Commentary Watch: Hauerwas' Matthew & Hughes' Philippians ~ BitterSweetLife

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Commentary Watch: Hauerwas' Matthew & Hughes' Philippians

Some books take weeks, if not months, to digest, and biblical commentaries fall in that category. Typically, you'd consider commentaries as reference works, cousins to encyclopedias, as opposed to literature. And I'm not exactly eager to review encyclopedias. Fortunately, there are commentaries and there are commentaries. Two in particular have impressed me over the last several weeks: Stanley Hauerwas' Matthew and Kent Hughes' Philippians.

I've got only a year in Greek and Hebrew each, so I'm far from a biblical languages expert, and when I read commentaries, I assess them on a literary level, not a technical one. For better or worse, you won't find me double-checking the cases of Greek verbs to see if the author's discussion was adequate. Don't get me wrong--I'm grateful for scholars who can perform more technical evaluations, but I am not that guy.

Here are some questions I ask when I read a new commentary, followed by some specific notes about Matthew and Philippians.

  1. Does it focus on explaining scripture as scripture?--that is, evaluating passages in a linguistic, literary, historical, cultural, applied way--rather than trying to revise texts or speculate on a "higher" critical level?
  2. Does the author take advantage of additional perspectives? Does he bolster his writing with other authoritative voices (like D.A. Carson, a top NT scholar) or illustrative material (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Wendell Berry, T.S. Eliot)? Does he quote relevant sources?
  3. Finally, can the commentary be read devotionally? Does it inspire biblical worship as well as guide scriptural understanding?
That's where I'm coming from. And both Hauerwas and Hughes fit the bill here, rising to meet my admittedly "popular"-level qualifications. Both do an excellent job keeping first things first, explaining biblical meanings with clarity. Some authors end up stuffily obfuscating the heart of passages with overly technical analysis and terminology--not these men.

Kent Hughes' (Preaching the Word series) takes an expositional approach to Philippians, in that his commentary is essentially a series of thoroughly-developed sermons on the book. He writes pastorally, with a passion for illustration and application honed by his decades of preaching ministry. In particular, I appreciated Hughes' ability to interweave conversational dialog with scholarly explanation. He masterfully unpacks Paul's intentions in Philippians, then teases out the implications for spiritual living. Hughes is a preacher's preacher, and it shows.

Stanley Hauerwas (Brazos Theological Commentary series) looks at Matthew through a deliberately theological lens, drawing from the likes of Augustine and Luther, as well as more recent voices like Bonhoeffer and Barth. His insight into the life of Jesus, and the kingdom message that often lies just below the surface of Matthew's messianic account, is consistently penetrating. As well, Hauerwas is simply a good writer, and his commentary fluidly pulls you in. I found myself finishing chapters without realizing how much I'd read.

Based on my criteria, I recommend Kent Hughes' Philippians and Stanley Hauerwas' Matthew highly. They would be valuable for preachers, but their readability makes them accessible for anyone wanting to dig into the Bible on a deeper level. In the "popular" sense--think good, C.S. Lewisian popularizing--Matthew is especially gripping, and I'm looking forward to reading additional books in the Brazos series.

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Will Robison said...

But that's exactly what we'd expect you to say since you'd never gone to Cornell. ;)


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