I have just finished reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s Acts . The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Brazos Press, 2006 ) . 320 pp. $29.99. Let it be said at the outset: the world is not exactly groaning for another multi-volume commentary on the Bible. Library shelves in divinity schools already sag under the weight of these footnote-laden tomes (most commentary-sets are larger than encyclopedias). But Brazos Press is, well, brazen. Nearly all the most famous commentaries (Anchor, Interpreter’s, Hermeneia) hew closely to the historical-critical method. What the new Brazos series is attempting to do is to bring out a specifically theological commentary on the Bible. As R. R. Reno says in his preface to the entire set, "This series of biblical commentaries was born out of the conviction that dogma clarifies rather than obscures." From its very outset (and whatever its other many virtues), the historical-critical method has explicitly regarded dogma, in Reno’s trenchant words, as a "moldering scrim of antique prejudice." This series, however, insists that dogma, rightly understood, calls for the discipline of conversion if we are to read the Scriptures as the living word of God.

This remarkable project is especially lucky in its inaugural volume on Acts of the Apostles by the noted historian of dogma, Jaroslav Pelikan. If the rest of the commentators live up to the high standard set by Pelikan (several of whom will be familiar to readers of First Things : Robert Jenson, David Hart, Timothy George, Paul Griffiths, and Geoffrey Wainwright), the series could end up marking a turning point in the history of biblical hermeneutics. Pelikan’s must surely be the first commentary on Acts that gives equal weight to the eighth-century Venerable Bede as to the early-twentieth-century Adolf von Harnack¯or, for that matter, to librettist/composer team Gilbert and Sullivan, whose light opera The Mikado is cited to great effect. For the Japanese emperor knows just what to do to court gossips:

    All prosy, dull, society sinners,
    Who chatter and bleat and bore,
    Are sent to hear sermons
    From mystical Germans
    Who preach from ten till four.

If those lines remind readers of the competing commentaries by the historical critics, that is probably not accidental; but even more delightfully, The Mikado is quoted in a section devoted to Luke’s sense of humor¯which is, I think it needless to say, not exactly a dimension of the Bible much stressed in the standard technical commentaries.

One finishes this marvelously lucid book not only excited at the prospect of future volumes, but also wondering if this series will be revolutionary in another sense: Could this be a set of commentaries on the Bible that people will actually read?

Edward T. Oakes, S.J. teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, seminary for the archdiocese of Chicago .

Click here to read David Lotz’s First Things article, "The Achievement of Jaroslav Pelikan," summarizing Pelikan’s five-volume history of the Christian Tradition.


In addition to which :

The firing of an accomplished and popular faculty member at Wheaton College because he became Catholic has prompted deep and troubling thoughts among evangelicals about Christian higher education. In the April issue of F IRST T HINGS , Wheaton’s Alan Jacobs tackles these issues in “To Be a Christian College.” At this point in the divided history of Christianity, does fidelity to the Protestant tradition and to the specifically evangelical understanding of that tradition require maintaining a wall of separation from Catholics and Catholicism? Jacobs understands why many evangelicals answer that question in the affirmative, even as he proposes a way for schools such as Wheaton to reconsider what it means to be in the Reformation tradition. Isn’t it time for you to become a subscriber to F IRST T HINGS ?


Some of you have been very patient in waiting. There was confusion about the publication date of Father Neuhaus’ new book. Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School says of Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth :

"The author of The Catholic Moment has done it again. From its opening meditation on the death of the Pope that Neuhaus was one of the first to call ‘the Great,’ to the closing notes on the conclave that elected Benedict XVI, this beguiling book brings the reader into conversation on the current state of the Church with one of the great Catholic thinkers of our time. No one is better than Father Neuhaus at reminding us why, even in times of confusion and controversy, it’s a joy to be Catholic!"

The book can be ordered from Amazon here .

Articles by Edward T. Oakes

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