[This review is part of the What Is Theological Interpretation? series]
On a couple of recent occasions, Justin Taylor has highlighted an article by D. A. Carson that is featured in Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives. Thanks to T & T Clark, I received copy of it to review, and I thought I’d tell you about the rest of the book. On Wednesday, Taylor raised the question about the nature of “theological interpretation of Scripture,” something I’m interested in myself (as I’ve mentioned).
In the book Theological Commentary, we’re treated to 9 essays on some outstanding passage choices that you give a feel for the discipline. All of the contributors fit into the evangelical spectrum, and more or less into the Reformed wing, as you can see from this list of author and passage:
- Ryan Peterson on Genesis 1
- Michael Allen on Exodus 3
- Kelly Kapic on Psalm 22
- Daniel Treier on Proverbs 8
- Kevin Vanhoozer on Ezekiel 14
- Scott Swain on Mark 12
- Henri Blocher on John 1
- Michael Horton on Ephesians 4
- Andrew McGowan on Colossians 3
The whole collection itself is actually dedicated to Blocher, and by the strength of his essay it should be easy to see why. His, along with Vanhoozer’s essay, were my personal favorites. Vanhoozer’s I enjoyed because he was not only in Ezekiel, but he made reference to the philosophical nature of self-deception as well as Inception. By exegeting his passage thoroughly (with reference to Hebrew verb tenses no less) and linking it to contemporary discussions of the nature of God, he was able to give a defense of God’s character in light of a very controversial passage. Similarly, Blocher took a familiar passage, John 1, and was able to dig deeper into the Greek structuring of the passage and show how John patterned the language to more effectively communicate truth about the nature of person of Christ.
In all of the essays, the author focuses in on an aspect of the chapter listed rather than the entire chapter. The collection is framed by an short opening essay on theological commentary in general and two closing essays on theological interpretation of the Old and New Testaments respectively. Carson’s essay of course is the latter, and is not restricted to the New Testament per se. It seems like that might have been the intention (have an OT prof and a NT prof offer commentary on theological commentary), but instead we get Carson’s insightful critique of theological interpretation of Scripture as well as the benefits he does perceive.
If you’re interested in really digging into what theological interpretation is all about, with actual diverse examples (that you should notice cover every genre of literature in Scripture), then this is a great book to have on hand. As part of my own journey trying to under the movement better, this collection of essays was helpful to see how well it could be done, as well as how it could tend to feel unsatisfying. I’m still trying to make up my mind about it all and am still weighing Carson’s conclusion:
I am inclined to think that what is most valuable in TIS (and much is), is not new; what is new in TIS varies from ambiguous to mistaken, depending in part on the theological location of the interpreter (207).
Earlier though, he does say more positively:
If all who align themselves with TIS were committed to pursuing the kind of theological interpretation of Scripture exemplified in the writings of Henri Blocher (most of whose work, sadly, has never been translated into English), the chapter I am now writing would be very different (187).
In this case then, Blocher (and I would add Vanhoozer) represent theological interpretation at its best. It is fitting then that this volume is dedicated to him and features his own work in John 1. This also means that if you want to read well done theological commentary, you really out to read more of Blocher (and I would add Vanhoozer again here too).
A downside to Carson’s essay is that is was written blind (as he says in conclusion, 207), meaning he hadn’t read any of the contributions to this volume so couldn’t actually comment on the rest of the articles and whether or not they fell toward the “Yes” end of his affirmations about theological interpretation or closer to the “But” end of his concerns. I’m still trying to actually assess it for myself, but in general I think most of the contributions fall toward the “Yes” end.
Treier’s essay on Proverbs 8 actually comes from his commentary in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series. In that case, I’ll save comment on his work until that review. As for the other essays, all of them exhibit sufficient exegetical depth (original languages, historical context), though I think Horton’s essay was the weakest in this regard. I’m trying not to pick on him since I’ve been rather critical of his writing elsewhere, but I felt like his essay was more theology than commentary, though he did start with the text of Ephesians 4 and did some exegetical work. In the end though, I found his writing harder to follow and less enlightening when it came to the text in question, and though it might be a good theological essay, it really wasn’t in depth commentary trying to root out the meaning of a specific text.
On the other hand, Vanhoozer and Blocher completely reframed the way I read their respective texts. Through patient and attentive exegetical work, they were able to interpret their passages thoroughly before looking to larger theological concerns. This kind of attention also characterized the open essay by Ryan Peterson on Genesis 1, as well as Allen’s work in Exodus 3, Kapic’s in Psalm 22, and Swain’s in Mark 12. McGowan was in a kind of half-way house. He started with attentiveness to exegetical detail but then moved quickly to theological discussion. Nothing necessarily wrong with this, but in the end I didn’t really think he tied everything together in a clean fashion and instead of an exposition of the text in question, it seemed like he just left the reader with more questions.
Overall though, I would say for anyone particularly interested in theological commentary, or theological interpretation of Scripture, this is a good collection of essays to get your feet wet. There is outstanding examples of the best theological commentary can offer (in my opinion Vanhoozer and Blocher) as well as others doing a fine job tying exegesis and theology together (Allen, Swain, Kapic, Treier, Peterson). You also get the perceptive analysis of an OT scholar (Walter Moberly) as well as D. A. Carson’s scholarly assessment and critique of the general stream of theological interpretation. In short, it’s a great introduction to a growing discipline, and just waiting for your attentive interaction.
- Editor: R. Michael Allen
- Title: Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives
- Publisher: Continuum (December 15, 2011)
- Hardcover: 232pgs
- Reading Level: Bible Student/Seminary
- Audience Appeal: Pastors and Bible Students interested in theological interpretation and how it looks in action
- Gratis Review Copy: Yes (courtesy of Continuum)
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