McKnight: Insightful Reading of 1 Peter

McKnight_commentary_reviewed_08092014Scott McKnight. 1996. The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Peter. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The NIV Application Commentary has been my default commentary over the past several years because the series takes the narrative of scripture seriously. Once I am acquainted with an orthodox interpretation, I can judge a book from other dimensions. I have taught from the series the Books of Romans, Luke, Genesis, Revelations, John, Matthew, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians (I may have forgotten some books). The series takes seriously John Stott’s division of the homiletical task into 3 things: the author’s context (original meaning), the reader’s context (contemporary significance), and the need to bridge the two (bridging contexts) [1].  This background in the series led me to consider Scott McKnight’s commentary on 1 Peter.

McKnight sets out the goal of “to study 1 Peter in such a way as to highlight Peter’s proposals for Christian life in a modern society” (22). In his overview, he breaks Peter’s message into three points: salvation, the church, and Christian life. Peter describes salvation through Christ’s suffering (1 Peter 2:24). The church is pictured as the family of God. In the Christian life, Peter exhorts his readers to practice hope, holiness, fear before God, love, and growth (32). What caught my eye was McKnight’s observation that 1 Peter is the most popular NT book among Christians living with social marginalization and suffering outside the Western context (35). That would include many Hispanic and Middle Eastern people that I know.

Suffering. It is my own observation that the suffering in my own life–a wife with cancer, a child on dialysis, and a younger sister who died suddenly–has enabled me to witness more effectively to those around me. In like manner, we are drawn to the cross of Christ. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). McKnight’s rendering of 1 Peter and his focus on the role of suffering convinced me that I need to spend more time with this book.

McKnight spends a fair amount of time trying to unpack the social position of Peter’s audience. He views 1 Peter 2:11-12 as a pivotal passage. Are his readers “aliens and strangers”? Is the pursuit of holiness especially important because of their low social standing? If they were literally aliens and strangers—the illegal immigrants of their day—how do we, who are not, read this book? Interesting questions.  In the new, downwardly-mobile, post-Christian context in which most Americans live today, 1 Peter becomes more relevant with each passing day.

Among the NIV commentaries in this series, the McKnight commentary on 1 Peter is a gem. He struggles with interesting questions. His reading of 1 Peter is both balanced and insightful. After reading about Peter’s response to suffering, McKnight convinced me to look also at Paul’s treatment of suffering in 2 Corinthians—a study that I have taken up this summer.

[1] See:  John Stott. 1982.  Between Two Worlds:  The Challenge of Preaching Today.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

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Thurman: Re-imagining Pain at the Cross

Howard Thurman's Disinherited
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Thurman: Re-imagining Pain at the Cross

Howard Thurman.  1996. Jesus and the Disinherited (Orig Pub 1949).  Boston:  Beacon Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor who carried at least two books with him wherever he went.  One comes as no surprise:  a Bible.  The other was Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited (xii).  When I heard this, I was curious to read Thurman.

Who is Howard Thurman?

Howard Thurman (1899–1981) was one of the three most influential African American preachers of the 20th Century.  He was also an author, philosopher, theologian, educator, civil rights leader, and Dean of Chapel at Howard University and Boston University for more than two decades[1].

Thurman is a powerful, yet humble writer.  In his preface, he wonders out loud:  Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion, and national origin?  (8)  He goes on to write:  the striking similarity between the social position of Jesus in Palestine and that of the vast majority of American Negroes is obvious to anyone who tarries long over the facts (ix).

Social Position

Using social position to interpret the person and teaching of Jesus marks Thurman as an antecedent of liberation theology.  The basic idea is that starting from a position of affluence and privilege when Jesus was poor and marginalized makes it hard to interpret Jesus’ words and teaching correctly.  It is easier to interpret Jesus when your own social position (poor and marginalized) is roughly the same.  If you substitute the neutral word “context” for “social position” in this sentence, then virtually every hermaneutics instructor today would agree.

Thurman argues that taking Jesus out of context, particularly social context, allows interpreters to insert their own social context and read Jesus’ words in ways not intended.  In effect, he is arguing that Christianity’s impotence in dealing with discrimination and injustices has at its core a misunderstanding of the Biblical accounts themselves.

Still, “social position” does not substitute easily for “context” as an upper-middle class hermaneutic.  In my work at Providence Hospital in northeast Washington DC, I was shocked to learn that how common the scars of violence were among African American patients.  While it is rare among white Americans to know someone who has been shot or murdered, it is common among African Americans—such trauma is part of their daily lives.  How can someone correctly read an account in the Bible subtly referring to indignities committed when those same indignities are outside one’s personal experience?  “Social position” does not substitute easily for “context” as an upper-middle class hermaneutic.

Thurman describes Jesus’ social position as a poor Jew from a minority group—a Galilean (16-18).  Worse, Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth was within a couple miles of Sepphoris—a Roman garrison burned to the ground just before Jesus’ birth in response to a Galilean rebellion.  Thurman speculates that, as a young carpenter, Jesus probably helped rebuild Sepphoris and was no doubt painfully aware of his own social position (18).  For example, do you think someone from Centreville, Virginia might be totally ignorant of the Battle of Manassas, Virginia (5 miles away) twenty years after the Civil War?  Thurman has clearly tarried over the facts here.

Sepphoris

Evidence that Jesus was personally affected by his context shows up in his use of the word, hypocrite (e.g. ὑποκριτά; Luke 6:42 BNT).  In the Greek before Jesus, hypocrite meant primarily ‘play-actor, role-player’ (BDAG 7615).  In the Old Testament, by contrast, hypocrite appears only twice in the Book of Job in the Septuagint (Greek translation) and the Hebrew word used denotes profane (וְֽחַנְפֵי Job 36:13 WTT; also Job 34:30), not two-faced as in a role-player.  Why would Jesus be aware of this Greek word?  Sepphoris had a Greek amphitheatre.  Jesus no doubt knew first-hand what an actor was and he re-defined the word in his own usage.  Thurman (72-73) makes the point that Christians on the margin of society need to be especially vigilant in avoiding hypocrisy.

Clearly, even in Nazareth Jesus was not isolated from the tensions of his day—and he was not a Roman or even a privileged Jew.  Writing as an African-American man in the 1940s, Thurman observes:  If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar; he would be just another Jew in a ditch (33).  Do you think that Thurman wrote from personal experience?  The answer is clearly yes (78-79).

Outline of Thurman’s Disinherited

Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited is a short book with only 5 chapters and an epilogue.  The chapter titles speak to his concerns:

  1. Jesus–An Interpretation.
  2. Fear.
  3. Deception.
  4. Hate.
  5. Love.

He writes a brief preface.  The forward is written by Vincent Harding.  Thurman’s audience is not primarily white Americans, although he recognizes that they are probably listening.  No, he writes a cautionary note to African American Christians about how to remain faithful in a context of persecution.

Reading Thurman changed the way that I read scripture.  In quiet moments, I use a mind experiment to highlight the importance of context.  Imagine Jesus sitting on a stool in the middle of a room with four walls.  Each wall has a different landscape picture—say, a beach scene, a workroom, a kitchen, a barnyard.  Now, imagine walking around Jesus with a video camera so that you picture him against each of these landscapes.  How does the change in context color your perception of Jesus?  Having finished this exercise, repeat this experiment with different social groups; different social situations. If context is fluid and carelessly employed, we get whatever view of Jesus that is most congenial to our own social position.

Summary

Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited is an important, but hard, book to read—especially if you do not agree with everything that is said.  His critique is particularly convicting for me knowing that he taught at Howard University—only a few miles from where I grew up and within walking distance of the hospital where I interned as chaplain.  Thurman observed and experienced racism, but he also rejected hatred, fear, and bitterness.  Out of great pain, Thurman speaks with an authentic, Christian voice.  We should too.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Thurman.

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