Review: A Commentary on James

A Commentary on James, Aida Besancon Spencer. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2020.

Summary: A scholarly and accessible exegetical commentary on the Epistle of James.

The Epistle of James has often been the object of at least discussion, if not controversy. Despite attribution to the brother of the Lord, it’s place in the canon faced questions, even from Luther who considered it a “right strawy epistle.” Then, those who have preached this epistle have struggled to find how it coheres.

Aida Besancon Spencer addresses all these questions and more in this new exegetical commentary in the Kregel Exegetical Library series. She addresses the standard introductory matters of authorship, date, and occasion, summarizing differing views. She proposes that James 1:21 is a thesis verse for the full book: “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you” (NIV). She contends that there are three specific ways we turn from evil and accept the implanted word: through responding in godly ways to trials, by embracing God-given wisdom that shapes our speech, and by right attitudes toward wealth that cares for and uplifts the poor.

The commentary then follows the five chapters of James beginning with a translation and phrase by phrase grammatical analysis, noting the relationship of each phrase to surrounding phrases. Then an outline and literary structure is offered followed by careful exegesis. The chapter concludes with theological and homiletic topics, offering suggestions for those preaching or teaching these passages.

The exegesis is broken up by tables showing either internal structures or comparing/contrasting passages in James with other biblical texts. For example how James and Paul interact with Genesis 15:6, or the OT and NT quotations in James or parallels in questions and answers with Malachi 1. These “echoes” are important to understanding meaning and are woven throughout.

There are a number of excurses on specific passages in which the author offers contemporary applications–something one often does not find in an academic commentary, but which reflects her wide experience in urban work. Among these are “Who Are the Poor Today?” and how “Employers Still Withhold Wages from Workers.” Some of the latter include using bankruptcy laws to avoid paying workers, complaining of substandard work from contractors with otherwise excellent reputations, not passing along tips, withholding overtime wages, insisting on “off the clock” hours, or other off-hour work without pay.

I’m glad to add this commentary to my shelves. It is scholarly, thorough, accessible and embodies the author’s thesis verse for James, showing a humble acceptance of the word planted in us. We’re challenged in how we confront suffering, embrace wisdom, and deal with wealth. Aida Besancon Spencer models exegetical rigor and pastoral integrity.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: How to Read Daniel

How to Read Daniel (How to Read series), Tremper Longman III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A helpful introduction to the Old Testament book of Daniel, dealing with its original setting and context, the theme of the book, basic commentary on each story and vision, and contemporary applications.

Most of us who have read the Old Testament book of Daniel the prophet find we can make pretty good sense out of the first six chapters, which are narratives. It is the last six which are more problematic, consisting of visions with all sorts of strange beasts, divine figures coming on the clouds, and future kings.

Tremper Longman III does for Daniel what he has done in other books in his How to Read series. Without getting engaged in highly technical commentary with extensive introduction, he introduces the reader to the original setting of Daniel, and then offers a concise commentary of the book, offering the thoughtful lay reader enough to study Daniel for oneself, or with a group.

He introduces the context of Babylonian oppression of Israel including Daniel and his companions and the structure of the book, noting the chiasm of chapters 2-7, the six stories and four visions of which the book consists, and the shifts between Hebrew and Aramaic in the book. He reviews the story of Israel, exile and the succession from Babylonian to Persian, and eventually Greek empires significant to understanding the book. The author takes a more traditional position of Daniel as a sixth century BCE rather than second century BCE work, and for the real possibility of predictive prophecy.

He then works through the book chapter by chapter. He does alter the order slightly, looking first at stories of court contest in Daniel 1 and 2, and 4 and 5, and then stories of court conflict in Daniel 3 and 6. Then he moves on to the four visions in Daniel 7, 8, 9, and 10-12. Longman sees all this material held together by a primary theme “that in spite of present difficulties, God is in control, and he will have the final victory.” In each section, he shows how the material develops that theme. He also notes a secondary theme, that “God’s people can survive and even thrive in the midst of a toxic culture.” We witness this repeatedly throughout the book as people live faithfully and experience God’s provident care, whether in superior abilities to interpret dreams or deliverance from fiery furnaces and lions’ dens.

He concludes the book with discussion of what it means to live in a toxic culture where we cannot force the government to act like the church, providing a basis for a far more nuanced political theology than we customarily encounter. He also explores what it means to find comfort in God’s ultimate victory that begins with the recognition of the real existence of a battle between good and evil operating behind many of the conflicts we face in the world today. There may be real instances where we need to stand against evil, and this may even cost our lives. Likewise we need to be attentive to the war within, finding courage to stand against both external and internal evils, the systemic and the personal, in view of the victory of God portrayed in the visions.

This is a great resource for an adult ed class studying Daniel, as well as a personal devotional study. Each chapter includes a few reflection questions helping connect specific content to the larger themes of Daniel. Commentary recommendations will help the person know where to look who wants to dig deeper. This is a sound work of introduction and interpretation that I would recommend as a great first book on Daniel.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Philippians

Philippians

Philippians (Kerux Commentaries), Thomas Moore and Timothy D. Sprankle. Grand Rapids, Kregel Ministry, 2019.

Summary: A biblical commentary on Paul’s letter to the Philippians combining exegetical and preaching resources for each passage.

This commentary represents one of the first of a new commentary series published through Kregel Ministry. The approach in the Kerux Commentaries is to pair a biblical scholar and a preaching author, either a pastor or homiletician. The commentary is organized by preaching passages under an overall outline of the book. Following an overview of all the preaching passages and introduction covering typical introductory issues are exegetical and preaching resources for each passage.

Each section includes a brief section on the literary structure and themes of the passage, a short exposition, and then verse by verse exegesis of the passage including renderings of key Greek terms, sidebars on cultural backgrounds (e.g. slaves and servants, saints from Philippians 1:1-8), and the theological focus of the passage. This is followed by Preaching and Teaching Strategies: an exegetical and theological synthesis, the main preaching idea, contemporary connections, a section on creativity in presentation, a summary of preaching points, and then a list of discussion questions and additional resources.

The commentary highlights well some of the key themes in Philippians: the themes of joy, partnership in the gospel, the call to stand together, looking to others interests, highlighting the example of Christ, and the surpassing worth of knowing Christ and dependency upon him. In very readable form the exegetical part of the commentary sets out key textual issues, terms, and background and sums this up well in identifying the theological focus of the passage.

I found the preaching section less helpful. The preaching strategies did flow from exegesis and model this practice making a number of good points and suggested some creative ideas for presentation (e.g. on Philippians 1:27-30 on loyalty to Christ, suggesting use of a kingdom “pledge of allegiance.”). Perhaps it is my own preference to determine the preaching idea and homiletic outline from my own study and not preach someone else’s material, but I found these sections less helpful than the exegetical sections. Still, the preaching author often raised good ideas that “preached” to me, for example, from Philippians 2:5-8, he poses good questions about what it means to climb down the ladder of privilege.

The discussion questions are helpful for those using this commentary with adult education groups or those teaching the passage in a Bible study. The authors also offer an extensive reference section with eighteen pages of contemporary books, commentaries and articles on Philippians.

This commentary strikes a good balance between the highly technical commentaries and the popular commentaries that are often transcribed sermons. This is helpful for pastors and lay teachers who may not have extended time for study but want to give exegetically sound messages. Just don’t plagiarize the preaching material. I might be in the audience!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Mark Through Old Testament Eyes

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Mark Through Old Testament EyesAndrew T. LePeau. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017

Summary: The first in a series of commentaries looking at the Old Testament background of the New Testament text, with attention to the meaning of structural elements in the text, and the practical implications of the text for Christians and churches.

There are a myriad of commentary series on the market today. Of course there are scholarly exegetical commentaries that work up from the original languages and extant texts to give the best reading of a passage, popular commentaries that distill this information with more emphasis on contemporary relevance, and more recently, commentaries that collect the commentary of the church fathers or writers in a particular church tradition. This commentary, the first of a series focused on the New Testament corpus, explores how the Old Testament, which was the Bible of the New Testament writers, deeply informs their thought, not only where Old Testament material is quoted but also as background to much of its content.

The commentary is organized around four repeating features:

  • Running commentary, that offers Old Testament background and other key information for each paragraph, if not each verse. Working through LePeau’s commentary made the case for the idea of this series. Nearly every verse, and certainly every pericope in Mark is informed by Old Testament backgrounds. In the opening verses of Mark 1, for example, the commentary explores terms like “beginning,” “good news,” “Jesus,” “Messiah,” “Son of God,” “wilderness,” and “baptism of repentance.” And that is just the first four verses!
  • Through Old Testament Eyes, which are summaries at the end of chapters or sections looking at how Old Testament themes are used by the author. At the end of the commentary on Mark 1, the commentary notes how the first chapter draws on the themes of exodus, and sets up how the ministry of Jesus will parallel this in a new exodus narrative.
  • What the Structure Means looks at how the material in the text is organized by the author through things like chiasmus and parallel structures, and how this points to textual meaning. Throughout the book, LePeau looks at the ways Mark structures the narrative, using many tables to do so. One of the most informative sections is the “What the Structure Means: Outline of Mark 13” taking this difficult to understand apocalyptic passage, and proposing an A-B-A-B structure to the passage that makes sense of the whole, alternating passages focused on the temple with passages focused on the coming of the Son of Man.
  • Going Deeper sections unpack the implications of key themes in passages. For example, “Going Deeper into Choosing Life: Mark 3:1-6” explores how this involves both what we refrain from (the prohibitions of the ten commandments, which LePeau calls “ten paths to freedom and life”) and what we proactively embrace that brings life to others, just as Jesus brings healing that liberates on the Sabbath.

The commentary is accessible and organized to be helpful for all who preach or teach the gospel of Mark. No background in original languages is assumed. One of the features I found most helpful, in addition to the extensive Old Testament background are the various tables included throughout the text that offer ideas as to the structure of larger portions of Mark. So often, Bible study is simply one verse after another without attention to the larger framework of a passage or book. At the end of the commentary, lists of “tables,” “through Old Testament Eyes,” and “Going Deeper” discussions are provided. For teachers of this material, it might be a great resource to provide web-based versions of the tables with appropriate permission granted for their use for educational purposes.

It was fascinating to note another “background” for much of the material in this book, one I share. The author, formerly an associate editor at InterVarsity Press, part of the collegiate ministry with which I work, acknowledges his debt to the work of Paul Byer and the tradition of “Mark manuscript Bible study” used in our discipleship efforts for many of the insights (and even some of the tables) in the book. LePeau has made a signal contribution to that tradition in this volume, which I hope many of my colleagues, as well as many others, will use in preparing studies in Mark. And as series editor, LePeau has set the bar high for future volumes in this series, which I hope will bring a deeper appreciation to many throughout the church of the Old Testament background of the New Testament scriptures.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Reading C. S. Lewis: A Commentary

Reading C.S. LewisReading C.S. Lewis: A CommentaryWesley Cort. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016 (review based on pre-publication galley).

Summary: This book provides an undogmatic look at C.S. Lewis, considering the influences upon his life and writing, and a commentary on Lewis’s major Christian works. 

Fans of C.S. Lewis are legion and they have generated a plethora of books on aspects of Lewis’s work. Critics, who, at root, believe Lewis Christianity fatally compromised his work, are also out there. What Wesley Cort tries to do is consider Lewis’s major works from a more neutral perspective, examining the personal and scholarly influences that informed his writing, and giving us a commentary on the major works that made up his Christian writing.

Apart from a Preface that explains his aims, the book is organized around three sections that correspond to what Kort sees are the three major aspects of Lewis’s “project.” The first of these concerned Lewis’s philosophical anthropology and moral theory and includes commentaries on Surprised by Joy, The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and a concluding chapter titled “Some Reasonable Assumptions”. We see in this Lewis at his reasoned best, but also the role experience and imagination play in his conversion and life, themes Kort repeatedly teases out.

The second part concerns Lewis’s cultural critique of modernity, which includes the Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength), along with his prose work outlining similar ideas, The Abolition of Man. The third part then turns to the working out of Lewis’s ideas as applied principles of moral action, in The Chronicles of Narnia (he considers four of seven of these), and The Four Loves.

Kort interweaves outlines of these texts and their major themes and exploration of the thought currents in Lewis’s time that shaped these works–romanticism, philosophical idealism, the rise of scientism, and an early form of post-modernism, which Lewis presciently anticipated in The Abolition of Man and the Space Trilogy.

It was tempting to want to read Lewis’s works side by side with Kort’s commentary, which is probably the best use of any commentary. I found Kort’s work illuminating in various ways (for example Lewis’s spatial orientation and love of big sprawling houses). The themes he used to group Lewis’s books were interesting as was his delineation of the place of reason, experience, and imagination in Lewis’s writing.

Perhaps for reasons of themes and space he focuses on Lewis’s most popular works. But does this give us the truest reading of Lewis? It seems particularly striking that works like his commentary on the psalms, Letters to Malcolm, and A Grief Observed are excluded, as well as the work Lewis considered his best, Till We Have Faces. Nor do we really have any consideration of Lewis’s scholarly work, and its connection to these more popular works. Perhaps that is too large a “project”.

For the person wanting to know more of Lewis, I would urge reading his work first. Had I read Kort first, I might not have read Lewis. Kort is prosaic where Lewis sparkles. Perhaps this is the danger of all such works, and particularly one striving for a certain distance from adoration or vituperation. Yet perhaps what Kort’s work marks is a critical reappraisal of Lewis, neither adoring or denigrating, but understanding and weighing his ideas both for their impact in his time and our own. No matter what one thinks of Lewis, he occupied a significant place in twentieth century letters and scholarship and as a public intellectual. And perhaps such careful treatment might lead to more balanced assessment by both his fans and critics.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher as an ebook via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”