Thursday, May 05, 2016

1 & 2 Timothy and Titus (Thomas Long) -- Review

1 & 2 TIMOTHY ANDTITUS (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xv + 311 pages.

                The Pastoral Epistles are an often ignored set of New Testament texts. While traditionally linked to Paul (after all the letters purport to be from Paul), there are portions of these texts that cause headaches for many Christians. For instance, there are words here that suggest that women should not have authority over men. While there is good material here, we who preach rarely visit. But, as is often true there is good reason to visit these words and discover treasure that is often buried alongside those passages that cause us problems. What we need are accessible and thoughtful commentaries that guide us through the difficult passages and on to the fruit we seek. Such a person can be found in Thomas G. Long (Bandy Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Candler School of Theology, Emory University). Long is a well-regarded teacher of preachers and author of a number of commentaries on various books of the Bible. He is very well qualified to be our guide. Long desires to help us reclaim them for a new day.


                This particular commentary on the Pastoral Epistles is part of Westminster John Knox’s highly regarded Belief series. The series is designed to allow theologians to engage the text of Scripture. I’ve read several of these commentaries and have been highly impressed with them. In fact, I think this is one of the best series available today, and it is designed in such a way that preachers should find them invaluable. Long comes at this set of books from a slightly different position than is true for many of the other contributors. He is first of all a teacher of preaching, but not only that he is by training a New Testament scholar. That shows in the way he writes the commentary. It has a feel that is closer to a traditional commentary than is true of some others. That being said, this is an excellent commentary.

                Each of these books purports to come from hand of Paul. Both are addressed to young pastors in need of guidance. They have been looked upon as important guides to church life in ages past. We look to them for information about church order—finding here words about elders and deacons and orders of Widows. We find an author concerned about proper qualifications and also well-ordered church life. While Paul is the purported author, most critical scholars believe that these letters date to a time well after Paul was dead. While some might see these as forgeries, Long suggests that the original audience knew that Paul was dead and that these letters were not written by him, but are written in such a way as to suggest that this is the Paul might have addressed the issues at hand. In Long’s mind, the author, whom he regularly addresses as “the Pastor,” is the iconic Paul. Thus, the recipients of the letters—Timothy and Titus—are themselves iconic figures. They are stand-ins for those called to service in the church, especially challenging ministries.  

                The audiences addressed in the letters are two-fold. The letters addressed to Timothy speak to congregations facing a significant crisis. The community (Ephesus) is being torn apart by false teaching/false teachers. The Pastor is stepping in to give guidance to the one entrusted with guiding the church through this difficult time.  Thus, we have reason for words addressing leadership and ministerial qualifications. There is need for discernment so that the church can emerge whole. Part of this conversation has to do with the role of women in the church. The Pastor is extremely concerned about the Widows. He’s concerned that only the appropriate persons are enrolled in the Order of Widows. They need to be of a certain age and of a certain spiritual demeanor. Younger women should get married and have children. In other words, the Pastor is concerned about how the church is perceived on the outside. Widows need to be cared for, but there is a proper procedure that needs to be followed. These somewhat mundane questions are tied into theological issues. The pastor is concerned about false teachings that center on "myths and endless genealogies." There are folks engaged in teaching a speculative theology that leads to a dangerous "other-worldliness." These teachers seem to demonstrate gnostic tendencies as well as given to an asceticism that focuses on refraining from certain foods as well as marriage.  The concern of the false teachers is for a certain spiritual purity that is elitist in orientation. Besides that, they are setting aside the resurrection, while focusing on spiritual ecstasy in the present.  This concern is found in both letters.

                The question for us, according to Long, is how seriously we should take the Pastor’s concerns. Long is of the opinion that there is much to learn here. He writes that “conversations about the kind of spirituality advocated by the false teachers, a spiritual escapism that sets one free from the strictures of the body, including the institutional church, are commonplace today in a ‘spiritual but not religious’ culture” (p. 234). Similar theologies are prevalent in many Christian communities, and thus there is need to be discerning and the Pastor offers us some words of wisdom.  

                If the Pastor is focused on a crisis burning out of control in Ephesus, the letter to Titus is a more preventative word. Once again the Pastor offers guidance as to proper order in the church, but the situation is not yet out of hand. He’s been left on Crete by Paul (the Pastor) to lead that community. Long suggests that perhaps, and I like the suggestion, these are two pastoral care manuals. Titus offers preventative medicine, while the letters to Timothy speak of intensive care. The situation in Crete is challenging but the false teachers have yet to take control of things.

                Long wants us to engage with a Pastor concerned about everyday mundane things, about order and such, because important concerns emerge out of the mundane. While we may not embrace all the solutions offered by the Pastor, especially when it comes to the role of women in the church or slaves for that matter, there is a helpful word here that can guide us through difficult times. Long writes: "The Pastor is not some theological scold, slapping people on the wrist when they depart from orthodoxy. He is instead a pastor, a shepherd, who is alarmed when the sheep wander into places of danger. Airy spirituality, he knows, appears to be a lovely meadow, but it leads to a steep and perilous cliff" (pp. 281-282).  It would seem that such wisdom would be useful in our day as well.

                This commentary is well written, thoughtful, accessible, and thus it is a worthy addition to an excellent commentary series. It should benefit preachers and teachers in our work. At the same time, it can help us reexamine our own callings as pastors and teachers. Thus, I recommend it highly (as I have of other commentaries in the series).

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