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Monday, July 9, 2012

"Four Views on the Apostle Paul"

TITLE: Four Views on the Apostle Paul (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology)
AUTHOR: Michael F. Bird, (editor)
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (256 pages).

This book brings together four conversational partners coming from four broad angles with regards to their perspectives on the life, the teachings, and the theology of the Apostle Paul. Like many of the counterpoints books, the four perspectives selected are, the evangelical, the Roman Catholic, the mainline protestant, and the Jewish. The focus is on the understanding of what Paul means back then in the past, and what the teachings mean for us now in the present. Helmed by a very able moderator, Michael F. Bird, all the contributors are given the following four topics to kick start their discussion.
  1. Salvation
  2. Significance of Christ
  3. Pauline theology
  4. Paul's vision for the Church
After reading through the deeply divergent views amid the pleasantries, the general editor helpfully brings to a close a reminder of the following common understanding that:
  • Paul's contribution to history is immense; 
  • Paul helps in firming relationships between Christians and Jews;
  • Paul's teachings matter tremendously for both Christian believers as well as the Church;
  • Paul matters greatly for the theological understanding of all communities;
  • Paul's perspective matters with regards to understanding Jesus and the Messianic theme;
  • Paul's views are essential with regards to unity and edification of the body;
  • Paul matters.

A) The Evangelical Perspective according to Schreiner

Thomas R. Schreiner provides a Reformed perspective, that the Old Testament provides a pointer to the person of Jesus Christ. Christ is the fulfillment of the prophecy, the mystery, and the revelation of God. Essentially, Paul's perspective is about Jesus being the culmination of the "new exodus, the new covenant, and the new creation." On the significance of Christ, Jesus is the "heart and soul" of Pauline theology, and that the Old Testament references to God have a clear focus on Christ.  On salvation, there is an "already" and "not yet" mystery and revelation that Christians hold TOGETHER. It means that while the Old Testament prophecies are fully fulfilled in Christ, there is also an element of mystery that will be complete in the future. With regards to the Church, the Church is the "true Israel," with unity a core theme throughout.

Responding to Schreiner, Johnson argues from a Roman Catholic standpoint that the evangelical view has overstated the link between Old Testament prophecy and New Testament fulfilment in Christ. He says that Schreiner's views are almost totally based on only Romans and Galatians, rather than all of Paul's writings.  As a result, Schreiner's views tend to promote an overly "individualistic" reading. Douglas Campbell adds in some of his disagreement from a "Post-New" standpoint, saying that Schreiner's essay is not as Christ-centered as he had claimed to be. Instead, the evangelical view is more "Melanchthonian" than "Lutheran," and at some point, even "Arian!" He makes three key observations to explain how Schreiner's essay is incoherent with the Christ-centered perspective Schreiner has set out to do. In summary, Campbell agrees on the conclusions but disputes with the specifics to get to the conclusions. Equally strong, Mark Nanos comments from a Jewish perspective, and calls Schreiner's view more "ideological than historical." He accuses Schreiner of eisegesis (reading his views into the text) rather than exegesis (reading the meaning out of the text).   It does not take long to see Nanos driving a sharp disagreement with Schreiner's perspective of the church as being the "true Israel." For Nanos, it remains undisputably clear that Israel is Israel, and Gentiles are Gentiles. There is no mixing of identity. 

B) The Roman Catholic Perspective Luke T. Johnson

While Schreiner writes his essay from non-interactive standpoint, Campbell takes the other angle, in making his essay more of a "conversation among standpoints." He takes a "both-and" perspective in order to be more inclusive. How one interprets Paul depends on the sources, the level of abstraction of the sources selected, and the degree of attribution of importance among the different letters of Paul. Here, Campbell distinguishes the epistles into disputed and undisputed (Romans, 1/2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) letters. That said, he views Paul's letters as being "occasional," "official correspondences," "least favored responses," "diverse," and "complex." In other words, one cannot "homogenize" Paul on the basis of these letters, simply because there is more diversity rather than centrality of Paul's thoughts. Finally, he settles for three unique perspectives of Paul. Firstly, Paul has a deeply "personal religious experience." Secondly, Paul has a religious experience with the communities he served with. Thirdly, there are a host of different traditions and practices at that time. Of salvation, Paul uses several metaphors based on Graeco-Roman and Jewish culture, in "diplomatic language," "economic language," "forensic language," "cultic language," and "kinship language." He asserts that for Paul, salvation has a"distinctive temporal dimension." As expected,  Johnson spends considerable time on the Church, how Paul is chiefly concerned with the formation of the "community ethos," and that the Church according to Paul is tasked with the sacred call to "be a sacrament of the world's possibility."

Responding, Schreiner takes a while before he contends with Johnson about the latter's "historical-critical" approach and the focus on social contexts. He critiques Johnson for his failure to explain Jesus' death also as propitiation (appeasing the wrath) on top of expiation (removing the wrath). There is also little talk about the law, in particular Paul's negative assessment of the law. Campbell takes issue with Johnson's lack of sensitivity to Judaism. The essay has made the distinction of Graeco-Roman believers and Jews into "binary opposition." Such binary thinking especially with regards to the "Household Codes" makes the interpretation of Paul not only inconsistent but problematic for the unity of the contemporary community. Mark Nanos continues to zoom into trying to distinguish who Israel is. There is no mixing of identity. Jews are Jews. Gentiles are Gentiles.

C) The Post-New Perspective According to Douglas A. Campbell

For Campbell, the new perspective is a two pronged understanding of Judaism as well as Paul's response to Judaism. The first is to learn to read Paul according to the Judaism view, like EP Sanders. The second is to understand Paul's response as not against "legalism" but "covenantal nomism."  Campbell sees Paul's perspective in terms of God revealing Himself through the Triune God, that we can participate in God's mission with the help of the Holy Spirit. He brings together wide ranging matters such as the rescuing of humanity, the brotherhood realised in eschatology, ethics, and others. In summary, Paul's perspective is more "revelation" rather than "human reason or reflection." He concludes with four descriptions of how the community looks like, eschatologically.

Schreiner calls Campbell's essay "fascinating" and that it is more "hyper Calvinist." He says that Paul is relatively more concerned about the final judgment than what Campbell thinks. He accuses Campbell of painting the past responses of Christians toward Jews with too broad a brush. He cautions anyone about blaming events like the Holocaust on the theology of Paul. History is far more complex than any one attribution. He even says that Douglas Campbell is painting Paul after himself! Johnson critiques Campbell for being too fixated on Romans, without sufficiently using the other letters. Nanos continues to separate Jews from non-Jews. The main dispute is about how Jews and non-Jews are seen under the Law. This includes circumcision, ethics, and Jewish dietary norms.

D) The Jewish Perspective

Nanos begins his essay with an explanation on why Paul has been viewed negatively by many Jews. The main reason is that Jews disagree that Christ is the fulfillment of the law. More offensive to Jews is the view that Christianity has been trumped by certain quarters as being a "replacement" to Judaism. The positive takeaway for Nanos is that Christians can increasingly learn to read Paul more from Jewish perspectives. In that way, Nanos' essay is more a treatise of Judaism rather than a perspective of Paul. He concedes that Paul has been misunderstood not only by Christians, but also by Jews. Key to reading Nanos is the emphasis of separation between Jews and non-Jews. This includes the distinction of the Torah, that the identity of Jews are unique, and the nature of good works. The main reason is that to be under the Torah, one must first be Jews. That is why non-Jews cannot be deemed to be under the Torah in the first place. In that manner, there is no reason to expect non-Jews to be freed from a law that they were not under in the first place!

In response, Schreiner appreciates Nanos's Jewish perspectives, but disagree when it comes to understanding whether Paul "always kept the Torah." The road to Damascus is clearly evidence of Paul converting from Judaism to Christianity. He maintains that the road to salvation is through Jesus, even for Jews. Luke Johnson prefers to maintain the Jewishness of Paul, and the focus on Jesus. He asserts again that any view of Paul has to be drawn from all the epistles, not only selected books or portions of them. Douglas Campbell calls Nanos re-construction of Paul, "unfair." It is important to see the "law" as "teaching" rather than to equate it to the "legalistic" framework. This frees one to see the practice of the law as "ethical and instructive" rather than "mercantile and legalistic." He proceeds to use a "historical-critical" approach that understands Paul's teachings in the light of the historical contexts.

My Thoughts

I admit that it is more beneficial for readers who have had a prior understanding of Pauline theology, or be familiar with at least one of the four views. Certain views require more involved understanding. For example, Schreiner's views will be very familiar to evangelicals, and Johnson's high ecclesiology will appeal to Roman Catholics. To understand Campbell more, one may need a fair dose of biblical criticism knowledge. Nanos may seem the most different among the four. Admittingly, different views raise more questions for readers.

There are certainly more than four views over here. Each view provokes three additional sub-views, which make this book fascinating reading. The primary focus of the discussion centers around Soteriology, Christology, Pauline Theology, and Ecclesiology. Thankfully, the contributors freely weave in thoughts on sin and man (Hamartiology), the Holy Spirit Pneumatology, Epistemology, and many others. Some of these topics, especially sin and the Holy Spirit deserve to be covered in greater detail. Given the nature and size of the book, it is understandable that a compromise has to be made with regards to the selection. Perhaps, a Part II can be planned for the future to give justice to such a broad area of study. Thus, this book is meant to whet the appetite of readers for more, rather than to be an end in itself with regards to Pauline thought and theology. This book is heavily tilted toward theology, and will be of greater interest to seminarians, theologians, and laypersons with a keen interest in theology. For the general reader, it can be heavy going, and if read with someone as a guide, the learning can be more pronounced. Michael Bird is one such guide. Make sure you read his introduction and conclusion.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Zondervan and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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