Book Write-Up: Reformation Commentary on Scripture (Hebrews, James)

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 faith.

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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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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