Philippians and Philemon: A Commentary. The New Testament Library.
Author: Charles B. Cousar
Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009
First, I would like to thank for fine people at Presbyterian Publishing Corp for sending me this commentary to review.
When I first saw this commentary, the first thing I noticed was how brief the book was: 112 pages in length. It is a compact introduction of Philippians covers the basic points of this epistle. Well, given that fact that Philippians is not a long letter, I am amazed that some commentators can write 800 pages on this epistle. However, given the nature of the NTL/OTL series of commentaries, it provides the necessary basics and does not aim to go too much into depth. It is ideal for pastors and students who want a basic understanding of this epistle without too much detailed reading. This is even shorter than the Pillar commentary.
For a detailed study, I would suggest the Anchor Bible (AB) by John Reumann, NICNT by Gordon Fee, or NIGTC by Peter O’Brien. For an intermediate study, try Word (WBC) by Gerald Hawthrone, or Baker (BECNT) by Moises Silva. If you have time to read and sift through all the details, then that’s fine.
Charles B. Cousar, Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, provides readers with the traditional components expected of a commentary’s introduction—location, authorship and integrity, place and date of writing, character and structure of the writing, an outline, the opponents, its main message and theme.
The author starts off his introduction revealing the theme of Philippians as being joy. This gives me a good impression about Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. It tells the reader that the writer of this epistle was a person who will hope-filled rather than one who was burdened down with suffering. Suffering in the midst of hope and joy is what the suffering church needs to hear—even today.
Cousar is not so much concerned about the literary structure of Philippians. He seems more concerned about the theology and context of Philippians. He believes the authorship is Pauline, which is the majority view. The probable places of writing are Rome, Caesarea, and Ephesus; he leans toward Ephesus.
Cousar states: “Paul uses an inordinately high number of exhortations to encourage the Philippians in their task to remain faithful and steadfast” (p. 13). This observation needs to be felt rather than seen. It is a subjective opinion but I would agree with Cousar. The epistle does have an exhortative feel to it.
The author also sites Robert Jewett’s proposal “that these preachers who compete with Paul were itinerants, who believe that valid apostles should exhibit extraordinary phenomena such as having ecstatic visions and working miracles” (p. 15). This is only one of four traditional criteria of a genuine apostle. Cousar lays out the basic characteristics of Paul’s opponents; however, he doesn’t go into the popular identities and philosophical details about them. For this commentary series, it is enough.
I like the point that Cousar makes concerning the message of the Christ hymn. He states:
The text does not ask that an extraordinary virtue, such as humility, be abstracted from the story and made a virtue to be emulated. Rather the whole story, including the eschatological worship of Jesus as Lord, takes on a mind-shaping role. To be sure, the Christ hymn serves a serves a parenetic function to exhort the readers to look not to their own interests but to the interests of others (p. 18, 19).
This is a good point. It is easy to center on Paul’s obvious traits and point to them as if they were meant to be exemplary for us. On the other hand, if humility is not held to be an exemplary model, it might, however, be one of many points for Christians to model after. Paul’s point of being a model to imitate (3:17) may also refer to many other things, including his reliance on God’s grace. However, I am tempted to include the trait of humility into the list to imitate anyway.
Regarding the subjective genitive phrase “through the faith of Christ,” as opposed to, the objective genitive “through faith in Christ” in 3:9, Cousar takes a safe neutral opinion and concludes that it is inconclusive. For Christians of the Reformation, the tendency is to lean toward a reading of “through faith in Christ.” Personally, this is my theological tendency. However, after reading commentaries on Romans and Galatians regarding this same issue, I, too, remain inconclusive…maybe even more confused or uncertain, which can be a good thing sometimes.
The author briefly brings up the possibility of 3:20-21being a pre-Pauline hymn or creedal fragment. Keeping this point brief is sufficient. Personally, I can’t see this being a hymn and would not even entertain this possibility. Other commentaries cast doubt on 3:20-21 as being a hymn.
I have enjoyed using this compact commentary on Philippians because I get the important issues quickly without doing too much reading. As a pastor with less time to spare than before, this commentary from the NTL series is perfect for pastors who want to save time.