You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the blog of Jim West, Zwinglius Redivivus. Nor do you have to agree with everything he says to recognize that here we meet someone who is not only interesting, but manages to remain interesting. That’s not just because he’s funny. His real charm is that he has a clear, recognizable theme: while there are many people writing about Christianity, here’s a professionally trained theologian who understands the main issues, can offer context, and knows how to separate the good from the bad and the ugly.
He’s not just a blogger, though. West is also pastoring in the Baptist Church in Petros, which is a small town in Tennessee. I’ve not been there – in fact, I have never met Mr West – but photos show a sober, no nonsense building; its website shows a Christian community that appears to be open to others and willing to contribute to its town.
What caught my attention, though, is something completely else: Dr West has written a commentary on the Bible. Of course there are already many commentaries, but this one is focused on “the person in the pew”. The ordinary man or woman, in other words, who wants to read the Bible and just cannot make sense of that ancient text. Like the blogger West, commentator West seeks to educate people and show them the beauty of theology.
In this interview, done by e-mail, I will focus on two subjects: the commentary, because it is nearly finished, and the importance of Christianity, because that’s Jim’s theme.
Q: When I read the Bible, it took me about a year. You wrote a commentary, on almost every biblical book, which must have taken a lot of time. The project is obviously very dear to you. Why did you embark on it?
JW: The answer to that question is simple enough: commentaries are by and large written by scholars for scholars. It seemed an absurdity to me that this was the case whilst the very folk most needful of biblical instruction were left aside. I simply am seeking to correct that situation.
Q: Are you glad that it’s almost finished?
JW: Yes. I truly am. It has taken a very very long time and I have 1-2 Chronicles in progress and then will only need to do 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings and that will be it. I’ve enjoyed doing it and would do it again, but it has taken a lot out of me.
Q: I read one of the volumes and it is focused on people who really start to read the Bible. How are they responding? Have you changed your approach over the course of so many years and so many volumes?
JW: I have changed my approach only in that whereas before I used notes within the body of the text I am now using, sparingly, footnotes. The commentary has been, I’m very happy to say, well received by its intended audience. Layfolk who have read it are appreciative and one elderly Pastor who read the Commentary on Revelation wrote to say that he had never understood the book his entire ministry and had avoided it – but now he finally ‘got’ it. He had never had the chance to attend seminary or graduate school but he wanted to know what the Bible meant. There are, I think, rather a lot of people like that.
But I’ve also received very positive feedback from academics – so that’s gratifying.
Q: You are a Protestant, so I was surprised to see you write about the apocryphal books, which are not normally accepted as canonical by Protestants. You once admitted that you felt a profound dislike of Maccabees. Why did you include them?
JW: Simply because I think Protestants and Catholics, but particularly Protestants, need to know these books. Especially Sirach. A book I really like a lot.
Q: Does that mean that you are not reading those texts as the foundations of Protestantism, but as valuable as Jewish texts?
JW: Quite right. They are historically interesting but theologically marginal. And yet, they do possess theological merit. Even Maccabees, though in its case the merit is anti-merit. Never has any book made it quite so plain that the Maccabees were to their time what the Taliban are to ours: willing to kill anyone, even their own people, if they disagreed with their theology.
Q: Is there any chance you will add some from the Jewish religious texts that were not included in the Bible, the Pseudepigrapha?
JW: The Pseudepigrapha… hmmm… If span of life allows it would certainly be worth doing a commentary on the Enochic literature. That stuff is terribly important for the development of the thought found in the New Testament.
Q: At the end of any volume, you offer some suggestions for further reading. On the one hand, some basic texts; on the other hand, academic publications. It seems that you are experiencing the same difficulty as I do when I am explaining ancient history to a larger audience: there is hardly any secondary literature for people who are willing to make some intellectual effort and read a commentary or a book.
Q: My personal opinion is that skepticism towards modern scholarship is caused by the fact that precisely the people who are most interested, are essentially abandoned. Any thoughts about it? Would you like to write another commentary, now for people who have already some eduction, but are not yet ready for an academic study?
JW: I agree – as I stated previously – but I will have to leave such a work to someone else. The idea of writing a basic commentary AND a median commentary to guide entrance into more complex commentaries does not interest me at all. There is too much to teach the interested laity.
Q: One of the things I learned from you, is that we must not just explain how things are, but must also refute errors. I like your series of “twitter theology that makes me sigh“, in which you point out what is wrong in certain tweets. I also like your series on “Dilly the Dilettante“. What, in your opinion, makes poor scholarship so popular?
JW: Ignorance and stupidity and, if I might be blunt, the proclivity of people to gather to see an accident far more than they would gather to see a simple speaker.
Q: You have an open eye for the problems of modern Christianity.Your answer is very much an ecclesiastical one: people ought to take their church and its services seriously, while the church is there to serve God. Aren’t you underestimating the success of Christianity? I mean, Christian values are everywhere. Paul argued that in Christ, man and woman, slave and master, all were equal. In western society, no one denies that. Western humanism shares Christian values, and at least some atheism can be read as an attack on a Christianity that does not live up to its own standards and lets people down. Any thoughts?
JW: Christianity can never be merely a social program. Our job as Christians isn’t to make society better, or to make people better, it is to announce to them that they are not good and God loves them nonetheless and wants a better life, now and later, for them. Any ‘gospel’ that decentralizes the Gospel is a false and damnable pseudo-gospel worthy of both scorn and mockery.
Q: You often write about “Fun Facts from Church History“. I like this, because it is a part of western history that I am not well-acquainted with. What I do not understand, though, is how much of sixteenth century Protestantism is still relevant. I cannot for a moment imagine that as an ancient historian, I would recommend people to live like a Plato or a Cicero. So, how much of Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin is still relevant today? Or, to rephrase it: what’s the importance of a specific Protestant theology as part of Christian theology in general?
JW: The relevance of Calvin and Zwingli and Luther doesn’t lie in their personal lives or even their ideas – it lies in their methodology and their theological focus. They have much to teach moderns about how to THINK. An art lost for many today – tragically – even theologians and biblical scholars.
Q: A related question: Christ believed that his generation would see the complete renewal of this world. The Kingdom still isn’t here. Does this in a way compromise Christianity’s message to today’s people?
JW: Ah but the kingdom did come, in Christ himself. He is the means by which, through the work and power of the spirit that the reign of God commences.
Q: You have studied in Europe and often express sympathy towards typically European things: you love football and recognize the fun of having many languages. You are one of the few people who can offer and articulate an opinion on Christianity in the USA and Europe. What is the difference?
JW: Europe is a genuinely Post-Christian continent. America will be soon, but it is not yet. And Christianity will survive in Europe and America, as a religious minority, but Christianity will grow in the East and Africa. Those places will become the theological powerhouses of future Christianity.
Q: Final question: you used to make a lot of jokes about cats, who are little satans in disguise. They were a great running gag. Why did you replace them with Joel Watts?
JW: Because Joel is a friend and he can take the constant ribbing, like Chris Tilling can. Others are far too sensitive and (if I might) a little too self important. And self important people loath being prodded with teasing. And, finally, because Joel Watts literally IS the Devil. You heard it here first.