Colossians in the ESV Study Bible: An Interview with Clinton Arnold
Interviewed by Andy Naselli
Clinton E. Arnold is professor of New Testament language and literature and chair of the New Testament department at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California, where he has taught since 1987. He has earned degrees at Biola College (B.A.), Talbot Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and the University of Aberdeen (Ph.D.). His website and CV list his many publications.
1. What do you think about study Bibles in general and the ESV Study Bible in particular?
There is a long history of study Bibles in the church dating back to the Geneva Bible of 1560. Many Christians have found the notes of this and subsequent study Bibles very useful in helping them to understand and interpret the text of Scripture. Of course, one of the dangers has been in subconsciously elevating the authority of the notes to that of Scripture. When I was younger, some poked fun at this by slightly editing the line of a well-known hymn: “My faith is built on nothing less than Scofield’s notes and Scripture Press!”
One of the distinct benefits of study Bibles is in helping lay people to see that the Scripture is far more than a disconnected collection of Bible verses. Study Bibles provide a great service in helping people read the Bible in its literary context (with notes on literary features of the text and outlining the flow of thought), historical context (with numerous notes explaining various social, cultural, and historical details of the text and by helping readers see the life setting of each individual document), and in theological context (by explaining theological ideas in relationship to the way the same concepts are explained by other biblical writers).
There is great excitement at my home about the release of the ESV Study Bible. Each member of my family wants their own copy as soon as it is available. Part of this enthusiasm stems from the wide array of notes, essays, and visual aids that will be a part of this publication. The team of experts that Crossway pulled together for this project and the depth of the notes they have written also make this a very attractive resource. I feel quite privileged to have had a small part in this project.
2. You’ve been researching and writing on Colossians since at least 1991:
- Jan-Aug 1991: Post-doctoral research in Tübingen, Germany under Professor Peter Stuhlmacher on the historical context of the epistle to the Colossians.
- 1992: “Colossae” in Anchor Bible Dictionary.
- 1995: The Colossian Syncretism: The Interface Between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae (WUNT 2/77; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck), 1995; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996.
- 2002: “Colossians” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary.
- 2007: “Colossians” in Apologetics Study Bible.
- 2008: “Colossians” in ESV Study Bible.
- in preparation: Colossians, Philemon revision in the Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 44.
Would you share a brief abstract of your 1995 WUNT tome and note how this has helped you in your understanding of Colossians?
I actually began in-depth academic work on Colossians back in 1983 when I started my doctoral work at Aberdeen. When I published a revised form of my dissertation, I deleted everything on Colossians because I felt there was so much more historical work that should be done on the letter (and because Cambridge asked me to reduce the size of my manuscript by 40%!). I had an opportunity to pursue some of these loose ends during a period of research in Germany, where I had easy access to some of the finest archaeological and historical libraries in the world.
One of the things that had always intrigued me about Roman era western Anatolia was the amazing concentration of inscriptions mentioning angels or invoking angels—far more, in fact, than anywhere else in the Mediterranean world. This seemed an interesting convergence with the fact that Paul described one of the key features of the teaching of his opponents at Colossae as advocating “the worship of angels.” All of these inscriptions appeared to have one common theme: these people were calling on angels for help, deliverance, and protection from evil spirits.
This and a variety of other historical phenomena led me to the conclusion that the problem at Colossae was not the influence of some sophisticated philosophical ideas (like Gnosticism) or even Jewish mysticism, but something more practical—a local form of folk belief. Just as in many non-western cultures today, people from this area sought out the the spiritual wisdom and guidance from local shamans (or, “magicians”) who promised to provide them with spiritual power. Of course, a critical issue for believers is the degree to which they could rely on these local traditions for accessing spiritual power. Should they continue to call on helper spirits (angels), wear amulets, perform incantations and rituals, and observe taboos?
I think Paul gives theological perspective on these kinds of questions in Colossians. Reading Colossians against this background helps us see its incredible relevance to us in a new light.
3. Would you explain what “mirror reading” is and discuss whether we can determine a letter’s background by connecting the dots?
“Mirror reading” is a way of reading a NT letter under the assumption that most of what is said by the biblical writer is reflective of a problem or situation confronting the church. For example, someone might say that because Paul admonishes the Colossians to rid themselves of “anger, wrath, malice, and slander,” that this must have been a big problem in the church at Colossae. Such a way of reading the letter could easily be overdone. Some of the instruction that Paul gives may simply be based on the fact that these are universal human problems (because of the presence of sin).
It is not “mirror reading,” however, to examine explicit features of the so-called heresy in light of the religious and cultural environment. In other words, when Paul says, “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions” (Col 2:18), this is a specific indicator of what the opponents were teaching that calls out for historical examination. We need to look at all such explicit indicators and attempt to discern what the church was facing.
It becomes much more difficult in determining which aspects of the positive teaching of the letter should be understood as contributing to our understanding of what the problem was. In my view, some of the positive teaching must be seen as contributing to a portrait of the situation because Paul was writing as a caring pastor who was expressing theology in a way that was relevant to their specific needs.
It should be noted, however, that this does not make the theology of the letter dependent upon one particular reconstruction of the heresy. The truth Paul expresses about Christ will remain true regardless of how we understand the rival teaching at Colossae. In other words, it is true that “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13) whether one sees the Colossian philosophy as mystical Judaism, Gnosticism, or local folk belief. Our interpretation of the relevance of this statement for our own ministry setting, however, may be impacted by our understanding of the nature of the false teaching.
4. More generally, how did you transition from the technical, scholarly level to a study Bible?
Conversations with many believers from non-Western backgrounds has helped me to see many features of the relevance of Colossians that were not as readily apparent to me.
In general, though, my heart has always been with the church first and foremost. I try to do all of my scholarship in the service of the church.
5. What is your favorite aspect of Colossians?
I am amazed at the way Paul takes this incredibly high Christology and makes it relevant to the church. This is summed up well in Col 2:9-10, where he says: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” By virtue of our relationship with Christ, we share in his power and authority over the enemies (not only the power of sin, but the power of the demonic realm). This is a remarkable teaching that should be shouted from the rooftops.
6. What are some of the most useful commentaries on Colossians?
Beginning with the more advanced commentaries, Robert McL. Wilson’s ICC commentary (T. & T. Clark) is the most recent and thorough. Professor Wilson has spent many years of his life working on this. It is quite helpful. Doug Moo has also put together an outstanding commentary on Colossians for the Pillar series (Eerdmans) that has just been published. I have always found Doug’s comments wise and discerning. Although it is old (originally printed in 1879), J. B. Lightfoot’s commentary is still very informative and useful. Those who want help with the Greek text will find Murray Harris’s Exegetical Guide on Colossians to be quite handy. Peter O’Brien’s Word Biblical Commentary has served the church very well over the past two decades.
At the mid-level, one will find David Garland’s NIVAC commentary (Zondervan) very profitable. Because of this series’ emphasis on application, all will find the “Contemporary Significance” sections stimulating.
7. What advice would you give to pastors who are contemplating preaching expository sermons through Colossians? Would you recommend a particular approach?
Preliminary to the preparation of any preaching series should be multiple readings of the text. This should be done in a prayerful way calling upon the Spirit of God to open up the meaning and relevance of the text. I have personally found it helpful to have a different question in mind that I pose to the text with each successive reading, such as, what does this book teach me about Christ? about God? about the nature of salvation? et al.
Although we need to be careful of ascribing too much importance to background information, it has a very important role to play in the hermeneutical process. We must remember that Colossians was written to a particular group of people in a specific cultural setting facing a unique set of problems. Therefore, the better we can understand the so-called heresy and the reasons that prompted it, the better we can do at understanding the relevance of the theological message of Colossians for our cultural context. Accordingly, I think it is important for anyone preaching or teaching through Colossians to take the time to study the life setting of the letter and the contours of what we can know about the rival teaching at Colossae.
I recently had the privilege of spending a day with the Senior Pastor and teaching staff of First Evangelical Free Church, Fullerton, dialoguing about the text, theology, background, and relevance of Colossians. They organized this time in preparation for a coordinated emphasis on Colossians for the Sunday morning services and various other teaching ministries of the church. I know that I personally found this to be a stimulating time and it seemed like it would have been a very helpful time for the pastor and teachers as they worked diligently well in advance of launching this series. We can never underestimate how much we can learn from each other in our study of the text.
8. What advice would you give to lay people reading Colossians in the ESV Study Bible?
Please read the text of Colossians and make some of your own observations before jumping to the notes. This will also enhance the value of the notes on Colossians for you since you are approaching them with questions formed on the basis of your own reading of the text. Of course, this procedure would apply to gaining the maximum value from the study notes on any of the books of the Bible.
JT: Thanks to Andy Naselli and Clint Arnold for doing this interview! To read Dr. Arnold’s introduction and his notes on the first chapter of Colossians, here is the PDF.