Thursday, October 22, 2015

Colossians (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), Book Review

Title: Colossians (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible)
Author: Christopher R. Seitz
Publisher: Brazos, 2014
Price: $29.99 (amz)
Binding: Hardcover
Pages: 217
Volumes in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series aim to interact with biblical books while spanning the horizons of biblical studies and theological interpretation of Scripture. Each entry has attempted this task from a unique approach. In this volume, Old Testament scholar Christopher Seitz comments on the New Testament epistle to the Colossians.

In Prophecy and Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), Seitz sought to re-evaluate the typical critical issues involved in an “introduction” to the prophetic writings. In this study, he pursues a similar task for the New Testament letters. As part of the Brazos series, Seitz’s assignment was to “throw off” the “usual patterns of commentary design” and pursue “some fresh angles of vision” (p. 16). Seitz himself cautiously outlines his “canonical approach” as one that seeks to assure that the historical setting stays “in proper proportion to what the text actually highlights and prioritizes in its final total form” (p. 51).

Accordingly, one of his guiding presuppositions is that “Paul’s letters come to us in a given canonical form” and that this form “foregrounds certain things and lets other things fall out of specific focus” (p. 20). In other words, the issues that need special attention are those that are especially emphasized in the text somehow. Otherwise, for Seitz, certain critical issues get “hyperextended” and receive a level of focus “arguably in disproportion to their significance for interpretation” (p. 20, 22). This network of assumptions informs his “canonical reading” of the letter and also governs the critical issues he chooses to examine.

Many in the field will immediately balk at Seitz’s downplaying of the relevance of historical background for the interpretation of the letter. In particular, many will want more examination of the contours of the “Colossian Heresy” that Paul is responding to in Col 2. Seitz demonstrates an awareness of the current scholarly discussion on this issue, but he focuses on what he sees as the more pertinent task, tracing Paul’s argument within the horizon of the letter itself. Thus, rather than reconstruct a profile of Paul’s interlocutors, Seitz argues that Paul himself is perhaps aware of a specific unified body of false teaching but intentionally does not address its details directly. Rather, Paul articulates the scope and impact of the work of Christ and then uses this blazing center to demonstrate the emptiness of any alternatives. Along these lines, Seitz detects three “factuals” about the one cross of Christ that refute three corresponding “counterfactuals” that represent salvific alternatives (see pp. 119-43). For some, this will be the most contested section of the commentary, but this careful way of perceiving the totality of Paul’s argument here is particularly cogent.

One question that hangs over any approach that seeks to take into account the broader canonical context is the question of authorship. Further, study of the New Testament epistles often wades through the quagmire of arguments regarding pseudepigrapha. On this account, Seitz contends that arguments for Colossians as pseudonymous have insurmountable difficulties with the textual presentation of the letter (see pp. 45-56). Beyond this, Seitz enters the question of authorship tentatively. Part of Seitz’s perspective is that the notion of authorship itself is much more complex than often admitted. As he notes, “authorship as meant in the antique world and in our own are very different conceptions” (p. 48).

This grappling with authorship and composition is important, although Seitz’s own solution also participates in this “agony of authorship.” On the one hand, Seitz insists, “a text has an author of some description” (p. 55). For instance, he quotes a number of authors who speak of “Paul” as author with great hesitation and comments, “That is a lot of words to conclude that the use of Paul without scare quotes is an appropriate way to speak of the letter’s author“ (p. 55). However, his comment here might also reach his own articulation of this issue: “There are far fewer problems with simply using the word ‘Paul’ than the alternatives” (p. 55).

In this discussion, Seitz convincingly demonstrates that even for those who reject the presence of pseudepigraphy in the New Testament, further work is needed in articulating the notion of authorship, the nature of composition, and the impact that a collection has on the concept of authorial intention when interpreting the epistles.

A further feature of Seitz’s approach is his sustained attention to the impact of reading Colossians within an established Pauline corpus. He shares a pre-modern emphasis on Colossians as part of “a literary collection that orients” the individual letters “toward one another as a totality” (p. 23). Similar to the book of the twelve Minor Prophets, Seitz sees the letters of Paul “as individual writings subsisting in an ordered canonical collection” (p. 23). This move means first that he considers the shape of the Pauline corpus to have interpretive significance.

Detecting development in Paul’s thinking (early and late) is common fare in Pauline studies. From Seitz’s approach, the Pauline corpus locates this development in Paul’s maturing understanding of his apostolic office. The letter collection itself, Seitz insists, “guards the historical specificity” and also “allows for development and movement” (p. 42). This development is coherent and organic rather than contradictory or a sign of pseudepigraphic imposters toward the end of the collection. In other words, the shape of the Pauline collection highlights a shift in emphasis in Paul’s thinking, one that accords with the historical transition in Paul’s role from itinerant preacher to imprisoned letter-writer. Paul’s apostolic mission, then, is embodied and made available for future generation by means of the “legacy of his letters” (p. 42). For Seitz, this type of movement is part of the “hermeneutical challenge of the canonical reality before us” (p. 37).

Along these lines, Seitz regularly utilizes other Pauline letters as interpretive aids in understanding what Paul is on about in Colossians. He rejects that this move is simply a synchronic harmonization but rather argues that it is actually rooted in the historical realities of the early church that received multiple letters from Paul. Indeed, for Seitz, the broadening scope of the intended audience of letters like Ephesians and Colossians indicates that “canonical shaping is extending beyond individual letters and has to do with the phenomenon of an emerging collection as such” (p. 37). These shared features are compositional and strategic rather than ancillary by-products of occasional correspondence. The “concern for preservation” and association in a collection, then, is possibly at work “in the very act of conceiving and composing a letter” (p. 37n26).

To give an example, Seitz points out words, phrases, and the theology in Colossians that is echoed in Ephesians. Seitz thinks that the “letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16) is the letter we know today as Ephesians (see p. 109, 117, 180n6, and 190-91). In this view, then, the parallels with Ephesians are part of a compositional strategy where Paul envisions these letters as literary companions. The setting of Philemon and the other “prison epistles” also form a fitting and natural backdrop to a Colossian correspondence written “in chains” (see pp. 28-31, 179-84). Seitz notes the historical discussion that seeks to reconstruct and identify Paul’s specific imprisonment, but he then quickly highlights the way Paul himself accounts for his various imprisonments theologically. For Seitz, “the canonical form brokers basic historical information but at the service of theological significance” (p. 31).

“The traditional position of Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians as written by Paul in Rome,” Seitz asserts, is the one “suggested by the presentation of the letters themselves, given what they choose to share with us” (p. 30). The letter to the Colossians, then, is particularly suited to highlight the function of canon because it is written by Paul from prison to a congregation he has never visited. Part of the message of Colossians is Paul’s theological reflection on the way that the gospel will continue to spread after his apostolic ministry has ended (see pp. 32-35). His presence is mediated by his letter.

In marked contrast to his wide-ranging missionary journeys, Paul’s final phase of apostolic ministry is prayer, intercession, and letter-writing. For Seitz, the fact that Paul is in prison shapes the way he understands his apostolic role: The apostle Paul is not travelling to new places with the gospel, but his letters are! These examples of Seitz’s perspective on the relationship between historical reconstruction and textual interpretation possess the most potential for fresh readings but also represent some of the most debated aspects of his approach.

A related contribution Seitz makes is his reflective account of Paul’s nuanced use of the Old Testament in Colossians. Why does Paul only allude to the Hebrew Scriptures and not cite them directly? For Seitz, Paul does not present Jesus as a replacement of Torah, but rather, Paul makes theological moves that “accord” with the texts, theology, and themes of the Old Testament. While he does not directly quote the Old Testament, throughout the letter, Seitz explains, Paul embodies the theological judgments and Scriptural logic that is present in important Old Testament texts. In this sense, the allusions cannot be “mapped on a tidy exegetical grid,” but rather “indicate an allusive penetration of [Paul’s] thought and argument” (p. 45). In this way, Paul is able to bring the meaning of the Scripture to bear in a letter addressed to gentile believers who would gradually encounter the Old Testament through the preaching of the New Testament churches.

Seitz also articulates an Old Testament perspective on several interpretive and theological issues in the letter. To give just a few examples, Seitz explains the parallelism of Hebrew poetry that Paul echoes in the “Christ hymn” in Col 1:15-23 (pp. 86-101), demonstrates that Paul’s high Christology here is deeply compatible with the monotheism of the Hebrew Scriptures (pp. 100-101), and repeatedly points out the interpretive relevance of Gen 1-3 as an intertextual backdrop for the letter.

The commentary itself progresses at a brisk pace with a clear focus on certain elements. For instance, Seitz consistently examines the nature of textual transitions. As he moves through the letter, Seitz keeps the larger argument in view and relates the passage at hand to that broader purpose. In this vein, Seitz strategically uses the “excursus” to allow the commentary proper to flow and read as a “single sustained argument” (p. 56). Seitz is convinced that in Colossians there is a “coherence to the units when taken in relationship to one another” (p. 54). The commentary consistently reflects this concern for the design of the discourse. These features make the commentary refreshingly readable and appropriately succinct.

In my opinion, Seitz’s commentary on Colossians represents the kind of contribution that the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible envisions: a refreshing interpretation of the letter that is informed by multiple interpretive horizons and also makes several suggestive advances in Pauline studies. As Seitz memorably orients his readers, “At some point the canonical portrayal sits there before us and requests that we take it seriously as a factor in interpretation” (p. 25). This commentary will surely prove fruitful for those who are serious about pursuing this particular task.

Also in JETS 58.3 (September 2015): 655-58.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Scripture Formed Prayers

For freshness of utterance, for breadth of comprehension, for elevation of thought, for intimacy of heart, there is no prayer like that which forms itself in the words and thoughts of Scripture.
J. Graham Miller, as cited by Donald Whitney, Praying the Bible, 65.

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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Deuteronomy and Exhortation in Hebrews: A Study in Narrative Re-presentation, Book Review

Title: Deuteronomy and Exhortation in Hebrews: A Study in Narrative Re-presentation
Author: David M. Allen
Publisher: Mohr Siebeck, 2008
Price: $90.00 (amz)
Binding: Sewn paper
Pages: 277
The first time I taught a class on the book of Hebrews, I was not thoroughly acquainted with the secondary literature on the book. I was only a few feet deep in the swift stream of scholarly discussions.

That semester, I was also teaching a course on the Pentateuch. This experience left a deep impression on my understanding of the writer’s argument in the letter. As we worked through the textual strategies of the Pentateuch as a book in the morning, we often came across those same texts, themes, and theological conclusions in the afternoon Hebrews course. There were a few students in both courses, and we agreed that it was sometimes difficult to remember which class we were supposed to be in! In short, the intensive reading and discussion of the Pentateuch and the letter to the Hebrews created an intertextual force field that gave me a line of sight across the terrain of the biblical canon.

In the Hebrews course, we kept returning again and again to the final chapters of Deuteronomy. In particular, we kept hearing hints of the melody line from the “song of Moses” as we worked through Hebrews. Several times throughout the semester, I thought, someone needs to write a high-level monograph on the relationship between Hebrews and Deuteronomy, with at least an initial focus on the “song of Moses” in Deut 32.

Deuteronomy and Exhortation in Hebrews
Thus and so, I was pleased to come across David M. Allen’s book, Deuteronomy and Exhortation in Hebrews: A Study in Narrative Re-presentation. In this reworking of his doctoral dissertation (at the University of Edinburgh), Allen examines the relationship between the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy and the New Testament letter to the Hebrews.

Recognizing the avalanche of secondary literature on the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament, Allen pursues a specific avenue of inquiry: “the way in which an individual OT book functions corporately within the letter” (4). So, Allen examines the use of Deuteronomy in the letter, “attempting to discern how the latter’s various OT motifs might contribute to a ‘Deuteronomic’ reading of the letter” (4). Allen’s approach is “intertextual in a broad, though not unlimited sense” (15). He limits his scope to “that exchange between the textual worlds created by Deuteronomy and Hebrews” (15). In particular, Allen argues that it is “perfectly possible that the author’s choice of OT materials (quotations, allusions, echoes, characters, themes et al) are not merely an apologetic or coincidental proof texts, but rather corporately reconstruct a familiar OT narrative that serves the author’s hortatory purpose” (4).

This statement indicates two areas that make Allen’s study a unique contribution. First, Allen examines the use of individual citations of Deuteronomy but also couples that with an analysis of the impact of the book as a whole on the writer’s argument. Second, Allen seeks to uncover the effect and impact of Deuteronomy on the exhortation sections of the letter. Following broadly George Guthrie’s insight that there are discernible strands of both exposition and exhortation in the letter, Allen assesses the use of the Old Testament in these particular sections (see 12-15). These exhortation sections sometimes do not receive as much intertextual analysis as the exposition sections (e.g., the Christological development of Heb 1:1-14).

In his study of Deuteronomy, as well, Allen focuses on the “Deuteronomic paraenetic material” that has a “life of its own distinct from the legal corpus” (13). Allen argues in this regard that “the vast majority of connections between the two texts are found within their respective hortatory material” (13).

Accordingly, one of Allen’s central contributions is to bring together a close study of the use of the Old Testament in the letter (with an emphasis on the book of Deut) with an extended analysis of the exhortation sections of both writings.

Relating the Letter to the Hebrews
and the Book of Deuteronomy

As Allen notes early on, Hebrews and Deuteronomy share some striking parallels (see p. 5):
  • Both texts appeal to past events/history as grounds for action in the present. 
  • Both invest the land motif with a soteriological character, and define apostasy in terms of the failure to enter that land.
  • Both are sermonic or homiletic in character and appeal for attention to the spoken word. 
  • Both climax in discourse focused around two mountains, with cursing and blessing motifs prominent in each montage. 
  • Likewise, each one explicates a covenant that marks the end of the Mosaic era and a consequent change in leadership to a figure named Ἰησοῦς.
"Such surface similarities," Allen insists, "are actually symptoms of, or signposts to, a Deuteronomic reading of Hebrews” (5).

Allen treats Deuteronomy as a compositional whole that includes Deut 1-34, recognizing that “this was the textual form likely available to the NT writers” (9). Further, the “Deuteronomic posture” is one that accounts for “the narrative’s dominant pre-entry perspective” (10, Allen adds, “however ‘fictitious’ this might be”). The book’s final form perspective is “the Moab, pre-entry handover moment of the discourse” (10). The implied audience of Deuteronomy, then, “stand at the threshold of entry into the land and await the prophesied blessing or curse which would subsequently accompany life within it” (10).

For Allen, this whole-book perspective of Deuteronomy is what should impact a reading of Hebrews.

To demonstrate the reality of this inner-biblical connection, Allen examines the various ties that bind these books together. In chapter two, Allen provides a study of the text and function of the Song of Moses in Deut 32. This is a strategic text within the scope of Deuteronomy, and it also has an “independent existence” as a well-cited often “sung” text in the history of Israel/Judaism.

In chapter three, Allen examines the Deteronomic quotations, strong allusions, echoes, and narrative allusions in Hebrews. He identifies 6 quotations, 6 strong allusions, 5-6 echoes, and 3 narrative allusions to the text of Deuteronomy. The song of Moses in Deut 32 is referred to at least 8 times. Moses’ song, though, also provides a particularly prominent theological and conceptual backdrop to the exhortation sections of the letter. As Allen writes, “this impressive and consistent textual use of Deuteronomy suggests that Hebrews has reflected upon its source text’s narrative situation in order both to shape its hortatory purpose and to articulate evocatively the consequences of apostasy” (109).

Alongside these strong textual links, there are also a number of other features that coordinate Deuteronomy and Hebrews. In chapter four, Allen highlights three major themes that are prominent in both texts: the centrality of “covenant,” the blessing/cursing imagery, and the focus and appeal to the “land.” In chapter five, Allen uncovers the “homiletical affinities” between Hebrews and Deuteronomy (156ff). The homiletic shaping of Hebrews indicates that “its argument mirrors that of its Deuteronomic source” (198). The story of Deuteronomy, then, is “replayed within the [New Covenant] context of Hebrews” (198).

In chapter six, Allen brings his argument to a climax by examining “re-presentation” in both Deuteronomy and Hebrews. After laying the exegetical (chap 3), thematic (chap 4), and rhetorical (chap 5) groundwork, Allen here constructs his climactic intertextual insight.

The book of Deuteronomy, and in particular Deut 28-34, is designed to interpret and “re-present” Israel’s history. This re-presentation is for the purpose of persuading contemporary readers that the Mosaic covenant is obsolete and a new covenant is needed. The audience, then, is poised on the threshold of an entirely new way of relating to God as his covenant people. The “situational relationship” between the respective audiences is “the common Deuteronomy-Hebrews thread, with both audiences positioned at the critical moment of decision at the threshold of their inheritance” (203).

Accordingly, Hebrews not only cites and draws themes from Deuteronomy. Rather, Hebrews appropriates an entire complex of features (audience, purpose, literary type, and method) from Deuteronomy. The frequent engagement with the final chapters of Deut is not an accident; rather, “it happens consistently through the letter’s hortatory material, gives collective explanatory power to the epistle's admonitions, and in toto composes a perspective of new covenant handover at the threshold of the land” (225).

In other words, these two books share a wide interpretive horizon, and they invite their readers to join them there.

The “Deuteronomic Posture” of Hebrews
After demonstrating the large volume of intertextual exchange between Hebrew and Deuteronomy, Allen is able to argue that the “Deuteronomic posture” is the “unifying narrative for the letter’s exhortations” (225). Allen summarizes the import of this connection:
The frequent textual citation of Deuteronomy, the replication of key themes such as covenant and land, the adoption of the Song and its association with the end of the Mosaic era all point to an overarching re-presentation of the Deuteronomic choice between life and death, apostasy and faithfulness, blessing and curse. Deuteronomy’s paraenesis becomes Hebrews’ paraenesis.

Hebrews, therefore, does not just use Deuteronomy; it becomes a new Deuteronomy and challenges its predecessor’s contemporary hegemony.

By undertaking this intertextual engagement with Deuteronomy, the epistle’s writer transfers his audience away from their allegiance to an outdated, redundant Sinai existence, dons Mosaic garments and addresses them afresh on the plains of Moab. Within Hebrews’ new covenant situation, the exhortation to “Choose Life” remains as pressing as ever.
For good reason, Allen’s volume has impacted the discussion of Hebrews’ use of the Old Testament. As noted above, Allen’s work provides a fresh impetus for interpreters to consider the role of the Pentateuch’s narratives in the coherence and artistry of the exhortation sections of the letter.

Further, in addition to the helpful exegesis of intertextual links, the most important contribution of this work is the way it is able to account for the non-citational uses of Deuteronomy within the letter.

Allen’s overarching thesis and many of his textual connections still need to be examined, re-evaluated, and further developed; however, he has skillfully set these two biblical books in relation to one another and has compellingly demonstrated that this particular construal is not arbitrary but rather a profoundly text-immanent feature.

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Monday, July 20, 2015

Difficult to Overestimate David

It is difficult to overestimate the extent of the influence of the covenant with David (2 Sam 7:1-17) in biblical theology. Without question the New Testament authors understand the historical Jesus of Nazareth to be the son of David of whom this covenant speaks (e.g., Luke 1:32-33; Acts 2:30; Heb 1:5).

Such a messianic reading of the covenant is consistent with the presentation and reading of the covenant in the Hebrew Bible and in the early history of interpretation (e.g., 4QFlor).
—Michael Shepherd, The Text in the Middle, 122-23.

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