Thirty-five years ago, Morna Hooker published an essay entitled “Interchange and Suffering” in which she called exegetes of Col 1:24 to account: “Most commentators are concerned to stress what Paul does not mean here … [this verse] provides an interesting example of the way in which commentators have allowed their theological convictions to influence their interpretation of the text” (in Suffering and Martyrdom in the New Testament, ed. W. Horbury and B. McNeil [Cambridge: CUP, 1981], 81–82). Apparently the condition has altered little in the intervening decades, for Bruce Clark begins his book (based on his Cambridge PhD thesis) by remarking in near identical fashion that biblical scholars fail to investigate the text with the same sort of straightforward, honest exegesis that would be used anywhere else.
Completing Christ’s Afflictions represents Clark’s attempt to fill this vacancy, and its seven chapters address critical internal and external matters. Chapter 1 offers a concise history of the interpretation of Col 1:24, by which Clark demonstrates a tendency among commentators—both pre-modern and modern—to ignore the context in which the verse is embedded. Thus, his specific research question is “How does Col 1:24 relate to its context?” (p. 11). However, one of the perennial challenges of the text is how to render the verb ἀνταναπληρόω, which occurs only here in the NT and which has been traditionally rendered “to fill up” or “to complete.” Thus, chapter 2 contributes detailed analysis of the term’s usage in Greek literature written between the 4th century BCE and the mid-4th century CE. He concludes that in nearly every instance the word conveys a consistent “storyline” best captured by the translation “to bring to completion in place of another” (p. 158), and that this high level of consistency ought to dictate the way it is translated in Colossians 1:24. Chapter 3 returns to internal concerns, taking up exploration of the other constituents in the verse (e.g., νῦν, χαίρω, ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν, etc.), and chapters 4–5 turn focus to the main actors in Colossians 1, seeking to identify the “Christ” whose afflictions are completed and the “Paul” who completes them.
Chapter 5 is particularly noteworthy, for Clark asserts that Paul stands in an entirely unique relationship with Christ as διάκονος (“servant”): Paul’s capacity to “bring to completion” Christ’s afflictions relates immediately to this position, and is thus irreplicable. Moreover, the afflictions of Christ and Paul together “constitute the entirety of the divine act of reconciliation” (p. 156). Chapter 6 delivers exegesis of 2 Corinthians 5:18—6:4, a passage which shares substantial conceptual overlap with Colossians 1:24. Reading the latter in light of the former lends credence to several claims, he writes: (a) the suffering of Christ and Paul there spoken of stands distinct from the suffering of the Christian community, (b) Paul’s suffering is distinguishable from Christ’s, and yet (c) it partakes nevertheless of the same nature, and (d) the telos of Christ’s and Paul’s suffering is “to ‘present’ God’s people (to God)” (p. 154). Chapter 7 ties off the project with concise summaries and restatements of Clark’s findings.
I begin with several features of this book that give me pause, before calling attention to its considerable merits. First, given that the audience which this journal targets consists in part of students and pastors, it bears noting that Completing Christ’s Afflictions is quite a difficult read both in terms of its content and its style; the former of course could not be helped, for lexical studies trade in minutiae; the latter—even in the case of a scholarly monograph such as this—could have been alleviated with greater attention to the lucidity and accessibility of the prose. Second, it seems odd that a book which places such a high premium on word studies never engages the work of Ferdinand de Saussure or Ludwig Wittgenstein—or at least James Barr, whose shadow still stretches across biblical studies. Clark attributes his methodology to Moisés Silva’s Biblical Words and Their Meaning, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994) and footnotes several books by John Lyons, but nowhere does he acknowledge the dangers of lexical studies, much less indicate how he avoided them. Third, one of the book’s central claims is that Col 1:24 and 2 Cor 5:18–6:4 refer solely to Paul’s own suffering and not the suffering which believers in general experience. However, even if one is prepared to concede that Paul speaks concerning himself in these passages, it is quite a large jump to argue that Paul therefore envisions a categorically distinct kind of suffering to which he alone is privy. It seems to me that the use of the first person plural which peppers 2 Corinthians 5 invites a more imaginative reading.
Even if there are elements which cause the reader concern, Completing Christ’s Afflictions is undoubtedly an exceptional book which warrants glowing commendation. Several qualities chiefly distinguish it. First, it is a volume which required ingenuity to execute and courage to publish: not only does he explore avenues which scholars have long called “dead ends,” but he manages to mount fresh arguments which assail near consensus opinions (as in the case of his interpretation of 2 Cor 5:21) in biblical studies. Second, Clark’s book exhibits his remarkable ability to read large swaths of material and determine patterns of continuity within that material. This proficiency is perhaps best displayed in his interaction with the ancient Greek corpus, but it is also evidenced in his thorough knowledge of the letters of Paul to which his footnotes and parenthetical comments bear witness. Third, his book has surely established itself as the starting point for all future interactions with Paul’s most difficult verse. Completing Christ’s Afflictions may require earnest attention, but the substantial payoff amply rewards the reader’s efforts.