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Spring 1987 · Vol. 16 No. 1 · pp. 81–83 

Book Review


Elmer A. Martens. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1986. 327 pages.

Reviewed by Ben C. Ollenburger

Elmer Martens, past President of the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary and dean of Mennonite Brethren Old Testament scholars, has written the initial volume in the Believers Church Bible Commentary. That is important news, not just because we now have the fruit of Professor Martens’ long and intensive labor on the book of Jeremiah, but also because the series in which it is published is an ecumenical effort among five denominations to offer a series of biblical commentaries from within the Believers Church perspective.

That perspective, represented institutionally in this series by the Brethren in Christ, Mennonite, General Conference Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, and Church of the Brethren denominations, is not easy to define in a commentary. Indeed, it has hardly been represented in commentaries before now, and the Believers Church Bible Commentary will at least help us to assess whether there is something distinctive in our tradition when it comes to commenting on biblical texts. For their part, the editors of the series, one of whom is Professor Martens himself, have left it to individual authors to answer this question. If the present volume on Jeremiah is an indication, then we may assume that one important characteristic of the Believers Church is that the Bible bears heavily on questions of Christian ethics, both social and personal.

An ethical emphasis is certainly a mark of this commentary. To be sure, it is also a mark of Jeremiah, but Martens takes pains to bring Jeremiah’s message, and especially his indictment of Judah and its kings, into conversation with what he sees to be the pressing moral issues of today, especially as they effect the life of the church. Sometimes Martens explicitly states his own convictions on such issues, convictions he expects his readers to share. On other occasions he simply poses the kinds of questions which promote conversation. For example, he asks us to consider, in light of Jeremiah 21:1-23:8, whether R.C. Maritain was right in saying, “He who is on the side of the poor is always on the side of the right” (p. 151). While it is clear that such a question cannot be answered on the basis of this text alone, posing it in relation to the text can {81} be a fruitful way of engaging the Bible and engendering contemporary debate and conversation around it. That too is a mark of the Believers Church.

These questions of “present relevance” are a regular part of the format in which Martens casts his commentary. That format comprises five parts: a “Preview,” in which the content of a large unit of text is introduced; an “Outline” of the unit; “Explanatory Notes,” which comment on smaller sections of text; “The Text in Biblical Context,” relating texts from Jeremiah to a wider range of Biblical passages dealing with similar concerns; “The Text in the Life of the Church,” where suggestions are made and questions raised concerning the contemporary import of Jeremiah’s message. A short and non-technical discussion of Jeremiah introduces the commentary, and a lengthy section of “Glossary Notes” concludes it.

It is for the Glossary that technical matters are reserved, and even there they are relatively few and are discussed in a way that readers can easily follow. Martens generally avoids the kinds of discussion that would allow one to label his treatment of the text as, for example, evangelical or liberal. Critical questions are mentioned (e.g., pp. 296-98), but little time is spent arguing about them and the exposition seldom depends on how they are answered. The major portion of the book is given to the text of Jeremiah itself, and Martens strives to make that text as clear as possible. He does so, and does it very well, by commenting on units of text rather than by proceeding verse by verse. Since the book of Jeremiah seeks to persuade its readers rather than merely giving them information, Martens appropriately seeks to uncover its rhetorical force. Sometimes his comments are in the nature of paraphrase while at other times he enters into a more expansive interpretation. There are frequent illustrations drawn from contemporary cultures, not all of them North American, designed to clarify Jeremiah’s words and actions. Where these are obscure, or where they require more extended discussion, the reader is referred to the Glossary. In all of this Martens demonstrates both his skill as an interpreter and his desire and ability to draw us into the text, an ability honed by years of teaching and preaching. Not everyone will agree with his interpretation of specific texts (e.g., Jeremiah 20:7-13), and {82} the format leaves little space for pointing to alternative interpretations, but everyone will find Martens’ reading of the text instructive. Pastors especially will find it appealing, and it is my sense that Martens has them foremost in mind.

As I have suggested, the Believers Church perspective is most immediately evident in Martens’ emphasis on the moral import of Jeremiah, discussed in the “Text in the Life of the Church” sections of the commentary. Here are to be found frequent criticisms of militarism, violence, oppression, economic injustice, and tyrannical power, with contrasting emphases on peace, social justice and integrity. The Believers Church tradition is also reflected in frequent quotations from Menno Simons and the Martyrs Mirror. There are also references to the likes of Thomas More, Kierkegaard, Eli Wiesel, Augustine and Aristedes—a diverse lot! But the names of Spurgeon, Finney, David Brainerd, William Carey and G. Campbell Morgan, and the use made of them, are more significant, placing the commentary as much within an evangelical as a Believers Church tradition.

The most difficult of Martens’ assignments is to place Jeremiah in the context of “the Life of the Church.” To assess in a few lines the “present relevance” of a text is a perilous undertaking, and Martens seems on occasion to seek immediate applicability when the text calls more for theological and hermeneutical reflection. For example, in Jeremiah 16 and 17 there is a short and extended indictment of Judah surrounding a series of elegant poems, at the climax of which Jeremiah appeals to God for vindication of the Word that God had compelled him to announce. Martens suggests that in “the Life of the Church” this passage has to do with “worldwide mission,” and he goes on to discuss various “persuasion techniques.” World mission and techniques of persuasion appropriate to it may be important issues for the church, and what Martens says about them is worthwhile, but I do not see either that they are issues raised by this text, or that a discussion of them adequately places this text in the church’s life.

It may be that comments on the “present relevance” of the Bible are something different from and even less important than efforts to make the biblical text more easily accessible to congregations who read it. Serious and committed reading of {83} the Bible is perhaps that which is historically most distinctive of the believers church, and Elmer Martens has helped us all immeasurably to read Jeremiah with understanding. His commentary is a laudable debut for the series of which it is a part, a series that will contribute to the present relevance of the Believers Church.

Ben Ollenburger
Assistant Professor of Old Testament
Princeton Theological Seminary

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