Response to the review by Peter Misselbrook

The Evangelical Theological College of Wales
Bryntirion House
Bridgend
South Wales CF31 4DX
Response to the review by Peter Misselbrook.

Dear Sir,

I am grateful to Mr Misselbrook for his positive comments in answer to my suggestion concerning the corporate reinterpretation of Romans 6 and 7, as well as the doctrine of justification, made in my book Contours of Pauline Theology.

There are some points over which he expresses disagreement and I would like to respond to them.

In paragraph 1 of Mr Misselbrook’s review, I think that it would have been fairer to quote of Dr Head in full, as Mr Misselbrook’s partial quote changes the sense of what was written by Dr Head. The full quote from Dr Head was, “challenging, unsettling and infuriating. Dr. Holland’s tour de force cannot be ignored”. I think most people would agree that there is quite a different sense when the last part of the statement is removed. In fact, I asked Dr Head what he meant by this and he said that he was frustrated because there were so many questions that he wanted to ask me as he read it and, as I was not there to answer them, he became infuriated. From such a reply I would suggest that the frustration experienced by Mr Misselbrook was not the same as that experienced by Dr Head. Is this further evidence to support Reader Response Theory? I will respond further to Mr Misselbrook’s sense of frustration when dealing with his fourth paragraph, where he mentions it again. Anyone who would like to see how another reviewer saw the statement regarding frustration on the cover could look at the end of Mark Mattison’s review.

In paragraph 2 of Mr Misselbrook’s review, it is suggested that I am making unfair claims by ignoring the work of others in this field of study. I take it that this is what is also being referred to in the last paragraph, when I am accused of not doing justice to the contributions of other scholars in this field. I was surprised to read this accusation, which sounds like an accusation of plagiarism, because I had previously made the same judgment on others doing the same thing in this very area! To make sure that I did not follow this pattern I included an appendix on the state of Paschal/New Exodus studies and listed the works and what they contributed (see pp239-304). I had actually mentioned these authors and their writings throughout the text, but they may have been reduced in the editing (for more on this see below) I felt that it would help the reader to have all these contributions and sources brought together in an appendix. The publisher wanted to drop the appendix, but I requested that it was included to recognise the contribution, even if somewhat limited, that others had made. Indeed, I never once suggested that no one had made any useful observations: I listed them, but I argued that those who saw New Exodus influences had not appreciated the extent of the influence of this theme. Regarding Paschal studies, I would continue to assert that there has not been any Paschal study done that has gone beyond the few obvious references, and no one has appreciated the very extensive influence of this theme on the soteriology, not only of Paul, but of all the NT writers. Again, these works have been both cited in the text and listed in the afore-mentioned appendix.

In addition to all of the checks I put in place, I would point out that the book being discussed is the product of my PhD dissertation. It was 27 years in researching and writing and I consulted and cited almost one thousand sources. This amount of research would normally produce three PhD dissertations. It was examined by one of the top British Pauline scholars whose very words in the Viva were, ‘How has this been missed for two thousand years?’ The degree was awarded without any further work having to be done. A range of internationally respected scholars has since read it and not once has it been suggested that others had already done the work. Indeed, only a few years ago, I met a very highly rated young continental scholar, who had only a few years earlier completed his PhD. His research was on the Colossian hymn. As we talked, he asked me about my area of interest. We conversed for a few minutes and I shared with him my understanding of the Paschal setting of the phrase ‘the firstborn of all creation’. His response was to say that it was obviously right, and that he had never once come across the interpretation in all of his research. The point I am making is that this highly respected scholar had searched extensively among the continental literature (and I had done the same for all the English language literature and a few German and French sources) and neither of us had found anyone who had seen the Paschal setting of the expression. That is not to deny there were many who saw that the immediate verses, vv 13-14 were New Exodus based. They just did not take this observation into the hymn as its hermeneutical key. There had clearly been a hermeneutical blind spot.

I feel obliged to recount this history, which up until now only my wife and a few very close associates have known, to defend myself from the charge of plagiarism. I feel forced into the situation Paul came to when he became a fool through his boasting. The issue is too serious to leave unchallenged, and so this account of the research has been produced.

If my research has missed some important works in this field, I would be most grateful to be informed via my website home page.

I mentioned above the editing, which I am most grateful was done on the MSS to make it more accessible to the reader (see later). The original text was in fact much longer and more detailed than that which is now published. The publisher kindly agreed that I could make the fuller version available on the web to provide the supporting evidence for those interested. This availability is stated on the page opposite the table of contents. Indeed, while the text was edited, it had actually gone though an earlier editing, in that the original MSS submitted covered much more material spanning other themes, but the publisher felt that to publish an 800 page book for the first work of an unknown author was not sensible, and I agreed with him! Material has therefore been kept back, and is being developed with other material, into what is hoped will finally be a three volume series, with the present book as the first part. I appreciate that readers had no indication that the book was the first part of a series. This was the publisher’s decision, as, until he knew there was interest in the work, he did not want to commit himself to such a project. The other volumes may come out by a different publisher: we have to wait and see! Also, in raising themes that the book fails to cover, it ought to be pointed out that it is not being presented as a theology of Paul. The title is Contours of Pauline Theology and, as the advert says, ‘it does what it says on the tin’ (cover)! There are many, many other important themes that are not covered, and should certainly be revisited in the light of the paradigm I have suggested. Not only am I working on some of these myself, but also I have a group of very able PhD students developing the insight given by the paradigm in other NT books and subjects. Some of this work has already been submitted and gained the candidates their doctoral degrees.

In paragraph 3 of Mr Misselbrook’s review, I am accused of forcing the evidence to match the conclusion: I cannot deny the danger exists for everyone who does theological research when they construct arguments, but I do feel that the chosen example was rather weak. There had been detailed exegesis of key texts, and in the example raised I was only giving an illustration of how Paschal theology fitted the general understanding of the early Christian community. Again, the example quoted looks far worse by its removal from the context in which it was originally placed. I had pointed out that Mary had sung the Magnificat, the song first used by Hannah as she thanked God for the gift of Samuel. In the same way as Hannah took Samuel, Mary took the baby Jesus to the temple, something that was not only not necessary, but was, if I dare say it, totally irresponsible. The place was probably the most dangerous point on earth for the baby Jesus, being literally in the shadow of Herod’s palace, and they had been warned to flee from the country with the child to save him from this despot. It would therefore appear that there was a theological significance in the presentation, as women were not obliged to go to the temple for purification.

If Hannah’s example continues to lurk in the background, Mary, like Hannah, is presenting her child to the Lord. Hannah gave her son to the Lord to fulfill her vow: she did not redeem him as her firstborn and so he served in the Temple, fulfilling the original calling of the firstborn, to be the priests of God. In pointing out that there is no mention of the redemption of the child Jesus I noted that the pattern of Hannah appeared again. This was not an argument from silence, but from practice: I went on to give supporting textual evidence concerning the theme of Jesus being Mary’s/the Lord’s firstborn. I also went on to suggest that this made sense of the bewilderment of the child Jesus when he was rebuked for staying behind in the temple and of Jesus’ denial of having an earthly family. He was not part of Mary’s family, for she had not redeemed him and his relationship was therefore different from the normal. Now with this background to what I actually said, I think that most readers would see the suggestion is not forcing the evidence to fit the conclusion but is a serious attempt to engage with the theology of the OT relating to the firstborn. If the example is not convincing, it still does not cause me any concern because it was not hard ‘evidence’ that I was giving but an example of how the early Christian community would have read the text with the mindset of a Paschal/New Exodus paradigm controlling their thinking. Of course, if one denies the existence of the paradigm, the argument is not so convincing. Let the reader make his/her own judgment. Other reviewers have been far more positive concerning the Paschal argument that I have made (see Mark Mattison, David Bond, Stephen Dray and Chris Sinkinson).

Also, the review criticises me for underplaying the theme of the New Creation. Actually, I make reference to this throughout the work, maybe not as explicitly as Mr Misselbrook would like, but it was not ignored. It is especially to the fore in chapter 12, where I explored the meaning of ‘Firstborn of all Creation’. Indeed, I would suggest that the proposed interpretation of this in the light of the Passover (which despite Mr Misselbrook’s comment, no other scholar had done) emphasised that the death of Christ itself achieved the redemption of creation. The argument was going a considerable way beyond the normal understanding of the theme, in that it was suggesting that this was at the very heart of the church’s understanding of the significance of Christ’s death, i.e. it was not ‘just’ for the people of God, but for the whole of creation. Such an understanding opens up Romans 8 and adds much more textual support to the theme than is normally appreciated.

In paragraph 4 of Mr Misselbrook’s review, I note Mr Misselbrook’s comment on my style, and I understand that those more gifted than myself would find my literary weakness irksome. However, I am comforted that not all have found it too unbearable, as suggested by Chris Sinkinson and Leslie Houlden in their reviews.

Mr Misselbrook considers that I fail to see the multifaceted nature of Biblical imagery. This is a strange charge to make against someone teaching in a theological college. I appreciate that Mr Misselbrook does not know me, but I would assure him that having taught NT theology to undergraduates for the past fourteen years, while fulfilling the role of a university examiner for British universities for PhD candidates, I have a reasonable knowledge of the range of these imageries. Actually, I have not failed to see them: I have rejected them. Such multifaceted imagery is the result of interpreting the text within a Hellenistic mindset and the first chapter of the book shows why I am convinced that this is wrong. Many scholars are recognizing the Jewishness of the entire NT: all I am doing is arguing that Paul is not dependent on Hellenism, but on OT theology, for his understanding of God’s work in and through Christ. This lies at the very heart of what I am saying. This is the reason for rejecting the many models that I am accused of not appreciating. I am very, very clear, that when Paul is read from within the context of the OT he makes far better sense than when we read him in the context of Hellenism, even of Jewish Hellenism. And, if we read him in the context of the OT, we are lead into one dominating model, that of the Passover/New Exodus. Thus, I make no apology for what might seem to some to be an obsession with Paschal/New Exodus theology. If it seems naive, then so be it.

I have reflected on what Mr Misselbrook might be referring to when he accuses me of failing to ‘recognise the multifaceted nature of biblical imagery’. Without him being specific, and that is a problem of the review, I can only guess. But I wonder if it is because in the chapter on the eschatological marriage (chapter 6), I do not discuss the possibility of the slave market imagery and I focus instead on sacral manumission. If this were his point, I would respond by highlighting the fact that I had spent a whole chapter on the nature of the doulos (chapter 3) and he himself had ‘applauded’ me for the discussion.

I find it somewhat confusing that Mr Misselbrook has been able to take the very significant, and, to me as an onlooker, courageous step, of accepting my corporate argument over the nature of Romans 6-7, as well as the corporate nature of justification, as it has challenged such a long standing understanding, and yet still hold off from the conclusions I have come to in other chapters. In accepting these arguments, he has accepted the essentially Semitic nature of the material, and the rest of my argument is nothing more than unpacking this principle.

I am not infuriated by the review of Mr Misselbrook: I am disappointed. Disappointed at what seems to have been a casual reading of the text, rather than reflecting on its argument. I defer to the undoubted ability of Mr Misselbrook, and find no pleasure in saying that the best minds in Evangelicalism itself have been deeply influenced by this Hellenistic mindset, so Mr Misselbrook’s review is a perfect example of my argument. I believe that this has been at the root of the decline of Biblical Christianity and its sad consequences for the church and the world. I am fully aware of the offence that my claim gives, but I can come to no other conclusion than that we live in a period similar to the medieval school of theology when Aristotelianism controlled the interpretation of scripture: It almost killed the church. I believe that another mindset has been doing the same, and academia and the church at large have embraced it. This Hellenistic mindset hides much that we are supposed to have absolute clarity in, and the consequence is evident in the life of the church, and I mean good Reformed Evangelical churches as well.

I am claiming that the conclusions of my research strongly suggest that there is a very major hermeneutical flaw in prevailing theological methodology. I believe that this demands a review of all theological literature, Conservative as well as Liberal, to recognize and appreciate the extent of this very serious situation. We will be horrified to discover just how much of Christian thought, and that includes evangelical thought, is controlled by Hellenistic presuppositions. At the root of this problem is the fact that Hellenism has largely determined how we read the Bible. I am pleading that we begin the vital task of reforming ourselves under the word of God, using the apostolic methods of interpretation. Those who are in pastoral charges, and have begun this process, encourage me: they tell me that it has helped to transform their ministries. The need for this reformation includes Christian communities throughout the world and is evidence of the seriousness of the situation. This is as a result of the Western church exporting its theological methodology with its missionary endeavors. Tragically, we have often displaced cultures where corporateness naturally existed and which would have given the new believers a valuable insight into the New Testament, with our Western Hellenised individualistic mindset.

Lest any readers be afraid to commit themselves to this task, in fear of where it will lead them, I want to assure them that if they follow it, they will come out with a biblical orthodoxy that does not reject the confessions of the church, but sees that God in his mercy kept the church despite her many confusions.

I want to assure Mr Misselbrook that I appreciate his review. I do not believe that there was any animosity intended in his review and no offence is taken. He has not only highlighted possible issues that I need to reflect on, but also the state of the Evangelical mind today. I see myself as much a victim of the situation I have described, and I struggle daily with its consequences and effects on my own thinking and life. May the Lord have mercy on us His people.

Yours sincerely,

Tom Holland

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *