Recent commentaries on Ephesians

Arnold on Ephesians

A review of Arnold’s commentary on Ephesians, and that of Verhey and Harvard.

These two commentaries on Ephesians in two brand new series of commentaries cost exactly the same. But which is better for the preacher?  And what is distinctive about each?  Verhey and Harvard claim their commentary is “theological” while Arnold’s purports to be “exegetical.” This is too simplistic, however, and underplays the usefulness of Arnold’s theological contribution particularly. Verhey and Harvard is shorter and perhaps more chatty in style than the rigorous and well-footnoted Arnold, and it contains more in the way of “reflections”. These, however, are sometimes meandering, whereas Arnold keeps closer to the purpose and thrust of the text when he moves from exegesis to application. The former contains numerous “side-bars” with interesting quotes from Barth, Niebuhr, Brueggemann and others whereas the latter interacts more obviously with other recent commentaries on Ephesians and wrestles with the Greek text.

When it comes to details, to pick just one example, Verhey and Harvard claim to be nurtured in the Reformed tradition and so rightly do not see marriage as a sacrament. They interpret Ephesians 5:21-22 (on marriage) as indicating mutual submission. For them, this means mutual service of one another, in which submission finds its pattern in Jesus (although they stop short of saying Christ submits to the church, unlike Alan Padgett in his 2011 book As Christ Submits to the Church: A Biblical Understanding of Leadership and Mutual Submission). “We will not perform this passage well,” they tell us, “if we take it to be a timeless code.” Instead, it nudges us towards “God’s good future” where we do not simply adopt the role relations that were common in the first century.

Arnold on the other hand does not see the command to submit as applying to the husband in marriage but only to the wife. The instructions for a Christian marriage are based not on the Roman culture of the day (on which there is a long excursus) but counter-culturally on the timeless truth of the relationship between Christ and the church, so that husbands have a God-given role assigned to them, both then and now.

These are seemingly small but important differences in overall approach, and Arnold is far better at looking to the actual details of the text both here and elsewhere. His distinctive take on spiritual powers, magic, and folk religion are well known in NT scholarship, and are usefully summarised here, and he ends with a good section on the theology of the letter. Verhey and Harvard’s commentary is more lightweight in every sense, though for some (if used with discernment) it may stimulate some useful reflections near the end of sermon preparation.

This review was first published in Churchman 127/3 (2013).

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews: New Testament

Schreiner on Galatians

Schreiner on Galatians

A review of Thomas Schreiner’s commentary on Galatians (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary).

This new series of commentaries from Zondervan has been specifically designed to be useful to pastors and Bible teachers. It uses Greek, but does not assume the user is an expert scholar. It gives a “main idea” or theme sentence for each section of text covered (a sort of medieval scholastic idea which has enjoyed a revival in recent years). It contains up-to-date analysis of scholarly debates but does not get bogged down in them. And best yet, it has visual, graphic displays of the flow of thought in each passage which (and I am trying not to feel patronised!) was considered helpful for pastors. There’s even a nice “computer-like” graphic to illustrate scrolling down the outline of the book.

Each section ends with “theology in application” which has some suggestions for applying the text in a congregational setting, and there is a useful overview of “themes in Galatians”, interestingly placed at the end of the commentary rather than the beginning. Here and there throughout the commentary there is the odd grey box excursus looking at issues such as the role of Empire in Galatians, the translation of pistis christou, and “the Law of Christ.”

Tom Schreiner, a professor at Southern Baptist Seminary in Kentucky, will be known to many for his faithful work on the theology of Paul, excellent commentaries on Romans and Peter’s epistles, and for solid topical books on the Law, so-called “believer’s baptism” (i.e. adult believer’s only baptism), perseverance, and the gender issue. He is a prolific and careful scholar whose attention to detail does not preclude an understanding of the bigger picture, and he is clearly Reformed in his theological convictions. All this makes for an edifying, rich, and very useful commentary for preachers.

I was a bit puzzled by Schreiner’s description of the covenant theology of Galatians. For example, he asserts that “there is no straight-line continuity between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. Paul does not conceive of them as the same covenant.” He also says “Paul does not think the addition of the Mosaic covenant constitutes a clarification of the covenant with Abraham. They are fundamentally opposed.”  But Sinai is “subordinated” to the Abrahamic promise, and is a conditional law covenant. Yet there is a “fundamental incompatibility” between them. However, later he claims “This is not to say that the Mosaic covenant was not a covenant of grace” (the very term usually employed by Reformed theologians to speak of the “straight-line continuity” of God’s saving purposes) and indeed that the law and the promise “are not contradictory but complementary.” They are incompatible, but they fit together? I was confused at this point – is he saying that the Mosaic law is a conditionally gracious, fundamentally incompatible but subordinated, complementary covenant? I also found some of his comments (on not treating the Old Testament as “a flat entity” for example) helpful, but others seemed to be somewhat removed from the point Paul was making in Galatians and to push Paul’s illustrative language a little further doctrinally than may be warranted by the rest of the New Testament.

But these are controversial issues and there has always been a range of recognizably Reformed opinions on how the Mosaic Law fits in. Plus, Galatians itself is pretty complicated in places! I found Schreiner immensely stimulating when preparing to preach a series on it, but by no means the last or clearest word. All the same, this is a fine all-round piece of work which robustly defends Reformation insights into the gospel against detractors old and new (including the New Perspective on Paul), and answers many of the questions a preacher will have. I look forward to further volumes in this promising series, which is edited by Clinton Arnold and lists Richard Bewes and Paul Gardner as Consulting Editors.

This review was first published in Churchman 127/2 (2013).

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews: New Testament

Medieval Commentaries on Galatians

Levy on Galatians

A review of Ian Christopher Levy’s The Letter to the Galatians (The Bible in Medieval Tradition).

Thirty years ago the historian of biblical interpretation David Steinmetz published a provocative article called “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis.”  He argued that our understanding of scripture had not been entirely helped by nineteenth and twentieth century developments in historical criticism. “Until the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermeneutical theory adequate to the nature of the text which it is interpreting,” he said, “it will remain restricted – as it deserves to be – to the guild and the academy, where the question of truth can endlessly be deferred.” More light could be gained, Steinmetz claimed, by returning to some aspects of the medieval approach to the Bible.

This volume, lovingly put together by Ian Levy, is an attempt to place a variety of medieval commentaries into the hands of Bible teachers and scholars, so we can see what Steinmetz was getting at. Previously, the six commentaries translated here (in whole or in part) lay un-translated, unedited, and so unloved by those without the energy or enthusiasm to chase them down and read them in Latin. This promises to be just the first volume in a new project to give us renewed access to “The Bible in Medieval Tradition” in a way that is similar to IVP’s excellent (and more Patristic-focused) Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series edited by Thomas Oden.

Levy begins by giving us a weighty and very useful introduction to medieval methods and styles of biblical interpretation, so that we are well briefed on what to expect.  He then translates the whole of the Galatians commentaries by Haimo of Auxerre and Bruno the Carthusian, and the “Questions on Galatians” of Robert of Melun. To these complete works are added samples from Peter Lombard on Galatians 2, Robert Grosseteste on Galatians 3, and Nicholas of Lyra on Galatians 4. So the book covers the period from the ninth century to the fourteenth, and gives us an excellent idea of what medieval exegesis looks like, with helpful clarifications and historical notes from the editor (with the help of modern commentaries by e.g Betz and Longenecker) along the way.

I put this book to the test in preparing a series of sermons on Galatians. After reading the more recent commentaries of Dunn and Schreiner, I turned to these medieval glosses to see if they would bring me further light in my preparation. I was pleasantly surprised to find that on several occasions the technical discussions in the modern commentaries were mirrored by similar discussions in the medievals. We must not assume that ours is the first generation to read scripture with critical care and diligence. I was sad not to find the absurd allegories I had been led to believe were the stock-in-trade of pre-Reformation exegetes (always nice to have a giggle when doing sermon prep). Indeed, often the older commentaries were better written, clearer, nicely illustrated (verbally I mean, not pictorially), and certainly more aware of some of the theological implications of the text than many modern interpreters who attempt to make a virtue of isolating Galatians or other portions of the Bible from the canon, not to mention the history of Christian reflection. Parts of Bruno made it into the pulpit almost unedited (and unacknowledged) because he is so readable and often pithy. It was a joy to read of “faith alone” in Grosseteste, and that “through grace [Christ] is both the giver of faith and its very content.”

It is disappointing that although they were not entirely unaware of Greek and Hebrew, these men worked primarily from the Latin Bible, and so occasionally their etymology or grammar is not completely trustworthy. Renaissance humanism was, after all, a great gift to the church in making us more diligent to go back to the sources. Gordon Fee says in his Galatians commentary (2007) that he wants to read Galatians “as if the Reformation never happened.” This is naïve and impossible for us, but if we want to have a perspective on the text which takes it seriously as God’s word but which is not skewed in its approach by the massive upheavals of either the Reformation or the New Perspective on Paul (which can lead modern commentators to spin the text in particular directions) there is surely no better way to do it than to get this well-crafted little volume. I look forward to further volumes in a promising series.

This review was first published in Churchman 127/2 (2013).

PS. I found this book inspiring as I was writing on Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of Hebrews here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews: New Testament

Evangelical Millennialism

Gribben Millennialism

A review of Crawford Gribben’s Evangelical Millennialism in the Trans-Atlantic World, 1500-2000.

Millions of evangelicals continue to expect the final transformation of a slowly dying world, and this book is a great guide to the sheer diversity of their opinions on the subject. Crawford Gribben has already written extensively on early modern and modern eschatology. His work The Puritan Millennium (Paternoster, second edition, 2008), for example, is a must-read for those who are serious about engaging sixteenth and seventeenth century millennial views, and he has also written on the modern penchant for rapture fiction. This current work, however, stretches the net even further, to take in evangelical views of the expectation of an earthly golden age on both sides of the Atlantic over the last five hundred years. Six roughly equal chapters engage with the emergence, formation, consolidation, expansion, content, and dominance of evangelical millennialism.

The book begins, innovatively, with a glossary. These are usually put at the end of course, but here it is vital to be clear on various terms and -isms right from the start. Some of this material is repeated at appropriate points as the book progresses, and Gribben proves an expert commentator on the vast literature and nuanced terminology of both evangelicalism and eschatology. He is a master of every fine distinction and exegetical turn but manages to combine this with a fairly light touch in presentation.

As someone who grew up enjoying Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth (and Nostradamus!) but has come to appreciate the amillennialism of the major Reformation confessions, this book is a powerful reminder of just how many different options I could have plumped for and still remained evangelical. It is also a somewhat humbling shock to the system as one realises that great evangelicals of the past have differed so widely on these issues, and the author sees the continuation of this as strong evidence that end-times thinking is a secondary issue in many constituencies today.

Gribben is right to conclude that “the urgent and often political prophetic enquiry of North American premillennialists can seem closer to the puritan legacy than the passivity of many of their amillennial or postmillennial cousins”, but perhaps this should prompt us to action and to recall that one doesn’t have to be wacky to wonder what God is doing in the world, and when it might come to an end. It is a shame that this excellent little tour guide to the last 500 years of writing on this subject is outside the reach of many pockets.

This review was first published in Churchman 127/2 (2013).

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews: Theology & Church History

Documents of the Christian Church

Documents of the Church

A review of Bettenson and Maunder’s Documents of the Christian Church.

This is a new and improved version of a popular and accessible old classic (last updated in 1999), which brings together some of the most significant documents and texts in church history. There are always things with which one could quibble in such anthologies. The editorial glosses are sometimes tendentious and not positive towards Reformed Protestantism. The sixth to the tenth centuries are under-represented (a shame not to have some of the “Carolingian Calvinism” of Gottschalk and Ratramnus for example). I would have liked to have seen the Thirty-nine Articles included somewhere, and at least some of the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, or Canons of Dort (though it is interesting that the Five Points of Arminianism are included, in the section on Counter-Reformation Catholicism!). There is a section claiming to represent seventeenth century “Anglicanism” which is basically full of Laudians, and sadly no hint of George Whitefield’s impact in the eighteenth century. The church’s everyday work of preaching or commenting on Scripture is almost entirely absent, but perhaps that is for a different compilation?

The new sections draw together modern material, including something from GAFCON, Katharine Jefferts Schori, Alister McGrath on Richard Dawkins, and a Roman Catholic statement about the internet. Socio-economic and “justice” issues predominate in the more up to date selections, and there could have been more on Eastern Orthodoxy. But the editor includes material which he strongly disagrees with (e.g. Patrick Sookhdeo on the challenge of Islam) for which he is to be commended, and it is of course an incredibly difficult job to anthologise twenty centuries! Overall, more period-specific collections (such as Gerald Bray’s excellent Documents of the English Reformation) will continue to be indispensible, but the updated Bettenson and Maunder remains a very useful repository of a broad range of standard texts from across the centuries.

This review was first published in Churchman 127/2 (2013).

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews: Theology & Church History

Pastors and Scholars

Piper and Carson

A review of John Piper and Don Carson’s The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry.

John Piper, the pastor-scholar is joined in this little paperback by Don Carson the scholar-pastor to talk us through the tensions and advantages of this dual role. This would be an excellent little paperback to give to aspiring theological educators and the more scholarly types of ordinand who wonder how they can continue to integrate their new found love of theological scholarship with the busyness of a parish ministry. Piper writes well about how writing itself helps him think, about logic in biblical interpretation, and about how at seminary he found all his Arminian presuppositions being undone as he engaged in exegesis. He tells us he has always preached from a full manuscript and it is clear that his scholarly nature has enabled him to be a clear thinker, writer, and preacher. But he also speaks about how such a scholarly bent can over-intellectualize the faith into something “academic rather than heart-wrenchingly real.”

Don Carson speaks about how the excellent Dallimore biography of George Whitefield is one of the few books that makes him weep. He writes about how, “Nothing is quite as deceitful as an evangelical scholarly mind that thinks it is especially close to God because of its scholarship rather than because of Jesus”, and how important it is for PhD students to be engaged in ministry of some kind at the same time as their studies. In typical Carson fashion he informs us that during his three years at Cambridge, alongside his doctoral studies, he taught the Bible 2.6 times per week (so precise!). At one point he got excited that as a Cambridge student he “was walking on stones where John Owen walked” – which shows he is a better biblical scholar than historian (Owen was at Oxford). Nevertheless, he speaks well of the subtle forces at work in academic environments to lure evangelicals away from the truth and towards academic respectability. The personal stories of both Piper and Carson help to anchor the good advice they give to prospective scholar-pastors and pastor-scholars in this useful book of reflections on life and ministry.

This review was first published in Churchman 127/1 (2013).

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews: Theology & Church History

Tributes to Calvin

Tributes to Calvin

A review of David Hall (ed), Tributes to Calvin: A Celebration of his Quincentenary.

This is another volume of the “Calvin 500”series of books inspired by the quincentenary of John Calvin’s birth in 1509. Now that the hype (and in some quarters, excitement) of the anniversary itself has calmed down, there is still value in reflecting on the Genevan Reformer’s life and ministry, so this volume is by no means out of date. Indeed, with some of the best names in Calvin and Calvinist scholarship represented here, this is a very useful introduction to the literature on the man and his legacy which should stand the test of time and be a standard reference point on the aspects of his influence it covers for many years to come.

The book originates in papers given at the Calvin500 conference in Geneva in 2009 and includes material from e.g. Henri Blocher, Hughes Oliphant Old, Daryl Hart, R. Scott Clark, Anthony Lane, Mike Horton, Bruce McCormack, and Herman Selderhuis. There are 23 chapters broadly divided into three, looking at ‘Calvin’s Times,’ ‘Calvin’s Topics,’ and ‘Calvin Today and Tomorrow.’ The first section covers Calvin’s contribution as, for example, a lawyer, a Frenchman, a preacher, a commentator, and a liturgist. The second examines things like his teaching on worship, assurance, soteriology, and the Lord’s Supper. The final section looks at his ongoing impact in areas such as the arts.

It is worth picking out a few highlights. George Knight III’s study of Calvin as a commentator is very useful indeed, as it reminds us that Calvin is more than the theologian of the Institutes and was in fact a skilled and diligent commentator on scripture who sought primarily to understand God as he has revealed himself there and anchored all his theologizing in the word. It is always worth remembering his stated principle in commentating of ‘lucid brevity,’ which was unusual in his day (and something many modern commentators have long forgotten!). Here is a preacher who writes commentaries for preachers.  A.T.B. McGowan on Calvin’s doctrine of scripture is an examination of the issue of inerrancy from one who himself has caused ripples recently through his own published views on the subject. McGowan concludes that Calvin is neither an inerrantist nor an errantist but an infallibilist, who bases the authority of scripture on the connection between word and Spirit. He dismisses the syllogism, ‘God is perfect. Scripture is God’s word. Therefore the original autographs of scripture were perfect’ as Baconian rationalism, which I think is an inadequate response, and so this chapter is less edifying, for all its stimulating argument.

Finally, Jae Sung Kim gives us a fascinating snapshot of Calvin’s ongoing impact in Asia, particularly in the Presbyterian churches there. His bold conclusion is that ‘Embracing the Reformed faith and Calvinism as the best form of biblical Christianity is the only answer for Asians, as well as everybody else in the world.’ Now there is a courageous and passionate conviction to stir up some discussion amongst those in the wider Reformed world who have also been influenced both recently and in the dim and distant past, by the cultured Frenchman who offered his heart ‘promptly and sincerely to the Lord’ and continues to have a powerful ongoing ministry amongst us through his writings. Will his impact on the English-speaking church of the twenty-first century be as great as it was in the sixteenth?

This review was first published in Churchman 127/1 (2013).

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews: Theology & Church History