Item description for New Testament Theology: Communion And Community by Philip Esler...
Overview Esler's innovative proposal features a cutting-edge combination of theology, exegesis, and social analysis. He argues for new thinking about New Testament theology in light of the early social history of Christian communities. His detailed analysis of Paul's letters to the Romans and 1 Corinthians validates his thesis and clarifies its significance for scholarship. Using both the tradition of "the communion of the saints" and social-scientific methods, Esler brings the discipline of New Testament theology back to its theological core. He argues that interpreters also need to take into account both the history of interpretation and the multitude of voices within the contemporary church.
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Reviews - What do customers think about New Testament Theology: Communion And Community?
would have liked to warm up to the author Jan 17, 2007
Esler as a fellow human being was not accessible to me as I read the book, though I truly wanted to warm up to him. For one who stresses an I-You approach to interpersonal relations, he sure didn't treat the authors with whom he interacted in his texts as "Yous". And he sure didn't present himself as an authentic human being who makes himself vulnerably available to his reader. He seemed to me to be very dismissive of other scholars and authors. I know he wasn't writing for devotional purposes, but I was still disappointed with the lack of an uplifting and edifying character to the book. But if you want to read someone swimming with the current of modernity-bashing and smug anti-evangelicalism, here is your man.
I suppose I had hoped for more New Testament and more theology than Esler provides.
Theology across culture, through speech, and by seance Nov 22, 2005
I was a bit tongue-tied after reading this book: 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 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 premise 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.
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. 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.
In these contexts, says Esler, Galatians is simply 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", 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. 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, that "in Christ there is neither Judean nor Greek" (Gal 3:28). Romans concludes by telling Judeans and Gentiles to welcome the other and respect their different practices, providing an good model for dealing with ethnic conflict today.
Esler deals Paul Ricoeur some heavy bruisings -- the infamous "death of the author" agenda, whereby the text becomes supposedly detached from authorial intent by time and distance, and the reader inevitably supplants the author's voice with his/her own. Esler's impatience with Ricoeur seems tempered only by the fact that he must address him on account of the wide impact of his work. 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.
Indeed, says Esler, it's only the 16th-century printing press which made possible Ricoeur's prioritization of the authority of the written word. The biblical ancestors were steeped in an oral culture where people were illiterate and texts were read to them in communal settings, much in the same way that many of today's Islamic people are accustomed to engaging the Qur'an orally (in mosques, classrooms, on the radio, etc.).
To whatever extent I'm 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 the Corinthian correspondences, where Paul ranks 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 -- the most important of which (the first three) are most strongly characterized by speech, and tailored for the benefit of all. 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. 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!
Esler urges that Christians have a moral duty to honor the dead, including their biblical ancestors, and enters into a 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. Esler seems to advocate theology by seance.
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 than the bland studies owing 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.