Risto Saarinen Brazos Press 2008-10-01

Saarinen is professor of ecumenical theology at the University of Helsinki and an honorary professor at the University of Aarhus. He is also an ordained pastor of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church. As noted by the editorial review, “The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible enlists leading theologians to read and interpret scripture creedally for the twenty-first century, just as the church fathers, the Reformers, and other orthodox Christians did for their times and places.”

Brazos Press, according to the publisher, is “especially well-represented in the schools of thought labeled postliberalism and postconservative evangelicalism, the newly emerging movement of radical orthodoxy, and in many Roman Catholic circles” (brazospress.com). Thus the reader should not expect a traditional approach to difficult passages; decisions are left to the reader without a great deal of discussion or presentation of alternative explanations.

The Pastoral Epistles present difficult questions for modern interpreters, including such matters as their authorship, literary characteristics, and social orientations. Saarinen depends heavily on Jewish and Hellenistic culture. He summarizes topics of importance throughout these three letters under nine excursuses that deal with his perspective on Paul’s teaching on church leadership, women, church order, and the conduct of Christians in the world. Not an exegetical commentary, this volume often overlooks major passages of exegetical importance (Jude 6, for instance).

Saarinen’s introduction is quite brief, explaining his strategy as “avoiding two fallacies: (1) the fallacy of downgrading Greco-Roman topics and (2) the fallacy of preferring the extreme options” (p. 23). Concerning the first fallacy, he writes, “The perpetual problem in the theological evaluation of the Pastoral Epistles has been that they remain secondary to other Pauline writings . . . . Following this lead, my exposition often aims at finding the distinctive profile in verses that have been downgraded as mere Hellenisms” (pp. 23–24). Concerning the second fallacy he states, “The expositors have often considered the great problem of the Pastoral Epistles to consist in their lukewarm and compromising answers to the pressing issues at hand” (p. 24). There were few, if any, answers in the commentary that suggest the second fallacy is addressed successfully.

Two passages from 1 and 2 Timothy illustrate the author’s approach. First Timothy 2:11–15 deals with the issue of the woman being saved through childbearing. Saarinen says, “Without taking a strong stance . . . the following observation is noteworthy: If this doctrine is not coherent with other canonical writings—in addition to 1 Co. 11:5, Gal. 3:28 and Jesus’ treatment of women should be considered here—we have to make some hermeneutical decisions” (p. 56). He adds, “The obvious theological and hermeneutical problem is that the apostle’s misogynic attitude gradually becomes more dramatic . . . no woman can ‘teach or . . . have authority over a man’” (ibid.). Then he discusses 2:15 on child-bearing. He then offers six aspects “for the historical understanding of 2:15,” concluding that (1) “the passage is incompatible with the view of women given in the Gospels and in other Pauline writings . . . the passage misunderstands much of Genesis” (p. 58); (2) the expression “saved through childbearing” is a highly misleading characterization of Christian salvation” (ibid.); (3) “one may find some constructive insights if teknogonia is understood as comprehensive family life that also involves men who are active in bringing up children,” although he admits this is an allegorical reading (ibid.); and (4) “a literal reading of 2:11 is offensive . . . [and] a literal reading of 2:12–15 is offensive for probably 90% of the [modern] churches. . . .What was accommodation for Paul would be extremely countercultural in today’s Western societies” (ibid.). Yet he offers no real solution or explanation beyond these remarks.

In 2 Timothy 3:16, “all Scripture is inspired by God,” Saarinen states, “Today’s interpreters tend to prefer the meaning of ‘every scriptural text’ rather than ‘the whole scripture’ ” (p. 156). In his explanation, which is brief, it is unclear if Saarinen sees this passage as pertaining to the entire canon, or to select units (texts or individual books). “The Protestant view of sola scriptura can be seen as consonant with the authority structure that emerges from the Pastoral Epistles as canonical texts. This result does not deny that Catholic and Orthodox authority structures can probably be argued with a similar degree of plausibility” (p. 157–58). That is to say, inspiration may, according to Saarinen, include the “broader tradition of the church,” clearly a Roman Catholic concept (p. 157).

The commentary series states that it is “designed to serve the church—through aid in preaching, teaching, study groups, and so forth—and demonstrate the continuing intellectual and practical viability of theological interpretation of the Bible” (back cover). But Saarinen’s commentary falls short of this claim. It does not seem to be particularly useful for preaching, exposition, study groups, or exegetical work.

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