The NIV Application Commentary: The Letters of John. By Gary M. Burge. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, 264 pp., $19.99. The Johannine Letters: A Commentary on 1, 2, and 3 John. by Georg Strecker. Translated by Linda M. Malony. Edited by Harold Attridge. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, pp. xliv + 319, $46.00.
Once relatively neglected, the Johannine epistles have been the subject of an astonishing array of substantial studies since the early 1980s. Commentaries or commentary-like monographs have flowed from the pens of Raymond Brown, Flemming Jensen, Gerd Schunack, Pierre Bonnard, Kenneth Grayston, Stephen Smalley, John Stott, Edmond Hiebert, ,Judith Lieu, Rudolf Schnackenburg, Marianne Meye Thompson and Dietrich Rusam-and the list is not exhaustive. Furthermore, there was no dearth of older commentaries in the first place. Is there really any need for more?
In theory the answer would seem to be no. But in fact, both Burge and Strecker have provided studies that interpret John's letters in more effective ways than their predecessors, at least in certain respects.
Burge's study may be regarded as a North American equivalent of Stott's Tyndale Commentary (revised 1988) on these letters. That is, he shares Stott's general theological outlook and concern for practical application by believers. Also like Stott, Burge is not trying to replace I. H. Marshall's longer, more academic commentary, which is still the standard evangelical work. Both Burge and Stott seek to combine the fruits of scholarship with pastoral wisdom to produce books that will help pastors and serious lay readers grasp the text's meaning in its own milieu as well as its significance for life today.
Burge falls short of Stott's standard at times in the areas of literary grace and pastoral wisdom. But this is a weak criticism. How many anywhere can match Stott's expository gifts informed by years of pastoral dedication? Burge excels Stott in cognizance of more recent Johannine studies and immediate applicability to the North American scene. He has written an excellent text for individual study, for adult education in churches and for English Bible classes in colleges or seminary.
Burge regards all three epistles as written by John, who also wrote the gospel traditionally associated with his name. Burge thinks however that the final version of the gospel is the result of editing of an earlier draft by John's followers after his death. The epistles were written ca. AD 70-90 in the general vicinity of Ephesus. "First John is the author's full broadside against his opponents, while 2 and 3 John are personal notes that either accompanied 1 John or were sent separately to another destination" (p. 41). There is little in Burge's introductory sections that is far removed from traditional treatment of the relevant data, though at certain points lack of demarcation of his own views from far more critical ones may not always be sufficient for the needs of some readers.
From this foundation Burge treats each literary division of the letters in sequence. The format is: NIV translation of a passage (e.g. 1 John 1:8-2:2); "Original Meaning" (exegesis and exposition); "Bridging Contexts" (finding points of contact between the ancient setting and today); and "Contemporary Significance" (applying John's message to modern issues or concerns). For the record, of these pages 48% are devoted to exegesis, 14% to erecting bridges and 38% to application. This truly is an "application" commentary compared to most, as its title promises. As a result it is quite interesting to read. Assuming the application is sound, this means that Burge communicates John's message effectively-far more effectively than if he dwelt at greater length on exposition, which can easily become boring to non-specialists. The main liability lies in how quickly these applications will come to sound out of date.
While Burge has authored a well-informed but semi-popular manual of John's meaning and message, Strecker (1929-1994), a student of Rudolf Bultmann and former NT professor at the University of Gottingen, contributes a critical commentary in the strict sense. …