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:

Book Review: Michal Beth Dinkler, Silent Statements: Narrative Representations of Speech and Silence in the Gospel of Luke

Dinkler, Michal Beth. Silent Statements: Narrative Representations of Speech and Silence in the Gospel of Luke. BZNW 191; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013. 261 pp. Hc; $140.00. Link to De Gruyter

This monograph is a revision of Dinkler’s Ph.D dissertation completed in 2012 at Harvard Divinity School. She was one of François Bovon’s last students and his guidance is evident in this fine study of silence in Luke’s Gospel. Dinkler proposes to study “the complex ways that narrative intersections of speech and silences can be useful touch-points for how the Lukan narrative attempts to shape its readers” (5). She follows John Darr in arguing the goal of Luke’s Gospel is to persuade readers to become believing witnesses, and intentional silences in the text are powerful rhetorical elements used by the author to achieve this goal.

DinklerSince this is a revised dissertation, it necessarily begins with a review of previous literature on the rhetorical function of silence. While there are quite a few studies on silence in ancient literature, New Testament scholarship has scarcely recognized their value for reading the Gospels. One recent exception is Bruce Longenecker’s Hearing the Silence (Cascade, 2012), which was published at the same time as Dinkler’s study. Both books examine Luke 4, although Dinkler looks at the whole Gospel of Luke.

Dinkler highlights three main features of silence. First, silence is multivalent (8). When a writer includes silence, the readers fill that silence with something. Silence therefore can express shame, fear, admiration or domination (9). Multivalent typically implies a saying (or silence) is open to several interpretations. Since it is the reader who supplies the interpretation, I initially wondered to this approach to silence opens the door to a full reader-response approach to the text. In practice, this is not really the case. In the examples she studies in detail, it seems as though the narrator has led the reader to understand a silence with a certain range of meanings.

Second, the meaning of silence of contextually is determined (11). Ironically, silence can be considered a speech act since it is some kind of a response. But the meaning of the silence may be shaped by historical and social contexts. Like unpacking a metaphor, something left unsaid may be interpreted in many ways. Her example “shut the door” might be a request, or a warning, depending on the context. The narrator may provide clues for how the silence should be understood, but there are significant examples in Luke where silence is left open-ended, almost inviting the reader to fill in the gap.

Third, since silence has this illocutionary force, it is rhetorically powerful (12). Just as a powerful speaker will use pauses and silences for the rhetorical impact, so too a writer can make a point more powerful by omitting speech or letting characters remain silent, allowing the reader to interact with the text on a deeper level. Perhaps this is why most readers miss the rhetorical impact of literary silence, they simply read over a gap without noticing it is there! For example, Dinkler discusses the gap between Jesus’ childhood and the introduction of John the Baptist between chapters two and three. Most readers would move from one section of the book to the next without pausing to wonder what the point of a long silent gap in the life of Jesus might mean.

After some clarification on literary categories of narrative, narration, plot, characters, and themes, Dinkler proceeds to survey instances of silence in the Gospel of Luke. She focuses on how silence relates to speech, since “what is unsaid relates to want is said” (43). Sometimes silence is explicit, employing vocabulary like σιγάω or σιωπάω. But there are other examples where Luke as the narrator is silent. She cites Luke 23:9 as an example (46). When Jesus refuses to answer Herod, is this an act of defiance or silent acceptance of his fate? Luke does not make this clear with additional narration, allowing the reader to ponder the reason Jesus is silent before his accuser. Another example of silence in Luke is a character who ponders something in their heart (Luke 2:19, using συμβάλλω) or marvels silently about some event (Luke 11:14, using θαυμάζω).

Chapter 1 surveys silence in Luke’s prologue (1:1-4:13). In each of the sections of Luke surveyed by Dinkler, she begins with a few observations on the implied dialogue between the narrator and the reader. In any good storytelling, the narrator offers some information, but leaves much unsaid. This silence in the narration invites the reader to enter into the story and perhaps fill some of those gaps. As she showed in her introduction, silence is multivalent yet contextually determined. Two examples will suffice in this first section of Luke. Jesus’ first words are in Luke 2:49: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” Since these are the first words Jesus says, they are extremely important, yet they are rather cryptic and left unexplained. Jesus does not explain them, and the narrator is silent as well. The interpretation is left to the reader (59).

A second, subtle silence is the chronological gap between the end of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3. The narrator introduces Jesus as a boy and simple states he grew in wisdom and stature, but then jumps ahead to the ministry of John the Baptist many years later. A hero-story might fill this gap with an account of the training the hero received. A modern film might use a montage scene with background music. Dinkler suggests this narrative silence functions similarly to the silencing of Zechariah, it substantiates the prophecy of John’s future ministry (Luke 1:16-17, 76-78). This silence functions to “exert narratorial reliability, orient the reader, and stimulate readerly curiosity” (61).

The most obvious example here is the silencing of Zechariah. Usually this silencing is taken as a punishment for unbelief, standing in contrast to Mary’s belief. Dinkler as points out, silence in this context can be read as a proof of God’s omnipotence. Gabriel says he will silence Zechariah and he does; God will give a child to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and he does. Since silence is multivalent, this instance of silence can be both negative (punishment) and positive (proof of God’s power). Again, the emphasis is on building the confidence of the reader in the narrator’s reliability.

In chapter two, Dinkler surveys silence in Luke 4:14-9:50. Jesus is presented in this section as a divinely appointed authority whose speech causes others to act. Dinkler points out that with the exception of the Crucifixion, all of the hostility between Jesus and the Jewish authorities in Luke’s Gospel is conversational combat (91). She points out that in Greek novels these sorts of conflicts usually turn violent, but that is not the case here. I wonder if this is unique to Luke’s gospel, since the other three gospels have the same sort of verbal sparring between Jesus and some religious authority. While some react to Jesus’ words with increasing hostility, the disciples often react with confusion.

What is remarkable in this section of Luke is the contrast between Jesus’ increasing reputation and his command for silence. Using Luke 5:12-16 as an example, Jesus heals a leper and commands him to tell no one how he was healed. Nevertheless, “news spread about him all the more.” This is another example of the narrator introducing a question without offering an answer. Why does Jesus demand silence? Why do people not obey that command? This is a well-known problem in Mark (the so-called Messianic Secret). Dinkler recognizes the possibility this is a “vestigial element” taken over from Mark, but suggests rather Luke is purposefully using the command of silence to reveal Jesus’ identity more clearly.

The best example of silence in this section is Jesus’ meal with Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). Simon’s inner dialogue and Jesus’ response invite the reader into a hidden conversation the others in the story cannot know. This silent dialogue creates a dramatic irony since Simon (and the reader) knows what he thought, thus proving Jesus to be exactly what Simon initially thought he could not be, a true prophet of God (129). The story ends with more silence: when Jesus pronounced the woman’s sins forgiven, the audience wondered “who is this man who even forgives sins?” Neither Jesus nor the narrator answer this question, it is up to the reader to supply the answer. Based on Dinkler’s introduction to rhetorical silence, I wonder how silence can be multivalent in this case. Luke has carefully brought the reader to this point in the narrative and is asking them to answer “who is this then?” There is only a narrow range of answers possible (a true prophet, for example). The silence in this case is rhetorically powerful, demanding an answer from the reader, but the answer to the question has to be the one Luke led the reader to give.

Chapter three covers the lengthy the central section of Luke’s gospel (9:51-19:27). The structure of this section has been described as a “travel narrative” since Jesus starts out for Jerusalem in 9:15 and does (eventually) arrive there in 19:28, but the various geographical notes Luke makes in the section do not strictly conform to a real journey. After mentioning briefly several suggestions for solving this puzzle, Dinkler points out all but two of the geographical references in the central section are accompanied by some kind of verbal utterance (136-7). It is conversation that moves the journey forward.

One of the most important features of this central section of the Gospel is Jesus’ parables. Twenty of the twenty-four parables in Luke appear in these chapters, and not surprisingly, what is not said in a parable is just as important as what is said (148). The narrator is often silent, using gaps, delays, open endings and internal monologues in the stories in order to deepen Jesus’ speech related teaching. “Every parable that contains an inner monologue,” Dinkler says, “can be read as a cautionary message: one’s response to God matters” (154).

Her key example in this chapter is Luke 14:1-6, the Pharisees’ silence before Jesus. At a Sabbath meal Jesus asks the Pharisees and teachers of the Law if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not? They remain silent (v. 4a) and Jesus heals the man. He asks them again how their own legal rulings applied to healing on the Sabbath, yet they still have no reply (v. 6). Their refusal to dialogue with Jesus is striking, since Greco-Roman symposia featured this sort of philosophical debates (161). This silence may not be hostile; they may simply have had no answer. In fact, when the religious leadership speaks in the rest of the central, it is “feeble, fruitless speech” (163). This is ultimately demonstrated at the Triumphal Entry, when the Pharisees demand Jesus to silence his disciples (19:39-40). [As an aside, Dinkler’s chapter titles include 19:28-44 in the central section, the introduction, however, makes the break after 19:27 (48). It is difficult to know where to put the Triumphal Entry, since it is a translation from the central section into the Passion narrative.]

Finally, there are several significant examples of silence during Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem, his passion and resurrection (Luke 19:45-24:53). These chapters are remarkably rich in dialogue, as the charts on pages 170-1 make clear. Dinkler describes the Temple conflicts as “verbal duels” and a ‘war of words” (171). Most significant for the theological and pastoral themes of the Gospel is the disciples’ descent into a silence they have chosen (175). When the arrest of Jesus finally occurs, the disciples are sleeping and do not testify to the words they have received from Jesus. They retreat into “self-protective silence” and do not speak until after the resurrection, and then only after the women and two disciples bear witness to the resurrection (178).

When Peter does speak, it is only to deny he knows Jesus. The climax to the denial story is Jesus’ silent gaze (22:60-61). When Jesus turns to look at Peter, the reader does not know if this is a compassionate look, forgiving Peter, or a look of condemnation for his denial. Luke does not explain, once again leaving this to the reader to decide. Dinkler argues this silent gaze is a trigger for Peter’s memory of Jesus’ words to him predicting his betrayal. Since everyone who reads Luke’s gospel will know Peter is a leader of the church, the silence that triggers memory of Jesus’ words is an important theological (pastoral?) point.

Perhaps the most important silence in this section of the Gospel is Jesus’ own silence before Herod (23:6-12). Jesus responds briefly to Pilate, but before Herod Jesus is absolutely silent. But there is more silence in the story, since the narrator does not tell us what Herod asked Jesus (v.9, he “plied him with questions”). Is Jesus’ silence disdain for Herod? Luke does not tell us, opening up several possibilities for the reader (194). After briefly looking at several common explanations, Dinkler points out the obvious: silence is the opposite of Jesus’ behavior elsewhere in the Gospel. He talks with everyone and anyone (demons, sinners, tax-collectors, women, Pharisees, Sadducees, even Pilate!), but now he chooses to be silent. This is the third trial (the Sanhedrin, Pilate, then Herod), each time Jesus becomes more silent (compare 22:67-9 and 23:3). His silence in his final trail functions as other silences have in the book, to call to mind the words of Jesus.

Conclusion. Dinkler’s study is an excellent introduction to a neglected aspect of narrative study. While it seems obvious, the rhetorical power of silence has been overlooked and Dinkler’s study fills that gap for students of the Gospel of Luke. Her concluding chapter ties her observations to the main theological themes of the Gospel, the Divine plan and Human Response, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, and Discipleship. Luke wants to encourage the reader to become the “ideal disciple” who hears and does the word of God.

 

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