O. Palmer Robertson: Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Book Review)

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O. Palmer Robertson's Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah has put together an excellent treatment of these three minor prophets. He defends views typical among conservative evangelicals, placing the books in the 7th century and defending the unity of composition, each by the single author they claim to be about. His treatment of the theology of these books is probably one of the best among contemporary commentaries.

Robertson tends to emphasize New Testament and later Christian interpretations, usually in a way that I find convincing but occasionally going a little beyond the text. Consider the following example. Coming from a Reformed theological tradition, Robertson defends the Reformation interpretation of justification by faith in Habakkuk, something several of the more mainstream commentaries have sought to undermine. He so emphasizes faith (over faithfulness) that I think he underemphasizes the connection between faith and repentance that some other commentaries seemed to me to get more clearly, but I welcome his attempt to see genuine justification by faith in Habakkuk's prophecy. I didn't notice anything particular to covenant theology as opposed to new covenant theology (the differences between Reformed covenant theologians and Reformed Baptists), though his expertise is in covenant theology.

The biggest criticism I've seen of Robertson's commentary is that he spends too little time on some kinds of matters that commentaries usually treat more fully, particularly linguistic issues. His emphasis on historical matters sometimes crowds out other concerns that an ideal, in-depth commentary would treat more fully. It isn't that he doesn't cover such issues, but sometimes one might want a little more.

I consider Waylon Bailey's NAC on these books to be a little more balanced in its approach, even if I like Robertson's theological emphasis. Bailey also has a chance to interact more fully with scholarship that appeared after Robertson's commentary was already published. Still, I think Robertson deserves a place on the list of the best few commentaries on these books for those who seek to teach them in a Christian setting. Unfortunately, Eerdmans is planning to replace a replacement volume in this series on these three prophets by Thomas Renz (who for all I know will produce an absolutely excellent commentary, but it's at Robertson's expense, which is the only reason I consider it unfortunate; no slight is meant for Renz). It may be several years off, but if you want to purchase Robertson's commentary you might want to do so before Renz's commentary comes out and Robertson's gets discontinued.

4 Comments

I'm curious, why exactly would you "welcome" the translation "faith" over "faithfulness" in Hab 2? This seems like a linguistic and contextual question rather than a theological one, so I'm just wondering why you would prefer the "faith" reading?

I suppose I would maintain that the very distinction between faith and faithfulness which we wrangle over would be entirely foreign to either OT or NT authors. In any event, when this verse is quoted in Hebrews it is immediately followed by "and if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him". This would tend to emphasize a sense of steadfastness by contrast.

I'm not sure I welcome the translation. I'm talking about the theological discussion that Robertson has regarding the theological implications of the statement in its overall covenant context. I'm not talking about how it ought to be rendered in an English translation.

My own view is that Habakkuk includes both meanings but that the faithfulness meaning is slightly more emphasized in Habakkuk and the faith meaning much more highly emphasized in Paul. The fact that both meanings are part of the word makes it difficult to determine how to render it, and the fact that Paul is referring to Habakkuk when he is clearly talking about belief (he uses the verb for belief, for example, in Galatians 2) while the more obvious rendering in Habakkuk's context would be "faithfulness", makes translation tricky. The ideal translation would make the connection between the passages while emphasizing the more emphasized point in each. That's not easy and is perhaps impossible in English.

But what I liked about Robertson is that he did include a defense of justification by faith in Habakkuk 2, because I think that is there. What I didn't like is that he didn't make it very clear that faith and faithfulness are two sides of the same coin, something Jesus also links when he says to repent and believe. Peter Craigie's very brief commentary on the minor prophets brings that out very nicely. I've been wanting to put together a post on that for a while now and haven't gotten around to it. Maybe this will remind me to do it.

I see. We just finished Habakkuk in our small group and moved on to Zephaniah this past week, so those books are fresh in my mind. The only source I've been looking at has been Donald Gowan's Theology of the Prophetic Books, which I've found very useful and informative.

Gowan is not particularly interested in discussions of NT theology in the book, which is alright by me. I figure one should try to understand the OT books on their own merits, so to speak, before attempting to figure out how they relate to NT issues.

I would think that keeping a pauline doctrine or specific NT texts in the front of one's mind when reading an OT text would tend to be something of a distraction. Not saying Robertson is doing that (since I haven't read it), but just a thought I had.

That's not what he's doing. He's more trying to defend Paul's use of Habakkuk as not taking it out of context, as some have claimed.

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