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).