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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