Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Value of a Theological Commentary

I am reviewing Stanely Hauerwas's Brazos theological commentary on Matthew's Gospel. I would like to ask a controversial question: What is the value of a commentary like this? While you might not be familiar with the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, can a theologian not trained in historical exegesis produce a commentary that can really do justice to the issues within the text? When conversation partners are theologians (e.g. Bonhoeffer, Yoder) and philosophers (e.g Kant) instead of ancient sources (e.g. Greco-Roman authors, Pseudepigrapha) what real potential is there for laying bare the meaing of the text? -- by "meaning of the text" I am presuming that the meaning of the implied author is discernable in the communication of the text.

Perhaps one would say that appropriate expectations for a theolgoical commentary demand that it be judged differently. If the commentary is not presuming to be a historical exegesis of a NT document then one cannot be disappointed in what one finds therein. Still, does a commentary like this serve only as a vehicle for the expression of the authors views which were predetermined before coming to the text?

For example, take Hauerwas's commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. Hauerwas suggests that the "righteouness" Jesus required in 5:20 to surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees is subversion. He contends that Jesus thought the scribes and Pharisees were too eager to placate the Romans. Jesus called his disciples to live out the law to the extent that it non-violently subverted the Empire. Or Hauerwas's claim that "perfection" in Matthew 5 means non-violence. Or that the crucial issue in Jesus' teaching on marriage in ch. 5 is not a question of legal interpretation, but rather "what kind of community must a church be that does not make it a matter of necessity for such a woman [divorced] to remarry".

What do you think?

14 comments:

Daniel Kirk said...

Joel, I think: "Be careful how you answer, lest you condemn every commentary written before the twentieth century!"

Damian said...

I'm not familiar with the commentary on Matthew, but Jaroslav Pelikan's commentary on Acts in the same series is not too bad. His primary dialogue partners are the early church fathers and he's naturally quite insightful in this regard. He also does deal with some textual problems.

I see his work more as a work of Wirkungsgeschichte which has its place. I don't think I'll be rushing out for another one.

I'm also reading Benedict XVI's book on Jesus - it's also a bit "theological" for me - maybe not such a bad thing.

Bob MacDonald said...

for laying bear - you mean for laying bare ...

Remind us of the discourse of history, but also write as if you were preparing us for a decision - so Calvin on the Psalms quoted in Psalms in community : Jewish and Christian textual, liturgical, and artistic traditions / edited by Harold W. Attridge and Margot E. Fassler.

in other words, we are part of a current discourse whatever ancient authors we think we are in dialogue with.

Joel Willitts said...

Bob:

Thanks for noticing the typo.

Steve Chatelier said...

Is this not the type of commentary written with the value of biblical exegetes' work? Is it the result of having a 'community of scholars' all contributing to each other's work?

Sean said...

Is this not assuming, rightly or wrongly, that only those trained in historical exegesis can interpret and understand the Scripture appropriately? I'm think that if Hauerwas has relied on solid exegesis, then from that theological commentary can easily flow. But if he neglects that body of scholarship, he does so at his own peril.

Joel Willitts said...

Sean:

What do you mean by the phrase "relied on solid exegesis"? What I am assuming is that the intent of the text is important and recoverable and exegesis demands that we hear the author first in his own right in his own context. I am not at all of the mind that theology is not of utmost importance, or that a theologian cannot write a commentary on the Bible. Still, at the end, do I understand Matthew's Gospel better because of Hauerwas's book? I am not sure. So, what is the usefulness of a theological commentary if I am not any closer to understanding Matthew's message? Don't get me wrong, I am finding in the commentary insights and ideas that challenge me to follow Jesus and provoke my thinking. In that respect, it is useful.

Sean said...

By "relied on solid exegesis" I mean that Matthew's authorial intent is utterly NB. For example, Hauerwas can appeal to Jesus' subversive message in the exegesis of Horsley and others. Some have found a counter-imperial theme in Matt (Carter). If one develops a theology from those exegetical studies and offers a theological commentary grounded in that body of scholarship, it can be useful.

However, if Hauerwas totally ignores guys like you who have looked at Matt's gospel in context, historical/literary/social, then I'm not sure he'll actually understand what Matt is saying.

Does that clarify my thoughts? Sorry for the confusion...

What I was trying to question was whether or not trained exegetes are the ONLY one's who can write commentaries on Scripture. Personally, I think the Horizon Commentary set will possibly be better because it is Exegetes venturing into the field of theology, rather than Theologians venturing into the field of exegesis. Time will tell who's better at what...

Michael F. Bird said...

Joel,
I think theological exegesis is sound when understood as a means of expositing the sensus plenior of the biblical text, texts to the overall theological message of Scripture, and relating it to past interpretation by the Fathers and Reformers. Barth's commentary on Philippians is the best example I know of.

Patrick George McCullough said...

Joel, I too am writing a review of this book and it's helpful to read your post and the discussion. In one of your comments, you write:

So, what is the usefulness of a theological commentary if I am not any closer to understanding Matthew's message?

I wonder what "Matthew's message" means. Is there one unchangeable message set in stone for all time? My impression is that Hauerwas is especially uninterested in critical discussions the world "behind" the text, but is more interested in applying the text in our time and place (particularly the United States). In that sense, perhaps "commentary" is a misnomer, or perhaps we have to suspend our expectations and definitions of a typical modern commentary. This book comments on how the text prophetically witnesses against the tides of our prevailing culture. At bare minimum, if he succeeds in stirring up discussion about how the text of Matthew might "read" our culture, then I'd say it's very "useful" indeed! (just a different use than most biblical scholars might be looking for)

Joel Willitts said...

The definition of meaning means different things to different people and brighter minds are arguing the finer points. I suppose I am in the vein of Vanhoozer in that the text is a speech act with an inbedded intention. We certainly cannot really get at the "author's intention" but we can read a text in its historical context, or as close to it as possible. Still the issue I have is related to statements about what Matthew's Jesus means by such and such a thing. Hauerwas says Jesus discussion of divorse is not about legal interpretation but about a divorced woman's privilege not to remarry in the church. While, I might agree with his view that woman in the church do not need to remarry, to say this is what Matthew is on about is wrong and misleading to my mind. Further, to say that the righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees has to do with a greater non-violent subversion to Roman authority is certainly pressing the text to say more than can be justified, although I do agree to some extent with Carter and others who argue that Matthew has a imperial critique.

J. B. Hood said...

Great post and interesting discussion here Joel. It might be worth pointing out that Horizons Theol Commentaries at least had a foundational group of essays (Between Two Horizons, 1999) as a sort of methodological platform from which to work, where they wrestled with such issues as relationship between bib-syst theology, and the juxtaposition of hist crit and theol readings; I don't recall seeing that for Brazos. So it may be that it's really just up to the

The biggest danger here is that a commentator is less protected from reading his/her theology into the text, whereas more interaction with historical context provides at least some relief from "reading into". Though, as you note in your Historical Jesus article (JSHJ), not enough!

Eric Rowe said...

Everything you said about Hauerwas's Matthew commentary is exactly what I thought the first time I read some of Barth's Romans commentary (and still think for that matter). For those of us who think it matters what the text actually means--even when using the text for theology, those kinds of commentaries are useless. But not everybody does care what the text actually means, nor does everybody even think it actually means anything at all.

Michael said...

OP and commentors: I am warmed by the endeavor of the Brazos series. And, like some of the criticisms I've read here, my confidence in meaning (slippery word) is small when we are not using, to some extent, some diachronic methods/criticisms when exegeting a text (I am using Gorman's terminology).

But I understand why a series like Brazos is necessary. Bible students have simply had enough. We are growing tired of the great "eclipse." We want to get back to the text and out of methodological discussions. Its frustrating. There are branches of scholarship prepared to talk about homosexual readings/interpretations of Paul. There are radical Feminists hermeneutics. Social subversive (liberation theology) hermeneutics. Etc. etc.

Please forgive us for wanting to actually move back to Scripture however premature our posture might be. I'd take Barth's Romans commentary or even Kant over, say, a radical anti-imperial hermeneutic any day.