By Timothy George
Five years ago, InterVarsity Press launched the Reformation Commentary on Scripture, a projected twenty-eight-volume series of exegesis covering both the Old and New Testaments, gathered from the writings of sixteenth-century preachers, scholars, and reformers. Now comes the ninth volume published in the series. At 745 pages, it is the largest volume thus far in the RCS. It offers Reformation comment on six of the “historical” books of the Old Testament: 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, and 1-2 Chronicles. The in-house editorial moniker for this volume is Samicles: “Sam(uel, Kings, and Chron)icles.” The volume is the work of Derek Cooper, who teaches world Christian history at Biblical Theological Seminary, and Martin J. Lohrmann, professor of Lutheran confessions and heritage at Wartburg Theological Seminary.
One of the major purposes of the RCS is to cultivate the art of listening to what God has been saying to his people across time. This is a form of contextual theology, except that the “context” here is not this or that group chosen from the panoply of today’s identity politics, but rather the oft-disregarded community of believing Christians through the centuries. When it comes to the Bible’s historical texts in particular, like those chosen for scrutiny in this volume, this means that we must deconstruct reductionist approaches to Scripture in order to listen afresh to how God addresses the church through the inspired remembrances of ancient Israel. Cooper and Lohrmann help us to do exactly this, by giving careful exegetical selections from a wide range of Reformation-era readers and interpreters.
Those who attempt to read the Bible straight through will find lots of show-stopping drama in these historical books of the Old Testament. Here we encounter some of the best-known characters and episodes in the entire Bible: the slaying of Goliath by young David, Elisha’s cursing of boys who made fun of his bald head, Saul’s quest for wisdom from the witch of Endor, the faithful prophet Micaiah. There are also Hannah the praying mother, Jonathan the beloved friend, Solomon the wise king, and Elijah the Tishbite with his villainous foes Ahab and Jezebel. All of these people are characters in what Christopher J. H. Wright has called “the narrative of God’s mission, through God’s people, in God’s world, for God’s purpose—the redemption of all of God’s creation.” Because of this, these writings found a special place within the Tanakh of ancient Israel, but they also resonate in the theology and witness of the New Testament and the early church. Jesus, the apostles, and the early Christian writers all read and quoted from these books.
The reformers of the sixteenth century lived in an age that saw the rise of sacred philology. Close grammatical and historical study of the Bible was aided by the invention of the printing press and the restoration of the biblical text in the original languages. Cooper and Lohrmann introduce us to this world by showing us how various interpreters across the spectrum of the Reformation—Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic, Anglican, Radical—found diverse and sometimes clashing insights into the historical books of the Old Testament. The editors are aware that the preachers and scholars they quote represented a wide range of perspectives in their study of the people of Israel and their kings. Nonetheless, they rightly assert that “readers will enjoy reflecting with these commentators on the central question of what it means to belong to the people of God. The insights may be different—perhaps even in opposition to each other—but they can certainly enrich contemporary understandings of the Scriptures for the sake of faithful Christian study and witness today. Here readers are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses who each testify to the enduring value of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles for piety, proclamation and practice today.”
One of the key scenes in this literature is the story of David and Bathsheba, recorded in 2 Samuel 11. This was a favorite topic in Reformation sermons and there is an abundance of exegetical comment about it. Peter Martyr Vermigli finds the root of David’s great sin in his idleness. While his troops had been sent into battle to fight the enemy, David took a long vacation. “He was sleeping securely in the middle of the day in his room. This is proof of a person’s ease and idleness.” Thomas Becon claims that David’s faithlessness was produced by a culture of luxury and comfort. “So long as he was under the cross, David walked in the ways of the Lord. But … once he came into prosperity—which enabled him to live in wealth, in idleness, and without care—he immediately forgot God and became both an adulterer and a murderer.”
But was Bathsheba to blame for David’s sin? In a sermon he preached on the passage, Calvin does not condemn Bathsheba for bathing as such, but he does think that she should have shown more modesty and discretion. “For a chaste and upright woman will not show herself in such a way as to allure men, nor to be like a net of the devil to ‘start a fire.’” However, Arcangela Tarabotti, an Italian nun who was born in 1604, one year before Theodore Beza died, provides an important female voice and counterpoint:
You preach a sheltered life for women, digging up evidence from the tale of Bathsheba: while bathing in an open place she made even King David lie—that holy prophet whose heart was in tune with God’s. Ask yourselves, witless ones, who was the true cause of her fall, and then deny it if you can. It was nothing else but the king’s lust. Uriah’s wife was at home, minding her own affairs bathing—whether for enjoyment or necessity, it matters little—but David eyed her too. Her beauty inflamed him, and his eyes were the gateway to his heart; by various ruses he obtained the satisfaction his sensuality demanded. What blame can one possibly attribute to that innocent woman, overwhelmed by the splendor of the king’s majesty? She is more worthy of pardon than the royal harp player: she allowed herself to be overcome by a force from on high, as it were; he succumbed to the pull of flesh doomed soon to rot and darts from two eyes that pierce only those wanting to be wounded.
In 1532, Justus Menius, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian in Thuringia, wrote a commentary on 1 Samuel. In the preface he provided for this work, Martin Luther commended the importance of the Old Testament books of history:
You will see that these histories are being reborn and renovated through the use of faith, as if through a baptism of their own, and that they live for us in our own age—or, rather, forever—and, with their magnificent and most glorious examples of faith they serve usefully for instruction, for argument, for teaching, for consolation, indeed, for everything for which, as Paul writes, the word of faith is powerful.
Cooper and Lohrmann quote Luther’s words, and offer their own assessment of the spiritual value of these materials: “We need these stories, so we know that we are not alone in our suffering and doubting, in our rejoicing and believing. By the example and in the company of others we are stirred up and strengthened in our faith in God’s promises. Others have been there before, are there now and will be there in the future. Believers, separated by space and time, are united in Christ by his Spirit. And together they are instructed, corrected and consoled in Scripture.”
Published at First Things, 11.28.16
Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.