On Friday 25 November 2011 I was privileged to have an informal interview with Dr Bruce W. Winter at a sunny Tyndale House here in Cambridge. For those (few South Africans) unfamiliar with him and his work, just a few comments by way of introduction before Part 1:
It is an uncontested fact that Dr Bruce Winter is regarded as one of the world authorities on Early Christianity in the Graeco-Roman World. He was Warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge from 1987-2006 and is currently the Director for Early Christianity in the Graeco-Roman World. He has been instrumental in what could arguably be regarded as a new generation of Evangelical New Testament biblical scholars in at least Cambridge, parts of Europe, Australia and even some parts of the USA.
Apart from his impressive list of published articles, chapters in major volumes and lectures on Early Christianity and the Graeco-Roman World, his four monographs have been very influential in scholarly circles. They are:
1. Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens (First-Century Christians in the Graeco-Roman World; Grand Rapids/Carlisile: Eerdmans/Paternoster, 1994).
2. After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2001).
3. Paul and Philo Among the Sophists: Alexandrian and Corinthian Responses to a Julio-Claudian Movement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).
4. Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).
Some of these are so significant that apart from the myriad of dialogues and interactions with it in the English speaking world, they are also acknowledged and engaged with in some of the very best German volumes- not something the average Anglo-Saxon theologian can write on his/her CV!
Apart from all of this, Bruce is a down to earth Christian brother who loves to preach and make a positive contribution to the furtherance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
INTERVIEW PART 1
Our conversation started off focusing on post-apartheid South Africa, liberalism and evangelical scholarship. We spoke about a conference Bruce attended in Stellenbosch round about 1995-1996 where pastors and scholars from all over South Africa were in attendance. Connected to this was my making reference to the New Reformation movement by the likes of Professor Sakkie Spangenberg, a well-known biblical scholar from UNISA. Then we moved on to the letters of Paul, focusing on ethics and the resurrection of the body.
Mulder: Bruce, what advice can you offer to post-apartheid South African students doing a PhD in biblical studies?
Winter: First of all, apartheid has ended. I was at Stellenbosch after the end of apartheid. There were sort of two groups I think there. One of the groups were recognising that their sorrow now is that what they had instilled in those they taught, on the whole approach to the so-called biblical justification for apartheid. They had abandoned it, but, their devout followers of the past are now so ingrained in it that they can’t. That was one of the things some people expressed there. The other thing that struck me straight away was just how isolated they were. Yet they get some idea from up north, the other side of the hemisphere (i.e. Germany?), and it gives them a place in the sun because they say radical things. And they sort of have pride in it, calling other (who disagree with them) fundamentalists.
Mulder: So you’ve been to Stellenbosch. Nice campus?
Winter: O, it’s a great place. The university church is a fantastic looking building. Beautiful.
Mulder: Beautiful, 17th century.
Winter: But one could see they were trying to show how radically different they were
Mulder: From the old regime?
Winter: From the old traditions and so forth. That seemed to me to be the case.
Mulder: From the “old regime”?
Winter: Yes. And in one sense, there was a certain kind of smugness about it. They stood outside the orthodox stream. I spoke to some young people and they had no idea of what was going on in the rest of South Africa. They were so isolated as children and teenagers growing up. It was a very sad situation. Now they look back at what was happening.
Mulder: So what advice can you give to post-apartheid, evangelical biblical scholars who want to participate/ engage in the new discourses, and not fall victim to a new mentality of ‘we are going to become liberal scholars’ which is somehow for some the ‘new thing on the block’? What advice can you offer to them?
Winter: Well, I think its best never to be reactionary ... as for methodology, to me the fundamental thing is the dislocation, or the breaking away from the New Testament from its context - both it’s Jewish and its Greco-Roman context. So, if one was dealing with Paul and his letters, and the places he has been to, then one has to say that the context will help us allot. In other words, when you look at say, the influence of secular ethics, people are programmed by the secular culture before they become Christians, and as a result of that, because they’ve been programmed, they naturally continue to function like that unless they’re de-programmed.
Mulder: Like in Corinth?
Winter: Yes. So Paul’s aim in writing is to pull down every argument and every high thought that rises contrary to the knowledge of God, and to bring every thought captive in obedience to Christ. That’s his agenda as he writes. It’s a stated agenda, and therefore, there will be times when we will see the footprints of the secular culture which Paul is having to demolish.
Mulder: But what makes his ethics different from the best moral philosophy of the time? People like Cicero and others?
Winter: Well, I think it is that his ethical treatment is, first of all, very relational, and he is not prepared to endorse things that are culturally normative. Even Cicero said: who would be so narrow to prevent or stop young men doing what they have always done. This has always been their tradition: so you drop your trousers when your reach puberty and have sex with as many women as you can. And the Corinthian young men are doing the same because everybody is doing it! So there Paul is having to address an issue. So it is good to see what he is demolishing. How he demolishes, that’s how I arrive at my second book, its sequel is on how Paul resolve these issues.
Mulder: After your book After Paul Left Corinth?
Winter: After my book After Paul Left Corinth, I am writing a subsequent book called The Resolution of Conflict and Compromise. How does Paul resolve this with the Corinthians? Pastorally and then how does he deal with the underlying cause of the problem? So he deals with presenting the problem, and its underlying cause.
Mulder: Can you, just on that, namely the underlying cause, reflect a bit further, because I’ve read Paul Barnett’s book The Corinthian Problem in which he argues that chapters 1-4 deals with the crux to determine the underlying cause of the problems. There the cross seems important and not the resurrection as in chapter 15. I found that quite interesting.
Winter: For myself, I think chapter 15 is dealing with the underlying cause for all the problems that come from chapter 5:1 and all the subsequent ethical problems and its effect. And how does Paul deal with that? He dealt with the presenting problems, eight reasons why you don’t fornicate, but in chapter 15 his task is to demolish. Now the underlying presuppositions which is, when you ask the question, the resurrection of Jesus yes, how can some of you say there is no resurrection (15:17)? The deeds in the body don’t matter – that was the first century, and their ethics and arguments: what good is your sexual organ once you’re dead? So enjoy it now, nature has given us these things. So you can see that that is their justification. And even Philo as a Jew has to deal with it, so, it is sometimes good to compare ethical conduct between say, Philo’s treatment of things, being a contemporary of Paul, with Paul. This is a good comparison. And then you have Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, he’s a very sensible guy.
Mulder: A good moral philosopher, but he doesn’t believe in the resurrection?
Winter: No he doesn’t believe in the resurrection. He is only talking about what matters now. But for Paul, We must be always abounding in the work of the Lord, because the deeds in the body will accompany us, the good works, they follow us, in terms of the resurrection.
Mulder: 2 Cor 5:10?
Winter: That’s right yes. We all will have to appear before the Judgement seat. So 1 Corinthians 15 is dealing with how I think about my body. And Paul says Awake out of your drunkenness, stop sinning, some have no knowledge of God (1 Cor 15:34); and the last section is the imperatives saying clearly that we must be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord , knowing that our work in the Lord is not empty (1 Cor 15:58).
Our discussion made me think of this excerpt from After Paul Left Corinth:
“… some of the Christians believed what most of their fellow Corinthians believed, i.e., that the soul was immortal and that this mortal life alone afforded pleasure … they … differed with Paul, whose anthropology (and) ethical imperatives of the Christian life were based on the resurrection both of Jesus and the Christian. This important connection is found not only in 15:1-35 but also in 6:12-20, where it plays an important role, for Paul affirms, ‘But the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body: and God both raised up the Lord, and will raise up us through his power’(6:13b-14). If the background evidence assembled in this chapter is apposite, then Paul’s conflict with the Corinthians Christian’s view is a combination of first-century Platonism and a form of hedonism or Epicureanism which was defended by first-century sophists as an ethic of the élite”(105-106).
Thank you Bruce! Next time Part 2.