Sundoulos - Winter 2004

Beyond the Shrink Wrap

Sundoulos recently sat down with the Department of New Testament Language and Literature: Clint Arnold (department chair), Mike Wilkins, Joe Hellerman, Moyer Hubbard, Alan Hultberg and Victor Rhee.

Sundoulos: New Testament studies covers a very wide range of subjects, some rather esoteric. What areas of current scholarship do you think have potential to benefit the church? Which are really going to help us understand Scripture better?

Clinton Arnold: Well, the first thing I think about—and I suppose it reflects my own research interest—is historical cultural context. What historical cultural context does, I believe, is help the Scripture seem closer to real life. People can better understand what life was like back then, and make connections with their own lives. We realize that life isn't so different now from what it was then. We struggle with a lot of the same issues today that they struggled with back then, and we see Scripture addresses these issues. I think if there is anything I have really enjoyed, in immersing myself in the 1st Century cultural context and using that when I teach, is seeing people realize, "Wow—Scripture is far more relevant to my life in our church situation than I ever realized."

Sundoulos: After two thousand years, don't we know about everything there is to know about the 1st Century culture? Can we really keep learning more?

Arnold: There are a lot of ancient sources that are available that have not been mined. One of the key areas is inscriptions. I have worked in that area, and so have some of my colleagues. Joe [Hellerman] has a big contribution coming on how the inscriptions help us understand the cultural setting of Philippi. This is tangible, raw material that really gives us great insight into the social, cultural, political world of the 1st Century. A lot of biblical scholars just haven't made use of that material. They have been swept away by different kinds of fads of critical methods and ideas, and have really neglected the hard work of exploring things like inscriptions and other literary sources.

Alan Hultberg: Also, there are new ways of looking at old evidence through sociological theories and methods. Some are rather avant garde, but it is helpful to go over some of the old evidence again through different eyes and get different insights.

Michael Wilkins: I would like to add that these things show us a different way of reading Scripture—to look at it as real literature instead of some kind of book dropped down from heaven. Instead of reading two or three verses to get your devotional insight, we see we should instead read a book as a whole book to understand the argument of an author, to get into the author's mind and to hear the author's voice. That is a whole different approach to reading, and it plunges you back into the cultural setting.

Victor Rhee: I am specializing in the book of Hebrews, and when you study the background of Hebrews, everybody disagrees on every issue...

Wilkins: That's why we are waiting for your commentary! [laughter]

Rhee: Because of that, the historical study is very difficult. Even with disagreement about the cultural setting and the dating, the message is so clear. That is, the Christology, the supremacy of Christ and in light of the superiority of Christ, the author exhorts the readers not to lose their faith in Christ. What I see is that no matter what kind of cultural background a person holds to, the message is clear to us. So, I find that applying the supremacy or superiority of Christ to our context is very important to the church. And in that regard, I try to apply the superiority of Christ to Buddhism, and try to set forth the theme that Christ is superior to Buddha and try to apply the message of Hebrews to our modern context.

Sundoulos: There are far more commentaries than any pastor or library can ever own. Why do we need to keep adding more commentaries? Is that really going to help the pastor who is preparing his sermon every week? Why do we keep telling him that he's got to buy this newest one or that latest series?

Moyer Hubbard: I think that there is a need for each generation to speak to its own generation, and so new commentaries are important. New, younger, scholars in each generation need to put forth their understanding of Scripture, bringing insights that have come through their own research and speak to their generation. So I think there will always be a need for new commentaries.

Sundoulos: I'm interested, Mike, in your experience writing the NIV Application Commentary on Matthew. It seems to have hit a significant niche.

Wilkins: Well, I've told others that this was one of the hardest things I've ever done in that it was really like writing three commentaries at one time. Some commentaries (and I hope mine won't be accused of this) gloss over the original meaning, they gloss over doing good exegesis, and they hurry very quickly to give contemporary applications. But I think that if we're doing a good job, good exegesis is really important for pastors so that they can get as accurate a read of the text as possible so they're not jumping to applications too quickly. They're forced to deal with the original meaning of the text, then to deal with biblical theology, and only then to deal with contemporary significance.

Arnold: Mike, that's one of the things I like about your NIV application commentary, that it shows the church how to go about moving from the details of exegesis through biblical theology to application, which a lot of commentaries don't do.

Sundoulos: Moving to another topic, how do you understand your role as an evangelical New Testament scholar? How do you balance your sense of responsibility to the academy against your desire to serve the Kingdom of God? Is that a tension for you?

Hellerman: I think it will always be a tension living in two worlds, but I think it's a wonderfully healthy tension. I think that any evangelical biblical studies faculty needs to be firmly rooted in the church to keep it from becoming simply an ivory tower.

Arnold: I came on the faculty in 1987, and had finished my PhD and had the good fortune of having it published by Cambridge. My department chair, Mike Wilkins, strongly encouraged me, "Okay now, Clint, draw out the implications of this for the life of the church." And Mike and I had a lot of conversations about this, and it was so helpful to me in drawing out what we want to be at Talbot. I've tried to follow that pattern in my own odyssey through scholarship. I enjoy digging in and doing some in-depth scholarly work, but that's not enough. We have to think through the implications for the life of the church. I think with everyone in our department, there's a commitment to that kind of thing.

Wilkins: That's one of the good things about being in a department like this—we can learn from each other and encourage each other. I would say, do your top level scholarship, and then be strategic and intentional about finding ways of taking the core of that and communicating to the church. In a department of scholars who are all trying to do that, we can help each other find ways of publishing a popular book or a mid-level book that would come out of the highest level of scholarship we do.

Hultberg: Beyond that, we're in the classroom every day with people who will be leaders in the church. I want to make sure that they appreciate both the hard work of scholarship and exegesis, so that they have something to give the church, but that they also realize they are going to be serving the church. They're not just getting a degree, they're working hard for the kingdom of God. So we need to model that to our students.

Hubbard: I think the students help us in that regard too, because they'll say, "Okay, how does this relate to anything I'm going to do?" Some of them say it kindly and some of them just say it frankly. I think they help keep our feet rooted in the church. That's why I was intentional about wanting to try to teach at a place like Talbot. It allows us to bring exhortational elements into the classroom that should flow from what we're learning from the text, what we're studying.

Rhee: As a New Testament scholar I would like to be able to function as a pastor-teacher as described in Eph 4:11 for the purpose of equipping the saints both at Talbot and Biola and in different local churches. In the last two years I found myself putting more emphasis on the local church ministry and less emphasis on research. This happened because many churches asked me to come and speak in their churches. My difficulty has to do with the balance between research and the service for the local churches. Both are important for me.

Sundoulos: In your view, are evangelical New Testament scholars doing work at the same level of scholarship as non-evangelicals? Is their work well-received? Do you sense respect from your non-evangelical colleagues in the guild?

Hubbard: I think evangelical scholars have made an impact. Especially in Jesus studies, there have been a number of very vocal and prominent spokesmen. Sometimes I wonder, with certain scholars, how rooted they are in the church, and sometimes there's a question as to getting the balance right. I think at Talbot, we really have the balance right. That's one of the strongest points of our school and faculty.

Wilkins: I think that is an important part of what we do for each other. I have seen how evangelical scholars sometimes feel a need to be accepted by the larger community, and they try to find their significance in the larger community. On the other hand, I think that when we are affirmed by our own group of scholars within a community of faith, we can then make these forays out there and instead of just seeking acceptance, we can contribute to the larger community either in a corrective or in a positive way. I think it would be much more difficult to try to do it alone as opposed to doing it in a group where we can hold each other accountable and find a balance for what we are doing.

Arnold: Last year I did a paper, a presentation for IBR [Institute for Biblical Research]. That's an evangelical group, but it is well recognized in the guild, I suppose, for good scholarship. The work will be published in a journal that is respected in the guild, called New Testament Studies. I might say that 1982, I believe, was the first time I ever went to a Society of Biblical Literature meeting, and as a real young guy then, fresh out of junior high [laughter], the sense that I got was that a lot of evangelicals felt like outsiders and felt like, "Here's this big scholarly guild, and we're just little people, and we need to gain acceptance, and we need to get out there and get our evangelical scholars out there." I look at where we are now in 2004, 22 years later, and it's amazing how evangelical scholarship has just mushroomed. There are a lot of evangelicals involved in doing a lot of significant things in the broader guild, including many on our faculty.

Sundoulos: All of you are currently involved in creative kinds of research. Tell us a bit about what you're currently working on.

Hellerman: I just finished a big project on Philippians, looking at the inscriptional base at Roman Philippi, trying to understand the social world of Philippi. That has shed tremendous light on, for example, the beautiful picture of Jesus in Philippians 2, existing in the form of God, then stepping down what I call a ladder of shame, to becoming human—which is tantamount to slavery for deity—then dying a horrifically shameful death on the cross. I argue that that is basically an inversion of the Roman path to glory, which was to take step after step up various honors and offices, a path that was replicated in smaller settings and little religious groups as well, and so Paul portrays Jesus as inverting a whole social value system. And then for God in verse nine of that chapter to exalt the person who uses his power in that way is to make a very profound statement. The inscriptions just toot the horns of person after person and all their offices and honors. People in Roman Philippi, maybe more than anywhere else in the East, couldn't walk to the Forum in the city without being inundated with the pictures and images of people climbing the corporate ladder in that world, so to speak, and then we see Jesus, what he has done for us, as just so diametrically the opposite of that. And we are blessed, and we are challenged to live life similarly in this alternative citizenship, as Paul puts it in Philippians.

Sundoulos: Where will we see this in print?

Hellerman: Cambridge is going to publish it in their Society for New Testament Studies Monograph series. It's supposed to come out in March or April next year.

Hubbard: I'm working on a project right now which is dealing with historical Bible backgrounds. The provisional title is "Christianity in the Roman World: a Narrative Introduction." I'm trying to package the data being pulled from a variety of sources in a way that will be a little more engaging for the typical student and teacher and pastor. Each chapter is going to have a narrative component...

Sundoulos: Fiction?

Hubbard: Fiction, that's right, a good yarn. So each chapter will begin with a story. Each story is set in Corinth, with different people representing different social strata, different genders, to illustrate the hurdles and opportunities that the gospel had trying to penetrate a complex society like Roman Corinth. Then following each story there will be a commentary to unpack the narrative, dealing with different aspects of Greco-Roman society, religion and superstition, society, households, the church, things like this. The most important section will be the final section which takes specific passages and issues in the New Testament and shows how this really vitally elucidates this particular passage. It's very rich in historical, primary sources, and it's just been a joy to work on.

Sundoulos: Sounds like a fun book to read. Do you have a publisher?

Hubbard: Yes, it will be with Hendrickson. I've got to write it first. [laughter]

Hultberg: I teach a course on Daniel and Revelation, and I've never found a satisfactory commentary on Revelation, one that I agree with [laughter], and in fact oddly enough, just about every commentary takes a totally different perspective on things. My students constantly ask me, "Do you have anything written from your perspective on things?" Which I don't, so now I've been mulling over the idea of writing a commentary on Revelation.

Sundoulos: Can you tell us something about the Apologetics Study Bible project that you just finished?

Hultberg: Yes, a lot of us have had a part in that. I wrote the notes for the synoptic gospels. The Apologetics Study Bible seeks to address texts that pose apologetic issues—in my case, problems of harmonization among the synoptic gospels, or sometimes with John, or issues of the historical Jesus, or historical cultural issues, or things having to do with early Christian theology, particularly Christology. So that turned out to be quite a big project, close to 120 pages of notes.

Rhee: At the present time, I'm working on an article on the literary structure of Hebrews chapter 1, and its Christology. Another thing I'm working on is the commentary project on the book of Hebrews, the Asian Bible Commentary. It is written from the perspective of an audience that would be mainly English speaking Asians. So, my attempt is to apply the message of the book of Hebrews to Eastern Cultures and Eastern Philosophies and Eastern religions. Because of that, I'm applying the superiority of Christ to Buddhism, and also trying to broaden the application to Hinduism and ancestral worship, and that is going to be a big project for me. The Asian Theological Association is sponsoring this project.

Arnold: I'm currently engaged in a couple of projects. One of them is just about done. It's a small project for Zondervan telling the story of how we got the Bible. It's a visual project, where there will be about 50 two-page spreads and about 80% of what you see will be images...

Wilkins: You keep working on these picture books! [laughter]

Arnold: And it will be full color! The idea is to present the history of the Bible from the earliest forms of writing and earliest forms of Hebrew texts, all the way to the contemporary translations, but to do it with a lot of graphics and pictures of inscriptions and various copies of the Bible through history and to convey it with a sense of pathos or emotion, that this was a book that was cherished by people and was very valuable, people considered it worth dying for, people wanted to get it out into languages that others could understand and respond to immediately. It's been a fun project to work on.

The second project will probably take the next 15 years. I'll be serving as general editor for an exegetical commentary series for Zondervan, 20 volumes on the New Testament. We're creating an exegetical commentary series that would have relevance for pastors and teachers in the church who have had a couple of years of Greek, and not to assume any more than that. Our desire is to be professedly evangelical and not to grapple with the issues that people in the church don't have the least bit of concern about—all the historical critical questions—and then use the Greek and various tools to interpret the text. We're going to try to mainstream a simplified form of discourse analysis, and we'll have graphical displays to do that. We're going to try, for every single passage, to have a two to three sentence statement of the main idea, so whoever is reading it doesn't have to look through and wonder, "What does this guy think the passage really means?" We'll end it all with some discussion of biblical theology and a bit of a suggestion in terms of relevance and application. The goal is to be exegetical and to truly help readers who have only had a couple years of Greek use it in the interpretation of the text.

Wilkins: And you're writing which commentary?

Arnold: I will be writing Ephesians.

Sundoulos: By the way, Clint, what has been the response to the Bible Backgrounds Commentary for which you served as senior editor?

Arnold: It's been a delight for me to hear ordinary lay people so excited about the Bible Backgrounds Commentary, to hear people talk about reading all the reflection side bars and about how much it's really meant to them. I think that's been the most gratifying side. It's definitely ministering far beyond the professional guild.

Hubbard: My wife teaches at a public school, and one of her fellow teachers got a hold of this set and she just loves it. It's strengthened her faith and knowledge, and it's exciting to see that kind of thing.

Wilkins: And what was the award that you received for that, Clint?

Arnold: Well, the Gold Medallion Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. [cheers, clapping]

Wilkins: The project I'm working on right now has been a fun little thing. There are 12 to 15 of us Jesus scholars in IBR who were commissioned as the Jesus Project. We are taking twelve incidents in Jesus' earthly ministry. One person a year gives a credible defense of the historicity of that event in Jesus' life, for a scholarly audience. We meet together every June, and for eight hours we go over one paper by one person. My paper is up this year, on Peter's confession as Jesus as Messiah. There will be two volumes that will be published, one for a scholarly audience (we're hoping Oxford Press will do that), and a popular version as well.

Along with that, I'm working on a little book that kind of blends some of my interests in discipleship and spiritual formation that I'm calling "The Transformation of Peter." It will trace Peter's life from his first encounter with Jesus to the end of his life, to see the transformation theologically, say in terms of his Christology, his own personal transformation, his transformation as a leader. That's an ongoing project that comes into play with a group I'm working with now called "Transform World." Luis Bush is the head of this. Starting in Indonesia in May, they're going to have an annual meeting where they'll gather national church leaders, seeking the transformation through the church of their people. I've been commissioned to write the focus group on discipleship that will kind of set the agenda for each of these gatherings. The next one will be in Africa, and then India. So, it's just a fun, fun way of taking the scholarship that we talked about earlier and now getting that into the hands of the church.

And then, in the commentary series that Clint is spearheading, I'll be doing the commentary on 1 Peter. So it really does put all of these things together in a little package.

Sundoulos: As you look back at your days as seminary students, and since, what are some of the more influential factors that impacted your development as a scholar and as a minister?

Hubbard: I went to Multnomah Bible College, and one thing I took away from there has helped me all throughout my education. It was incredibly important as I went through Oxford, and guides my teaching now—a sense of the importance of following the text wherever it leads, allowing the text to form your theology and not vice versa. That's one thing that I try to impress upon my students. "Don't be afraid to follow the text where it's leading, and if it's going there you go there too."

Hultberg: You know, Clint was a big influence on me when I was in seminary here at Talbot. He had just started teaching, I think. He was an excellent scholar, very passionate about his scholarship but especially about his discipleship. I saw his heart, that he's just somebody who is not taken with himself, but is just a real genuine person, and that was impressive to me.

Rhee: One influence that had a big impact on me was my failure in seminary. I took a course in the book of Hebrews, and the professor said that this course was very difficult, but it was very easy to get a good grade, so everyone got A's and B's, but I got an F. I got an F in the book of Hebrews! [laughter] I just cannot forget that. But through the years, the Lord helped me to recover from that failure and at Dallas Theological Seminary, when I was in the doctoral program, I decided to write a dissertation in the book of Hebrews just to prove to myself that I do have some understanding of the book of Hebrews. [laughter] So, that failure just reminds me that God always gives new opportunities, and failure in one thing does not necessarily mean that we are a failure forever, so that is a great encouragement for me.

Hellerman: I had absolutely a delightful experience at Talbot. I came to Talbot only because it was geographically close, I didn't know much more than I wanted to do ministry. I got into formal theological studies and discovered how absolutely delightful it was. There were some professors at Talbot that were special, like Tom Finley. I did a ThM in Old Testament and that wasn't very popular, so I had a lot of personal time with Dr. Finely in his office with one other student, reading through Isaiah, and I just really appreciated the godly, deep, person Tom Finley is.

Arnold: Well, there is one person that was very influential on me, J. Vernon McGee, who used to have a radio broadcast. I became a Christian as a teenager. I wasn't raised in a Christian home, my parents were new believers at the time. I somehow discovered this guy on the radio, and the way he knew the Bible, the way he could draw out the implications of the Bible for life—it just gripped me. I used to organize my day out on the farm so I could have the door of the pick-up open and listen to J. Vernon McGee go through the Bible.

Wilkins: I would say what stands out for me as the most important factor is the influence of three other students that I went through Talbot with. I was only three years old as a Christian when I started Talbot and a little bit older, having been in the Army, and I was pretty much a mess as a person. My wife recognized that I was a mess, and she and these three guys wouldn't let me alone. I was a loner, I worked full time and went to school full time, and I was really driven, but the significant factor was these three guys, Mike, Dale and Larry, all of whom I still have some contact with. They wanted to be my friends, and they wanted to make sure that I was more than a one-dimensional person. I would usually go to a corner of a room and sit by myself and they would all three come and sit around me. I would go to chapel by myself and they would all three come and sit with me. They really opened me up to how to be a real person. I would say for our readers in particular, try to maintain relationships, recognize the supreme importance of community.

Sundoulos: In concluding, you understand the pressures on pastors these days to do programs and be involved in so many things. The "good old days" are gone, when a typical pastor could count on thirty hours a week to study for a sermon. In the face of day to day pressures, many pastors have lost the passion for doing the work of exegesis. What would you say to encourage them, or maybe to reawaken that passion?

Wilkins: One of the things I ask my students to promise me—I don't have it in writing, but I say, just give me one verse a day. Give me one verse a day where you do serious exegesis, and if on an ongoing basis you will keep a log of what you do and pull out your Greek, pull out your Hebrew, and do some serious study of just that one verse every single day for the rest of your lives, by the time you come to the end of your career, you will have maximized all the exegetical tools you have ever learned. It will stay fresh. One verse, just give me one verse.

Rhee: Well, I would encourage the senior pastor and even the youth pastor, to do a devotional study every day with the same passage that they will be preaching or teaching for the week. If they do so, then I think they will be affected in the sermon preparation.

Arnold: I guess I would say this past year or so has been among of the most difficult times in my life, with a lot of stuff going on. I have just so deeply appreciated certain things that I have seen different things that the Lord has really used to encourage me in some difficult times. My encouragement would be to always be immersed in the Word. We learn a framework for how to think about the Word and interpret the Word through hermeneutics and exegesis, but there's nothing to replace just being in the Word, and seeing the things that God would show us in the Word.

Hubbard: I want to echo that, and get behind it a little bit. I think we always have time for what's important to us, and we've all had days or weeks or maybe even longer periods where we were not able, because of extenuating circumstances, to spend time in careful study. But I try to recognize the needs of my students, and the needs of my students cannot be met in any other way except by Scripture, and my job is to make sure that the Word of Life is in fact being presented to them. I think if a pastor understands the need of his congregation, and what Scripture can offer, than that responsibility should compel him to spend time in study. So develop a sense of the importance and the urgency of the task of being in the Word for the sake of your flock, for that nurturing that can't come from other sources.

Hellerman: I don't know where I got this expression, but I've always encouraged people to be "prayed up." In other words, a lot of times we run on our own energy and our own anxiety and what not, to accomplish the tasks that are in front of us that God has given to us, and we run out of fuel after a while. We need a steadier, constant commitment to Christ, and communion with God in His word and in prayer, from which you can draw.

A second thing is this. A lot of times in my exegesis class, students will say, "It takes so much time and so much energy to get this done, it's impossible, nobody could ever do this regularly." I encourage them by saying, really, the more you practice, the better you get at it, the more quickly it comes.

Hultberg: It seems to me especially if we're talking about studying and expounding the text and exhorting your congregation from the text, like Victor said, you have to live with the text. Some preachers rely on commentaries and what not, but we're not called to preach the commentaries, we're called to preach the Word of God, and it only becomes alive in you if you study the text. You have to ask yourself, "To what has God called me?" Be faithful to the calling God has placed on your life, not to what other people think you ought to be doing.

Sundoulos: Thank you all for your time, and for your ministry. It's a great privilege to serve along side each one of you.

Biola University
13800 Biola Ave. La Mirada, CA 90639