Paul’s Letter to the Romans deals with themes central to the Christian faith, which helps explain why, even after being read and reflected upon for nearly two millennia, lively conversations about how to best interpret it continue to take place. In his dissertation on Romans 9, Renaming Abraham’s Children, Robert B. Foster joins the time-honored tradition of “trying to think Paul’s thoughts after him,” to borrow N.T Wright’s turn of phrase (2009, p.x), attempting to show how Paul’s understanding of election was shaped by his prior engagement with the foundational stories of the patriarchs in Genesis (pp. 1-2). By tracing Paul’s interpretation of these narratives, Foster aims to help uncover a level of theological coherence in chapters 9-11 more frequently sought after than actually found (p.3).
The attention Foster gives to Paul’s usage of the Abrahamic narratives places him within a larger school of thought in scholarship, represented by figures like Richard B. Hays and N.T. Wright. These writers emphasize the idea that many of the more puzzling elements in Paul’s letters can be clarified when viewed as being undergirded by a deeper narrative-driven substructure (for an interesting set of essays examining this trend, see Narrative Dynamics in Paul, edited by Bruce Longenecker). Narrative approaches to Paul are often insightful, but they are sometimes criticized for being too subjective, unable to adequately deal with questions like, “when is a passage’s narrative substructure deftly submerged below the surface, and when is it just not there?” To make his proposal compelling, Foster has to show that he isn’t deaf to these concerns in Renaming Paul’s Children. Continue reading →
How should we understand Paul’s significance as a leader in the early Christian movement? He was a passionate, strong-willed man, and his legacy has been deeply influential. In his missionary efforts, Paul was remarkably successful at planting and fostering communities of Jesus followers in towns and cities scattered across the Roman Empire, and in the course of these efforts, he was no stranger to disagreement or conflict. Remarks in his own letters and other New Testament passages like Acts 21-22 give ample evidence for this.
But how did Paul’s theological convictions stand in relation to the rest of the early church? This is the basic question probed by Jerry L. Sumney, who currently teaches at Lexington Theological Seminary, in his new book, Steward of God’s Mysteries: Paul and Early Church Tradition. It’s not surprising that there were some differences between Paul and his contemporaries, given the real theological diversity present in the first-century church. That strikes me as a fairly uncontroversial statement. However, some go further and take a somewhat more radical position, contending that Paul more or less “invented” Christianity as we know it today. It is with these thinkers that Sumney engages in most of his book’s pages. Continue reading →
What does it mean to read Paul as an apocalyptic theologian? This isn’t exactly an easy question to answer, and for some the term itself can feel a bit off-putting. If nothing else, though, it means contextualizing Paul by placing him in conversation with the many apocalyptic texts produced during the Second Temple period—such as 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra—and looking to see what these writings reveal about the underlying shape of his theological convictions.
In another (related) sense, reading Paul with an apocalyptic lens has to do with highlighting theological emphases such as, among other things, understanding the death and resurrection of Christ to be primarily a redemptive event that marked the overthrow of Sin and Death. In the words of prominent Pauline scholar Martinus C. de Boer, an apocalyptic construal of Paul’s gospel has “everything to do with the invasive action of God in this world to deliver human beings from this present evil age” (2002, p.33).
Pride of place for sparking off this line of scholarship is generally given to the distinguished Lutheran theologian, Ernst Käsemann, who was deeply impacted by his experience of the German church struggle and the Second World War. Following Käsemann, the ranks of those studying Paul’s writings through an apocalyptic lens continued to grow throughout the rest of the 20th century, and currently all signs point to it remaining a lively part Pauline studies in the years to come. The essays that make up Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5-8 come together to give readers a deeply interesting and well-rounded introduction to most of the major ideas and figures currently shaping this way of reading Paul, with essays by contributors like de Boer himself and Beverly Roberts Gaventa, along with a thoughtful afterward by J. Louis Martyn. Continue reading →
For 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 →
In 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 Perspective, Garwood 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 →
An Anomalous Jew, Michael 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 →
*Note: we previously looked at Cruciformityhere, and Inhabiting the Cruciform Godhere.
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 →
In 1980, J.C. Beker declared in Paul the Apostlethat, “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 →
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 →
In 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. Continue reading →