[K:NWTS 8/2 (Sep 1993) 42-45]

Book Reviews

Marianne Meye Thompson. 1-3 John. Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992, 168 pp., $14.95 cloth. ISBN: 0-8308-1819-7.

The stated purpose of this commentary series is to provide commentaries that "seek to move from the text to its contemporary relevance and application" (p. 9). The author finds in First John (and, by extension, the Second and Third letters of John) the "words of a pastor concerned about congregations of believers for which he has responsibility, but which lie at some geographical distance from him" (p.34).

Professor Thompson (Ph.D., Duke Divinity School, Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Fuller Theological Seminary) understands these three letters to be contextually defined as confronting errors in the young church(s) (not clearly identified as to location by the author of the commentary) for which, as noted earlier, the author of the letters has "responsibility." These errors, in her understanding, include but are not limited to the classically understood Gnostic and Cerinthian heresies.

In her introduction, Thompson follows current and recent scholarship and poses the usual questions pertaining to just who "the elder" is who wrote these three letters. Thompson steadfastly refuses to concede unquestioned Johannine authorship, following instead the scholarly convention of referring to him throughout the commentary by his own self-designation "the Elder."

I found the commentary easy to read, popular in style and clear in its exposition of the text. The outline of I John is:

1:1-4 — Witness to the Word of Life

1:5-2:27 — Walking in the Light: The Fundamental Pattern

2:28-3:24 — Remembering Who We Are: The Children of God

4:1-5:12 — Walking in the Light: Belief and Love

5:13-21 — Closing Exhortations

This outline neither slavishly holds to more familiar commentaries' suggested outlines nor radically departs from them. The outline was helpful in discerning the overall message of the letter. 

Thompson provides many cross-references to other relevant Scripture passages throughout her commentary on the three letters of John, drawing especially from John's gospel. I think, however, that the cross-referencing is more topical in nature than an attempt to provide a biblical-theological basis for understanding these epistles.

Thompson's treatment of the Second and Third Epistles is understandably brief. Perhaps her best contribution lies in the discussion of verses 7- 11 of Second John. In this section Thompson is discussing the nature of "truth" and answering the question posed by C.H. Dodd: "Does Truth prevail the more if we are not on speaking terms with those whose view of the truth differs from ours—however disastrous their error may be?" (p. 155). In answering Dodd's subjective and situational view of the nature of truth, Thompson is right on when she states: "Truth is neither an arbitrary construct of the human mind nor impossibly obscure" (p. 156). Further, she speaks to the liberal(izing) passion for "tolerance" by quoting from a commentary by Robert Kysar who says: "Tolerance must finally have its limits." 

I would say that overall this commentary is readable and would be useful for the lay Christian in his or her private devotional study. There are better commentaries available for more serious study of the letters.

—Dennis W. Royall
Christian Reformed Church
Cape Coral, Florida

David L. Peterson and Kent H. Richards. Interpreting Hebrew Poetry. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, x, 117 pp., $6.95 paper. ISBN: 0-8006-2625-7.

An addition to the Old Testament Series of the Guides to Biblical Scholarship, this book is an introduction to current debates about how to understand biblical poetry. Chapter 1 presents methodological issues, chapters 2-4 discuss Hebrew poetic techniques, and chapter 5 gives sample analyses of three biblical texts. A brief, basic bibliography, an author index, and a scripture index are included.

The book's strength is its sane assessment of recent discussions about the nature of Hebrew poetry and its demonstration of how stylistic devices functioned. Parallelism is perceived as a variety of potential morphological, syntactic, and semantic correlations between pairs of poetic lines. None of the old or new schemes of cataloging these relationships is judged satisfactory. Rhythm in Hebrew poetry is viewed as too variable to form into a meter mold. Since meter does not distinguish Hebrew prose from poetry, the latter is identified by a greater density of short rhythmic patterns, parallelism, and stylistic devices. The section on simile is instructive.

A shortcoming in the book's handling of poetic techniques is the pleading of scholarly uncertainty about how biblical poems were arranged into wholes. Enough has been written about chiasms and other aesthetic patterns used to organize biblical texts to warrant discussion, not in the chapter on stylistic devices, but in the chapter on parallelism, which is a subset of larger forms of organization.

The analyses in chapter five of Ps. 1, Is. 5:1-7, and portions of Dt. 32 illustrate how useful the techniques discussed in the preceding chapters can be in understanding the intricacies of poetic constructions. They also demonstrate, however, how limited the authors' idea of interpretation is.

The book's title is deceptive. Where's the interpretation? Discussion restricted to the bun of poetic craft and the pickle of the putative results of liberal criticism, but missing the interpretational meat, is a minimal Kantian phenomenal burger.

In addition to espousing traditional critical dogma of non-Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and the impossibility of predictive prophecy, the authors take a Kantian tack evident in their merely descriptive, superficial sailing through the turbulent currents of contemporary hermeneutics. While correctly warning against reductionistic assessments of poetry limited to poet, poem, reader, or reality, the book's eclectic approach glosses over the disastrous implications of some current interpretational approaches for a conservative doctrine of inspiration. 

The author's philosophical sunglasses also filter out the rich biblical-theological connections of the passages they selected for detailed study. Readers of Kerux, interested in tracing literary images and theological concepts throughout Scripture, will find Interpreting Hebrew Poetry a barren wasteland. When discussing Dt. 32:10-14, the authors are oblivious to Mosaic use of vocabulary from Gen. 1:2 and the resulting wealth of (re)creation imagery that should enter their presentation. Similarly, the book does not relate vineyard imagery of Is. 5:1-7 to teaching in the Gospels, nor does it correlate the fruitful tree and life-giving waters of Psalm 1 with Old or New Testament passages. Covenantal concepts in the three passages selected for detailed examination have been totally overlooked.

Interpreting Hebrew Poetry will help you to understanding how poetic skill builds images, but not how to interpret Hebrew poetry, to realize why contemporary analysis of Hebrew poetry can be the high point of technical erudition and the low point in church history of exegetical substance.

—Meredith M. Kline
South Hamilton, Massachusetts