Magazine article Commonweal

Interpretive Dance: How the Brazos Biblical Commentary Falls Short

Magazine article Commonweal

Interpretive Dance: How the Brazos Biblical Commentary Falls Short

Article excerpt

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 interpreters 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. …

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