Wednesday, February 09, 2011

A Wonderful Theological Commentary

The Pastoral Epistles with Philemon & Jude, By Risto Saarinen.  Brazos Press, 2008.  Pp. 272.  $29.99 cloth.

The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible is a grand experiment in theological hermeneutics. A series of commentaries written by theologians rather than biblical scholars, it “advances upon the assumption that the Nicene tradition, in all its diversity and controversy, provides the proper basis for the interpretation of the Bible as Christian Scripture” (11). All authors in the series assume, in one way or another, that doctrine is a clarifying agent that amplifies the living voice of Scripture. 

Risto Saarinen’s contribution is salutary. He makes two opening moves in his reading of these texts that, like the opening moves in a chess match, set the board for how his theological commentary will play out. The first move is a standard opening. He does not “set any hermeneutical method or agenda in advance, but simply expound[s] the text with the help of available means” (225). Saarinen terms this form of close reading “catch-as-catch-can.” Instead of reading the text while intentionally employing certain hermeneutical constructs, Saarinen takes a grammatical-linguistic approach. He identifies certain subject and predicate pairings, and elucidates them. This grammatical approach allows Saarinen to identify certain subjects (akin to doctrines) and the predicates that describe the subject. The predicate in each case has a mediating role, navigating as it does the distance between the subject under consideration and the conceptual world of the reader.

Saarinen’s commentary is peppered with illustrations of this approach. For example, in his commentary on 1 Timothy 1:8-11, Saarinen takes as the “subject” the uses of the law (usus legis). The “predicates” that mediate this doctrinal category or “subject” (what might also be called a loci or topoi) include the distinction between law and gospel, close readings of each individual sentence in the section under consideration, reading of the text in comparison with other uses of the law Romans and Galatians, as well as contextual issues that differentiate the community that is reading 1 Timothy from other communities reading Paul’s reflections on the uses of the law. All of these considerations lead Saarinen to argue that, in light of 1 Timothy 1:8-11, “the Lutheran distinction between law and gospel should not be interpreted in terms of radical separation” (38). Instead, 1 Timothy 1:8 and other texts make room for a positive understanding of “good law” and an understanding of the gospel that encompasses something like the notion of “healthy” or “sound” doctrine, that is, doctrine that issues in right, moral conduct rather than a set of verbal sentences per se.

Saarinen’s commentary is a lively interplay of theological reflection and biblical exegesis. He may be reading the Pastoral Epistles “catch-as-catch-can”—but he catches a lot, and he is clearly going somewhere as he moves along. Saarinen knows his end game strategy as well as his opening gambits.

The end game, in this case, involves a few theoretical novelties. These are summarized in three important appendixes, which readers would do well to read first before reading the commentary itself. Saarinen continually refers to these appendixes in the course of writing his commentary. Although the book is verse by verse commentary on 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Jude, and Philemon, Saarinen cannot but help discern certain leitmotifs that course throughout these epistles. 

Appendix A offers reflections on the “moderation of emotion.” This is, essentially, a middle way between excessive radicalism and lazy accomodation. We are called neither to eradicate emotions or to completely give in to them. In the appendix, Saarinen traces the development of the term metriopatheia in philosophical and Christian tradition, and suggests that the Pastoral Epistles encourage the use of right judgment in order to moderate the emotions. Self-control, which might also be termed “gentleness,” is, in the Pastoral Epistles, not the complete eradication of emotion (contrary to much of monastic and patristic tradition) but rather the moderation of emotion and the “proper display of positive emotions” (241).

Appendix B fascinates, for it examines the theme of “mental disorders.” Again, Saarinen traces the development of the concepts in philosophical tradition, this time in order to show that Paul is not simply being argumentative or polemical in these epistles. Instead, “he is presenting a portrayal of healthy and sick minds” (243). His presentation of this topic is compelling, especially because it encourages readers to think of mental disorders from a doctrinal, and not simply a psychological point of view. Given the close connection between extreme doctrines and mental disorder in the modern world, Saarinen’s reflections on the topic are worthy of sustained attention.

For those hoping to read more of Saarinen on giving and the gift, Appendix C does not disappoint. Saarinen reads these epistles in light of contemporary reflection (his and others) on theories of inalienable and alienable gifts, and the phenomenology of giving. The commentary may whet readers appetite for further reading in contemporary phenomenology and theology of the gift.

Finally, since many preachers and teachers are looking for exemplary expositions of “difficult” texts in Scriptures, it is worth noting that Saarinen offers one of the most exemplary readings of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 (How Men and Women Should Behave) this reviewer has ever read. 


  1. Daniel6:28 AM

    How does Saarinen treat the authorship question? The few commentaries I've looked at seem to feel the need to expound on it at length. Is Saarinen able to avoid that because he's a theologian and not a biblical scholar, or because of his "catch-as-catch-can" reading? Having taken a number of college courses that took it for granted that Paul did not write 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, and then read Luke Timothy Johnson's commentary on 1 Timothy (which is very strongly in favor of Pauline authorship), I'm curious (as much as I wish there were some way of just leaving the question behind and just reading the texts). Thanks!

    -Daniel (a Minnesota Lutheran currently teaching in Seoul)

  2. He does more of what you suggest, simply leaving the question behind and reading text, but he also tends to work under authorship of Paul categories. Thanks for the question, hope you can pick the volume up and read it. The whole series is spectacular.