Phil Sumpter (7/08)

Blogger of the Month for July 2008

John Hobbins Interviews Phil Sumpter

Editorial Note: Phil Sumpter authors the Narrative and Ontology blog at

JH: Phil, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. I enjoy your blog immensely. I think anyone who seeks to relate Scripture to the Church in an intelligent and engaging fashion will profit from reading it.

PS: The pleasure’s all mine, John! I find I learn best when I’m forced to be accountable to others for what I think, so interviews like this are ideal for keeping me on my toes! As I skimmed through your questions I had to take a deep breath …

JH: Which came first for you, becoming a believer or a hard-bitten intellectual inclined to sneer at everyone else’s intellectual laziness? Actually, I don’t remember you ever sneering at any one. Have you always been such an agreeable chap? Tell us about your background.

PS: I struggle to see myself as a “hard-bitten intellectual” (sounds cool though), but either way I’ve been a believer as long as I can remember. Not that my belief has always stayed the same, of course. At some point I realized there was no point in asking for new bicycles to appear in my bedroom. In fact, it is my faith and my experience of God that drives just about everything I do, intellectual or not. God being the God he is, when you get a taste of Him you can’t stop hungering for more. And the frustrating paradox of his hiddenness, solid presence and concrete call for obedience creates fruitful existential conditions for a life of intellectual searching.

As for being agreeable, I think those with whom I’ve debated would see things differently … if for nothing else a blog is a great arena for learning how to hold a constructive dialogue, through trial and error.

Background? To keep it short: I’m British but have lived all over the place. Grew up in a boarding school, spent a year in Israel, did a BA in Cultural Anthropology, taught English in Paris, did an MA in Old Testament theology, taught in Germany, and am now doing a PhD in the same subject.

JH: I seem to remember you commenting on my blog before you started blogging. What drew you to blogging? What do you like most about it? How do you write so much and so well? I get writer’s cramp when I look at your output.

PS: I’m actually a cyberphobe and would never dream of doing such a thing. But I discovered fairly quickly that you can’t do a doctorate without dialogue partners. Bonn seems to have none (really), so I took a deep breath and followed a friend’s advice to investigate these things called “blogs.” I accidentally discovered Tilling’s Christendom, which was a wonder, and through him I discovered others including yours. I also got involved in the Biblical Studies List and through dialogues with certain members realized I seemed to know more about a certain Brevard Childs than most others and therefore had something to say. So I took the plunge and exposed myself to the vicissitudes of cyberspace.

The benefits of having your own blog: making contacts, finding great dialogue partners who don’t give up and keep pushing me to justify myself, and the feeling that I’m not sat in my office talking to myself.

I write so much 1) because I prioritize posting to my blog and 2) because a lot of it is material I’ve already written so it’s just a matter of cut and paste. But John, I wanted to ask the same question of you …

JH: Do you blog for a specific audience? You seem to attract very intelligent commenters. Have they ever helped refine your own thinking?

PS: I don’t blog for a specific audience, though my subject matter is certainly specialized. I’ll happily respond to whoever comments. Though ideally I’d like people who are willing to challenge me as well as give their own input. As for commenters: definitely yes! Questions have been raised that I need to think about and poles of a spectrum have been emphasised, thus forcing me to maintain a healthy balance.

JH: You are a big fan of Brevard Childs and Chris Seitz. Given that they have arrived on the scene, is the Second Coming of the Messiah no longer necessary? I’m just rewording something I overheard in a conversation with Jim West. Seriously, why are these authors important?

PS: I think they may be doing a good job of preparing the way! Seriously, I think this is a good question. As far as I can see, the question of “theological exegesis,” i.e. interpretation for the church, is incredibly complex. It’s a big question and requires taking into account knowledge from a variety of fields which the Enlightenment has separated and compartmentalized for us (on a kind of divide and conquer principle). It isn’t possible to just study hermeneutics, or historical-criticism, or dogmatics and come up with a tidy package for the future. The whole system needs an overhaul and this is where Childs comes in handy. His breadth of knowledge was astounding, he was constantly pushing boundaries in several fields (OT, NT, Biblical Theology, Dogmatics, Patristics, historical criticism). I discovered him by accident, thinking he was a good place to “start.” I soon realized that there was no ending and so have decided to stick with him. It’s a pity his whole programme has been reduced to misnomers such as “synchronic” or “final form exegesis.”

Seitz is like Childs but funkier.

JH: I’m impressed that you, whose native language is English, live and teach in Germany. You also had the marvelous good sense to marry a continental European. I once tried to convince seminary deans in the United States to institute a mandatory year abroad program for M. Div. students. A number agreed it was a good idea, but they didn’t know how to pull it off financially – the loss of revenue would be considerable. How important do you think it is for pastors, priests, and rabbis to be multilingual and have a full-immersion experience in a culture not their own?

PS: Coming to Germany and diving into the language has been one of the most challenging and yet enriching experiences I’ve had. I think the general benefits are well known (broadened horizons, expanded capacity to think, increased street-cred). As for religious personnel, I’m sure it’s very helpful in a general kind of way. They have to be immersed in the world so every little bit helps. I couldn’t say how valuable such knowledge is, however, for the fulfilling of their task. I think ultimately it’s more important what you do with what you know than what you know.

JH: How is your dissertation coming? What’s it about?

PS: Thanks for asking. I posted my research proposal here. Basically, I’m going to interpret Psalms 15 and 24 in their canonical context. I’ve spent the first half of my doctorate trying to figure out just what Childs was on about. I’m still working on it, but I hope to have this phase finished soon! If all goes to plan I’ll start looking at the Psalms as of October. The main question on my mind is where I’m going to draw the line in interpretation: what is a “canonical context” anyway?

JH: On a lighter note, what does a day in the life of Phil Sumpter entail?

PS: Given that I’m dead set on getting this doctorate finished as soon as possible, I mostly just work. My wife drags me out of bed when she gets up to teach (early!). I then spend the day reading and writing notes, alternating locations every few hours in order to reduce the monotony. The highlight of the week is leading a Bible study group, which gives me the opportunity (and challenge) of seeing how my ideas work out in a pragmatic, non-intellectual context.

JH: I believe you teach biblical Hebrew. I get depressed when I realize that even most professors of biblical literature can’t open their Hebrew Bibles and make sense out of what they read without a translation to guide them and the aid of a dictionary. Do you see ways the teaching and learning of the biblical languages might be revitalized in our day?

PS: I don’t teach, I’m a tutor. That means I help those who are being taught by someone else. I love it as the method is totally different to the one I used (Lamdin) and in my opinion is far more effective. We use the course byWolfgang Schneider which is inductive. Instead of mechanically learning each individual conjugation table the student is taught the basic characteristics of each “mood” and form and thus how to recognise them across the board (such as the yod in plural possessives or the patakh under the prefix in hiph’il). The effect is that the amount of abstract learning is reduced and students can get on with the real task of actually reading the Bible. If I was to teach a course, I’d think about translating the book into English in order to use it!

JH: Thanks for responding to my questions, Phil. We wish you the very best in your life and calling.

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