December 11, 2009
They Asked for a Publisher's Perspective (Continued)
In the past decade or more the need for theological commentaries has become increasingly apparent. Nevertheless, as I have tried to follow the literature and debate surrounding theological interpretation of Scripture, one thing has become apparent: there seems to be a lack of consensus regarding what theological interpretation should optimally look like. Witness, for example, the opening words of Walter Moberly’s recent article in the Journal of Theological Interpretation entitled “What Is Theological Interpretation of Scripture”:
I take heart from Moberly’s confession, since in the past couple of weeks I have obsessed over theological interpretation and don’t seem to be much further on the way toward a conclusion than when I began. It is not easy to discern a clear path toward a renewal of theological commentaries on Scripture. Some seem to confuse application with theological interpretation (or at least they confuse me when they run the two together!). Some see biblical theology as the bridge between biblical exegesis and systematic theology—i.e., Gabler was right, and we just need to refine the process of moving from X (analysis) to Y (synthesis) to Z (timeless principles). Others maintain that Gabler’s perspective is deeply flawed, that the process is in practice is already mortgaged to some sort of theological perspective, and that theological interpretation needs to be guided or refereed by the Rule of Faith. Or we need to take a canonical approach. And then, of course, there are other perspectives.
In the Two Horizons and Brazos commentary series, we have two prominent and hermeneutically sophisticated examples of trying to build a bridge from opposing sides of the chasm between biblical studies and theology. I have read in select volumes from both series and read reviews of volumes in each series. The one thing that stands out is that while there is much of value and promise in these volumes, and some stimulating discussion and examples of how the task should be executed, we have not yet settled on how best to go about that task. I do not say this to denigrate any efforts so far. In fact I admire them. But uncertainty has the potential of making publishers nervous.
And speaking of nervousness, it can also find its way into even successful projects. IVP’s own bid in theological commentary has taken the form of the ACCS, and while in hindsight it has turned out to be a huge publishing success, at its inception the project was a mingling of enthusiasm and worry. As we planned the project, preliminary attitudes toward the ACCS were mixed. One got the impression that some biblical scholars regarded—and still do regard—patristic commentary as the product of a truly unfortunate era that did not deserve resurrection, let alone in a twenty-six-volume series. Others, most of whom are probably outside the biblical-studies guild, welcomed it with enthusiasm (as they have The Church’s Bible from Eerdmans). In addition, the series benefitted from another developing interest, that of the reception history of the Bible. I am not claiming that patristic commentary is the gold standard of theological interpretation, but its resurrection and dissemination has been a contribution to the contemporary renewal of theological interpretation. Indeed, some have seen it as making a critical contribution. Whatever the case, at the series’ inception, who knew for certain whether the time was as ripe as it seemed to be?
For all the reasons I have mentioned, a publisher wants to be reasonably confident that the prolonged commitment to expending editorial, production and marketing capital is going to be worthwhile as compared with other publishing opportunities that beckon for attention. And the commissioning editor can feel like his or her credibility is on the line. The publisher is being called on to invest real dollars (in royalty advances, editorial salaries, production and printing and marketing costs, and so forth) over several years with the hope of an eventual return after perhaps several more years of sales.
But publishers also want to catch the crest of a breaking wave if they can. We hate being left behind. Yea, for three reasons and even four, we despise it. And I don’t mean this solely in a competitive “business” sense. No, we are publishing because we want to be part of the critical conversations of our day. And since commentary series take time to develop, we watch trends and prepare to meet them. So where is the wave of theological interpretation at this moment? That is the question for which we would all like the answer.
From our experience with the ACCS, this much is clear: it has revealed a pent-up thirst for theological, ecclesial and spiritually nourishing commentary on Scripture as well as a deep appreciation for premodern biblical interpretation. And with the ACCS virtually completed, at IVP Academic we are now publishing a selection of full patristic commentaries in our Ancient Christian Texts series (with Ambrosiaster’s commentaries on the Pauline letters leading the way). And more ambitiously, we have a Reformation Commentary on Scripture series well under development. Perhaps historical theological commentaries will be our primary contribution to theological interpretation. (After all, dead theological commentators yield fewer surprises than living ones, don’t argue endlessly about methodology, submit their work on time and don’t talk back!)
Or perhaps we will broaden our engagement with theological interpretation. Maybe there is a “killer app” of theological commentary (that is methodologically sound and financially sustainable) yet to be formulated. I for one would hate to miss out on that.
In summary, publishers prefer commentaries published in a series with a sound methodological footing that can be wed to marketable features and benefits that are attractive to a reasonably broad audience and can be consistently delivered in content and format in a timely manner. I predict publishers will be absolutely crazy about theological commentaries that meet these criteria.