Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review
Genesis is Russell Reno's contribution to the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. As the series' editor, his prefatory comments provide its main assumption that the Nicene tradition provides the proper basis for the interpretation of the Bible as Christian Scripture (p. 12). Additional comments in the author's preface refer to the humility necessarily enjoined by such a stance. Together, the two prefatory contributions suggest the volume will be another addition to a series, explicitly written from faith, and to faith.
Constrained by the limits of a one-volume commentary, Reno's approach is creative. He divides Genesis into five portions, each a commentary chapter: Creation (chs. 1–2), Fall (chs. 3–4), Dead Ends (chs. 5–11), Scandal of Particularity (chs. 12–33), and Need for Atonement (chs. 34–50). Reno explores an additional structural component in the comments, for he views Genesis 12 and 17 as great hinges (p. 168) within the narrative. The first, moving from the cosmic to the particularity of one family, is a wonderful metaphysical heresy that reveals God's commitment to the material and the particular in his plan to provide Sabbath rest. The second, signified in the act of circumcision, reveals God's call to obedience placed upon his creature. The five-fold division, as well as the two great hinge points arise out of Reno's understanding of Genesis' primary theme. While Genesis recounts the origin of all that is, it really reveals the origin of all that will be. This anticipatory bent Reno pursues in his comments and lends the commentary its theological power. From Genesis 12 onward, Reno argues that it resonates with the great Deuteronomic exhortation to Choose Life!—an exhortation that binds Genesis to the source of that life found in the cross of Christ (p. 20). The commentary closes with a very brief bibliography of five frequently cited works, a subject index, and an index of scripture and ancient sources.
The commentary proper is selective. Not all chapters are covered, nor is the narrative's progress its primary focus (illustrating the series' varied approaches; Peter Leithart's contribution on 1–2 Kings engages the text chapter-by-chapter [reviewed by the present reviewer in Toronto Journal of Theology 23.2 (2007): 200–02]). The selective approach unfortunately often yields a concomitant loss of narrative flow (a narrative crucial to the understanding of the Old and New Testaments). Reno acknowledges this reality, noting that it may disappoint those looking for a commentary that approaches Genesis on its own terms (p. 21). But, while much is lost of the sheer theological power of the unfolding narrative, Reno's insights arising out of his reading of the biblical text offer theological reflection of a different kind.
Verses are selected for comment by diverse and eclectic criteria (p. 21). Reno selects verses that (1) represent the main theme of an episode; (2) have long presented conflicting interpretations; (3) raise important theological questions; (4) are taken up in the New Testament; or (5) are elsewhere seemingly contradicted (p. 21). One verse selected for discussion as a main theme (criterion 1 above) is Gen 1:26 regarding the imago dei. Finding correspondences in how both modern and ancient interpreters deal with the dual creation account, he turns to a discussion of the imago dei that is grounded in traditional Christian theological formulations, but which also diverges from those traditions. He traces the imago dei through covenantal categories of dominion and procreation, each of which are further discussed in the next verses selected for reflection (1:26b and 1:28). Genesis 15:6 is another passage that introduces a main theme, that of Abraham's faith. The discussion here also engages the conflicting interpretations of the verse during the Reformation.
The most extended example of Reno's selection criteria (3) and (5) above is in his discussion of creation ex nihilo. Genesis 1:1 and especially Gen 1:2 each take up the exegetical, canonical, and theological bases for the tenet. The resulting reflections on God, humanity, and Christology reappear throughout the commentary. This discussion is extensive (pp. 29–46) because it ties into one of Reno's main polemical interests in the commentary (p. 26) which is to correct the gnostic temptation to universal truth that constructs a transcendent faith divorced from the material world. Rather, Reno shows how the God revealed in Genesis affirms his material creation as good, and moves that creation toward rest. This future is in the flesh, not a metaphysical location (p. 27) and is fully revealed in the Person of the crucified and risen Christ.
Because Reno sees the fulfillment of all that begins in Genesis to be bound up in Christ, his interpretation occurs with its New Testament fulfillment in view (criterion 4 above). While not the only way this is accomplished, allegorical interpretation is part of this reading strategy. For instance, Jacob and Esau, Joseph, and Noah all receive allegorical readings. A helpful piece of Reno's work is to both acknowledge the limits of allegorical reading and to provide a rationale for such reading (p. 119). Regardless of whether one is convinced by the rationale, it provides a context in which such traditional readings can be understood and their value within the Christian tradition appraised.
As part of the discussion of Jacob and Esau, Reno addresses with a sensitive hand the difficult questions of election, and supercessionism (see especially at 25:33 [pp. 217–22] and 27:27 [pp. 229–31]). His discussion does not shy away from the difficulties of election, and of the past troubled and ongoing relationship of church and synagogue. While he moves far afield from the story in Genesis, he engages perennial questions that these texts raise, particularly because they are part of the New Testament discussion (e.g., Romans 9–11) and thus have become part of the Church's reflection.
Reno finds his most fruitful conversation partners in premodern authors. Rashi, Origen, Rabbinic Targums, and especially Augustine loom large. He does not wholly eschew what he repeatedly calls modern biblical scholarship (pp. 32, 35, 44–45, 52, 266), a construct that seems only to refer to source criticism. His concern is with historical-criticism's unsustainable claims to an exclusive interpretive authority (p. 26). However, Reno does not seem to acknowledge that historical-critical interpretation can be undertaken without such claims to exclusive interpretive authority. Nor does he indicate awareness that modern biblical scholarship utilizes methodologies far beyond those of historical-criticism, nor that modern scholarship does not always reject traditional readings. A more nuanced statement of his definitions in this regard is in order, especially as he states he is not on an antimodern campaign against critical scholarship. However, because Reno does not engage modern biblical scholarship frequently, this criticism, while noted, does not detract from the value of the work. Finally, engagement with modern biblical scholarship would have greatly improved his reflections at particular points: his puzzling assertion that In the beginning God created is the LXX rendering rather than the traditional Masoretic rendering would be clarified by reading, for instance, Gordon Wenham's accessible discussion in the Word Biblical Commentary series (Genesis 1–15; WBC 1; Waco: Word Books, 1987), and engagement with works such as Richard Middleton's The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2005) would provide exciting historical background and support to his fine discussion of human dominion in Genesis 1–2.
Reno often writes with a decidedly pastoral concern. The discussion of God's testing of Abraham (22:1, pp. 194–98) takes up the Christian's personal experience of renunciation and restoration, using Abraham's narrative to show the relevance of his experience to Christian life and discipleship in a modern world. Similarly, the story of Dinah's rape is dealt with so that modern responses to rape as a crime against an individual woman are acknowledged, but then Reno directs the conversation to the communal nature of the crime which is often overlooked by moderns. Whether his distinction between what concerns moderns and premoderns is wholly true, he addresses something other than what he calls a modern response while still acknowledging the validity of that modern view.
Reno's commentary will not wholly meet the interests of those seeking a narrative unfolding of the Genesis story, nor those desiring full discussion of the various questions of history or transmission raised by the text. But he has not undertaken such a project. This work explores the narrative revelation of God in a particular, worldly history, an embodied history. Reno's work places the end goal of this history in the New Testament narrative of Jesus Christ. It is a wholly Christian canonical project, familiar with the Church's long and ongoing conversation with these texts. Utilizing various methodologies, it provides an example of a reading strategy conducted within the Nicene tradition.