Hebrews and James, Reformation Style: a book review

Until now, I had not read any of the commentaries in the IVP Reformation Commentary on Scripture series. My interest in the theological interpretation and historical theology usually drives me to a much earlier era. I love the Desert Fathers and patristics and have spent some time with the Ancient Christian Commentary series.  However, my interest was piqued by the lastest Reformation Commentary volume, edited by Roland Rittgers, in part because of the celebration of the Reformation’s quincentennial, and partly because volume XIII, examines the books of Hebrews and James.

2976I love these two epistles, yet Martin Luther had a lower estimation of them.  Luther liked Hebrews, though he did not place it on the same footing with apostolic teaching (3). He regarded it as a non-Pauline epistle, but he did think the author of Hebrews was at least a disciple of the Apostles, and Luther’s lectures on Hebrews (1517-1518), influenced and impacted his maturing Reformation theology (pp. xliii-xliv). James, on the other hand, he regarded as an epistle of straw, “with nothing of the nature of the gospel about it” (200). Despite Luther’s opinion of these books, other Reformers were more charitable in their assessments, many regarding the former as Pauline, and the latter as apostolic and authoritative.

The Reformation Commentary on Scripture follows much the same format as the Ancient Christian Commentary does. Each book is broken up into sections by pericope, with verse by verse (or paragraph by paragraph) commentary drawn from the writings of various reformers. The first thing I noticed was the breadth of voices which Rittgers includes. There were Catholic reformers and Christian humanists, (e.g. Gasparo Contarini, Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas More), Lutherans, Calvinists (e.g. John Calvin, Theodore Beza), Swiss Reformed (e.g., Heinrich Bullinger, Huldrych Zwingli) Anglicans, Puritans, and Radical Reformers (e.g. Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, Melchoir Hoffman).  Jacobus Arminius provides a counter-voice to some of the hardline Calvinist comments on Hebrews. Given the era, the voices included were mostly male, though Rittgers does include a sole entry from Marguerite of Navarre (104-105).  Some of these commentators were familiar to me. Many were not. There is an appendix with “Biographical Sketches or Reformation-Era Figures and Works” which profiles most of the references included here (though curiously doesn’t profile Edward Dering, who comments extensively on Hebrews but lucky for me there is Wikipedia).

Often the differences of opinion between the Reformers fall predictably along the hardened denominational lines of latter days. The Reformers wrestled with Hebrew’s apparent teaching that we can lose our salvation. Anabaptist commentators like Derek spoke forcibly of the forcibly of the need for excommunicating false believers (82). The Protestants loved what Hebrews says about the supremacy of Christ, but went to great pains to show, against Catholic sacramental theology, that Christ is not sacrificed again in the mass, but once alone for our sin (see, for example, Johannes Bugenhagen’s comments on Heb 9:11-12. p 125). In dealing with James, Lutherans, in general, were less sunny toward the epistle as Luther had been, whereas magisterial Reformers, and Anglicans regarded it much more favorably.

I read through this commentary in about a week’s time. There is enough here that is devotional. The Reformers read the Bible with an eye toward what it meant in life. Their comments are pre-critical in the sense that they do not occupy themselves with sources, literary form or the text’s setting in life. They are much more concerned about explicating what the implications of these epistles are for the lives of the faithful. This isn’t to say that they were unaware of debates about issues like authorship, but their answers were meant to either give weight to either the text or their critique of the epistles’ theology. As theological interpreters, they read the Bible in a Christocentric way.  Hebrews especially send the Reformers back over the Old Testament, looking for the ways the Hebrew Bible testifies of Christ. James’ critique of favoritism and partiality toward the rich, mirrored the era’s critique of corruption in the Church.They were serious readers. They engaged the words on the page.

It is fruitful to read commentaries from people outside of our own era. The sixteenth-century Reformers had their own blind spots and weren’t privy to some of the critical insights we have today. Yet their God-focused, Christ-centered interpretative tradition shaped our theological traditions. Rittgers has compiled an accessible entry point into their theology. I give this commentary four stars. – ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

90 Days in John 14-17, Romans, James: a book review

Tim Keller is a pastor, popular author and a sought-after conference speaker. Even those of us on the egalitarian, non-Reformed end of the evangelical spectrum appreciate Keller’s graciousness, intelligence, and humility. He is kind of like our Calvinist, complementarian man-crush. Sam Allberry  is an editor at the Gospel Coalition, a global speaker for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) an author, and the founding editor of Living Out (a ministry for those struggling with same-sex attraction). Keller and Allberry have teamed up for a 90 day devotional on John 14-17, Romans and the book of James. Their  walk through these passages were first published in Explore Quarterly, a journal published by the Good Book Company.

kellberryThe daily entries walk through a passage of scripture by breaking it up into a verse or two mini-sections, asking probing questions, and providing brief explanatory notes. Each day closes with suggestions on how to apply the passage, and often suggestions for what to pray in response. There is a blank, lined page for notes and prayers for each entry. These studies are designed to be done with an open Bible beside your devotional, so you can reference the words on the Page.

Carl Laferton, Good Book Company Editorial Director, writes a helpful introduction (seems like a series introduction as he makes no reference to the actual passages discussed in this volume). He suggests that as you read the passage for each day you note a highlight (the truth from God which strikes you most) the query (questions about what you are reading) and the change (ways God’s spirit is prompting you to change) (8). At the close of each study Laferton suggests writing a one sentence summary of how God spoke to you each day and a short prayer about what you have seen. This format is not reflected in the notes of Keller and Allberry’s daily entries; nevertheless it seems like a fruitful way to approach God’s word expectantly.

Because Keller and Allberry elected to write questions and notes for each verse or two mini-section, there isn’t a heuristic framework for the type of questions they ask. For example, many Bible Study methods use some version of Observation, Interpretation, Application. Mostly they ask the observational questions (questions about what it says in the text) and interpretive questions (questions about what you think the passage means) for every couple verse section, saving the application questions for the whole passage.

This is a 90 day journey and I have had this in possession for about a week. I haven’t been able to more than skim through it; however I read enough to get a sense of the entries for the purposes of this review. I will focus mostly on entries from Romans in my comments bellow.

The authors of this volume are both theologically conservative and this is reflected in their approach to passages and particular notes. That is to be expected, we all bring our own theological lens to scripture, but they do attend to what they read in each passage. So for example, in their discussion of Romans 1:26-32 they give a brief explanation of how homosexuality is viewed as a sin in the passage, “homosexuality is described as ‘against nature’ (para phusin).” But they are also careful to not turn it into a super sin as some conservative interpreters might, “But notice it comes after Paul has identified the root of all sin: worshiping something other than God. And it comes before a long list of other sins, including envy and gossiping. Active homosexuality is no more or less sinful than these—all come from worshiping the created, rather than the Creator” (104). This is perhaps a controversial passage to highlight (the only verses in this study which would address anything about homosexuality and the LGBTQ lifestyle) but it gives you a sense of how they attempt to follow the contours of the biblical text and are constrained by it.  Romans 9-11 give a classic Reformed understanding of election, predestination, God’s foreknowledge and the future of Israel (175-192), though not in a heavy-handed way.

The notes are not detailed. There are no footnotes or suggestions for further reading to delve deeply into the passage. Keller and Allberry give a non-technical, lay-person friendly interpretation of the passage, but if you do each daily study right, you, the reader, are doing all the heavy lifting, accessing biblical truth for yourself rather than depending on them for interpretation. Because they walk through whole books of the Bible, or sections of books in the case of John 14-17, this is much more detailed than those daily-thoughts-on-a-verse devotionals they sell at the supermarket.

Yet, because this work is not scholarly, there are the occasional lapses common to popular preachers. When they are discussing Romans 8:15-17 they write, “Abba means ‘Daddy,'” I know how well this preaches (I’ve preached it myself), but the best linguistic evidence would just translate Abba as father or dad without the informal, familiar feel of daddy. Nothing serious but not always careful speech. I also think breaking up passages into small daily chunks, can obscure the rhetorical structure and the flow of an argument. I think a bird’s-eye-view is so important for grasping an epistle’s meaning (especially a theologically sophisticated one like Romans). Keller and Allberry clearly have a road map they are following through each biblical book, but like your GPS they only reveal where to turn next. They don’t give you a large overview of the terrain, trajectory and destination of each book.  A good orienting essay introducing the books covered would help tremendously.

I love the Bible. The upper room discourses & Jesus’ high priestly prayer, the book of Romans and James, contain some of my go-to passages. If you are looking for a devotional or guided study to discover these sections of scripture, this is a good choice. It would be  impossible to read through this in 90 days and not grow in your understanding of these books and their meaning. And reading this devotional, as intended, will help you hear the voice of God in the text. Keller and Allberry are good guides, by no means perfect, but this would be helpful alongside other resources which help you to engage the Bible. I give this three-and-a-half stars.

I received this book via Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for my honest review.

Prayers for Ordinary Time: 14th Week After Pentecost

The following prayer is based on my reading of James 1:17-27. This is a lectionary text from the book of James, a book with a lot of practical advice about how we as Christians should live. The Christian life is all gift, but as we learn to walk with Jesus, we also submit ourselves to his way and he transforms us. This portion of scripture challenges us to take care with our words, our anger, our actions, and challenges to live holy lives characterized by justice and love for the vulnerable. Lord help us!

Giver of every perfect gift and originator of every generous act,
Father of Lights we give you thanks and praise!

Take us and shape us into your image:

    Where we are angry and domineering, turn us into gentle listeners.

      We know our anger does not reflect Your righteousness, like Your love does
      Cleanse us from our wickedness, our perversions and unholy desires,

        That we may, in humility receive your soul-saving-Word.

      Transform us into doers–who makes Your ways known in all we do.
      Let us not just be a ‘hearers’ who ‘hear’ but then forget

        who we are and who You are making us to be.

    May we watch our tongues so that ‘our religion’ means something!
    And May others know we are Yours because we care for the vulnerable in our midst–the widows and orphans–
    those in our neighborhoods and communities who do not have a network of care to uphold them.

    Keep us from corruption and let us walk in Your truth.

    With your Mercy and in Your Strength,

    Amen.