Book Review: The Pastoral Epistles [ITC]

Reviewing commentaries is a tricky business – particularly for me as a generalist, and an in-publisher editor of commentaries! I tend to offer my review based on the format and content of the volume, and it’s utility or otherwise to preachers and pastors. Occasionally I’ll digress into particularly theological or stylistic quirks.

Bray Pastorals ITC Review

One of the stars in the constellation of the commentary world – at least in terms of depth and length – is T&T Clark’s ‘International Critical Commentary’, which has been being published for over a century, and is generally reckoned to be one of the most in-depth and detailed English language commentaries on Scripture. It’s a series I will dip into (I have a chunk of it on Logos, and a couple of physical volumes) if I want to dig deeply into the scholarly conversation on a text, or if I’m discussing with an author about the meaning of a text.

Recently, T&T Clark have started publishing their ‘International Theological Commentary – the Pastoral Epistles volume of which I offer a brief review of here. The ITC is a theological commentary in that (to paraphrase the series editors) it sees the theology of the church as a help rather than a hindrance to understanding the biblical text, as well as seeking to be ‘alert to tendencies toward atomism, historicism and scepticism’. So, it differs from the ICC in in scope, but also in tone – with Bray’s volume being particularly obviously Christian in interpretation, as well as arguably notably Reformed and Evangelical. The format of the series is relatively small – it’s not as tall as Eerdmans’ NICOT/NICNT/NIGTC hardbacks, for example – but just under 600 pages this is not a small commentary on the pastoral epistles (Which are quite small books of the Bible – though they generate chunky commentaries, like Marshall’s 870 page ICC!).

Structurally, 68 pages of general introduction give way to 240ish pages on 1 Timothy, 148 or so on 2 Timothy, and just over 100 on Titus. Indices of scripture references, ancient and medieval writings, names and places, and subjects complete the book. One aspect of the theological nature of the commentary comes out as Bray discusses the absence of the Holy Spirit from the greeting in 1 Timothy: “It may also be said that Paul was moved by the Holy Spirit to write to Timothy, but that the Spirit spoke as the messenger of the Father and the Son without drawing attention to himself. In reading the words of Paul, Timothy was haring the voice of the Spirit, pointing him to the command of God the Father and the Son” (p. 85). Theology proper is also brought to bear on topics of contention, for example what ‘righteousness’ is; “Righteousness cannot be reduced to mere innocence in criminal justice terms. It is a divine attribute that belongs exclusively to God and has been manifested in his Son, who makes it available to us by the power of his Holy Spirit” (p. 97).

The Pastoral Epistles are notable for both controversy over their content, and the way in which their content is controversial, particularly in relation to same-sex sexual activity and the role of women (two distinct issues, but both addressed here). Bray artfully focuses on what Paul is actually saying, beyond the ‘peaks’ of particularly controversial verses or words. For example, “Faith naturally precedes love, as it does also in 1 Cor. 14, because it is the context in which love is manifested. This does not mean that Christians are called to love only those who have faith, but that the love we show to others is rooted and grounded in the faith that we have in God and the assurance that we have recieved from him” (p. 118). Bray’s treatment of homosexual practice is clear, conservative, and quite brisk – it is not a major focus of the text here, but it is present (p. 106). Similarly, Bray’s reading of the 1 Tim 2:8-15 passage which is such a battleground for egalitarian/complimentarian discussion/debate is concerned more with what Paul was actually saying, in the context he was writing to, than without our later debates. The radical nature of women being in public and learning is well observed by Bray – “Learning was somethig that all Christians were called to do” (p.168) – as is the multifaceted complexity of ‘childbearing’, “Whatever Paul meant here, he cannot  have limited himself to the physical aspect ofthe matter alone” (p. 170). Ultimately, Bray offers a traditional complimentarian interpretation, in line with his interpretation of related passages, and one that is theologically robust. As a key part of that, Bray also demonstrates the radical nature of Paul’s view of women in his culture, and the challenge to our own today. Wherever you land on this question, I think Bray’s comment on this passage is worth reading and chewing over.

Zooming back out, a strength of this commentary is it’s theologial focus. God is not some distant concept or invoked name, for Paul or Bray, but rather an integral part and person in the life of the Christian. God is the active partner in the relationship, and this extends into the way in which we read and apply Scripture: “To know God is to possess the hermeneutical key to the interpretation of his word, and the right application of it naturally follows from that” (p. 495-6). Bray models this not least by his greater interest in historic Christian interpretation, than more contemporary academic literature, which has it’s value (And is engaged with!) but resonates less with his understanding of the text. Overall, I think Bray  has written a fine theological commentary on the pastorals. Well written – and very readable for the most part – it occasionally could have been more tightly edited. For my purposes, it deserves a spot on the shelf, and I will refer back to it not least for careful and sustained engagement with historic interpretation. Where I’m not in agreement with Bray, I’ll need to think harder – and I’ll certainly recommend this volume as an example of theological commentary, and a helpful commentary on the Pastoral Epistles. Whilst it’s price is large, if it can be borrowed or bought on offer, I’d encourage pastors and preachers to access it if possible.


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