Exceptional Work of Scholarship on Beatitudes

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Beloved Amodeo | Forum Activity | Posted: Thu, Nov 18 2021 3:26 PM

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Read the foreword.

FOREWORD

Older Catholic commentaries on the Gospels are often deposits of tradition. Aquinas’s Catena Aurea is exclusively a catena of excerpts from earlier commentators and theological authorities. Cornelius à Lapide’s endlessly fascinating work, known in English as The Great Commentary, is almost as much a discussion of previous writers as it is a discussion of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Juan Maldonado’s Commentarii in quatuor Evangelistas is much the same: rare is the page that does not engage with Tertullian, Hilary, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, or some other church father.

The Protestant Reformers and their immediate descendants, when writing commentaries, engaged in a different pursuit. Given their severe criticism of Catholic tradition and their belief in Sola Scriptura, their exegetical works do not pay obeisance to those who came before them.

Indeed, in many respects their commentaries are attempts to overcome the predominant history of interpretation, such as the once-common use of Matthew 5:26 (“you will never get out until you have paid the last penny”) as a prooftext for purgatory, or the use of 16:18 (“you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”) to establish papal primacy. The early Protestants are not beholden to the authoritative past.

Calvin is here typical. He does, in his commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, occasionally refer to “interpreters” or “some” or “others.” Their names, however, are unimportant, and they do not steer his judgments. Calvin’s goal is to understand what he thinks of as the plain sense of the text, and earlier interpreters are, for this task, not so important.

This sidelining of predecessors recurs in many later Protestant commentaries. Matthew Poole’s Annotations upon the Holy Bible and Johann Albrecht Bengel’s Gnomon novi testamenti are famous examples. So too Matthew Henry’s very different Nonconformist work. Yet it was inevitable that Protestants would eventually produce their own exegetical tradition. Thus their nineteenth-century commentaries are full of references to G. B. Winer, F. Schleiermacher, W. M. L. De Wette, D. F. Strauss, H. A. W. Meyer, and A. Tholuck, just as their twentieth- and twenty-first-century commentaries regularly cite J. Wellhausen, J. Weiss, W. Wrede, R. Bultmann, M. Dibelius, E. Lohmeyer, C. H. Dodd, and J. Jeremias. None of these names, however, takes one very far into the exegetical past.

The Protestant rejection of Catholic tradition was only one reason so many exegetes came to pay scant heed to premodern interpretive traditions. Also crucial, beginning in the eighteenth century, was the advent of historical-critical methods. Those methods led to new questions that seemed to make the old interpreters, for so many purposes, obsolete. What did they know? It is not that commentaries from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries altogether forget Origen, Aquinas, and others who wrote before J. S. Semler and J. D. Michaelis. Yet commentators outside the historical-critical stream typically remain of marginal import. The implicit demotion is reflected in the indices to some commentaries, indices that include “Modern Authors” but not “Ancient Authors,” or “Modern Literature” but not “Ancient Literature.”

The same self-centered constriction was part of my training in biblical studies in graduate school. The history of interpretation played next to no role in my classes. The dominant assumption was that the great bulk of interpretive wisdom lay in my own century. I was not asked to make the acquaintance of any commentator or New Testament critic before David Friedrich Strauss. My education trained me to investigate the New Testament and what lay behind it, not to investigate what came later, at least until modern times. I do recall a professor once telling me that Origen was “important.” He failed, however, to elaborate, and he certainly did not ask me to read him.

Happily, things have changed since I left graduate school. Wirkungsgeschichte (history of influence or effective history) and Rezeptionsgeschichte (reception history) have become familiar enterprises within the guild. It is true that some contemporary commentators betray no acquaintance with anything written before 1900 or thereabouts. But their day, all signs indicate, is passing.

Why things have changed I am unsure. Part of the reason likely lies in the anxiety that traditional historical criticism may be nearing its useful end. Many or even most of our debates are, if one knows the history of the discipline, reruns of earlier debates, and the returns seem ever smaller (as regrettably do the subjects in many dissertations). So the desire to defeat boredom plays a role here. So too does the postmodern proclivity to be self-conscious, self-critical, self-reflexive, to become cognizant of our own social location and biases and recognize how both affect what we do. To discover what interpreters in other times, places, and contexts did with the biblical texts cannot but help us to gain perspective on the presuppositions and activities of our own time, place, and context.

Yet another factor that has led to the history of interpretation receiving renewed attention is a desire to erase the heavy line often drawn between what a text meant when it first appeared and what it might mean for people today. The library shelves are full of commentators from the last two hundred years who are shy of making any theological, spiritual, or pastoral points. The history of interpretation is a way of reintroducing questions about theology and application, because application and theology were, before the advent of modern historical criticism, the heart and soul of all commentaries.

This, then, is the larger setting for Rebekah Eklund’s The Beatitudes through the Ages. It is a delightful and learned exposition of the Wirkungsgeschichte and Rezeptionsgeschichte of the Beatitudes. Before reading it, I vainly fancied that I knew something about the history of the interpretation of Matthew 5:3–12. This volume has humbled me, leaving me cognizant of how little I really know. I did not, before reading Professor Eklund, know that some octagonal baptisteries are inscribed with the Beatitudes because many, including Gregory of Nyssa, have counted eight beatitudes. I did not know of the long exegetical tradition of linking the Beatitudes with the traditional seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. I did not know that the idea of “meekness” as a weakness or deficiency first became prevalent in the eighteenth century. I did not know about that artistic tradition that displays the Beatitudes in the shape of a cross. I did not know that a significant number of premodern exegetes understood “inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5) to refer to receiving resurrected bodies. It would be an affront to say that Eklund has done her homework. She has rather become our teacher.

If Professor Eklund’s remarkably wide-ranging work is valuable because it has much to teach even the most learned, it has additional virtues. One is that it helps us to overcome the ever-present conceit that the new—which conveniently includes the work we just happen to be doing in the present—is always better so that the old is obsolete. But interpretation of the biblical text is not like computer technology. The new is not always the best, and it should not lead us to neglect the old. If they do not already know this, readers of this book will soon be convinced.

I am delighted that Professor Eklund draws no line between the exegetical past and the exegetical present. All voices—which includes not only commentators, theologians, and historians but also preachers and devotional writers—from manifold times and places, and from all Christian groups, mainstream and nonmainstream, speak at once. Although unusual, this strategy is an improvement upon the commentaries that, while they highlight the history of interpretation, still leave the impression that it is a sort of entertaining add-on, something exegesis proper can ignore without loss. The history of interpretation, however, is vital. In the right hands, such as those of Professor Eklund, it unfolds the logical alternatives in a text. It reveals that, while the options for application are infinite, there is a finite number of plausible exegetical moves.

Consider, as illustration, the meaning of “the poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3). What do these words mean? The beatitude does not interpret itself, nor has the evangelist Matthew courteously added annotations. So all we are left with is the words—and the history of their interpretation. The latter, if expounded thoroughly, reveals the decisions we inevitably face. Drawing upon Eklund’s discussion, here they are:

(1) “The poor in spirit” refers to

(a) the humble or pious; or

(b) those detached from wealth; or

(c) those who are oppressed or dispossessed.

(2) If it refers to (c), the oppressed or dispossessed, this can mean

(d) the despondent or miserable in general; or

(e) those living in poverty.

(3) If it means (e), those living in poverty, then it can refer to

(f) all those living in poverty or

(g) the righteous who are living in poverty.

(4) If it refers to (g), the righteous who are living in poverty, then it can designate

(h) those in voluntary poverty; or

(i) those in involuntary poverty.

This sort of outline is implicit throughout Eklund’s work, and for this serious exegetes are in her debt.

A further asset is that while Eklund faithfully notes the reasons typically given for this or that interpretation, it is not her primary goal to adjudicate between alternatives. She nowhere, to be sure, discourages others from making the attempt; that is, she does not deny that we can often muster evidence for thinking that the evangelist or a first-century audience more likely than not thought along one line rather than another. But she clearly appreciates how hard it is to make definite decisions, in large part because she knows the extent to which the Beatitudes are indeterminate, open-ended. Matthew’s Gospel nowhere clarifies the meaning of “inherit the earth” (5:5) or “see God” (5:8). The text, then, inevitably requires one to fill in the blanks, and this in turn allows for multiple possibilities. Professor Eklund reminds me of the old Baptist commentator John Gill, who could regularly list multiple interpretive options and then refuse to decide among them, because he found some truth in all of them.

Beyond being a boon for exegesis, this book is a treasure of sermonic possibilities. It holds much that is not on the pages of the commentaries that typically line the shelves of pastors’ offices. So if one is looking for fresh thoughts for preaching, they are here in abundance. Furthermore, interpretation and application are, for Eklund, not separate things. Here she stands in line with the misnamed precritical exegetes. The latter were consistently interested in how one might enter into the Beatitudes and bring them to life. Like them, Eklund is not a disinterested observer.

At one point in her introduction, Professor Eklund writes: “For me, past interpreters have been great company—enlivening, passionate, and sometimes completely surprising. They’ve challenged me to examine my own assumptions and biases, to consider and reconsider how I relate to the Beatitudes and indeed to God, to see things I would never have otherwise noticed.” After finishing The Beatitudes through the Ages, readers will be able to say much the same thing about their experience with it.

Dale C. Allison Jr.

 Allison, D. C., Jr. (2021). Foreword. In The Beatitudes through the Ages (pp. xi–xv). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Meanwhile, Jesus kept on growing wiser and more mature, and in favor with God and his fellow man.

International Standard Version. (2011). (Lk 2:52). Yorba Linda, CA: ISV Foundation.

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MJ. Smith | Forum Activity | Replied: Thu, Nov 18 2021 4:46 PM

Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: "To be a theologian means to have experience of a personal encounter with God through prayer and worship."

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