By Kimlyn J. Bender
Brazos Press, pp. 298, $35
Review by Eugene R. Schlesinger
When the first volume of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible appeared 15 years ago, the series promised to fill a much-needed lacuna in theological engagement with the Scriptures. In the intervening years, the landscape has changed considerably, no doubt due, at least in part, to these volumes, whose authors are self-consciously committed to interpreting the Bible through the lens of Nicene orthodoxy.
What was once something of a bold gambit in a field dominated by historical-critical methodologies is now, if not commonplace, at least a well-established mode of scholarly engagement with the sacred text. One never quite knows what to expect when picking up a volume in the series, because each author brings certain proclivities and outlooks to the task, with the result that the series is, at times, uneven. But one can also count on the results never being boring. The vibrancy of orthodoxy is on full display throughout this expanding collection. Kimlyn Bender’s recent commentary on the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians is no exception.
Bender, an expert in the theology of Karl Barth and professor at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University, is particularly well-suited to provide a theological commentary on this letter. His apprenticeship to one of the most rigorously christological thinkers of the 20th century leads him to follow St. Paul’s determination to know nothing except Christ and him crucified with striking consistency. As a result, the commentary admirably keeps the main thing the main thing.
Throughout Bender’s treatment of the epistle, with its forays into ecclesiology, theological epistemology, ethics (personal, social, sexual), sacramental and liturgical practice, eschatology, and more, the overarching apostolic mandate to proclaim the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ rings clearly. To call it a Leitmotif would be to understate its prominence. It is more akin to a canon or a fugue.
In this regard, Bender’s commentary encapsulates at once the promise and the liabilities of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible as a whole. On the one hand, should a reader wish to find insight into how to interpret particular controverted passages in the letter, she would do well to turn elsewhere. The series does not intend to provide such a resource, and this contribution is no exception. (Somewhat curiously, Bender does delve into significant textual detail in his treatment of the classic 13th chapter on love.) And yet his consistent Christocentrism provides a vista where would-be interpreters can find their overall bearings and approach those convoluted sections of text with the proper orientation and disposition to engage with them fruitfully.
Preachers in particular would benefit from this volume, for while there’s no substitute for sound exegesis in sermon preparation, when it comes to sermon delivery, exegetical minutiae should be left in the workshop, so that what is presented to the gathered people of God is a singularly focused, unambiguous proclamation of the gospel. Bender’s treatment of the text provides the key to effective homiletical engagement with this central New Testament text. Would that more preachers would take to heart the approach laid out so plainly by Bender. This alone suffices for me to heartily commend this volume.
Not that there are not shortcomings. While Bender’s Barthian orientation leads to Christological rigor, it also informs several frustrating denunciations of metaphysics and “speculation.” In such instances, what is denounced was more or less unrecognizable to this generally Thomist reader. For instance, Bender asserts: “As we saw above regarding the question of Christ’s relation to God the Father, such rich developments exemplified at the Council of Constantinople (381) were not speculative exercises but attempts to provide theological coherence to the church’s interpretation of scripture and worship.”
Yet this is precisely an articulation of the task of speculative theology in its relationship to positive theology. Similarly, we find oppositions of “static metaphysical states” to “the dynamic realization of a cruciform life.” Metaphysics, though, are not inherently static, but rather are the anticipated structure of being in all its concreteness and dynamism.
Still again, Bender rather capably insists, in his concluding remarks to chapter 11’s treatment of the Lord’s Supper, that “the theology of the cross and sacrifice for others … determines everything Paul says here,” rendering all other concerns ancillary. Yet in doing so, he more or less summarily dismisses the question of real presence (or, to be fair, of its denial).
What if, though, these were all intrinsically related, as the broader catholic tradition, exemplified in Augustine’s eucharistic theology of the “whole Christ,” has insisted? Bender is right to insist that we ought not allow the question of eucharistic presence to occlude the central mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection and the way it should inform ecclesial life, but to further conclude that the question is altogether irrelevant strikes me as a bridge too far.
Faced with a choice between the lordship of Christ, crucified and risen, and a robustly sacramental understanding of the Church, we had better choose Christ every single time. But it’s not at all clear that Bender (or Barth before him) is correct in presenting us with such a choice.
Of course, these observations are more or less par for the course from a Barthian perspective, and, depending on one’s outlook, they may seem more like strengths than shortcomings. Fair enough.
One final aspect of the commentary troubled me. In his discussion of lawsuits among believers, Bender notes that “for Christians to display their dirty laundry and impugn one another before the world brings shame to the church and its witness and calls into question the eschatological reality of the church as a new community of reconciliation and transformation.” This is true, so far as it goes. And yet, to read it on the other side of (if we are indeed on the other side yet) the church abuse crises, where the impulse to safeguard the Church’s reputation was prioritized over protection of the abused, is chilling.
I do not mean to hold Bender responsible for any of this, of course. For those of us who labor and minister within the present context, we must reckon with these dynamics. We can no longer appeal to the way of the cross without also opposing the ways in which such appeals have been weaponized against and perpetuated the crucifixion of vulnerable populations. We cannot and must not soft-pedal the cross. But we must also be resolute in preventing its cooptation by the powers and principalities, including those lodged near the heart of the Church. This is a critique, then, not of Bender, nor of this volume, but of us all.
For all this, though, Bender’s 1 Corinthians is an admirable, worthy contribution to this valuable series. To peruse it is an occasion to be caught up once more into that mystery that gives meaning to all existence, and, hopefully, to see the Scriptures, and indeed the whole of life, differently as a result.