Thinking Through Paul: An Introduction to His Life, Letters, and Theology

Book Review
Bruce W. Longenecker and Todd D. Still, Zondervan, 2014, 408 pp.
This volume is an attractive new addition to the literature devoted to the life and letters of the apostle Paul. It is designed mainly as a textbook for college-level students, though by no means confined to them. The study is divided into three major sections: Paul’s Life, Paul’s Letters, and Paul’s Theology. After the survey of Paul’s life and ministry, the book seeks to address several issues pertaining to the Pauline literature: (1) The historical issues that assist in the interpretation of these letters. (2) By means of selected passages, overarching concerns of the letters. (3) A survey of the flow of thought throughout the epistles.
The first division canvasses the period from Tarsus to Damascus, Paul’s encounter with Christ and its immediate aftermath, his missionary journeys, and finally traditions of his death. Of particular interest are issues such as The New Perspective on Paul, Paul’s conversion/calling, and the apostle’s missionary strategy.
The second division falls into line with other introductions to Paul, taking up standard issues such as historical and geographical questions, authorship, and an overview of contents. Each of the letters is considered under three rubrics: situate the letter’s vision, i.e., place the text in its socio-historical context; center the letter’s vision, i.e., discover what lies near the “nerve center” of the document; track the letter’s vision, i.e., consider the letter’s contents. The underlying assumptions are threefold. One is that Paul’s letters are occasional, written to particular people in particular places. Second is that the letters are pastoral. Paul sought to tell the churches on papyrus what he would have told them in person. Third, the letters are mixed in type; they do not fit neatly into any single epistolary genre of rhetoric: judicial/forensic, epideictic/demonstrative, deliberative/hortatory. Each of these types is detectable in the epistles, but none conforms perfectly to any one of them.
Readers of The Paul Page will take particular interest in the treatments of Galatians and Romans. In the chapter on Galatians, there is a notice of The New Perspective, explaining how this “New Perspective” differs from the “Old Perspective.” The authors quite rightly point out that this nomenclature is now dated for two reasons. First, this way of looking at Paul is no longer “new,” stemming as it does from the 1980s. Second, its influence has been significant across a wide spectrum of Pauline interpreters, so much so that its proponents cannot be said to hold to a single interpretive “perspective.” In introducing Romans, the authors endorse (rightly in my view) Ernst Käsemann’s take on “the righteousness of God.” That is to say, God’s righteousness is “shorthand for talking about God’s cosmic act of rectification, in which God is exercising his victory over the forces of chaos that roam through his creation and set it in disrepair” (p. 175). In short, righteousness is not something that God simply dispenses or downloads. Instead, it pertains to a relationship, in terms of which he is in the process of reclaiming the world.
The third division of the book is comprised of “The Apocalyptic Narrative of Paul’s Theological Discourse,” “Paul’s Theological Narrative and Other Macro-Narratives of His Day,” and “Paul’s Theological Narrative and the Micro-Narratives of Jesus Groups.” Of the many noteworthy features of these chapters, several may be underscored. In the first place, the authors tie into E. P. Sanders’ understanding of the central feature of Paul’s theology as, in their phrase, “participationistic eschatology” and then propose two other components. The one is “a cosmic scope,” involving the rectification not simply of all humanity, but the setting straight of the whole of God’s created order. The other is “a salvation-historical perspective,” involving what God has been doing in and through Israel (p. 309). In a summary reflection, it is concluded that “Perhaps nothing characterizes Paul’s theologizing more than his adept ability to move from the micro-narrative of people’s lives to the macro-narrative of the cosmic triumph of God through Jesus Christ” (p. 315). Second, there is the question, “What was it about observing the law that Paul found troubling?” It is proposed that Paul sought to maintain two principles simultaneously, termed an “inevitable tension” (p. 326). (1) The ethnic people of Israel occupy a central position with the story of God’s reclamation of the creation. (2) “The law” that defined that ethnic group was not ultimately central to the story of God’s reclamation of the creation. It is in this regard that some eight pages are devoted the debates between “Old and New Perspectives,” highlighting the perceived strengths and weaknesses of both. The analysis endeavors to be fair and balanced, and in this regard succeeds admirably. The bottom line is that “the covenantalism that motivated the agitators [in Galatia] was unmasked by Paul to be little other than a form of human self-interestedness. For Paul, national ethnocentrism and individual egocentrism are two forms of the same fundamental problem of the human heart” (p. 333).
By way of a brief response, first of all, it is to be questioned that there is a “tension” in Paul’s letters, as proposed by the authors. Certainly, there are scholars who would dispute the claim that ethnic Israel does, in point of fact, occupy such a “central position” in the new covenant phrase of God’s reclamation of the creation. Yet it is correct that the boundary-marking function of the law is not central to this story.
Second, there is the endeavor to steer a course between the “Old and New Perspectives,” which, very interestingly, characterizes Richard Longenecker’s commentary on Galatians (Word Biblical Commentary 41; Dallas: Word, 1990). The authors enumerate their assessment of the weaknesses of both and, as such, have provided a thought-provoking analysis. At the very least, this is reminder that no (re)construction is to be absolutized to the preclusion of further investigation. Even so, the rejoinder to the NPP does not necessarily carry the conviction that Longenecker and Still might wish. For example, passages like Deut. 30:11 and Rom. 8:3, both of which are cited to make separate points, are to be balanced in light of each other. Prima facie, the two may appear to be in conflict, yet they are easily reconcilable in terms of a salvation-historical continuum. Deut. 30:11 assumes its place in the broader context of exile and return. Israel’s doing of the law is hardly “legalism” but fidelity to the covenant relationship, one that would insure that the nation would not be taken into captivity. But, of course, that is precisely what happened because of unbridled idolatry. Thus, Deuteronomy looks forward eschatologically to a new exodus, when a renewed Israel will keep the covenant. It is Paul who picks up the story just there and affirms that the law has been weakened by “flesh,” i.e., fallen human nature, necessitating that God do something, which, according to Paul’s train of thought is the gift of God’s Son and his Spirit. It is for reasons of Christology and Pneumatology that believers can walk “according to the Spirit” or live within the (new) covenant. To cut to the chase, a NPP reading is consistent with these data, not placed at a disadvantage by them.
Third, there is the repeated use of the phrase “Jesus-followers” instead of “Christians,” the explanation for which is given on pp. 15-16. It is true that a certain amount of misrepresentation of Judaism has occurred through the centuries, as the authors correctly maintain. Nevertheless, the ekklēsia tou theou is distinguished from “Judaism” from Pentecost onward, when the Spirit is poured out to form a new Israel, a motif derived from the prophets. Especially striking is that during his Pentecostal sermon, Peter aligns Israel with the Romans, no less: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23, RSV). Therefore, the notice of Acts 11:26 that it was in Antioch thatthe first believers were called “Christians” should not be downplayed, as is done by Longenecker and Still. Moreover, it is Paul himself who distinguishes between “Jews,” “Greeks,” and “the church of God” (1 Cor 10:32; cf. 1:2).
This is a visually attractive book, with numerous sidebars, charts, and color photographs that are not only interesting in themselves but serve to bring the era of the New Testament to life. Jewish and Greco-Roman sources are judiciously cited, demonstrating that the apostle’s message was not delivered in a vacuum but in a living context to living persons who occupied that milieu. Correspondingly, there are representative quotations from contemporary scholars that shed light on Paul’s life and thought. The various bibliographies are up to date and represent the best scholarship available. All in all, this volume admirably fulfills its design and is well worth the purchase by students of the apostle.
Don Garlington

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