I was a bit tongue-tied after finishing Philip Esler’s New Testament Theology: Communion and Community, a fresh attempt to bridge historical-criticism with theology and address what it means to interpret the New Testament as a committed Christian. Only Philip Esler could tackle these issues and end up with conclusions that are traditional, innovative, challenging, and unsettling all at once. I’m not a Christian myself, but if I were, the theological approach advocated in these pages is one I could easily endorse.
The book’s basic idea is that the New Testament is primarily a nonliterary source, from an oral (and alien) culture, with which believing Christians should be in dialogue, honoring its authors’ original intentions even when in disagreement. The anti-Christs of the monograph are literary critics and systematic theologians, and especially, people like Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur.
The first half of the book could have actually been titled, “Knocking Down the Straw Men”. (Not because Esler makes them straw men, but because they truly are straw men, even when granted their best arguments.) It’s amazing how much argument is needed to dispense with the likes of Gadamer and Ricoeur. Take Gadamer’s claims, to wit, that people are (and should be) seeking only agreement when engaging with a text; or that a text with which we disagree cannot be speaking truth; that we cannot understand the past even partly on its own terms, and thus the past is (as it should be) overtaken by our own present horizon of understanding.
Esler knows that agreement is not a necessary condition for being raptly engaged by the biblical text, nor even for “living by it” as a committed believer. He says that Christians need to meet the biblical writers on their own terms, while being critical of them at the same time (p 42). The finest illustration of this principle comes in the book’s last chapter, where Esler draws from his previous work on Galatians and Romans. Far from providing any basis for systematic theology, these letters, when appreciated on their own right, show how present-day believers can respond to outbursts of ethnic violence and genocide — such as in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Israel and Palestine, and Northern Ireland in the last decade (p 273).
In these contexts, says Esler, Galatians is not an appropriate text for theological guidance. Rather than try to unite competing groups of Judeans and Gentiles, Paul made matters worse by writing off Judeans as beyond the pale — lambasting them as illegitimate descendants of Abraham through Hagar (rather than Sarah), and casting the Torah as a yoke of slavery. This isn’t to say that the letter isn’t useful to Christians, nor even that it doesn’t belong in the canon. On the contrary, says Esler, Galatians “offers insights into the motivations for and patterns of anti-ethnic sentiments” (p 275), especially since Paul’s hard line against the Judeans backfired against him, as shown by the failure of the Galatians to contribute to his collection for the poor (p 280). Galatians, in other words, is an excellent example showing why the postmodern/literary assumption that we inevitably “agree” with our sacred texts is misleading and dangerous.
In Romans, on the other hand, where again Judeans and Gentiles are in conflict, though for different reasons, Paul seems to have learned from his past errors. He essentially adopted an approach advocated by modern social-theorists, who tell us that people should assert their ethnic differences (at least to a degree) in order to resolve inter-group conflict. The attempt to erase ethnic identity only fuels conflict, which is why, for instance, Paul avoids saying what he said in Galatians: “in Christ there is neither Judean nor Greek” (Gal 3:28).
Thus, while in Galatians Abraham was made out to be the heir of uncircumcised Gentiles (Gal 3:6-9), in Romans he is now the heir of the uncircumcised and circumcised in equal measure (Rom 4:1-17). In Galatians the Torah was an active agent in consigning Israel to sin (Gal 3:19-24), but in Romans the Torah is holy (Rom 7:12), and it is either passive in relation to sin (Rom 7:7-13) or has nothing to do with it at all (Rom 7:14-25). Most importantly, while in Galatians the promises to Israel were no longer in force, replaced with the promise of Christ (Gal 3:19-26; 4:1-2) — indeed the Christ-movement itself had become Israel (Gal 6:16) — in Romans the promises to Israel are still being fulfilled, but in an unexpected way (Rom 9:1-11:32), with the result that the pagan nations have now become a means to an end. Romans concludes by enjoining Judeans and Gentiles to “welcome the other” and respect one another’s different practices (Rom 14:1-15:6). Romans, in short, provides an adequate basis for dealing with ethnic conflict in today’s world.
Back to the straw men, Esler deals Paul Ricoeur some heavy bruisings. It’s impossible to take Ricoeur’s “death of the author” agenda seriously, whereby all texts supposedly become detached from authorial intent by time and distance, and the reader inevitably supplants the author’s voice with his/her own. Esler’s own impatience with Ricoeur seems tempered only by the fact that he must of necessity address him on account of the wide impact of his work. One such citation will suffice:
“Ricoeur is clearly delighted with the alleged phenomenon of inscription producing the semantic autonomy of the text — describing it as a liberation from ‘the narrowness of the face-to-face situation’. But what is wrong with writing which fulfills an important function in the maintenance of actual interpersonal relationships, especially in the inscription of a process where ‘one heart speaks to another’? For many people this would redound to the honor of writing, but for Ricoeur it represents its bondage! For him writing facilitates a desirable flight from personal engagement… [whereby] a text creates its own audience.” (p 113)
While acknowledging that texts are often at the mercy of readers, Esler knows that “this phenomenon is not some inescapable rule of the game of interpretation”, but rather something which “must be resisted at every turn” (p 147).
Indeed, says Esler, it’s only the 16th-century printing press which made possible Ricoeur’s prioritization of the authority of a text (p 115). But the biblical ancestors were steeped in an oral culture where most people were illiterate and texts were read to them in communal settings. The New Testament documents are, fundamentally, nonliterary texts urgently communicating specific ideas to specific communities. The Christian is thus committed to be attentive to authorial intent behind the text, and to be willing to replace modern cultural readings with those appropriate to the world of the ancient Mediterranean (p 186). Esler notes that today’s Islamic societies have an edge here. Muslim people are accustomed to engaging the Qur’an orally (in mosques, classrooms, on the radio, etc.), unlike many western Christians who remain out of touch with this functional and dynamic aspect of scripture (p 187).
To whatever extent I am myself at home in a western-derived “solitary reader” paradigm, I can only applaud Esler’s demolition of it as it bears on the interpretation of biblical texts. Nowhere is the interpersonal nature of the spoken word for communal benefit made more clear than in I Cor 12-14, where Paul addresses a divided church on account of the question of ministries. Esler turns to the Corinthian text in the middle of the book, noting how Paul ranks the ministries in a particular order of importance (I Cor 12:28): apostolacy, prophecy, teaching, miracles, healing, acts of assistance, acts of guidance, speaking in tongues. What’s the significance?
The significance is that the first three ministries build up community more than others, since they are most strongly characterized by speech, and tailored for the benefit of all. As one goes down the list, the possibility of becoming locked in purely dyadic relationships (“one-to-one transactions”) increases, at the expense of the community as a whole (p 155). Finally, the last ministry, speaking in tongues, involves unintelligible speech and has the greatest potential for corruption, since it promotes individual status at the expense of others (p 156). Paul encourages the Corinthians to pursue the “greater” gifts which are steeped in the spoken word, especially prophecy (14:1), precisely because they help strengthen community (14:3); speaking in tongues (14:2), while exciting, runs the danger of strengthening individuals alone (14:4). If Paul felt this ambivalently about speaking in tongues, one can imagine more zealous condemnations he would heap on those who today valorize the written word in “silent” solitary-reader paradigms, where holy writ becomes infinitely malleable for the self-indulgent reader!
The last part of the book is devoted to explaining how Christians engage in interpersonal communication with the biblical writers, which prompts (as Esler sees it) the question of how relationship subsists between the living and the dead. He points out that human beings are genetically disposed to respect their ancestors (I love the anecdote about the Irishwoman who had the same DNA sequence as a 5000-year old “Iceman” found in the Italian Alps, and then subsequently began to worry about the way scientists were treating his corpse (p 215)), and that cultures invariably maintain practices which honor ancestors long dead.
Furthermore — and in true Context-Group spirit — Esler insists that the cultural divide separating modern believers from their biblical ancestors should in no way hinder communion with them. Just the opposite. First he cites J.N. Cox and L.J. Reynolds (p 214):
“The notion of Otherness is essential…for the historical imagination exists only when one can conceive of a time, a place, a people, a culture different from ours, only when the past becomes something other than a mirror image of our concerns and interests.” (New Historical Literary Study, p 15)
— and then ties this to the wisdom of G.K. Chesterson (ibid):
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all our classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” (Orthodoxy, p 83)
Thus, Esler urges, Christians have a moral duty to honor their biblical ancestors, even if at times in disagreement. The Christian tradition maintains that the dead are in some sense still present with believers — whether in memory, in a state of “sleep” until the resurrection, or in heaven as a living soul awaiting the resurrection.
And at this point Esler gets sidetracked into a lengthy and fascinating debate with Tom Wright over the question of the intermediate state of dead Christians who await a bodily resurrection. The excursion takes a whole chapter (which Esler encourages the reader to skip if one finds the notion of “communion with the dead” unpalatable) in which he fleshes out biblical precedents for the communion of saints owing to Catholic, Orthodox, and some Anglican traditions. Against Wright, he finds enough biblical ground for belief in a postmortem existence of the soul before resurrection.
Wright’s 800+ page treatise, The Resurrection of the Son of God, argues for a non-dualistic view of the body: Christians who have died remain in a state of “sleep” until resurrection; the New Testament nowhere hints that a believer’s soul enjoys company with God in heaven before being reunited with the body at resurrection.
Or does it? Esler thinks that texts like Heb 10-12, Lk 23:43, II Cor 5:8, and Philip 1:23 do, especially that of Hebrews, which endorses “integrative dualism” (not radical or Platonic dualism), or the idea that human beings comprise a material body and an immaterial soul; while the latter is separable from the former, neither on its own constitutes an entire human being (p 249). Heb 12:1 “envisages a scene in which the faithful from the past support and applaud the faithful in the present…there is a form of communion between them” (pp 199-200). And Heb 11:4 says that while Abel died, “he still speaks”, implying “a precise example of ‘the preservation of the soul’ that results from faith, as announced in Heb 10:39” (p 206). Hebrews speaks interchangeably of preserving one’s soul (10:39) and having one’s spirit made complete in heavenly Jerusalem (12:23) (p 200). Esler makes a good case for dualism here against Wright.
It’s impossible not to be engaged by a Philip Esler book. He certainly has one of the sharpest minds today in the biblical field. And it’s encouraging to see such a passionate Christian capable of assimilating cultural-critical work and emerging with a theology more robust and authentic than the bland studies which owe to systematic theology and literary approaches. This is a book geared for committed Christians, but I was no less engaged by it as an infidel. Esler asks believers to listen — and listen critically — to their ancestors in the faith. I can only hope that more Christians will be inspired by his approach to theology.