Monday, December 27, 2010

Divine Sovereignty, Human Responsibility, and the Problem of Evil Part 3

Now that we've briefly canvassed divine sovereignty and human freedom, we will look at the implications of our sketch on the questions of whether or not we humans are responsible for our actions and also the problem of evil.

From my previous sketch of human freedom it should be clear that we are morally responsible for our actions. God works in and through our actions to bring about his desired purposes, but he never violates our will. We have the freedom to choose good or evil, however due to our fallen condition we persist in choosing evil. As an aside, while I do believe that the thrust behind the notion of irresistible grace is right, I don't particularly care for the name. God's electing purposes never fail. All of those whom he chooses come to him, but we do come freely. We don't have any desire to resist his grace.

I also think that my approach sidesteps some of the perennial problems surrounding the problem of evil. As we’ve mentioned above, God never wills evil. Usually there is some evil that attaches itself through our actions to the good that God wills, and in that sense one could say that evil goes back to God’s will. However, it would be unfair for God to be called responsible for that evil. Also, when one notices that God’s sovereignty is more about his power rather than his control (not that the two are always separable), it helps again deflect the unwarranted criticism that some may make that God causes evil.

Granted we are still left with the question of why God doesn’t prevent evil. Based on the conclusions we have drawn so far we can respond by saying that God permits it for a greater good. We may not know what that greater good is, but we must trust that the loving, omniscient, and good God knows better than we do. While God allows evil, we also see in Scripture that God uses his sovereignty to defeat evil and was willing to send his Son to the cross bearing our sin and our shame to free us from Satan’s grasp, defeating him in an act of suffering. God is not idly sitting by watching evil happen. He has actively opposed it at great cost to himself and will one day bring it to an end. Evil is not willed by God, but neither is it outside of his control.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Books of the Year: 2010

This year was a good year for me. I read lots of good books so picking just 5 is tough, but here are the five books that I liked best and learned the most from:

5. James by Craig Blomberg and Mariam Kamell


I read several good commentaries this year. My favorite was the inaugural volume of the ZECNT series. I'm a big fan of the layout of the series and the quality of the commentary is pretty good too. My understanding of James was greatly enhanced by reading it. (see review here)

4. Old Testament Ethics for the People of God by Christopher Wright


Chris Wright is one of the great synthetic minds among Old Testament scholars. His treatment of ethics was rich, innovative, and Scriptural. I also appreciate that he allows the accents to fall where Scripture lays them. I never felt that he was forcing his argument or that the system overwhelmed specific texts. (see review here)

3. Praying with the Church by Scot McKnight


I read a few books on prayer this year, as it's an area that I need to grow in. What separates this book from other books on prayer is its emphasis on prayer as a means of practicing the communion of the saints both across time and traditions stretching back to the time of Jesus (along the way you get a nice accessible overview of prayer in church history). After reading I was propelled to start using the Book of Common Prayer in my personal devotions which has greatly enriched me.

2. Drama of Doctrine by Kevin Vanhoozer


I cannot even begin to describe the impact that this book has had on the way I approach and teach Scripture. This is the most challenging book on the list but it's well worth the effort. In his suggestion that Scripture is the script that we are to improvise upon, Vanhoozer avoids a lifeless, literalistic approach to applying Scripture without undermining biblical authority because his 'method' maintains deep roots in Scripture. This book should be required reading in every seminary.

1. Inhabiting the Cruciform God by Michael Gorman


I probably spent more time on this book than any other book I read this year, reading it and rereading and wrestling with Gorman's claims. I definitely came out the other side for the better, and I'll never be the same again (I hope). Gorman has a pastoral heart and it shines through in this book. The first chapter on Philippians 2:5-11 is worth the price of the book. (See review here)

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Now for the top 5 books published in 2010 that I hope to read in 2011:

5. 1 Corinthians by Brian Rosner and Roy Ciampa


If you read this blog regularly you know that I love commentaries. Out of all of the commentaries out this year, I am most excited about this one. Thiselton covers the Greco-Roman background of 1 Corinthians beautifully. Rosner and Ciampa should do the same for the Jewish background.

4. On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene by Ernst Kasemann


I gotta say that a big part of what gets me is the title. I love it. The word on the street is that this book is very good. I am intentional about reading books from outside of my theological tradition. I make sure I at least read a few each year. This will be my top choice for 2011.

3. Practice Resurrection by Eugene Peterson


I have to admit that I've never read a book by Peterson and I've heard a lot of good buzz about this book. Again, I like the title, so I'm hooked.

2. Remythologizing Theology by Kevin Vanhoozer


Vanhoozer is my favorite systematician and this is his first major work of theology (everything else he's written could loosely be logged under 'hermeneutics'). That makes it a must read for me.
1. Constructing Jesus by Dale Allison


This upcoming year I intend to read several books on the historical Jesus, and this will be on the list. His three volume work with W.D. Davies on Matthew is probably my favorite commentary on any book of the Bible and his book on the Sermon on the Mount is largely overlooked but very very good (and more accessible). I think he raised some very important issues in his little book on the historical Jesus from last year. I'm interested to see how he extends those thoughts in a fuller volume.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Divine Sovereignty, Human Responsibility, and the Problem of Evil Part 2

This is the second post in a series of three looking at the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom which then will propel us to further discussion on human responsibility and the problem of evil. The first post in this series looked at the sovereignty of God. In this post we will discuss human freedom and the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom.

Do human beings have a free will? The chorus of Scripture is univocal, whether it is from the Pentateuch, historical books, wisdom literature, or the prophets in the Old Testament; or the Gospels, Acts, or the Epistles in the New Testament. Free will is rooted in creation. In the fall, Adam and Eve sinned against God in an exercise of their free will. They chose to eat the fruit that God commanded them not to eat (Gen. 3:1-6). Free will does not seem to have been completely lost as a result of the fall, either. Another clear text in the Pentateuch on the freedom of the will is Deut. 30:11-20 where God, speaking through Moses, presented the people with a choice (Deut. 30:19 explicitly uses the word ‘choose’). They could either choose to follow God and keep his commands or they could reject him. The whole system of the Old Testament law with its commands and punishments for disobedience seems to assume human freedom, otherwise it is hard to see how the law could be just. Free will also is a background assumption in many other Old Testament narratives (e.g., Gen. 13:1-18; Josh. 24:1-28; 1 Sam. 15:1-35).

Again, the assumption of the freedom of the will is found throughout the rest of Scripture as well. The book of Proverbs opens in Prov. 1:8 with the call to ‘listen’ and ‘not forsake’ the instruction that follows in the remainder of the book. The prophetic literature in its narrative portions show individuals exercising free will (e.g., Dan. 1:8-16) and prophetic exhortations again often assume the free will of the people receiving the message (e.g., Ezek. 18:1ff). Demands of repentance along with reports of people accepting or rejecting the message of Jesus and the apostles are found throughout the gospels and Acts (e.g., Mt. 4:17, Ac. 2:41). In the epistles, ethical demands and warnings against apostasy abound (e.g., Heb. 3:12-15). Some particularly seem to assume the ability to make decisions, especially passages related to Christian freedom (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:36-38). The presence of options seems to assume some degree of human freedom.

Philosophy has approached the question of free will in different ways. It is considered one of the most important open questions, to which we are nowhere near a solution. Those who are materialists recognize that in our experience we do believe that we have freedom, but that it is an illusion. All of our actions are necessitated and rationality is reducible to brain states or other similar phenomena. Thus for materialists and other determinists, we have no human freedom. There are several reasons for rejecting this approach. One is that, as we showed above, Scripture seems to imply that we do have the real ability to make choices without compulsion. Human experience concurs with Scripture. In our everyday lives all of our interactions presuppose this ability. The notion of justice also operates on the assumption that we have the ability to steal or not steal; murder or not murder. Those who don’t are considered criminally insane. Given what we know about biology it also seems impossible that our free will is an illusion. As philosopher John Searle states, ‘The processes of conscious reality are such an important part of our lives, and above all such a biologically expensive part of our lives, that it would be unlike anything we know about evolution if a phenotype of this magnitude played no functional role at all in the life and survival of the organism’ (Freedom and Neurobiology p. 20) It seems very unlikely that God would create us and have such a central part of our experience be an illusion. Recognizing the validity of this argument, there are others who do think that we have free will, either of the compatibilist or incompatibilist sort. Compatibilism claims that both determinism and free will are compatible, while incompatibilism insists that they are contradictory. We will evaluate these below. First we must take up the question of the extent of human freedom along with the extent of divine sovereignty together.

One passage that relates the two is Is. 44:24-28. The passage opens in vv. 24-27 affirming the sovereign power of God by listing various things he is sovereign over. These verses could be read as affirming a meticulous sovereignty, meaning that Isaiah is saying that God controls everything that happens in the world, and thus since God decreed the result in vs. 28 it will happen because he is meticulously sovereign. That is not the only viable way to read this passage, however. Vv. 24-27 could be affirming the power of God as the sovereign creator king, and thus vs. 28 would be a promise of his future action that he is powerful enough to bring about. Somehow God is working through a means, Cyrus, to accomplish his will. God carries out his plan of redemption using human agents. This is consistent with how God works throughout Scripture and is rooted in his creational intentions. God created us in his image, with the intended function of being God’s representatives, the ones through whom God ruled the earth.

This passage provides support for the concept that in any action there can be primary and secondary causes. Both God and man can cooperate together in any action, though their participation is not identical. This concept has been heavily relied upon in the Calvinist and Thomist traditions. God is the primary cause and man is the secondary cause. Man, as the secondary cause, is unable to thwart God’s will. The way Calvin and Aquinas understand man as the secondary cause does have some differences. Calvin strongly emphasizes God’s sovereignty. He claims that God determines all of our actions and contingency is only from our perspective. However, that does not mean that we have no voluntary participation. You can also detect a dislike of the term ‘free will’ in Calvin, but he never does close the door on its use decisively (Calvin prefers not to use the term ‘free will’ because it could mislead one to believe that the unregenerate are not slaves to sin.). Aquinas is more explicit than Calvin on this question and seems to take a little softer stance. For him, some things are willed by God to happen necessarily and others contingently. Thus, even that which is contingent has God’s will as its source. Our acts fall under God’s providence, because our will comes from God. Our free will is a secondary cause that God uses to carry out his sovereign plan.

Our will, while free, is not completely unfettered, and apart from God’s intervention, his plan would not be carried out. We will look at the question of election as a paradigm, specifically at the the opening blessing of Ephesians 1:3-14, which contains perhaps the strongest statements about God’s sovereignty in all of Scripture. First, we must note in vv. 4, 5, and 11 the strong, repeated emphasis on God’s sovereign election of us, his determining that we would be saved. This is according to God’s plan which is executed without being stopped (vs. 11). God decreed it in eternity past, therefore it is sure. Clearly salvation is an act of God. We would be wise, though to see how God’s action is described. It’s described as an act of redemption or liberation, a forgiveness of sins. The condition that necessitated God’s sovereign act of liberation is enumerated in Eph. 2:1-3. We were enslaved to sin and under the dominion of Satan. Thus, God’s sovereign act is an act that liberates us and brings us under his rule. His exercise of his sovereignty is an exercise of his power to break us away from Satan. Our inability to come to him apart from his sovereign work is not presented as a metaphysical inability, but as a moral inability. God makes us alive (Eph. 2:5), freeing us from our bondage and enabling us to freely choose God, which, Ephesians 1:3-14 tells us, we will do. To sum up, God’s election of his people is a decision made before creation that he will move on our behalf to free us from the bondage that we have put ourselves in through the exercise of our will. God is so powerful that he can do this in a way that guarantees our free choice of him. That the result is guaranteed in no way diminishes our freedom.

Many within the Christian tradition have affirmed that divine foreknowledge does not diminish our freedom. God knows what we will freely do in any and every possible situation. To enact his plan of election all God need do is to arrange the situation so that we will choose him freely.

In conclusion, there seems to be two legitimate options related to the relation of divine sovereignty and human freedom, both of which are compatibilist in nature. One is congruism. God works together with man to bring about God’s ends and everything that happens is ultimately made certain by God’s will. This relies on some of the important distinctions that we discussed above, such as the distinction between primary and secondary causes. I believe, though, that this position does run into some difficulties. How does the congruist account for texts that suggest that God changed his course of action (e.g., Jon. 3:1ff.)? There is no room in the congruist account for God reacting to human action. Thus it seems that a partial compatibilist approach fits better. God is the involved, sovereign king who acts in history to bring about his purposes, and he will infallibly bring them about. While God and we work together to bring about his plan, he does not cause every action, which leaves room for him to react to our actions. God is the king who is actively involved in ruling his realm and is in the process of bringing it into complete submission (cf. 1 Cor. 15:22-28). Some things God renders certain, and others conditional. Graham Cole’s suggestion that it may be best to see God acting by writing a beautiful piece of jazz music that we perform in tandem with him is a helpful way of looking at it. [1] Our actions are generally guided. The piece only allows certain notes to be played, but there is interplay between God and us.

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[1] “The Living God: Anthropomorphic or Anthropopathic” Reformed Theological Review v. 59 (2000) pp. 16-27 - I know most of you don't have access to this article, but the point Cole makes is so significant that I had to cite it. At the foundation of Cole's argument is that there is a huge difference between anthropomorphisms stating that God has a hand and alleged anthropopatisms which state that God has emotions or reactions. Clearly the statement that God has a hand can't be literally true because God doesn't have a body. On the other hand, there is no logical reason why God can't have emotions or reactions. Those don't require a body.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Book Review: James

Thanks to the folks at Zondervan for providing a review copy and a slot in their blog tour. Make sure to check out the first batch of reviews here.

The Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament is a new series on the market geared towards pastors. I've heard excellent things about each of the volumes so I was looking forward to getting my hands on a Blomberg's and Kamell's work. I won't detail the features of the series in this review (you can see my description at the bottom of my commentary series overview post). I will say, though, that the layout is unique and very helpful. One concern that I had seeing the commentary proper split into so many sections, was that there would be substantial overlap of material. My fear proved to be unfounded. The authors and editors did a stellar job at fully utilizing the format. I also must say that they hit their intended audience dead on. The amount of technical information was just right. They don't bog you down with gobs of detail on minutiae, but there's enough to inform you on important matters, whether they be grammatical, lexical, or of cultural/historical background.

As for the contents of the commentary, again I was quite pleased, though, of course, certain elements of the commentary were better than others. The introduction was brief but helpful. It covered the usual topics, such as authorship, dating, and the circumstances prompting the letter taking traditional stances and giving reasonable defense for their positions. Blomberg and Kamell also spent several pages explaining the overall structure of James. I found this to be the most beneficial section of the introduction as I've always struggled to see an overall cohesiveness to the letter. They argue in the introduction (and defend in the commentary proper) that the entire letter focuses on three themes: trials, wisdom, and riches and poverty. These are introduced initially in 1:2-11, reiterated in the same order in 1:12-27, and then developed at length in reverse order from 2:1-5:18.

Of the three main topics of the letter, I most appreciated Blomberg's and Kamell's discussion of wealth and poverty. Much of what James says on this topic sounds so harsh that it's easy to say that he didn't really mean it that strongly. Blomberg and Kamell don't go down that path. They're not afraid to make the conclusions that many of us don't want to hear like, 'It may well be true that it is impossible to be both rich and a Christian unless one is generous in giving from one's riches' (254 - emphasis mine). This does seem to be the clear emphasis of Jas. 2:14-26. At the same time I liked the balance of their approach. They don't go overboard like some liberation theologians do. James is not advocating salvation by social class, but again, that shouldn't make us wealthy Western Christians any more comfortable in our shoes.

At a broad level, several aspects of the commentary stand out. One is the way in which Blomberg and Kamell colorfully draw out the meanings of the various metaphors and adjectives that are sprinkled throughout James. For a reader familiar with the text it can be easy to gloss over these, but Blomberg and Kamell help you understand how they would have been heard by the first audience. One example is in the sexual and reproductive metaphor in Jas. 1:14-15. Specifically, they point out that James is using the metaphor to show how difficult it is to stop the process of desire, sin, and death once it has started. 'Here James uses a more vivid metaphor, showing the reproductive process as difficult to stop once it begins...One can almost envision three generations here: desire as a "parent," sin as a "child," and death as a "grandchild"' (72). This isn't a mind blowing observation, but it's easy to miss this type of thing and Blomberg and Kamell consistently make the easy to miss, obvious, while presenting it in a fresh way.

I also appreciated the way in which the commentary matched James in tone. James sometimes is very cordial and at other times rebukes his audience. Blomberg and Kamell are not afraid to wear both of those hats. At several spots throughout the commentary they addressed the reader directly (I offered a snippet that I found particularly powerful here). This is often not done in commentaries. Many commentators are willing to write purely at the level of description (and granted this may be a necessity in most academic series). I am very glad that they were willing to confront the reader on several matters, especially in a series geared towards pastors and teachers. If one is going to teach the text, one must first live the text. It's easy to try to get away without applying the text to yourself, but Blomberg and Kamell do their best to keep that from happening.

My only complaint with the commentary is that too much space was allotted to the issue of gender-inclusive translation. I favor gender-inclusive language, and I personally use the TNIV and NRSV as my primary translations, so it's not as if I disagree with their translation. It just seemed like every word that could be translated in a gender-inclusive manner drew substantial comment. In fairness much of this was relegated to the footnotes, but I am a compulsive footnote reader, so I quickly drew tired of the same issue being rehashed.

Overall, I have to say that James is an excellent commentary that will both inform and nourish the reader. Every pastor, seminary student, and serious lay student should have this volume on their shelf. It will provide you with the literary, lexical, and grammatical help that you need while also furthering your thought on the implications of the text in the life and ministry of your church. 5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Galatians 3:15-29: The Law, in Canonical Context

15 Brothers and sisters, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. 16 The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. 17 What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. 18 For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

19 Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. 20 A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one.

21 Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. 22 But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

23 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (NIV)

It's been a long time since I've written one of these posts, but we've come to a spot where I think it's critical to do a canonical reading of the text. Particularly from verses 17-20, one could get the impression that Paul had a negative view of the law. From passages like this some Christians also get the idea that the law has no function anymore in the life of the believer. De facto they say that it was the word of God to a people of a past age but it is no longer.

Besides the fact that I think that those stances go far beyond what Paul actually says (see my earlier post on this passage), there are other good reasons to reject that view. First, we should notice the high degree of intertextuality in Galatians 3:7-4:7. Paul constructs his entire argument on the Torah, especially on Abraham. Galatians 3:20 is particularly helpful in that Paul cites a portion of the Mosaic law approvingly.

The second problem for this view is the rest of the NT. Probably the most obvious spot to go to would be Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount in Mt. 5:17-20. There Jesus gives the law the strongest affirmation that he possibly could. It is eternal and its commands are not to be set aside. So if Jesus and Paul aren't in disagreement, how do we merge their views together.

It's helpful to recall what Paul is trying to do here. His argument is very specific; namely the Law is no longer the boundary marker defining who are 'in' the people of God. The Spirit is now the guide that keeps our behavior within the boundaries fitting for God's people. The law, though, can still have a positive function (and occasionally does for Paul - in addition to Gal. 3:17 also see e.g., Eph. 6:1-3). The Spirit can work through the law in our hearts, but it will be through the law understood as a picture of how God wanted people to live at a particular point in salvation history, a period we no longer are in. It's not a neat process. There's a lot of cultural translation required. However, we do need to have our imaginations inspired by the vision that God had for his people Israel (Christopher J.H. Wright's book Old Testament Ethics for the People of God is indispensable). Thus, there isn't really a disagreement between Jesus and Paul on the law here. In Galatians 3 Paul is simply clarifying that the role doesn't have a constitutive role for the people of God (later Paul will state that the Spirit and the 'law of Christ' are the wellspring of Christian ethics which is in no way inconsistent with what is stated above, but we will look at that when we get to the relevant places in our study of Galatians).

Monday, December 13, 2010

Divine Sovereignty, Human Responsibility, and the Problem of Evil Part 1

This is the first of a three part series on Divine sovereignty, human responsibility and the problem of evil. The first two posts will function largely to prepare us for the final post where most of the conclusions to the more difficult and controversial issues will come. I want to keep this initial post largely devoid of those matters to give the Scriptural contours the emphasis that they deserve and lot them be overshadowed by the later debates of church history and philosophy.

Divine sovereignty is a linchpin of the entire Bible. God’s sovereignty is rooted in his identity as the creator of everything. The tie between God as creator and king is clearly made in Ps. 145 (the analysis below is largely drawn from Goldingay). Vv. 1-2, 10, and 21 express commitment to worship Yahweh. In vv. 1-2, the psalmist commits to worship ‘the king,’ thereby expressing God’s sovereignty over the whole world. In vv. 10 and 21 all of creation joins in the worship. Taking the two emphases together, this psalm neatly draws out that God’s sovereignty over everything as its king is rooted in the fact that he made everything. Ps. 145 also provides a good basis from which to further investigate the nature of God’s sovereignty. Vv. 3-9 and 11-20 provide the reasons why the king is worshiped. It is because of a coupling of greatness and goodness. His greatness is unfathomable (vs. 3), his acts are mighty (vs. 4), and his kingdom is everlasting (vs. 13). He is no despot, though. Echoing God’s self revelation of Ex. 34:6-7 the psalmist proclaims, ‘The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love’ (Ps. 145:8 NIV). The Lord also is good to all (vs. 9), righteous (vs. 17), and faithful (vs. 17). As we carry forward our study of divine sovereignty, especially as it relates to the problem of evil, it is critical that we remember that God’s rule is good and righteous, and benefits his creatures, and as God is the subject of our study, we must approach him with due reverence.

God’s rule is good and it is also extensive. In the Old Testament God creates the world (e.g., Gen. 1:1ff), rules over the nations (Ps. 22:27, 28), and moves the hearts of kings (e.g., Is. 44:24-28). History is determined by God, but he is not a distant king. God is actively involved in major events in history (e.g., Dan. 5:1ff) and in the lives of individuals (1 Sam. 1:1-20).
The biblical portrayal of God as the king greatly shapes the way it presents God’s sovereignty. He is the God who rules in favor of his loyal subjects (e.g., Rom. 8:28, Rev. 6:9-11) and punishes those who oppose him and his people (e.g., Exod. 6:3-8). Thus God’s judgment proceeds from his sovereignty and God exercises his sovereignty for his glory and our benefit.

The Bible closes in Revelation 20-22 with God’s exercise of his sovereign judgment reaching its apex in the defeat of Satan, the judgment of all of humanity, and new creation. In the moment when God’s sovereignty is most clearly on display, its purposes are to glorify Christ and vindicate God’s people. God’s sovereignty is that which makes sure the missio dei. This underscores what was mentioned earlier, that God’s sovereignty is presented in a positive light, and should draw us to worship. God is the sovereign king who rules and reigns over the whole earth. He is moving history towards the completion of his plan of redemption and reconciliation. The sovereign acts of God are for (at least) the twin goals of his glory and our benefit. Nothing in our lives is outside of his loving care.

How then do we deal with the fact that in the Old Testament it was common for God to bring judgment upon his people? This happened repeatedly during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness (e.g., Num. 11:1ff., 21:4-9), and again frequently in the time of the judges (e.g., Judg. 2:10-15, 6:1). Judgment was even more severe during the monarchy, ultimately leading up to the exile of both the northern and southern kingdoms (cf. 2 King. 17:7-23, 2 Chr. 36:15-21). This led the people of Israel to cry out to God asking how he could bring it to pass, especially through evil nations (e.g., Hab. 1:12-17). As their God, they expected him to be on their side. As we mentioned before, though, God’s sovereignty serves to bring him glory. He is glorified when he is truly revealed. His judgment of his people revealed his holiness. The people’s own actions and sin necessitated his punishment of them in accordance with his promise (cf. Lev. 26:14ff, Deut. 28:15ff). So, while God did judge his people, his judgment was just and he was faithful to his promise as he preserved a remnant. It also is not fair to think of God’s punishment of the people of Israel as being purely for punitive reasons. It was still out of love and was a means to bring them to repentance. This logic seems to lie beneath Ezek. 18.

In Ezek. 18, the people are complaining to God about the injustice of being in exile because of their parent’s sin (Ezek. 18:1-2). God responds with the claims that he is just, that he punishes those who deserve punishment, and that, above all, he desires repentance. It seems legitimate to draw that at the macro level that the text is not only vindicating God but also urging the people to repent. God sent the people into exile to draw them back to himself.

At this point I think it would be helpful to go a little deeper and ask how Israel going into exile related to God’s will. Here we will utilize the tradition to formulate our answer. For Aquinas, God’s will is the source of all things, though he does work through secondary causes. While God’s will is the source of all things, God does not will evil. How can that be? Moral evil happens but there is a sense in which it is not willed by God. What is willed by God is some specific good, but often good cannot happen without having an evil attached to it. God neither wills evil to be nor wills evil not to be. This is necessitated by God being perfectly holy and righteous. He cannot will evil. If Aquinas is correct about God not willing evil, then I believe that we can say that God both willed for his people to return to him and also willed that his holy justice be upheld. The fulfillment of this will necessitated the evil and atrocity of the exile, but God did not will it.

Our portrait of God’s sovereignty is becoming clearer, but we still have some additional issues to work through. We have not yet addressed whether God’s will imposes necessity on all things, and related, the exact nature of human freedom. We will look at the latter in our next post. The key take home for this section is that God's sovereignty stems from the fact that he is the perfect king. His rule is a rule that is good for his subjects and that brings himself glory.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Blomberg and Kamell on Honoring God

The very people reading this book may be among those most prone to deceive themselves into thinking they are obeying the gospel, precisely because they are studying detailed reference works like this one! They are probably scholars, pastors, teachers, or serious and committed lay people if they go into this much depth in their analysis of Scripture. But countless Christians with access to and interest in such resources often fool themselves into thinking that new insights, proclaiming God's word in their spheres of influence, or the good feelings that come from communing with God and others in the process of studying the Bible can substitute for actual obedience to Scripture's commands. By contrast, those whose devotion to God's word leads to greater obedience to his will not only demonstrate the reality of their faith, but find blessing in the very process of honoring God through their behavior (Blomberg and Kamell: James 98-99).

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

More Calvinist than Calvin?

I'm working on a paper on the topic of divine sovereignty and human freedom. Occasionally on this topic (or the subtopic of election) you will hear people through out the barb at strong Calvinists that they're 'being more Calvinist than Calvin.' After having read Calvin carefully on the issue I don't think that there's any validity to that charge. I don't see a material difference here between Calvin and say John Piper. Here are several quotes from the Institutes to prove my point.

'All events are governed by God's secret plan.' I.xvi.2

'Governing heaven and earth by his providence, he also so regulates all things that nothing takes place without his deliberation.' I.xvi.3

'Nothing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by him.' I.xvi.3

Calvin explicitly rejects a limited providence, 'one that by a general motion revolves and drives the system of the universe, with its several parts, but which does not specifcally direct the action of individual creatures.' I.xvi.4

'It is an absurd folly that miserable men take it upon themselves to act without God, when they cannot even speak except as he wills! Indeed Scripture, to express more plainly that nothing at all in the world is undertaken without his determination, shows that things seemingly most fortuitous are subject to him.' I.xvi.6

Calvin tells us, 'when we are unjustly wounded by men, let us overlook their wickedness...remember to mount up to God, and learn to believe for certain that whatever our enemy has willingly committed against us was permitted and sent by God's just dispensation.' I.xvii.8

I think it's fair to say that there is strong continuity between modern manifestations of Calvinism and Calvin's thought.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Giving Thanks By Giving

We've just passed Thanksgiving, a time where we remember and give thanks for all that God has done for us. He has blessed us in a multitude of ways, especially in material prosperity - almost embarrassingly so. At the holidays many of us like to express our gratitude to God by giving to those in need. I wanted to alert you to a worthy outlet for your giving. I know that some are suffering from fatigue from being asked to give to Haiti, but there's still an enormous need that we cannot forget or overlook. Let's not grow weary in giving thanks to God by giving.

A friend of mine, named Jenny Bahng has been to Haiti twice on short term mission trips since the earthquake. While there she spent her time ministering to children in some of the worst slums in Haiti. In January she's gong back for six months and she's raising money both for herself and for the children of Haiti. She's started a blog that you should check out. Read more about what she will be doing and if the Lord leads you, you can make a tax deductible donation by PayPal via the sidebar of her blog.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Paul's Argument in Galatians 3:15-29

15 Brothers and sisters, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. 16 The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. 17 What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. 18 For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

19 Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. 20 A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one.

21 Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. 22 But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

23 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (NIV)

I won't typically take passages this long in our study of Galatians, but it's too easy to chop up this single argument into bits and then get it wrong because you don't see how the whole passage fits together and also because Paul's analogy in verse 15 can get bent severely out of shape if pressed too far and not understood in light of the following paragraphs. In this section of his argument Paul substantiates his earlier claim that the covenant people enter the family of God on the basis of faith by exploring the relationship between the Abrahamic covenant and the law. This is one of the more difficult and dense sections in the letter so there will probably be a couple of posts spun off from here dealing with specific issues. Here we will focus on his main points.

Paul begins in verse 15 by using an example from Greek and Roman law. Wills are unalterable by anyone other than the person who made the will. The same is true in this case. God made a promise to Abraham and to his seed that he would receive an inheritance from God of, among other things, a worldwide family. It's important that we notice here that Christ is the recipient of the promise. It is to him as Abraham's seed that a family is promised. The Gentiles join Abraham's family via Christ, the seed, not via the law which came 430 years later. The problem with the law is not just that it came later and did not alter the already given promise. It's also that the law and promise are antithetical just as works of the law and faith were.

This naturally raises the questions that Paul deals with next; why did God bother giving the law at all? Are verses 19 and 20 suggesting that God wasn't the origin of the law? While Paul is clearly distancing God from the law a bit in those verses, it isn't fair to suggest as some (e.g., Martyn) have that the law didn't have its genesis in God. Paul's distancing God from the law for the purpose of showing that it is of less value than the promise. The law came for a limited time (until Christ - the one to whom the promise was made - came) and a limited purpose. It was never intended to be the means by which one entered the people of God.

The purpose of the law was limited, but it wasn't in opposition to the promise. The law has a 'negative' role, dealing with sin. More specifically the law was given to Israel, cursing them by displaying their inability to live God's way apart from the Spirit. They failed just as Adam failed. By extension it shows the inability of all to live God's way. Additionally, the law didn't free Israel from the power of sin, even though the sacrificial system was in place and did deal with sin in some limited sense. They, like all the rest were still under sin's power. The law also had a positive role that was related to its negative role, and this is where Israel was at an advantage. It was a means to protect Israel from the power of sin until Christ could come. Here it's worth noting that Paul isn't giving a complete theology of the law. Rather he's dealing with a very specific question: what is the role of the law in becoming a member of the people of God (none) and how did the law relate to the covenant (it's subordinate to it and preserved Israel so that the seed could come and show us the way to become true children of Abraham - by faith and to enable that path through his faithfulness). Additionally this will pave the way for Paul's later discussion of the Spirit as that which guides God's people.

Verses 26-29 sum up the argument thus far and also extend it with an argument from the Christian tradition. In verse 26 Paul affirms that Jew and Gentile alike are part of Abraham's family on the basis of faith and faith alone. Through baptism the Galatians came to be completely identified with Christ on the basis of their union with him. "For Paul, it is the participationist soteriology of being 'in Christ' that bridges the expanse between Abraham and the Gentile world, and not Torah observance as the Judaizers argued" (Longenecker 151). The Galatians were united with Christ and clothed with him, meaning that part of their identification with Christ involved a moral transformation - the way they lived looked like Christ, they had entered into the new creation, the new era, and thus, again, the law was unnecessary. He further substantiates that point by citing what in all likelihood was a snippet from an early Christian baptismal liturgy, possibly the one he himself used when baptizing his converts. The Jew/Greek distinction is irrelevant in Paul's eyes. At baptism both have entered the people of God by faith and both are full covenant members. There's no need for Gentiles to follow the law.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Personal Update

I don't write many posts of a personal nature, but I think that it might be of interest to some of you, and I would also appreciate any advice and prayers that you may have. For the past three semesters I've been taking classes part time at TEDS while working full time at a marketing research firm. The first year this went splendidly. Life was busy, but I was able to juggle everything. It's been tougher this semester. Having a baby is life altering in many ways. My free time for studying has greatly decreased and it's increasingly difficult to find a way to put in all of the time that I need to for my studies without abdicating my role in the family. When this was compounded with teaching a class at church in September and early October, I was doing too much. To be clear, none of this is a complaint. I am so happy to have my daughter and I loved teaching on Daniel. I love school and at least for now my job is a necessity (and is pretty good as far as jobs go).

Something has to give for me, and it isn't going to be work or family, and my involvement at church will only increase. Thus I've decided to take a leave of absence from TEDS for a year, after which we will reevaluate our path and plan and whether it involves returning part time at that point or, as is more likely, resuming my education when we are in a financial position where I can attend seminary full-time (hopefully in the fall of 2013). This isn't an easy decision to make. I've learned a lot the past three semesters for which I am grateful, but we feel that taking a break is the best thing to do. Please remember to keep us in your prayers as we seek to follow God however he may lead us.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Other Regard and Ethical Kenosis

It is possible to think of sin as "a compulsion towards attitudes and actions not always of [humans'] own willing or approving" a power which prevents humankind from recognizing its own nature. This may be a compulsion to desire status over against God, the compulsion on which the Genesis 3 account focuses. But it may be a compulsion to gain power over others or to use sex for sex's sake or to satisfy a craving for an excess of alcohol, drugs, food, or sensation of whatever kind. All of these draw us into idolatry; they make of a substance or experience a kind of substitute god. All drain away the freedom that comes from worshipful dependence upon God. Such appetite consumes more of the world's fullness than is our share. The application of this principle of kenosis of appetite is widespread; it applies to deforestation to expand farmland for excess export crops, but also to the high-food-mile demands of the West that fuel so many unsustainable practices, to the taking of spurious long-haul flights as well as the frittering away of carbon-intensive energy in so many human dwellings.

A particular aspect of the kenosis of appetite, which links to the kenosis of aspiration, is the kenosis of acquisitiveness. Just as we humans must be willing to order our ambitions and our experiences in accord with the freedom of the redeemed order, so we must order our acquisition of the material trappings of life, which again are often acquired at the expense of the well-being of other creatures. The Pauline material does not, of course, uniquely or unambiguously generate specific indications as to what it might mean to live more lightly on the Earth, to lessen the impact of our ecological imprint. But it does, crucially, provide a model for placing such patterns of practice at the heart of Christian ethics, as a central part of what following (or, better, imitating) Christ implies (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate 195-6).
What do you think? Are ecological ethics at the heart of Christian ethics?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Book Review: Colossians and Philemon


The NCCS series is off to a stellar start. I greatly enjoyed Keener's commentary on Romans (see my review) and I picked up Colossians and Philemon by Michael Bird with some anticipation. I have to say that I was very pleased on the whole.

The introduction of the commentary was very, very good, perhaps even the strength of the commentary. Bird deals with the question of authorship at some length, clearly exposing weaknesses in arguments against Pauline authorship. In particular, he notes that the language in Colossians is different than the undisputed Paulines because Paul quotes a lot of traditional material and the opponents he's facing are a bit different than the Judaizers (6-7). It is not fair to say, though, that Bird believes that Pauline authorship of Colossians is of the same nature as Pauline authorship of Galatians. He sees it as being co-authored by Paul, Timothy, and perhaps others. This accounts for some of the distinctiveness of Colossians when compared to the undisputed Pauline epistles. The most detailed and helpful portion of the introduction is the assessment of the Colossian philosophy (15-26). Bird surveys the scholarly landscape and eventually settles on a calling it a form of Jewish mysticism. Introductory matters related to Philemon are briefly but adequately addressed.

The commentary proper was very strong. Bird is an excellent writer and he presents his viewpoint in a compelling way. The most remarkable aspect of this commentary was its evenness. I never felt like there was a section where Bird didn't have much to say and hadn't thought deeply about the text. The main body of the commentary is a running explanation of the letter. Bird does an admirable job of keeping the big picture of what Paul is doing in the letter in full view, relating each section to the whole. This makes the commentary an enjoyable read and very helpful for someone looking to get a quick grasp on any particular passage or the book as a whole. Technical discussions related to Greek grammar and other matters are relegated to the footnotes (there's more detail on grammatical issues here than one might expect for a commentary of this nature). The sections on 'Fusing the Horizons' were top notch providing pastors with brief but rich ministry-shaping reflections on topics such as The Global Church (see a snippet here), Common Faith, and Ministerial Formation. Bird writes as one who writes for the church, and not just in the 'Fusing the Horizons' sections. Throughout the commentary he draws out ecclesial themes, especially how God's people should function; both at the local church setting and more widely (often by describing Paul's theology - one must have ears to hear).

There were a few sections of the Colossians commentary that I found particularly helpful. I'll highlight a couple. I was greatly aided by his organizing method for the Christ hymn of Col. 1:18-20. Bird claims that
...the coherence and unity of the poem is based around certain key motifs in both strophes that are activated by certain words.

He is... Divine Personhood: The identity of Jesus in relation to God.

Firstborn Divine Preeminence: The supremacy of Jesus over creation and new creation.

Because Divine Perspective: An explanation of how Jesus relates to the prerogatives and presence of God.

In him Divine Agency: What purposes the Father works out through the Son.

Whether... Divine Authority: Signals the extent of the Son's reign over creation and salvation. (50)
Another helpful section was on 3:5-11, which Bird titled, 'Living as the New Humanity of the New Age.' These are the portions of Paul's letters that often become a bit too familiar for me and I end up breezing through them and domesticating Paul's strong metaphors (like 'put to death'). Bird does the opposite. He also shows how Paul's understanding of us as being new creation is the linchpin of the entire section. It controls both ethics and identity.

The best adjective to describe the Philemon commentary is 'solid.' I didn't gain any new insights, but there also wasn't any spot where I really disagreed either.

All in all this is a commentary worth deep engagement. The more time spent dwelling on Bird's attempt to think Paul's thoughts after him, the more one will get out of it, particularly on Colossians. I think that Bird nails his audience right on. It will be a helpful addition to any pastor's or studious lay person's library. If you want a commentary that gets to the point while not being shallow or unsatisfying then you'll love this commentary. Overall, I'd place Colossians and Philemon right next to or just behind NT Wright's fine entry in the Tyndale series and give it 4.5 stars.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Paul's Argument in Galatians 3:6-14

6 So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

7 Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. 8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” 12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (NIV)

In this section Paul continues his argument that Gentiles are part of the people of God by faith. In the prior section Paul argued from experience. Scripture is the basis of his argument here. Abraham is used as an example of one who was considered righteous on the basis of his faith. However, we need to see that Abraham is more than an example, he's the archetype. Paul selects Abraham because he is the father of the family, the patriarch of the people of God. What's true in his case is normative for his descendants. We can be a bit more specific regarding Paul's argument than that, though. The clearest summary of verses 6-9 comes from Dunn and I will replicate it below:

Abraham's righteousness-->faith-->Abraham's children (iii.6-7)

Abraham's blessing-->faith-->all the nations (iii.8-9) (p. 168)

What Paul's doing in verses 6-9 is showing that Abraham's children contain members of all the nations by arguing that the basis of righteousness and blessing isn't circumcision, it's faith.

In verses 10-14 Paul continues that line of argument (for those keeping score at home, here I am largely following Wright 137-56). The Torah had been in the business of cursing the Jews for some time. The blessings of the Abrahamic covenant weren't coming to pass through it because Israel was failing at its job of being a light to the nations. But all along the plan had been that Abraham's people would be based on faith not ethnicity. Torah had created a problem for the original covenant people, however. As we noted above, it was cursing them. Jesus, the Christ, came to fulfill the role of being the light that they were supposed to be. Not only that but '...the death of Jesus finally exhausts the curse which stood over the covenant people , so that the blessing of Abraham might after all come upon the Gentiles' (Wright 156).

Monday, November 8, 2010

Commentary Review: Daniel

In my opinion, Daniel is not the best covered Old Testament book as far as commentaries go. This isn't an uncommon phenomenon among Old Testament books. Though I've looked at them, I'm not going to review some of the older Evangelical Daniel commentaries (like e.g., Baldwin). They don't provide much that you can't get in either Longman or Lucas. If you're unfamiliar with the series that one or more of these commentaries are in check out my commentary series overview.

It was a very close call but my favorite commentary on Daniel is Goldingay's. While there were a few places where I disagreed with his interpretation, I found the commentary to be exemplary. If you're going to teach Daniel, especially the apocalyptic portions, you need a commentary that provides you with a lot of background material. Goldingay, while not as broad as Collins, certainly provides you with quite a bit. His exploration of the background to the apocalyptic symbolism is very helpful. You gain a good sense of what is being communicated by the symbols, not just to whom they refer. Questions of genre are discussed in detail; helpful parallel texts are dug up (while avoiding parallelomania). The most helpful aspect of the commentary was his detailed literary analysis. It showed how the passage as a whole fit together, especially pointing out chiasms in the text. His explanations should not be ignored either. These are among the best of any in the Word series and clearly are far from the afterthought that they seem to be in some volumes. Overall, I found this commentary to be detailed but you never feel overloaded at the same time.

Daniel is a bit of a battle ground in Evangelical circles over dating. For those of you interested, Goldingay does hold to a second century date and sees many of the prophetic portions as ex eventu prophecy. This raises theological issues for the doctrine of Scripture for Evangelicals (of which Goldingay is one). I give him credit for dealing with them head on. I personally learned a lot from Goldingay, and even if you disagree with this stance on the dating of Daniel, I think you will too. No pastor should attempt to study Daniel without this commentary in his collection. 5 stars out of 5.

If Goldingay's commentary is choice number 1, John Collins' brilliant effort in the Hermeneia series is number 1a. Collins is an expert in apocalyptic literature, so his analysis of the apocalyptic sections along with the introduction is the strength of the commentary' (that does not suggest that the rest of the commentary isn't good). What makes Collins work so helpful is that it's extremely detailed on background issues (more so than Goldingay). The only annoyance for me is that he doesn't always comment on every single verse. As an additional bonus, you get a commentary on the additions to Daniel that are found in the Apocrypha (I think that spending a little time on the additions to Daniel is a helpful exercise when studying Daniel 1-6). As this volume is in the Hermeneia series there isn't nearly as much theological reflection as there is in Goldingay, and that's why I give this commentary 1a status. With that said I understand why a busy pastor wouldn't want to wade through Goldingay and Collins (they're both pretty long), if you have the time it's worthwhile to engage in both. 5 stars out of 5.

After you leave the woods of the academic commentaries on Daniel, there isn't a lot to recommend in my opinion (granted I have not seen Duguid's commentary). However, for a lay audience, Longman's commentary stands out. Obviously you're not going to get anywhere near the detail of Collins or Goldingay in an NIV Application volume, but the 'Original Meaning' section is beefy for a volume in this series. Longman isn't afraid to discuss ANE background, and he appropriately simplifies it for a lay audience. You don't find much original research here. Rather it serves as a handy, accessible guide drawing upon the best of current studies on Daniel. Longman does opt for a sixth century date, but is sympathetic towards late daters like Goldingay. This commentary was conservative without being polemical. The applications were often helpful and I never found them to be cliched. With that said I often found myself wanting to go in slightly different directions in my own teaching. This is my commentary of choice for lay students and also should be consulted for those teaching in a church setting. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Lucas' commentary is a little difficult to rate. In many respects it felt like Goldingay light. There's a lot of repeated material here. I'd also say that he felt like Goldingay made clearer, as Lucas is a very clear writer. Obviously with that said, Lucas didn't just blindly follow Goldingay on everything, and he does have a fair amount of material of his own. There also were spots where I thought that Lucas had better points than Goldingay. One potential advantage, depending on your circles, is that he spends more time than Goldingay or Collins do interacting with conservative Evangelical scholars. He also is a bit less likely than Goldingay or Collins to accept the critical consensus (again not that either of those scholars always accept it - Goldingay in particular diverges at some key interpretive points). At times, though, it was a bit difficult to determine what his view was on some issues. I'm still not sure when he thinks Daniel was written. I think you could read Lucas either way, perhaps he intended it that way. This is definitely the best mid-level commentary on Daniel. It's not a must have if you already have Goldingay, but even if you do, there's enough unique material to make it worth owning. 4 stars out of 5.

Miller's commentary in the NAC series is a mid-level dispensationalist commentary. I wasn't a big fan. I think that it majors on historical matters while ignoring literary ones. This may be because Miller sees the book as completely historical. With that said, the genre of history still may be written in form of a story and thus I find Miller's approach inadequate. History is so important to Miller that it completely dominates the commentary, not only to the neglect of discussing literary style and genre, but also to theology. A glaring example occurs at the close of chapter 5 and the start of chapter 6. He closes his comments on chapter five with a seven sentence discussion of the theological emphases of the chapter. Chapter 6 opens with a seven page discussion of the identity of Darius the Mede. I think that demonstrates misplaced priorities on Miller's part. I wasn't impressed in his handling of the apocalyptic sections either (and not just because I'm not a dispensationalist). The symbols have both a sense and a reference. He focuses too strongly on the latter while missing out on telling the reader why the historical referant is presented in that particular mode. Thus, for someone teaching the text, I don't think that Miller provides a whole lot of help, certainly any of the above commentaries would be far more helpful. 2.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Commentary Series Overview

When I write commentary reviews, one of my main goals is to assess how well the commentator hit the intended audience of the commentary and utilized the format of the commentary. This often necessitates cluttering up the post discussing issues of format. To eliminate that, I thought that I would make some general remarks about the format and audience of each of the series that appear in my reviews. Terms like liberal, conservative, etc. are not used pejoratively but simply as descriptors. Many of you are familiar with Jeremy Pierce's commentary series overview. If you don't see a particular series covered here, check out his post to see if it's reviewed there. I am making no attempt at covering every series, just the series that I use. Additionally, new series (such as the NCCS) have been started in the five years since he wrote his very helpful guide, so I thought that it might not be completely out of order to have another person tackle commentary series overviews. This is a post that will be expanded regularly and I will post a link to it at the top of all of my commentary reviews, that way you can check it out if you're not familiar with the series a particular commentary is in. I'll also place links within this post to the commentaries in each series that I've reviewed, making it a good place for easy reference for all of my reviews.

AB: The Anchor Bible series is a leading academic commentary series. Most of the contributors could be labeled as moderates, with quite a few volumes have been written by Catholic scholars. This series has been in progress for a long time and thus is probably the most uneven series on the market. The newer volumes are always among the top on their given book. Most of the older volumes have been surpassed by newer volumes in other series. However, some of the older volumes are classics and are still must reads. Not only is the quality of the series uneven, but the feel and focus of commentary varies from volume to volume. Some focus more on rhetoric, others on historical matters, and some on literary criticism. A lot of leeway is given to each individual writer. The commentary begins with lengthy introduction dealing with the full assortment of background issues in good detail. The main body of the commentary proceeds as follows: the author's translation of the text, followed by a notes section and a comment section (though sometimes the comments precede the notes). The notes section goes through the text verse phrase by phrase in a detailed manner. The comment section can be anything that the author wants to make it and varies greatly. (See my reviews of Song of SongsGalatians, and Jude)


ACCS: The ACCS series seeks to introduce the modern reader to Patristic theologians. Brief explanations of the text proceed phrase by phrase (rather than verse by verse) with selections made from sermons, commentaries, and other written sources. Typically, the comments will be drawn from about eight or so different fathers, with comments here and there by other voices when they have a significant insight. The main contributors are selected to try to be representative of the breadth of the era, selecting both Greek and Latin fathers. It certainly shouldn't be the first commentary off the shelf when researching a given passage, but it's too easy to overlook the early insights that Patristic theologians had. It's definitely a series worth consulting. (See my review of Galatians)

AOTC: The Apollos Old Testament Commentary series is a mid-length commentary series aimed at pastors, leaning a little more on the academic side. It's like a more accessible version of the Word Biblical Commentary series. Not too many volumes are out yet so we will see how this series develops and if that generalization remains true. You get a full length introduction that deals with all of the critical issues. Each contributor provides their own translation and provides substantial annotations dealing with text-critical and translation issues. Hebrew and Aramaic are transliterated making these notes more accessible than the equivalent notes in the Word Biblical Commentary series. After those notes you get sections discussing the form, setting, and structure of the text. Here relevant background matters as well as the literary form and structure are discussed, though not to quite the same length as you get in the Word series (at least in the better volumes). After that is a 'Comment' section which is critical assessment of the meaning of the text. It's followed by an explanation section which exposits the text a bit and deals with matters of theology. (See my review of Daniel)

BECNT: The Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament is an advanced commentary series that is aimed at the pastor and graduate student. Thus most volumes are not quite as advanced or thorough as you would find in the WBC series (though some are) but a working knowledge of Greek would benefit you. This is a little bit of a difficult series to describe because the format has not been entirely consistent from volume to volume. However, I can make some general comments. The introductions are of fairly typical length and cover your usual topics. There's nothing unique there. The format of the commentary proper is a bit different, though. Each section begins with a one to three paragraph long summary of the text followed by the author's translation and then exegetical notes. Strangely the notes do not proceed verse by verse but paragraph by paragraph. Since the notes are detailed, the number of pages between headings is far too many making it maddeningly difficult at times to find what you're looking for when cracking the commentary open for quick reference (this is not a problem in the volumes on Luke but it seems to be for the rest of the volumes). Following the exegetical notes are 'Additional Notes' covering text critical matters. My personal opinion of this series varies by volume. Some are fantastic, and some are just ok. (See my review Jude)


BMT: The Bible in Medieval Tradition is a brand new series that meets a serious lacuna in the commentary market, that of Medieval Catholic commentaries. As of the writing of these notes, the only volume out thus far is on Galatians and it is excellent. My complaint with the ACCS series is that the selections are sometimes too brief to get a true feel for a particular father. That's not the case with the BMT. It translates (in Galatians for the first time) either whole commentaries or commentaries on whole chapters. In the Galatians volume six different commentators were selected. The introduction is thorough and provides a nice biography of each contributor so you can place the work in the context of their life and Medieval Catholicism. I think that this is a very important series and I'm very excited to see future volumes. (See my review of Galatians)


BNTC: The Black's New Testament Commentary series is a mid length commentary aimed at students and pastors. Each commentary has a brief introduction and then proceeds section by section. Translations are the authors.' Comments proceed verse by verse and comments on variant readings and grammatical issues are usually relegated to the footnotes. All important interpretive issues are discussed in some detail, but not quite to the same level as some of the more rigorous mid level series like the PNTC or NICNT. The pages are small for a commentary so don't let the page count fool you. Most of the contributors are mainline protestants and overall it seems to be a pretty moderate series. The series took a long time to complete, so some of the earlier volumes, while good are a bit dated. Most of the newer volumes are very solid entries with some being among the top two or three on their book. It's a series that is definitely worth checking out! (See my review of Galatians)

BO: The Berit Olam series is a relatively new series that draws from a range of traditions for its contributors. The commentaries a short to medium in length and begin with a brief introduction followed by running comments on the text that proceed section by section. The discussion is based off of the NRSV. The focus of the comments is on literary aspects of the text. Footnotes are sparse. I've only seen Diane Bergant's volume on the Song of Songs, but its very very good. If it's indicative of the quality of the rest of the series then it is not one to overlook despite the limited fanfare. I think this series is appropriate for both lay people and pastors, especially if one wants something a little different than the typical short commentary. (See my review of Song of Songs)


CCC: The Crossway Classic Commentaries series consists of classic commentaries written by luminaries within the Protestant tradition such as Martin Luther or Charles Hodge. No effort was made to cover every book and some books were covered twice. They simply wanted the best of the Lutheran and Puritan tradition. These are some of the finest commentaries of their era, but at times will feel much more preachy than modern commentaries. Each volume will vary some and will take on the characteristics of the era in which it was produced (there's a few centuries in between, e.g., Luther and Ryle). If you have the time, it's worth checking out. (See my review of Galatians)


Hermeneia: The Hermeneia commentary series is one of the leading academic series on the market. It covers both the Old and New Testament and has contributors from a variety of backgrounds, though they are generally liberal. Hermeneia also contains translations of several works by continental European scholars. The strength of these commentaries often is their introductions (e.g., the introductions in the Romans and Daniel commentaries are unparalleled). This isn't surprising given their focus on historical and critical matters. The commentary proper begins with a translation of the text that is footnoted to deal with text critical issues. Then it moves to a discussion of the form and structure of the text, usually comparing the text at hand to various parallel texts and also dealing with background issues. The verse by verse notes offer detailed exegesis. Seminary students and scholars are the primary audience of this series. The value to the pastor varies book by book. Some are very helpful but some can probably be skipped. (See my reviews of Song of Songs and Daniel)


INT: The Interpretation series is directly aimed at helping preachers and teachers preach and teach. Explanations are tackled one paragraph at a time in a running exposition. At the end of each section the authors engage in a discussion of how to preach or teach the given text (or alternatively, pitfalls to avoid). These volumes don't typically forge new trails of cutting edge scholarship (though, some like 1 Corinthians by Hays are an exception), but they definitely are useful to their intended audience when paired with more detailed commentaries. Most of the volumes are pretty good and consistent, but there are a few week entries. Unfortunately some volumes are getting long in the tooth and it may be time for the publisher to consider replacing them. The biggest downside of the series are the God-awful dust jackets. This series has a very strong moderate Mainline Protestant feel. (See my review of Galatians)

NAC
: The New American Commentary series is published by Broadman & Holman and thus as one would expect has a distinctively conservative baptist feel. These are fairly typical mid length commentaries geared towards pastors and studious members of the laity. The introductions are fairly meaty and often deal with difficult historical questions. The NIV is the standard translation and comments are based on that. The commentary goes verse by verse providing substantial exegetical help and interacting with a variety of viewpoints, but never getting too technical. (See my review of Daniel)

NCCS: When it came to commentaries, I used to think that length was a virtue. Over the past couple of years I've been changing my mind as I've both encountered some long commentaries that I didn't care for, and encountered many brief commentaries that are top notch. Shorter commentaries tend to be clear and concise, and not bogging you down with too many alternative viewpoints. A good one will do that without being superficial. The New Covenant Commentary Series (NCCS ) seems to seek to be the standard bearer for this style of commentaries on the New Testament. The two series editors, Michael Bird and Craig Keener have assembled an international collection of scholars that are top notch. The commentary usually will have a medium length introduction followed by the commentary proper. There you get the author's translation followed by a short section giving an overview of the section that will come under discussion, after which the text is discussed by paragraph in the form of a running explanation rather than verse by verse. Technical matters are relegated to footnotes. Each volume also has several excurses dealing with background issues in greater depth. Additionally there are several sections titled 'Fusing the Horizons' sprinkled throughout. Here the commentator show the relevance of the ancient text to our current situation. This series is aimed at pastors and serious lay students. (See my reviews of Romans and Colossians and Philemon)


NIB: The New Interpreter's Bible Commentaries seek to provide pastors and students with a brief commentary by leading moderate Mainline Protestant scholars. The introductions are exceedingly brief and the comments proceed verse by verse. The goal of the commentary is to lay out the author's view and not clutter you with a myriad of interpretive options. Interaction with other scholars is limited to a few leading commentaries which makes the commentary very accessible and easy to read. These factors make this series a nice option for busy pastors or undergraduate students, however it simply can't substitute for more substantial works. Unfortunately, volumes aren't sold separately, but fortunately, the contributors are top notch, so it's one of the few series that isn't too bad to purchase in bulk. (See my review of Galatians)

NICOT/NICNT: This is a series I probably don't need to comment on as most of you will be familiar with it. I consider it to be the best Evangelical commentary series on the market. The series has been around for a long time; long enough that replacement volumes are now coming out. The older volumes are on the shorter end of intermediate commentaries and tend to be fairly conservative. The newer volumes are much fuller, coming close to the length and depth of more technical series and also, while still conservative, are a but more moderate than their predecessors. Each volume opens with a medium length introduction and then moves into a bibliography and then the commentary proper. The text being commented on is printed in the commentary. Some commentators provide their own translation while others use the NIV/TNIV. First comments are addressed to paragraphs as a whole and then they move into verse by verse discussions. Technical details are relegated to the footnotes. What makes this series so good is its combination of exegetical rigor and theological sensitivity. It's a must read for pastors and useful for scholars and students. I am slightly concerned with the trend I am seeing towards longer and longer volumes. It would be a shame to see pastors potentially scared off from the series by the length of some of the volumes. (See my review of Song of Songs)


NIVAC: The NIV Application Commentary series is written by Evangelical scholars with the layperson and the pastor in mind. The introductions are generally brief covering the basics. The text used in the commentary is, of course, the NIV and comments are made based on that translation. Discussion is broken up into three sections: 'original meaning,' 'bridging contexts,' and 'contemporary significance.' In the 'original meaning' section, you get a fairly brief discussion of the original meaning of the text (though some volumes in this series are a bit more detailed). Ideally the 'bridging contexts' portion of the commentary should help prepare the way for the 'contemporary significance' section by dealing with issues related to the cultural location of the text. The 'contemporary significance' section guides the reader in application of the text. I used words like 'ideally' and 'should' because sometimes it seems as if the writers in this series don't stick to the layout and talk about whatever they feel like in each section. Unfortunately, when authors do that, a lot of the utility of the series is lost. Overall I feel this series is a bit uneven, but the better volumes are worth owning for anyone who teaches in a church setting. (See my reviews of DanielGalatians,and Philemon)

NTL/OTL: The Old and New Testament Library series is one of the more difficult to make general comments about. Part of the reason is because some of the volumes in this series are old, but even among the newer commentaries, there is a great deal of disparity in the degree of thoroughness. Some, like de Boer's excellent volume on Galatians, are among the most detailed on the book they cover. Others, like Cousar's volume on Philippians and Philemon are fairly brief. In most of the newer volumes, there is a moderate length introduction covering the usual critical issues and the analysis of the text proceeds paragraph by paragraph. Each paragraph gets a brief introduction covering literary and/or rhetorical matters and then each verse is commented on in detail. Generally, the volumes come from a moderate to liberal perspective and are written by leading scholars in the field. They strive to be accessible to the general reader, and in this regard they're more successful than the Anchor Bible series is, but it's still a mid length series (for the most part). For those who don't have extensive background in Greek and Hebrew many volumes in this series are an excellent resource as they discuss lexical and syntactical issues in an accessible manner. For the most part, for whatever book you want to study through, I'd strongly recommend checking out the volume from this series. They're not all must own, but many are. (See my reviews of Song of SongsGalatians, and Philippians and Philemon)


PC: I can't provide a lot of comment on the Pentecostal Commentary series in general. At the time of writing there were four volumes on the market and only one (Fee's on Galatians) that I've ever even seen in a library, so I'm not sure if the series will get wide circulation or not. As you might guess from the title of the series, it is geared towards Pentecostal Christians and hence is probably conservative on the whole. The Pentecostalism doesn't come through very strongly in Fee's commentary for the most part. It's only in the application portions where Fee opts to address his fellow Pentecostal's directly. Fee's volume is a solid mid length commentary that comments on the text paragraph by paragraph, probably most comparable to the NCCS volumes. As for the series as a whole I can't comment or make a recommendation as I'm not familiar enough with the other scholars who have written in the series. (See my review of Galatians)

PNTC: The Pillar New Testament Commentary series is an intermediate series covering the New Testament and comes from an evangelical perspective. Most of the volumes in this series fall in the more academic half, similar to what you would get in an NICNT. A few of the older volumes are less detailed. The introductions typically are lengthy and deal with all of the standard critical issues as well as some theological matters. In the commentary proper the NIV text is printed and comments proceed verse by verse. Before the verse by verse notes is a section that summarizes the paragraph as a whole and sometimes focuses on structural and rhetorical issues. The notes on individual verses are detailed and usually there is a fair amount of footnoting to deal with matters of Greek grammar, where the author has his choice of using Greek font or transliterating. More space is given to theological issues in this series than many, making that one of its strengths. All of the volumes in this series that I have looked at have been good and some of them are among the two or three best on their book. Whether you are writing an academic paper, preparing a bible study or sermon, or studying for your own enrichment you would be wise to check out the PNTC series. (See my reviews of Philemon and Jude)


THNTC/THOTC: The goal of the Two Horizon's commentary series is to help the student of the Bible fuse the horizons between the biblical world and their own. The commentary proper and introductions probably fall into the middle range in terms of accessibility, however much more attention is paid to theology than one would typically get in a standard commentary. Their goal is to produce a robust theological interpretation of Scripture, and it seems that most of the volumes come from a theologically moderate perspective. Technical matters get a little less attention than in most mid-level commentaries, but there are plenty of other series that cover those matters. After the main body of the commentary you get a plethora of essays dealing with theological matters that arise throughout the commentary. These offer an opportunity for greater synthesis than you typically get in an excursus in a typical commentary. Unfortunately, by being relegated to the back of the commentary, they may go unnoticed by some. This series is most helpful to a pastor or teacher going through a whole book. (See my reviews of Philemon and Jude)


TNTC/TOTC: The Tyndale series is a conservative Evangelical series, but beyond that it's little tough to classify. Many of the volume are more technical in their discussions than one would typically find in a commentary geared towards lay people. But most of the volumes also aren't detailed enough to be a true mid-level commentary. The introductions succinctly cover critical issues and the commentary proper proceeds paragraph by paragraph through the text. This series has been around for a while so some of the volumes are a bit dated. Some of them are really excellent, however, and cannot be ignored. (See my review of Philemon)

WBC: The Word Biblical Commentary is a critical, broadly Evangelical commentary series covering both the Old and New Testament. The format of the series is widely panned, but I personally don't think it's so terrible. The introductions are usually moderately lengthy, though they don't usually compete with what you get in Hermeneia or the ICC. In the main body of the commentary, commentators provide their own translation with notes dealing with text critical issues as necessary, after which the comments are split into three sections, 'Form/Setting/Structure,' 'Comments,' and 'Explanation.' The 'form/setting/structure' section deals with background and parallels as well as a discussion of literary form and structure as well as rhetorical analysis if the author is so inclined. The 'Comments' section deals with the text phrase by phrase commenting on the original language. Theology and contemporary significance tend to be dealt with in the 'Explanation.' This division frustrates some people because they have to look in up to three different spots to find comments on a particular phrase or verse. I think, however, that if you read the commentary straight through (which I know most people don't) that there is some merit in this distinction, especially since it makes it easy for one to consult the commentary at each phase of research into the passage. The biggest problems with this series is the unevenness of it. Some volumes are fantastic while others are very mediocre. There's also a big difference in the degree to which each section is utilized by the commentators. For example, some almost ignore the 'Explanation' section. Additionally, some of the commentaries in the series have been surpassed by newer works in other series. While the WBC is certainly intended for academics, pastors would be wise to pick up some of the stronger volumes (it's intended for them too!), as it is probably the most accessible and inexpensive truly academic series. (See my reviews of Song of SongsDanielGalatiansPhilemon and Jude)

WeBC: The Westminster Bible Companion series is a mainline protestant series geared towards the lay Bible study leader. The select high profile professors to write a short commentary that deals some with technical matters but also expounds the theology of the text. The focus is primarily on the latter and I would say that while not always persuasive, the suggestions that both Davis and Brueggemann make are interesting. Even for a lay Bible study leader these could never be a sole resource for study of a particular book. In order to keep the commentary brief, whole paragraphs are occasionally skipped to allot space for extended comments elsewhere. Sacrificing breadth for depth is not a bad thing in a series like this, it just is what it is. On the whole I would call the WeBC series moderate as they do respect Scripture though occasionally come to conclusions that would rub many conservatives the wrong way. I've only spent significant time in two volumes, Isaiah and Song of Songs, so my experiences may not be indicative of the series as a whole. (See my review of Song of Songs)

ZECNT: The Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament is one of the newest commentary series on the market. At the time of writing only four volumes are out and I've only seen Blomberg on James. The series is aimed at pastors and students who have had two years of Greek, though one could work their way through the commentary with less exposure, but it would be difficult. I would probably put it at the bottom of the advanced range due to the use of the original Greek and the lack of transliteration, though some intermediate series will have more detail overall (e.g., the NICNT). The format of the commentary is unique and I think immensely helpful. There is a brief introduction followed by the commentary proper. Each section of text is split into six parts. The first section is the 'Literary Context' which seeks to situate the passage within the larger flow of the book. The second section is a two sentence summary called the 'Main Idea.' This is followed by a translation of the text in diagram form. The diagram seeks to show the relationship between clauses. On the left side of the diagram is a one word description of the function of each clause. Following the translation is an explanation of the 'Structure' which, as expected, deals with matters of structure and rhetoric. Finally we arrive at the 'Explanation of Text' which contains the typical exegetical notes one expects in a commentary and they proceed verse by verse. The last section is 'Theology in Application' which provides some direction for thinking about how to apply the text. The discussion here is at the paragraph level. After the close of the commentary there is a short section on the theology of the book. Major topics are given a page or two, where the author can do some synthesis. The layout is very clean, using line breaks and different font sizes and faces well which makes the format work exceptionally with the end result of an exceedingly clear presentation of the contents of the commentary. If you're a pastor and you haven't picked up a volume in this series yet, try it, you'll love it! (See my reviews of Galatians and James)