Peter O’Brien on Hebrews

PTOB HebrewsA review of Peter O’Brien’s commentary on Hebrews

This is a reliable and weighty guide for any serious student or patient preacher of Hebrews. Fans of Peter O’Brien’s Ephesians commentary, will not be disappointed by the characteristic attention to detail and theologically sensitive scholarship on display again here.

He confesses his inability to solve the authorship question, after canvassing Paul, Barnabus, and Apollos as possible candidates (though not Luke, as some have argued for recently, or the wackier suggestions of Mary or Priscilla). I would have liked more consideration of Paul here, since all the reasons given against him are well considered in earlier tomes, such as the gigantic commentary by John Owen (lamentably un-cited throughout, as is sadly normal nowadays despite its usefulness).

Nevertheless, the more important issues of actual exegesis and interpretation are carefully and often brilliantly handled. Sometimes deeper consideration of the peculiarly Jewish background of the epistle might have been useful (e.g. on the plural “ages” in Hebrews 1:2 or the phrase “word of God” in Hebrews 4:12), though O’Brien often points out the use of rabbinic interpretative methods in Hebrews’ rhetorical approach to paraenesis and helps us grasp the significance of what Hebrews is doing.

The exploration of controversial passages such as Hebrews 6:4-8 is careful, and edifying even if one disagrees with some of the details, and he does not press things too far in e.g. Hebrews 2:9. More could be desired on passages where Protestants and Roman Catholics have clashed in the past (such as on merit in Hebrews 6:10 or marriage in Hebrews 13:4), though he is admirably clear on “we have an altar” in Hebrews 13:10.

This review first appeared in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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David Peterson on Acts

DP on ActsA review of David Peterson’s commentary on Acts

The monumental new commentary on Acts, in the Pillar series, lands on the desk with a satisfying thud. David Peterson, former Principal of Oak Hill gives us nearly 800 pages, so this is not a “quick reference guide” for the preacher, by any means. It does, however, repay patient reading, and is insightful, balanced, careful, and scholarly without neglecting the purpose of a commentary like this which is to unpack the meaning of Scripture for the sake of proclamation.

The first 100 pages is a masterclass in introductory matters, with an excellent section of the theological themes of Acts. There is solid interaction with the Greek text (transliterated) throughout, and proper attention to secondary literature — but without simply being a summary of what other people have said, which is such an annoyance with many big commentaries today.

Peterson is considerably influenced by Tannehill’s groundbreaking work on literary approaches to Acts, and he sees “the progress of the word” as being a key structural marker throughout, as well as considering Luke-Acts as “one project with a common aim.” He keeps his eye on the big picture when looking at specific sections of the book, e.g. interpreting Acts 5 in the context of the programmatic Acts 2:42-47.

There are powerful asides for the pastors Peterson has himself trained, in his exposition of Acts 20. Theologically, he is well-aware of the uses to which various texts in Acts have been put. For example, he argues on the household baptisms that, “it would be remarkable if no babies were included” in any of them, though judiciously stops short of saying that they “prove” infant baptism. He also concludes with Barrett that Acts 13:48 is both an unqualified statement of absolute predestination and also affirms that those who do not believe are “appointed to death”, the negative being implied by the positive.

So, a reliable and weighty guide for any serious student or patient preacher of this book.

This review was first published in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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The Death of Scripture

LegaspiA review of Michael Legaspi’s The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies

Over the last few months, I’ve put up some reviews of various new academic books on biblical studies. Michael Legaspi would no doubt tell us that those sort of books are indicative of what he calls The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies.

This fascinating study, arising out of a PhD dissertation, focuses ostensibly on obscure German critic Johann David Michaelis (1717-1791), but tells the wider story of the changes in academic perspectives on the Bible over the last few centuries very well. Legaspi is concerned with the Bible’s loss of authority as “scripture” and how this led to the development of academic “biblical studies” as a new science: “textualization” he calls it. Unusually, he doesn’t link the demise of a “scriptural Bible” to the Enlightenment alone, but traces this back to Reformation conflicts, which fundamentally undermined the Bible’s authority he claims.

He looks at how academic university departments began to focus on non-confessional, antiquarian, and supposedly irenic readings of “the text”, replacing the “dogmatic” and controversial approaches of earlier centuries to the word of God.

Stimulating and well-written, with some really interesting glances at Old Testament poetry and how it has been understood (Legaspi knows his Hebrew), but sometimes exasperatingly broad-brush without adequate documentation.

Legaspi’s conclusion that the academic Bible and the scriptural Bible will always be at odds with each other is well worth pondering further, especially for those who are engaged in academic courses of theological study.

Stephen D. Moore and Yvonne Sherwood’s The Invention of the Biblical Scholar: A Critical Manifesto (Fortress. ISBN: 978-0-8006-9774-7) is similarly provocative, claiming that “professional biblical scholars”, even when they imagine they are doing something else such as serving the church and its confession, are actually “sustaining Enlightenment modernity and its effects.” This is a caustic and confrontational book, though quite entertaining at the same time, no mean feat for something so heavily theoretical.

These reviews were first published in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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Reverence for the Word

reverenceA brief review of With Reverence for the Word: Medieval Scriptural Exegesis in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

A medieval look at various aspects of interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Koran can be found in McAuliffe, Walfish, and Goering (eds.), With Reverence for the Word: Medieval Scriptural Exegesis in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Looking at interpretative issues across the three religions over the course of the period is actually quite illuminating, and reminds us that we are not immune to currents of thought flowing into the church from elsewhere. Allegory, narrative, and the various “senses” of scripture (in all three canons) are common themes.

Some individual chapters are brilliantly illuminating (such as John Boyle on Aquinas’ “division of the text” method as seen in his commentaries). Others seem more esoteric.

For anyone involved in “scriptural reasoning” or “meetings for better understanding” with those of other faiths, or for those interested in the middle ages, this could be a valuable volume to dip into.

This review first appeared in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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Reception History of the Bible

Reception HistoryA brief review of The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible

A wide range of modern interpretations of the Bible is on display in Michael Lieb, Emma Mason, and Jonathan Roberts (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible. This large volume is somewhat uneven, often frustrating, occasionally quirky, but vastly stimulating.

Its 44 chapters cover the reception history of certain portions of the Bible (such as Genesis, Job, Psalms, John, and Revelation) followed by a wealth of more specialised studies, such as “The Bible and Anti-Semitism”, “Esther and Hitler”, “Ezekiel 1 and the Nation of Islam”, “Exodus in Latin America”, and “Gnostic Interpretations of Genesis.” There are also a range of personal chapters on the biblical understanding of, for instance, Dante, Bob Dylan, Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley, Handel, Gandhi, Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and Joanna Southcott.

Vast amounts of further reading are suggested in a sumptuous volume that is not without its lighter moments and bizarre interludes.

This review first appeared in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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Brief History of Old Testament Criticism

GignilliatA brief review of Mark Gignilliat’s, Brief History of Old Testament Criticism: From Benedict Spinoza to Brevard Childs

This book is by a scholar who previously taught at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and is now Lay Canon Theologian at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama. Essentially, it is a study of seven major figures in Old Testament studies from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first: Benedict Spinoza, W. M. L. de Wette, Julius Wellhausen, Herman Gunkel, Gerhard von Rad, W. F. Albright, and Brevard Childs. These are used as windows into the major trends in critical studies over the last 400 years. It is a broadly reliable and readable textbook.

It is less brief, but it is worth noting at this point a new English translation of Henning Graf Reventlow’s four volume masterpiece, History of Biblical Interpretation. Each volume contains a number of 10-20 page biographies of major biblical interpreters, looking at their life and works and attempting to locate each one in the broader streams of thought in their age. This is a substantial and impressive work from a single scholar.

These brief reviews first appeared in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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Use and Abuse of the Bible

WansbroughA brief review of Henry Wansbrough, The Use and Abuse of the Bible: A Brief History of Biblical Interpretation

This is a very helpful and short (179 pages) overview of the whole history of interpretation and misinterpretation. Many will know Gerald Bray’s magisterial Biblical Interpretation Past and Present, which remains a much stronger and more reliable source, but this primer from a Benedictine Monk and former Chairman of Oxford’s Theology Faculty is vivid and well-written, even if he does think the Bible is sometimes historically inaccurate (and Paul employs “doubtful” arguments).

Wansbrough shows how theologians such as Aquinas have been sadly neglected as exegetes of Scripture, and digs deep to uncover the less than savoury motives of some interpreters throughout history. Further reading is helpfully indicated at the end of each chapter.

This review first appeared in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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