Friday, November 27, 2009

ETS/IBR/SBL 2009 Reflections, Part Two

Continuing the reflections on the annual meetings I attended last week, I want to summarize the lecture Tremper Longman gave at the opening meeting of IBR on Friday night.

The title of the paper was "Of the Making of Commentaries There is No End: The Past, Present, and Future of a Genre”. In the lecture Tremper argued that writing new commentaries is an important and necessary endeavor. To be honest, I was surprised at this perspective given the oft stated remark, "Not another commentary!" I thought he would trumpet the elitest view that commentaries are a waste of scholarly energy.

Given that I am currently under contract for two commentaries, Tremper's argument was relevant to me. So for all you commentary naysayers here is Tremper's seven reasons for writing new commentaries.
  1. Advances in knowledge
  2. New methods and prespectives
  3. Competing interpretations
  4. Human finitude
  5. Reading in community(s)
  6. Changing context(s)
  7. Different readerships: clergy and laity
Some of these categories seem to blur into one another, but there is enough here to make the point that new commentaries are a necessary function of evangelical scholarship especially those written for the clergy and lay folks. I think Tremper was correct to express hesitation about commentaries for a scholarly audience. I personally don't think that we need a Davies and Allison type Matthew commentary every handful of years.

One other interesting element was Tremper's less than sanguine view of the Brazos's Commentary series. I would concur with his coolness . I reviewed the Matthew volume by Hauerwas. While I found it spiritually enriching, it was only loosely connected to Matthew. I wondered at times if he actually needed the Matthean text for the book. If a theological commentary works, it must engage closely with the text and its context. The text should not be a pretext for a theological perpsective that would have otherwise existed without the Matthean text.

8 comments:

Andy Rowell said...

Joel, I too was at the Longman IBR session and appreciated his perspective and the lively responses from Professors Seow and Treier. I too think there is a reason for commentaries. I love when preaching to do my own exegesis and come to some conclusions and then see how those match up against 3-4 commentators. I find it tremendously encouraging when I have come to similar conclusions. "The text does indeed seem to say this. I'm not alone in thinking this!" And I am also relieved when commentators rescue me from misreadings which I might have preached without their intervention.

As one of the speakers said, the biblical studies people particularly like the volumes of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible which are more like other commentaries done by biblical studies scholars. Telford Work's on Deuteronomy was mentioned positively) while other volumes (Jaroslav Pelican's and Stanley Hauerwas's) less positively.

Two of my teachers are Stanley Hauerwas and Richard Hays. Hays does not quite understand what Hauerwas was trying to do in that commentary. While Hauerwas in Hays's festschrift defends strongly his method and characterizes the assumptions behind historical-critical scholarship as philosophically naive.

Stanley Hauerwas, "Why 'The Way the Words Run' Matters: Reflections on Becoming a 'Major Biblical Scholar,'" in The Word Leaps the Gap: Essays on Scripture and Theology in Honor of Richard B. Hays (ed. J. R. Wagner, A. K. Grieb and C. K. Rowe; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 1-19. which can be read at Google Books here.

At first glance they seem worlds apart, but on further investigation, they seem far closer.

Hauerwas is particularly keen to avoid elaborate speculative reconstructions of what occasioned New Testament texts. In other words, regarding Matthew, he does not care to spend that much time reconstructing what the "Matthean Community" that produced the text thought and did.

However, he particularly appreciates readings that notice literary devices in the text. He is very interested in the internal structure of the document and allusions to the overarching story of Scripture.

It seems to me that in general Hays shares these inclinations as do most evangelical biblical scholars.

Furthermore, at this year's SBL, Hays did a paper entitled "Spirit, Church, Eschatology: The Third Article of the Creed as Hermeneutical Lens for Reading Romans" which I recorded and posted with permission at
Audio from SBL: Gaventa, Hays and Gorman on Romans as Christian Theology

This sounds quite similar to the comments about the Nicene Creed being the basis of the Scriptural commentary in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible--see introduction by Rusty Reno.

Furthemore, Hauerwas praises Kavin Rowe and Marcus Bockmuehl--both New Testament scholars who Hays thinks highly of.

Hauerwas also praises the conclusions in The Art of Reading Scripture which Hays himself also cited in his presentation.

It seems to me that the Brazos series reveals the frustrations theologians have with biblical scholars and has the potential to help Christian scholars move toward a consensus somewhere in the middle.

Andy Rowell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andy Rowell said...

Joel, after reading your reviews of R. T. France's Matthew commentary, it occurs to me that Hauerwas would probably appreciate what you call France's "common-sense approach to the higher critical issues and methodology that is commendable." Like France, Hauerwas is skeptical about the degree to which one can correctly date Matthew or reconstruct the nature of the Matthean community. Hauerwas like France also spends little time on introductory issues--focusing instead on commentary and narrative structure.

I am not at all writing these comments to correct you. I am just thinking through them myself and trying to make connections.

At SBL, I had breakfast with your colleague Scot McKnight and said hello to Michael Bird as well.

All the best,
Andy

Josh said...

My congregation has just finished a year-long journey through the Gospel of Matthew. During the same period, I made extensive use of Matthew in a paper for my doctoral work. I found the Hauerwas commentary (though uneven) helpful to both my preaching and writing.

I appreciated this work because it is different from many other commentaries. Hauerwas, of course, is not a biblical scholar; but were he a biblical scholar, he probably would have produced a more typical commentary--of which there are plenty. The commentary Hauerwas has produced is what one might expect from an ethicist whose interests include narrative theology. His work is primarily a re-narration of Matthew's story of Jesus; its value is that it helps readers to hear anew the most important story ever told. Somewhere, Walter Brueggemann has said that biblical scholars should spend less time attempting to get behind the text and more time wrestling with what the text says. Perhaps it is because he is an ethicist and not a biblical scholar that Hauerwas is able to follow this advice.

ros said...

Did I miss part 1 of your reflections?

Joel Willitts said...

Ros: I had a brief post as Part one. You didn't really miss anything, but it is there if you want to read. Andy and Josh: Thanks for your responses to my statements about Hauerwas' Matthew commentary. If you want to see my review it is in JETS I think last year. I actually found the book spiritually enriching as I said and I would (and have) suggest it can be used to supplement study with a more traditional commentary. I do differ with some who are stressing the point that issues of "behind the text" are less important than those "in front". If revelation is inextricably linked to history than one cannot get away with such distinctions. The "behind the text", the historical contingencies are part and parcel with revelation. You would no more separate Jesus' deity from humanity, than history from revelation. The historical contingencies are important in understanding the message of the text in my view.

andrewbourne said...

I am a bit confused why specifically evangelical? I think that all the suggestions for anyone writing commentaries. What I suggest that you believe commentaries are for ecclesial purposes only, is this correct or are they part of the project `faith seeking understanding`. I believe the latter to be more important than the former. I also feel that a Commentary should be an endeavour of seeking the truth of a Biblical text or book.

Joel Willitts said...

By "evangelical" I was only referring to the the audience of the IBR. Most of whom would be willing to subscribe to a British style evangelicalism. Your point then is well taken with the broader ecclesial scope.