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Welfare Alienation

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Deuteronomy insists on relating, not just classifying. Poor and needy people belong, [sic] they are not just social statistics. They are part of "your" community and are not to be marginalized, excluded, and victimized as an underclass. Alienation is incontrovertibly one of the worst effects of poverty and dependence. Social policies that increase, and even institutionalize, that alienation (even in the name of "welfare" or "charity") are fundamentally contrary to the relational language and community-preserving intention of the biblical vision. -- Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy (NIBC) pp.191-192.

One of the things I really like about Wright's commentary (unlike the work of another biblical scholar of the same last name) is that he says things chastising people on both sides of the political spectrum in the same breath and rarely picks on just one side. [I can't help but mention the one puzzling statement so far that might be an exception to this, though.] His concern to draw out the social justice implications of the text is impossible to miss. If you're not paying attention, you might respond the way Glenn Beck would and think he's claiming Deuteronomy supports socialism. He isn't offering any particular economic model, however, and one thing he says here is quite interesting if you're tuned into it.

He doesn't say the issue is whether the poor are fed and supported in some way. He doesn't here get into any issues about whether people should do so privately, through their taxes via government assistance, or simply as a function of the church. What he does say is that there are ways of doing this that come across as welfare and charity that in fact increase and even institutionalize the alienation of poverty.

There are plenty of conservative critiques of the U.S. welfare system as it stands or as it was before the Clinton-Gingrich welfare reforms of the late 90s (and I note that Wright is not an American, so he probably doesn't have the American system in mind). Some of them are, I would say, inapt. One of the better critiques, one that was at least partially mitigated by the Gingrich-Clinton reforms, is that the welfare system, not by design but by unintended effect, actually perpetuates the conditions that it's designed to mitigate. I've in fact seen this sort of complaint from conservatives and socialists alike. It's mostly progressives/liberals who don't go as far as socialism who try to underplay this kind of argument, but it's mostly conservatives who make this point in the public sphere. Academics (and most on the far left are either academics or revolutionaries) tend to make these arguments in the privacy of their own intellectual circles, i.e. academic journals.

It strikes me that Wright, who is spending quite a lot of effort motivating social justice concerns, something hard not to do when commenting on Deuteronomy, is also quite insistent on something that conservatives who have serious problems with the U.S. welfare system are insistent on. Those on the left who disagree with conservatives on these issues are often too willing to act as if the only resistance to the safety net of a welfare state comes from those who don't honestly care about poverty. But what I think Wright is saying here illustrates something that became pretty clear to me very early in my political awareness that so many on the less-than-socialist left don't see.

At least a notable strain within conservative resistance to what they call the welfare state is motivated specifically by concern for the dehumanizing, alienating, motivation-sapping, dependence-creating effects of a government safety net with no or not enough strings attached. Some of this is probably still inordinately obsessed with how such things indirectly affect the rest of society rather than having actual love for those who are badly off. But it's always struck me that a significant strain within opposition to certain forms of welfare and certain ways of engaging in charity is motivated not by contempt or disinterest but by love, in the same way that parents love their children by depriving them of things they want very much but that will be harmful or pedestrians refusing to give money to homeless people might be (but probably often are not completely) motivated by concern for that person and the harmful effects of simply giving them money.

I read this after writing this post, but it captures several elements of what I've been thinking about, completely outside any political ideology sorts of issues. It's difficult to evaluate a system that does actually help immediate problems and in some ways makes things better but at the cost of the crucial elements that a more ideal way to handle things would have, and the current foster care system certainly is alienating in the extreme and almost certainly does institutionalize some of the problems it's supposed to solve, perpetuating them from generation to generation.

Commentaries on Romans

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[Note: This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post. This is not an exhaustive list, just the commentaries that I think are most worth paying attention to.]

Douglas Moo's NICNT is always my first choice on Romans. He's more careful in my view than any other Romans commentator when it comes to exegesis. He's got a high view of scripture similar to my own, and yet he garners much more respect than others with similar convictions. I'm not entirely sure why, but N.T. Wright thinks that in his case it's because he sees Moo as (1) more willing to revise his opinions away from his Lutheran tradition than Wright thinks is true of other conservative evangelicals (e.g. D.A. Carson, a claim that I think is wildly unfair to Carson, who adopted Calvinism entirely from reading the Bible and not from reading the Reformed tradition) and (2) more able to read his opponents carefully and represent their views accurately before criticizing them. (I've seen people complain about this with Carson also, and it baffles me. He strikes me as especially careful most of the time, especially when he's doing his actual argumentation.) But whatever the reasons, Moo has this reputation among scholars who disagree with him of being balanced, careful, and friendly enough with those who disagree, and it means he has the respect of commentators across the theological spectrum.

Moo writes very readable prose for an academic volume. He gives a thorough treatment of the Greek in the footnotes but keeps the main text readable for those who know little or no strong on theological treatment. You won't find here the kind of focus on language issues that some commentators give. You'll also get some good history of interpretation in this volume, and Moo's understanding of the theological issues is excellent. When necessary, he launches into a valuable excursus on an issue that needs more depth than the verse-by-verse discussion would give. It isn't as strong as Cranfield (see below) on presenting all the options and giving an exhaustive treatment of the reasons people have given for different views, but it's much more complete than most commentaries on that sort of thing.

Thomas Schreiner's BECNT is also good in a number of ways. I like Schreiner a lot. His book on perseverance and assurance strikes me as being pretty much right in terms of his main points, and I've appreciated his work on I Timothy 2 and in his commentary on I and II Peter and Jude. Schreiner strikes me as being very similar to Moo in many ways. Both defend Calvinist soteriology, both operate from a high view of scripture, both criticize the New Perspective, and both are generally known for defending more conservative theological views against liberalizing tendencies. Schreiner has a little less detail despite being more encumbered by technical Greek in the main text, but both are good writers who can be followed relatively easily in comparison to some of the more obscure prose academics can sometimes produce.

Some differences have to do with the series. The BECNT format makes it more paragraph-based than NICNT's verse-by-verse format (which makes it easier to read but much harder to use as a reference work). You'll see Greek font in BECNT (followed by parenthetical transliterations for the first occurrence), but you'll only see it in the footnotes of NICNT volumes. BECNT has clunky parenthetical references as opposed to NICNT's footnotes, which makes reading harder, but it looks much nicer to the eye in most other ways. But a few have to do with approach. Moo is a Lutheran who has moved in some ways toward more traditional Calvinism. Schreiner is a Reformed Baptist in the mold of John Piper (in fact he originated from Piper's own church, I believe). Moo's work has been mainly exegetical, from what I've seen, whereas Schreiner's ranges more into systematic theology and apparently biblical theology (but see below).

I've seen a few criticisms of Schreiner, though. A friend of mine thinks he's too easily drawn into answering questions of systematic theology at the expense of biblical theology (which makes me wonder what his New Testament Theology is actually like). One thing he might mean is that he thought Schreiner was too willing to read his systematic theological convictions back into the text or too willing to try to make them mean what his system would favor them meaning. This comes from someone who agrees with Schreiner's general outlook, by the way, just someone who doesn't want to push a particular text beyond what it's really about. I saw a similar criticism in a review I've read online. I haven't read enough to endorse this criticism, but I thought I'd mention it, since it does have at least two witnesses!

My own biggest criticism of Schreiner is that he adopts John Piper's view that God's pursuit of his own glory is basic to all God's motivations, and God's love is reduced to that. There are more reasonable ways of holding such a view, and Schreiner's is one of the more reasonable, but I still think he's wrong, and that approach is important in this commentary, because Schreiner finds it at the heart of Romans' theology.

On the other hand, I thought Schreiner's approach to Romans 7 was both creative and far superior to the commentators who want to restrict the passage to cover only the life of the believer or those who want it to cover only the life of the unbeliever. Schreiner argues that it's about the law rather than a certain time period in the life of anyone and that it would apply in either stage of someone's life, and I think he's right. Schreiner is also a little more concerned to step back and dwell on the overall structure and argument than Moo is, although some of this is because the BECNT format requires it more. (And I have seen one reviewer compliment Moo for doing well at that.)

What I've seen makes me place this as high enough on my list that I want to retain it in my possession and look to it second, after Moo. I haven't read it enough to say a lot more, but I've read it enough to like a lot of what I see.

For Zion's Sake

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For Zion's sake I will not be still, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her righteousness goes forth like brightness, and her salvation is like a burning torch [Isaiah 62:1, John Oswalt's translation (p.576)]

John Oswalt, in his commentary on Isaiah, says of this verse:

However it might appear, God insists that he will be at work unceasingly for Zion's sake. The emphatic position of this phrase Underlines a significant point. As important as God's name is, he is not delivering Jerusalem for himself, for the sake of his reputation, but for the love of his people. (Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 400-66, p.578)

Then he adds this footnote:

The other side of the position is given in Ezek. 36:19-27, where God makes plain that he is not delivering Israel because of anything it has done to deserve such deliverance. The deliverance is strictly an expression of his own holiness.

Here is that passage:

I dispersed them among the nations, and they were scattered through the countries; I judged them according to their conduct and their actions. And wherever they went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, 'These are the LORD's people, and yet they had to leave his land.' I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone.

"Therefore say to the house of Israel, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.

" 'For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. [Ezekiel 36:19-27, TNIV]

Here are three views that someone might hold to try to fit these texts together:

A. God does things for the sake of his glory, and God does things for the sake of his people (or those he will bring into his people). But these motivations are distinct (but at times simultaneous), and neither is wholly reducible to the other.

B. God does things for the sake of his glory, but all this means is that he acts based on his character and promotes what's good. The reason God promotes what's good is for the sake of others. So God's doing things for the sake of his glory is explainable in terms of God's doing things for the sake of others, which is the more primary and ultimate motivation for God.

C. God does things for the sake of others, but the reason God's love is important is because it demonstrates the perfection of God, the most perfect being. It's always good to promote good, and promoting the most perfect is better than anything else you might do. So God does things for the good of others because God does everything for the sake of his glory, and doing things for others does that.

[Note: This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post. This is not an exhaustive list, just the commentaries that I think are most worth paying attention to.]

Galatians is both well-served and not well-served in terms of commentaries. On the one hand, the commentaries that are on the market right now complement each other well, with some commentary or other existing for any particular focus or strength you might want in a Galatians commentary. The problem is that no one commentary seems to my mind to do enough of those things well for me to have an easy first choice, and most of my favorite commentaries on this book have serious shortcomings. I suspect that will be remedied once several of the forthcoming works on Galatians are complete (especially Carson and Moo, but several others in the list will add expertise and skills not well enough represented among the existing commentaries to satisfy me; see my list of forthcoming commentaries on Galatians below the published ones).

I do think F.F. Bruce's NIGTC is one of the better commentaries out there. It's getting dated, especially given the New Perspective on Paul that Bruce doesn't spend a lot of time interacting with, since it was pretty much brand new during the final years he was working on this volume. Bruce tends to be stronger on historical and language, especially on smaller details, and weaker on theology and broader structure. (Carson gives two examples of weaker areas: law/grace and old/new covenants.) Bruce defends the traditional Protestant approach that the New Perspective responds to, even if he doesn't spend a lot of time tackling the claims of particular proponents of the NPP. He argues for an early date and a South Galatian location, and he gives one of the most convincing accounts I've seen of how Galatians and Acts fit together, defending the historicity of both. Complementarians will be annoyed at his insistence on egalitarianism in Gal 3:28, which even a good number of egalitarians recognize as being about gospel equality rather than about what the implications of gospel equality are in marriage and in church governance. Most of the commentary isn't so ideologically-driven, however, and this is currently the first place I look on this book. I'm just not as inclined to look in only one place as I might be on other books.

Gordon Fee's recent commentary in the Pentecostal Commentaries series is very good. Fee has an outstanding reputation as a commentator, for good reason. He's one of the most respected Pauline scholars of our day, and he's especially pastorally-minded. One element Fee contributes that doesn't occur quite as much in the other commentaries I've spent a lot of time in is in the overall flow of thought of the epistle. He's constantly considering smaller passages in the light of the general train of thought Paul has over the course of the letter, and he's particularly good at the kind of structural issues that Bruce tends to be weaker on.

He's also theologically stronger than Bruce, especially on the matters he's spent the most time thinking about, which includes christology and pneumatology. Galatians is particularly important on the Holy Spirit, so it's nice to have Fee on this book for that alone. On historical issues, I'm less convinced by Fee's reconstruction of events than I am of Bruce's, but he himself doesn't seem as confident of his approach as some do. He does insist on the historicity of both Galatians and Acts, unlike some who depart from the more traditional approach represented in Bruce. On New Perspective issues, he strikes me as trying to maintain a moderating approach between the traditional Protestant view and the New Perspective. I tend to think he's moderated too much away from the traditional approach. Given my criticism of Bruce on Gal 3:28, I should say that Fee does not make the same mistake, even though he's strongly committed to egalitarianism. He rightly insists that egalitarians who try to extend its use to issues beyond the gospel itself are going beyond what the text says.

Given that this is from a series many people might not be familiar with, it's worth pointing out that this isn't intended to be an exhaustive commentary series, with lots of technical exegetical details, but it's also not just an applicational commentary or something like that. Fee himself might bemoan the fact that Pentecostals aren't as well-represented in biblical studies as he'd like, and Pentecostals sometimes have a bad reputation of focusing mostly on application at the expense of careful exegesis. But potential readers shouldn't let those facts discourage them from purchasing or reading this commentary. Fee does include most of the major issues that should come up in exegetical discussion, just not with exhaustive coverage of every option or with the level of detail you'll find in a more academic commentary.

I was reading William Klein's review of David Peterson's Acts commentary. It included this strange argument:

In a startling example of eisegesis Peterson states, "... we may assume that wherever resistance to the message is recorded, Luke believed the Lord had not yet acted in grace and power to enable belief" (p. 404). May we? In fact Luke explains that the Jews rejected the word of God and judged themselves unfit for eternal life (13:46). I guess this shows how we all see what we want to see in texts and may wish to ignore other ways of seeing things.

The following two claims are at issue, and Klein seems to think the second claim is supposed to undermine the first. I'm not sure how.

1. Resistance to the gospel only occurs when God hasn't led someone to believe.
2. Jews rejected God and thus became unfit for eternal life.

Earlier in the review, Klein makes it clear that Peterson accepts a standard compatibilist Calvinism, whereby "God determined the players' roles in Jesus' crucifixion (2:23) without diminishing those players' responsibility for their actions". So it isn't as if he thinks Peterson denies human responsibility. But it seems the second claim is merely an affirmation of human responsibility, and somehow that's supposed to undermine the view that resistance occurs only in the absence of saving grace. Only if you took the hyper-Calvinist view that we aren't responsible for our actions would you end up thinking your belief in 1 was incompatible with 2. So I'm completely at a loss as to why Klein thinks this criticism applies to Peterson's view, because he knows that Peterson isn't such a hyper-Calvinist and even said so earlier in this review.

Am I just missing something here?

Acts Commentary Bleg

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I'm expecting to begin reading a commentary on Acts in a few months or so. I suspect that it will be one of the following: Ben Witherington's Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, Darrell Bock's BECNT, or David Peterson's brand-new Pillar volume. I expect that there might be several people reading this who have some experience with commentaries on Acts, and I'm interested in any information or evaluations anyone might have to offer about any of these three books, especially if you can detect specific reasons to prefer one to the others or over one of the others on a particular issue.

Some of the issues that come to my mind include:

1. I know that Bock had access to Witherington, and Peterson had access to both of the other two, and that gives the more recent ones priority in my mind over the earlier ones, all other things being equal (which is often not the case). So my presumption is to prefer Peterson to Bock and Bock to Witherington if no other factors influence my preferences. Bock had a chance to learn from Witherington, and Peterson had a chance to learn from Witherington and Bock. Of course, if they didn't fully avail themselves of those chances then it's still possible that they don't present the best of what came before them.

2. Witherington doesn't include the text of the book of Acts, which would mean having a copy of that in addition. That gets unwieldy the way I read books, because I carry them around with me and pull them out to read when I get a chance while waiting for something or while walking. Bock and Peterson, I believe, both include a translation of the text of each section before the discussion of that section.

3. Some reviews I've seen claim that Bock does a lot of commenting on other commentaries, which some people claimed meant that he didn't discuss the text as much for himself and often didn't indicate his own view on the issue he was discussing, but I don't know if this is true. The suggestion was that it's better to read Witherington than to read Bock's comments on Witherington and several others, which is true only if Witherington's discussion is better at sifting through the information than Bock's.

4. Bock had the advantage of writing a hefty commentary on Luke before writing his Acts commentary, and Luke-Acts is a two-volume work by the same author. The other two don't have that. (Witherington will eventually do every NT book, but his Acts commentary was one of his earliest, and he hadn't done Luke yet at that time.)

I'm currently leaning toward Peterson at the moment, but anything anyone might say to sway me in a different direction or to confirm that choice is welcome.

Jerome Walsh's commentary on I Kings is probably the best thing out there on narrative issues in I Kings. I've heard good reports on it from several commentary reviews, and two people who have used it in their sermon preparation for our current sermon series in Kings have found it very helpful. It's fairly rare that he says anything that evangelicals would find problematic with regard to the nature of scripture, but I did identify one thing when reading his commentary on I Kings 11, and I don't think he can consistently maintain it given other things he says.

When discussing Solomon's failures as a king, Walsh says the following about the narrator's perspective underlying the critical account (from p.136):

Yahweh is described as "the God of Israel" to contrast with the other national deities named in verses 5 and 7. The concept here is very different from our own. The narrator presumes a polytheistic worldview: other gods besides Yahweh existed, and each deity had its own national sphere. The text does not understand Solomon's apostasy as turning away from the only true God to worship false gods. Solomon's evil is that he supported in Israel, Yahweh's own nation, the worship of Yahweh's rivals.

First of all, Walsh uses the wrong term. The view that there are other gods that you shouldn't worship and only one you should worship is not polytheism, which is the worship of many gods. It's called henotheism. There's evidence within the Bible itself that some people in ancient Israel were henotheists. There's actually more evidence that many were polytheists, including Solomon himself according to this passage. But the consistent message of the biblical narrators and prophets is not of henotheism but monotheism. The book of Kings is actually a pretty clear case of this. Solomon's speeches and prayers at the temple dedication are pretty clear that there is just one God who is sovereign over all the earth.

In fact, even four pages later Walsh seems to recognize this. In his discussion of the rebellions Solomon faced from two subjugated peoples (Edom and Aram) and one internal rebellion (Jeroboam), he emphasizes the narrator's theological perspective of Yahweh's sovereignty over the doings of those in other nations (p.140):

The effect of this heaping up of parallels is to recall that both Moses' and David's careers were divinely directed, and thereby to intensify considerably the impact of the claim that "God raised up" Hadad and Rezon. The same Yahweh who raised up Moses as Israel's savior, the same God who raised up David to be Israel's ideal king, now raises up adversaries to oppose Solomon. The punishment of Solomon and the impending disintegration of his empire become part of the sacred history of Yahweh's dealings with Israel, on part in importance with the Exodus and the covenant with David.

Such a view of Yahweh's role with respect to other nations doesn't necessarily require thinking the other gods don't exist. They might just be fairly impotent beings in comparison with Yahweh's sovereign might. But it's hard to see it as consistent with the view that the only reason to worship Yahweh is because he's the god who happens to be Israel's god, whereas other nations have real gods who happen to be their gods. It's very hard to put Walsh's own view of the narrative position of Kings together with his statement that Solomon's sin is disloyalty to the god who happens to be Israel's god. The text itself commands the view that Yahweh is sovereign over other nations in a way that there's no reason to consider worshiping them even if they do exist. In fact, any acknowledgement of their existence is consistent with thinking of them as something like demonic beings whose existence and actions are all subject to divine sovereignty in the same way the human figures in these accounts are.

Now I'm well aware of the view in scholarship that takes some of these accounts to have been written from different theological perspectives. The idea is that earlier materials assume many gods, and later authors added stuff that assumes one sovereign God. Walsh indicates agreement with this elsewhere (e.g. in note 9 on p.112). But Walsh is a narrative commentator, committing to dealing with the final form of the text. Surely if the final compilers agreed with the orthodox view that there is just one sovereign God, they would not have meant the discussion of Solomon's sin to reflect henotheistic concerns but monotheistic concerns. Anyone who could endorse the understanding of Yahweh's sovereignty over foreign kings could not think of those kings as properly worshiping their own gods over Yahweh, since Yahweh is the supreme God. Such a compiler/narrator would therefore not accept the view Walsh attributes to the narrator, and this is true even if many in Israel did hold such a henotheistic view at the time these events are describing. (Since many actually held full-out polytheism, which is what the text is criticizing, it's not a major concession to think many were henotheists as well.)

So I think Walsh's contention is extremely hard to reconcile with what he himself recognizes about the narrator's theology, and that's even conceding for the sake of argument that the original narrator of some passages was a henotheist (which I don't think is true to begin with).

I spent a little time looking at Peter Leithart's Brazos commentary on I & II Kings a couple weeks ago. I'm not a big fan of this series, and I haven't found this volume much better than others I've looked at (despite being told by several people that it's pretty strong on certain things I care about). There's a lot of extremely strange speculation about the significance of the number of times a word is repeated, and I thought a lot of his connections across different texts were very unlikely. He also usually doesn't answer the burning questions I have when I read a text. But Leithart's strength is in critiquing others' views. One instance of his critique of a certain position that got me thinking was his discussion of certain Christian advocates of nonviolence (this was on p.40 for those following along at home). Leithart finds an interested tension between one mode of Christian pacifists' insistence on decrying all violence and a view on the atonement that you do find among some such pacifists.

Some of the Christian pacifists will often speak of non-physical violence, such as various kinds of coercion and systematic oppression. They want to say that various kinds of evils that aren't really violent should count as violence anyway because of what they do on a deeper level. So certain kinds of oppression such as racism, sexism, and poverty (which I note is a category mistake to call oppression) count as violent, even if no physical violence occurs. Leithart notices, however, that some of the people who make this move nevertheless want to resist seeing any violence in the atonement because they want to separate our salvation from having been achieved in a violent way. They thus reduce all combat language about Jesus' victory over the powers of evil as metaphorical for his non-violent methods coming to supremacy and violent ways being reduced. An example of our application would be I Peter's discussion of wives of non-believing husbands submitting to their husbands for subversive reasons, not because they advocate the particular things their husbands want them to do but in order for Christian living to win them over to Christ.

The problem Leithart notes is that this is every bit as coercive and violent as non-violent racism, sexism, and whatever policies causing poverty they might have in mind. That means those who are holding this particular combination of views are just using the word 'violence' in effect to mean "actions that I disagree with". Their opposition to violence then becomes trivial. This does seem to me to be a real abuse of language. If you want to oppose violence but then say that non-violent things are also violence, while saying all violence is wrong, you better be pretty careful about how you assign the term 'violence'. If it's just any kind of manipulative behavior that might influence someone against their preferences, then it's hard to see the very things they do approve of as nonviolent methods escaping their classification, and then the nonviolence they prefer to violence becomes just as bad. That's certainly not what Christian pacifists want to say. Wouldn't it be better just to restrict the term 'violence' to physical violence or to methods that actually destroy in some more significant sense?

In Colossians 3:5, Paul lists a bunch of things to put to death in oneself, ending with "covetousness, which is idolatry". He also links the two in a similar way in a parallel passage in Ephesians 5:5. The usual explanation for how covetousness is idolatry is to find elements of idolatry in covetousness. At root, idolatry in the Hebrew scriptures is the placing of anything above God or in the place of God. Having your priorities in the wrong order can be idolatry if it involves moving God to any place lower than the top. So if you're longing after something that's not yours, to the point where you place your desire for it above your desire for God, including the desire to be righteous and to be content with what God has given you, then you are in effect practicing a sort of idolatry.

I was reading John Oswalt's commentary on Isaiah recently (p.499 of his second volume, to be exact), and I discovered that he conceives of the relationship in the other direction, drawing on the self-centered features of pagan idolatry that seek to use religious ritual to get a god's attention for benefit to the person engaging in those rituals:

In what way is acquisitiveness the sum of all sins? Perhaps it is as an expression of all the others. The proud, unbridled self wishes to make the universe center on itself, to draw all things inward to itself, confident that it can amass enough of the power, comfort, security, and pleasure that money and possessions signify it will be secure. Idolatry exists to satisfy these desires, so it is not surprising that Paul should identify covetousness as idolatry (Col 3:5). This may also explain why the prohibition of covetousness is the last of the Ten Commandments. To break this commandment is to break the first, in effect.

So it's not just that covetousness is idolatry because covetousness has features of idolatry. Covetousness is idolatry because idolatry itself stems from covetousness to begin with. My first thought on reading Oswalt is that he had it backwards, but I wonder if what he's put his finger on is actually the more fundamental relation of the two.

This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post. This is not an exhaustive list, just the commentaries that I think are most worth paying attention to.

My first choice, hands down, is Darrell Bock's BECNT (1994, 1996). It's fairly comprehensive, well-reasoned, easy to read, aware of all the scholarship, and generally conservative. He handles theology more fully than most detailed commentaries (e.g. Marshall, Fitzmyer, Nolland below) and spends a little time on what Luke would have wanted us to take away from the text, which you won't get in very many academic commentaries. This commentary is strong on the flow of argument, taking larger blocks of text to comment on and explicitly thinking in terms of the larger flow at various points, although this usually stops short of what many think of as literary analysis (on which several commentaries below are very strong, sometimes at the expense of everything Bock does well). He does interact a little with Robert Tannehill's work in that area in volume 2, but it's still not a lot. Bock has also written the Acts commentary in this series, but his work on Luke is much more detailed, filling up two volumes, both bigger than the Acts volume. Bock is well-known for his work countering the claims of radicals and skeptics who write about the life of Jesus with the kind of scholarship liked by the History Channel. He's also been very influential in developing and defending progressive dispensationalism, a view that I think is still a little too far in the direction of dispensationalism but is really a different animal and is much more defensible than traditional dispensationalism. I place him solidly in the conservative evangelical camp, and he's taken some criticism for this in reviews, mainly from people who assume historicity and theological agendas are incompatible, something Bock spends a great deal of time arguing against. His scholarship is top-notch. If he's weak anywhere, it's in favoring commentaries over journal articles. Bock has also written the IVPNTC and NIVAC volumes on Luke, but I don't think there's any need to look at the shorter two if you have the BECNT, which you should.

This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post. This is not an exhaustive list, just the commentaries that I think are most worth paying attention to.

Pride of place goes to the NIGTC volume on I Corinthians by Anthony Thiselton (2000). This is now the most in-depth recent commentary on this book. It's based on the Greek text, and it includes a number of long excurses on difficult issues, so this isn't an easy read, but it's not mainly the Greek that's the issue. It's just a very dense, scholarly work, and it's hard to capture that in popular-level writing (although I think Thiselton is clearer most of the time than most academics are). Thiselton gives close attention to the Greek lexical and grammatical issues, the social background of the letter, Paul's rhetoric, and other elements commonly found in commentaries. Thiselton is also an expert in hermeneutics. One unsual thing about this commentary is that he also includes a lot more of the history of interpretation than is typical, since one of his strengths is the history of theology. I've read some lengthy enough sections of it to know that it's tough-going if you're not up on your Greek, and the excursus I read (on gender issues) was so detailed that it was difficult to get a clear sense of what Thiselton's conclusions amount to. The wealth of information and close attention to detail make it an excellent resource for consultation, even if it might be more difficult to read the whole book cover-to-cover the way I like to. I expect this to be an important scholarly standard for some time, even if Ellis has a good chance of eventually take that place (see forthcoming commentaries below). I also very much appreciate Thiselton's application of speech-act theory (from my own field of philosophy) in biblical studies. Thiselton's philosophical background also makes him more trustworthy on the moral philosophical background of the Greco-Roman world.

David Garland's BECNT (2003) is very good. I've looked at it less than I have some of the other volumes here, but it was enough to see that this is now the first place to look for a more readable treatment than Thiselton. Garland is widely respected by scholars across the spectrum. He left a Southern Baptist seminary because of his egalitarian stance, but on most other issues he's fairly conservative. He has ten years of additional scholarship to influence him and to respond to when compared with Fee below. Fee has such a high reputation that it was difficult to put Garland ahead, but I think I'd actually give up Fee if I were forced to choose. Garland's NAC on II Corinthians was very good, and I think this BECNT is even better. He's also done work on Matthew and the NIVAC volumes on Mark and Colossians/Philemon. He's currently contracted to write commentaries on Luke (ZEC) and Thessalonians (NCC).

Gordon Fee's NICNT (1987) was for a long time the commentary to buy on I Corinthians, but Garland and Thiselton have interacted with a lot of recent scholarship since Fee's commentary was published, and they are at least as good on enough issues that I recommend them slightly higher than Fee. I would prefer not to be without any of them, however. Fee is an excellent commentator in so many ways, including matters of language, historical and cultural background, flow of the argument, and textual criticism. But this very scholarly work doesn't come across as mere scholarship but as the work of someone with a vital relationship with God thinking through the scriptures in a way that will be profitable for his audience. He ends each section with contemporary application issues, but even throughout the commentary you'll frequently find him passionately engaging with Paul's thought or reflecting on the relevance for daily life of the principles he derives from Paul's letter. Fee is one of the most respected Pauline scholars of our time, having now written or planning to write commentaries on Galatians (PC), Philippians (NICNT), Thessalonians (NICNT), and the Pastoral Epistles (NIBC), along with a Pauline theology of the Holy Spirit and an excellent NT Christology. [He's planning Revelation for NCC, so he'll finally be verging into something outside the Pauline corpus.] Most people consider him a moderate Pentecostal. His views are actually not too far from some Reformed charismatics and non-cessationist non-charismatics. I wish most Pentecostals would read this commentary or God's Empowering Spirit to see how someone can be Pentecostal without flatly contradicting scripture in their practice of the so-called sign gifts. One of Fee's most controversial moves in this commentary is his rejection all of the egalitarian approaches toward I Cor 14 as exegetically impossible, leading him to conclude, against all evidence, that the short passage in question is an interpolation by another author despite its being in every manuscript.

This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post. This is not an exhaustive list, just the commentaries that I think are most worth paying attention to.

Gordon Wenham's WBC (1987, 1994) receives the best all-around reviews of any commentary on Genesis and from a wide range of people. Wenham is a moderate to conservative evangelical. He spends some time on source-critical issues, generally taking a skeptical stance toward those who think they can delineate sources and identify different time periods for different parts of the book. Wenham is good at historical background, often defending the plausibility of the narratives, particularly in the patriarchal section. He spends more time than most academic commentaries dealing with matters of theology and even Christian application. Of the Genesis commentaries that are accessible enough for someone like me (i.e. someone not knowing any Hebrew) to read, Wenham's is the most detailed on textual criticism. One strength is his proportionally-greater treatment of the structure of individual passages, although some might think it's a bit much. I did think the commentary was a bit briefer than I expected once you get through the literary and source-critical issues. His structural analysis shows a tightly-woven narrative by a single mind, which undermines the credence he shows to the general source-critical approach (as skeptical as he is of particular proposals in source criticism). Wenham has an absolutely stellar NICOT on Leviticus and a pretty good exposition in TOTC on Numbers. He also has done a lot of more general work on the Pentateuch and is generally seen as one of the top Pentateuch scholars of our time.

Victor Hamilton's NICOT (1990, 1995) is about at the same level. He is a conservative evangelical, and the series is generally seen as being more conservative than WBC, which is probably the reason he gets a little less attention from the less-conservative end of scholarship. I think the commentaries are about equivalent in quality, with Wenham perhaps winning out a little more often in terms of incisive exegesis but Hamilton giving a little more depth on more issues, especially in his introduction. Hamilton is particularly better on linguistic issues such as grammar and close analysis of particular words, but I think he may sometimes overdo it chasing lexical rabbit trails, and he's perhaps less strong on big-picture thinking. He takes the time throughout his commentary to look at the New Testament use of Genesis. I would say that Hamilton and Wenham balance each other pretty well as a pair. Hamilton is also known for his Handbook on the Pentateuch.

Bruce Waltke had a set of exegetical notes he would distribute to his Genesis seminary classes, and one of his former students, Cathi J. Fredericks, talked him into letting her edit them for publication in this 2001 volume. He did expand on them in places, but these are mostly brief exegetical notes with theological summaries for each unit he discusses. I generally find his exegesis to be the best of any of the Genesis commentaries I've looked at, but there isn't a lot of detail here on historical background, language, and many other things you might expect to look to a commentary to help you understand. The book is uneven, having much more discussion on the parts he chose to expand on and much less of insight on the notes he chose to leave as they were. It makes it hard to tell the intended audience also, since it doesn't have enough depth on every matter for academic work, has a bit much on structural and rhetorical elements for the average paster, and isn't evenly balanced in amount of detail across the whole book to be a first choice for any purpose. Nevertheless, I recommend it with Hamilton and Wenham as an excellent supplement to their more detailed work. Waltke is a conservative evangelical, and he's also known for excellent commentaries on Proverbs (NICOT) and Micah (Eerdmans) as well as an oft-cited Hebrew grammar.

There are those who think there's something immoral about translating the measurements in the Bible into contemporary units (e.g. miles or gallons). They claim that it's anachronistic, because the writer of the passage wouldn't have had a clue what a pound or an inch is. I can accept this argument with respect to passages where the numeric values are clearly symbolic, as in the temple measurements in Revelation. Translations that remove that by using contemporary units and thus different numbers are removing a key enough feature of the text that it's worth keeping the original values and units. But some people think it's changing the Bible to use contemporary units anywhere.

When I was reading Andrew Hill's commentary on Chronicles, it occurred to me that the Chronicler does exactly the thing such people spend so much effort calling evil. He translates units used in the early Kings text into the Persian units of his own day. People who make this claim are almost all inerrantists. If they were to remain consistent, they would have to admit that the Chronicler was inspired by God to do something they think is immoral, and thus they'd have to give up inerrancy, at least about Chronicles, or give up their view that this kind of translation is always bad.

I came across an oblique reference to this while scanning my file of unblogged things that I've thought about blogging, but I don't have any references. I thought it was an interesting enough point that I figured it deserved a blog entry, even if I couldn't remember what part of the book this occurred in.

Commentaries on Samuel

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This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post.

I don't usually give NIVAC volumes pride of place, but Bill Arnold's (2003) really is my favorite commentary on Samuel. He has a great sense of the narrative flow of the book, and he gives arguments for his conclusions, something not all the authors of this series do as well as he does.

The series' strength, when it's done well, is to present the original meaning of the passage, often giving it the length a brief, popular-level commentary will usually give, followed by two further sections. Bridging Contexts looks at the theological, existential, and moral principles behind the text in its original setting in order to abstract away from that setting, which allows the author to move to Contemporary Application to apply those principles in our day. Some authors in this series do not make good use of the format, using the different sections to talk about whatever they feel like but without ever using the format the way it was intended. Others are not careful in their abstracting from the original text or not very thoughtful in how to apply the text.

Arnold is among the best writers I've read for this series so far. (Karen Jobes, who did Esther, and Craig Keener, who did Revelation, are in the same league. Craig Blomberg's I Corinthians would have been if his hadn't been one of the earliest volumes and thus not allowed as much room as the series tended to allow as it went on.) Arnold has a great sense for the narrative flow of the text, and his theological and moral reflections strike me as honest, careful, insightful, and aware of scholarship in not just theology but also ethics, which several authors in the series lack. In other words, he isn't just a linguist or historian, as many biblical scholars are.

I particularly liked his treatment of the problem of lying and the problem of war in Samuel. He raises questions many commentators ignore, and he doesn't try to get around the text but simply faces it. He brings in background work by theologians who have engaged with a larger philosophical tradition on these ethical and theological issues. Several commentators on this book disappointed me greatly in how easily they would avoid what the text says in certain places just so their favored ethical theory might come out true, which strikes me as just eisegesis.

Nahum Commentaries

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This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post.

This post in particular is heavily reliant on my earlier reviews of commentaries on Habakkuk and Zephaniah, since most commentaries on each of these books include all three. One Nahum-specific commentary appears here, just as there were some Zephaniah-specific and Nahum-specific commentaries in the other posts. Where possible, I have tried to key my discussion of each commentary here to the Nahum section in the commentaries that deal with more than one book.

Waylon Bailey's NAC (1999) is probably my favorite of all the commentaries I looked at. It isn't so detailed that it's hard to wade through, but he addresses most issues most people might ask of the text unless they're working on an academic paper. He deals with historical, theological and linguistic matters fairly well, and he's also concerned about connections with the New Testament. He's coming from a conservative evangelical perspective, but he's also good at presenting various views. This is my all-around recommendation for seeking the best balance of what I look for in a commentary. It doesn't shirk anything I consider truly important.
O. Palmer Robertson's NICOT (1990) is probably my favorite Nahum commentary in terms of theology. His theological reflections are probing and get enough time to explore the issues, with more time than any of the other commentaries on the list given to the task of simply reflecting on what the text means for Nahum's view of God and its implications for life. It's much weaker on linguistic matters, sometimes not even addressing important issues that most of the other commentaries will spend some time on. It doesn't get first place primarily for that reason.

His perspective is conservative, evangelical, and explicitly Reformed. His expertise is in covenant theology, and he has a keen eye for seeing New Testament connections, although on occasion I think he reads a NT perspective into a text that may not have originally gone quite so far. It's a shame that Eerdmans has contracted a replacement for his commentary in this series this early, though Thomas Renz will probably produce a good commentary that will give more detail on the things Robertson doesn't focus much on. See my more detailed review of Robertson here.

Craig Blomberg reviews the new Pillar New Testament Commentary on II Peter and Jude, by Peter Davids. I just got my copy and haven't had time to look at it much, but I'm looking forward to spending a little time in it when we study II Peter in our congregation in August and September.

From what Blomberg says, there's a lot to look forward to. I tend to agree with the few criticisms he offers. I don't know why you would need to think of Jude seeing a writing as canonical for him to quote it, and I'm certainly with Blomberg on the eternal security point. But I don't expect that sort of thing to be the norm.

I should note that, while Blomberg says at the bottom of his review that Davids gets his asterisk for "top pick among detailed but not overly technical commentaries on the English text of these two little epistles", a quick glance at the page he's referring to shows that it doesn't occupy that position alone. Thomas Schreiner's NAC on both epistles to Peter and Jude is still asterisked. I've spent some time in Schreiner's commentary, mostly on I Peter, and it's absolutely excellent. His work on the other two epistles will no doubt be equally good.

Habakkuk Commentaries

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This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post.

This post in particular is heavily reliant on my earlier review of Zephaniah commentaries, since most commentaries on either of these books include the other. One Habakkuk-specific commentary appears here, just as there were some Zephaniah-specific commentaries in that post. I have tried to key my discussion of each commentary here to the Habakkuk section in the commentaries that deal with more than one book.

Waylon Bailey's NAC is probably my favorite of all the commentaries I looked at. It isn't so detailed that it's hard to wade through, but he addresses most issues most people might ask of the text unless they're working on an academic paper. He deals with historical, theological and linguistic matters fairly well, and he's also concerned about connections with the New Testament. He's coming from a conservative evangelical perspective, but he's also good at presenting various views. This is my all-around recommendation for seeking the best balance of what I look for in a commentary. It doesn't shirk anything I consider truly important.


O. Palmer Robertson's NICOT is probably my favorite Habakkuk commentary in terms of theology. His theological reflections are probing and get enough time to explore the issues, with more time than any of the other commentaries on the list given to the task of simply reflecting on what the text means for Habakkuk's view of God and Habakkuk's view of faith in God. It's much weaker on linguistic matters, sometimes not even addressing important issues that most of the other commentaries will spend some time on. It doesn't get first place primarily for that reason.

His perspective is conservative, evangelical, and explicitly Reformed. His expertise is in covenant theology, and he has a keen eye for seeing New Testament connections, although on occasion I think he reads a NT perspective into a text that may not have originally gone quite so far. I appreciated his willingness to defend Paul's appropriation of the justification by faith text in ch.2, although I found him too eager to rule out the possibility that faith and faithfulness are both in mind. It's a shame that Eerdmans has contracted a replacement for his commentary in this series this early, though Thomas Renz will probably produce a good commentary that will give more detail on the things Robertson doesn't focus much on. See my more detailed review of Robertson here.

I've organized most of my lists of volumes in commentary series both in canonical order and in chronological order of publication. This is the chronological listing of the volumes in the New American Commentary series, first for the whole Bible and then for the Old Testament and New Testament separately. The list of volumes in canonical order can be found here.

[Note: The volumes on Daniel and Galatians were released in the same month. I do not know the exact publication dates. Therefore, I don't know which came out first if they were published on different dates. I had to list one of them before the other, so I went with canonical order. All the others are in chronological publication order.]

This is a list of the current and forthcoming commentaries in the New American Commentary (NAC). For a chronological list according to publication date, see here. For more series, see my post on commentary series. This series is published by Broadman and Holman, and thus its commitments will reflect those of the current people behind that publisher, who are conservative Southern Baptists. Not every commentator in the series is a dispensationalist SBC type (e.g. a few are Reformed Baptists with other eschatological perspectives), but all volumes can be expected to affirm inerrancy and to have contemporary relevance in mind. The aim is to be mid-level, less depth than the New International Commentary series (and even a little less than the Pillar New Testament Commentary) but much more expansive than the Tyndale series and most other expositional commentaries. Some of the volumes seem to leave much of the scholarship in footnotes and just give a running exposition. Others are more detailed in exegetical rigor in the main text. All are fairly readable to those without strong seminary training, and some are quite excellent. Most of them spend more time on theology than is common in more detailed series. The series is mostly complete now, with Psalms, Isaiah, Zechariah, I Corinthians, Ephesians, Hebrews, and Revelation left to be published. Here are the volumes that are out:

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.

Christus Victor

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I've been reading through Andrew Hill's NIVAC commentary on Chronicles with Sam, and I was intrigued by one of his so-called Contemporary Application sections (which in Hill's commentary sometimes stretch the boundaries of what I think the NIVAC series intends for those sections, often verging into abstract, theoretical constructs that have not much more than tangential connection with the text and not a very clear practical value). In his application of I Chronicles 18-20, a section about David's military victories, Hill spends four pages explicating the classic Christus Victor view of the atonement (literally "Christ the Conqueror"). In the process, he cites Greg Boyd's God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict, which argues that the battle between God and Satan does a lot more work philosophically and theologically than most evangelicals want to allow for. I happen to think Boyd goes way too far with this by accepting that God can't predict what Satan will do and by coming a little close to a dualism that treats God and Satan as near-equals. He insists that God will win in the end but doesn't give much philosophical or theological ground for how even God knows that Satan won't win in the end, never mind for us to be assured of it. Since this is largely a response to the problem of evil, I don't think it ultimately succeeds. The most crucial element of the Christian response to the problem of evil is that God's plan contains all the details of what will happen, and even the smallest details of what will happen are included in God's perfect, sovereign plan. So I've never thought that Boyd's overall view is even good at doing the one thing that he wants most of all to achieve with it.

But on the Christus Victor issue, I think Boyd has a point (although I hope to show that his point needs to be dulled, as my brother used to say). For the record, my general view of the atonement is that most of the theories of the atonement reflect part of what the atonement accomplishes. Jesus' death surely does serve as an example for us to sacrifice ourselves in love, but that doesn't come close to expressing its main purpose. Jesus' death also provides a redemption, i.e. a buying back of those who belong to sin and death to bring them into life and into service of God rather than slavery to sin. It takes care of a legal death penalty that all fallen human beings deserve for committing the highest of all crimes, rejection of the perfect and loving creator. It removes the corruption that cannot enter God's presence and makes us holy and thus allows reconciliation with God. [A great place to investigate this subject in detail is to read Rebecca Stark's blog series The Purposes of Christ's Death.]

And yes, Boyd is right that it constitutes a conquering of all evil raised up against God, signaling victory over all God's enemies. It is thus the fulfillment of all the divine warrior imagery throughout the Hebrew scriptures, including the kind of thing said about God fighting for his people Israel, which the psalms and prophets did attribute to David's military victories. Thus it's not that much of a stretch for Hill to bring this in with a discussion of I Chronicles 18-20. But I think Boyd takes this too far, as most who emphasize just one element of the atonement do. While he doesn't make the mistake of reducing the atonement to Christus Victor, he does take it to be the fundamental purpose of the atonement, on which all the other elements are based. On that point, I can't agree.

Genesis Commentaries

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Tyler Williams reviews commentaries on Genesis. Tyler is a bit more positive about Walton that I'd want to be. I'm a bit disappointed with Walton's NIVAC in terms of the series' general strength, which is supposed to be contemporary application (and bridging the context from original meaning to contemporary application). Walton seems to have a very strained view of how much contemporary relevance Genesis has. Other than that, I think I agree with pretty much everything else Tyler says.

If you're interested in commentaries and haven't seen his Old Testament Commentary survey, you should take a look at that too. His Genesis post is basically an update to his entry on Genesis in that survey.

Update: Tyler has a followup post that adds a few more commentaries and then offers some thoughts in forthcoming commentaries on Genesis, including some information on when some of them are likely to be out.


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