A Theological Commentary on Colossians

A while ago I wrote about how excited I was to at some point get my hands on the Brazos Theological Commentary on Colossians. Now I finally have made my way through it – and I’m still excited about the book!

The Brazos Theological Commentary series exists for the sake of interpreting scripture in light of the Church’s creeds. The books in the series do not shy away from moving back and forth between exegesis and theological interpretation. In fact many of the books in this series are designed to demonstrate the intellectual viability of the ongoing project many have termed “theological interpretation.”

As a part of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series, Seitz commentary on Colossians shows the reader not only what it looks like to do theological interpretation, he also shows the reader how to read scripture in light of the entire canon. Most commentaries shy away from reading scripture in this way.

Features of the Commentary

The First unique aspect of this commentary is Seitz’ refusal to read Colossians apart from the rest of scripture. This commentary really is an exercise in canonical interpretation, i.e. “interpretation of one of Paul’s letters in the context of them all, of the New Testament more generally, and of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.” (27) This sort of reading certainly has its benefits – it is holistic, it refuses to get stuck in matters of historical background, it respects the text for what it says in its final form, and encourages a reader-response sort of reading. However it also has its drawbacks, specially that this sort of reading can wash out the distinctive message of the book one is focused upon, in this case Colossians.

Another interesting feature of this commentary is Seitz’ view on the Colossian heresy. Seitz decides to push the historical matter into the background of his commentary. That is, he refuses to focus upon it. He does this for several reasons, according to Seitz: 1)The heresy is not the point of the book (more on this below), 2) Paul does not know the details of the heresy, 3) Paul is being intentionally vague about the issue and recommendations for how to address the issue. I definitely have to disagree with Seitz on this point, Paul might have other purposes in writing the letter, but the nature of the heresy really is important, and we shouldn’t simply relegate it to being a non-issue.

A third interesting feature of this commentary is how Seitz allows the Old Testament to inform his interpretation of Colossians, specifically, he allows Genesis to do a lot of the heavy lifting in his interpretation. At the same time he notes that Colossians does not directly quote any OT scripture. The reasons Paul does not do this is because the Colossian church is primarily gentile, and they would have been unaware of much of the OT. Thus Paul is attempting to draw them into a OT worldview before he begins to instruct them on the OT text.

A fourth unique feature of Seitz’ commentary is his belief that Paul is responsible for collecting his own letters, organizing them, editing them, and distributing them because he knew that they were akin to scripture. Seitz believes that Romans serves as an introductory letter, forming the basis for our interpretation of the rest of Paul’s letters. Seitz makes these claims in light of the affinities he sees between Paul’s corpus and the minor prophets.

Finally, the most significant feature of this commentary is Seitz view on the purpose of Colossians. As I mentioned above, he strays away from traditional interpretations which see the occasion of the letter lying in the problem of the Colossian heresy. Most commentaries spend a substantial amount of time trying to figure out the nature of this heresy, but Seitz almost entirely avoids doing this. He avoids it because he believes that Colossians is transitional letter which explains Paul’s transition between an apostle who travels and preaches to an apostle who fulfills his apostolic calling in letter writing. As Seitz says on pg. 37, “Paul has become aware that his letter writing is a form of apostolic ministry with its own integrity and afterlife, especially in the form of letters in emerging collective association.” Because of his awareness of his changing role, Paul writes a more general letter. Seitz notes the seemingly intentional vagueness/imprecision/generality Paul uses when addressing the nature of the heresy. Seitz believes that Paul speaks in generalities because he now knows that this letter will make its away to other churches around the world (thus enabling him to fulfill his apostolic calling to the gentiles.) Thus Paul addresses general problems that many gentile churches will face in the future. However, despite the fact that the letter is meant to have a broader audience, Seitz does not ignore the fact that this letter is written specifically to the Colossian church. So Seitz tries to balance the global nature of the letter and the local nature of the letter. What shall we make of this? I really don’t know…. Seitz’ points about the vagueness & generality of Paul’s comments makes a lot of sense, however it seems to be quite a stretch to infer from Paul’s imprecise language that Paul has such global intentions. It might be better just to say that Paul was vaguely aware of the problems they were facing, so he speaks in generalities, much like a guest preacher might do at a church he is visiting (Seitz does use this example). We should probably leave it at that rather than infer from this that Paul has a global purpose in mind for this letter. The text simply does not lead us to believe that.

Nevertheless, I recommend this commentary. It is interesting, makes some unique claims, and helps the reader focus on what the text is actually trying to say. Instead of getting bogged down behind the text, this commentary encourages us to stay in the text. This is a welcomed feature, which is unusually absent in most academically rigorous commentaries.

Galatians and Christian Theology

In 2012 a large group of scholars gathered at St. Andrews for the fourth in a series of triennial Scripture and Theology conferences. This particular year’s focus was upon Galatians and Christian Theology. The results of this conference were published in this extensive collection of essays.

This collection of essays is comprised of three sections: Justification, Gospel, and Ethics. The actual conference was not arranged according to these three topics, but as the publisher edited the collection, it became clear that all the presentations fit quite neatly (in most cases) into one of these artificial categories.

On interesting aspect of this collection is the cross-disciplinary nature of many of the papers. Naturally some papers are written by specialists who stick to their particular area of knowledge (i.e. Wright on Messiahship in Galatians), but many of the biblical scholars and theologians ventured on to the other side of their academic divide. Systematicians dove into exegesis and exegetes dove into systematics. All this makes for some really interesting essays!

On of the most interesting sections in the book was the Gospel section. I probably found this to be the case since I have more of a bent towards systematic theology… When considering the gospel in Galatians, the editors write, one is “lead to the meaty matters of the ordo salutis, as well as to issues of time, eternity, election , and God’s very being as Trinity.”

One final aspect of this collection that I really appreciated was the sensitivity of (most of) the authors in paying attention to the history of theology and biblical interpretation. Rather than simply sticking to “brand spanking new” insights, most essays interacted in significant ways with the history of the church’s interpretation of this letter.

Highlights

This collection contains a total of 23 essays; 10 devoted to the issue of justification, 7 devoted to the gospel, and 6 devoted to ethics. To address each of these essays is beyond the scope of this brief review, but I will give some personal highlights.

Ch 1- Messiaship in Galatians? N.T. Wright. Typical Wright, talking about exile and justification. He argues for the importance of Messiahship in “christos-based incorporative language.” He also argues that Messiah as true Israel is at the heart of Paul’s participatory soteriology. In other words, God’s people are summed up in the Messiah.

Ch. 11 – The Singularity of the Gospel Revisited – Beverly Roberts Gaventa. The Gospel’s singularity deals not only with the fact that there is only one gospel, but also with its “singular, all-encompassing action in the lives of human beings.” The gospel makes claims upon all things.

Ch. 12 – Apocalyptic Poiesis in Galatians – Richard Hays. He tries to move past the redemptive-historical vs. apocalyptic dichotomy often presented in readings of Paul’s letters. In this essay he argues that “Paul is seeking to reshape the imagination of his readers, seeking to narrate them into a symbolic world where God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son of God, and the Spirit are powerfully at work to bring a new world into being.”

Ch. 17 – Heirs Through God: Galatians 4:4-7 and the Doctrine of the Trinity – Scott R. Swain. He defends the need for theological interpretation of scripture because scripture is the “seat of doctrine.” He shows how Galatians 4:4-7 is a “seat of doctrine” for the doctrine of the Trinity. He analyses the grammar of divine agency in this passage and shows the God’s action in Christ and the Spirit is not “mediated” action – it is immediate. Hence showing the rational behind the Trinity.

Ch. 19 – “Indicative Imperative” as the substructure of Paul’s theology and Ethics in Galatians? – Volker Rabens. Many of us who preach have learned about the importance of the indicative-imperative distinction in Paul’s letters. Well this distinction is being challenged. Rabens interacts with one of this model’s primary critics – Zimmermann – and shows that although the indicative-imperative distinction is not the be-all-end-all mode of ethics for Paul, it is certainly an important aspect. In fact if we want to be faithful to Paul’s words and he particular grammar he actually uses, we ought to see Paul’s ethics as implicit indicatives and implicit imperatives. Paul doesn’t always explicitly talk about indicatives-imperatives, but he certainly thinks this way.

All in all, I recommend this book. It offers some of the most up to date discussion of important topics in Galatians. It also provides a window into contemporary Pauline studies (which according to this book revolves around apocalyptic readings of Paul). Every reader will be able to find something that interests them in this book; for some that might be exegesis, for others it might be biblical theology, and even for others it might be historical or systematic theology. Its all here!

 

(Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.)

Richard Hays on Being Pastoral-Theologians like Paul

When Richard Hays says something you listen. The author of such ground shaking books like The Moral Vision of the New Testament, The Faith Of Jesus Christ, and Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, he is known not only for bridging the gap between biblical criticism and literary studies – he is also known for his commitment to the authority of scripture all while using the critical methods of biblical studies in order to defend historic orthodox positions. So again – when he speaks – you listen!

Recently I came across a paper titled “Divine Poiesis in Galatians: Paternity, Passion, and Participation” in which he tries to move past the redemptive-historical vs. apocalyptic dichotomy often presented in readings of Paul’s letters. In this essay he argues that

“Paul is seeking to reshape the imagination of his readers, seeking to narrate them into a symbolic world where God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son of God, and the Spirit are powerfully at work to bring a new world into being.”

In this essay he pays attention especially to the language and imagery Paul uses to drive this story forward – key among these images are the motifs of Paternity, Passion, Participation.

He brings all of this to a climax by reflecting on Paul’s style of pastoral theology and let me be honest with you…

Its pure gold!

Hays does something that many biblical scholars shy away from – he gives recommendations to pastors to be more theological and to theologians to be more pastoral! This is not the kind of stuff you usually find in the writings of mainline theologians. But he does it.

Doing Pastoral-Theology Like Paul

Hays makes three suggestions for how we might appropriate Paul’s style as a pastoral theologian in our day:

  1. Paul writes as a hermeneutical theologian. Paul was deeply concerned about teaching the gentiles how to read scripture. In order to do this he had to draw them deep into the story of the death and resurrection of Christ. As these new Christians learned to live the story they would need to learn how to constantly return to the study of scripture or else they wouldn’t know the story they were living in.
  2. Paul is not afraid to think big. Without a doubt Paul faced a lot of controversies during his apostolic ministry. Nevertheless, “he does not appeal to custom or convention or to opinion polls. Instead, he retells the gospel story and thinks about the problem in radical terms… Our knee-jerk tendency, by contrast, is to fiddle with adjustments and compromises… Paul might dare us to think bigger about fundamental questions.” (Kindle Loc. 4637)
  3. Paul is not afraid of polemic. “Galatians reminds us that there are times when the truth of the gospel really is at stake, when we must yield submission even for a moment to forces that would compromise or undermine the liberating message of Jesus. (Kindle Loc. 4646)

These are certainly wise words from a wise man on how to do pastoral-theology like Paul.

Moving Past the New Perspective on Paul

Recently a couple of biblical scholars wrote interesting articles on their blogs discussing the state of current Pauline scholarship. Scot McKnight and Michael Bird both claim that we are entering into a new stage in Pauline scholarship – we have moved past focusing on the NPP vs. Old Perspective and moved into discussions about Redemption-History vs. Apocalyptic.

McKnight makes the bold claim that:

The old perspective Paul vs. the new perspective Paul is now over. The new debate will be between the new perspective Paul vs. the apocalyptic Paul.

Bird seems to think the same thing:
The big and messy debate in Pauline studies at the moment in “salvation-history” vs. “apocalyptic” interpretations of Paul.
So what marks this apocalyptic reading of Paul? McKnight suggests several things:
  1. The primary word is “apocalyptic” but this term is not being defined by Jewish apocalypses so much as it is almost equivalent to a cosmic, universalist redemption that has now invaded the world in Christ (the old age is shattered by the new age). Apocalyptic is associated closely with soteriology, cosmic soteriology, in this reading. God’s acting in history is heavily emphasized; the divine action is at the core of the apocalyptic Paul.
  2. Second, theological terms are turned into cosmic powers in upper case letters: Sin, Law, Flesh, Grace (Barclay’s essay develops this), Love, Redemption. The world is the stage of a cosmic soteriological battle now won by Christ in his death and resurrection.
  3. Third, humans are agents in this moral cosmic battle but the battle has shifted from the days of Bultmann, where it was so individualistic, to cosmic proportions. Adam is the key man, not Abraham; Law and Sin and Flesh are the categories, not the Torah of Moses; the alternatives are Christ vs. Adam and Life vs. Death.

So where should we stand in this debate? Bird is probably right when he says that:

For me the big thing is that it is not either/or since one can easily find salvation-historical and apocalyptic motifs across Paul’s letters.

I wholeheartedly agree with Bird. Both motifs certainly seem to be there. If you are looking for a great article regarding some of the concerns about the apocalyptic Paul, but concluding that both are in fact there check out Bruce McCormack’s (What! A systematic theologian!) essay “Can We Still Speak of Justification by Faith? An In house Debate with Apocalyptic Readings of Paul” for an excellent example of how these can be drawn together. You can find the essay in the new book Galatians and Christian Theology (published by Baker Academic).

So You Want to Love Jesus Even More?

What Christian doesn’t want to love Jesus more? It seems pretty obvious that if you are a Christian, you want to love Jesus more – but practically speaking its hard, really hard. I think I’m not the only one who feels that way – I know for a fact that I am not the only one who feels that way. I work with college students – week in and week out I see this battle to love Jesus more being played out in the lives of these students. I see that they really do desire to love Jesus more, but find it hard to do. This new book by Wheaton president: Philip Graham Ryken attempts to help us do what all Christians really desire – that is, love Jesus more.

The book works through the question – how to we grow to love Jesus more. Ryken shows us that our love for Jesus is not something that we generate, it’s a gift from the Holy Spirit. He shows us that our strongest motivation for loving Jesus is to look at the truth of Jesus love for us on the cross. He helps us see that when we face doubts, we need to go back to the gospel where we see God’s love fully on display. Ryken reveals the connection between love and forgiveness. He shows us that obedience is the overflow of love and that one of the best ways to love Jesus is to love the church. He walks us through those days when we feel like we really don’t love Jesus. He hones in on how we love Jesus even though we don’t see him. And ends with the hope of heaven, the beatific vision, when we will see Jesus face to face and love him perfectly.

Review

Ryken’s book is super encouraging and it addresses a real need. As I read this book there were several times when I had to put the book down and just thank God for his love for me. It is awesome when a book can make you do that. As this happened, I started to think…

Yes, I can love Jesus more. Its possible, even though I love Jesus now, I do want to love him more, I do want to pursue him more. Its hard, but its worth it!

I loved the fact that such a short book could make me feel that way. So this book certainly has a fantastic devotional aspect to it. But the devotional side of the book isn’t just for individuals – its for groups too. At the end of the book there is a study guide, which you can use on your own or you can use as a group. The guide will help you to think through the things you just read and process the things you are learning. Finally, the book was also full of great illustrations. Ryken draws from puritans, from great literature, from movies, and from life in order to bring the truths in this book to life. Ryken gets the fact that its not enough to simply speak the truth, you have to show it too. Ryken shows how powerful a good illustration can be to make truth stick.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. If you are looking for a short book to work through as a devotional, or if you are looking for a good book to encourage you to love Jesus more, pick up Ryken’s Loving Jesus More.

(Note: I received this book from Crossway in exchange for an impartial review.)

Middle Knowledge & Geerhardus Vos

If Al Gore had become President of the United States, America would not have gone to war in Iraq. If the Broncos beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, the world would be a better place. If Johnny had asked Susie out on a date, she would say yes.

All these statements are examples of statements called counterfactuals. We use counterfactuals in every day conversation. For example we might say that “If I would have left home 5 minutes earlier, I would have missed traffic.” We say stuff like that all the time. But does God have this sort of knowledge too?

Most theologians agree that God has knowledge of all necessary truths. That is indisputable. Most also agree that God has knowledge of things that “will” be. However a disputed question is whether God has knowledge of things that “would” be. And if God does have this sort of knowledge, when does he have it? Does God have it before or after his divine decree to create?

Luis Molina (a Jesuit), from whose name Molinists derive their own name, believed that God’s hypothetical knowledge of creatures free decisions comes logically prior to his decree to create. The Dominicans, following Thomas Aquinas disagreed. Supposedly this makes room for human freedom, after all truths about human decisions come prior to God’s decree. According to Molinists, God knows what hypothetically humans would do prior to his divine decrees thus this allows room for human freedom but allows God to bring about his ultimate purposes through free creaturely decisions since God decides which world he will create.

According to William Lane Craig, this knowledge, lies between his knowledge of necessary truths and his knowledge of what “will” be, thus Molinists call this God’s middle knowledge.

But we need to ask ourselves a few questions:

Is middle knowledge a coherent concept?

Is middle knowledge a biblical concept?

Now before we answer some of these questions let’s define middle knowledge.

Here are a couple of definitions:

God knows, for any creature he might create, how that creature will behave in whatever circumstances he might be placed. God is able to know this, moreover, even though the creatures in question will, if created, enjoy libertarian freedom. This kind of knowledge…[is] called middle knowledge. –Hugh McCann

What is middle knowledge? This is the doctrine that between God’s natural knowledge, his knowledge of all necessities and possibilities, and his free knowledge, what he has freely planned to bring to pass, there is a middle knowledge, his knowledge of what his free creatures would do in a vast variety of different circumstances. – Paul Helm

So what should we think about Middle Knowledge? Geerhardus Vos helps us to think through some of these things in his Reformed Dogmatics…

First Vos says that – Knowledge is only “knowledge” if it refers to something that is certain. “Only what is certain and sure can be known.” This makes sense, knowledge only consists of what exists. Counterfactuals don’t have real existence – hence it is impossible to know them in the full sense of the word. So the concept is incoherent. (This is basically the grounding objection.)

Second, Vos says that what is free and uncertain in itself cannot be the object of knowledge. This is the same type of objection that Open theists make… Gregory Boyd helpfully points out: “it is hard to understand how agents can be said to possess libertarian freedom when the facts about every choice they will ever make eternally precede their making it.” So for freedom to be truly libertarian, an agent’s actions must be unknown. This is precisely what Middle Knoweldge tries to avoid. Again it seems like Middle Knowledge is an incoherent concept. Either God does not know libertarian actions or they are not truly libertarian – there doesn’t seem to be a way between these two options

Finally, is it biblical? Vos seems says that 1 Samuel 23 and Matthew 11, verses used to support middle knowledge are not in fact biblical. I don’t think the answer is as clear as Vos wants it to be.

But there are a host of issues, not touched upon by Vos, that make the concept of middle knowledge incoherent, or at least muddy. For instance, What is the Ontological status of molinist counterfactuals? These counterfactuals are logically prior to God’s decree to create, so how are they related to the Creator? How is it possible for the truth of these “facts” to exist apart from God’s creative will?

So what is the status of middle knowledge? I don’t know – all I know is that there are some pretty weighty objections against its existence. In my opinion, this last objection regarding the ontological status of these counterfactuals is the trickiest. From where do they derive their existence if they somehow “are” prior to God’s decree to create? Tricky Stuff…

Frameworks: How to Navigate the New Testament

A brand new Christian who is sitting in the pew hears the pastor say – “Open up to Habbakuk 3:1” and has no idea where to even start looking for that book – or a seasoned Christian who has sat through innumerable sermons and Bible studies but wants to learn about the Bible on his own… this book by Eric Larson is for those two Christians and everyone in between.

Even this guy could use a book like this!

Frameworks, according to Larson, is…

A book about Bible navigation and context – material that’s designed to build your confidence in your ability to negotiate the text and understand it. Think of it as a guidebook, a Bible companion, written for anyone who would like to have a personal biblical tour guide. This book can be sued for self-study, in small group discussions, or in classrooms to set the context for Bible reading and to lead you through it. (15)

This book certainly lives up to its stated purposes. Larson helps you navigate through the New Testament first by providing an introduction to the New Testament as a whole. Here he gives you the background necessary to read the gospels and all of the NT letters. Then he takes you through each New Testament book one by one. As he takes you through these books he answers 10 questions:

  1. What is the book like?
  2. What is this book about?
  3. Why was it written?
  4. How is the book organized?
  5. How does it read?
  6. How do I move through it?
  7. What makes the book or its author special?
  8. What should I remember most?
  9. How can I explore further or go deeper?
  10. What one verse can I apply right now?

What I liked

There are several things that really stuck out to me as being fantastic about this book:

  1. Solid use of evangelical scholarship that doesn’t dumb things down but makes things accessible to the general reader.
  2. Helpful organization of the content.
  3. Very helpful and memorable introductions to each book.
  4. Some really amazing pictures and graphics.
  5. Easy to read layout.

What I Didn’t Like

Naturally there are some things that I didn’t like about the book:

  1. The introduction to the synoptic gospels harmonizes the books too much and doesn’t allow each book to speak for itself.
  2. Some of the pictures were clearly stock photos, which I feel like I have seen elsewhere.
  3. Some of the graphics were poor in quality, its almost like they didn’t print out well.
  4. There were some typos throughout the book.
  5. Some of his book “themes” were quite a stretch, its as if he preferred to have an easy to memorize/catchy statement over a more accurate one.

Overall Thoughts

This is a fantastic New Testament survey which will definitely help “ordinary” people navigate their way through the New Testament. I wouldn’t use this book for a NT survey class in a college or seminary, however this might be an awesome textbook for somebody teaching a New Testament survey at a Christian high school or in a Sunday school class. Regardless of how you use it though, it sure is helpful, and it even sparked some ideas within me for preaching series!

(Note: I received this book courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.)

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