A Review of Four Views on the Apostle Paul

“Evidently, Paul was a controversial figure… You do not get beaten, flogged, imprisoned, and stoned without saying and doing things that are deemed controversial, offensive, and even subversive… Beyond the image of Paul the controversialist, we must remember that Paul was responsible for shaping the early church in a significant way. His key theological motif, that the Gentiles are saved by faith without adopting the Jewish way of life, won the day… It is not too much to say that Paul-the man, the mission, and the martyr-was arguably the single, most driving intellectual force in the early church, second only to Jesus.” Introduction, page 9

“I would like to wring Paul’s neck,” a late parishioner once said to me. She had issues with Paul.

Many people have issues with Paul.

And yet we cannot ignore him nor his mark on Christianity.

And Michael F. Bird’s edition of Four Views on the Apostle Paul , provides us with some challenging and illuminating views on this key figure of early Christianity. Published by Zondervan, this book is part of their Counterpoints: Bible and Theology Series.

Written, primarily for an academic audience, this book was a challenge for me to read because, quite frankly, I have not done much academic reading in any form of theology for a while. But I am glad I did.

The format of the book is a major chapter written by established scholars representing four different view points, followed by responses to that chapter. For this review, I read only the four main chapters and the introduction which must be read to understand the main part of the book.

In the introduction Bird notes that “it was decided that each of the contributors would touch on four key areas in their respective essays.” And those four areas are represented with four questions:

  • What did Paul think about salvation?
  • What was Paul’s view of the significance of Christ?
  • What is the best framework for describing Paul’s theological perspective?
  • What was Paul’s vision for the churches?

Responding to these four questions are Thomas R. Schreiner writing from a Reformed Baptist perspective, Luke Timothy Johnson writing from a Catholic perspective, Douglas A. Campbell, representing a mainline scholar at Duke representing what is called a “Post-New Perspective on Paul,” and Mark D. Nanos, who brings a unique and important Jewish perspective to the discussion.

Each of these men focus on different aspects of Paul’s writing as they answer the questions. Schriener focuses on the grace of God in Christ and the “Christ-centeredness” of Paul’s theology. Along the way he brings along the well-known discussion of election, grace, and justification by faith that is common to a Reformed Theology.

Johnson brings to view an “older and broader tradition” from with his Catholic framework and he includes all of Paul’s letters as part of his discussion. In doing so he highlights the emphasis Paul had not of “abstract thought” but “religious concern” as not just a missionary or scholar but as a pastor.

Campbell begins his essay with a historical perspective on how to read Paul “in relation to Jews” given the reality of the Holocaust that came into play in academic circles, notably in the 1970’s. As such Campbell, whose views are labeled “Post-New Perspective” brings a two pronged view to his writing as per the “new” perspective – regarding  Judaism and the other on Paul by way of response to that view of Judaism. In doing so Campbell brings what he calls “an ecumenical account of the gospel in the best sense of that word…” but he focuses on Romans chapters 5 through 8 as he goes along.

Nanos brings a perspective to the study of Paul that I had never considered – a Jewish one. And he opens his remarks with a clear outline of “why a negative view of Paul is so widely held among Jews.” He goes on to state that “I think Paul is generally misunderstood and misrepresented by Jews and Christians.” The key distinctive is Nanos’ separating the demands of the non-Jewish converts to adhere to the Jewish customs as a sign of commitment (such as circumcision), which Nanos argues Paul vehemently disagrees with and the demands of the Jewish believers (or what I believe he calls Jewish believers) to be “Torah- faithful.”

I liked this book because it gave me some good scholarship to ponder and process as I continue to serve as a minister who seeks, with God’s help, to faithfully interpret scripture each week. I valued the academic depth of this book though I will admit that I, at times, was ready to give up on it!

I would have like to have read a Wesleyan- Armenian perspective, which is my basic theological construct, and quite frankly found Johnson and Nanos to provide some fresh perspective on view Paul. But I am appreciative of the contributions of each of the contributors.

I rate this book a ‘good’ read.

Note: I received a galley copy of this book via Zondervan through Net Galley. I chose to write a review of this book and was not required to write a positive review.

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