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.

With Christ in the Tent of Meeting: a book review

Christ and the Desert Tabernacle by J.V. Fesko

One of the most difficult passages for ordinary readers of the Bible is the last pages of Exodus which focus on the building of the Tabernacle.  Up until that point, the Bible has been mostly stories and while some of the laws given seem strange to modern ears, we can readily make adjustments as to how it applies to our lives. But of what import are lists of building materials? Or Priestly vestments? What does the building of the Tabernacle and the mode of worship in the desert have to teach us in our contemporary Western context?

J. V. Fesko, the academic dean and professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary, has written a book which explores this portion of scripture, revealing how this wilderness tent and the practices associated with it pointed forward to the person and work of Christ.  Each of the chapters focuses on an aspect of the Tabernacle (the building, utensils, significance of various elements) and brings it into conversation with key New Testament passages which draw out their significance:

  • The building materials for the Tabernacle (Ex. 25:1-9; 35:4-9) were given by the people as a voluntary offering. Fesko uses this talk both about the quality of our giving and the foundation we use to build our final temple on (cf. 1 Cor 3:10-16).
  • The significance of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:10-22; 37:1-9) is seen in that it prefigures our final atonement (through Christ’s cross) and represents God’s presence with his people (points forward to the Incarnation).
  • The Table and the show bread (Exodus 25:23-30; 37:10-16) pointed to God’s provision for his people  and can be connected with Christ’s miraculous feeding of the five thousand, the Lord’s Prayer (our daily bread) and the Lord’s supper.
  • The Lampstand and Oil (Exodus 25:31-40; 27:20-21; 37:17-14) and the perpetual light it gave, points forward to Jesus the light of the world and the church.
  • The Tabernacle (Exodus 26: 1-37; 36:8-38) was the visble sign of God’s presence with Israel and the New Testament connects God’s indwelling presence with the incarnation, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and God’s abiding presence with His people.
  • The Altar and the courtyard (Exodus 27:1-9; 38:1-7, 9-20) represents the place where sacrifices were made on behalf of Israel and point forward to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.
  • The Priests garments (Exodus 28:1-43; 39:1-31) were endued with symbolic significance and pointed forward to Christ, our high priest. Likewise the consecration of the priests (Exodus 29:1-46) also would point forward to Christ’s ultimate expiation of our sin.
  • The Census Tax (Exodus 30:11-16) reminded Israel of their redemption from Egypt. Fesko reminds us that when we take ‘a census’ of our own life, we should think of our unworthiness and Christ’s redemption of us.
  • The Bronze Basin (Exodus 30:17-21; 38:8) points forward to baptism and the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit.
  • Oholiab and Bezalel (Exodus 31:1-11) were craftsmen gifted by the Holy Spirit for the building of his tabernacle. Fesko uses  their example to speak of  the future outpouring of Spiritual gifts to the church for service of the church and world, and God’s continual indwelling presence.
  • Finally, Fesko ends his reflection on the temple with a chapter on Sabbath (Exodus: 31:12018) and he reflects on the way in which trusting in Jesus is our entry into the Sabbath rest of God.

Fesko uses the New Testament to shed light on the Old. He takes his cue from Augustine who once wrote, ‘what is hidden in the Old is revealed in the New, and what is revealed in the New is hidden in the Old (133).’  Fesko reads the section on the Tabernacle through a Christocentric theological grid.  I appreciate this perspective and it made me think of the first time I read Hebrews after a fresh reading of the Pentateuch.  All scripture is God breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). When Paul wrote those words, the New Testament was not canonized yet and the Bible of the early church was the Old Testament. Thus we need to learn to wrestle with passages like the building of the tabernacle (or genealogies) when we encounter them in our Bibles.

Unfortunately there are no footnotes and there is no bibliography in the book. Many readers will not miss them, but I like to know where an author has gleaned some of their ideas and who they are conversant with it. Fesko is not the first (or the last) to traverse this ground, and I want to know who he’s read. But these chapters first had life as sermons which Fesko preached at Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Woodstock, Georgia)  when Fesko was pastor there.  So I am left guessing which commentators and scholars Fesko consulted in his pastor’s study.  I think Fesko has a lot of valuable things to say and makes sound theological judgments; however he offers few clues for those who would desire to dig deeper into the topic.

But Fesko wrote this book for those who find the treatment  of the Tabernacle  in Exodus boring and inaccessible. I think he does a great job and makes some good suggestions for how lay Christians can use this portion of scripture to deepen their appreciation for all that God in Christ has done on our behalf.   If  the tabernacle has always mystified you, Fesko will show you how to appropriate these texts in ways  that are worshipful and worthy of deeper reflection.

Thank you to Cross Focused Reviews and EP Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.