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.

1 thought on “Book Review – The Letters to Timothy and Titus (Philip Towner)

  1. Pingback: Free Download – My Exposition of 1 & 2 Timothy & Titus | wordandspirit

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