Whatever kind/brand of Christian we are – the Bible is our book. God’s word ought to unite us as no one can come to faith without it and no one can be sustained in faith without feeding on it. After the Trinity, Paul is the most influential figure in the New Testament. So one would hope that the church would find great hope and help from the lead theologian in the New Testament and those of us who are Gentiles would be united in affection and respect for the Apostle Paul. Sadly Paul and his writings are one of the great areas of division in the church. So it was with some interest I picked up this new addition to Zondervan’s Counterpoint series: “Four Views on the Apostle Paul.”
As is usual in this series: a number of scholars (this time four) have been asked to engage with one another on a controversial theological issue.
Reformed View: Thomas R. Schreiner
Catholic View: Luke Timothy Johnson
Post-New Perspective View: Douglas Campbell
Jewish View: Mark D. Nanos
Each writer produces a main piece where they set out their views on Paul, his Soteriology, Christology and Ecclesiology and then each of the authors is asked to respond to the other author’s piece. This would ofcourse be more exciting to watch in a live debate rather than read in a book. The format can feel a little repetitive. An alternative could be greater use of pull out quotes and side bars but this would require a different size of book. I quite like the way Zondervan did this in the book “The emerging church: vintage christainity for new generations.” This book is a hard slog to read all the way through – but could be a useful resource to dip into as a reference volume.
There’s a graciousness in the writing and interacting with one another. Most of the time the writers go out of their way to find common ground in this volume (even if they have been more dismissive of the same authors in other books!) But there’s very little conversation – it seems to be more “attack and defend” rather than converse and engage. I guess it is too much to ask for authors to find helpful challenge and reflection on their own views in a volume like this.
Regular readers of the blog, will know that I find Wright’s writings very helpful and stimulating. I was surprised he gets only a single passing reference here. I thought it might have been because this was a US based book. But Wright is a globally recognised scholar – indeed I can’t remember the last time Wheaton College put on a whole colloquim dedicated to a single living theologians work; apart from Tom’s. So its a strange omission. I guess we just wait for the long expected Paul volume due to hit the shelves very soon.
I found the Reformed position presented sadly lacking – it presented such a personal view of salvation and centred on penal substitution and justification to the exclusion of most of Paul’s writings. It was almost as if Romans and Galatians were the only two letters that Paul wrote, and even then only a few chapters of those letters were relevant. It was sadly stereotypical presentation of conservative readings of Paul. Salvation is basically personal escape from Hell . The best thing about Schreiner’s essay was his continual emphasis on the Christ centredeness of Paul’s work.
If the reformed position espoused was reductionist, the post-new perspective was even more so. Focussing on a rather quirky reading of Romans 5 – 8 as being the centre of Paul’s theology without really referencing the rest of Romans.
The Catholic presentation was the most expansive and exegetically the best argued. Interestingly Luke Timothy Johnson was the only one to talk about Paul’s radical egalitarianism.
Another quirky reading is provided from the Jewish contributor Mark Nanos. He rightly challenging the antisemitism of the past but then offers a strange reading of Paul arguing that he never was converted. Including a Jewish reading of Paul was a brave and commendable choice for the editors and even though i don’t agree with much of Nanos’ findings he highlighted to me the value of Christian Jewish dialogue on reading the New Testament and not just the Old (First?) Testament.
This was an interesting book though I felt it missed out on some of the key debates that evangelicals have been having on the work of Paul. I guess we just have to wait for NT Wright’s forthcoming book and the flurry of Pauline blog posts and articles it is likely to provoke. If that debate can be carried out with the robust graciousness evident in this volume we will all be much the richer for it.