Monday, July 11, 2016

Academic Book Review: Stanley Porter's Sacred Tradition in the New Testament

This is a difficult book to review. If a book satisfies its thesis, then it deserves to be well rated, and the readers deserve to be well informed of that thesis. Often reviewers will rate a book poorly because it’s not the book they wanted to read; not based on whether it is the book the author actually wrote. And yet I feel myself torn between the fair and unfair review. It sounds like a simple case of ‘choose the better,’ but I feel the need to clarify why I feel this tension. First, it may be helpful to list the author’s self-proposed audience, thesis, and method.

Audience: advanced students of the NT & scholars seeking a fresh examination of the topics

Thesis: “Although the focus of all these lectures—now become written essays—is the use, development, and interpretation of sacred tradition, a major subtheme that emerges in many, if not all, of them is that of who Jesus is, that is, Christology. The essays of this volume, therefore, are formed around this core set of lectures, now essays; they are not, and never were, simply a collection of random thoughts put to paper. As a result, I believe this volume provides a clear set of essays that explore how sacred tradition of various types is developed in the NT, often, though not entirely, for Christological ends.”

Method: We are trying to move away from mechanical and formulaic conceptions and toward an appropriation of important sacred traditions (not just verses) as they are developed further within the NT.

The simple question: does the author support/accomplish his thesis? Yes, in a technical sense. Porter clearly articulates his method throughout his book and shows how the entire ethos of Jewish (and Greco-Roman) cultural history comes to bear upon and influence New Testament texts. And more times than not, these developments and conclusions directly influence Christology. So what’s the problem?

I want to be generous and truthful, so if I seem to lack either, forgive me.

In part, I think the problem lies with the intended audience. If by ‘students of the New Testament’ Porter intends those in seminary, pursuing a PhD in theology, then perhaps he meets them. Although, and I say this with somber caution, perhaps those students will not have had their love for Christ increased after these pages. I’m sure that Porter loves Jesus, and I’m sure he wants others to love Jesus too, but I fear this book does not stir up the affections as he would hope. I say this as someone who has pursued Christian higher education, who has a love for theology and academia, who understands that knowledge informs belief and affections; I consider myself in that class of [intermediate or] advanced students of the NT. But I feel (and it is mostly a feeling, so feel free to discredit it) that Porter absents the purposed conclusion to theology: doxology. I think there is room to call for more attention to the significance for Christian theology & the Christian life, not simply theology as an academic discipline & the thinking life.

Well, you might say: perhaps he meets his second audience: NT Scholars looking for a fresh perspective on the topics. I would have hoped so too, but it seems that Porter focuses too heavily on the academic credibility, playing the ‘progressives’ game. As a result many of his statements, and conclusions are cautioned and left in a lake of insignificance: i.e. ‘this is what I think, and I think it influences the development of the NT in this way, but you might disagree, and it’s okay if you do; it doesn’t really change much.’ Absolutely there needs to be academic honesty and humility; a willingness to propose with an open hand—be willing to be proven wrong. But with so much qualification the reader is left to wonder, “If the conclusions are so tenuous, are they worth believing at all?” Indeed, without a clear purpose (namely, the discipleship of hearts and minds for Christ), we are left to wonder if there is any detriment at all to denying what he says or any benefit in believing. Porter undercuts the very significance his topic of discussion should invoke—we are talking about Christ Jesus, the incarnation of the living God! Does Porter really believe that Jesus is like a Son of Man; does he really believe Jesus is the Messiah  Son of God who contends against Caesar; does he really believe that Jesus is the Suffering Servant, Passover Lamb, vindicated servant of Psalm 22, the man of history and faith? Porter’s attention to detail and careful exposition of the biblical text says, “Yes—of course.” But his caveats say, “Does it matter?”

Perhaps I am being too harsh. Perhaps I’ve become too emotional. Perhaps if I reread the book, I would discover that Porter is both perfectly convincing to the scholars and perfectly edifying to the Christians. But I suppose that’s for you to decide. I began with stating that this review was difficult to write—that I felt a tension between a ‘fair’ review and an ‘unfair’ one. Well, I’ve given you the unfair first, so let me add a few words of fairness.

Porter is extremely intelligent and well-studied. He not only draws upon the OT text with insightful exposition, but pays careful attention to the ideas and themes found in cultural theology surrounding the Jewish people. He shows the gravity of titles like Son of God and Son of Man. He really has offered me more substance and bolstered my defense for certain theological conclusions the NT leads us to believe.

His introductory chapters on defining terms such as intertextuality, allusion, echo, and the like is exceedingly helpful; I hope that all scholars take his advice and clearly define their terms. Porter reminds them that at this stage of the game, it would be impossible to unify the language; but as long as each individual scholar declares their own definitions, much confusion can be avoided, and the discussions can be advance beyond the gridlock NT/OT relations are currently in. Porter’s brief critique of the way these studies have been approached so far (e.g. limiting them to strict formulaic quotations, atomized, and NT-OT only) is profitable. The cultural mind is not so atomized; it is helpful to remember that these texts were formulated by embodied persons. Porter offers a broader perspective than many textual commentaries by reminding us of this very fact—showing us the woven tapestry of ideas rather than individual texts and their cross-references. And his willingness to engage those ideas which remain outside of the biblical text improves upon studies which limit themselves to Christian scripture.

All that being said, the book as a whole is pretty niche. The introductory sections are certainly worthwhile for any intermediate/advanced student of the Bible, but I think that the later chapters are primarily beneficial in a selective study. It might be nice to have this book on the shelf in order to reference whenever you encounter one of the primary themes Porter elucidates… but I don’t particularly recommend this book generally as a book to be read through cover-to-cover.

I give the book 4/5 for the reasons mentioned above, and leave the prospective reader with a summary caution.

Porter’s intelligent and scholarly work fills out the discussion of influences upon the New Testament after calling for clarity by all scholars. Yet, by playing the game of those who discount/discredit Divine authorship, Porter fails to help disciple the minds of most Christians, and fails to convince those not already on his side.

This review is crosslisted on Goodreads, Amazon, NetGalley, and my blog.

I received a free e-copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.