Getting off the Tourist Path: A Review of Beverly Roberts Gaventa’s “When in Romans”

when-in-romansFor many Christians, Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the more intimidating parts of the New Testament. This is both understandable and unfortunate. Romans is, after all, an undeniably complex letter, with both occasional and systematic dimensions. And in case we forget its historic significance, the Pauline scholar Michael Gorman reminds us that “Romans has spawned conversions, doctrines, disputations, and even a few reformations” (2004, p.338).

A feeling of slight trepidation when embarking on a study of Romans might then actually be entirely appropriate. It’s a shame, though, when this causes Christians to shy away from reading the letter at all. “[While] it is clearly a book that challenges the best minds in the community,” Eugene Peterson points out, “The scholars are here to help us read it, not read it for us” (2009, p.261).

Hopefully, these introductory comments can help us better appreciate the usefulness of Beverly Roberts Gaventa’s brief and illuminating book, When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel according to Paul. In it, she reflects theologically on the significance of Paul’s letter for those who might not otherwise know where to start. As Gaventa explains in the preface, “This book on Romans is intended for people who would not normally read a book about Romans” (p.xiii). Continue reading

Taking a Developmental Approach to Paul: A Review of Garwood P. Anderson’s “Paul’s New Perspective”

pauls-new-perspectiveIn recent years, a growing number of Pauline scholars have sought to push beyond the bitter debates that have taken place over the last few decades between proponents of the so-called old and new perspectives on Paul. In Paul’s New PerspectiveGarwood P. Anderson makes a substantial contribution to this quest for a more nuanced via media by introducing a relatively unexplored proposal to the conversation: an ambitious developmental approach to Paul’s soteriology.

In Anderson’s eyes, “Paul’s letters show evidence of both a contextually determined diversity and also a coherent development through time” (p.7). This conviction enables him to say that “both ‘camps’ are right, but not all the time” (p.5). He begins Paul’s New Perspective with a survey of the sprawling landscape of recent books on Paul. Anderson’s impressive familiarity with the relevant works of well-known “new perspective on Paul” (NPP) luminaries like Sanders, Dunn, and Wright is evident. He also introduces readers to the more recent contributions of other scholars like Bird, Gorman, and Barclay. To call Anderson “well-read” seems like a real understatement, and his nuanced engagement with an intimidatingly large pile of Pauline literature is both helpful and at times illuminating.  Continue reading

Understanding Paul’s Identity: A Review of Michael F. Bird’s “An Anomalous Jew”

michael-bird-paulAn Anomalous JewMichael F. Bird’s newly published addition to the field of Pauline scholarship, begins with the obvious: the Apostle Paul was a Jew. Paul was born into a Jewish family and spent his early years studying the Torah. As he grew older, he became a Pharisee, and according to both Luke’s description in Acts and Paul’s own words in Galatians, he worked actively to eradicate the young Christian movement before himself becoming a follower of Jesus.

In the introduction, Bird draws attention to the fact that, even as a Christ-believer working among the Gentiles, Paul expressed concern for his “kindred according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3, NRSV) and affirmed the value of Israel’s election and covenants (p.2). In sum, the man was deeply Jewish. What makes the issue complicated, though, is that Paul also said some things that, as Bird puts it, “no Torah-affirming Jew could seemingly say” (p.3). Continue reading

Reading Paul Missionally: A Review of Michael Gorman’s “Becoming the Gospel”

Gorman_ecoming the Gospel_wrk02.indd*Note: we previously looked at Cruciformity here, and Inhabiting the Cruciform God here.

Michael Gorman’s 2015 book, Becoming the Gospel, takes an illuminating look at Paul’s perspective on the Church’s participation in the mission of God (missio Dei). It forms the final entry in what Gorman calls a “partly accidental” trilogy—the first book being Cruciformity (2001) and the second Inhabiting the Cruciform God (2009) (pp.2-3). In Cruciformity, Gorman argued that the cruciform, self-giving love of Christ found in Paul’s writings, and especially expressed in the Philippian Christ Hymn (Phil. 2:6-11), formed the center of both Paul’s theology and spirituality.

Inhabiting the Cruciform God extended the main argument of Cruciformity by seeking to show that, “For Paul, to be one with Christ is to be one with God; to be like Christ is to be like God,” meaning that “for Paul cruciformity… is really theoformity, or theosis” (Inhabiting the Cruciform God, p.4). Starting from this premise, he developed a reading of Paul’s letters that weaved together the (sometimes) seemingly opposed frameworks of legal/forensic and participatory understandings of justification and salvation, arguing that far from being opposed to one another, these forensic and participatory categories are more like two sides of the same coin. Therefore, one can say that justification in Paul can also be understood as the beginning of “an experience of participating in Christ’s resurrection life that is effected by co-crucifixion with him” (Inhabiting the Cruciform God, p.40). Continue reading

Do Paul’s Letters Have a Narrative Substructure? A Review of “Narrative Dynamics in Paul”

narrative dynamics in paulIn 1980, J.C. Beker declared in Paul the Apostle that, “Paul is a man of the proposition, the argument and the dialogue, not a man of the parable or story” (p.352). At the time, he was far from the only one who took that as an assumed position. A few short years after those words were written, though, the winds of change began to blow.

Over the last few decades, significant parts of Pauline scholarship have drawn enthusiastically from the field of literary theory, resulting in an increased amount of attention being given to the evocative ways in which Paul’s language engages with and alludes to earlier biblical narratives, among other things.  Continue reading

New Creation in John’s Gospel

st mary's episcopal church

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church of the Frescoes in West Jefferson, NC. Author’s photo.

New creation. It’s one of Paul’s more vivid ways of describing what has come about because of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection from the grave. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he told them, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17 NRSV). 

In one of N.T. Wright’s books on Pauline theology, he argues that for Paul, Christ’s death and resurrection not only marked the decisive defeat of sin and death, but also accomplished nothing less than the launching of God’s long-awaited renewal of creation (2009, pp.34-38). Now of course, emphasizing new creation in Paul doesn’t necessarily entail minimizing justification or other important Pauline doctrines. Instead, the task is to integrate them. The same man who declared that Christ personally “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20 NRSV) was also able to step back and, considering the accomplishments of Christ on a larger scale, write, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19 NRSV). 

Investigating the myriad of ways in which new creation fits into the larger whole of Pauline theology would be intriguing, but we are going to dwell this time on a slightly different, and maybe more interesting topic: is new creation a New Testament theme or merely a Pauline one? In order to begin developing something of an answer to this question, we are going to spend most of our time in the Gospel of John, a poetic and vivid text that at first blush bears little resemblance to Paul and his letters. Continue reading

Studies in Galatians Episode III: Mariam J. Kamell on Reading Galatians and James Together

galatians and christian theologyIn this, the final post of our series looking at some of the essays in Galatians and Christian Theology, we are turning to Mariam Kamell’s, “Life in the Spirit and Life in Wisdom.” Kamell’s background is in the study of wisdom in the Epistle of James and in Jewish wisdom literature. She is currently a New Testament professor teaching out at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada.

The Apostles Paul and James were spiritual brothers in Christ. However, many get the impression that they must have been testy, quarrelsome siblings. Near the beginning of her piece, Kamell notes that, “There may be no two other epistles in the New Testament that have been so consistently contrasted to each other theologically as Galatians and James” (p.353). Martin Luther, in his typically blunt way, described James as someone who “wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task” (Word and Sacrament I). 

Kamell thinks that many Christians have been too quick to pit Paul and James against each other, spending too much time focusing either on their contentious relationship suggested by Galatians 2 (“certain men came from James”) or “on their different views of the law and Abraham in Galatians 3 and James 2” (p.354). One common way of reading them in light of each other has been to interpret James’s insistence that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:17 NRSV) as meaning that true faith in Christ leads to good works as a necessary consequence of being made a new creation in Christ. An example of this can be found in Reformed theologian Thomas Schreiner’s 2015 book, Faith Alone, where he asserts that “justification is by faith alone, but it is a faith that expresses itself in good works” (p.206).

Rather than strictly focusing directly on the faith vs. works issue in her essay, Kamell instead chooses to compare Paul’s treatment of life in the Spirit in Galatians 5-6 with James’s account of living according to wisdom.
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