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Book review: Central and East European Bible Commentary, edited by Corneliu Constantineanu and Peter Penner

03 November 2023

Alexander Faludy looks at biblical research from countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain

THIS commentary addresses an urgent pastoral task. As the editors note in their General Introduction, 20th-century communist persecution of Christianity in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) inhibited biblical scholarship in that part of the continent. Further, the Cold War isolated what little was possible from wider global trends.

Since 1989, translated Western commentaries have become readily available. Yet, while these are of high academic quality, they are not attuned to the region’s missionary and contextual needs. This book seeks to fill the gap. Given that Anglicans exist in the region only as a minuscule expatriate diaspora, this is a generous undertaking by Langham — a publisher rooted in Evangelical Anglicanism.

The single-volume commentary runs to 1676 pages and unites the work of 106 contributors — representing an impressive cross-section of theological and national traditions. This is notable in a region beset with sectarian and ethnic divides. Co-ordination of such an immense undertaking amid the Covid pandemic, and despite the death of its original lead editor (Corneliu Constantineanu), is impressive.

The majority of contributions are Evangelical, but there is also a healthy ecumenical admixture of essays by Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox writers. Contributors’ willingness to reflect self-critically on their own traditions sets a good example.

The commentary is aimed at preachers, pastors, and study-group leaders, not an academic audience. It has been edited to a consistent, intermediate, level of English suitable for a range of second-language speakers.

The main text is punctuated by frequent short observations connecting biblical passages to contemporary social, political, and ecclesial issues in CEE. Only a selection of material can be evaluated here.

The Hungarian Reformed pastor Tamás Czövek’s chapter on Genesis integrates scholarship and pastoral concern with aplomb.

Commenting on the Tower of Babel narrative (Genesis 11-9), Czövek argues that, while interpretation traditionally focuses on the idea of the builders’ hubris in fabricating a structure (probably a Babylonian Ziggurat) touching the heavens to enable their own ascent, another reading is possible.

“Ziggurats were not actually erected for people to reach up to heaven but for gods to descend to earth.” God does, in fact, descend to earth, and the keynote of his distress is readable as being focused on finding “one nation with one language which does not allow for diversity”. God’s response is not to destroy the Ziggurat as an “offence”, but to disrupt its builders’ linguistic unity.

Czövek moves smoothly from this exegesis to a critique of the ugly laudation of cultural uniformity and national chauvinism in post-communist CEE: “Since 1989, the church has often been used to bolster a homogeneous society characterised by ethnic purity. Religious propaganda is used to wield power.”

Czövek reminds readers of Karl Barth’s twice uttered chastisement of the Hungarian Reformed Church’s tendency towards idolatrous ethno-nationalism in both 1936 and 1951 — implying that the situation today, in the era of Viktor Orbán, also approaches a status confessionis (Church-dividing) issue.

Daniel Berkovic’s excursus on Judaism and Christianity laments “meagre contact” and “no real dialogue between Christians and Jews in our region”. Unfortunately, some NT contributions (especially on Mark and Romans) themselves exhibit the crude anti-Judaism absent from mainstream scholarship during the past 50 years — a sad verification of the Introduction’s observations about the isolation of CEE biblical research.

OT contributors seem comfortable with modern historical-critical methods, but not so their NT colleagues. The latter routinely make problematic assertions with regard to apostolic authorship for books such as Matthew, John, and Timothy. This suggests that rejuvenation of CEE biblical scholarship is still a work in progress — albeit that other contributions to the book itself indicate helpful directions for development.

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.


Central and East European Bible Commentary
Corneliu Constantineanu and Peter Penner, editors
Langham Publishing £49.99
Church Times Bookshop £44.99

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