in Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible
Publisher Brazos Press
Pelikan is brilliant. The commentary is structured based on theological loci -- Pelikan addresses major theological ideas as they occur in the text of Acts. Pros -- Pelikan is, for my money, one of the most magisterial church historians of our era. This is hugely helpful in seeing where Acts interacts with the development of the church and her theology in the centuries following the deaths of the apostles. Cons -- Pelikan wrote this near the end of his life after converting to Orthodoxy. There is a definite Orthodox flavor to his commentary which sometimes causes him to use presuppositions that most protestants don't share.
This first volume on Acts in the Brazos Theological Commentary by the late modern Church historian, Jaroslav Pelikan, serves as a primer in historical theology. Instead of providing a verse-by-verse theological reading, Pelikan offers thematic reflections on each chapter. The thesis of the book is that correct doctrine, particularly as it was formulated by the Nicene Creed, is what unites the Church. This is a fitting thesis for this inaugural volume to the Brazos Theological Commentary series. It also serves as a wake-up call for the contemporary Church which is becoming increasingly more detached from its historical roots and as a result, more theologically ignorant. Pelikan's thematic approach (3 themes per chapter) makes this commentary more suitable for topical preaching than for full, verse-by-verse exposition of the book of Acts. Preachers and teachers will want to supplement Pelikan's volume with a more exegetical Acts commentary that addresses the text of the book in its entirety. Some of the topics discussed by Pelikan are more firmly connected to the text of the book of Acts than others. However, the topics dealt with are so interesting that it's hard to fault Pelikan for taking this approach. Pelikan's discussions of 'The Gospel of the Forty Days,' Mary as Theotokos ('Mother of God'), 'Christus Victor, ' baptism, religious affections, private revelations, the authority of Church councils, the theological importance of textual variants, the Church's relationship to government, and 'due process' are among some of the best articles in this commentary. They provide excellent material for topical preaching and teaching. Pentecostals and Charismatics in particular, who generally view Acts as a mere 'handbook' on ecclesiology and pneumatology, would do well to read Pelikan's commentary. They'll quickly discover that Luke's account is much more than that. The commentary seems to focus on post-apostolic theological/creedal formulation without firmly connecting it to the texts under discussion in several instances. This volume seems to fall short of the series' goal because of this weakness. While Pelikan offers some perceptive insights regarding Luke's historiography, he offers almost nothing specific to help the reader understand Luke's theological framework, which shapes the book of Acts itself. Having a discussion of Luke's theology in addition to the topical and historical discussions would've made this a more well-rounded commentary. Pelikan seems too quick to enter into historical discussions without addressing the text being highlighted in several instances. Perhaps the decision to approach Acts topically was meant to ensure that Pelikan completed this commentary. He wrote it while battling lung cancer, which ended his life on May 13, 2006, less than three and a half-months after its publication. However, the series preface by general editor R.R. Reno indicates that some of the other contributors to forthcoming volumes also will be using a topical approach when commenting on their respective books of the Bible. Due to his Orthodox commitments, Pelikan uses the Western Byzantine Greek text of the NT as his primary source material on the book of Acts. It is important to note that the Western Byzantine text is slightly longer than the Alexandrian Greek text traditionally used in translation of the New Testament by other ecclesiastical bodies within the Christian church since the mid-nineteenth century. As a result, Pelikan provides some interesting commentary on textual variants, particularly Acts 8:37, which are often dismissed by commentators writing from within other ecclesiastical traditions and relegated merely to footnotes in most English translations of the NT. I wish Pelikan would've spent more time addressing Luke's citations from the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament. It's surprising that he did not do so, given that the Orthodox Church views the Septuagint, not the Hebrew Masoretic Text, as the authoritative translation of the OT. In addition, I would've appreciated reading Pelikan's perspective on some of the more perplexing events recorded in Acts, such as the unsuccessful attempt by the seven sons of Sceva to perform an exorcism and its obvious juxtaposition with the genuine miracles performed by the apostle Paul in Acts 19:11-16. Clearly, Luke shows the fulfillment of Judaism's eventual inability to miraculously authenticate its spiritual authority, which Jesus predicts in Luke 11:14-28 (cf. Matthew 12:22-37). According to the parable of the tenants found in Matthew 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12 and Luke 20:9-19, the obedient Jewish Apostles (both who recognize Jesus as Messiah and do not refuse to evangelize Gentiles) would gain the authority that would be stripped from the disobedient Jewish leaders. How I wish Pelikan had addressed this clear transition of Spiritual authority, despite its controversial nature. Its ecclesiological importance is significant. Theological reflection on why Luke arranges the events recorded in Acts the way he does would have been extremely informative and helpful also. Exegetical commentators writing on Acts do not address this area nearly as thoroughly as needs to be done and tend to address the events individually. Pelikan could have surely filled that gap with this commentary by helping readers view the book of Acts more holistically, which would have allowed for greater theological reflection on the Church, the Holy Spirit, etc. Hopefully, someone will revise the present work with specific discussion of Luke's theology as it unfolds throughout the book of Acts. So much has been written about Luke's theology over the years. It's a shame that Pelikan fails to interact with such a large body of scholarly work. This commentary is still a great read despite that obvious weakness. Readers within the Orthodox tradition will find this commentary particularly useful. However, Leithart's volume on 1 & 2 Kings is a much better representation of what a theological commentary should be. It balances theology, historiography and exegesis more adequately than this volume. The end result is a commentary more suitable for preaching and teaching the entire text. Hopefully, future volumes in the series will follow the chapter-by-chapter format of Leithart instead of the topical approach used by Pelikan.
Because this is the premier volume of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series (three other volumes have subsequently appeared at the time this review is being written), it may be fitting to summarize the goals and standards of the series, as these have shaped both the choice of contributors and the focus of their contributions. As the series preface authored by R. R. Reno indicates, the fundamental premise of the Brazos series is that church doctrine “is the schematic drawing that will allow the reader to organize the vast heterogeneity of the words, images, and stories of the Bible into a readable, coherent whole” (12). Therefore, “the commentators in this series … are not biblical scholars in the conventional, modern sense of the term.… the commentators were chosen because of their knowledge of and expertise in using the Christian doctrinal tradition” (14). As Reno summarizes: “it is the conceit of this series of biblical commentaries that theological training in the Nicene tradition prepares one for biblical interpretation, and thus it is to theologians and not biblical scholars that we have turned. ‘War is too important,’ it has been said, ‘to leave to the generals’” (14). Given these standards, one can hardly imagine a better contributor than Jaroslav Pelikan. Pelikan’s theological commentary on the Acts of the Apostles is a fascinating peregrination through the history of Christian thought. [Full Review]