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Before Asking, Write Down Your Question

Before Asking, Write Down Your Question

One thing I have enjoyed for the past few years in the UK, both in Durham now and while I was in Edinburgh, is attending seminars and conferences to hear world class scholars visit to lecture. I would estimate that, for one out of every five or six papers, I will venture a question (generally if the audience is fewer than, say, 30 people)–A real treat, if you ask me!

Early in my time at Edinburgh, I determined to only ask a question after I had written it down and refined it to a reasonably clear and simple form. This, I think, is good practice for junior and senior scholars alike! It never fails that during the Q&A of a paper, a questioner and presenter go back and forth, tossing their thoughts like darts at each other without ever quite hitting the target. Frustrating for all involved!

I must confess that recently I did not follow my own advice. I had the privilege of listening to a provocative paper by Prof Michael Wolter of the University of Bonn on the Apostle Paul’s conception of ‘Faith’, the use of pist– langauge to identity the early Christian community. At one point, he compared 1 Thess. 2:13 with Rom. 1:16, making the point that as the ‘word of God’ (i.e., Paul’s proclamation) καὶ ἐνεργεῖται ἐν ὑμῖν τοῖς πιστεύουσιν, so Paul could say in Rom. 1:16 that the Gospel is the δύναμις … θεοῦ ἐστιν εἰς σωτηρίαν παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι. In other words, the power (δύναμις) of the Gospel for Paul, according to Wolter, is ‘power’ for those who have faith, those who accept it as the word of God.

Immediately I began wondering how Wolter’s emphasis on the Gospel’s ‘power’ for the ‘faithful’ might affect his understanding of the rest of Rom. 1:16–17. In other words, my question was something like, How does your interpretation of δύναμις in relation to the Gospel and τῷ πιστεύοντι illuminate your understanding of other parts of Rom 1:16-17 that you have not commented upon, if it does at all (e.g., ‘the Jew first and also to the Greek’ and the rest of v. 17)? But I never bothered to write down my question–in fact, I had resigned myself not to ask it as time was drawing short. But then, there was moment of silence–time for another question. So up went my hand.

Whatever I said, it must have been something less precise as Prof Wolter’s response was to comment upon each part of vv. 16 and 17 without regard to the central thesis of his paper. Had I written down my question in advance, I would have at least been confident that I had a clear question, even if it was misunderstood. But as it is, I suspect my question was vague! Lesson learned, I hope.

One final note to this rambling: Wolter’s attention to the details and argument of the Greek text was refreshing. And his writing–in his non-native English, mind you–was exemplary for its clarity.

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