European Leadership Forum 2017

Thanks to the kind generosity of a Christian couple, Jenny and I have had the opportunity to attend the European Leadership Forum gathering in Wisła (pronounced something like ‘viswa’), Poland. I write this in Poland as we prepare to return to Scotland.

This was an unexpected opportunity, and so neither of us had particular preconceptions regarding what to expect. I have always regarded attendance at conferences a key aspect of my ‘continuing professional development’ and I have attended many excellent conferences. I regard my experience at ELF this week as among the most positive. Here are some reasons why I enjoyed ELF:

  1. It brings Christians together. As is frequently the case at conferences, many of the dominant impressions of my experience relate to people I met. From the moment we got on the plane in Edinburgh, we began to meet Christian brothers and sisters, an experience that continued on the journey to the conference centre and throughout the conference. There were several opportunities to meet friends I already knew (including several friends from in and around Inverness). I also enjoyed conversations with many people of whom I was aware, but had not met. And then there were many conversations with people I had never been aware of before. One particular personal highlight was meeting a fellow Aberdeen PhD graduate, now serving in the Cairo Evangelical Seminary, who had been a fellow-student with me. We had not seen each other for around 17 years, but met unexpectedly in Poland! The organisers are to be commended for placing a significant emphasis on relationships throughout the event. One of the distinctive and positive features of the event was that most sessions involved time for praying in small groups with those seated nearby. Sessions of corporate worship and exposition of Scripture highlighted the sense of a gathering of the body of Christ.
  2. It brings Christians with different callings together. When I attend a typical academic conference, I may find myself among a group of New Testament specialists, or a group of theologians. ELF provides such opportunities for colleagues to meet through various ‘networks’. As a teacher of theology in a university, I attended the ‘Theologians’ network. But there were many other networks taking place at the same time, drawing together scientists, artists, mission leaders, counsellors, and many more. While we remained in our networks for part of the programme, we mixed in various workshops and during meals leading to many interesting conversations and exchanges of ideas.
  3. It brings the global church together. Although, the focus of the event is on Europe, we met Christians from all over the world. It was good to speak with men and women from the continents of North America, South America, Africa and Australia, as well as from nations such as Austria and Slovakia and Poland, and many other places. One highlight for me was a late-evening discussion between international leaders of the Lausanne Movement, Operation Mobilisation, and the Egyptian Bible Society.
  4. It brings gifted teachers together. Much of this week has been spent listening to an array of speakers with an astonishing range of areas of expertise. I was struck over and over again what a remarkable resource had been gathered into one place in terms of these gifted speakers. My mind is now full of fresh ideas and questions.
  5. It encourages Christians to support one another. One way in which this is done is through a substantial bookshop with books available at discounted prices. There was also opportunity for participants to contribute to a scholarship fund. On top of these tangible expressions, there was the constant encouragement to seek ways to encourage and support one another in our various callings.

Jenny and I are deeply grateful for the wonderful opportunity to attend ELF this year. I encourage readers to become aware of this organisation and to consider either attending the conference in the future personally or sponsoring someone in Christian leadership to attend.

Keep your Greek! Resources for learning and maintaining biblical Greek

Reading Koine GreekThe study of biblical Greek seems to be particularly popular at present, if the flood of recent publications is any indication. I, for one, am delighted to observe this trend. I am deeply grateful for both the obligation and the opportunity to learn biblical Greek. These days, fewer people are obliged to learn Greek, even as part of a theological degree, but perhaps more and more people have the opportunity, partly through excellent resources that have been made available in recent years.

In this post, I will introduce a number of resources that should prove very helpful to those who wish to improve their Koine Greek skills. (‘Koine Greek’ is the Greek of the New Testament, but also of the Greek Old Testament – the ‘Septuagint’ – and many early Christian writings.) I make no claim that this post will be exhaustive, but I hope it will encourage anyone who is looking for assistance to read Greek well and with enjoyment.

Before I consider some resources, let me address a very basic question:

Who should learn Biblical Greek?

Learning Koine Greek has typically been seen as the task of someone training for ‘ordained ministry’. My answer to this question, however, would be ‘Anyone who wants to learn Greek!’ and ‘As many people as possible!’

I have written in a previous post about my experience teaching Greek to an informal class on Saturday mornings. I would love to see more informal classes develop. I find it very exciting to sit in church listening to a passage from the New Testament being read and to know that several of my Saturday class students will probably be following the reading in their Greek New Testaments! I hope our minister finds that exciting too!

There will be many people who have studied Greek in the past but now feel that their knowledge has deteriorated beyond retrieval. I would like to encourage anyone in that position that all is not lost! There are wonderful resources available to help people in just this position. I will now introduce you to several.

Introductory Grammar

Anyone who wishes to begin to learn biblical Greek will need a textbook. There are several excellent textbooks available. For many years, I have taught classes using the Grammar and Workbook by Bill Mounce. These are great resources and anyone who cares about reading Greek owes a huge debt of gratitude to Bill Mounce for his work in this area (as they do to John Wenham , who wrote an earlier classic textbook from which I learned Greek, and others before them). You can also access video lectures to accompany the book on Bill Mounce’s web page.

With my Saturday class, I have been using the new textbook, Reading Koine Greek, by the late Rodney Decker. (See my review here.) I have, in general been very pleased with this book. There are a few things I might change (the print is very small and chapters can feel rather dense), but Decker is aware of recent work in linguistics and provides frequent examples from the Septuagint and non-canonical writings to broaden the reading experience of the student. I would suggest that someone who has studied Greek in the past and now wishes to revive it would find Decker’s book a good resource.

The forthcoming book (with accompanying resources), Reading Biblical Greek, by Constantine Campbell and Richard Gibson looks interesting and will be worth considering as an introductory textbook when it is published.

Greek New Testament

The standard academic publications of the Greek New Testament are known as ‘Nestle-Aland’ (after the editors, abbreviated ‘NA’) and ‘UBS’ (for ‘United Bible Societies’). The main text of these volumes is virtually identical in both cases. Both forms have gone through numerous revisions. We are now at NA28 and UBS5. These  are published by the German Bible Society and distributed by Hendrickson Publishers in the USA. There are UBS GNT Readers Editionmany editions available and the final choice will be personal. For readers who want to build up their comfort with Greek, I would recommend the UBS Greek New Testament: A Reader’s Edition. This edition has the standard Greek text in the top part of the page. In the bottom part, there is a list of less-common words that have appeared on that page along with a basic definition (or ‘gloss’) of the word and a short description of its form. This volume is currently [17 May 2017] available at an excellent price (almost half the retail price) here.

A similar volume is available from Zondervan. While this is also an excellent resource, it does not provide so much information about words in the notes.

Intermediate Grammars and Readers

goingdeeperwithntgreek_cvr_webDuring the past semester, I have taught an intermediate Greek Texts class using the recently published volume, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek. This volume provides clear, well-informed instruction, exercises and substantial readings from the Greek New Testament (with detailed annotations). I enjoyed using it and initial feedback from students has been very positive.

A similar volume by David Mathewson and Elodie Emig, entitled Intermediate Greek Grammar,  would also be a good read for pastors seeking to build up Greek competence.

Several new volumes have recently been added to the Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament series (also published by B&H Academic). These volumes lead the reader through the Greek text of a particular document, highlighting features of the language. One of these volumes could provide an excellent companion for preparation of a sermon series, or for personal study. Ministers might also consider reading one of these volumes together with a group of colleagues.

Similar to the EGGNT series, though discussion in the volumes is more concise, is the Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament. There are some outstanding volumes in this series. You can read my review of the volume on Revelation by David Mathewson here.

Daily Dose of Greek

I cannot close this post without reference to the excellent ‘Daily Dose of Greek‘ videos, produced by Rob Plummer. This is a wonderful idea and has been a great help to me and, I am sure, to many others. These short videos are emailed daily, free of charge, to subscribers. They combine reading and translation of a single verse in Greek, brief grammatical explanations, along with Rob Plummer’s unique combination of encouragement, theological and pastoral reflection, and sense of humour. Anyone who wishes to improve their Greek should subscribe to these videos! (A similar site is available for Hebrew.)

I will add further resources to this post as time allows. For now, I hope that these resources will provide help and encouragement to many as they seek to read and understand the Greek New Testament.

 

Lesslie Newbigin on the Gospel in a Pluralist Society

Newbigin Gospel Pluralist SocietyI read the first chapter of Lesslie Newbigin’s classic book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 1989), during my journey to work this morning. Newbigin’s influence became particularly significant relatively late in his life. Krish Kandiah wrote a useful account of his work in 2009 to mark the centenary of Newbigin’s birth. The opening chapter of this book is a bold call to Christians to be confident in the gospel in the context of a society that rejects ‘dogma’. It is full of striking statements. Here are a few memorable comments that caught my attention in the course of only a few pages of the book.

On presuppositions (p. 8):

No coherent thought is possible without presuppositions. What is required for honest thinking is that one should be  as explicit as possible about what these presuppositions are. The presupposition of all valid and coherent Christian thinking is that God has acted to reveal and effect his purpose for the world in the manner made known in the Bible.

On ‘plausibility structures’ (pp. 8-9)

Every society depends for its coherence upon a set of what Peter Berger calls “plausibility structures,” patterns of belief and practice accepted within a given society, which determine which beliefs are plausible to its members and which are not. These plausibility structures are of course different at different times and places. Thus when, in any society, a belief is held to be “reasonable,” this is a judgment made on the basis of the reigning plausibility structure. … [T]he gospel gives rise to a new plausibility structure, a radically different vision of things from those that shape all human cultures apart from the gospel. The Church, therefore, as the bearer of the gospel, inhabits a plausibility structure which is at variance with, and which calls in question, those that govern all human cultures without exception.

On the claim to have access to full reality (pp. 9-10)

In the famous story of the blind men and the elephant, so often quoted in the interests of religious agnosticism, the real point of the story is constantly overlooked. The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of the truth. The story is constantly told in order to neutralize the affirmation of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognize that none of them have more than one aspect of the truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind there would be no story. The story is told by the king, and it is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the full truth which all the world’s religions are only groping after. It embodies the claim to know the full reality which relativizes all the claims of the religions and philosophies.

(See further discussion of this tale, including a reference to the quotation from Newbigin here.)

Newbigin is a careful thinker, but writes with the clarity and urgency of a preacher and missionary. His books are worthy of serious attention. Bruce Ashford provides further reading suggestions from Newbigin’s works in this recent post.

Antichrist: Literal or Figurative? And other questions: An Interview with Jason Maston

Wise words on eschatology and related issues from my friend, and predecessor at HTC, Dr Jason Maston.

Overthinking Christian

Maston_Jason

I recently had the privilege of interviewing New Testament scholar Jason Maston (Assistant Professor of Theology, Houston Baptist University) concerning the End of Time and how we should approach the apocalyptic texts of the New Testament.

Enjoy!

Concerning the “end of times” (eschatology) what causes some to obsess over this concept while others to avoid it all together?

Jason: It’s hard to know exactly why some people are attracted to questions of eschatology, but I would suggest two reasons. First, it is probably a case of the unknown. Most of us don’t like the feeling of not knowing what lies ahead. We plan our lives and days, so we want to know what will happen to us if we live to see the end. We want to be prepared. We know the past, so now we need to sort out the future. Second, the Bible gives some…

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Logos Free Book – May 2017

Bush Due LILUsers of Logos software can pick up a copy of a readable commentary on Galatians co-written by Dr Noel Due, my friend and former colleague at Highland Theological College, and Dr Daniel Bush. It was my privilege to work alongside Noel for several years. His careful biblical-theological thinking combined with his warm, pastoral heart made a significant impression on me. I recommend his writings enthusiastically to readers.

Embracing God as FatherWhat’s more, following the same link, you can also pick up Daniel and Noel’s excellent book, Embracing God as Father, for $0.99.

And for a further $1.99, you can purchase a collection of sermons by the late Professor John Webster.

If you don’t use Logos already, you can download the basic software FREE here.

Please have a look at these great resources.

Christianity in the Making

Jesus RememberedProfessor James D. G. Dunn has had a remarkable impact on the shape of New Testament studies over almost fifty years. Since the publication of his first book, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (first published in 1970), Dunn has produced a flood of books and articles, many of which have had a significant impact on the direction of academic discussion of the New Testament. From my earliest days of theological studies, I noted the importance of Dunn’s work. Initially, however, reflecting an attitude that is perhaps typical of new theological students of evangelical convictions, I was wary of Dunn’s work, since it appeared that he frequently challenged evangelical views on both introductory matters (such as the traditional ascription of authorship of certain New Testament documents) and theological convictions (such as the pre-existence of the Son). Over the years, I have continued to disagree with several conclusions that Dunn draws, but I have also learned to appreciate his vast learning and his clear presentation of information as an invaluable aid to my own thinking.

Beginning from JerusalemHere I wish to draw attention to the project that has capped Dunn’s academic career, his three-volume study entitled ‘Christianity in the Making’. The first volume in this series, Jesus Remembered, was published in 2003. The second volume, Beginning From Jerusalem, followed in 2009. The final volume, Neither Jew Nor Greek: A Contested Identity, was published in 2015.

This is an astonishing achievement. These three volumes amount to a total of approximately 2900 pages of discussion (not including the substantial bibliographies and indices)! This is all the more impressive when one considers that Dunn published the first volume when he was about 64 years old. This series is, to a significant extent, a retirement project!

Neither Jew Nor GreekI have been working through these volumes in order to write a review for SBET. That will appear, all being well, in due course. In this post, I wish to highlight briefly three aspects of careful historical inquiry that I have learned from Dunn’s work and which I think may be particularly worthy of attention by students, ministers, and others who are required to think, speak and write about Early Christianity.

  1. Engage with primary sources: At the outset of each of his three volumes, Dunn devotes a considerable amount of space to discussion of the most important primary sources (JR, 139-72; BFJ, 52-130; NJNG, 43-183 [two chapters!]). He identifies the various sources available and then proceeds to weigh them. Throughout his books, Dunn gives priority to careful attention to such primary sources, often discussing specific details in some depth.
  2. Ask probing questions: I am not always convinced by Dunn’s answers, but I have learned a great deal from his questions! To note only a few section headings from BFJ, chapter 25 on Paul (322-77), we have the following questions: ‘A Roman Citizen?’; ‘On Whose Authority?’; ‘Why Did Paul Persecute?’; ‘Why Damascus?’; ‘Antiochene Influence on Paul’s Theology?’; plus many more questions asked in the body of the text. Dunn consistently asks probing questions and then attempts to answer them, drawing on the available sources. Even when his readers may disagree with his answers, Dunn’s questions provide helpful direction for research.
  3. Listen to a range of viewpoints: Dunn’s footnotes are a masterclass in careful, respectful interaction with a vast range of scholarly opinions. Looking through the lists of names with whom Dunn engages, one is struck by the diversity of perspectives. Unlike some authors, Dunn does not neglect or ignore the writings of competent scholars on the basis of their theological viewpoints. Though his engagement with secondary literature does not lead to neglect of primary sources, it is evident that Dunn has read a vast amount of contemporary, and older, scholarship in a number of languages.

I am grateful for what I have learned, and continue to learn, from Dunn’s remarkable feat of scholarship in this series (and in his other writings), with respect to both the content of his research and his method. I do not commend his writings to readers for uncritical consumption. I am certain that Dunn would not appreciate that. But for the careful reader who wishes to become a more careful, better-informed reader, Dunn’s ‘Christianity in the Making’ will repay careful attention.

Our Global Families

Our Global FamiliesTodd Johnson and Cindy Wu have written an engaging and informative account of the current shape of ‘World Christianity’, set in the wider context of all humanity. This book will help readers to understand and engage with Christianity in all its diversity in the 21st century.

In recent years there has been a growing awareness of the growth of Christianity in the ‘Majority World’ or the ‘Global South’, even as ‘the West’ has apparently become increasingly secular. Several important studies of this phenomenon have been published in the last decade or so and the reader who wishes to learn more has plenty of material available.

So what sets this book apart? I believe that it has several distinguishing characteristics.

First, it attempts to introduce readers to the features of both the Global Church and humanity in general. The ‘Global Families’ mentioned in the title are the Global Christian Family and the Global Human Family. Throughout the book, Johnson and Wu emphasise the opportunities presented to Christians to embrace their part in both of these families. Thus, the first chapter is entitled ‘Meet your global Christian family’ and the second is entitled ‘Meet your global human family’. The first discusses significant groupings within the Christian Church worldwide and some of the issues it has to address. The second briefly introduces many of the non-Christian religious (and non-religious) beliefs found across the globe, and some possible approaches to these diverse views. Similarly, chapters are devoted to solidarity with the Global Christian Family (particularly encouraging visible expressions of unity) and with the Global Human Family (by understanding one another better). The authors encourage Christian readers to become aware of, and more engaged with, both of these global families.

Second, it is relatively up to date. Published in 2015, this is one of the most recent publications on this topic. So far as any publication can remain current in an extremely fluid situation, the details and statistics provided give a fair indication of the current situation in World Christianity. One of the authors, Todd Johnson, leads the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has been engaged in gathering statistics on the Global Church for many years. The statistics that are included in this book are, therefore, current and from a reliable source.

Third, the book is intended for a general readership. Although several other books would be quite accessible to a serious reader, this book has clearly been designed to appeal to a wide variety of readers. This is evident from several features. Many chapters open with some form of personal anecdote relating to the theme of the chapter, and similar accounts of experiences are scattered throughout the text. This gives the book a personal, friendly feel. Also, the book concludes with questions for small discussion groups. This book would make an excellent basis for discussion of important topical issues.

The authors write as evangelical Christians and they address issues of solidarity, cross-cultural interaction, mission, religious dialogue, compassion, creation care from the perspective of Christian discipleship and biblical theology. That is not to suggest that all Christian readers will agree with every perspective found in the book, but I found this a well-informed, sympathetic introduction to issues that all Christians should be aware of and considering. The authors are aware of the challenge of defining a ‘Christian’ when no human can examine another’s heart. They state (5),

For the purposes of our book, we are adopting the United Nations’ definition of a Christian as one who self-identifies as such. Under this rubric, our global Christian family is made up of all who consider themselves Christians whether or not they fit into our ideals of what it means to be a Christian.

This is clearly a very inclusive definition, including many individuals and groups with radically different beliefs and practices. This definition would hardly be appropriate for membership in a local church. For the purposes of global statistics, however, there is little alternative open to researchers. Readers are given the opportunity to consider the global Church as generously as possible while also being realistic about the difference between profession of faith and true spiritual life in Christ.

Johnson and Wu urge openness and generosity to others while holding firmly to Christian convictions. One way in which this can be done is to open Christian lives and homes to others. The authors write (138),

We are exhorting Christians everywhere to practice hospitality and develop friendships with our two global families. We advocate a form of hospitality that reflects kingdom principles and has the power to transform communities. Hospitality is the key to developing friendships that promote reconciliation and unity. We must develop cross-cultural, cross-identity intelligence to equip us to do this well.

I enjoyed reading this book very much. It is sufficiently brief and clearly written to be accessible to many Christian readers. I hope Christians will take the opportunity to learn more about their Global Families from this helpful book.

For more resources on the Global Church, see these posts:

Listening to the Global Church

Global Theology – Lectures by Escobar, Sanneh, Walls and others