Book Review – Tyndale NT Commentary on Colossians & Philemon (N T Wright)

The Tyndale New Testament Commentary series is pitched at a level that falls somewhere in the middle between academic and devotional focuses. They are relatively small paperback volumes, but there is enough space for each verse to be covered with at least a couple of paragraphs. Despite its age, IVP are in the process republishing the entire series which is testament to how highly regarded they are.

This volume, covering Colossians and Philemon was written by the prolific author and historian, N T Wright in 1986. The thing that immediately stands out is his engaging writing style. There are few commentators who have such a way with words. Although the Tyndale Series is primarily intended to be exegetical rather than expositional, Wright has a knack of drawing out penetrating insights and points of application with a remarkable economy of words (e.g. on Col 3:20-21 "Children need discipline; so do parents.").

I read this commentary at the same time as working through Douglas Moo’s much larger and more technical commentary on Colossians and Philemon. Many of the points made are of course very similar, but Wright does bring a fresh perspective to most subjects he looks at, and this commentary is no exception.

He argues that the false teaching Paul opposes in Colosse was actually simply Judaism, which is a minority view amongst evangelical commentators. He does a good job of showing how this holds together, although I was not entirely convinced. He views the main emphasis of the letter as a call to maturity, and agrees with O’Brien that we can view Paul as the author.

Some of the concepts I found helpful in his commentary on Colossians were his emphasis on the "new Genesis", and "new Exodus" that Christ represents, as well as his explanation of the significance of baptism as a transition from old to new "solidarities". Wright spends considerable time analysing the poem of Col 1:15-20, which he views as presenting Christ as God’s Wisdom, his Torah.

On Col 3:6 Wright explains his conception of hell as a place where people become less and less human, until the image of God is obliterated in them, but rejects the suggestion that hell does not exist, or that it will be unpopulated.

His commentary on Philemon is equally strong. He draws out fellowship (koinonia) as the key theme of the letter. His best material is on the parallels between Paul’s work of reconciling Philemon and Onesimus, and Christ’s reconciling work in the gospel:

Here, at the climax of the letter, we witness nothing less than the radical application of the doctrine of justification to everyday living. No Christian has a right to refuse a welcome to one whom God has welcomed. Faith in Christ, the basis of justification, is the basis also of koinonia. … Onesimus’ debts are to be put in the ledger under Paul’s name: and there they will find that they are more than cancelled out. They disappear as totally as the sins placed to Christ’s account on the cross.

So I highly recommend this commentary to anyone wanting to study or preach from Colossians or Philemon. It is hard to imagine you could read it without benefit, even if you had access to some of the more in depth commentaries such as those by O’Brien or Moo.

Book Review – TNTC Romans (F F Bruce)

With so many highly acclaimed and in depth commentaries on Romans around, I was unsure what this particular volume might add to the discussion. The Tyndale Series is a relatively short paperback series, and sits midway between a scholarly and a devotional focus. The format of this volume is that the text of Romans is dealt with in blocks of around 12 verses at a time. Bruce first tries to summarise Paul’s flow of argument in his own words, and then deals with matters specific to individual verses, and although he touches on most verses, it is usually only one key phrase in each verse that he will discuss. The summaries are very helpful though, as they enable the reader to get a good grasp of the main message of the book.

In the introduction, Bruce warns against modernizing Paul, insisting rather that a man of Paul’s calibre must be allowed to speak for himself. He also discusses the evidence concerning whether chapters 15 and 16 formed part of the original letter. He sees no compelling reason to doubt that chapter 16 could have been written to the Roman church. There are some useful definitions of terms such as flesh, spirit and law. The introduction ends with a very brief paraphrase of the whole letter, which is a great way of explaining what the main themes and argument of the book are.

The brevity of the commentary means that some controversial issues are not discussed at all, while others (such as the “New Perspective”) are mentioned only in passing. He does however take the time to reject the idea that the wrath of God is merely “impersonal”. He shows how Paul is concerned to demonstrate that God can justify the ungodly whilke remaining righteous himself.

He views the “I” of Romans 7 as basically autobiographical, but through it Paul is speaking of universal human experience. It describes the conflict of living in the overlap of the old age and the age to come. It speaks of life under the law without the aid of the Spirit. It also paints a picture of fighting under our own resources – and fighting a losing battle. In these broad terms he manages to encompass pretty much every view of Rom 7 I have come across.

He suggests that to be “in Christ” essentially means to be in the church – the body of Christ, and to “put on Christ” is to emulate his character. He discusses the relationship between glory and suffering in a number of places. Suffering is viewed as the normal Christian experience, and glory is not the compensation, but the outcome of that suffering.

Chapter 9 is not a parenthesis but a theodicy, and it is here that he briefly mentions Sanders and covenantal nomism. Bruce prefers to think of Paul as opposing salvation by works, but adds that he would be equally opposed to seeking salvation by the ‘old’ covenant.

Chapters 12 onwards are introduced as the ethical outworking of the doctrine of earlier chapters, and Bruce points out the similarities with Jesus’ teaching. He speaks of Paul being so free that he was not “in bondage to his emancipation” (i.e. he was free to do the things he was free not to do).

This is not by any means an exhaustive commentary on Romans, but it is an instructive one, and will shed fresh light on different passages. It is probably still a bit heavy-going for the general reader who is not accustomed to using commentaries, but those who want to get a better grasp of Romans without having to read a massive volume may like to give this a try. I still prefer Stott’s commentary for readability and Moo’s for comprehensiveness, but am glad I took the time to read this one too.

Book Review – Acts (I Howard Marshall)

The Tyndale Commentary series is written to “help the non-technical reader understand his Bible better”. The introduction presents Acts as a “sacred history” – an account of the fulfilmnent of Scripture – and volume 2 in Luke’s story of Christian beginnings. Some emphases he notes include a concern with the opposition that surrounds the spread of the gospel, and Christianity as the true Judaism.

One of Marshall’s chief interests is to defend the historicity of the book of Acts against what he views as unjustified skepticism, particularly from Haenchen. Hardly an episode goes by where he doesn’t note the criticisms that have been levelled at it, and attempts to provide a response. He resists the temptation to provide overly neat solutions to all problems though, preferring often to simply demonstrate that the events as described are not as unlikely as some have found them.

Despite his concern with historicity, the commentary does not get bogged down in incidental historical and geographical details as some more technical commentaries on Acts can tend to do. Marshall is concerned also to comment on theological matters, but he sticks strictly to what is directly discussed, rather than considering some of the extrapolated doctrines and practises that Christians have found in the book.

Each section is given a brief overview where Marshall retells the story of what happens in his own words, and indicates any particular issues that will be dealt with in the commentary. Then it is examined verse by verse (or couple of verses) with each of these subsections occupying a paragraph or two. His writing style is good, and the issues he chooses to raise are generally ones that are of interest to evangelical readers, so he maintains the reader’s interest throughout.

One theological issue that will be of interest to many readers early on in the book is how he handles the issue of baptism in the Spirit. He unflinchingly sees the baptism as always taking place at conversion, and thus sees extraordinary circumstances where it happens otherwise (e.g. Samaritans in Acts 8 to show solidarity; Ephesians in Acts 15 are not Christians in the first place). He does not interact at all with the view that says these are distinct but normally coincident experiences.

He argues that Acts 11 (rather than 15) and Galatians 2 describe the same incident. As the focus of Acts shifts more to Paul, Marshall notes how Luke demonstrates parallels between the lives of Jesus and Paul, although he is quick to dismiss any claims that Luke fabricated incidents and details to create this similarity. The many speeches in Acts are not to be understood as quotes verbatim, but rather Luke’s faithful retelling of the essence of what was or would have been said in the situation. At the end of the book, Marshall lists all the options for why we are not told what happens next, but prefers not to make a judgement on which is to be preferred.

Despite being written back in 1980, this commentary is still one of the most frequently recommended commentaries on Acts, and deservedly so. Its straightforward approach will help anyone preparing Bible studies or sermons to get clear in their minds what was happening, as well as seeing Luke’s purposes behind the way the story is told. The purpose of the Tyndale series is not to focus on application, and Marshall does not do so. At 430 pages with very few footnotes, it is just about a manageable length to read cover to cover, but any longer would push it into the realm of a reference book. Those who are not interested in hearing Acts defended historically might save themselves some time by reading a commentary with a more devotional outlook, but this remains a valuable tool to all students of the Word who want to understand it better so that they may apply it better.