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Commentaries Catholic and Reformed

By Michael Allen
Brazos Press. pp. 208. $31.45

1 & 2 Thessalonians
By Douglas Farrow
Brazos Press. pp. 336. $35 

Review by Robert Price

The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible is an ecumenical effort to interpret the Scriptures from within the breadth, boundaries, and commitments provided by the Nicene Creed. Authors are encouraged to use the doctrinal tradition of the whole Church rather than the methods of modern biblical scholarship. Occasionally, contributors effectively synthesize the fullness of the Church’s reflection on a particular book of the Bible as they draw insights from across theological traditions. Robert Jenson’s commentary on Ezekiel, Jaroslav Pelikan’s on Acts, and Joseph Mangina’s on Revelation are particularly winsome examples. The series also accomplishes its ecumenical ambitions through publishing treatments of Scripture that are self-consciously written from within a particular stream of the Church’s witness. Michael Allen’s recent commentary on Ephesians, written from a Reformed perspective, and Douglas Farrow’s Roman Catholic take on the Thessalonian correspondence offer a brace of theological reflections on St. Paul from across the Reformation divide.

For Michael Allen, the Letter to the Ephesians is first and foremost a witness to the total sovereignty of God. He eschews the “New Perspective” on Paul and its emphasis on the Apostle’s multi-ethnic ecclesial vision as the primary content of “the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4) and “grace” as the God-given power to preach that inclusive good news to the Gentiles. Instead, throughout the commentary, Allen focuses on a Reformed metaphysics, which he argues draws us away from human inventions/idols (such as sociological perspectives on the text) and into Christ, who is all in all. The totus Christus is his repeated exegetical aspiration.

I found his apophatic description of particular offices of ministry and even the sacraments, themselves, as “empty” spaces within which God can do his own work (rather than modes of human endeavor) particularly powerful. Absolute commitment to God’s love and power as the first and last word of all Scripture shines throughout: “when speaking of polity, our first word must always be a particular word of confession: Jesus Christ is Lord of the church” (p. 96). Allen rejects a virtue ethic, arguing for Christ and his Body as the content and form of all ethics, and God’s prior and sustaining strength in us as our only strength (which certainly helps him finesse the (in)famous “submission” and “household” pericopes.) Allen parses every verse in depth, sometimes going word by word, celebrating grace as the eternal and omnipotent will of God in making us a people that glorify his Son as the Spirit shapes us into his beautiful image.

Douglas Farrow’s 1 & 2 Thessalonians is a tale of two commentaries. His exposition of Paul’s first letter is a meditation on the apostle’s encouragement to the ecclesia to be joyfully steadfast to one another and to the Lord Jesus while discerning the way of grace and peace amidst a hostile culture. Drawing comprehensively on patristic sources from Irenaeus to Chrysostom, as well as contemporary Christians as diverse as N. T. Wright and Joseph Ratzinger, he addresses the text thematically, paragraph by paragraph. The treatment of 1 Thess. 1-3 is devotional, in the deepest and most encouraging sense. Farrow’s articulation of Catholic teachings on human sexuality (provoked by 1 Thess. 4:1-8) is particularly trenchant, and I found his exposition of purgatory as an essential aspect of God’s graceful desire to make us capable of truly receiving and loving him to be irenic and enlightening.

However, Farrow’s tone changes dramatically at 2 Thess. 2:1-5ff, as the “man of lawlessness” gives rise to 70 pages (out of 300) of dark ruminations on that mysterious figure, the infidelities of the Church’s clergy, the utter corruption of our culture, and the just perdition of a good part of humanity. The commentary simply does not recover from a shockingly negative and disappointing ending to an exposition that begins in such a thoughtful, charitable, and catholic manner.

As a fan of the Brazos Theological Commentary’s project, I am glad to own these last two installments and I benefitted from engaging with Allen and Farrow over these Pauline epistles. However, I think the volumes that have been most successful have been those which have engaged the Tradition in the broadest and most charitable manner, and Allen’s monograph falls short on this point. If one is interested in a commentary on Ephesians that helps one understand it on its own theological terms, then Allen’s treatment does not merit purchase. It would be rewarding, though, for the student more interested in how Reformed theology can be bounced off any particular biblical text with some skill. Farrow’s engagement with 1 Thessalonians fulfills the hopes of the ecumenical reader, but the inordinate and off-key exposition of 2 Thessalonians renders unsatisfactory the volume, as a whole.


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