Category Archives: Reviews: New Testament

Reviews of books on the New Testament.

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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Froehlich on Biblical Interpretation

FroehlichA brief review of Karlfried Froehlich’s, Biblical Interpretation from the Church Fathers to the Reformation

There have been some interesting new books on interpreting the Bible recently. Karlfried Froehlich’s, Biblical Interpretation from the Church Fathers to the Reformation is a handy collection of 13 articles by a prolific scholar covering several aspects of medieval and Reformation biblical study.

A number of these articles focus on the Glossa Ordinaria, a medieval Latin commentary on the whole Bible which has often been attributed to Walafrid Strabo (erroneously, as Froehlich nicely demonstrates). He also considers the interpretation of Paul, particularly Romans 8, and the place of Peter (and the papacy) in history.

He shows that medieval exegetes were not blatant “prooftexters” or imposers of “framework” onto the text, with a lovely quote on this from Abelard, saying, “I do not want to be a philosopher in such a way as to lord it over Paul.”

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

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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).

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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).

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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.

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Doug Moo on Colossians and Philemon

The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon by Douglas Moo. Nottingham: Apollos, 2008     471 pp     h/b     £29.99     ISBN: 978-1-84474-341-4

So what does Moo make of Colossians? It was written by Paul (contra c. 60% of New Testament scholars). Good start! Following Clinton Arnold, Moo thinks (tentatively, we can’t be completely sure) that the false teaching in Colossae was a syncretistic mix of local folk belief, local folk Judaism, and false notions of Christianity; not a pure form of any particular identifiable philosophy, but a blend of different elements. Persuasive. He has some excellent observations on the text: the deliberate parallels between the thanksgiving section of chapter 1 and the prayer; Paul’s use of thanksgiving, convinced that ‘true gratitude for God’s grace is an important “offensive” measure against the false teaching’; a good discussion of the intractable problem of what ‘the elements of the world’ means in 2:8; why the realised eschatology in 2:12 does not imply non-Pauline authorship; why the most difficult verse in the book (2:18) is about worship offered to angels not by angels. 2:6-7 is confirmed as the heart and hinge of the book as a whole.

One oft-repeated comment Moo makes is that there is no direct reference to the Old Testament Law in Colossians. I don’t think I was quite convinced by this given the references to circumcision in the letter (which he claims are ‘very incidental’) and the ‘questions of food and drink… a festival or a new moon or a sabbath’ in 2:16, which is almost entirely explained away here on the basis that there is no direct reference to the Mosaic Law in Colossians so this can’t be one (though it does indicate Jewish influence apparently). I was a bit confused by this. I was also confused by some of the contortions on 3:18 concerning marriage, especially regarding the word ‘be subject’ (i.e. wives to your husbands), since more time seems to be spent here justifying Moo’s view that men ‘will often “submit” to their [wife’s] needs, desires, and wishes’, which he (erroneously in my view) bases on Ephesians 5:21. Though he shows that the Greek word here is used to describe ‘putting oneself under authority’ in the case of believers and God, humans and the government, slaves and masters, children and parents, and says that husbands rightly exhibit some leadership in marriage, he seems more concerned to promote the view that Paul ‘sets a trajectory that leads to a more equal sharing of all dimensions of the marriage relationship.’ He rightly critiques The Message translation of ‘understand and support your husbands’, as too weak, but I was left wondering whether he had not in fact reversed the meaning of the text in his own exposition of it, or at least moved along that trajectory (sic).

Slavery, says Prof. Moo, ‘is ultimately incompatible with consistent biblical teaching, and it is to the church’s great discredit that it took so long to recognize that fact.’ There is an interesting discussion of this in the Philemon section, where he concludes that even though Paul does not say so, we can draw the conclusion from what he says that it is not right to own slaves. The influence of W.J. Webb’s book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals is apparent here. Ultimately, however, he is clear that the book is not actually about slavery and its abolition, but more about fellowship in the gospel.  He also make a case that Philemon 6 is not about evangelism (despite the way it is translated in the NIV, ESV, RSV, and NRSV).

Professor Carson tells us in the Preface to expect ‘transparent hints as to the bearing of the biblical texts on today’s church.’ I confess to being a little disappointed that there are not more of these to help the preacher. Though perhaps I just didn’t get the hints.  Still, this is a worthy shelf-mate for the classics on Colossians by F.F. Bruce and P.T. O’Brien.

This review was first published in Churchman 126/4 (2012).

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Calvin on the Beatitudes

Sermons on the Beatitudes     John Calvin

Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006

114 pages     h/b     £9     ISBN: 0-85151-934-2

This short but handsomely presented book contains Calvin’s five sermons on the Beatitudes, newly translated by Robert White from the original French. They were preached in 1560, just a few years before the Reformer died, as part of a long series on a harmony of the synoptic Gospels.

The beatitudes are about true happiness, how to find it and what it consists of, something which even the Government has now begun to take an interest in and has started ‘measuring’ in recent years. Calvin clearly demonstrates how the Lord Jesus’ idea of what happiness is contrasts sharply with the things valued by the world (and modern Government statisticians). ‘We cannot reconcile the blessedness we seek with the idea of shame, poverty, hunger, thirst and other such afflictions,’ he says, but Jesus, ‘bids each of us renounce self, and take up our cross… To do that we have to give up our comforts!’ Indeed, ‘all who are rich in spirit, who are wrapped in self-esteem, who love earthly pleasures and social recognition, who claim merit on the grounds of birth or property, prestige or reputation – all such are accursed and rejected by Christ.’  On the other hand, Calvin affirms, ‘our happiness is always secure as long as we look to the kingdom of heaven.’

Here we have Calvin’s characteristically evocative and arresting use of language, which illustrates and applies the text better than any modern anecdote or funny story could hope to, although he is not incapable of conjuring up a scene to help us visualize how to apply Christ’s teaching. We also hear the wisdom of a leader who has worked through ecclesiastical divisions, and these inform his understanding of the text. So, commenting on ‘blessed are the peacemakers,’ he writes, ‘but we cannot avoid making many enemies. Satan has many allies in this world: possessed by his spirit, they cannot endure the light of the gospel or allow God to rule over them… We must therefore defend the cause of the gospel and bear witness to the truth of our Lord Jesus Christ, even if it means unremitting struggle with a large number of people, including those who pretend to be believers and who claim to be of the same religion.’ In such circumstances, ‘ to be at peace with everybody we would have to turn our backs on God.’ Obviously he has what he calls ‘the Pope and his crew’ in mind, but this application continues to resonate on other fronts too.

Calvin is not afraid to reject other interpretations of the text which are overly subtle or deep, or those which although they may be ‘good and wholesome’ do not, however, ‘fit the context.’ The translation reads well, and Calvin’s distinctive voice is as perceptible here as in the other English translations we have of his sermons.  Unusually, there are even one or two ‘notices’ preserved in the text, with brief notes about events in Geneva. Although the temptation might have been to edit these brief paragraphs out, they do bring an air of authenticity to the sermons.  The endnotes include a two-page summary of each sermon, which is a little odd, and although the historical and linguistic notes are useful (e.g. a couple of times Calvin may sound like an Arminian, but the notes put his comments into the correct historical and theological context, without twisting his words), I would have preferred them to appear as footnotes rather than endnotes. In my view a bigger volume or two containing all the Gospel Harmony sermons would be desirable, but this slim volume is a great start and would be an easy place for those unfamiliar with Calvin’s preaching to experience its challenges and joys for the first time.

This review first appeared in Churchman 126.3 (2012).

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