History of Interpretation

Every year North Park Theological Seminary hosts a Symposium on Theological Interpretation of Scripture. In 2017 that symposium was on the topic of Participation in and with Christ, and the presentations were printed (as with each symposium) in Ex Auditu (vol 33). It was a great conference with voices from a variety of perspectives–biblical, historical, and contemporary.

My piece extends some of my work on Paul and theosis by means of a conversation with Irenaeus (with my book Christosis) to include here a wider perspectives on the story of the Bible as a whole, particularly with a focus on glory as a biblical theme. Here is a list of all the essays.


Introduction – Stephen J. Chester

You Become What You Worship: Theosis and the Story of the Bible – Ben C. Blackwell
Response to Blackwell – Cynthia Peters Anderson

The Old Testament and Participation with God (and/in Christ?): (Re-)Reading the Life of Moses with Some Help from Gregory of Nyssa – Brent Strawn
Response to Strawn – J. Nathan Clayton

Cruciform or Resurrectiform? Paul’s Paradoxical Practice of Participation in Christ – Michael J. Gorman
Response to Gorman – Markus Nikkanen

Union(s) with Christ: Colossians 1:15–20 – Grant Macaskill
Response to Macaskill – Constantine R. Campbell

Why Bother with Participation? An Early Lutheran Perspective – Olli-Pekka Vainio
Response to Vainio – Stephen J. Chester

The Geography of Participation: In Christ is Location. Location, Location – Julie Canlis
Response to Canlis – Mary Patton Baker

Jews and Gentiles together in Christ? The Jerusalem Council on Racial Reconciliation – Ashish Varma
Response to Varma – Hauna Ondrey

Letting the Music Play (Matthew 22:34–40) – Cynthia Peters Anderson


I (Ben) have been busily finishing out my SBL paper over the past few weeks: “Luther and Galatians: Justification as Participation in the Life of God.” I’m working from the Luther’s Works (LW) translation, but I, of course, needed to engage the critical edition of Luther’s Lectures on Galatians. However, being partially ignorant of Luther scholarship, I couldn’t remember how accessible the Weimarer Ausgabe (WA) of Luther’s Works, the critical edition of the original Latin and German, would be. My initial search kept coming up with older english translations, until I hit on Jim West’s very helpful series of posts with links to Reformation era primary resources (check down the right hand side to find a full list of “Reformation Texts“). I won’t repeat the Luther material here, but basically all the WA critical editions are old enough to be open source, so check out West’s Luther’s Works – Weimar (sic) Ausgabe. It lists all the volumes twice: first, with the open source web links; and second, a list of each volume’s main contents.

As we’re getting closer to SBL, I (Ben) know people are making plans for sessions to attend, so let me offer an option. As a part of my larger work on Paul to highlight how he brings together the topics of justification, life, and the Spirit, I’ve been working on tracing where the Reformation tradition separated them, so I’m presenting a paper on Luther and theosis. I know I’m an interloper on Luther, so I’m welcoming the opportunity to get some feedback. Do come join us.

Christian Theology and the Bible
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Room: Conference Room 2 (3rd Level) – Marriott Rivercenter (MRC)

Theme: Martin Luther as Interpreter of Scripture
This is the first of a four-year series on Christian theologians and their interpretation of the Bible. This session examines Martin Luther and his theological interpretation of a specific text or set of texts in the Old and New Testaments. The session is interested not only in Luther as a historical theologian but also for his role in constructive Christian theology today.

Arthur Sutherland, Loyola University Maryland, Presiding (5 min)

Claire Mathews McGinnis, Loyola University Maryland
Martin Luther on Exodus 7–11 (and Romans 9:6-13): the Hardening of the Heart (30 min)
Tyler Atkinson, Bethany College (Lindsborg, KS)
Solomon’s Political Body: Luther’s Lectures on Song of Songs and Contemporary Political Theology (30 min)
Ben C. Blackwell, Houston Baptist University
Luther and Galatians: Justification as Participation in the Life of God (30 min)
Gordon Campbell, Union Theological College (Northern Ireland)
“Christ is neither taught nor known in it”: some christological fallout of Martin Luther’s Prefaces to the Revelation of St. John (1522 & 1546). (30 min)
Discussion (25 min)

Just a week or so away from the annual conference season, so I (Ben) am excited to point your attention to Edith Humphrey’s contribution as the main lecture at IBR this year. In addition Mike Gorman and I will be serving as respondents, so I’ll get to be on stage with two of my friends who are among my favorite Paul scholars.

After having read the paper, I know it will be a treat. It won’t be a boxing match like it was a couple of years back, but we’ll have a good discussion.

Institute for Biblical Research
7:00 PM to 9:00 PM
Room: Texas ABC & Corridor (4th Level) – Grand Hyatt (GH)

Edith M. Humphrey, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
Reclaiming all Paul’s Rs: Apostolic Atonement by Way of the Eastern Fathers (40 min)

Ben Blackwell, Houston Baptist University, Respondent (10 min)
Michael Gorman, Saint Mary’s Seminary and University, Respondent (10 min)
Discussion (20 min)

Statements that the Bible/NT do not have a fully orbed Trinitarianism abound. Of course, those with a “low, slow” christology make that affirmation, but even those with an “early, high” christology regularly make such claims. Behind this is a strong concern to avoid the anachronism of later (creedal) theology back into texts. It is this problem of anachronism that I think undergirds those that would both deny and affirm Nicene theology. In other words, both groups are actually committing an anachronistic reading by making the comment that a fully orbed Trinitarianism is not found int the NT.

Historical Criticism: The concern of anachronism is almost self-evident in historical critical studies. There is a one-way flow of time, and every text/author must be interpreted in light of what is contemporaneous or previous to them. In no way should later conceptualities be introduced that would taint the historical evidence. Therefore, introducing later Nicene theology into a text would be out of order and would produce anachronistic results. Accordingly, one can easily say that the NT does not have a fully formed Trinitarianism, by which they mean a fully formed Nicene Trinitarianism. However, by using this later standard by which to measure Trinitarianism, historical critics have implicitly imported an anachronistic conceptuality into their their argument. Can’t the NT have a fully formed Trinitarianism on its own terms? Or might we say, in light of the historical critical concern to bracket out the ontology of Nicaea in terms of the immanent Trinity, they can fall into the trap of missing the event and action of God in terms of the economic Trinity. For example, Dunn in his Christology in the Making argues that Christ is the revelation of God in Paul’s letters, just that Christ is not ontologically identified with God (through pre-existence) in Paul’s letters: “God had himself acted in and through Christ” (255). This seems to be a strong indication of an economic view of Trinity, which is set in opposition to an immanent view. Yet if the immanent view was not at play in the discussion as an alternative, then the economic would be allowed more space.

Thus, it seems that this anachronistic standard is shaping historical critical affirmations and denials. This doesn’t mean that ontological issues are irrelevant to assessments of these texts, but we need to be careful of importing a standard from a latter time in order to make those assessments. This isn’t only a problem for those critiquing or questioning traditional readings, and I’ll mention how more traditional readers deal in anachronism  while trying to support their readings in a follow-up post.

Continuing a series of posts about NT Christology, Larry Hurtado recently posted about “Chronology and Ontology“. There, he makes this claim:

So, how can we say that “ontological” categories don’t appear to be operative in earliest Christological texts? Negatively, there is the absence of the sort of philosophical terms that make their appearance in subsequent Christian texts. Positively, the Christological statements that we do have in NT texts seem to me to express claims more of a relational and transactional nature. In various ways, Jesus is uniquely linked with God, and is conferred (by God) with a unique status and role in relation to God.

My thoughts immediately ran to Colossians 2.9, which he doesn’t mention in his post. However, after being questioned in the comments about Col 2.9 and Heb 1.4, he follows up with a comment:

Sure, there are verbal links, but the sentences (and so the connotation of the terms) are different. And remember that sentences are the primary semantic unit, not “words”. So, e.g., in Col 2:9, Jesus is the one in whom “the fullness of deity dwells bodily,” which makes Jesus the vehicle of deity, which is a bit different from the later questions about whether the “Son” and God the Father share the same “essence.” And in Hebrews 1:3, the Son bears “the stamp” of God’s “being,” the term hypostasis used here in its more typical sense, whereas in the later Christological debates the term takes on a new/peculiar sense designating the particularity of the divinity of each of the three “persons” of the Trinity. Again, let’s respect the historical particularities of any text.

I  (Ben) wrote an article on Colossians 2.9–“You Are Filled in Him: Theosis and Colossians 2–3“–and among the topics I treat there is the ontology of this passage. As I point out there, even Dunn concedes how the terminology is relevant:

Dunn, for instance, while defending the latter option [that the dwelling is functional not ontological], concedes that θεότης “was sufficiently familiar in literary Greek to denote the nature or essence of deity, that which constitutes deity.” [Dunn, Colossians, 151]

In response to Dunn and McGrath, I make use of Hurtado’s conceptualities to argue for an ontological reading:

In one of his more recent works, Hurtado notes the informal distinction
in NT texts between discourse and practice, that is, there is a triadic shape of the God-discourse (elevated language about Father, Son, and Spirit) alongside a dyadic devotional practice (focused on the Father and Son). 24 In this taxonomy, the hymn in 1:15–20 reflects devotional practice, whereas 2:9 reflects God-discourse, since it is focused more on concepts than practice. That is, repeating but also expanding the language of 1:19, Paul is clarifying in 2:9 what he means by the fullness dwelling in Christ: it is the fullness of deity. That this fullness is not just God’s presence with Christ is shown through 1:15–20, where the cultic devotion reserved for God alone is now also given to Christ. Thus, 1:15–20 with its devotional practice and 2:9–10 with its God-discourse mutually inform one another.

As part of my conclusions, I write:

Paul’s use of θεότης invites us to consider the ontology of the assertion because the term itself relates to the divine essence. Francis Watson and others have rightly argued that in Paul’s letters that Christ’s function coheres with a divine ontology. Though addressing a later debate, the language and conceptualities of Nicaea can be of help. Importantly, one of the major topics in the Nicene debates was the issue of the coherence of act and being. That is, the orthodox confession was that Christ’s being (ontology) and act (function) cohere so that he is divine as the Father is divine. Thus, although extrabiblical concepts were employed to support the argument in the fourth century, the affirmations reflect the same judgments regarding the “unique divine identity” that Bauckham argues is in play in first-century assertions like we see in 2:9.

Of course, there is much more content and substance to my argument in the essay, but I would argue that ontology is too easily dismissed by Hurtado in this case because he wants to separate concepts and judgments. We should be sensitive to the problem of anachronism, but being too sensitive to it means that we miss the similarities.

Now that I’ve described the rationale for my in-progress book, Participating in the Righteousness of God: Justification in Pauline Theology, I’m laying out below the goals and scope of my study:

Part 1: Historical Framework
To set the stage for a reevaluation of Paul’s theology of justification, I demonstrate how historical frameworks influence contemporary biblical interpretive models. In particular, I establish how Protestant readings of justification are reactionary against Catholic theology and therefore explicitly frame justification in light of Christology and faith to the exclusion of the Holy Spirit and love. Rather than being overly influenced by post-Enlightenment anthropological conceptions, I also show the need to incorporate more a more robust pre-modern understanding of the porous self, making explicit use of Charles Taylor’s work on the buffered and the porous self.

Part II: Reading Paul
In distinction to post-Reformation readings of justification which place Christ over the Spirit and faith over love, my exegetical analyses demonstrate that Paul intertwines the Spirit and Christ in his employment of justification language in key texts—namely, Galatians 2–4; 2 Corinthians 3–5; Romans 1–8. Thus, my reading of Paul shows the coherence of this doctrine with the transformative participation of believers in the triune God. After establishing the relationship of participation and justification through close readings of specific passages, I then treat a variety of participatory topics that relate to justification—namely, suffering/cruciformity, the community (adoption, covenant), and sanctification/ethics.

Part III: Theological Framework
To conclude the monograph, I explore a participatory reading of justification through the lens of the fifth century patristic theologian Cyril of Alexandria, showing that readers not limited by the later Protestant-Catholic categories offer a similar reading as my own. With this model in mind, I then provide an essay that explores justification in light of theosis, an important and growing topic of study arising from wider ecumenical discussions.

This monograph does not attempt to answer all the opposing positions regarding the topic of justification. Rather, it provides a focused and sustained reading of Paul that demonstrates how justification serves as one primary way that he develops his doctrine of a transformative participation in the triune God.

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