Ronald K. Rittgers, ed. Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Hebrews, James. IVP Academic, 2017. See here to purchase the book.
The Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Hebrews, James
presents the thoughts of Western Christian thinkers during the
fifteenth-seventeenth centuries on the epistles of Hebrews and James.
The book includes the classic Protestant Reformers, such as Luther,
Calvin, Zwingli, and Melanchthon. But it also quotes other Reformation
voices, as well, such as Anabaptists and Anglicans. And it also
includes Catholic voices, such as that of Cardinal Cejetan, who
questioned Martin Luther at the Diet of Augsburg.
Like other books in the series, along with the series on the church
fathers, this book proceeds through the biblical books. It quotes a
passage, summarizes the gist of what the featured thinkers said, then
presents their thoughts. At the end of the book is a timeline and a
glossary of Christian thinkers (and also some Jewish thinkers) quoted or
mentioned in the book.
Here are some observations and thoughts:
A. The book was repetitive and predictable, in areas. Many of the
Christian thinkers back then used the same arguments that Christian
thinkers now use: to argue that Paul and James do not contradict each
other on justification, or to claim that the Hebrews passages that seem
to imply that one can lose salvation over a willful sin (or lose one’s
salvation, period) do not really mean that. A point that recurred in
the comments on Hebrews 6:6 (which discusses people who crucify Jesus
afresh) is that the Catholic mass is wrong because it claims to
sacrifice Christ over and over again, which is contrary to Hebrews 6:6.
That said, some of these discussions were effective because they
looked closely at the biblical texts. Some Reformers argued that
Hebrews does not mean that committing a sin can forfeit a person’s
salvation, for there are passages in Hebrews about Christ’s mercy
towards people in their weakness. Some Reformers pointed to examples in
the Epistle of James that highlighted God’s agency in choosing and
regenerating people, which is contrary to salvation by works.
B. One point that recurred in the comments on Hebrews 6:6 and 10:26
is that Christians do not have to be rebaptized, since rebaptism assumes
that Christ can be put to death all over again. This point was
somewhat unclear to me, as it did not exactly address the theme of
apostasy in those biblical passages. A footnote explaining their
position further would have been helpful.
C. The book was edifying, even if it was repetitious, as the
thinkers in the book highlighted God’s love. Some comments on James
seemed rather perfectionistic, in that they criticized having bad
feelings (i.e., grumbling against believers, bitterness), but they may
be reflecting the view of James, in those respects.
D. An issue that was discussed among these Christian thinkers was
the authorship of Hebrews and James. On Hebrews, some defended Pauline
authorship, whereas some denied it, arguing that Hebrews 2:3 indicates
that the author of Hebrews was one who heard from the apostles, not an
apostle himself. On James, some held that the author was James the
brother of Jesus, and some denied that altogether. One view was that
the author was a pupil of Paul (based on the view that James 4:5
reflects Galatians 5:17, on the spirit lusting against the flesh), or
one who compiled various Christian and Jewish writings together into an
epistle. Those who denied the apostolic authorship of Hebrews and James
tended to be critical of those epistles, even if they found them
edifying, in certain respects.
E. Those who were critical of Hebrews and James were sensitive to
nuances in those books and how they may contrast with themes in other
New Testament books; they acknowledged some diversity among New
Testament writings, in short. Some of the critics tended to prioritize
Paul and the Gospel of John as the authoritative accounts about the
Gospel of salvation, making me wonder what exactly they did with the
synoptic Gospels. I highly doubt that they rejected them, but they
seemed to marginalize them, a bit.
F. The book featured debates among Reformers, about such issues as
whether Paul contradicts Hebrews and James, and the question of whether
Christ is actually present in the sacrament of the Eucharist, or cannot
be present in it because he is in heaven.
G. The book presented occasions in which thinkers either
contradicted themselves or were ambivalent. Luther questioned apostolic
authorship of Hebrews, yet in some places he asserted it. On James,
Luther questioned that James the brother of Jesus wrote it, yet he also
stated that it does not matter, since even that James is not
authoritative if he contradicts the Gospel. Luther expressed some
ambivalence in his interpretation of James 5:14-16, which discusses the
church elders anointing a sick person for healing. Luther, like others,
maintained that such a practice was no longer present in the Christian
church, for God does not heal like that anymore; there is a place for a
Christian bearing with sickness, Luther said. On the other hand, Luther
stated that perhaps God would heal like that again, if people had
H. The book raised historical-sociological considerations that can
account for the thinkers’ struggle with certain passages in James. For
example, James is critical of the rich and the church showing favoritism
to the rich at the expense of the poor. Some Reformers tried to defend
James’ position, while still maintaining the importance of the lower
classes respecting the upper classes, since doing otherwise would lead
to social chaos.
I. The glossary of names in the back was quite a read in itself. It
featured women Reformers who championed a greater role for women in
society and the church, as well as exegetes who were considered
Judaizers because they preferred a literal reading of the Hebrew Bible
to Christian allegorical or Christological interpretations.
J. The Hebrews section had a lot of Johanne Oecolampadius, just to let you know. He was not too edgy, but he was thoughtful.
K. One of my favorite thinkers in the book was William Jones, who
was an Anglican preacher. Jones had a concise way of articulating
issues. And, although I was leery of Jones’ attitude about preachers
being authoritative in their sermons, those thoughts were profound in
that they highlighted the transformative power of sermons, and how one
can be receptive in listening to them.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.
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