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Scholars find merit, drawbacks in ‘The Transforming Word’

The publication of a commentary on the entire Bible is a milestone. When the commentary is produced by those associated with the Stone-Campbell Movement, it is all the more significant.
Two such commentaries are pending. College Press is scheduled to complete its multi-volume treatment of the entire Bible in 2009.
ACU Press releases “The Transforming Word,” a one-volume commentary on the entire Bible, this fall.
Because of the enormous cost of producing a commentary and due to the long shelf-life of such literature, we do well to carefully analyze those materials that will long influence our understanding of Scripture. “The Transforming Word” covers the entire Bible in 1,140 pages. Among the 30 authors are representatives of eight colleges and universities associated with Churches of Christ.
The Chronicle expands its Reviews this month to allow two scholars the opportunity to introduce the scope of the commentary and to offer initial evaluations.
These reviews preview what the broad spectrum of readers in Churches of Christ might expect to find in the pages of “The Transforming Word.”
Help and disappointment await readers of new commentary
This first one-volume, multi-author commentary by “heirs of the Stone-Campbell Movement” is an imposing and erudite opus. The authors are aware of the relevant literature and comment clearly and articulately on the biblical text.
It is enjoyable and instructive just to thumb through and read the shaded sidebars that offer definitions, clarifications or related background facts. One sidebar in Galatians gives the name “Covenantal Nomism” to a view that ministers in Churches of Christ have preached for many years that “one is saved on the basis of grace and evaluated on the basis of behavior.”
The authors manifest a generally reverent attitude toward the text. They use the space available to them to outline and clarify the text. Bible students looking for help on a particular issue in a specific passage may not find the answers they seek, but that is a deficiency inherent in a one-volume format.
Readers who believe, as this reviewer does, that the authors of the books of the Bible are who they claim to be, including what Jesus and the apostles said about the authors of the Old Testament, will sometimes be disappointed.
Although Wellhausen’s version of the documentary hypothesis is not endorsed, many of its basic premises seem to be accepted. For example, “The Pentateuch appears to preserve several streams of tradition that did not necessarily originate at the same time and place.” This commentary lists the issues in the biblical text that prompt many to propose theories such as the documentary hypothesis, but the commentary does not seem to recognize the responses of scholars who hold to Mosaic authorship.
The commentary claims “it is not at all clear that the documentary hypothesis necessarily undermines a high view of the inspiration of the Bible,” but if Jesus and the apostles did not know who wrote the words they attributed to Moses, it does raise legitimate questions of inspiration.
Although Isaiah was an eighth century prophet, “the book’s composer” is said to have put the book together “at the end of the fifth century BCE.” Chapters 1-39 are Isaiah’s messages “preserved, deleted, modified, rearranged and expanded … for application in new situations.” Chapters 40 to 55 are primarily the work of a “sixth century BCE exilic prophet.” Later we read, “Passages in chapters 56 to 66 date originally from the period of rebuilding the Jerusalem temple (536–516 B.C.E.) to rebuilding its walls (about 445–432 B.C.E.).”
So the commentary says at least three authors over the course of three centuries wrote this long, prophetic book, though Jesus and the apostles quote from all parts of it and invariably ascribe its words to Isaiah. (I regret that the commentary chose B.C.E. and C.E. instead of B.C. and A.D.)
In any commentary by a variety of authors, there are differences in quality and usefulness as well as in emphasis and theology among the different writers.
The comments on the gospels, including the introduction and prologue to each gospel, appropriately center more on the orientation and unique purpose of each gospel than on speculative solutions to “the Synoptic Problem.”
Credence is given to the early patristic writers’ testimony as to the authorship of the individual gospels, resulting in a more conservative treatment than that given the Pentateuch and Isaiah.
Based partially on evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, John’s gospel is recognized as more rooted in first century Jewish thought than in Hellenistic philosophy, and given an early date consistent with having been written by an eye-witness of the things reported.
Thirteen articles in the front of the volume cover background subjects and such related topics as “Pentateuch,” “Text and Canon,” “Old Testament Prophecy” and both Old and New Testament theology.
The article on “The Bible and Music” offers a history of religious music in both the Old and New Testaments through the centuries from the Roman Catholic mass to Stamps Baxter songs in more recent years.
The article does not deal, as some might expect, with the instrumental music controversy other than to say, “The early church fathers vehemently opposed instrumental music and dancing” because of their association with paganism.
The commentary demonstrates that the prophets spoke primarily to their own times, a fact ignored by many who fancifully apply their texts to today, but many readers will see an overstatement of the opposite case in, “There is no unequivocal specific prediction of the coming of Jesus Christ and/or the church in the Old Testament. New Testament speakers reinterpreted and reapplied Old Testament texts to Christ and/or the church.”
A sidebar in “Text and Canon” states, “The New Testament books themselves make a declaration of authority — for instance, by Paul himself (1 Corinthians 14:37; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:14) and about Paul (2 Peter 3:15). They also anticipate a wider circulation of the writings (Colossians 4:16).
“The four Gospels appear to have been written as conscious efforts to produce Scripture and continue the Old Testament record of God’s dealings with his people (now culminating in Jesus Christ). Such were the premises behind the later recognition that certain books were at the foundation of the Christian church and its life.”
This is a refreshing declaration in view of the often repeated charge that the New Testament writers had no idea their writings would be considered Scripture!
The commentary is a valuable addition to a Bible teacher’s tools, but contains occasional serious negative distractions to many believers in biblical infallibility.
CECIL MAY JR. is dean of the V. P. Black College of Biblical Studies at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., and an elder of the University church in Montgomery.


‘Transforming Word’ offers much for serious Bible students
“The Transforming Word One-Volume Bible Commentary” provides a handy and helpful resource for serious Bible students.
Many of the finest scholars in Churches of Christ contributed to this work. I am well acquainted with a number of these contributors, knowing them to be not only good scholars, but also dedicated servants of the Christian community. This commentary reflects their desire to wed their academic life to the life of the church.
Although a one-volume commentary is handy, it also presents distinct challenges, especially when it comes to handling difficult issues. The space limitations raise a methodological question: Should these complex issues be engaged since they cannot be discussed fully? Since these matters are difficult, should they be omitted?
The authors of the commentary reflect different approaches to such issues. Disagreement with the approach or the conclusions of a given author on these disputed matters should not obscure the fact that the vast majority of the material in this fine work remains unaffected by such questions.
In this review I take up six specific difficult areas in biblical studies: the authorship of the Pentateuch; the nature of the conquest of Canaan; the authorship and composition of Isaiah; the historicity of Jonah; the historicity of the Gospels and Acts; and the synoptic problem. The discussion below briefly addresses each of these issues as it comes up in the commentary or the introductory articles of “The Transforming Word.”
The article on the Pentateuch provides a helpful summary of the issues related to the Mosaic authorship of the first five books of the Bible and the history of some of the leading views on this question. It points out the weaknesses of the classic “documentary hypothesis” that left little if any direct connection between Moses and these books. It also notes the flaws of some of the arguments used by conservative critics of this hypothesis.
In the end, the article calls for a more nuanced understanding of what Mosaic authorship would have meant in the ancient world. Many readers, however, will question the claim that “arguments for or against Moses’ authorship were irrelevant” in Jesus’ day. These same readers will also struggle to grasp how anyone could reconcile the documentary hypothesis with a high view of inspiration.
Questions about the conquest of Canaan are rooted in the debate over the archaeological evidence for such activity within the chronology indicated in the Bible. The commentary on Joshua briefly notes the differing conclusions reached by archaeologists investigating Jericho. The article on the archaeology of Israel presents a balanced case for the subjective nature of archaeological evidence and its limitations to prove or disprove the Bible. Both the commentary and the article assume the reliability of the Bible’s claims about the conquest.
The introductory article on Old Testament prophecy refers to evidence for a process of editorial activity, even after the prophet’s death, before the book bearing his name would reach its final form. In the commentary on Isaiah, however, the assertion that the material in this prophetic book originated over a period of centuries takes that process to an extent that will trouble some readers with its implications.
In contrast to the dominant view in biblical scholarship, on the other hand, the commentary does not hold the material in Isaiah 40-66 to be inconsistent with that of Isaiah 1-39.
With regard to the historicity of Jonah, the commentary on this prophetic book lists various views of its nature: “a historical account, legend, fable, novella, allegory, parable, satire, narrative, midrash, or didactic story.” It concludes that Jonah “is probably a religious drama” composed sometime after the Babylonian exile. This interpretation remains somewhat ambiguous regarding the historical reality of the events described in Jonah.
The article on the gospels and Acts addresses both the historicity of these books and the “synoptic problem.” It does not affirm a particular stance on theories of literary dependence among Matthew, Mark and Luke. It encourages readers instead to “listen carefully to the individual stories as a whole before contrasting them with the other accounts” since each Gospel “tells of Jesus’ life and teachings from a particular point of view, informed both by the primary events and the theological concerns and needs of the expanding church.”
The article gives special attention to the Gospel of Luke and Acts since Luke was not an eyewitness to much of what he records. It rejects the claim that Luke was a “careless historian,” although it notes that because Luke “writes to believers, not skeptics, he is more concerned to interpret events than to prove their veracity.”
The results of this brief survey reveal that some writers in “The Transforming Word” who engage the views of contemporary biblical scholarship draw conclusions that will raise questions, especially for readers not conversant with this scholarship. Space limitations do not allow writers to explain fully these difficult and delicate issues.
It should be pointed out, however, that such discussions comprise a very small portion of “The Transforming Word.” It would be a shame for this review’s treatment of a few challenging passages to overshadow the substantive contributions of the book as a whole.
The editors and authors should be commended for their work on this milestone publishing event. Their goal was not to draw readers into areas of academic debate but to help them “hear afresh transforming words that will quicken the life of the church as it shares in God’s redeeming work in the world.”
The range of quality introductory articles in “The Transforming Word” deserves special mention. The inclusion of articles on the relation of the Bible to literature, science and music is a welcome surprise in a one-volume commentary. One notable omission is a treatment of the Jewish backgrounds of the New Testament to accompany the article on the Greco-Roman backgrounds.
Overall, however, this volume would be a valuable addition to anyone’s library, particularly someone who does not have a commentary on every book of the Bible.
TERRY BRILEY is dean of the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. He is an elder and minister for the Natchez Trace church in Nashville.

  • Feedback
    Seems one more example of the result of opening the door to liberal interpretations “just a little”. But, many will buy the book simply because the authorship represents Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, etc, etc. That’s what it’s come to, brethren, and it’s frightening.
    Mac Payne
    Gainesville, Ga
    October, 26 2009

    Based on these two reviews alone I see no reason not to leave this volume on the book store shelf.
    There is a wealth of very excellent commentaries already available which are accepted as reliable and prepared by men who hold to the verbal inspiration of the Bible, many of them are online and free.
    Judging from my conversations with my brothers and what I read, many in our fellowship are slowly drifting away from the historic positions held by followers of Jesus and embracing the same positions of modernest Baptists several decades ago.
    Let’s see….should I believe Jesus or a “brotherhood author”?
    Royce Ogle
    November, 13 2008

    In the past we have commentaries written by and for conservatives, progressives and those inbetween. Must we now have a commentary written by and for agnostics? Jesus Christ is NOT divine “IF” He is mistaken on the authorship of the Pentateuch. He said that “Moses wrote of me.” Jesus Christ is NOT divine “IF” He was mistaken regarding the veracity of the inspired account of Jonah. He said that Jonah “was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Finally, can we even be sure that the authors even believe in God at all? Using the designation “Before the Common Era (B.C.E.)” in lieu of “Before Christ (B.C.)” indicates the authors, not only doubt the divinity of Christ, they doubt that Christ ever even existed.
    October, 19 2008

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