“Collaboration on Canon” by Robert W. Wall and David R. Nienhuis (Part 2 of 3)

Robert W. Wall is Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies at Seattle Pacific University. David R. Nienhuis is associate professor of New Testament studies at Seattle Pacific University. Together, they have written the new book Reading the Epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude as Scripture: The Shaping and Shape of a Canonical Collection.

When we approached them to write to write a guest post for EerdWord, they responded with an unusual proposal: they would each write separately about the individual paths that brought them into this project, then comment together on the collaborative partnership that took them through it.

How could we resist?! 

In part one of our series, Rob Wall told his part of the story; in part two (below), Dave Nienhuis shares his. 

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David R. Nienhuis
David R. Nienhuis

It is striking to me that Rob’s entre into this research question was prompted by a sense of dissatisfaction with the reigning ecclesial interpretations of Paul and James. I confess that my entry into the world of academia itself was occasioned by a similar sense of dis-ease. My undergraduate and master’s programs of study had prepared me for a life of ministry in the church. Later, as my academic calling became clearer to me, I struggled to find myself at home in a scholarly system that so cleanly subdivided the larger theological subject matter (i.e. God!) into discrete, internalized academic sub-disciplines. Was I to become a Bible scholar, a theologian, or a church historian — and what about my commitment to the people in the pews, the target of the church’s pastoral ministry?

Happily my previous training (under folks like Rob Wall and Richard Hays) provided strong examples of biblical scholars whose work with Scripture was intentionally inclined toward theological and ecclesial reflection. It made perfect sense, therefore, for me to turn to Francis Watson to supervise my Ph.D. I learned from Rob how to approach Scripture canonically, and Richard trained me in the practice of close literary reading. It felt very natural, therefore, for me to pursue a literary, canonical approach to the Catholic Epistles (CE).

Everyone agrees that the CE have been generally overlooked by modern biblical scholarship. I entered the project assuming that this was because the collection could not be accounted for according to the dominant historical-developmental methodological commitments of mainstream biblical studies. After all, the CE are seven (or more, if one includes Hebrews!) different letters produced by at least five different hands originating from (often unknown) different historical locales. The guild simply does not train us to read diverse letters like these together as a unit. So I began by assuming that historical data would not help us make sense of the CE. My plan was, rather, to write a book arguing that the way forward was to read them as an intentionally designed literary unity.

Reading the Epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude as Scripture
Reading the Epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude as Scripture

It wasn’t long, however, before I began to discover something that has driven my work ever since: while the CE’s various points of origin are indeed diverse and mostly (though not entirely) disconnected, their later formation into a canonical unit was the result of an intentional, discernible historical process — one that has a profound impact on how they are read as Christian Scripture. The final product of this odyssey is a book entitled Not by Paul Alone: The Formation of the Catholic Epistle Collection and the Christian Canon (Baylor, 2007).

One of my chief goals in that book was to provide an example of how history, literature, and theology might be drawn together in biblical studies. A common complaint against a so-called “canonical” reading of Scripture is the lack of historical justification for the project: yes, one might argue that particular biblical books can be read together as intentionally designed literary units, but what historical evidence exists that the Bible was designed to be read that way? Not by Paul Alone strives to fill in that gap by providing a historical basis for a literary-theological reading of the Bible. It does this by shifting historical analysis away from the point of the letters’ composition (which, despite all our work, remains largely obscure to us) and toward the letters’ point of canonization — that moment wherein they were taken up as Scripture and creatively arranged with other apostolic writings to provide readers with a timely word from God.

At this same time that I was writing Not by Paul Alone, Rob was hard at work developing a study of the “Unifying Theology of the Catholic Epistle Collection” that would go on to have a wide impact on how scholars read these letters as a collection. When interest in this piece led Eerdmans to approach Rob about writing an introduction to the CE, I was blessed to be asked to join in so that Rob’s extensive work on the final “shape” of the collection might be substantiated by accompanying analysis of its historical “shaping.”

There is, of course, a lot more work to do. One of the more interesting insights in our book is the important role 2 Peter plays as a “literary anchor” for the collection as a whole. Although 2 Peter is often considered one of the more irrelevant books of the New Testament, my ongoing work on its role in the canonical process has led me to regard it as a crucial letter, so I’m hard at work writing on that subject right now. More work is also needed to develop the claim made throughout this book that the Pauline and “Pillar” letter collections are designed to be read as a mutually glossing whole apostolic witness — a canonical conversation of sorts that is moderated by the Acts of the Apostles. Our epilogue hints at where such a study might go, but the work has yet to be done.

Click to order Reading the Epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude as Scripture: The Shaping and Shape of a Canonical Collection by Robert W. Wall and David R. Nienhuis, and be sure to check back tomorrow for part three of this series.