By Rob Price
In the proper liturgy for Ash Wednesday, the celebrant “invites the people to the observance of a holy Lent.” The final and perhaps culminating recommended practice of the season is “reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (1979 BCP, pp. 264-65). It seems especially incumbent on parish clergy to accept their own invitation in this regard, given their ordination vows to engage in a lifelong, disciplined study of Scripture. And for those who take it upon themselves to teach, it is even more important that they find others by whom they may be taught.
I began reading the Brazos Theological Commentary in late 2005 with its first volume, Jaroslav Pelikan’s commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. As a new rector — and fairly new priest — facing the daunting task of preparing a Sunday Bible study along with sermons every week, I came to rely on Pelikan’s erudition to provide me with the talking points for my 40-minute class. As so often happens, I found myself learning much more than I expected or could communicate, and I became hooked on the series. Now up to over a score of volumes and counting, I have read each one and been blessed by the labor. This is a brief introduction to the series for those who are looking for a new conversation partner in reflecting on the Holy Scriptures.
The series’ first gift is the invitation to read the Bible in the company of the witnesses assembled by its editors. All the authors are theologians who write from the perspective of a broad Nicene orthodoxy that is held not as a litmus test but as “a pervasive habit of thought, the animating culture of the church in its intellectual aspect,” something that is a commitment of the heart as well as a discipline of the mind (R.R. Reno, Series Preface). These are not philological commentaries with naturalistic assumptions. The series’ authors are scholars who lean into the life of the Church through a dogmatic exegesis that seeks to unite the arts of preaching, scriptural criticism, and theological reflection. Sustained, disciplined reading of the series over an open Bible is an outstanding way for a local pastor to overhear and engage with the participants in a great collective effort to renew the faithful interpretation of the Scriptures in and for the Church.
Within its shared commitment to winsome and well-preached Trinitarian Christianity, the commentary demonstrates that there is ample room for creativity and charism, as the editors have “deliberately chosen a wide range of theologians whose commitment to doctrine will allow readers to see real interpretive consequences.” Each commentary presents a voice that is as different from the others as the original sources upon which they reflect. There is no “Brazos hermeneutic” methodically applied to each and every book of the Bible. Rather, the series teaches the reader the habit of engaging each part of the scriptural witness afresh, in the often delightful company of an experienced teacher who, like the angelic guides of apocalyptic, helps one connect the biblical work with greater story the Church is telling the world.
Additionally, each volume is an opportunity for the reader to encounter the thinking of Christian scholars as they bring their spiritual and intellectual gifts to bear on a particular book of the Bible. In nearly every case, I have gained a new appreciation for both the scriptural passage and the expositor. Finally, the series amply demonstrates both that the rule of faith is the only way to gain the richest truths the Bible offers and that there is more than one way to be faithful to the Tradition. This should serve as an inspiration and encouragement to any parochial preacher and teacher.
In a multi-volume series with a wide diversity of authors, where does one start? All bear spiritual fruit and theological insight, but these would be my personal top five recommendations for the best place to begin a wider exploration of the Brazos Theological Commentary.
1. Acts by Jaroslav Pelikan. In a beautiful introduction to the project of theological commentaries, Pelikan uses individual verses or even phrases in the text as jumping-off points for learned and pithy discourses on a huge range of topics: from Mariology to theosis to godly good humor. Pelikan convinces the reader that along with the narrative of the protagonists, Acts offers insights into the narrative of doctrinal development under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I return to it frequently.
2. Matthew by Stanley Hauerwas. In sermonic essays on each chapter of the Gospel, Hauerwas brings his formidable theological perspective, wit, and turns of phrase to the Matthean narrative. The commentary is a brilliant demonstration of reading a scriptural text in the communion of saints past (with Yoder and Barth prominently featured) and present (with piercing warnings to Church and world alike). Every chapter — and nearly every page — contains inspiration and places of departure for my preaching.
3. Leviticus by Ephraim Radner. A stunning tour de force, Radner’s exegesis of the cruciform shape of Israel’s sacrificial worship, in which the clean dies for the unclean and the faithful are taught to offer and conform themselves completely to God’s response to human sin, still haunts me years after encountering it. My response to Leviticus has been transformed from one of strong disinterest to “My God, how beautiful.”
4. Ezekiel by Robert Jenson. With theological mic-drops like “sexual liberation and political tyranny are ontologically coupled,” Jenson reveals the Prophet Ezekiel as a witness to a God determined to give his people a future and willing to do the unthinkable in order to free them from whatever Babylon in which they find themselves — especially the exile formed by modernity. Incisive and challenging exegesis of some of the most difficult passages in all of Scripture (Ezek. 16, for example).
5. 1 & 2 Kings by Peter Leithart. This commentary gives the tragic narrative of Kings both theological depth (featuring explorations of Temple and Chalcedonian Christology, idolatry and Reformation, and prophetic faithfulness in remnant Israel and Church) and what Leithart calls a “theological historiography,” in which one is disciplined by a faith in God’s providence while accounting for his acts in history. Leithart causes seemingly lifeless parts of the text to shine with the grace of the covenant.
Honorable Mentions: Revelation by Joseph Mangina, which skillfully and richly describes the theological narrative revealed to John of Patmos; Song of Songs by Paul Griffiths, who engages with the long tradition of commentary on this book and beautifully captures the sheer passion of God for his people; Psalms 1-50 by Ellen Charry, who wrestles with each psalm as a separate testimony to the sufferings and graces of God’s people and sets a wonderful example for the preacher who would choose to preach on the psalm assigned in the lections.