Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ancient Christian Texts: Commentary on the Gospel of John - Theodore of Mopsuestia

Devout commentator gives the clear sense

Ancient Christian Texts: Commentary on the Gospel of John
Author: Theodore of Mopsuestia
Publisher: IVP Academic (http://www.ivpress.com/)
Pages: 172

Theodore of Mopsuestia’s commentary on John brings to mind an incident in the history of ancient Israel. The people gathered together, and Ezra the scribe read from the Book of the Law of Moses. Ezra was joined by others that “helped the people to understand the Law … They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:7-8 ESV).

Theodore does much the same throughout this commentary. He recites the verses and then gives the sense of the passage omitting extraneous words. He uses paraphrase to make it understandable. His commentary of John 16, where Jesus predicts persecution for the disciples, is characteristic: “(16:4) But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. ‘If I had not predicted these things,’ he says, ‘you might have lost your courage because these afflictions would have befallen you unexpectedly and you would have been unprepared. But if instead I predict what will happen to you, then, after it has happened, you will have to admire the power of the one who made the prediction, which is why you should have no doubt about the blessings I promised you.’ “

His way of using expansive thought to get at the underlying meaning seems unique. Although some of it is conjecture, most of it is plausible. He avoids being overly analytical and instead offers insight from an early era.

This was written in the late fourth or early fifth century. Theodore died in 428. His proximity to the church fathers gives him a different perspective than modern commentators. He highlights some of the erroneous interpretations of John’s gospel present in his own time. He draws attention to particulars (including refutation of heretics) in John’s writing that may be overlooked.

He makes it clear that John was writing to include those events omitted by the other gospel writers. In addition, John was concerned about the precise order of events, because, as Theodore puts it, “the others had taken no care in this regard.”

A major aspect that informs his reflections is his reverence. What one sees is a reflection of character. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8 ESV). “With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous” (Psalm 18:25-26 ESV). It’s obvious from his writing and language that Theodore’s eye was single, making his body of work full of light.

That’s not to say that he is always right. He was not without controversy. His Christology is somewhat flawed in that he sees “an excessive separation between Christ’s human and divine natures, which is due on the one hand, to the fact that an accurate definition of the unity of Christ’s nature was established only after Theodore’s death; on the other, to the fact that in his polemic against the Apollinarists he exaggerated the separation of the two natures of Christ.” This is something that the reader must keep in mind, and occasionally it makes for awkward reading, but this is no reason to skip this commentary. The editor includes helpful notes as a reminder and for clarification.

Aside from getting a clear sense of what John is all about, finding a passage like the following, where Theodore comments on Jesus’ example of service at the Passover meal, made this worth the read for me. Here we see how his reverence toward God, others and all of life informs his insight. “Humility is the principle of all virtues. It removes any conflict, division or dissension among people, planting peace and charity among them instead. And through charity humility grows and increases. Our Lord frequently desired to teach this to his disciples through his words and works."

Modern commentaries may go deeper and provide more suggestions for application, but this devout commentator succeeds in providing the basic sense of what is being said.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament, Volume 2

A Christ-centered view of the inseparability of belief and behavior

The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament, Volume 2: The Collective Witness
Author: Ben Witherington III
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 838

In volume one of The Indelible Image, Ben Witherington shows the interrelationship between theology and ethics given by Jesus and the New Testament writers. He ties the two together through the concept of God’s image being renewed in fallen human beings by the salvation that is in Christ. “Salvation involves the restoration not merely of relationship between God and humankind, but of human character so that the relationship can be both ongoing and positive rather than sporadic and broken. The aim of salvation is not merely to start a relationship, but to conform a people to the image of God’s son …“ Salvation involves both belief and behavior. Since God is loving, holy, just and good, he works to produce the same in the lives of his people. This is a constant theme throughout both volumes.

The present volume is more of a synthesis than the first. Witherington writes, “What I offer in the present volume is the distillation of what can only be called the theology and ethics of Jesus and of the various New Testament writers as it is revealed in detailed exegetical study.“ Witherington brings the voices that sang individually in the first volume together as a choir, showing how they harmonize and complement each other. He also highlights their solos, their unique contributions that make them distinct.

He eschews categories and groupings in favor of a Christological focus. First and foremost in developing a theology of ethics is seeing how the New Testament writers deal with Christology, which Witherington rightly sees as the pivotal change-event in their world. He does, however, deal with many other subjects along the way, but there is a continual recognition that Christ brings theology and ethics together. “The longer I work with the New Testament, the less satisfied I am to see theology and ethics divided from one another as if they were discrete subjects. By this I mean that the figure and pattern of Christ binds the two together and grounds both the indicative (what Christ was and did) and the imperative (what his followers should do and be).”

Witherington starts by going deeply into the symbolism and thought world of Jesus and the New Testament writers. Theology and ethics must not be stripped of its first century context. He also emphasizes the importance of narrative or story. “Story is the primary means by which the meaning of God and the divine human encounter is conveyed from the very first chapter of Genesis.” There’s no need to choose between story and history in the work of interpretation. Removing either would be like a picture without a frame.

When it comes to analysis, though Witherington may not always be right, more often than not I felt as though he was uncovering the true meaning of texts. Witherington’s extensive background and study give rise to careful interpretation. This is what kept me reading page after page, until I finished the entire book.

One of my favorite sections is an exposition of Revelation 11 and 12. If Witherington’s handling of these chapters is any indication, his commentary on Revelation is worth getting.

His purpose is to provide a sense of the character of visionary material in Revelation. I thoroughly enjoyed his thoughtful reflections on the identity of the woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and wearing a crown with twelve stars. He sees her not as Mary or Israel but the community of God’s people.

Witherington further shows the importance of precise analysis in his handling of the Pauline household codes, where Paul gives instruction to husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves. He identifies the crucial question as, “‘What does Paul do with these preexisting structures and customs?’ Does he simply endorse them, or does he modify them, and if he modifies them, what is the direction or aim of his remarks?”

He convincingly shows that Paul is ameliorating the harsher effects of patriarchy, guiding “the head of the household into a new conception of his roles that Christianizes his conduct in various ways and so turns marriage into more of a partnership and turns household management more into a matter of actualizing biblical principles about love of neighbor and honoring others.”

Witherington saves for the end one of his most thoughtful insights, which some may take issue with, but which is nevertheless worth considering. He has written in detail about the subject in a prior book, “In The Problem with Evangelical Theology one of the main points I stressed repeatedly is that the problem with evangelical theologies of various sorts is, paradoxically enough, that they are not biblical enough, and even more to the point, they become unbiblical at the precise junctures where they try to say something distinctive from the things that all orthodox Christians basically agree on. He cites as examples, predetermination, sinless perfection, the rapture, which he sees as an exaggeration of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and the baptism of the spirit as a second work of grace.

These issues and ones like them can be controversial and debatable, but it’s no reason not to pick up these volumes if you have a different view than the author. These issues are never the focus, and there is a wealth of solid biblical exegesis that will benefit any student of the Bible. His point about distinctives is a reminder of the need for humility. It’s not only important to subject our beliefs to the utmost scrutiny; it’s good to recognize that we can be wrong. Where disagreements persist, Christ, his person, work and words can be a unifying factor.

Witherington ends with a fitting prayer: “Lord, may we understand not only your Word but also ourselves in the light of your Word, written and incarnate, and so become what we admire, mirrors of Christ, bearers of the indelible and restored image. Amen.”

The Legacy - Michael Phillips

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