on 28 October 1998
This first book in a series of commentary on the scriptures is highly recommended. Many modern commentaries are concerned with historical background, sources, etc., which are useful in their way, but once you get past that and want to just dwell on what it means spiritually, this is a great way to do it. This book includes the text of the gospel of Mark in short sections, so you don't have to flip back and forth between the book and a copy of the Bible, but can just stay with one book. Underneath each section, the commentary proceeds verse by verse with selections from different early Christian writers. This structure makes the book easy to use in slow, meditative reading of both the Bible text and the commentary on it, so you can dwell on it a verse or two at a time, or you can go at a faster pace if you wish to. And while it's very good for devotional reading, it is not sugary or overly sentimental, as some modern devotional writing can be sometimes. It's just good, solid stuff from intellectual and spiritual giants who had pondered the meaning of the scriptures for a long time before they put their thoughts on paper. Some years ago, I had occasion to see a Jewish commentary on the first five books of the Bible that included sections of quotations from ancient Jewish rabbis commenting on the meaning of the passages. I remember thinking at the time that I wished Christians could have a commentary like that too, using ancient Christian writings. So it's wonderful to see this first volume and I'm looking forward to getting others in the series.
on 15 March 1999
The ACCS is a unique achievement in the world of biblical scholarship. In an age in which legitimate scholarly commentaries seem to be limited to the "current" and "relevant," the ACCS reaches back to the roots of not just biblical scholarship, but biblical piety, and it is there where it makes its mark. With the ACCS, we read of the role of scripture in the lives of faith of great men such as Augustine and Chrysostom, and we thus come to realize that any "scholarship" done on the bible in their day was done out of faith. Anyone current in modern biblical scholarship can see how this is a far cry from the detached scholarship coming out of so many seminaries and graduate schools today. As a catechetical tool for parish religious education programs, the ACCS comes highly recommended as a means by which the believer can come into contact with the Christian past. However, the merits of the ACCS stop here, in the face of more than a few criticisms and obstacles which it ignores.
First of all, the commentary on Mark, and I might suspect the whole series, over-simplifies the Christianity which it seeks to present, giving the impression that the "Patristic period" was a time of consensual thinking void of serious conflict. Often, certain passages of Mark will be commented upon by church fathers who did not even consider each other as "orthodox" (a loaded term in need of qualifying), or who were only considered by many to be orthodox in their own time, or only years after their deaths.
The less critical reader may come away with the idea that patristic theology was a school of thought not unlike reformed or existential theology, which we know is not the case. By offering examples from third century fathers like Origen (deemed a heretic after his death and hardly an example of "consensual thinking"), fifth century fathers like Augustine, and eighth century fathers like John of Damascus, there is a tendency toward anachronism in the ACCS, which can only paint an artificial picture of ancient Christianity, a picture which seeks to ignore (and I would wonder why) the diversity and conflict so common in the church during late antiquity. Also, given the method by which certain texts of the fathers were chosen (and not chosen) for the ACCS, I would wonder at the criteria: do we only hear from the texts of the fathers which agree with the agenda of the editors, or do we really get a full picture of the ancient church?
Second, I would question the editors' choice of sources, of examples which are supposed to serve as representative of patristic thought. Many of the sources cited were not even biblical commentaries, and thus any examples of what a church father said about a biblical passage runs the risk of being taken out of context in the ACCS. More often, the writings which the ACCS editors present as a father's comments on a biblical passage were from mere letters, or treatises on topics other than the particular biblical passage at hand. Usually, when a father did quote scripture in such non-biblically focused works (such as catechetical lectures, apologetics, etc.), his goal was to proof-text from scripture in order to make a point, his goal was certainly not scripture commentary. However, in presenting such passages out of context as if they were solely commentaries on scripture, the ACCS again paints an artificial picture of ancient Christianity. You would think that the doctoral students who worked on this project with Professor Oden would know better.
Finally, I would question which biblical manuscripts the fathers were commenting upon when they wrote the works which serve as the sources for the ACCS. As Professor Oden should know, there was no single Greek (or Latin, or Syriac, etc.) manuscript of the New Testament in the age of the fathers which could have served as the only basis for commenting upon scripture (consider here the codex vaticanus, sinaiticus, etc.). However, in presenting all the varied comments by the fathers on these passages of Mark, giving only the English RSV as a referent, the reader again gets the false impression of a mushy "consensuality" among those who only later came to be called fathers of the church, a "consensuality" which is supposed to span centuries as well as cultural/linguistic/geographic boundaries.
The questions the ACCS does not answer are how we are to reconcile the disparity among the manuscripts of the NT used by the fathers, and the basis upon which can we use a ready-made English translation whose underlying Greek text was quite unlike that used by the men whose comments are employed in the ACCS. These ultimately come down to a question of method. These questions are not answered because (conveniently perhaps?) they are not addressed, but shouldn't they be, in the spirit of scholarly inquiry? It is this lack of variant readings and clear articulation of method which, I feel, calls the "scholarly" legitimacy of this work into question.
In conclusion, I would have to add that it is the perspective of the reader which will determine the usefulness of the ACCS. If one's goal is merely to refer to what some of the fathers said about a passages of scripture, in order to find a link between the church's past and present, then the ACCS is a fine reference. However, if one's goal is to probe the methodology and presuppositions behind what has come to be known as patristic exegesis, the ACCS can only serve as a convenient starting point for one unfamiliar with other sources on the subject. Even in that case, the usefulness of the ACCS cannot be expected to last long for those with the deeper questions.
on 7 April 1999
Hmmmm.... J.I. Packer, Thomas Oden, and Timothy George giving "advance praise." My first question, after seeing that Intervarsity Press was the publisher of this series, was, "What are conservative evangelicals doing reading the Fathers?" After perusing the Mark commentary, I can see that they haven't, at least in any diverse way. The idea that the "Fathers" were a monolithic entity who were in agreement on "exegesis" runs throughout this book, as well as the Romans volume. Any trained exgete will know that this is madness--there has only been one period in the church when views and scholarship were more multifarious than the present age: the Patristic period!
The particular sort of scholarship as well as the conservative (read: unrepresentative of biblical scholarship as a whole) intent of the series is indicated in a cover blurb from Richard John Neuhaus (NOT a conservative evangelical). Can you detect the ideological underpinnings of the ACCS from this perjorative sentence?: "In the desert of biblical scholarship that tries to deconstruct or get behind the texts, the patristic commentators let the pure, clear waters of Christian faith flow from its scriptural source." Goodness, is that really what is going on in the ACCS? Which Fathers, may I ask--Origen? Universally ignored or maligned in conservative seminaries (the largest of which in the world I am a product), Origen is one of the few really interesting voices in the ACCS, but only his least "dangerous" commentary is allowed in the series, it seems. Same for the Cappadocians, and many others. In any event, it is no "commentary" at all--which manuscripts were being commented on? Were these all from exegetical works, or were the exerpts from the Fathers taken from letters, sermons (polemics) and such? Why these comments, and not others? Is this ALL the Fathers had to say on the issues? Certainly, only a selection could be presented, but again, why these comments arranged in this way? A possible answer: these support the readings of the biblical texts the editors wanted to promulgate.
Sadly, these questions go unanswered, I am afraid. None of the diversity and dissent of the first centuries of the faith shine through in this volume, and that is what is needed in any deeper reading of the Fathers. Early Christian writings can indeed shake up our complacent scholarship and our spiritually devoid lives, but not if they are packaged in such a mundane way. Ideologically-driven scholarship is immediately suspect. I predict that this laborious project will gather dust on the library shelves of mainstream centers of scholarship and seminaries, if they bother to spend budgeted money on it at all after the IPOs hit the bookstores of the world, blaze for a while (nice, slick covers on these volumes), and fade away.
In all, avoid the steep price for these books, unless you want high-dollar Sunday School literature. And it's too bad, too--this is a great idea for a commentary set. Maybe Doubleday ought to take over the idea from IVP; they gave us the Anchor Bible series and dictionaries. Now THAT would be something to be reckoned with.