Category Archives: Academia

Open Letter to New Testament Students

This is a repost of something I wrote a couple years ago. With a new academic year upon us, it seemed holy and righteous and good to trot it out again. If you’re taking a Bible class in college or seminary, this is for you

Dear NT Intro students,

Our quarter will be kicking off in a couple of weeks. I love the process of digging into the New Testament texts with students–you bring a passionate commitment to living out the Jesus story that is too often missing in the halls of the academy. You remind me why we study the Bible in the first place.

But there’s something you should know. Bible classes are often the hardest classes for seminary students. And I don’t mean that they’re the hardest academically. I mean that they’re often the hardest on students’ faith.

You’re coming to study a book that you love. You’re coming to delve into a book whose various verses and chapters have spoken directly to your heart–and transformed you. You’re coming to build on what you know and to enrich what you’ve already discovered.

But if I am doing my job, you are probably going to undergo a slow process of discovering that what you thought was a book is, in fact, a bunch of books; you’re going to find out that what you know is often incorrect; and what has spoken to you has been edifying, but that text may not ever be able to speak with that same voice again.

Bible professors are not the only ones whose classes hope to leave you with transformed knowledge. But rarely do you have as much invested in the assumptions that the professor is trying to deconstruct.

People lose their faith in Biblical studies courses, and grad school in particular, because they discover the pervasive extent to which the NT was written by humans and speaks differently from what they anticipated.

This can all sound terribly bleak. But I want you to enter the class with your eyes open.

And more than that, I am going to make you a promise.

Here is what I promise to do for you: I promise to leave you with a Jesus who is worth following, a Christian vocation that’s worth risking your life on, and a Bible that will guide you toward both.

In other words, I promise that I will not leave you empty-handed; I promise that my goal is to strengthen you as a faithful follower of Christ. I have not come to steal, kill, and destroy, but to help you better see the One who is the way of life, and how scripture is a witness to him.

So for my part, I promise to leave you with a faith worth believing.

For your part, I ask that you come to learn. Here, more than anywhere else, if you have come to have your prior understandings validated through high academic marks, you are likely to experience frustration. Hold loosely to what you’ve brought through the door, and learn what is coming from your reading, from our discussions, and from the lectures.

Learn what is really on offer, resist jumping to conclusions, press to find out how it all holds together. I promise that I am striving to be a faithful teacher, I need you to enter in with the goal of being a faithful learner.

At the end of the quarter, we will likely disagree about a few things. Or maybe we’ll disagree about almost everything. That’s fine. I won’t down-grade you for that. But I need to know that you’ve learned. And, I hope that in the process you have seen more clearly a Jesus who is worth following. I believe with all my heart that this is what I’m helping you discover.

So if you feel like things are falling apart or spinning out of control, let’s talk. That’s not the direction this should go, but it’s always part of the danger of discovering that the Bible isn’t what we thought it was–or that Jesus isn’t who we thought he was. But the fresh acts of faith that such discoveries engender can themselves be the stuff of newness of life.

I look forward to learning with you in the weeks ahead.


Funded New Testament / Christian Origins Ph.D.

For aspiring doctoral students: here is a recent announcement about a funded Ph.D. program in New Testament and Early Christianity.

The Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki invites applicants for a doctoral student position in the field of New Testament / Early Christian Studies for a period of 3-4 years, beginning on January 1, 2014 at the latest. The appointed doctoral student will be situated at the Faculty of Theology and will enter into an employment relationship with the University of Helsinki.

The dissertation project will be carried out as part of the collective research project “Ritual and the Emergence of Early Christian Religion: A Socio-Cognitive Analysis,” funded by the Academy of Finland and directed by Risto Uro. The doctoral student will be part of this interdisciplinary team and the project’s working language is English. For more information on the project’s aims and scope, visit the project’s website Univ of Helsinki

The University of Helsinki is among the leading multidisciplinary research universities in the world. The mission of the Faculty of Theology is to conduct research in religion and its various manifestations, provide teaching based on this research and participate in societal discourse on both a national and international scale. The Faculty has received excellent marks in international research evaluations. The faculty hosts two Centres of Excellence in Research (2014-2019) funded by the Academy of Finland.

Interested candidates are asked to acquaint themselves with the complete job announcement and application process guidelines at The deadline for applications is October 1, 2013.

Fuller’s New President: Mark Labberton

The Press Release:

Fuller Seminary Announces Mark Labberton as Its New President
The Fuller Theological Seminary Board of Trustees has announced that Dr. Mark Labberton has accepted the call to serve as the seminary’s fifth president, beginning July 1, 2013. Labberton has served at Fuller Seminary since 2009 as the Lloyd John Ogilvie Associate Professor of Preaching, and director of the Lloyd John Ogilvie Institute of Preaching.

Mark Labberton: Fuller's Next President
Mark Labberton: Fuller’s Next President

Labberton’s unanimous election by the trustees followed a 10-month search and review of 250 nominations. Board Chair, Dr. Clifford L. Penner announced, “Along with my fellow trustees, I am delighted to welcome Mark Labberton to the presidency of Fuller Seminary. We are excited and inspired by the outstanding qualities and accomplishments he brings to this position. He is a scholar and academic leader, pastor for more than 25 years, accomplished author, and leading voice in many international ministries. Mark brings strong spiritual leadership, a wide range of experiences and the vision to guide Fuller into a new era of global leadership in seminary education. As a Fuller alumnus (M.Div.) and professor, he fully comprehends Fuller’s rich and diverse legacy.”

“Fuller has influenced my life and ministry in so many ways,” said Labberton. “I am honored to have this opportunity to work with faculty, students, staff, alumni, and our Board to further Fuller’s leadership in seminary education and its global outreach.” Labberton also expressed admiration for the leadership of Dr. Richard J. Mouw, who has served as Fuller President since 1993 and is retiring in June 2013. Commenting on the way Mouw has helped Fuller‘s public voice and life become widely known and understood, Labberton said, “I hope to continue the kind of generous, gracious, and irenic leadership that he established at Fuller and the world beyond.”

“Mark Labberton is an excellent choice to be the next President of Fuller,” said Dr. Mouw, “I know him to be a very gifted Christian leader who will be able to take Fuller into an exciting new future.”

Included among the priorities Labberton has already identified for his presidency are to strengthen Fuller’s commitments to the church, to deepen the ways Fuller addresses some of the key concerns and needs of the world, and to nurture a spiritually supportive community that includes all of Fuller’s regional campuses and the rich ethnic, language, and denominational diversity of the seminary.

Labberton encourages prayers for Fuller “at such a turbulent time in the church and in the world, when tangible demonstrations of God’s love are needed.” He also welcomes prayers for his new role as president, as he seeks to foster “careful understanding, deep and diverse community, courageous and wise decision-making, and effective creativity to address the challenges facing seminary education.”

With a Bachelor of Arts degree from Whitman College, Labberton earned a Master of Divinity degree from Fuller and a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Cambridge, England. In 2009, Labberton joined Fuller’s faculty with a key goal of empowering preachers through the development of small and highly diverse pastor-formation Micah Groups, which have now expanded into 25 U.S. states as well as several international cities.

Prior to coming to Fuller, Labberton served for 16 years as senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, CA. “In the national and international setting of this university church community, the canvas for life and for the Gospel was big and wide,” Labberton shared. “I had the daunting joy of leading a team of staff and laity toward seeing and engaging the Gospel, each other, the campus, the city, and the world more fully.”

Labberton also served in the early 1990s as senior pastor of Wayne Presbyterian Church in Wayne, PA.

Long committed to international ministry and development, Labberton co-founded the Christian International Scholarship Foundation (now ScholarLeaders, Int’l), which funds advanced theological education of Christian leaders from the Majority World. He has also worked closely with John Stott Ministries (now called Langham Partnership), which provides books, scholarships, and seminars for Majority World pastors. Today, he continues to contribute to the mission of the global church as a senior fellow of the International Justice Mission.

A frequent lecturer and preacher at conferences, in congregations and at academic gatherings throughout the world, Labberton has authored: First Things: A Theology of the World, the Church, the Pastor, and the Sermon (2013); The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor: Seeing Others Through the Eyes of Jesus (2010) and The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice (2007). He has also published articles in periodicals such as Christianity Today, Christian Century, Radix, and Leadership Journal, for which he also serves as contributing editor.

Labberton succeeds Dr. Mouw who announced last May his retirement from the Fuller presidency. Following a study leave during the 2013-14 academic year, Dr. Mouw will return to Fuller in a faculty role. Under his leadership Fuller has become the largest multidenominational seminary in the world with seven regional campuses, rapidly expanding online programs, and a new Korean-language Doctor of Ministry program. In addition, new centers of study, research and innovation have been established, including the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts. Known and highly respected as a key proponent of communicating with “convicted civility” in the public square, Mouw has participated widely in interfaith dialogues with Catholics, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, and others.

“With almost every nation and institution undergoing profound change, this is the time when the light and salt of the Gospel is meant to show up and make a real difference,” Labberton said. “Fuller is well-positioned to influence how the Gospel is communicated, understood, and embodied in the world.”

From the East Bay of Northern California, Mark Labberton and his wife, Janet Morrison Labberton, have two sons, Peter (24) and Sam (18).

In case you’re wondering, this is VERY good news.

Why Biblical Studies?

Earlier this week, Bryce Walker provocatively suggested that Biblical Studies shouldn’t exist as a discipline. I wanted to join the conversation, but I fear I dallied too long. He now has three posts, in large part engaged in a back-and-forth with Brian LePort at Near Emmaus.

Take this as a general apologia for Biblical Studies, inspired by the conversation but not directly tackling the challenges, rejoinders, and surrejoinders. However, the two basic complaints were that biblical studies masquerades as science and that its methodology is flawed. The hope for the future was articulated at one point was moving toward something akin to theological interpretation.

Here are a few thoughts in reply:

First, the idea that biblical studies or theology might be a science has a historical rooting. After the Enlightenment, when the Bible is no longer the norm for interpreting the world, why should a theology faculty continue to be a part of a university? That was a very real question, and part of the reply was to speak of it as a science.

However, anyone who still speaks or acts in this way has simply not caught up to the past 40-70 years of biblical studies. If the impression someone has of biblical studies is that it is a science, I can only say that one’s instructors have not been continuing to read since the time they were in seminary. And, of course, that one is not up to speed on the discipline that is being critiqued.

Thinking with Bryce

The pistis christou debate was mentioned. This is not, in fact, an area where most proponents act as though they are scientists with the answer. Richard Hays would say (while I was at Duke) that he was convinced about the subjective genitive. Four or five days a week.

Historical claims are always reconstructions, and though we argue vociferously, the idea of theology as a “science” is outdated and, in most quarters I’d say, dead.

The existence of biblical studies as a unique discipline also has a historical root. Critical study of the Bible arose at the same time people were claiming that theology is a science. Why? Because it was becoming increasingly clear that dogmatic commitments were hindering our ability to interpret the Bible.

Now, a good deal of that had to do with wanting to take the Bible apart into a million different historical pieces. And, much of this has been less than helpful in making sense of the Bible.

But the reason that Biblical studies has to exist as a separate discipline is, if nothing else, to keep reminding the church that the Bible is not a systematic theology, that the Bible is not a philosophy text, that the Bible is not ultimately a book of historical antiquarian interest, either.

Biblical studies at its best is simultaneously doing two things:

(1) Positively, it is continuing to keep the Bible as a book to God’s people located in particular times and places in front of the church. This means both: reading it as a book written for the people of God (there is a theological dimension and it calls forth certain praxis) and that it was written in the past to people in different situations.

(2) Negatively, it serves as a gadfly, showing the church where due to cultural, philosophical, and theological blinders, it has misconstrued the words in which it thinks it finds its validation.

Of course, in a healthy theological environment this is not an autocracy or dictatorship! At both points 1 and 2 the theologians and historians and ethicists and preachers and pastors will provide push-back, reinterpretation, and further reflections.

But the history of the church has shown that where Biblical Studies either does not exist as a separate entity or where it exists in a context where theology controls everything (such as a conservative confessional seminary) that the hearing of the Bible, and the hearing of the Bible as the word of God, suffers.

There is no methodological flaw in understanding the texts better as they were deeply contextualized in certain social settings, as they were written by authors whose tendencies we can sometimes discover, and as they were written as part of a larger narrative in which God reveals Himself as the one who saves in Jesus Christ.

Words of Wisdom

It’s not often that an interview leaves deep and lasting impressions.

Especially when it is someone else’s interview. And even more especially when this person did not take the job for which he was on the hot seat.

But such is the case for one series of conversations I got to be part of as a graduate student at Duke. The person being interviewed was Luke Timothy Johnson.

Johnson left me with three enduring impressions from those conversations almost a dozen years ago.

First, he spoke about the things he could do that anyone else could do just as well, but he gets to do them because he’s a seminary professor. He spoke of a reading group he was leading: Methodist pastors gathering and reading the Bible together.

For most of these pastors, Johnson asserted, this was the only chance they had to read the Bible with other strong readers of scripture. The enduring impression left by this comment was both negative and positive.

Negatively: most pastors never have the opportunity to read scripture in a context where everyone else isn’t expecting them to have the answers.

Positively: seminary is a tremendous gift inasmuch as seminary students are experiencing what may be their last opportunity to sit in a room with other strong readers of scripture to read together, question together, and learn from each other.

Each quarter I try to instill in my students a sense of grateful awareness about the preciousness and uniqueness of what they’re getting to do in the classroom and with their friends.

Second, in that same context, Johnson talked about how, as a professor, he is poised to serve the church. He put it like this:

“I fend off the academy with my right hand so that I can serve the church with my left.”

I can’t make that one any more tangible, but I’ll say that I have from time to time experienced the reality he’s referring to–and the [felt] need to beat back the academic beast in order to serve the church.

Third, Johnson spoke of different ways to envision a scholarly career.

If your goal is to finish your dissertation, you’ll never get done. If your goal is to get a job, you’ll finish your dissertation. If your goal is to get tenure, you’ll land a job. If your goal is to change the world? Ah–then you’ll get tenure.

What I have freely received, I hereby freely pass on to you.

R. T. France has Died

From Peter Head:

I learnt this morning that Dick France had died on 1oth Feb 2012. I studied Mark’s Gospel with Dick in 1985-86 at LBC. They were great times with a small group of us gathered round the text under Dick’s guidance. His books (especially Jesus and the Old Testament and Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher) have been a constant source of good judgement and good material for lectures, and his commentaries (on Matthew and Mark) exhibit his calm and thoughtful attention to reading the text. But it is Dick the teacher I will remember, the model he provided of Christian scholarship, and the encouragement he offered at several crucial moments.

Resurrection by Crucifixion

Today’s post is prompted by a confluence of two streams: teaching in the Corinthian correspondence and AKMA’s thoughts in review of my chapter on ethics, “Living the Jesus Narrative.” The question these two have raised to my mind is, “What does the in-breaking of resurrection into this life look like [according to Paul]?”

In both Thessalonians and Corinthians Paul uses language to speak of the reception of the gospel, the effect of his ministry, that seems to be anything but cruciform. When the gospel comes through Paul, it arrives with “power and Spirit” (1 Cor 2:4; 1 Thess 1:5). Paul can speak of the signs of a true apostle accompanying him: signs, wonders, and miracles (2:12).

Paradoxically, however, this power is shown to be God’s power precisely because it comes in the midst of suffering:

We know this because our good news didn’t come to you just in speech but also with power and the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know as well as we do what kind of people we were when we were with you, which was for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord when you accepted the message that came from the Holy Spirit with joy in spite of great suffering. (1 Thess 1:5-6, CEB)

How do you know that this joy, power, and Spirit are genuinely from God? Because they come in spite of your own suffering, says Paul; because they come despite the powerlessness of the messenger, and because in coming through such suffering they cohere with the gospel of Christ crucified.

I stood in front of you with weakness, fear, and a lot of shaking. My message and my preaching weren’t presented with convincing wise words but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power. I did this so that your faith might not depend on the wisdom of people but on the power of God. (1 Cor 2:3-5, CEB)

Resurrection looks like the power of God being made known through, and in the midst of, the weakness, suffering, and persecution that are the embodiment of the cross. More particularly, Paul’s vision of resurrection life now seems to be most sharply in focus when he speaks of his own suffering bringing life, by the Spirit, to others: “We always carry about the dying of Jesus in our mortal flesh so that the life of Jesus also may be made known in us.. So, death works in us, but life in you.”

As the self-giving Christ brings life to the cosmos, so the self-giving Christians bring life to those to whom they speak.

AKMA pushes me on some important questions that I feel I have no good answers to. How do we do ministry like this? For one thing, cruciformity cannot be institutionalized. It is the antithesis of the institution, which must always live, at least in part, to perpetuate itself.

What happens if a good and lowly sufferer does well? What if her church takes off? What if she gets a PhD? What if, horror of horrors, her book sells?! What if we are filled? What if we are already rich? What if we have become kings–while the apostles are being exhibited last of all as people condemned to death?

I don’t have a clear or easy answer.

I suppose that persons more godly than myself can make myriad small decisions to embrace the way of the cross such that their success continues to be a manifestation of the power of God.

I know of a couple of godly, exceptional NT scholars who have made some self-sacrificial decisions in terms of career and public visibility in order to care for ailing family members. From the midst of their self-giving so that others might live, beauty and strength shines forth.

I know teachers who aren’t great communicators (cf. 1 Cor 2:1-5), but whose life and message transform the students who come across their paths.

That’s a start.

Akma has more questions, challenging questions on his page today. I’m guessing he wants to go some other directions with resurrection. I have a few more places I’d like to go with it as well. Maybe later…

Spiritual Floundering in Seminary

The Duke Chronicle ran an article this past week on the struggles of Divinity School students. I confess, When I saw the title, “Students Flounder at Divinity School,” I was expecting something about the academic challenges being faced afresh by so many students who had pastoral ministry, rather than academics, as their vocation.

But I was wrong. (See? You didn’t think I could ever admit to such a thing–but there it is!)

The article was about the students’ perception that they were withering up spiritually. Their souls are being sucked dry by the intense academic environment that does not provide nourishment for the whole person.

I have a couple of responses to this, and would love to hear your take as well.

First, I have a great deal of sympathy for the students. I have known, far too often, the disappointment from experiencing a void in pastoral leadership in my own life. I can very much relate to the sense that I need more direction and pastoral care than I am receiving.

The students are right to be aware of this dynamic and it is good that they recognize the needs they have that aren’t being met. These feelings of not having spiritual needs met can create a great deal of frustration in a seminary environment where, if anything, there seems to be a plethora of wise, godly persons with pastoral inklings all around–none of whom are serving as your pastor.

My second, thought, however, is this: if you are going to be a pastor, you are embarking on a lifetime in which nobody is going to pastor you.

For the rest of your life, it will be your responsibility to find wise mentors to pastor and challenge you; for the rest of your life, and spiritual accountability and encouragement you receive from a peer group will come only from any group of your own making.

Is it good for div school students and pastors to be alone? No. And that is why, as a preparation for a lifetime of ministry, I encourage all such students and pastors to go out of your way to create the relationships you need for long term spiritual health.

It may very well be that the school should be doing a bit more for you than it currently is. But if this is the case, the best course of action you can take is probably not a campaign to change the system of the school, but one to change the relational systems in your own life so that they start helping prop you up for a lifetime of ministry that will otherwise likely unfold without anyone being in charge of pastoring you.

Academic Job Time

It’s that time of year again: when hopeful PhDs polish off their CVs, craft their cover letters, solicit references, and dive into the terrifying world of applying for jobs.

I am almost able to recall that process, now, without my palms getting sweaty and suffering the onslaught of unrelenting heart palpitations. As I do, here are a few words.

First, for those of you who are on search committees.

I ask you to remember one thing: each application you hold in your hands represents the hopes and dreams of a person who has worked very hard to get where they are.

In light of this: (1) Recognizing that they hold out hope as long as they have not heard from you, please tell your candidates as soon possible if you will not be proceeding further with them. I know you don’t have to do this, but it is a tremendous kindness. And if you know they are not a good fit, don’t wait until after SBL or after you make your hire. You know you have a pile of rejections sitting on your table or floor or corner or whatever. Send them the final word and close the file. For their sake.

(2) Never, ever, ever, ever indicate to a candidate who is on campus for an interview that they are the one to whom you will offer the job. This happens from time to time when there is a clear favorite, or an apparent consensus among the committee. And, almost every time, the vote ends up going another way. Indicating to a candidate that they will be hired is unprofessional, creates false expectations, and as often as not creates more heartache for that great candidate you were hoping to hire.

Now, for you who are candidates.

(1) See your interviews as opportunities for making professional connections, even if you don’t end up taking a particular job. One of the best things about my interview process was that from each school with which I interviewed I have at least one professional colleague that I now keep up with as part of my circle that I otherwise would not know. This is part of…

(2) Remember that you are interviewing for a job that is part of a relatively small community. This means not only that you want to refrain from badmouthing any other scholars, but that you need to treat this as a professional engagement that will potentially affect your relationships with other scholars with whom you may wish to collaborate or otherwise engage in the future.

One of my absolute worst interviews was at a school in Oxford. It was terrible in every respect, but the only reason I really regret the interview was that Markus Bockmuehl was part of the interview team. I frankly wish I hadn’t met a scholar I so respect in what was the worst interviews I’ve ever given.

(3) Perhaps most importantly: in my experience, interviews went well at schools that would have been a good fit, and they went poorly at schools were I did not fit so well. At their best, interviews are opportunities for both sides to discover whether or not you are a good long-term fit for their school or department. As hard as it is to be rejected, try to keep in mind that often a bad interview and a rejection is an indication, not that you were a bad candidate, but that you were not a good fit.

In other words, you are being rejected now rather than being denied promotion or tenure years down the road.

So buck up, sell yourself, but most of all, be yourself. If they don’t want you for who you are, you’re better off somewhere else–even if that somewhere is the local college you’re adjuncting for right now.