Review: Four Views on the Apostle Paul

Four Views on the Apostle Paul
Four Views on the Apostle Paul by Michael F. Bird
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first book of the recently popular “N Views on Topic X” form that I’ve read, and I think it’s a great format. Each author writes a chapter from a particular perspective, then the other authors write short responses. It’s about as close to attending a seminar as you can get in book form, and is especially well suited to encouraging students and other readers to form their own opinions based on what they’ve read.

Of course, the selection of the N views is key to the quality of the book, and here editor Michael F. Bird has done a fine job. Resisting the temptation to include a broad array of perspectives and thus produce either a shallow survey or an unmanageable tome, his choice of four views allowed a substantive presentation of each perspective, plus responses, in 300 pages. Thomas R. Schreiner and Luke Timothy Johnson represent the Reformed Protestant and Roman Catholic views that characterize the basic Reformation-shaped discussions of Paul in Western Christianity. Douglas Campbell presents a view that has been developed in light of the New Perspective on Paul, as well as other Protestant influences. The surprising inclusion of Mark D. Nanos for a Jewish perspective of the “apostle to the Gentiles” fruitfully deepens the discussion of the Jewishness of Paul that has been raised by the New Perspective.

This selection of views is excellent, and bringing a Jewish voice to the table is important from a diversity standpoint: honestly, it’s embarrassing to hear only Christians talking about whether and how Paul was a Jew. It is only unfortunate that Bird did not identify a woman scholar to represent one or more of the views, so that we did not hear only men talking about Paul’s views on women. Such a scholar would likely have critiqued Campbell’s exclusive use of “brothers” as language that adequately depicts Christians.

Bird structures the conversation by asking the authors to identify the theological framework that should be used to understand Paul, and to describe Paul’s view of salvation, of the significance of Christ, and his vision for the churches. As he states in his introduction, these questions were selected in order to focus the discussion on areas in which there is significant disgreement. He also introduces the background of each contributor; in the conclusion, he helpfully summarizes the points of agreement and disagreement.

Although Johnson begins his essay with demurrals about how specifically Roman Catholic his position may be, it is clear to me that he and I operate out of the same tradition. His methodology and premises were at once familiar and persuasive to me, especially in comparison to Schreiner. Johnson’s basic approach of identifying a few themes or concepts with broad attestation across many letters strikes me as more reliable than Schreiner’s approach of constructing a systematic narrative that cites a verse or two as support for each statement and relies heavily on Romans and Galatians. Campbell takes an even narrower approach, concentrating on Romans 5-8 in order to identify and develop a single coherent theme; however, his discussion of freedom in the context of the communal, networked, social anthropology he sees in Paul was helpful and persuasive.

I read Nanos’ chapter together with a Jewish friend with whom I’ve studied informally for several years on topics of Judaism, Christianity, and Jewish-Christian dialogue. She was very pleased by Nanos’ ability to articulate several attitudes and concepts that she has struggled to express in our studies, and I found it edifying to understand how Paul has traditionally been perceived by the Jewish community. We both appreciated the careful verbal distinctions in this chapter between Jesus-believing Jews, non-Jesus-believing Jews, and Jesus-believing Gentiles: the language is cumbersome, but helpful in avoiding the unconscious translation of 1st-century terms to 21st-century categories.

Overall, this is a very good book, particularly well suited to ecumenical study and to the preparation of those who will minister and preach against an ecumenical background. (That would include pretty much all ministers in the Western church today.) It does require some basic familiarity with theological terms and Paul’s letters, but does not require previous expertise in Pauline studies.

Dr. Bird kindly arranged for me to receive an advance copy of this book for use in my independent study course on Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant perspectives on Paul in the summer of 2012. It was extremely helpful for this work.

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4 Responses to Review: Four Views on the Apostle Paul

  1. Pingback: New Review of The Apostle Paul: Four Views

  2. Douglas Campbell says:

    I enjoyed reading your review–accurate and pacific. You do misrepresent my position though (at least as I understand things): the use of “brothers” by Paul is I state on p. 126 a category that is personal and embodied but transcends race, class, and gender. This is really important in my view. Hence perhaps consistently using “adelphoi” might make the point/claim better. Feel free of course to critique what I do suggest here about the transcendence of gender distinctions and the consequent positive implications for female ordination, et cetera. I am then unhappy with Johnson’s timidity on these questions in this book (see esp. 107) as well, although he is not so timid elsewhere.

    • Hi, thanks for stopping by!

      The advance copy I have on my Kindle doesn’t contain page numbers, but the first use of the term “brothers” is followed by the parenthetical note “(an important term which we will define at the end of the section).” The essay then proceeds to use the language of “brothers” exclusively. At the end of the section, based on Gal 3:38, it asserts that “Paul’s use of the term ‘brothers’ is not gendered.”

      As I wrote for my professor, my critique centers on

      …the effectively gratuitous use of the exclusive “brothers” throughout: Campbell has his reasons for this, grounded in the likeness between brother and son and father, but because he does not mention this until well into the essay, and because he gives not even a passing acknowledgment in a footnote that this usage might be problematic for some readers, I had the distinct impression that I was by no means a member of his intended audience.

      The essay as written does use the language of “brothers” as if it were an adequate description of “Christians.” I understand your interpretation of Paul to be that his term adelphoi is “personal and embodied but transcends race, class, and gender.” Using the term untranslated would indeed have been much more effective in making that point.

      Using the non-gendered English term “siblings” or the more informal (and thus more personal) “sibs” would have been equally effective, and a more accurate English translation for the mixed-gender Greek plural than “brothers.”

      In either case, the section that bears on the likeness of brother to son to father would have required a different approach: either embracing the use of non-gendered language for God in discussing the relationship of sibling to offspring to parent, or somehow addressing the implication that men more closely resemble the image of God than do women. This would have created a great opportunity to explicitly address the “positive implications for female ordination, et cetera,” too! 🙂

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