For anyone studying the Bible, theology, or religion, the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature (AARSBL) is the go-to conference to learn about the latest and greatest in current research. Several thousand scholars from all around the world descend upon an unsuspecting city’s conference center and hotels. This year Boston was the site. The AARSBL is the one time that usually introverted academics become social: seeing old friends and renewing professional acquaintances. Paper topics given are as wide as you can imagine, ranging from studies of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas to the controversy over the Luther Playmobile figure. Unexpectedly, papers are very hit-or-miss in both quality and value. Rather than attending every section possible, I’ve found it best to be selective in what I attend. It’s either that or suffer great exhaustion. Day One for me feature two outstanding sections, one on the Gospels and the other on Luther!

The Gospels section I attended reviewed two recent books by Chris Keith and Alan Kirk. Keith’s book, in particular, outlines a new theory concerning how traditions about Jesus in the early Church spread. Instead of the old model that sees an increasingly pervasive pollution of Jesus’ teachings by the Church (represented by Rudolf Bultmann’s form criticism), Keith characterizes the Jesus tradition as an ongoing act of interpretation by the church that mediates the past of Jesus’ life while appropriating it within the context of the present day. Past and present, history and interpretation, are not placed in opposition to one another. They are, instead, inseparable and interdependent. This is what Keith calls “Social Memory Theory” and it is a new trend in historical Jesus scholarship.

The other book, by Alan Kirk, is concerned with the hypothetical “Q” document, which was supposedly utilized by both Matthew and Luke. The book itself was broadly discussed, but the real fireworks of the session began at the suggestion by Francis Watson that “Q” never existed at all! Advocating what he called the L/M hypothesis, Watson believes that Luke had access to Matthew when composing his Gospel. Without getting to far into the weeds of the debate, I think the real take away of the session is that there was even a debate in the first place. For almost a century now, the “Q” document has been the overwhelmingly accepted theory, often used by scholars as a rival to the canonical gospels. The reactionary defensiveness in the session revealed to me that the long-dominance of the “Q” hypothesis is coming to an end.

The final paper of the day I saw was by Mockingbird’s own Simeon Zahl. Titled, “Prayer and Affliction: Martin Luther on the Spiritual Roots of Theological Insight”, Zahl walked through Luther’s theological method and its prioritization of prayer and affliction.

On the one hand, Luther considers personal experience to be the “raw material” for theology and its study of scripture.  For Luther, “experience alone makes the theologian” to avoid the sin of speculation. On the other hand, Luther also had a thorough suspicion of the sinner’s instinctive orientation to the self that complicates any ability to honest self-evaluation or discernment. Luther’s solves to this apparent paradox by defining experience as cruciform experiences of suffering, death, and need. These are what Oswald Bayer calls experiences “we do not design, but suffer”. The experience of suffering leads to prayer to God, specifically petitionary prayer by the needy. Theology must begin with humility. This is the pattern of life for both Christians and theologians, making the enterprise of theology the giving of balm to the weary rather than instruction to the student.

Zahl then offered a few conclusions/implications of Luther’s thought. Luther’s prioritization of prayer and affliction makes theology a dynamic, living, ongoing process of engagement between the self and scripture. Theology is a living event, like a bird in flight. Secondly, this makes theology (or the doctrine of God) indebted to soteriology (or the act of salvation in Christ). Finally, Luther’s theological method deems one’s contextualized experience to be a gift to theology. Experience is not to be discounted, but transfigured into one’s theology through prayer.

Come back tomorrow for a summary of Day Two!