Book Review: F. Scott Spencer, Luke (Two Horizons Commentary)

Spencer, F. Scott. Luke. Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2019. 831 pp. Pb; $50.   Link to Eerdmans

Spencer serves as professor of New Testament and biblical interpretation at Baptist Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia. His monograph Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows: Capable Women of Purpose and Persistence in Luke’s Gospel (Eerdmans, 2012; read the 2012 interview “Confessions of a Male Feminist Biblical Scholar” at Eerdworld on this book.) He has also contributed a commentary on Acts in the Readings series (Bloomsbury1999), a volume on Luke and Acts in Abingdon’s Interpreting Biblical Texts Series (2011), Journeying through Acts: A Literary-Cultural Reading (Baker Academic, 2014) and the Song of Songs volume in the Song of Songs in the Wisdom Commentary Series (Michael Glazier, 2017).

The book begins with twenty pages introduction defining Spencer’s methodology for the commentary and a brief introduction to his view of theological interpretation. Spencer is not interested in writing a compendium of previous work on Luke. He avoids the tedious repetition other commentaries. He strives toward a “rigorously sequential development, mindful of interpretive journey” (5). The commentary has very little interest in redaction criticism. Spencer is not concerned with how Luke handled his sources, rather he wants to let “Luke be Luke on his own terms” (6).

Nevertheless, the commentary must deal with some introductory matters. Spencer chooses to avoid usual lengthy introduction typically found in commentaries. He is concerned about being caught in a circular argument. If he describes Luke’s Gospel in detail at the beginning of the book, then the commentary which follows is going to support those conclusions. He uses the example of authorship: If we assume “Doctor Luke” wrote the Gospel then we will be inclined to see medical language in the Gospel or read the healing stories differently as a result of that assumption. The fact is the book is anonymous and it is far better to allow that anonymous author speak for themselves. He does think the same author wrote the book of Acts, but he is not convinced the author intended a two-volume work from the beginning. This means reading backward from Acts to Luke is not particularly helpful. There is no evidence to two books were ever read together (there was no “boxed set” of Luke-Acts in the ancient world). This means the Luke commentary should not anticipate the sequel.

Spencer suggests the author of the third Gospel wrote in elegant style which suggests the author was “an educated, cosmopolitan Greek writer” (21). Although scholars frequently consider him to be a Gentile, but he could very well have been a Hellenistic Jew like Saul of Tarsus. Nothing can be known about the addressee Theophilus and the provenance of Ephesus is “as good a guess as any” (22). Since the author is at least one generation removed from the eyewitnesses, he suggests a date of 80-90. Following Parsons, Spencer describes Luke as a “historical storyteller” (639).

The body of the commentary does not include a new translation of the text. All Greek and Hebrew words appear with transliteration. Although there is some interaction with grammatical and lexical issues, this commentary is primarily on the English text. Spencer approaches the texts by means of larger pericopae. His interaction with other scholarship is minimal and mostly in the footnotes. Occasionally includes brief theological and pastoral comments on the meaning of the text. But overall, Spencer is a guide helping the reader to understand the text of the Gospel of Luke. This is an extremely readable commentary.

Like other volumes in the series, the book is divided into two parts, interpretation and theological reflection. Unlike the Matthew volume in the Two Horizons series, the commentary forms the bulk of the volume (608 pages). The biblical theology section is only ninety-three pages compared to about half the pages in the Matthew commentary in this series). He lays out a “minifesto” in the introduction outlining six key planks in his view of theological interpretation of Scripture. First, theological interpretation of Scripture should be theologically centered. By this Spencer highlights Luke has a narrative about God and his dealings with his people. The gospel is a theological biographical history written by an insider, someone who believes! Second, theological interpretation of Scripture should be philosophically expanded. The Gospel of Luke has an epistological and sophological thrust. Jesus embodies progressive knowledge of God’s will and God’s wisdom. Third, theological interpretation of Scripture should be canonically connected. Since all writings are intertextual, Luke did not write in ignorance of other texts. He wrote alongside other canonical gospels and the writings of the apostle Paul. These can be used to shed light on Luke without suggesting literary dependence.Fourth, theological interpretation of Scripture should be salvifically aimed. Second Timothy 3: 16-17 and John 5:39 declare that the purpose of studying Scripture is salvation. And this is a key theme for the Gospel of Luke. There is a “soteriological principle” in the gospel as tracing God’s saving actions in Christ. Fifth theological interpretation of Scripture should be a clear ecclesially located. Primary locus of Scripture interpretation is in the church. Readers read Scripture in some ecclesiological context. Spencer himself is a moderate Baptist with considerable interaction with others faith in both church and Academy. This context informs his theological interpretation. Sixth, theological interpretation of Scripture should be emotionally invested. This seems like an unusual point to include sense writing is logical but emotional. Biblical characters did not come with full psychological profiles. However, Luke’s Jesus is emotionally invested with God in God’s saving mission to his people.

His biblical theology chapter is divided into six sections. First Spencer discusses theological knowing in Luke’s Gospel. Here he focuses on the resurrection stories which demonstrate legs open and earthly theology embedded in the risen Jesus. There is no secret knowledge here reserved for insiders.

Second, Trinitarian theology is the bread and butter of commentaries using a Theological Interpretation of Scripture methodology.  Spencer points out several “Trinitarian moments” in the prayers of Jesus. In addition, there are several examples of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in the context of sending. This includes the sending of the sun, but also the sending of the disciples.

Third, the section on “spiritual theology” focuses on Christian spirituality. Spencer is clear that spirituality should not be some sort of a free-for-all or anything goes. It ought to be guided by the Holy Spirit and scripture. He sees a hint of desert spirituality in Luke, Jesus is often described as being alone in the wilderness for prayer. An additional feature of Luke’s spiritual theology is his Focus on the human condition as lost. It is Jesus’s spiritual quest to find those who are lost. The section also includes a “rehabilitation of Martha” (667-74). This is a theological reflection on spirituality of both Mary and Martha within the Baptist tradition.

Fourth, in the section entitled creational theology Spencer points out several creation allusions in the gospel, which in turn allude to the redeeming events of the Exodus. In Luke, redemption is enacted through the sacraments, faith and works. Redemption flows out of creation has the natural work of a holy, mighty and gracious Creator-Redeemer-Lord. Sacraments such as Sabbath and Jubilee reinforce the creation-Exodus link. As Spencer admits, “none of this sounds very Baptist” (681). This leads to a lengthy discussion of how Baptist theology and ecumenicalism intersect.

Fifth, by “social theology” Spencer means social ethics (693).  The largest portion of this section of the book is a survey of Old Testament social ethics. Jesus stands within the tradition of the prophets as he reaches out to the poor, tax collectors, prostitutes, and even women. But Spencer is also quick to point out that to tag Jesus as a Marxist, a socialist, a revolutionary, or a feminist is anachronistic. That he is clear that any theology that does not include social ethics is not a full Christian theology.

Finally, passional theology emphasizes the emotional stir of the gospel. He begins with the emotional pathos of the profits, any outlines this over several pages. In the Old Testament “God gets thoroughly emotionally caught up in the lives of people” but he is never carried away into a rash or harmful or in reasonable emotion. Similarly, Jesus is not impossible in the gospel in fact he is described as compassionate towards his people. Spencer examines the Garden prayer in which Jesus his emotions come to the foreground.

Conclusion. Each volume of the Two Horizons series has a slightly different approach to doing Theological Interpretation of Scripture and how the author approaches theological issues which arise in the exposition of the book. Spencer’s commentary is a useful contribution to the study of Luke which does not get bogged down in technical details of redaction criticism, not is he overly focused on historical details. The commentary is a clear explanation of the details of the text, but he is always interested in drawing out the theological application of Luke’s presentation of Jesus.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Reviews of other commentaries in this series:

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