Book Review – The Letters to Timothy and Titus (Philip Towner)

This is a fairly recent addition (2006) to the long-running New International Commentary series, currently under the editorship of Gordon Fee. As with others in the series, this is a thorough exegetical commentary that leaves no phrase unexamined, interacts with modern scholarship, and often deals with issues of Greek vocabulary and grammar. The series also comes from within the evangelical tradition, and seeks to address the sorts of questions preachers and serious students of the Scriptures will have.

The Pastoral Epistles carry their fair share of controversial issues, the first of which is of course whether Paul really wrote them. Towner’s introduction outlines the various arguments against Pauline authorship, which he does not find convincing, although he has more time for Marshall’s idea of “allonymity”. However, his commentary treats Paul as the author, and he continues to probe the topic throughout.

He explains the historical context into which the letters were written, including the likely beliefs of the false teachers Timothy was opposing (he does not think they were Gnostics), and the moral climate, particularly in Crete, which was similar to Corinth. Each letter in the PE brings its own theological contributions, and Towner gives particular attention to the Christology of the three letters.

He commentates on the TNIV, although in places goes with his own alternative translation. For example he prefers “compete in the good contest of faith” instead of “fight the good fight” in 1 Tim 6:12 to keep with the athletic metaphor he discerns in 1 Tim 6:11.

He includes several excursuses, which are in-depth word studies of key words in the PE. These are a little on the academic side and you could skip over them. However, by the end of the commentary it often becomes clear that the words they explore are important recurring terms within the PE. For example there is one on ἐπιφαίνω which is an appearing or epiphany.

A few highlights for me were his treatment of 1 Tim 2:1-7 on the “universality” of salvation and on the significance of Jesus’ humanity. He is also very illuminating on the somewhat confusing section about widows in 1 Tim 5:3-16. He argues that it was not likely an office / sisterhood with vows of celibacy. Another passage that he gives particularly close attention to is 2 Tim 4:16-18, in which he detects several allusions to Psalm 21. In fact, allusions to the OT, or “intertextuality”, is one of the key areas Towner states in the introduction that intends his commentary to focus on.

Although this is primarily an exegetical commentary, there are places where he will briefly switch gear and move into preaching mode. For example, in some challenging summarising comments on 2 Tim 3:1-9, he asks us to consider our own potential for apostasy by remaking the “untameable” gospel into something we find more accommodating. Are these verses a “mirror” that we need to consider whether we see our own reflection in, and not just a description of what “they” are like?

In a detailed discussion of Titus 2:13, he considers the debate about whether Jesus is referred to as God. He argues “God and Saviour” has a single, not multiple referent, and then that it is “glory” that Jesus is set in apposition to not God. In other words instead of “Jesus, who is our great God and Saviour”, he argues for something along the lines of “Jesus, who is the glory of our great God and Saviour”, or to put it another way “Jesus is the embodiment of the glory of God”. I found this quite convincing, and it seems to me to fit nicely with Titus 2:11, in which we have the “epiphany” of “grace” (Christ’s first coming), which makes the second coming in Titus 2:13 the “epiphany of glory”.

I suspect many readers of this review will be interested in his take on one of the most contentious sections of the PE, the instructions to women in 1 Tim 2:8-15, to which he devotes 50 pages of comments. Towner, like the series editor Fee, holds to the egalitarian position, and therefore does not see these commands as having universal applicability. However, he does not choose to follow the interpretive line of some egalitarians who think that the husband/wife relationship in the privacy of the home is in view. He very much places these instructions in the context of public worship.

As someone who holds to a complementarian view but willing to have my mind changed, I was a little disappointed with his dismissive and sometimes acerbic comments directed towards the likes of Mounce, Knight, and Köstenberger. In fact he refuses to use the term “complementarian”, preferring to characterise the opposing view as “hierarchicalism” or “traditionalism”.

He draws heavily on Bruce Winter’s work on the “new Roman woman”, and this which he sees as something of an interpretive key to 1 Tim 2:8-15, 1 Tim 5:3-16 and also Titus 2:3-8. These were wealthy women who wanted the freedoms normally restricted to men, including sexual freedom, and were speaking up in public gatherings, and less modest in dress. There seems a lot that is plausible in this reconstruction, whatever one thinks of the ongoing validity of the commands. In fact, Towner himself in his comments sees these restrictions very much related to the church’s witness within society, and suggests that in certain Asian cultures, a similarly conservative approach to women’s roles might be wise, but in our western culture the opposite is true, and Christians dragging their feet with regards to the “egalitarian trajectory within the gospel” are damaging the witness of the church.

I was not persuaded by his view that the overseer and elder do not refer to the same role (he suggests a single overseer leads in concert with a larger council of elders). He sees both Timothy and Titus as operating in the role of “apostolic delegate”.

I made use of this commentary as part of a detailed study of the Pastoral Epistles I have been doing over the past few months. I would study a few verses myself, coming up with my own understanding, before consulting Towner. Only very rarely did I find that questions I had about the text weren’t addressed in some way in the text. So I would say this is an excellent resource filled with stimulating and insightful comments, that has greatly helped in my understanding of the PE.

Book Review – The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (Gordon Fee)

This is a replacement volume in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series (NICNT), provided by the series editor, Gordon Fee. His reputation as a biblical scholar and commentator is first-rate, and as one would expect, this is another fine contribution. The series now features the text of the TNIV, although commentators are free to disagree with the translation and provide their own preferred alternatives.

The introduction is relatively brief (there is a separate introduction for each book). 1 Thessalonians is dated around AD49, most likely sent during Paul’s visit to Corinth, and with Timothy delivering the letter in person.

1 Thessalonians

The structure of the book is simple, with the first three chapters forming a lengthy introduction consisting of thanksgiving, narrative and prayer, before the final two chapters address the reason for writing – to answer questions concerning the sanctity of marriage, the refusal of some to work, and the timing of the second coming.

Fee regularly points out the high Christology that is to be found in 1 Thessalonians, particularly in the way that Paul will echo Old Testament passages but use Lord to refer to Jesus (e.g. in 3:13). On top of this, in 1:3 and 3:11 he indentifies precursors of Paul’s inserting Jesus into the Shema which he does more explicitly in 1 Cor 8:6.

Contrary to most commentators, he argues for infant rather than gentle in 2:7 – Paul and his companions were innocent like infants. There are some helpful comments on perseverance on 2:11-12 and 3:5, noting that our perseverance depends ultimately on God’s absolute faithfulness (5:23).  He argues that the polemic of 2:14-16 does not fall on the entire Jewish community but on those who were specifically responsible for killing Christ. He shows how the crown in 2:19 refers to a laurel wreath at the Roman games, which Paul pictures as the Thessalonians themselves.

The “vessel” of 4:4 is considered to be a euphemism for the male sexual organ. He provides some helpful comments on how the Holy Spirit enables us to walk in holiness (4:7-8). I was a little surprised, given how much emphasis Green puts on the client-patron relationship as the background to the letter, that Fee does not interact with this possibility at all in 4:11-12.

Fee considers the question behind 4:13-18 to be “what has happened to those who died before the second coming”? He criticises those who try to speculatively go beyond the main point of this passage, with especially strong censure for the “Left Behind” interpretation. He diffuses the debate concerning “going to heaven” versus living on the new earth somewhat, by pointing out that for Paul, our final eschatological “geography” was a secondary concern, whereas his interest was primarily personal – we will be with the Lord.

The short section on prophecy in 5:19-22 is of interest as Fee brings a Pentecostal perspective to bear, noting that there is no hermeneutical justification for modern-day prohibition of prophecy. He argues, drawing on evidence from Romans and 1 Corinthians as well that prophecy seemed to be part of the normal activity of the early church, and reminds us that the solution to abuse is not disuse but proper use. He proposes two tests of prophecy: a test of content (is it doctrinally correct?) and purpose (is it given to edify?). In 5:23, whilst he acknowledges that Paul probably would have made some kind of distinction in meaning between soul and spirit, he is not thinking in terms of humans as a trichotomy here. With regards to the “holy kiss” of 5:26, Fee points out how it would have crossed social boundary lines of slave/free, rich/poor and Jew/Gentile (although he fails to mention male/female! – not sure what they did there).

2 Thessalonians

The introduction to 2 Thessalonians briefly sets forth 9 reasons for considering it to be authentically Pauline and dates it c. 50, shortly after the first letter. It is written in response to the news brought back from Timothy, that the “disruptive idle” were a bigger problem than first thought, that some were misrepresenting Paul’s eschatological views, and that the persecution had increased in severity.

In chapter 2, Fee is at pains to remind us that we do not have the “insider knowledge” that the Thessalonians and Paul shared, making it impossible for us to answer all the questions we may have without resorting to guesswork. Additionally, we need to recognise Paul’s purpose (to encourage believers facing persecution) in these eschatological passages is often far removed from our own (to gather information for our end-times theology). As such, he refrains from speculating on who the “Rebel” (man of lawlessness) is, and who or what is holding him back.

As with the commentary on first letter, Fee is eager to point out the high Christology and Trinitarian soteriology to be found in this early letter. The commentary also benefits from his extensive prior work on Pauline pneumatology, and his comments are incisive when it comes to the work of the Spirit. Having said that, I was hoping he would elucidate a bit more on how exactly the sanctifying work of the Spirit relates to our salvation in 2:13.

Another thread running through the commentary is Fee pointing out numerous places that are so authentically Pauline in theology, grammar, vocabulary and concerns that by the end he declares that the theory of 2 Thessalonians as a forgery no longer deserves any place in NT scholarship.


As with all Fee’s commentaries, this one is an excellent resource for any Bible teacher or student, and is easily equal to my previous favourite on Thessalonians (Green’s Pillar Commentary). Fee is thorough, without being long-winded. Despite it being a primarily exegetical commentary, he is not afraid to put a paragraph or two of application in at the end of each section, with suggestions of lessons the modern church needs to be aware of. Whenever he differs from the majority view in either translation or meaning, he always makes his case persuasively. The right amount of material is relegated to the footnotes, which mostly deal with further manuscript evidence or the views of other commentators, but occasionally provide some additional theological reflection.

Book Review – The New International Commentary on Acts (F F Bruce)

The book of Acts is something of a hermeneutical minefield, due to the many different ideas of how to apply the various practices and experiences of the early church and apostles. Bruce mainly avoids comment on these issues, preferring to simply help us get to the bottom of what the text is saying, and showing how the author achieves his purpose of demonstrating that Christianity was not an illegal or subversive religion. He provides excellent background information on the historical, geographical and political features that provide the setting for the book of Acts. It is also a useful source of information for correlating the biographical information in the epistles with Luke’s account.

Although Bruce is willing to discuss matters of theology, he nowhere attempts to develop a Lukan pneumatology or ecclesiology which is probably a good thing, given how controversial these would prove to be (and in any case it is doubtful that Luke expected his writing to be used in that way). His comments are also fairly terse in passages where a less technical commentary might offer some more devotional thoughts. For example, while Bruce provides background details on all the people and places named in Acts 20:4, he only comments briefly on Paul’s great statement in Acts 20:24. Having said that, where he does permit himself briefly to expound a text, his insights are often profound. I actually found the final section of the commentary to be the most enjoyable, as Bruce attacks some of the petty criticisms of Paul from other commentators who judge him for some of his statements during the trial narratives.

It is in fact often when he is engaging with other commentators that the best of Bruce comes out. He is never overt about his personal faith or direct with the moral or theological lessons he draws out, but as he takes down other arguments he leaves the reader to fill in the blanks. He states that Paul is Luke’s hero, and in places hints that the same could be said of himself.

The NICNT commentaries do a good job of keeping secondary issues out of the main text by making extensive use of footnotes and this volume is no exception. Bruce provides his own translation of Acts, and each section of text is followed with a brief introduction before the comments which are usually on one or two verses at a time. This format means that people studying individual sections can get a good sense of context. As with other NICNT commentaries, the introduction is comprehensive without being long-winded. Bruce tentatively accepts Luke as the author but does not presume to suggest his own date (other than saying it is a first century composition), preferring to summarise the options.

Those who need some quick points of application for sermons or Bible study groups may find that this commentary is too “academic” for their liking. However, for those wanting to wrestle with the text themselves, it gives the firm footing of properly understanding the historical context that is necessary before trying to extrapolate principles for today’s Christians.