Category Archives: Theological Exegesis

Francis Watson’s Forthcoming Book: Rethinking Gospel Origins

The release date is still about 6 weeks away, but it will be worth keeping an eye on the discussion generated by Francis Watson’s Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective.

Prof. Watson is my supervisor at Durham, so I am somewhat familiar with the material and arguments of the book (almost 700 pages). Here is the synopsis provided by Eerdmans on the book’s webpage:

That there are four canonical versions of the one gospel story is often seen as a problem for Christian faith: where gospels multiply, so to do apparent contradictions that may seem to undermine their truth claims. In Gospel Writing Francis Watson argues that differences and tensions between canonical gospels represent opportunities for theological reflection, not problems for apologetics.

Watson presents the formation of the fourfold gospel as the defining moment in the reception of early gospel literature — and also of Jesus himself as the subject matter of that literature. As the canonical division sets four gospel texts alongside one another, the canon also creates a new, complex, textual entity more than the sum of its parts. A canonical gospel can no longer be regarded as a definitive, self-sufficient account of its subject matter. It must play its part within an intricate fourfold polyphony, and its meaning and significance are thereby transformed.

In elaborating these claims, Watson proposes nothing less than a new paradigm for gospel studies — one that engages fully with the available noncanonical material so as to illuminate the historical and theological significance of the canonical.


And here are a few endorsements from major figures in biblical and patristic scholarship:


Simon Gathercole (University of Cambridge)

“A wonderfully wide-ranging book, full of learning and insight. One of the most significant books on the gospels in the last hundred years, this work will undoubtedly shake up the current study of the gospels.

Lewis Ayres (University of Durham)

“Francis Watson offers here a striking and powerful argument for the importance of reading Scripture as a canon. The argument is constantly historical as well as theological, exploring the character of the early church’s decision to accept a fourfold symphonic gospel. . . . All should celebrate the manner in which Watson sets a new agenda for those who ask why we continue to read the gospel in this form.”

Dale C. Allison Jr. (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary)

“The scope of this major contribution is breathtaking. Watson expertly moves from Augustine to Lessing to Q to Thomas to the synoptic problem to the sources of John’s Gospel to the Gospel of Peter to the emergence of the fourfold gospel canon to Origen to early Christian art and liturgy. The upshot is a slew of new observations and intriguing proposals that open up fresh lines of inquiry. Required reading for all students of the gospel tradition.”

Those of us studying the Gospels, theological interpretation of Scripture, and early Christian exegesis have so much material to read and keep up with. This book is going to be one of those essential, landmark studies that will occupy a central spot on the wide bookshelf.

Checking back in with Jason Byassee (pt. 1): Theology, Writing, Social Media & the Local Church

For our series on “Loving the Church” in all its grit, grime and glory, we had some exchanges with Jason Byassee.  Before accepting an appointment as Senior Minister at Boone United Methodist Church (North Carolina), Jason worked at Duke Divinity School, heading up their Center for Theology, Writing and Media.  Since a lot of our posts here at Hopeful Realism have prodded and poked around with the idea of the pastor-scholar or pastor-theologian (most recently, see here and here), we were intrigued with the news of the job shift—it is not everyday that someone leaves a coveted academic post at a prestigious university for the pastoral trials of the parish.  We interviewed Jason last year (click here) in what turned out to be one of my top five favorite posts of 2011.  We thought it would be fun and helpful to check in and find out how plying the fused craft of theology/writing/ministry was faring….


Writing and Reading as a Pastor

HR: How have the past several months as a pastor shaped your writing?  Any change in style, content, length… or changes in topics of focus? 

I certainly have a less romantic view of the parish! The small church cured me of that in one way (I wrote about this in The Gifts of the Small Church), but a largish church (1400 members, 700 on Sunday) cures in another way. There are more critics. There are also more selfless servants. And those are often the same people! Sunday is more of a performance, and that’s not a bad thing. We can do more in mission. We’re also a tall steeple in a town that’s still Christendom enough that being a visible member can help you advance in your career. Odd—but there’s nothing to be done about that other than to receive it as a gift. We’re in a university town with an entrepreneurial spirit. Those are all gifts, all potentially dangerous, potentially sources of grace.

I’m struck by how much of my job is leading staff. I have no idea how to do that other than not to do what supervisors I’ve had did that I disliked. Of course merely avoiding things is no way positively to lead. I find myself faking it far more often than I’m comfortable with. But lots of senior pastors tell me they’re doing the same.

I find my view of theological education growing. Smart people are right to demand sophisticated intellectual engagement that respects and takes them seriously. But academia often serves up inside baseball debates when it thinks it’s being intellectual. Who has the patience for that outside the guild? Folks want preaching that engages their life with the treasures of the church and harsh realities of the world and takes their minds seriously. Some sui generis geniuses can do that, but that’s not most of us.

I’m sure all that’s shaped my writing some. It comes in smaller bursts of time, certainly. To be honest I know what I’m doing when I write but not when I’m leading, so writing can be an escape in the negative sense for me.


HR: How has serving as a pastor expanded (or constricted) your reading and studying? 

I find I read more fiction. I’m not sure why exactly. I wish I had a theory that I found narrative helpful in reading scripture or reading the congregation or working with words but it might just be fun. I certainly read more commentaries and sermons. When I get ready to preach I see if I have a sermon on a text and am sure to read it. If I’m being extra diligent I’ll read commentary on it, but not always. Modern commentary always feels the need to act more clever than anything that came before, so I get annoyed and distracted by that.

I also read things parishioners give me. Not email forwards usually, but books, and I try to work what I learn there into sermons. I both want to show them we can discover things together and I want genuinely to know what they’re reading and thinking about.


HR: How does your process of sermon-writing differ from the research and writing you have done for more academic purposes?

More is at stake. A sermon declares the word of God in a specific time and place, a word that judges and saves, contradicts and makes whole. Academic work also has its place in God’s purposes, but less is up for grabs. It’s second-order discourse (borrowing from Robert Jenson here): it offers reflection on scripture or church at a remove, potentially correcting or encouraging things being said in first-order discourse like sermon or church teaching. But if an academic piece gets things wrong, who cares?

That said, ideas do have legs. Terrible theologies of suffering or salvation or politics get disseminated from a variety of sources and can do harm. I’m also aware of my own post-liberal training more than I have been. The temptation is to try to turn people into liberals before they can be turned into post-liberals! Of course there’s no credit for doing that. The better goal is to approach Jesus together and see how we’re changed for having done so.

It certainly matters who I imagine will be listening on Sundays. I often find myself thinking how specific people will hear things. I hope that’s not selling out on the gospel—I believe it’s not, but it seems unavoidable anyway.
HR: You have devoted considerable amounts of time and energy to studying Patristic exegesis.  Do the approaches of those early writers on Scripture give shape to your own exegetical practices as a pastor?

They must, but I’m not sure how. Augustine is rigorously textual in his preaching. Graham Ward calls this a “letteral” sense—Augustine’s paying exacting attention to the letter, but not doing what we moderns think of as “literal” reading. Scripture has a fulsome sense, it includes history and letter and language, all that is remote. Yet it’s also brought near us in Christ, as he leads us in discipleship now. The fathers know this: that the bible is both far away and unbearably near. Monica is a good image for Augustine’s preaching. She’s uneducated but fiercely intelligent, pious and superstitious in one way, in another dramatically dedicated to Jesus in ways that affected generations. My parishioners are far more educated than Monica in a formal sense but not in theology—otherwise it’s a perfect bullseye.


Media as a Pastor
As a Research Fellow with the New Media Project, I know that you spend a lot of time thinking about media.  How are social media incorporated in your pastoral ministry?

Not near as well as they should be, but better than they were when I arrived. We had a 90’s era flash presentation on site that just screamed “dated.” Now we have a pretty nice looking site, put together by a lay staffer and good consultant. We have a Facebook presence where we had none before. We’re not using it very well yet. I’m struck anew by how difficult it is to connect to people in social media as an institution. They work so much better for individuals. I’ve got 2500 Facebook friends; something like 160 people “like” Boone UMC. So we’re trying to ask people what I ought to preach on etc. But it’s slow.

Personally I find it much easier to connect to people via text message or Facebook than it ever was with the tools around when I was last in the parish—phone and email. I like praying on people’s Facebook wall on their birthdays. Social media is a great way to connect with first-time visitors. All that is borrowed from folks we studied in the New Media Project. I like Tony Lee’s language—pastor of Cathedral of Hope AME in DC. He says new media increases his “pastoral touches.” Sure enough—folks I’d never connect with in person, who don’t elbow their way through the greeting line to get in the pastor’s attention—I can connect with really well digitally. It only works if face-to-face and social media work integrally.

But I don’t claim to have this figured out at Boone UMC in the slightest.


[Part 2 of the interview will be up in a couple of days on ” The Rift between Church and Academy and the Pastor Theologian“…. ]

Here are Jason’s books if any of you are interested—








Richard Hays and N.T. Wright (with the ghost of Karl Barth) in Theological Discourse

We have been working through the dynamics of theological discourse here at Hopeful Realism, specifically focusing on social media as the means and the Internet as the setting for such interaction.  Theological dialogue can be done well or poorly regardless of its means and context, of course, so it is up to the interlocutors (and perhaps the interlocutors’ hosts) to ensure that the interaction, however lively or impassioned, is ultimately constructive.

I have just been reading through an example of a well-hosted and a well-conducted theological discourse.  It is in the means of interactive essays (which first appeared as conference presentations) and the setting is that of an edited book.  In a previous post written just after cracking open the box containing my own freshly printed books, I realized that a book serves as a host.  It hosts a dialogue between the reader, the author, and hopefully also with God.  In the case of the book I am reading, the editors (Nicolas Perrin and Richard B. Hays) are hosting a robust, highly interactive discussion between several brilliant scholars addressing multiple concerns of urgent import.  The book is Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright [1].


The book is a compilation of addresses and responses given at the 19th annual Wheaton Theology Conference.  I was not present at the conference (regrettably!), but I heard reports from the goings-on for weeks and months afterward.  So I have joyfully welcomed the release of the book.

My concern in this post is with the essay by Richard Hays, “Knowing Jesus: Story, History, and the Question of Truth” (pp. 41-61).  He and Tom Wright have been friends for many years.  As an assessment of Wright’s approach to historical Jesus studies (most significantly represented by Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God), Hays’ essay has a background in his previous discussions with his dear friend.  At the SBL review session of Hays’ edited work (along with Beverly R. Gaventa), Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Wright supplied an unexpectedly harsh critique.  The contention between these two giants in the field of biblical studies is over  the degree to which canon and creed should be trusted in our construction (or interpretation) of who Jesus was (and is).  At the risk of oversimplifying their complex interplay over these critical issues, Hays calls into question Wright’s methodological approach which seems to diminish the reliability of the Gospels to accurately convey the identity of Jesus: “…the Gospels themselves become not the focus of attention but the windows through which Tom peers to find a Jesus outside and beyond the Gospels themselves” (Hays, p. 49).

Seeking the Identity of Jesus is a refreshing (and daring) call for theologians, biblical scholars, and laypersons alike to re-situate the Gospels as our primary source for understanding Jesus.  The confessed Lord of the Church is not to be discovered by peeling off the theological veneer of the four Evangelists in search of the historical kernels of actuality.  They are the four-fold testimony that most reliably reveals him to us.  Though historical investigation is indispensable for the pastoral and scholarly task of understanding Jesus, the method of stripping away the supposed glosses is an unnecessary exercise in futility (sloughing off those glosses has proven to be an arbitrary and subjective activity, in spite of the commitment to historical veracity so championed in the process).  Hays recognizes, of course, that the canonical Gospels exhibit variations in their presentation of Jesus.  But this does not disturb his scholarly and personal reading of the Evangelists.  He does not feel the need to iron out the wrinkles or altogether excise them from the received text in order to reduce Jesus to the simplest historical denominator: “As a reader of the New Testament I want to hear the complex polyphony of the choir of singers, not just a critically extracted unison melody” (Hays, p. 55).  Near the essay’s end, Hays hosts an imaginative dinner conversation between Wright and Karl Barth in hopes of demonstrating that the two of them are perhaps less at odds with one another’s approach to history/story than Wright himself may have supposed.

As the subtitle indicates, this book is a “theological dialogue,” so Wright has the opportunity to respond.  He maintains confidence in his unique adaptation of historical methods, and also maintains a degree of skepticism toward the Great Tradition which has at times manifested an ahistorical approach to the Gospels (searching for theological kernels at the expense of history, perhaps not unlike today we see scholars searching for historical kernels at the expense of theology): The Great Tradition has seriously and demonstrably distorted the gospels” (Wright, p. 63).  What a statement!  But let’s hear him out: “Eager to explain who God really was, the church highlighted Christology; wanting to show that Jesus was divine, it read the Gospels with that as the question; looking for Jesus’ divinity, it ignored other central themes such as the Kingdom of God” (Wright, p. 63).

So Wright believes strongly in the discipline of peering through the Gospels to discover “a Jesus ‘behind the text’,” but in doing so, he is not trying to undermine the fourfold Gospel testimony—he is simply honoring that canonical testimony in his historical investigations for the purpose of understanding them more accurately.

Wright has a much longer essay (somewhat in response to Hays) which I will read presently.  In closing this post, however, I want to highlight the nature of the theological discourse between these highly influential scholars.  Hays and Wright do not squeamishly or gingerly make their proposals.  They are careful and calculated, to be sure, but their assessments and critiques are pointed and sometimes sharp.  Healthy theological discourse is not timid.  But it should be grounded in a respect toward the conversation partners.  Hays charitably closes his essay with this: “May Richard and Tom embrace—and rejoice in the truth” (Hays, p. 61).

One last point to make about their theological discourse: the dialogue is addressed directly to one another, yet governed by a weighty, gravitational pull centered on the subject matter which is higher and more important than both of them.  Their dialogue is oriented ultimately not toward themselves personally, toward a one-upmanship in demonstrating personal superiority over the other.  In reading their interaction, it seemed refreshingly clear to me that the orientation was directed toward the urgent and glorious task of thinking about Jesus.  That’s theological discourse we can celebrate and learn from.

[1] Nicolas Perrin, Richard B. Hays, eds., Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011).