Sunday, July 6, 2008

Commentary Review

I have been missing from the website for quite some time as I prepared to write a review of a largish commentary. I sent it off a couple of days ago, I hope they will use it as I put rather more time into it than the short length of the review would suggest. Here is what took me so long.

Edited by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson
Baker Academic (in America), Apollos (in England), 2007

This commentary on the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament is, without a doubt, the most useful reference tool that I have added to my collection since I acquired Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament some years back. Yet it would be a great shame if it were only used as a reference book.

As I read through its careful and scholarly analysis of each use the NT makes of the OT, I became increasingly aware of how very little the NT authors’ claimed that they had any new revelation to offer to the world. Yes, they had Jesus, and he was a new and more clear revelation of God, but as much as a new revelation Jesus seems to be in the NT a new hermeneutic.

Was Jesus a new revelation of God? Yes. The beginning of the letter to the Hebrews emphasizes that, and the whole New Testament seems to expound the statement. But the revelation of God in Christ set about a whole re-reading of the OT. As we consider in detail the utter reliance of the New Testament authors’ on the Old, Jesus continually provides to them a new way to understand all that the Old Testament authors have said. They now have a new lens through which to understand the act of creation (John 1, Romans 1−2, Ephesians, 1 Corinthians 15:45, and a host of others), the calling of Abraham, the slavery and redemption of Israel, etc.

The authors of the NT did not, as OT prophets had, introduce new topics with the phrase “Thus saith the LORD.” Instead, from the Gospels through the letters and Revelation, they quoted the prophets of old and explained their significance in light of the new revelation of God in Christ Jesus. Jesus was their hermeneutic for understanding the Scriptures. Therefore the importance of a work like this commentary can in no way be overstated. If we want to understand the Gospel of Jesus we must understand it in the terms in which it is presented to us and those terms are almost exclusively drawn from the Old Testament.

This prompts the question of the hermeneutical methods that the NT authors used in interpreting the OT. While they each approached Scriptural interpretation somewhat differently, there are a few constants that are worth noting. As has already been stated they read it in the light of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.

It is also very significant that they extensively used a typological hermeneutic. Thus the historical events of the Exodus are used throughout the NT not to give a mere illustration of how Christ is saving his people, but to actually build the theological understanding of what Jesus is doing. They can use scripture this way, not because they can proof-text their statements by saying that the Exodus story says what they are saying, but rather because they assume that the God who was at work in the exodus is the same God who is at work in redemption and at work in us. They also assume that this same God will work now in a similar pattern to which he worked then. Paul does not claim that God gave him a whole new revelation describing the salvation that came in Christ. Rather he and the other NT authors built their understanding of this ultimate act of redemption by examining the workings of God’s redemption of his people from Egypt, from Babylon, from the Philistines, and so on.

In doing this Paul and the other NT authors seem to reason that just as a good author will build up to the climax of a story with repeated foreshadowing and variations on a theme, God has been authoring the history of the world and of his people as a building up to the climax of the revelation of his Son.

Interestingly, this very typological mode of interpretation that seems to have been the bedrock of the New Testament’s understanding of history and theology is somewhat out of fashion at present.

One of the principle rules of hermeneutics that has been repeatedly hammered into theology students (especially in a Reformed context) is that we must always ask the question: What did this text mean to its original audience. For example the use of the plural form for God in the first chapter of Genesis should not be taken as a reference to the Trinity because that understanding would presumably have been foreign to its original audience. The New Testament authors however were not willing to follow this rule quite the way it is often taught these days. Examining their uses of the OT I was pleasantly surprised by how very careful they were in most cases in sticking very close to the original context to which they were alluding, generally including faithfulness to the way the texts would have been originally understood. However they emphatically did not allow themselves to be limited by that historical understanding. They worked from the older understanding by reading always through the hermeneutic of the fuller understanding that they had now gained through the recent revelation of God in Christ.

No commentary can be, and this one is not, truly complete. It seems to rely almost exclusively on wording similarities to pick out the NT/OT parallels. Thus stylistic echoes are not treated, even when they are so plain as when Jesus echoed the blessing on the new couple (Be fruitful and multiply. . .) with what is sometimes called the Great Commission (. . . make disciples of all nations. . .). Nevertheless, although we may each be sorry to see some pet echo omitted, there seem few that were missed. Overall this is a masterful and scholarly work that will not be soon surpassed.

This commentary will, I’m afraid, usually be used merely as a reference book in helping pastors to prepare sermons. That is fine in its way, but it can be so much more. It is really a rather thorough examination of how the Bible does, and how we should, understand the Bible.

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