Thursday, January 01, 2009

Modern Scholarship: Change for Change's sake?

I have a friend who is very knowledgeable about modern scholarship and has many, many commentaries. I dare say he is easily the most well-read man on commentaries that I have ever met. He often lets me borrow some to aid my small library and I greatly appreciate it. I have some of the old standards like Calvin and Kistemaker, so I always borrow the newer guys. I have noticed a few things while going through the Epistles of Peter, and I thought I would simply share my thoughts here.

What I have noticed is a trend in modern scholarship to move away from older readings, often time in my opinion with very little reason to do so, or at least shaky reasons. I wish I had written all the examples down from I Peter, but I didn’t. Needless to say the controversial passages such as I Peter 3:18-22 is one where you will not find many modern commentators defending the Augustinian view of that passage or even the Medieval Roman view about descending into hell. They have a new explanation. But I am not just talking about confusing and disputed passages, I am talking about passages where no real disagreement existed before.

Take II Peter 1:1 “To those who have received like precious faith with us . . .”

Now you look at Kistemaker and Calvin and even William Barclay the liberal they all agree that “faith” in this passage is the subjective personal faith, the trusting in the Lord Jesus for salvation. Of these only Kistemaker says that there are multiple possibilities in reading the word faith. He defends his choice of the subjective faith rather than objective faith (ie. a body of teaching) in one paragraph consisting of 10 lines where he defines both terms. He takes two sentences to explain why the context makes it subjective.

Now newer commentaries like Gene L. Green’s commentary published this year takes a subjective stance on faith. It is the same doctrinal teaching, not the same receiving and trusting of God. So does Peter Davids who is published in 2006. Both take the objective meaning of faith. Why this departure? Surprisingly little time is devoted to it. David’s mentions that some have read it a different way, but merely states that it fits the context better despite his admission that the more normal usage of the word is subjective.

Now I would not bother posting here if this did not continue. Take II Peter 1:5 “add to your faith, virtue . .” Here again the older commentators all take faith to be the subjective trusting and believing in Christ. But the newer guys all reject that reading. Here, however, both Davids and Green take faith to mean “faithfulness”. Their defense? It means this most often in non-biblical virtue lists. That seems more than a little flimsy to me.

So my question is about modern scholarship in general. Do modern scholars look to disagree with the past? I can see how no one would want to buy a commentary that said nothing new. Do modern scholars prefer newer readings because we believe that as moderns we have more insights? Am I alone in seeing trends like this? Could it be that I have just made a big deal about nothing? I would like to hear your thoughts.

Oh and for disclosure sake, J.N.D Kelly who is newer than Barclay and Calvin, but slightly older than Kistemaker and older than the other new guys splits the difference by taking an objective view of the first faith, but stays with the older crowd by taking a subjective view of the second faith.


Anonymous said...

Well, if you're looking for me to fight you on this one, sorry to disappoint! ;-)

I see the very same problem. It's what C.S. Lewis would call "chronological snobbery." The old is automatically worse than the new. Of course, being in America where everything is bran' new doesn't help, either. It feeds into a whole mindset of an attention span so short that most people couldn't even follow the argument of this paragraph without longing from their heart of hearts to be talking about a newer better subject. Are we still on this subject?

There are many exceptions to this, however. The exceptions usually come from traditions that value the church's history. For instance, in Romans commentaries, the very best interaction with older scholarship comes in the Roman Catholic commentary by Joseph Fitzmyer, who even interacts some with the post-Reformation tradition (!). In fact, he is one of the very few modern commentators even to list Olevianus's commentary on Romans in his bibliography.

This whole discussion underscores the crying importance of balance in one's commentary reading. One must read old and new.

Anonymous said...

Don't read commentaries, or if you do just take them with a pinch of salt. If you want to understand The Word of GOD then ask the Holy Spirit for the understanding and you will receive it

If you want to learn GODs Wisdom then ask GOD for meaning and not man.

Remember that the words are talking to you when you read your bible. You will find answers and meaning that no other will see

Lee said...

No, not trying to pick a fight. Not this time at any rate. I just wanted to make sure that I was not imagining all of these slight changes without good reason.

I agree with you that the Scripture is the most important and we should always read it praying to the Spirit to enlighten our minds and hearts. However, it is not bad to read commentaries. Many saints have gone before us and listening to those who have fought the good fight of faith prior to us is not a bad idea.