Interpretive Dance

How the Brazos Biblical Commentary Falls Short

In 2005, a commentary on the Acts of the Apostles by Jaroslav Pelikan, the great historian of theology, appeared as the inaugural entry in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Brazos Press). Sixteen of the planned forty volumes have now been published, eleven devoted to Old Testament and five to New Testament books. Interestingly, the series features contributors who are not first of all biblical scholars but Christian theologians of one stripe or another, and the explicit framework for interpretation is the Christian creed. Thinking an interim assessment of the series might prove helpful both to present and prospective readers, I made it my summer project to read everything that has appeared in print, and to provide what I hope is a fair assessment of the quality of the project so far.

I stress the word “fair” because I recognize that my approach to the series involves a degree of bias. In theory, I ought to be positively disposed toward the venture, since I have often expressed frustration at the inadequacies of the dominant historical-critical method, have written commentaries that dispense with tracing antecedent sources in favor of a focus on the literary and religious dimensions of the texts, have tried from time to time to think theologically (even on the Nicene Creed!), and have spent the past eight years vetting submissions to the Journal of Theological Interpretation. My own work along these lines has been matched and surpassed by other biblical interpreters; it is not uncommon for contemporary commentators to employ the riches of the patristic tradition or to seek the theological and pastoral implications of texts. Ulrich Luz’s magisterial commentary on Matthew (Fortress Press), for example, consistently attends to the entire range of traditional interpretations as well as historical-critical and literary issues. The series of commentaries called Interpretation (Westminster John Knox) is directed explicitly to use in preaching, and includes volumes written by such theologically sensitive interpreters as Fred Craddock, Charles Cousar, Tom Long, and Richard Hays.

Similarly, the twelve-volume New Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon, 1994) employs the work of first-rate biblical scholars dedicated to the life of the church (for example, Walter Brueggemann, Pat Miller, M. Eugene Boring, and Leander Keck) in interpretations that yield theological, pastoral, and homiletical insight. Not every entry in such series is equally fine: no commentary series written by multiple authors has ever been great from beginning to end. But these—and many other such endeavors—show that scholars schooled in the historical as well as theological disciplines have not been lacking in their efforts to engage the theological voice of biblical compositions or to articulate that voice for believers.

Still, I have never regarded the genre of commentary as the ideal site for theological engagement with Scripture. The nature of commentaries (from the patristic period to today) demands that the table always be set by the text requiring explication, whereas theology is often driven to the text by issues raised in the life of faith and the challenge of changing circumstances. But what harm, I thought, could come from asking theologians to join the task of textual explication? Shared effort might not merely allow theologians to augment the efforts of exegetes, but also to remind themselves that the interpretation of Scripture requires distinctive skills and sensibilities that they need to cultivate.

Then I remind myself that to speak in this way of “theologians” and “exegetes” as separate professions is, alas, to confirm the grievous division of what was once a seamless enterprise—after all, the notion of a theology that was not scriptural, or a reading of Scripture that was not also theological, would have been as strange to Luther as it would have been to Augustine—and to reinforce the contemporary version of alienation I have elsewhere termed the “academic captivity of the church.” The theologians invited to write for this series are, with minor exceptions, just as much academics as the exegetes they replace, and, again with minor exceptions, write with other professionals in view rather than laypeople.

A preface to the entire series written by R. R. Reno appears at the front of each volume. Reno, who formerly taught theology at Creighton University and is now editor of First Things, provides the guiding vision for the enterprise, and his preface identifies the twofold premise that governs the series. The first is that “the Nicene tradition, in all its diversity and controversy, provides the proper basis for the interpretation of the Bible as Christian Scripture.” Although he declares that the editors “impose no particular method of doctrinal interpretation,” theology is understood here to mean doctrine, and specifically Christian doctrine. Now, while I can certainly agree that interpretation within the church exists in a positive conversation with the creed (see my book The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters), I am also convinced that this conversation is dialectical and complex—not least because the specific texts of Scripture are even more diverse and controversial than the creed! The creed functions as an interpretive code, to be sure, but it is incapable of telling us how to read every biblical text, just as no single biblical text adequately expresses the specific convictions found in the creed. Reno’s proposed framework can easily lead to finding in the texts only what doctrine requires, or even to the suppression or distortion of specific texts when they prove problematic to doctrine.

For that matter, the effective identification of “theology” with “doctrine” entails a dramatic reduction in the meaning of theology as it has been carried out in the church over the centuries. The examination and application of doctrine is an important dimension of theology, but fides quaerens intellectum has always involved critical and doxological dimensions as well as catechetical—and has traditionally drawn from and been directed to the living faith of Christians in everyday life, their experiences of God, their moral dispositions, their practices of piety, their worship, and their work for justice in the world. It would seem that the “theological interpretation of Scripture” ought to encompass this richer understanding of the scope of theology.

The series’ second premise holds that theological interpretation is best carried out by commentators chosen for their “knowledge of and expertise in using the Christian doctrinal tradition,” without reference to any “historical or philological expertise,” since theological training in the Nicene tradition itself, Reno asserts, “prepares one for biblical interpretation.” The longstanding division of specialties in the theological arts, however, makes this last statement dubious at best. The evidence does not suggest that contemporary theologians (always excepting the remarkable Karl Barth) have shown themselves particularly gifted readers of the Bible—in the cases, that is, when they even choose to take the Bible into account. Indeed, Reno understands that theologians are not really prepared to undertake this task; “Like stroke victims,” he comments, they have “forgotten the skills of interpretation,” and reinvigorating them will require “different strategies of rehabilitation.”

The reader is not reassured by this dose of realism; expensively produced biblical commentaries ought not to be the training ground or therapy session for theologians who have forgotten skills of interpretation. Reno is nevertheless confident in his choice of theologians rather than biblical scholars because, he tells us, “War is too important to leave to the generals.” The polemical bite in this line unfortunately sets a precedent for a number of volumes in the series, legitimating a bashing of other interpreters whose historical and philological expertise lead them in directions other than those pursued by these exegetes-in-training.

The concerns raised by Reno’s preface were not erased by my reading of two early entries in the series, each by authors universally recognized as heavyweights in academic theology. I was pleased by the kind acknowledgement of my own work in Jaroslav Pelikan’s commentary on Acts, but found that the octogenarian’s distinctive approach—using the Western version of the Greek and using Luke’s story to anchor a number of learned discussions on loci communes of theological discussion—had the effect of eliminating the actual theological voice of Acts altogether. And when I was asked by the journal Pro Ecclesia to review Stanley Hauerwas’s commentary on Matthew, I reported that although the influential theologian from Duke said many fine things about the task of theological interpretation, his practice of it lacked the sort of close attention to what the text was saying that in fact constitutes a “commentary”; the result was a variety of bold and inconsistent statements only tenuously connected with Matthew’s Gospel. More in dismay than in jest, I concluded by noting that in Hauerwas’s effort, the gain of a commentary came at the loss of the Gospel.

In short, neither Pelikan nor Hauerwas had persuaded me that the Nicene Creed actually led them to a deeper understanding of their assigned texts. And thus my self-imposed assignment of reading all sixteen volumes in print so far: I needed to discover whether these two commentaries were representative or exceptional. Could I recommend at least some of the volumes in the series to my students studying for the Christian ministry at the Candler School of Theology, or should I dismiss the effort as a whole?

Having already negotiated two of the five New Testament volumes in print, I went on to finish the rest. Two of the three struggled to rise above mediocrity. Surely the hardest Brazos assignment was given to Finnish theologian Risto Saarinen, tasked with commenting—in one volume—on all three of Paul’s letters to his delegates (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus) as well as Philemon, and—inexplicably—Jude! (Perhaps the idea was to lump all the New Testament’s least favorite writings together in one volume and be done with them.) Unfortunately, Saarinen’s comments, while having the virtue of following the text, do little to enrich a theological understanding of the compositions. Douglas Harink’s commentary on 1 and 2 Peter similarly builds on the specifics of the text, and makes worthwhile use both of critical New Testament commentaries and theological authors (Calvin, Luther, Barth, Yoder, and Hauerwas). His use of Walter Benjamin and his declarations on postmodernism, however, prove more distracting than illuminating. And his good-hearted effort to read 2 Peter through the lens of the Orthodox understanding of theiosis reveals all too clearly the efforts of a newcomer to such discourse.

By far the finest entry on the New Testament, and one of the Brazos commentaries I will gladly recommend to students, is Joseph Mangina’s reading of the Book of Revelation. Displaying both historical and linguistic competence, as well as a deep familiarity with critical scholarship on this difficult composition, he writes engagingly and well, invoking with substantial nuance a wide spectrum of literary, artistic, and liturgical readings of Revelation. I appreciated Mangina’s decision not to impose a theological agenda, but rather to allow theological insight to emerge from the play of his imagination with the meaning of the text as it revealed itself through sustained and detailed reading. His commentary is informed by both close reading and a lively theological imagination.

Moving on to the Old Testament commentaries, I was reminded that the task of interpreting the Old Testament as “Christian Scripture” has always been daunting, as the massive and complex efforts of Origen and other patristic authors remind us. The chore is even greater when set in terms of a creedal hermeneutics applied to the literal (historical) sense of the text—for when everything must point to Christ and the church, the threat of a supersessionist reading inevitably looms. When theology is defined in terms of doctrine, moreover, how can the interpreter avoid abstraction from the messy particulars of compositions, especially when they consist of less-than-edifying narratives and laws that seem arcane and even morally perverse? Finally, when the authority of the text is constantly parsed in positive terms, the text inevitably ends up being taken as an answer to be affirmed, rather than a question that may demand of the interpreter true critical struggle. All these issues were systematically addressed by Origen, and led to his consistent use of anagogical readings in his homilies, in which he sought to express what the Spirit was speaking to the churches through texts whose literal meaning could no longer apply.

Because most of the commentaries on the Old Testament either do not address these issues, or do so inadequately—usually by ignoring the difficult particularities of the texts—I cannot recommend them as an exegetical or theological resource. In addition to insufficient attention to the text, Reno’s commentary on Genesis is marred by a fixation on the theme of particularity (the influence of Leon Kass here is deeply unfortunate), and wide-ranging digressions on modern biblical scholars and theologians, humanism and its hubris, and politics. Astonishingly, it contains little “theology” of a doctrinal, much less Nicene character. Ephraim Radner’s commentary on Leviticus attempts to follow Origen in a Christological reading of the ancient cult, following the lead of the Letter to the Hebrews and using as well a number of medieval commentaries in the same tradition; once more, however, the actual text tends to disappear, and the effort to create a consistently “Christian” reading of the entire body of laws becomes increasingly artificial. Little need be said about Telford Work’s commentary on Deuteronomy, except to note that applying the rubric of “faith, hope, and love” to every passage falls considerably below the level of a serious encounter with the text. And while I sympathize with the struggles of commentators assigned the historical books as they seek to find a Nicene frame for the political struggles among ancient kings, I will simply note that Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1 and 2 Kings and Matthew Levering’s on Ezra and Nehemiah, while respectful of their texts, fail to make a new or compelling theological case for or from the compositions.

The only commentary so far published on the major prophets is Robert Jenson’s on Ezekiel. Jenson is one of the best-known and most influential of the theologians in this series; his work is consistently sober and intelligent, and here he makes his way through the text passage by passage, writing a small essay on each segment. Still, I found the results disappointing. Jenson does not seem to recognize the challenges posed by Ezekiel, who surely must be counted among the most difficult of the prophets. How, I wonder, can a theologian not be concerned with the language of Ezekiel 16 and 23, which portrays the Lord as an abusive husband? Even setting aside the question of modeling human behavior, the question remains: How should the metaphorical language that associates covenant with marriage itself be examined for its theological adequacy? Are there truly no problematic aspects of the equation?

Jenson’s failure to address this question illustrates the series’ premise that the text is always right, and that the Spirit never drives us through hard experience to find ways in which the text can be authoritative without always being normative. The Old Testament commentaries display an easy acceptance of the androcentric perspective and patriarchal assumptions of the texts (see in particular the volumes on Genesis, Leviticus, and Proverbs). Isn’t this a case in which Paul’s language and, even more, the example of Jesus provide an important Christological (and critical) lens?

My comments up to this point, both positive and negative, reveal the implicit criteria I use in judging the commentaries in the Brazos series: (1) do they actually grapple with the text and its difficulties in a critical (I do not mean historical-critical) way; and (2) do they display a theological imagination that is shaped by and responds to the text, rather than an ideology imposed on the text?

Three of the Old Testament volumes display one if not both of these values. While the theology in Francesca Aran Murphy’s commentary on 1 Samuel is negligible, her reading of the text is nevertheless close, careful, informed both historically and literarily, and unfailingly intelligent and lively. For a student seeking an immersion in the development of the story, her commentary works well. The theological agenda is more visible in David Stubbs’s commentary on Numbers, which construes the narrative of the people of God in the wilderness as a set of lessons for the people of God that is the church. Stubbs’s literary skill nicely serves his theological interest, yielding a reading of this difficult book in all its messy detail that is at once intelligent, ethically engaged, and pastoral. Finally, Daniel Trier’s worthy commentary on Proverbs (his treatment of Ecclesiastes is less successful) recommends itself through the strength of the external grid he imposes on Proverbs’ unwieldy materials. Such a procedure would seem to be a clear violation of my criteria; yet his effort to organize the disparate sayings positively according to the four cardinal virtues with the three theological virtues, and negatively according to the seven capital sins, proves a surprising asset for a reader hoping to make good sense of the book’s contents.  

The same qualities I found praiseworthy in Joseph Mangina’s commentary on the New Testament Book of Revelation I find as well in two Old Testament commentaries that I can recommend confidently. It is perhaps not accidental that these two commentaries, like that on Revelation, address compositions that resist doctrinal reduction and encourage literary attention. In taking on the Book of Jonah, Phillip Cary, not having Hebrew himself, took instruction from others to discover the nuances of the subtle language (with its many “turnings”). Recognizing the comedic and ironic character of the composition, Cary catches the way the story tests the assumptions of readers and poses a special challenge to those who would position themselves as judges of others. Only when he strives to find a messianic/Christian dimension to the story does Cary let the reader down by overreaching; otherwise, this is a fine read.

I save the best for last. In my judgment, Paul Griffiths’s commentary on the Song of Songs is the best of the Old Testament commentaries; together with Mangina’s effort, it makes for the most worthwhile reading in the entire Brazos series so far. Griffiths begins by making a sophisticated and informed argument for the legitimacy of using the Latin Vulgate (in this case, the New Vulgate) as the basis for his commentary, and offers a fresh and pleasing translation of the Song that captures its genuine poetic features. His reading of individual words, phrases, and stanzas is close, informed by serious concordance work across both testaments, and full of insight. Making use of the entire tradition of figural reading of the Song (the intimate relation of the Lord/Christ to Israel, the church, Mary), he shows how such readings are strongly or weakly based on the literal sense. And while affirming all the richness of these interpretations, Griffiths never loses sight of the intensely physical and erotic character of the verses, which he manages to display forcefully yet also chastely.

In the end, one has to ask: Is the effort required to read through all the mediocre volumes in the Brazos series adequately repaid by the handful of excellent ones? Not really, I’m afraid. I undertook this reading project in order to resist making snap judgments about books I had not read, based on my perception of the few that I had. Now that I’m done, I have to conclude that while the Brazos commentary series is not without some merit, neither is it, as a whole, particularly impressive. The majority of commentaries yield neither insight into the text of the Bible nor significant theological insight based on the Bible. In the case of theological interpretation of Scripture, the analogy to war drawn by Reno might be turned another way: If you eliminate the generals when you head into battle, you’d better have really good soldiers.


Funding for this essay was procvided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Published in the 2012-02-24 issue: 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor. His many books include Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).

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