Theological Interpretation in an Anti-Theological Tradition

In response to my post about the future of Churches of Christ as a theological question, a friend texted me this pithy observation: “For us theology = hermeneutics = exegesis.” To which I responded, “Tell me about it. I’m a PhD candidate in systematics writing on hermeneutics.” And that is very much the point.

For many years, my belief has been that the only way forward as Churches of Christ, on a very practical level—that of the congregation—is to lean all the way into our historical commitment to Scripture. All the way in, farther than ever before. There is, in my opinion, no other way to proceed with integrity and historical continuity. There are undoubtedly other ways forward, but in my estimation they will probably sacrifice integrity or continuity or both. I admit that as I deploy those two terms, integrity and continuity, they begin to bear considerable weight, but I don’t want to bog down just now in a technical discussion of what I mean by them. Suffice it for now to say, I’m referring to what I understand to be the two major dimensions of identity. While integrity and continuity are distinct in important ways, where they converge is also vital. In our tradition, they converge on interpreting the Bible at the congregational level. Unless we manage to address the hermeneutical problem in our heart, cardiac arrest is inevitable.

Now let me double down on my prior claim: the future of Churches of Christ is a theological question. The Bible is definitely not God, so what do I mean?

I mean that, as we order the issues we face, the first one we must address as a theological question is hermeneutics. Churches of Christ need a theological hermeneutics, just about on the order of a heart transplant. At another level, then, the question becomes: How can an anti-theological tradition develop a theological hermeneutics? 

To reiterate, Churches of Christ certainly have theological commitments and affirmations. And this is deeply important because one basic claim of those who advocate theological interpretation is that all interpretation is always already theologically committed. Further, properly Christian readings of the Bible depend on these commitments. There are many ways to read the biblical text. To read it as Scripture is to begin with critical, generative theological presuppositions. To read it as Churches of Christ is to reckon with a particular set of such commitments.

The term theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS) refers to a recent development in the interdisciplinary space between biblical studies and systematic theology. This being an academic space, it is inevitably diverse and contested, so TIS does not refer to a single, fixed set of ideas or practices. But it is a singular enough conversation to designate under one heading. To call it a school of thought might be too ambitious for some, but I think it works provisionally. TIS’s typical features include consideration of pre-modern approaches to biblical interpretation (including those in the Bible itself), the role of faith statements such as the ancient Rule of Faith and the Ecumenical Creeds in biblical hermeneutics, readers’ theological influences (tradition, contemporary thought, and so on), the formative effects of church practices such as prayer and worship on Bible readers, and the uses to which the Christian community puts interpretation. [1. For introductory reading, see Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007); Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008); Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, Cascade Companions (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009).]

But our theology in Churches of Christ is, as I’ve said, typically inarticulate—first-order, implicit, and largely incoherent (I’ve contributed to a book that proposes one approach to coherence, more on which anon). If the practices of theological interpretation, insofar as it is a hermeneutical agenda, require explicit theology, then we need to address the theological question. Otherwise we cannot answer others, first and foremost the hermeneutical one.

I should be clear on this point, so I will reiterate it. There is no way to read the Bible apart from theological commitments; they are inevitable. There is no way to read the Bible faithfully apart from faith; it is indispensable. Reading the Bible faithfully calls for a faith that seeks understanding in the most thoroughgoing sense. In other words, we are obliged to articulate the faith by which we read. The attempt to do otherwise is false path, on which Churches of Christ have nonetheless stubbornly persisted many times over.

The quintessential attempt to read without theological lenses was the heart of the American Restoration plea: to unite on a simple, honest reading of the plain meaning of the text, without creeds, theological systems, or denominational biases obscuring the obvious commands examples, and necessary inferences of the New Testament. This conceit has been thoroughly illuminated and critiqued in the last fifty years (bibliography available on request), so I won’t belabor it here. This approach has proven to be naive, mistaken, and counterproductive. Its failure is at the root of the ongoing crisis of identity that dogs Churches of Christ.

Yet, there is another manifestation of the same impulse that deserves urgent attention. It is trickier to critique, because it has been the centerpiece of a legitimate attempt to move beyond the old hermeneutic. I am talking about historical-critical exegesis. As theological education has matured among schools affiliated with Churches of Christ—for which I give continual thanks to God—our inclination to attend to the first-century church has made the dominant approach of biblical studies in the modern academy a seemingly irresistible alternative to early Stone-Campbell hermeneutics. If we care first and foremost about what the biblical texts “meant” in the first century, what better solution than to major in the historical methods that might render our conclusions rigorously defensible? And, as it happens, the same Enlightenment suspicion of theological bias that animated the early Restoration Movement has dominated modern biblical studies from its beginnings. In many ways, it was a match made—well, not in heaven, but in a powerful twist of cultural predilection. 

Moreover, I am personally quite proud of this vibrant, albeit recent heritage. My years at Harding University and Harding School of Theology were marked by a voracious thirst for and delight in biblical studies in this mode. I am indebted to teachers who taught and exemplified the highest standards of historical-critical exegesis. My library is full of books that shed light on the biblical text with the very methods I am discussing. Generally speaking, I have no desire to approach the Bible without the tools that historical-critical methods frequently employ. From the lexical and semantic complexities of the original-language documents that underlie our biblical translations to the socio-cultural issues that frame them, the biblical text demands critical examination.

As I watched the church of my youth begin to free itself of patternistic and sectarian uses of Scripture, the alternative at the congregational level seemed to be something between saccharine popular spirituality (it’s all about “love” and “grace”—the scare quotes are doing real work here) and postmodern subjectivism (“what it means to me”), both of which made me feel a bit nauseous. I found solace in the rigor of biblical studies. I felt completely at home with the claim that historical-critical exegesis would anchor us in authorial intent and original meaning. I was happy that the methods of biblical studies would allow us to warrant arguments about the historical boundaries of meaning. Frankly, I still am. Sort of.

The big, hairy problem is that exegesis is not theology. Technically, it does not even amount to hermeneutics (i.e., the full-blown theory of how how readers make meaning of texts). The attempt to figure out what a text meant historically and then, in a second step, apply that meaning is ultimately another iteration of the approach taken by plucking commands, examples, and inferences from the Bible. That is why it is so appealing to Restorationists. And that is why it is, at its very best, inadequate.

Certainly, historical-critical exegesis is more sophisticated than the old approach. It is more scholarly, more demanding, more careful. These are positive attributes. Incidentally, they are also why much of the tradition has kept good exegetical practice at arm’s-length. Our native populism and suspicion of academic convolution has contributed to a major division between the ways that ministers have been trained to interpret the Bible in academic programs and the ways that interpretive discussions proceed in local churches. This is one problem, and it is not minor. But it is only a symptom of our essential dilemma.

Our essential dilemma is shared by many other traditions: the widespread rift between church and academy has left the methods of biblical scholarship bereft of the theological riches (confessional, liturgical, intellectual, and practical) of the church’s faith. This comes to expression in the disciplinary siloing of systematic theology and biblical studies in the theological academy. That is a problem for another discussion, and I mention it only to amplify the point that even in our best programs, there is an institutionalized internal rift between theological reflection and biblical exegesis. (Incidentally, this is why generalist programs of study like the Masters of Divinity are so important for ministerial training. We may often fail at facilitating integration, but at least we expose students to everything at once.)

In the end, exegesis just is theological. Our pretensions of objectivity, our desire to “begin” with the Bible, are powerless to prevent the influence of theological assumptions. That fact, however, does not overcome the deep-rooted tendency to leave “theology” as a second, often optional step. This means that the theology doing de facto work in our interpretive practices is both obscured and anemic. Stated more starkly, bad theology does interpretive work where good theology is absent. The future of Churches of Christ is a theological question because we need theology in order to lean all the way into our historical commitment to Scripture. We need theological interpretation of Scripture.

The hopeful news is that, in the midst of decline, there are signs of life. For example, Brad East, an associate professor at Abilene Christian University, has written “The Hermeneutics of Theological Interpretation: Holy Scripture, Biblical Scholarship and Historical Criticism: Hermeneutics of Theological Interpretation,” (International Journal of Systematic Theology 19, no. 1 [January 2017]: 30–52.), in addition to compiling and editing a volume of essays by Robert W. Jenson (The Triune Story: Collected Essays on Scripture [New York: Oxford, 2019]), one of the forerunners of TIS. Keith Stanglin, Professor of Scripture and Historical Theology Austin Graduate School of Theology, recently published The Letter and the Spirit of Biblical Interpretation: From the Early Church to Modern Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018). For the last two years, the annual Christian Scholars Conference has featured sessions on theological interpretation titled “Sola Scriptura and Prima Scriptura: The Tension and Cohesion of Scripture and Community,” featuring scholars from a variety of Churches of Christ schools. And John Mark Hicks’s volume Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible (n.p.: John Mark Hicks, 2019) is something of a primer in theological interpretation for Churches of Christ. Hicks’s book is especially important because of its accessibility and contextualization in the tradition. The rift between church and academy means that there is no telling whether the influence of most of the work I’ve mentioned (and undoubtedly there are others that merit attention) will make a timely contribution to the urgent state of affairs among Churches of Christ. But I am hopeful that they represent the leading edge of the theological renewal that our hermeneutics badly needs.

What will this look like on the local level? What does taking the theological question seriously mean for congregations? How can a tradition formed around the suspicion of theology make the transition? In my view, that is the ten-million dollar question. I doubt anyone knows the answer. I do see, however, a handful of key issues.

Media. First, we have to reckon with the loss of the media through which theological leadership once brought relative cohesion to Churches of Christ. For more than a century, periodicals played this role, marked through the years by increasingly evident regional predilections. As periodicals declined in influence, university lectureships rose in prominence, their reach and accessibility being even more limited. By the end of the twentieth century, lectureships (and their evangelistic counterpart, gospel meetings) had also proven impotent in the face of the tradition’s powerful sense of local autonomy. The universities themselves, particularly the publications of their Bible faculties and their influence on graduates, have been especially formative on a national scale in the last fifty years, but fragmentation has continued to accelerate. New media is too new to evaluate in retrospect, but I see no evidence that blogs and the like have filled the void. To the contrary, they play into the hyper-personalization and pluralization of perspectives that characterize the market of ideas in 2020. In some respects, this is the realization of a restorationist ideal, namely, the radical democratization of theological discourse. These days, the threat of clerical elitism has been totally overcome by a meritocracy of ideas (or, at least, one could wish that good ideas were the currency in circulation). The letter to the editor has become 280 characters of unmediated assertion. Subscriptions have become the echo chambers of social media algorithms. In some ways, there is nothing new under the sun. In others, we’re off the map, and here there be monsters. The point being, we have to figure out how theological leadership works through twenty-first century media.

Discursive practices. Second, our basic ability to have conversations, even on the local level, is in question. On the one hand, this is a matter of appetite. It is not clear that there is a hunger among most Christians for the kinds of conversations that would foster a robust theological imagination. Perhaps this is a result of training our desire almost exclusively toward the sort of packaged theology that sermons so often deliver. Theology is an endeavor usually relegated to the responsibility of a few who are expected to do the work of reflection individually and, in turn, present their ideas in easily digestible bites. This is evidently related to the cultural trend toward the presentation of smaller and smaller bits of information in the most entertaining or provocative way possible. I do not imagine that our history offers an ideal alternative. Discourse in the Restoration Movement was polemical from the beginning, and the entertainment value of such rhetoric should not be underestimated historically. Public debate has always been a powerful format for quite human reasons. But the demise of such media, arguably for virtuous reasons, did not give rise to alternative forms of attention-sustaining discourse. To the contrary, I see little evidence that Christians are willing to attend to each other long and carefully enough to do theological work together. The emergence of long-form podcasts and conversations in other “alternative” media are a hopeful sign in the wider culture, though it hardly represents a major movement so far. In any case, the question is how to generate a greater appetite for substantial theological reflection among congregations habituated to brevity, simplicity, and delegated responsibility.

C. Christopher Smith of The Englewood Review of Books has been doing important work on this issue for years. His books Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (2016), How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (2019) are key resources [2. It is noteworthy that this work grows out of a Restorationist heritage. See the story of Englewood Christian Church here:]. Books like David Fitch’s The Church of Us vs. Them: Freedom from a Faith That Feeds on Making Enemies (2019) or, in a sociological vein, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) are also relevant here. 

On the other hand, our ability to have conversations is a matter of spiritual formation. This claim aims at two problems. One is the tribalism that runs rampant in the rest of the culture. We are, again, habituated to picking sides and deploying un-nuanced, totalizing rhetoric against one another. Social media is not the scapegoat—indeed, it is more likely that the way we interact in comments and tweets reveals something about who we already are than that we are simply victims of a format. But it is a chicken-egg problem, because practice makes vicious. The openness, humility, and repentance that real dialogue demands is, for Christians, a spiritual matter. The other problem, then, is the widespread failure to make spiritual disciplines and the fruit of the Spirit the indispensable accompaniments of congregational dialogue aimed at meaningful new understanding. I believe this failure is compounded by the history of divisiveness that makes many in Churches of Christ feel that conflict as such is sinful. Rather than leaning into loving, prayerful, generative disagreement, many congregations employ strategies of avoidance that ultimately cripple their theological development. I have great sympathy for leaders who feel this is the only faithful option. The damage we have done to one another is nothing to shrug at. It is, nonetheless, deeply harmful in another way to imagine that either dividing the church or avoiding difficult conversations are the only alternatives. The question here is how to marry spiritual formation and theological discourse programmatically and inextricably in local church practice.

Identity formation. Third, our tradition wants for theological identity in a basic sense. This is, of course, a function of the theological anemia discussed in the previous post. But the identity issue puts us on a specific approach to the problem of theological interpretation of Scripture. It highlights who we are as interpreters—who the “we” is that comes to the text together in congregational interpretation. This is a difficult question to answer from our present moment in history. The book I’ve coauthored with Mark Powell and John Mark Hicks, Discipleship in Community: A Theological Vision for the Future, is aimed at this problem.

The chapter on Scripture addresses my present concern most directly, but it relies on the whole argument of the book, which is that a particular set of theological commitments has characterized and should characterize the theological vision of Churches of Christ. These commitments—Trinity (!), eschatology, Scripture, church, sacraments, and mission—cohere around the central concept and practice of discipleship. Our prayer is that the book serve the many churches in our tradition struggling, consciously or unconsciously, with the question of our identity. In particular, I hope it catalyzes a discussion of the theological identity that must come to shape our communal interpretation of Scripture if we are to move vibrantly into the twenty-first century. Because the question of whether Churches of Christ will outgrow our half-century-long identity crisis is an existential one.

Interpretive practices. Fourth and finally, there is a great deal of work to be done in creating resources that would make TIS understandable and practicable on the local level. I hope to see and perhaps to contribute in coming years to books, websites, or podcasts along the lines of “theological interpretation for everyone” (hats off to the “For Everyone” series of commentaries by John Goldingay and N. T. Wright). In this conversation, such resources are the main bridge that urgently needs to be built across the divide between church and academy. I have in mind especially traditions like Churches of Christ that value (ostensibly) inclusive congregational interpretation, whose strong populism renders reliance on well-trained church leaders less determinative in shaping interpretive habits and sensibilities. For such as these, the fact that TIS literature remains almost entirely academic and high-flown or, at best, written on a level most readily digestible for an MDiv is a major barrier. I wonder, can we make the discussion and practices of TIS as widespread and accessible as those of CEI (command, example, inference) were in the early Restoration Movement? 

On Discovery Bible Study: A Conversation with John King

This video records a long-form conversation in which John King tells his story as the lead developer of the Discovery Bible Study method (see additional resources below), and I air some of my doubts and concerns about DBS, especially in view of hermeneutical issues that face our shared tradition as members of Churches of Christ.

I believe that most worthwhile conversations need time to unfold—time far in excess of what the popular narrative about our short attention spans and hyper-busy schedules would allow. So I am delighted that John gave me two and a half hours of his time to tell the story in detail and dialogue about important issues.

Still, neither of us has an especially brisk style of speech, so make good use of the playback speed controls!

Additional Resources:

John King

DBS (Just complete the form to get access to a variety of free resources from John’s organization)

The Future of Churches of Christ

The future of Churches of Christ is a theological question, full stop.

I’m struck anew by how unconventional, even peculiar, this claim is for the tradition. And that is why it is necessary to assert unequivocally that what happens next will be a response to our vision and experience of who God is. It will be nothing else.

Our preoccupation should not be how to stem the flow of membership bleeding away or how to plant enough churches to offset the loss. Our attention should not be set on preserving a historical identity or discovering a new one. Our commitment should not be to the right practices—of interpretation, discipleship, unity, community, or justice. Our interest should not be surviving or thriving or any other version of being.

Before the even-handed purveyor of nuance pipes up: Yes, these are good and important, some more so, some less. No, these are not mutually exclusive with whatever else I will say. Yes, the dichotomy of theology and practice is false. No, we cannot answer the theological question without mission or identity or commitments. Yes, there is room for more than one idea of how to move forward. No, God save us, there is not a final answer. Also, knock it off. I’m talking about the one thing here. Everything else flows from it. Nothing else means anything apart from it. Call it the heart, the womb, the center, the essential truth, the sine qua non, the yes that we must speak before and after all other words—call it what you like. (Well, don’t call it the foundation. For everyone’s sake, let’s just let that one rest a while.)

I am not interested in answering the question here. I do not offer overtures toward an answer. The constructive work is for other times and places.

Instead, I am voicing my perplexity, my incredulity, at the fact that in the midst of our scramble to reckon with the epochal shift that is sifting Churches of Christ (among others) in the US like wheat, I hear our leaders attempting to answer every question except the one by which we live or die: Who is the God we love and serve? This is a confessional question, but more, it is a theological question. It is the theological question.

My belief is that our tradition is so colossally failing to give an answer in our time because, fundamentally, we presume the answer is already given. We presume it is enough to say, “The God of the Bible” or “The God revealed in Jesus” or “The God we worship and pray to and preach about every Sunday.” Simplicity and superficiality are our bane. We presume the other questions are the ones that really need answers. This presumption is a deadly delusion. It is literally killing us.

Churches of Christ are effectively a-theological, historically as a matter of description and presently as a matter of inheritance. We are predisposed to ignore the force of the theological question. We share no coherent vision or experience of God. Our response to God is broadly, typically, inarticulate.

This became clear to me in a new way as I studied and interacted with colleagues of diverse backgrounds in my PhD program at Fuller Theological Seminary. As I participated in theological discussions, my friends would analyze, critique, and make proposals by employing an interconnected set of established theological assumptions. This not only served the coherence of their work but helped others understand what they were up to. In the same way that a theological publication is usually best understood with reference to the author’s tradition and commitments, another student’s theological heritage was a key reference point for understanding her argument. By contrast, I frequently found myself explaining that my church tradition doesn’t have a specific or well-defined understanding of a particular issue. Perhaps a tendency, a position from Campbell or Milligan or Lipscomb or Whiteside, or a common sermonic refrain, but nothing systematic, nothing definitive, especially for twentieth-century Churches of Christ. For example, in my course on the atonement, it was obvious that my background offered only a sketchy point of departure. What one says about atonement is constrained and compelled by other doctrines, such as Christology, anthropology, and eschatology. Ultimately, the interrelatedness of these topics is what constitutes a coherent theological tradition. The minimalism of doctrine among Churches of Christ, which often retreats to the repetition of biblical phrases, erodes such coherence. There are positive aspects of this minimalism, no doubt. I have a greater degree of freedom to appropriate diverse theological perspectives and to undertake more radical systematic revisions than I observed in many of my colleagues with more robust traditions. For example, it was not controversial among my cohort at Harding School of Theology to appreciate the New Perspective on Paul where it challenges substitutionary atonement, Open Theism where it challenges divine omniscience, Moltmann’s theology of the cross where it challenges divine impassibility, or Brueggemann’s biblical theology where it challenges the unity of Scriptural witness. Any of these might have been difficult to understand or unacceptable in the end for a particular student, but none of them was irreconcilable with the theological tradition, because the tradition is so tenuous in the first place. This freedom is rooted in what my teacher John Mark Hicks has called our “wild democracy,” which I cherish [1. See John Mark Hicks, “I Stayed for the Wild Democracy,” in Why We Stayed: Honesty and Hope in Churches of Christ, ed. Benjamin W. Williams (Los Angeles: Keledei, 2018), 103–20.]. It need not, however, lead to the kind of inarticulacy that cripples us presently.

The theological question demands that we articulate not only what we answer but how and why and what it means for everything else.

No doubt, the guardians of fairness and balance will cry “generalization,” even “overstatement.” To these devastating insights I say, of course our congregational life entails properly theological responses. Top to bottom, first-order theology is at work in the tradition. Our practices just are affirmations and confessions. Unequivocally, however, they are incoherent. They are not ours. They are not the entailments of a shared search for understanding. And, most fatally, they are demonstrably failing to determine our answers to the other questions that so absorb us.

Because I am especially interested in a missional theology, one example that merits attention is the argument of another of my teachers, Stan Granberg. No one is taking the rapid decline of Churches of Christ more seriously, and his research is extremely important. Wineskins, which has recently given the situation appropriate attention, featured an abbreviated version of his substantial article published in Great Commission Research Journal [2. See Stanley E. Granberg, “Three Bold Challenges,” Wineskins 22, no. 7 (2019):; Stanley E. Granberg, “A Case Study of Growth and Decline: The Churches of Christ, 2006-2016,” Great Commission Research Journal 10, no. 1 (2018): 88–111.]. Urging that planting new churches is the solution to what ails us, Granberg quotes Timothy Keller: “The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for (1) the numerical growth of the body of Christ in a city and (2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city.” The word “crucial” caught my attention. It comes from the Latin word crux, used originally in the phrase instantia crucis (“instance of the cross” or “crucial situation”). Let me avoid a few misunderstandings. One, I am not making an etymological argument. Two, I am not quibbling about word choice. Three, I am not casting aspersions on Granberg’s theology. Rather, because of the seriousness and merit of his argument, I want to reckon with what it represents: a propensity to reach for practical, strategic solutions that underplay the theological dimensions of the question before us. What does the cross teach us about the way forward? What is truly crucial? What does cruciformity look like as churches close at a rate that can only be called fatal? I’m an advocate of “church planting”; I’ve done some myself. But are we really suffering decline because we’re not planting enough new churches? Is the solution really to reallocate money and plant new churches? Or might it be that the problem and the most important answer has more to do with how existing churches—and, inevitably, any that arise from the same anemic theological tradition—live (and die) in relation to God?

Our theological status quo is anathema. The work of theology is imperative. There is a hopeful future for Churches of Christ that way. But if we refuse to speak of God first, if we keep acting as though we can organize, strategize, and financially manage our way forward, our future is hopeless and pointless. If we keep pretending that old answers and good intentions are enough, the tradition is dead already.

I remain hopeful, because the cross is a sign of hope. It is the power of God for renewal and restoration. We must, in faith, persist in the search for an understanding of the God found there. We must speak and act according to its logic. This is the work of theology to which we are presently called.

My First Semester of University Teaching

My first semester of teaching in the hallowed halls of academe is in the rearview, and I’ve caught my breath enough to begin reflecting. It has been a learning experience for all of us!

As an adjunct professor at Lipscomb University, I taught three courses in the Fall 2019 term—almost a full load for full-time faculty and definitely a full load for an inexperienced professor. Two of those courses were online, so I was figuring out both how to lecture in person and how to facilitate a meaningful online experience. I have no illusions about how much I have to learn in order to become as good as my best teachers were. I have some hope, however, that I did a bit better than my worst teachers! In any case, here’s some of what I’ve begun grappling with in the university environment of our brave (still) new century.

I want to teach! One of the questions that my program at Fuller wisely puts to its PhD students is what they want to do with their degree. Unfortunately, once they have their degree, no few graduates find out that their heart is not really in teaching. Teacher-assistant work and the like is useful for confronting vocational questions early, but the only way to really know whether you want to spend your life in a classroom (and in front of a computer screen!), grading papers and tests, and dealing with student problems is to dive in. After working with college interns in the mission field, I was fairly sure about my direction. This semester has certainly tested my idealism about undergraduate education, but if anything I’m more passionate about teaching my students—or maybe figuring out how to teach my students—than ever. I’m still writing my dissertation, still in the thick of research and writing, and I’m confident that I enjoy that work more than many of my peers. I don’t imagine that I’ll ever stop loving the quest to understand better and articulate more. But I want to teach.

I love the university. My idealism underwent a reality check, but I’m still in love with the ideals of higher education. I do not buy the prominent narrative that every high school graduate should be on a college track, and I believe in the importance of other kinds of vocational training. Still, higher education is a profound good, and its proliferation is one of the great achievements of modernity. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that one of the reasons for contemporary Western social malaise is the failure of the academy to deliver on its promises. Those promises are, nonetheless, the right ones to make. Our culture is overwhelmed by ignorance despite the claim that the problem is too much information, by falsehood despite the fact that we have more widespread access to verifiable data than ever before, and by anti-intellectualism despite (or because of?) the fact that there are more bona fide intellectuals on the planet than ever before. The university is under existential threat for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the unfettered commodification of educational credentials, but I still find great hope in a class full of twenty-somethings who, even at obscene expense, have opted into a years-long process that is ostensibly about learning how to think broadly and deeply.

The university is in massive transition. The situation is complex, but in large part because of the commodification of degree-holding, the American university is undergoing radical upheaval on a cultural level.

On the one hand, it has become a buyer’s market. The typical university’s financial need to recruit and retain paying students weighs against rigorous standards for both acceptance and performance. Anecdotally, this is evident in the unwillingness and/or inability of students to read as much as was once the norm.[1. See the common complaint in, e.g., David Gooblar, “They Haven’t Done the Reading. Again,” Chronicle Vitae, September 24, 2014,; Keith M. Parsons, “When Students Won’t Read,” HuffPost, March 9, 2015,; John Warner, “When Students Won’t Do the Reading,” Inside Higher Ed, January 18, 2016,; Charlie Wesley, “Do You Assign Enough Reading? Or Too Much?,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 13, 2016,; Angela Jenks, “Why Don’t Students Read?” Teaching Tools, Fieldsights, August 19, 2016,] In conversations with professors at multiple institutions, I’ve heard the same refrain about “heavy” (meaning, more than minimal) reading loads: students simply will not do them. That notion continues to boggle my mind. Certainly, it should mean that they will not complete reading requirements if they are willing to make a grade that reflects the failure. On the contrary, however, the assumption seems to be that reading requirements should be adjusted to the level that students are willing to complete. Further, professors who assign “too much” reading earn reputations that affect enrollment in their classes. (That is a big problem for professors without tenure!) How can this be? What happened to the university student ensconced in the library, tackling a stack of books, exploring textual horizons unknown—becoming, in a word, a well-read person? The answer: that vision belongs to a seller’s market, a time when what the university offered was the privilege of being rigorously vetted as an educated person, and professors spake “go and read” with authority. Of course, that image was never more than a romantic fancy, but it was shared broadly in the culture nonetheless, and it fired the imaginations of generations of students. As far as I can tell, it does so no longer.

Because, on the other hand, many students are simply trying to get done as quickly as possible. Given how much students are paying for education, how much debt encumbers their early adulthood, and how quickly they need to move on to gainful employment, many are more interested in getting a degree than an education—and in this regard, I pass no judgment. Still, I lament the implications. The trajectory of online education is bound to this reality. And the online learning experience, which every career professor I’ve spoken with regarding online modalities discusses with resignation or disgust, so appeals to students because they are far more interested in getting the work done in the most efficient way possible. I do not say that students are generally ignorant of the educational advantages that in-the-flesh courses afford but that many are more motivated by the utility of online courses for checking boxes and jumping through hoops on the way to a career that pays bills. This new reality will only solidify in coming decades, so the work before us must be to align online modalities with the very best of the Western tradition of higher education. I resolve not to complain but to face this work soberly and hopefully, even if nostalgia has a role to play.

Giving bad grades is uncomfortable. My wife, my children, and my close friends might be surprised to hear that I don’t enjoy giving unvarnished critical feedback, but the truth is that, for me, that process depends absolutely on a relational context that is impossible to establish with students in the span of a semester, especially in an online forum. I’m confident that my students would not accuse me of being an easy grader, but grading was not easy. Despite my belief in the importance of critique for growth in any aspect of life and the veritable sanctity of truth in educational assessment, I found it difficult to tell students they had underperformed. I found myself scrutinizing my grading as I entered final grades, asking myself what the low grades really represented. The most important help in this regard is the students who did well in every respect. In the end, I gave a lot of well-earned As. Still, all sorts of questions about systemic disadvantages and particular circumstances inevitably arise. Those other grades made me wonder whether I did everything possible to help students succeed. I doubt that question will go away soon.

Communication is the name of the game. Most of my mistakes this first semester were about communication—not of content but of expectations, of how to succeed, and of what matters most. Of course, communication is a two-way street, but for my part, I learned a lot about how students experience the syllabus and how they hear instructions.

It’s about process more than content. Similarly, it is evident that most undergraduates are still learning how to learn. Perhaps it is strange for someone like me, who feels the reduction of reading standards so keenly, to admit that content is not king. And perhaps, if I’m totally transparent, I actually mean that it’s about process as much as content. My unavoidable conclusion, however, is that the more pressing issue at this level is capacity for content, so it matters little that the reading is carefully curated, the lectures are substantive, and the material is important if students cannot really process it at the pace that a course demands.

There is nothing better than watching students get it. It is the joy of teaching. The light comes on, and there is no way a student will ever see the world the same way again. A piece of the puzzle falls into place, and the picture gets a little easier to glimpse. A pathway into new territory opens up, and the possibilities demand deeper study. An old paradigm breaks, and the need to replace it becomes urgent. Assumptions come into view. Information obtains meaning. Interpretation becomes conscious and then skillful. This is why I love education.


Mission Journal Archive

Mission, a journal associated with Churches of Christ that was published from 1967 to 1988, has been fully digitized by Mac Ice and the team at Abilene Christian University Special Collections.

I wrote about Mission a couple of years ago when the project began, and Missio Dei published a few other articles about the journal at that time:

As the archive page indicates, I also interviewed some key figures in Mission‘s history in order to glean insights about its development, and Missio Dei Foundation published Bob Turner’s Mission: An Oral History.

In terms of both its representation of a transitional era and its persistent timeliness, the historical significance of Mission for Churches of Christ theology is difficult to overstate. Tolle lege!

The Move, the Diss., the Book

I’ve been pretty well off the radar for a while—not that anyone would accuse me of being a regular blogger. Reason #1 is our recent move to Murfreesboro, TN. Later this month I begin teaching as an adjunct professor in Lipscomb University’s College of Bible and Ministry.

To say I’m excited would be an understatement. I’ll be teaching two online courses and one on-campus course for the Fall semester: the Story of Israel, Biblical Ethics, and a third TBD course.

Let me address the obvious: it’s a little crazy to move across the country for an adjunct faculty position. (In academia, adjunct means part-time, paid per class.) It was time to get away from the cost of living in Pasadena, however, and, after almost seven years in Peru and another four in California, it was time to be closer to family. We landed in Murfreesboro because rent is more affordable here than in Nashville, and it’s exactly half way between LU and “the farm” (what we call my in-laws’ place, because it’s an angus beef farm…). The added bonus is that I’m able to do on-campus courses and get more involved in the school.

All the while, the dissertation writing continues. I’ve completed a draft of one chapter and part of two more. My outline is seven chapters plus the intro. and conclusion, but my mentors were pretty sure it would get reduced in the end. It turns out, not only do I outline long, I also draft long. So the whole process will be one of writing and reducing. Fuller’s dissertation guidelines stipulate a maximum of 100,000 words. Let’s just say I won’t have trouble maxing out.

Perhaps you’re wondering what my dissertation topic is. Here’s the working title: The Hermeneutics of Participation: Missional Interpretation of Scripture and Readerly Formation. That doesn’t mean much by itself, of course, but, apart from my mentors, everyone who has read my thesis statement seems to go cross-eyed and change the subject, so I’ll (try to) avoid jargon. Here’s the gist:

There is an interdisciplinary project among biblical scholars and theologians known as Theological Interpretation of Scripture. It advocates an approach to reading the Bible that sees the church’s theological commitments as making a positive, even essential, contribution to the interpretive process.

This is, in large part, an alternative to the viewpoint that has been dominant in modernity, even in seminaries and schools of theology, which assumes that theological commitments (traditions, doctrines, etc.) function only as biases, prejudices, agendas, and so forth that corrupt the interpretation of what the biblical text “really meant” historically.

In contrast, Theological Interpretation of Scripture assumes, like other critical perspectives, that commitments allow us to see what we cannot in their absence. An important dimension of this discussion is about how theological commitments function to give us “eyes to see” Scripture, and one of the key claims is that our commitments are lived out in practices that shape us as readers. In the church, some core practices are quite obvious: prayer, worship, communion, liturgy, and fellowship. The idea is that participation in these practices shapes us into better readers, readers more capable of interpreting faithfully, wisely, spiritually, and so on.

In some ways, this seems obvious, especially from the church’s standpoint. For example, we normally expect prayerful, worshipful, mature church leaders to be wiser interpreters of Scripture. At the same time, it is also easy to see how such a perspective could be labeled “biased.” For example, we expect readers who come to the Bible from a tradition often to find confirmation of their traditional conclusions and to be resistant to nontraditional interpretations. Postmodernity has occasioned new ways of thinking about these dynamics, however, and Theological Interpretation is part of that shift.

In any case, what the Theological Interpretation of Scripture literature largely lacks is an understanding of mission as one of the church’s essential formative practices. For the same reason that missional church literature has needed to make the argument that the whole church is called to participate in God’s mission—namely, the virtually universal assumption that mission is not the whole church’s calling—the advocates of Theological Interpretation regularly overlook mission. My argument starts from the assumption that “participation in God’s mission” represents a normal and normative set of church commitments and practices and should, therefore, be understood as an indispensable dimension of the church’s interpretive formation. The argument I’m writing is limited to a theological explanation of why it is the case that participation in God’s mission is vitally formative for readers of Scripture.

In other news, the book I’ve been co-authoring for a number of years with my former professors Mark Powell and John Mark Hicks has finally gone to the publisher. Its title is Discipleship in Community: A Theological Vision for Churches of Christ. I’m not sure exactly when, but it is slated for a 2020 release. It’s written for a wide audience, and it includes some insightful response chapters. I’m eager to see what sort of conversation it sparks and, above all, whether it proves helpful to congregations grappling with the what it means to be a part of the Churches of Christ stream of the Restoration tradition going forward.

In Memoriam Don Haymes

Because truth is hard to come by.

I didn’t know Don, but he was a legendary provocateur among my tribe and therefore a hero to me. Here’s to more sheep in wolves’ clothing.

Below are his portrait of one moment in the history of Churches of Christ and an article titled “The Silence of the Scholars” that is quintessentially Don.

The Church of Christ Establishment

The Easter Sermon of John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom (d. AD 407), Archbishop of Constantinople, is widely acknowledged as one of the church’s greatest preachers.[1. See,,] Among Eastern Orthodox churches and various other Christian traditions, this sermon is traditionally read on Easter morning.[2. This translation is from the Fordham University Internet Medieval Source Book. See also Orthodox, Anglican, Reformed, and Wesleyan-Holiness usages.]

Is there anyone who is a devout lover of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Is there anyone who is a grateful servant?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting? 
Let them now receive their wages!
If any have toiled from the first hour, 
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour, 
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour, 
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour, 
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour, 
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, 
as well as to him that toiled from the first.
To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord! 
First and last alike receive your reward; 
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, 
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty, 
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; 
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God. 
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!


Irenaeus, On the Apostolic Preaching 33–34

For Good Friday

[From St. Irenaeus of Lyons, On the Apostolic Preaching, Popular Patristics Series 17, trans. John Behr (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997).]

And the transgression which occurred through the tree was undone by the obedience of the tree—which [was shown when] the Son of Man, obeying God, was nailed to the tree, destroying the knowledge of evil, and introducing and providing the knowledge of good: and evil is to disobey God, just as to obey God is good. And this is why the Word says by the prophet Isaias, foretelling the thing<s> that would come to pass—for this reason were they prophets: because they related things to come—so, in this way the Word says by him that, “I am not disobedient and do not contradict; I placed my back to the scourging, and <my> cheeks to the blows, and my face I did not turn from the shame of [the] spittle.” So, by means of the obedience by which He obeyed unto death, hanging upon the tree, He undid the old disobedience occasioned by the tree.

And since He is the Word of God Almighty, who invisibly pervades <…> the whole creation, and encompasses (συνέχω) its length, breadth, height and depth—for by the Word of God everything is administered—so too was the Son of God crucified in these [fourfold dimensions], having been imprinted in the form of the cross in everything; for it <was> necessary for Him, becoming visible, to make manifest His <form of the cross> <in> everything, that He might demonstrate, by His visible form [on the cross], His activity which is on the <in>visible [level], for it is He who illumines the ‘heights’, that is, the things in heaven, and holds the ‘deeps’, which is beneath the earth, and stretches the ‘length’ from the East to the West, and who navigates the ‘breadth’ <of> the northern and southern regions, inviting the dispersed from all sides to the knowledge of the Father.

Athanasius, On the Incarnation 24

For Thursday of Holy Week

[From Athanasius the Great of Alexandria, On the Incarnation, Greek Original and English Translation, Popular Patristics Series 44a, trans. John Behr (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011.]

. . . The Life of all, our Lord and Savior Christ, did not contrive death for his own body, lest he should appear fearful of some other death, but he accepted and endured on the cross that inflicted by others, especially by enemies, which they reckoned fearful and ignominious and shameful, in order that this being destroyed, he might himself be believed to be Life, and the power of death might be completely annihilated. So Something wonderful and marvelous happened: that ignominious death which they thought to inflict, this was the trophy of his victory over death. . . .