Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review of Markus Cromhout's Walking in Their Sandals

Walking in Their Sandals: A Guide to First-Century Israelite Ethnic Identity. By Markus Cromhout. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2010. Pp. xvi +128. Paper, $18.00.

Chapter 1 sets out Markus Cromhout’s general model of ethnicity. He contends “that the ‘House of Israel’ as it existed in the first century must be understood and approached as an ethnic identity, not as a form of ‘religion’” (p. 1). Contemporary ethnicity theory informs this book, with Richard Jenkins, Dennis Duling, and Philip Esler serving as key guides in Cromhout’s proposed hybrid theological and social-scientific ethnicity model (pp. 7, 24, 35). He also, surprisingly, sees a distinctive primordial element to Israelite identity in the first century—an element that Paul opposed (pp. 28, 84). Cromhout’s model views ethnicity as (1) a form of social identity, (2) requiring processes of socialization, (3) communicating similarity and difference, (4) relying on cultural context, (5) fixed or fluid depending on setting, and (6) resulting from a dialectic between collectivistic and individualistic discourses.

Chapter 2 provides a description of Cromhout’s model applied to first century Israelite ethnic identity and filtered through the findings of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). He begins by describing the Israelite symbolic universe, which includes ordering principles such as kinship, honor and shame, and patronage. Other components include the legitimation of epistemic concerns, a land-focused interpretation of history, and societal ordering structures such as purity and hierarchy, the latter reified by circumcision (p. 54). Protection for this symbolic universe was provided through the framework of “deviance, diagnosis, and cure” (p. 57). These discursive resources drew from Israel’s scriptural tradition, while relying on collective memory to address communal issues in the present. Cromhout then explains the way his socio-cultural model of Israelite ethnicity works as it interacts with Israel’s symbolic universe (p. 64). The results are an eco-system of ethnicity encircled by a sacred canopy and a habitus that approximate the debated knowledge and values of Israel’s ethnic identity.

Chapter 3 discusses ethnicity and Paul through the lens of the NPP. Cromhout follows Dunn with regard to covenantal nomism, the boundary function of the law, the creation of a new inclusive ethnos, and the social dimension of Paul’s argument. For both Dunn and Cromhout, emblematic Israelite performances embodied an ethnic identity, i.e., participation in the covenant community. However, Paul opposes the idea that God’s grace only extended to those who observed the works of the law. He offers, instead, an alternative sacred canopy and habitus. God is the divine patron, who distributes grace and expects obedience in return; this constructs an alternative symbolic universe that applies equally to Israelites and gentiles. Cromhout does not provide a univocal NPP reading; he parts ways with Dunn by rejecting the necessity of individual faith, opting for a robust understanding of the faithfulness of Jesus. Faith, for Cromhout, is “an alternative way of life and social conduct, and righteousness is something attained by an identity based on faith” (p. 93). His approach to identity is universalistic and follows closely Esler’s transcending view. Cromhout sees Paul as one who “no longer views his traditional ethnicity as ‘gain’ or ‘advantage.’” Interestingly he later qualifies this claim by noting that Paul eventually came to the conclusion that “he should not seek to erase the subgroup identities of Judeans and non-Judeans” (pp. 99, 101).

Cromhout provides a helpful introduction to Israelite ethnic identity that builds on the work of The Context Group and the NPP. Thus, this book would serve as a useful primer for those studying the social context of the NT. However, a few critical comments are in order. First, he overlooks the significance of 1 Cor 7:17-24 for the way Paul understands ethnicity in Christ. The continuation of the circumcision calling in Christ weakens his claim that Paul sought to form a new, more inclusive ethnos (p. 97). Second, he rightly recognizes the connected nature of ecclesiology and soteriology (p. 88); however, a variegated ecclesiology is slightly more probable. Third, by describing Christian identity as a new ethnicity, Cromhout confuses the categories with regard to Israel. Though Paul may draw on ethnic discourse to describe aspects of the transformation of identity in Christ, it does not follow that a new ethnic identity is formed thereby. These assessments aside, Cromhout’s work deserves further critical engagement and represents a step forward by integrating social-scientific and theological concerns in the study of identity formation of the earliest Christ-followers.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Review of David Horrell's The Bible and the Environment

The Bible and the Environment: Toward a Critical Ecological Biblical Theology. By David G. Horrell. London, UK: Equinox Publishing, 2010. Pp. x + 161. Paper, $26.95.

David Horrell presents a study focused on the ecological implications of various biblical texts. He seeks to reshape Christian theology and ethics in a way that produces human action in order to foster peace and well-being for the world. Part I discusses interpretive issues related to scripture in light of the ecological crisis. Chapter 1 summarizes the question of climate change and introduces the way scholars have implicated the Christian worldview. The doctrines of creation and eschatology are two points of particular concern. Horrell offers an ecological hermeneutic that reorients the way scripture is read in light of these issues. Chapter 2 offers a brief survey of three different environmentally-focused readings: (1) a positive “green” message; (2) a resistance to the environmental agenda; and (3) a mix of positive and negative, i.e., a positive message in some points, and resistance at other points.

Part II, the longest section, surveys the texts that impinge the most on the ecological debate. Chapter 3 surveys interpretive options with regard to the dominion language of Gen 1:26–28. Horrell concludes that these texts have an “ambivalent legacy” (p. 35). They can be taken to support principles of ecojustice but also claims for humanity’s unique position over nature. Chapter 4 discusses the fall and flood texts from Gen 3 and surveys their problematic nature for both resistance and recovery readings. Particularly insightful is Horrell’s recognition of the inclusive nature of the covenant made with humanity and the earth in Gen 9:8–17. Chapter 5 focuses on the interconnectedness of the earth’s community as seen in Ps 104, the way creation is involved in praise in Ps 148, and the way God’s speeches in Job 38:1—41:34 de-center humanity. However, Horrell rightly notes that only interpretive creativity can make these texts meaningful for a “contemporary ecological theology” (p. 55). Chapter 6 discusses the ecological perspective of Jesus’ teaching. Horrell is not convinced that specific texts (e.g., Matt 6:25–34) can be successfully leveraged for an ecotheology, although principal structures combined with prophetic material may prove instructive. Chapter 7 investigates whether or not Rom 8:19–23 and Col 1:15–20 support an ecotheological agenda. God’s salvific focus does include creation; however, Horrell warns against a direct application of these texts in an environmental theological and ethical system. Chapter 8 considers eschatological texts from Isaiah, Joel, and Revelation in which creation is viewed as renewed and at peace. Horrell doubts that there is much positive ecotheological use in these texts. There is too much discontinuity in the transformation, and God’s agency is required. Chapter 9 surveys eschatological texts in which cosmic destruction is in view (e.g., 2 Pet 3:10–13). Horrell sees in these texts examples of uncertainty with regard to the various eschatological perspectives in the Bible. One option, however, is clearly not acceptable: “that the exploitation of earth should simply continue apace in view of God’s imminent rescue” (p. 114).

Part III lays out Horrell’s suggested ecological hermeneutic, one that allows biblical diversity to remain while offering a rationale for preferring one text over another. Chapter 10 builds on Conradie’s idea of doctrinal lenses as a heuristic framework for developing an ecological hermeneutic. This re-reading includes (1) historical and exegetical work; (2) engagement with Christian traditions; and (3) dialogue with the scientific community (pp. 125–26). Chapter 11 surveys the appearance of ecological re-readings. Horrell’s theological lens, with the exception of its anthropocentric focus and theological language, coheres closely to the “Earth Bible Team’s ecojustice principles” (p. 137). He concludes by offering an eschatological vision of reconciliation and peace as motivation for current ethical practice and other-regard relative to the environment.

Although Horrell’s book is hermeneutically important within the emerging field of ecological hermeneutics, I am slightly more convinced by Hilary Marlow’s “ecological triangle.” However, Horrell’s robust consideration of the nonhuman in the dialectic may suggest a set of interpretive bi-focals building on both Marlow and Horrell as a way forward. Now that the ethical transgressions of a few have called theories of climate change into question, Horrell’s balanced approach is a welcome contribution to the larger debate concerning the way the biblical tradition may join this vital conversation on human-caused climate change at the beginning of the third millennium.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Review of Clinton Arnold's Ephesians ZECNT Commentary

Clinton E. Arnold. Ephesians. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament 10. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010. 538. ISBN 978-0-310-24373-1. $36.99 (hardcover).

Clinton E. Arnold’s exegetically focused commentary contends that Ephesians, rather than being primarily an occasional letter, or alternately a theological treatise, the two default positions for Ephesians commentators, is more precisely written for the purposes of identity formation within the Christ-movement in Ephesus and Asia Minor. Paul, whom Arnold sees as the author, seeks to make salient an “in Christ” identity for both Jews and gentiles as they struggle against the powers of darkness, while also calling them to a life of purity and holiness in the midst of a culture diametrically opposed to this type of lifestyle and identity transformation (p. 45). This approach to Ephesians gives coherence to Arnold’s commentary and provides a direct communication path for those preaching this letter today. His awareness of contemporary research provides an up-to-date assembling of recent developments in Ephesians scholarship; particularly noteworthy is the way he builds on the fine work of Timothy Gombis (pp. 179, 250, 252-53, 350-51, 371).

Those familiar with the ZECNT series will find a similar structural approach to the text, which is to be expected since Arnold is also the general editor for the series. The commentary is divided into preachable units and each chapter contains the following: literary context, main idea, translation (integrated with a clausal diagram), structure, exegetical outline, explanation of the text, and theology in application. This framework reinforces the purpose of the series to provide that which is necessary for proper engagement with the Greek text in the context of preaching. Though sometimes Arnold can only assert the findings of key syntactical or grammatical decisions without sufficient substantiation (see esp. 2:11-22; 5:21-33), his exegetical instincts are often correct and his previous monographs on Ephesians (and Colossians) provide extensive argumentation for many of these exegetical claims. This raises an essential point; Arnold’s commentary, while an important part of a pastor’s sermon preparation, requires further dialogue partners. For exegetical argumentation from a traditional commentary, Thielman’s Ephesians in the BECNT series is quite helpful, and from an identity formation standpoint, Snodgrass’s Ephesians in the NIVAC series provides an excellent counterpoint for many of the identity discussions.

Arnold briefly addresses key exegetical difficulties that pastors and teachers would come across in exposition and his extensive application of theology sections provide excellent examples for how to make these often abstract exegetical details more concrete. His cultural context excursuses spread throughout the commentary provide relevant information often inaccessible to busy pastors (e.g., pp. 419-22 on slavery). From an identity formational standpoint, Arnold’s approach to Christian identity would be described as universalistic, the dominant position in the contemporary debate. He sees substantial discontinuity between creation and new creation, and often dismisses the significance of existing cultural identities within the argument of the letter. For example, he spends an inordinate amount of time showing that the Ephesian Haustafel in 5:21-33 has a Christological basis and has no continuity with Roman house codes; however, when it comes to 6:1-9 he seems to allow for some continuity (pp. 357-58, 425). It would seem that Paul could just as likely be arguing for the transformation of existing cultural scripts, rather than the constructions of a household motif de novo. The implication of Arnold’s argument in 5:21-33 is that existing cultural identities are irrelevant within the Christ-movement, an inference also drawn from his universalistic understanding of the “one new man” in 2:11-22 (p. 159). However, Ephesians can also be understood from a particularistic standpoint, one in which existing identities, though transformed in Christ, may continue to be relevant, at least for missional purposes. The latter point Arnold specifically rejects with regard to the Haustafel (p. 370). This is not the appropriate venue to argue this point, only to suggest that there is an alternative identity-forming reading that could be made, taking into consideration Paul’s rule in all the churches that each is to remain in his or her calling with God (1 Cor 7:17-24). With this reservation noted, Arnold provides exactly what the series calls for, a volume that seeks to gather in one place the necessary components for critical engagement with the Greek text so that teaching and preaching can be more effective.