On an “Evangelical” Introduction to the New Testament

Thanks to Academia.edu, and and a standing search alert set for “New Testament Studies” on Google, I stumbled onto the following book review today:

Chris Stevens, Review of Hagner, Donald Alfred. The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012. Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 10 (2014) R19-R23. Article uploaded to Academia.edu. https://www.academia.edu/8490881/ Accessed 10/2/2014.

Reading over it, I found the review pretty bland and uninformative. The reviewer offers a number of observations about the form of the text, none of which sound particularly distinctive or interesting. What I did notice was that the reviewer praises the textbook as evangelical and conservative in orientation. Other than that, he basically says, “it’s an Introductory textbook to the New Testament.” That’s not actually a quote from the review. But you get the picture.

So, the review itself was a tosser. And furthermore, for me, the textbook under review was a non-starter. In my most recent trip through my introductory course (Spring 2014), I abandoned any use of any textbook, with mixed results. The reviewer and my readers will instantly recognize my own alignment within the field of Biblical studies when I say that formerly I used Bart Ehrman. I would use him again, too, if I ever returned to using an Introductory textbook. So you see, I’m not really shopping for a textbook, and in any case I would not normally consider this one.

Screenshot 2014-10-02 23.16.37

So, I should have just moved on, right? Yes.

Nevertheless the review got me asking a lot of questions, some of which are making me uncomfortable.

It starts with these ones: what elements exactly make a textbook offering an “Introduction to the New Testament” into an “evangelical” textbook? When a reviewer refers to the textbook as offering “conservative” positions on questions of New Testament scholarship, what positions exactly are entailed? What advantages or disadvantages of such an orientation and of such positions are assumed by the the reviewer?

What differential is being assumed within the review by using this category of classification of New Testament Introductions? How does the review itself construct alternatives? What does the reviewer assume about the elements and positions of a non-Evangelical textbook?

I do believe that a close reading of the review itself would let me answer a lot of these questions, or point out directions to take in answering them, but I can’t (or won’t) embark on such a critical reading of it at the moment, not only because I would first have to stop myself from listing the 100 other questions that keep running through my head, but because, as I write this, I start to wonder whether I should think more clearly about my own context, as the questioner of the reviewer.

I care about this review more than others might, probably, because I myself teach Introductory courses on Biblical literature to undergraduates. Also, I teach in an historically Baptist private liberal arts college, to students who are largely sociologically or self-described as “evangelical.” Like the textbook.

I think what troubles me about the review is that it speaks so plainly, without detail, and feels no need to justify or explain its own interest in an “evangelical” textbook, as opposed to some other unnamed kind. It troubles me as well that the reviewer doesn’t even take up the book’s own self-categorization, as “Historical and Theological,” or attempt to parse how that fits with his characterization of it as “evangelical.”

Moreover, the descriptor “evangelical” troubles me as a term applied to a textbook. The label “evangelical” is a limiter; it implies that certain questions about the subject have been already settled by a prior authority. An evangelical introduction is necessarily indoctrination. Imagine adding the term “evangelical” as a descriptor for any other introductory textbook used in other subjects at the college or university level: evangelical psychology, biology, chemistry, history, sociology, political science, English, business, etc. No self respecting parent would want to pay for a college education that promises to give their children an evangelical introduction to mathematics.

I should stop, but still, another more troubling question haunts me. Is this label “evangelical,” when applied to a typical Introduction to the New Testament, in fact superfluous? Is it possible that any course of study that focuses on introducing students to the ins and outs of the canonical writings of early Christians (“the New Testament”) ultimately represents what could fairly be called an “evangelical” position?

To wit: so many Introductory textbooks in New Testament study are mere surveys of the content of a canon. What purpose other than an “evangelical” one is there in introducing students to that particular body of literature?

In other words: is introduction to the New Testament an inherently theological topic, destined always for further refinement or limitation by descriptions of theological premises—as evangelical, catholic, orthodox, gnostic, heterodox, secular, atheist, etc.?

Can any “Introduction to the New Testament,” whether it is literary, historical, or theological, be justified on any other than some emic grounds? Are there etic grounds?

Can Introduction to the Early Christian Writings instead be done, for instance, as critical study of religion?

I’m not sure I can or I want to answer all these questions, and it disturbs me.

  5 comments for “On an “Evangelical” Introduction to the New Testament

  1. October 5, 2014 at 7:53 am

    Assuming no bias (especially since I have not yet read the aforementioned book), I wonder if “Evangelical” simply denotes that it is discusses, analyzes, and/or exegetes the Gospels. I understand that the term does, indeed, carry a certain connotation… especially concerning Biblical literature. Further, I understand those who study the Bible (and those affected by our study time) argue many varying viewpoints. “Evangelical” mathematics or “evangelical biology” leaves anyone scratching their heads… especially if that person knows that “evangelical” basically means “Gospel” or “good news.”

    I think we have placed too much scholarly emphasis on the “creative tensions,” themselves. In doing so, we have not given enough time, effort, and energy to the exegesis, which actually reverses the negative effects of reactionary, anti-indoctrination eisegesis.

    In other words:
    Jesus knew He was instituting His Father’s Kingdom and that everyone wouldn’t accept His message. He knew His disciples were am-ha-aretz with little to no education. This is why He sent the Comforter to give them the articulation to explain it to whosoever might listen. The Way (mockingly dubbed as Christianity) sprang up and spread to the ends of the earth. Then, once scholars sense corruption in Catholicism, they seek to reform it.

    Rather than some kind of round table meeting to exegete the text, a series of excommunications ensue. Many move to “the New World,” seeking freedom from eisegesis based persecution. Still, it persists… and continues to divide us, because we have superimposed our biases on the situation.

    Scholars can redirect this travesty by teaching from Bible exegesis to understand it in its original context. [I assume this principle induces synopsis for any and every other text in the world, also] Second Timothy 3: 16 refers to the autograph [initial manuscript] being God breathed to the respective authors, but it is not a blanket statement for everything that anyone writes.

    • October 5, 2014 at 7:22 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Shane, and some thoughts to consider. It’s nice to be read.

  2. arcarr2014
    October 7, 2014 at 4:54 pm

    I enjoyed both the blog post and the first comment. I’m an interloper, teaching one “Bible” course though trained as a theologian (with an M.Div. and thus some biblical Hebrew and biblical Greek in my distant background). I teach at a state university, and the classroom is usually a mix of mildly pious and moderately secular folks, with some who are more outspoken self-identified evangelicals (though this semester, one such student dropped, worrying for his faith–not about me, he said; and he’s had at least one class with me before; he says he hopes to retake the course in a year). I’m trying this time to focus on “biblical literacy” supplemented with the Very Short introductions to the OT and NT (not too keen so far on the first one), and also adding in “exegetical pause” days (a day on Jewish and Christian midrash on Hagar, including some womanist stuff; a day on Puritan and liberation theology views of “Promised Land,” etc.). I’m framing the course more or less around Ricouer’s history behind/of/in front of the text. This time around I feel I want more of the “history behind” than I offer through lecture handouts and the two small texts; I like so far what’s happening with the exegetical pause days. It’s an interesting challenge. And I’m with Shane, I think: exposure to various kinds of exegeses helps to resist any one-sided sort of eisegesis.

    • October 16, 2014 at 7:46 am

      Thanks so much for your comment. I like the sound of your approach. I tried the Very Short NT introduction in my last go-around with New Testament. It failed me, or I failed it.

      • arcarr2014
        December 6, 2014 at 12:29 pm

        I find that the chapter I most like in the Very Short thus far is the chapter on Paul, especially the pages on Romans. I was impressed the by way Johnson synthesized succinctly everything from the themes in Romans, to the recent scholarship on pistis (faith as belief vs. faithfulness/obedience), to a take on Romans 9-11. Still, for an undergraduate course, it’s harder for students I think to take away what they ought to know. I always want to say too much, theologically, on justification by faith–imagining into the various ways it can mean. But that’s really too much for an intro course.

what do you think?

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