Cosmology and New Testament Theology

Article excerpt

Cosmology and New Testament Theology. Edited by Jonathan T. Pennington and Sean M. McDonough. Library of New Testament Studies 355. London: T & T Clark, 2008, x + 213 pp., $130.00.

The title of this book co-edited by Jonathan T. Pennington of Southern Seminary and Sean M. McDonough of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary highlights what is particularly distinctive about this contribution to the study of NT cosmology. This is not merely a collection of analyses of such things as just how many levels of heaven Paul may have thought there were (although such issues are not overlooked) but rather a refreshingly wide-ranging collection of essays that consistently and seriously engages with the theological significance of the cosmological language used by the NT authors. Some of the essays indeed have rather less to say about cosmology proper than about theology, but this can not really be considered a weakness of the book, since one of the purposes of the editors is to demonstrate the ways in which the two are necessarily intertwined.

McDonough and Pennington observe in their brief introduction that the subject of their book is one that has been relatively neglected in NT scholarship. With this volume, they aim to make a start at meeting the need for comprehensive studies that attend not merely to the use of cosmological language to say something about the physical structure of the universe but also to the way in which such language yields insights into an author's worldview and theological interests. To borrow the language of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (whose work is referred to several times in this volume, though not without some criticism), the NT writers are generally considered by the authors of these essays to employ cosmological language less for the purpose of describing the world "as it is" than for constructing a "symbolic universe" that reflects their values and beliefs - even if (as Robert L. Foster points out in his essay) these two purposes need not be mutually exclusive.

One question that this approach raises is what status the NT writers would assign to their own cosmological claims. As McDonough and Pennington put it, "Could the NT writers, while gravitating towards a 'three-tiered' view of the heavens, not have countenanced alternative schema for 'levels' of the cosmos, with the full awareness that these were not meant to be definitive accounts of what is scientifically the case, but rather were employed because they served useful literary or theological purposes?" (p. 3). It is unfortunate that, apart from making a few general observations concerning the unscientific "flavour" of cosmological statements in the NT, the editors make little attempt to suggest just how one might go about answering this question. McDonough and Pennington would in any case answer their own question in the affirmative and so adopt the assumption that people of the first century - including the NT writers - had "latitude ... to employ different [cosmological] models according to their theological needs" (p. 3).

One of the merits of this approach - apart from the rather obvious way in which it lends itself to a focus on literary and theological issues - is that it allows for the potentially diverse cosmological models in the biblical books to be taken on their own terms. This has influenced the structure of the volume, which, after a chapter on Graeco-Roman and ancient Jewish cosmology, proceeds book-by-book or section-bysection through the NT, ending with a brief conclusion that explicitly calls attention to the absence of any attempt by the authors "to reconstruct a uniform 'early Christian view' of the physical universe" (p. 189). This is a project that Pennington and McDonough would consider impossible in practice and misguided in principle. In what follows, I can offer only brief comments on each of the chapters, with the aim of giving readers a taste of the riches on offer, but I will also raise an occasional question or criticism of my own. …