits the fallacy of claiming knowledge of another’s thought processes. There are then 2 possibilities: speaker alone knows the truth, and it was a mind-game; speaker alone knows the truth, and it was not a mind-game. One would then have to be cautious a second time: first (as mentioned) in not saying one knows another’s thought processes and second, not attributing dubious rather than benign thought-processes to anyone unless one is sure.

    (2) Like other issues, the issue of whether one gender (I use ‘gender’ biologically – male/female – since that allows ‘sex’ to be used unambiguously for copulation) is more influenceable than the other:
    -is determined by study alone, definitely definitely not by personal preference (!);
    -is unlikely to yield complete parity between the genders (which would be quite a coincidence), though it is also a good working hypothesis that there will be a lot of measures that do yield parity within the margin of error (and also a lot that do not);
    -ought certainly to be studied, since it is dictatorship and abuse of power to think that some have the right to specify what topics can and cannot be studied;
    -ought to proceed on the basis of strict definitions of terms;
    -is liable to be complex.

    (3) Study of ‘the whole Biblical narrative’ can tell us what is the chief perspective of the Biblical writings as a whole on a given issue, but is not able to determine (as opposed to being a factor in determining) the meaning of a given passage. That there cannot be different perspectives in different writings emanating from different people is not a tenable position.

    (4) As to ‘I would be more comfortable if a woman had produced the material’, I’d urge that there ought to be no limits set for who can research what, not any discrimination involved in that process. Otherwise the stage is set for ideology which is abuse of power to the end of furthering (without evidence) one’s preferred scenario.

    (5) ‘…which would not happen’ – It could happen, but certainly should happen. If people cherry-pick and are selective about the topics they will address, is that not dishonesty?

    (6) ‘…and that perhaps says all that needs to be said’ – this makes the said selectivity the last word and main point; far from that, selectivity is something to be shunned in the pursuit-of-truth that is scholarship.

    Tongue in cheek: I do like NT studies more than biblical theology (though I like them both) because to a high degree it concerns facts, which are as they are independent of ideology (scholarship’s enemy). With theology can come unscientific speculation, and with that can come ideology. That is why I prefer biblical and systematic theology to other, more speculative, forms of theology, since there are checks and boundaries in place to prevent our imposing what we want to impose. Statistically, there is no chance that an accurate worldview will just so happen to fit our preferred utopia or our preferred aesthetic.


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