Meredith G. Kline. Genesis: A New Commentary. Edited by Jonathan G. Kline. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2016. Pp. xx +154. $19.95 (paper).
Nearly ten years after Meredith G. Kline entered into glory, readers are in possession of a new book: a short commentary on the book of Genesis. In the editor’s preface, Jonathan G. Kline (grandson of the author), recounts finding a typed manuscript of this volume among his grandfather’s papers and typesetting it for posterity purposes. Though Meredith G. Kline (hereafter Kline) published a similarly short, note-style commentary in 1970 as part of the revision of the New Bible Commentary, this earlier commentary was only an early snap-shot of his developing views on the role of Genesis as the “historical prologue” of the covenant treaty-document that is the canon of Scripture.
Though Kline is known by many readers of this journal for the framework interpretation of Genesis 1-2, appropriation of 2nd millennium BC Hittite treaties for understanding of the form and function of Deuteronomy, and a distinctive typological approach to the works-principle in biblical covenant administrations, he must first and foremost be understood as a biblical-theologian in the tradition of Geerhardus Vos. Kline’s later work, in particular Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2006), reflects his more developed thinking on the role Genesis plays in setting the stage for the great redemptive-historical storyline developed throughout the remainder of the biblical canon. Since this book offered a paradigm-shaping treatment of Genesis that builds upon the work of Vos, the great value of Genesis: A New Commentary vis-à-vis his earlier Genesis commentary is that it incorporates the insights of Kingdom Prologue, modeling Kline’s approach to the biblical book via his more developed biblical-theological thinking. Whether or not readers of this review follow Kline in his particular theological formulations, they will find his treatment of themes and events beneficial for understanding Genesis in its full canonical significance.
Several strengths commend this volume to readers of this journal. First this work serves as an exemplar of a Klinean (and in many respects, Vosian) exposition of the book of Genesis. Kline’s name is often invoked in theological discourse, generally as providing exegetical support for or against theological positions, i.e., the Reformed resurgence of Two-Kingdom Theology, recent republication debates, Theonomy and Christian Reconstructionism, Monocovenantalism, etc. And while the fruit of Kline’s exegesis certainly gets employed in these debates, his exegesis as such is informative for any biblical scholar who affirms the essential unity of the Old and New Testament Scriptures. Certainly there are times when Kline’s exegesis feels a bit fanciful (e.g., his treatment of Zechariah in Glory in Our Midst: A Biblical-Theological Reading of Zechariah’s Night Visions [Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001]), but in Genesis: A New Commentary, the insights remain quite restrained though still creative and fresh. Many readers lament our lack of actual biblical commentaries by Geerhardus Vos; but at least with Kline we have an example of how a Vosian biblical theology guides exegesis of an entire biblical book.
Another strength of this volume is its value for orienting interpreters to significant biblical-theological themes in the units and subunits within the book of Genesis. Kline follows many interpreters by viewing the toledot formulae (אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדוֹת; cf. Gen. 2:4, [5:1], 6:9, 10:1, etc.), as a cue to its overarching organization. Lower level units within each toledot are also delineated, giving pastors guidance for selecting passages for preaching that cohere around a given theological theme emphasized by the book.
There are several examples of this; I will note just a few. Kline regularly relates the theme of “supernatural intervention needed for fulfillment of divine promises” to the theme of “inadequacy of human resources to do so.” And so, concerning the birth of Jacob’s sons, Kline writes: “The account of their births continues the main theological emphases of the preceding narratives: the covenanted salvation is bestowed as a gift of divine grace in spite of human contrariness and as a miracle of divine power, not an achievement of human cunning” (102; cf. pgs. 54, 92). Kline further unpacks this theme against the NT backdrop, casting it in terms of the contrast between “the principles of faith and the works of the flesh” (103), especially as Rachel resorts even to mandrakes for their supposed ability to overcome her barrenness. (Cf. pg. 110 where Jacob’s prostration before Esau is also cast in terms of the “emptiness of the apparent victories [over Esau] he had won earlier by his works of the flesh.”) Other NT connections are highlighted in several places, usually in terms of typology (e.g., 58, 61, 80), but also in terms of prophetic fulfillment (e.g., 67, 77-78). As Kline’s notes are fairly brief, pastors will find a quick orientation to the theological profile of a passage within a short word count.
Another benefit of this volume is its genuine improvement over Kline’s 1970 Genesis commentary mentioned above. While his remarks on the flood still reflect a hesitancy to be dogmatic about its extent, he has mitigated his language, no longer calling it “precarious” to assume that the flood had a worldwide extent (as he did in 1970), and instead stresses the fact that Scripture does, at times use “universal-sounding terms for more limited situations (cf. Dan 2:38; 4:22; 5:19)” (35), while still insisting that the central trunk of human history had been severed. While some readers will feel Kline has not gone far enough, we do see he has retreated from his earlier dogmatism in an effort to better account for the details of the biblical text.
Two other examples of welcome improvements are his treatment of circumcision in Genesis 17, and his thicker description of the role of the Ishmael toledot in Genesis 25:12-18. In the case of the former, the conclusions of Kline’s By Oath Consigned: A Reinterpretation of the Covenant Sign of Circumcision and Baptism [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968]) have been more meaningfully worked into the notes (68-70). And in the case of the later, while still quite brief, this reviewer found insightful Kline’s suggestion that “this genealogy of Ishmael serves to dismiss Ishmael from the context of the Abrahamic Covenant (at least, until its new covenant stage), leaving the premessianic future of that covenant to Isaac and his descendants” (89; emphasis added). The role of ethnic Israel vis-à-vis the nations is one Kline deals with elsewhere in his writings, and seeing how he applies it here, provides a fruitful line of inquiry in how to preach the Ishmael narratives.
A few items leave this volume open to critique. Those not convinced by his framework interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:4 will find his opening exegesis disappointing, though it should be noted that Kline does not defend or articulate the position per se, but mostly just assumes it. For example, his equation of the “bush of the field” (שִׂיחַ הַשָּׂדֶה) in Gen 2:5 with the plant life of Gen 1:11-12 is not defended exegetically, but simply asserted. Additionally, the note-style nature of this commentary causes Kline to be overly brief in areas that should be unpacked in more detail to be best appreciated. For example, his treatment of לְרוּחַ הַיּוֹם in Gen 3:8 as the thunderous arrival of Yahweh in judgment, translating it as “The Spirit of the day” in place of the “cool of the day” found in many English translations, (made famous by his book Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), is merely hinted at in a single sentence (22). This is just enough to alert readers to this unique reading, but not enough to convince them of its legitimacy. Stray insights like these may even lead some readers toward viewing Kline’s exegesis as overly creative.
Kline’s treatment of Genesis 4 as the divine charter for the common-grace role of the city (26), which has wide ranging implications for discussions of the relationship between politics and the Christian faith, sounds also like a creative overstatement. And Kline’s discussion of Abraham’s receipt of the typological kingdom via “his faithful performance of covenant obligations,” linked directly to Christ’s own receipt of the eternal kingdom via his own obedience (62), muddies the discussion by its brevity, and will likely reinforce the views of those who feel Kline is imprecise, overly innovative, and thus to be read with suspicion.
Nevertheless, even readers critical of so-called “Klinean” thought will find that Genesis: A New Commentary provides a brief, but overall useful model for interpreting Genesis in an unashamedly covenantal, redemptive-historical manor. While the book does not sufficiently introduce Klinean themes to serve as an introduction to Kline’s thought (readers will still need to pore through Kingdom Prologue or acquire the newly published Essential Writings of Meredith G. Kline [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2017] for that), it does illustrate how Kline approaches the text of Scripture in its progressively-unfolding, organic character. The editorial work by Jonathan Kline has not only ensured a cleanly-laid-out volume, it has added several helpful features, in particular the definition of Hebrew words in footnotes which Kline himself did not himself provide, and footnotes directing readers to Kline’s earlier works so as to compensate for the brevity of the commentary.
Genesis: A New Commentary is a welcome addition to the library of any pastor adhering to redemptive-historical preaching, and will be especially useful for students learning to apply the biblical-theological method to the individual passages of Genesis.