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A New Look at the Non-Pauline Letters

An SPU theology professor offers a new perspective on James to Jude


Posted March 26, 2010


The Catholic Epistles and Apostolic Tradition by Robert Wall.

By Hope McPherson [hmcpherson@spu.edu]


The Catholic Epistles and Apostolic Tradition: A New Perspective on James to Jude
Karl-Wilhelm Niebuhr and Robert W. Wall, editors
Baylor University Press, 2009


If you’re a Protestant, chances are you’re well acquainted with the Apostle Paul. “Our theology as Protestants is largely shaped by his theological grammar,” says Robert Wall, Paul T. Walls professor of Scripture and Wesleyan studies at Seattle Pacific University. “We never make it out of the 13-letter Pauline collection. That’s where we kind of find our home — sermons get preached there, and we get catechized there.”


With the publishing of The Catholic Epistles and Apostolic Tradition, Wall and co-editor, Karl-Wilhelm Niebuhr, professor and head of theology at Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, Germany, want to expand our horizons — beginning with pastors and their professors.


The Catholic Epistles

The “catholic epistles” are thought to include seven books, explains Wall: James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1, John, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude. Unlike some New Testament books, they were written to Christians as a whole and not to a specific church or person. Through the years, they were shared and read by the churches and then, by AD 367, they were mentioned as a whole unit by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria. Eventually, says Wall, the church gathered the seven epistles to form a collection — and that intrigued Wall.


“One of my wee little contributions to New Testament criticism is the idea that when we look at the history of the New Testament’s formation, what should concentrate our attention is the formation of collections,” he explains.


In The Catholic Epistles and Apostolic Tradition, Wall and Niebuhr set out to explore how and why the seven unique letters work together both theologically and functionally. “I think as a whole, the catholic epistles have an extraordinarily important role to perform in nurturing and shaping Christian faith and life,” Wall explains. “Often overlooked, these books are often neglected. Once you’re in Paul, it’s kind of hard to escape Paul.”


A scholarly discussion


The book, a collection of complex and scholarly essays, includes contributors from around the world: Ernst Baasland, bishop of Stavanger in the Church of Norway; John Kloppenborg of the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto, Canada; Matthias Konradt of the University of Berne in Switzerland; Wall’s colleague David Nienhuis of Seattle Pacific University; both Wall and Niebuhr, and others.


Although the essays were crafted to further an academic conversation about the catholic epistles with other scholars, Wall stresses that his scholarship always has two other groups in mind.“I don’t like to spend my time writing stuff for other scholars that doesn’t find its way back into the church or teaching through catechesis,” he says, “or most especially in the classroom.”


Intending to broaden the readership even more, Wall and SPU Associate Professor of Theology David Nienhuis are already collaborating on a “translation” for laypeople of this new perspective on the catholic epistles. Protestants, Wall argues, should look beyond sola fideism, or “faith alone.” “It leads to a lazy, sloppy kind of Christianity without any kind of moral rigor, without any kind of prophetic witness,” he adds. “It is basically just a confessing faith, when it needs to be a practical lived embodied faith. The catholic epistles, read as a collection, make a very powerful witness to a more ethical kind Christianity.”




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