The Second Epistle to the Corinthians by Paul Barnett

The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT Commentary) by Paul Barnett (Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1997)

We have already been blessed with an exposition of 2 Corinthians by Bishop Paul Barnett in the Bible Speaks Today series.  His latest offering however is a full-length technical commentary on that same letter in the NICNT series, as a replacement for one by Philip Edgcumbe Hughes.  The reader will quickly notice the difference between this and Barnett’s earlier work.  There is more attention to the Greek text, lively interaction with recent scholarship and a thorough treatment of historical issues.  Barnett weaves doctrinal comment into his exegesis and always has an eye on the broader Biblical Theology into which 2 Corinthians fits.

Particularly welcome is the attention paid to connectives throughout the letter;  too often commentaries leave the preacher wondering whether the Apostle Paul had an ounce of logic in him, but not so this commentary.  Paul’s line of thought is carefully traced from paragraph to paragraph with a meticulous eye for detail.  It can be exhausting (every de and gar is subjected to close scrutiny) but rewarding for those who see the text as more than a series of unconnected ‘thoughts for the day.’

Dr Barnett gives a thorough defence of the letter’s unity.  There are, he declares after reviewing the arguments, ‘several good reasons for upholding the unity of 2 Corinthians and no conclusive arguments for rejecting it’ (page 24).  Not least among the “good reasons” is the overarching logic to Paul’s argument throughout the letter, the recurring theme of which is ‘power-in-weakness’.  However, the case is not overstated:  there may be no conclusive arguments against unity but there are some, a fact which is taken seriously.  The Bishop is no pious obscurant, secretly wishing for a return to the ‘good old days’ when such issues were never discussed.  Rather, no weak argument goes unanswered.

Infuriating for the preacher who desires more certainty, Barnett is always cautious when attempting to reconstruct the situation in Corinth.  He has his own ideas and can mirror-read the text with the best of commentators ancient and modern.  He even offers us some tantalizing speculations.  What he resolutely refuses to do, however, is to base his exegesis completely on speculation.  Commenting on 10:1-6 he claims the details of the historical situation are ‘impossible for us to reconstruct at this distance,’ but that, ‘Paul gives his readers an important teaching that does not ultimately depend on whatever historical context existed’.  It would be nice to know more, but we can preach the message of the book without it.

As an aid to preaching, this commentary has much to commend it.  Greek is kept to the footnotes, but the more one has, the more one will benefit from Barnett’s insight.  The footnotes are remarkably educational, explaining most of the many technical terms used.  One does not need to read cover-to-cover; much of what has gone before is summarized at the beginning of each section and there are a plethora of footnotes which repeat and refer the reader back to previous discussions.  This makes it useful to those who may only be ‘dipping-in’ to preach one or two sermons.  The NIV is used as the basis for comment (helpful, if that is what your congregation is reading) although it does not escape criticism.  Each section contains some useful comments on application, which go some way towards bridging the hermeneutical gap.  However, consonant with Barnett’s insistence that 2 Corinthians ranks alongside the Pastoral Epistles as a book for the Christian minister, the applications are too often directed solely at the minister or missionary.  This is also true of his BST exposition.  Notwithstanding this small complaint, I warmly commend this commentary as a solid, reliable and thought-provoking guide to the text of 2 Corinthians.

This review was first published in Churchman 113/1 (1999).

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