Hebrews (Commentaries for Christian Formation) [a review]
When reviewing a commentary, I tend to be reviewing the series as much as a specific volume. Recently I received an advance copy of Amy Peeler's new work on Hebrews in the Commentaries for Christian Formation series, and I'll provide my reflections on first the aims of the series and then second on Peeler's work with Hebrews itself.
Commentaries for Christian Formation
I'll let the series introduction speak for itself about its aims:
Some series focus on exegesis, some on preaching, some on teaching, and some on application. This new series integrates all these aims, serving the church by showing how sound theological exegesis can underwrite preaching and teaching, which in turn forms believers in the faith. ...If a commentary cannot help Christians negotiate a faithful path through life and deepen their love for God and all their neighbors, it is not clear that it is truly a theological commentary.
This description of other commentaries is self-evidently true; a focus on exegesis or linguistics or preaching or teaching or theology or historical retrieval or application or whatever else is often the selling point of a given commentary. As a pastor, scholar, student, etc., you'll find yourself studying a passage or a book of the Bible and a question arises in your mind such as:
- I wonder how other NT authors use this word...?
- What is the train of thought here? Why is the author bringing up angels? What role do angels play in his theology as a whole?
- What is the main verb in this sentence in the original language?
- I understand what this passage meant and why the author included it, but could someone please help me see how it's at all relevant to today?
These kinds of questions fall into exegetical or theological or linguistic or applicational buckets, and it's helpful to pick up a book off the shelf that doesn't try to be everything but instead has a singular focus. It can save hours of hunting when you have a linguistic question to have a linguistic commentary. If you're preparing a sermon and you're banging your head against the wall trying to figure out why the passage would matter to your people, it's helpful to grab an application-oriented commentary.
When I was a young pastor needing to prepare a brief homily every week on a given passage, I loved the NIV Application Commentary because it basically did my homework for me and allowed me to skip over the hard textual work straight to the part my audience would perceive as the payoff. This isn't how the NIV Application Commentary was intended to be used, of course—I share the story to my own shame—but the format of that series made it quite easy to do. I view the Commentaries for Christian Formation as something of an evolution on the same idea: aimed at the need for formation, but in a way that seeks to be theologically integrative rather than clearly separating out exegesis from theology from application.
The proof is in the pudding, though, and I admit that I'm always a bit skeptical of a book that tries to be all things to all people in a reasonable page count. Adequately addressing the linguistic and exegetical and theological and applicational issues for every single verse in an entire book is a very tall order. Consequently, I'll now turn to Peeler's volume on Hebrews and evaluate how well it covers issues of exegesis, preaching, teaching, and application.
Though I've never done it, I imagine the Book of Hebrews would be tricky to preach through for a few reasons:
- It's a mystery who wrote the book, which has the knock-on effect of making it trickier to get a good idea of precisely what that author's intention was.
- It leans heavily on the Old Testament references, and I wouldn't count on a modern American audience getting those references. You'd somehow need to be able to explain all that OT background and what Hebrews then does with it all at once.
- If a church member does have familiarity with Hebrews, it's likely with the warning passages. As a result, you'd need a way to communicate that what the author is doing there is probably a little different than what the average Christian thinks is going on, but you'd need to communicate that in a way that doesn't completely remove the teeth from the warnings.
A Hebrews commentary aimed at formation, then, needs to be something that guides me through its use of the Old Testament, how that relates to its scheme of promise-fulfillment and its high christology, and how to make sense of the tone of warning in that context. It's a high bar!
For Peeler, a key theme of Hebrews is the notion of access to God. This access is the fulfillment of God's promises to his people, and is something that sits in a bit of a now/not yet tension—accessible now, but not fully. This access is for the community of God, and they persist in that faith together. The author of Hebrews is both teaching this didactically and affirming them in that they're already doing it. She sees the warning passages, then, as almost a portal into an alternate universe where the people have fallen apart and fallen away from Christ. This is not what these people have done, but it's a picture of what could be to a congregation that falls off course.
As Peeler progresses through the text, she takes it pericope by pericope, first offering her own translation and then a relatively brief explanation. She works both to explain how they fit into the overall flow of Hebrews as well as to address any incidental questions that may arise (e.g. when God swears, she examines the rightness or wrongness of swearing in both the Old and New Testaments).
She tries to maintain a relatively non-technical, accessible tone, keeping everything in English for the most part (and when she does need to share a Greek word, she uses only an English transliteration of the word). If you're a busy pastor and you've lost your Greek, or you're a layperson who never learned it, this commentary should not feel too intimidating. It mostly feels like the sort of conversation you'd get if you had the chance to sit down with a New Testament professor and ask questions about Hebrews.
At the top, this commentary promised to avoid being narrowly focused on exegesis, on theology, on preaching help, on application, etc., and instead to take an integrative approach. How well does this commentary execute on that vision? The results are mixed. Because the commentary takes a more conversational approach rather than a heavily structured approach, some sections are stronger in one area than others. At times, her treatment of a verse will major on what it implies for Christian formation today. At other times, her treatment instead majors on exegetical and theological matters to the exclusion of modern relevance.
To be honest, this is about what I expected—there are only so many words you can fit into a paragraph, after all—and it isn't even necessarily that big of a problem. It is worth being aware of this, though, so you can set your expectations well. You'll likely have questions that simply aren't addressed, and for best results you'll be reading this commentary in conversation with others. No surprise there, really—that's pretty standard practice for a pastor preparing a sermon. If you're a layperson, you've probably run into that feeling before when reading a study Bible. There's just no way to address every last detail that every last individual might be curious about, so read other commentaries too and keep digging!
Overall, I appreciate the commentary quite a bit. I think it will probably prove most helpful to preachers and teachers, though I could see a relatively fearless layperson picking it up for personal study and profiting from it. It provides helpful context on tricky texts while mostly sticking at a level that'll be helpful for preaching and application.
DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.