Review: Paul and the Language of Faith

Paul and the Language of faith

Paul and the Language of Faith, Nijay K, Gupta (Foreword by James D. G. Dunn). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020.

Summary: A study of the word pistis, often translated as “faith” as used in the writings of Paul, the rest of scripture, as well as in literature contemporary to the time, showing the rich nuances of meaning that must be determined by context.

In recent Pauline scholarship, perhaps no matter has been discussed more than how pistis, the word most often translated as “faith” might be understood. Underlying this are concerns of faith versus works, our understand of the continuity and distinction between Old Covenant and New, the place of human agency, and divine providence in our salvation, and epitomizing all of this, how one translates the Pauline phrase pistis Christou. Traditionally this has been translated “faith in Christ” but equally, it could be translated “the faithfulness of Christ,” depending on one’s interpretation of the genitive form of Christou.

Nijay K. Gupta takes a different slant on this discussion. He focuses in closely on the usages of the word pistis in both biblical texts and literature roughly contemporary to it. In so doing, he helps us to see that it is a word rich in meaning, variously reflecting ideas of trust, faithfulness, doctrinal beliefs, loyalty, and more, and that its meaning must be understood contextually, keeping all these valences of meaning in mind.

After laying out the issues he will deal with and his approach, Gupta surveys the scholarly understanding of “faith” in Paul from early and medieval times, through the Reformation, and into the modern era. Then he looks back to Jewish and non-Jewish writings, and shows that these also used the word, and that Paul did not write in a vacuum. He considers the gospels, which were still in oral tradition or beginning to be written and not likely accessible to Paul. In these he finds usages that reflect seeking, believing, trusting, and obeying. While faith looks to the efficacy of Jesus’ acts, it is not passive, but often acts on what is believed to be true.

The remainder of the book (chapter 5 onward) is devoted primarily to the Pauline corpus. Here, likewise, Gupta shows that pistis manifests in a variety of closely related nuances. In 1 Thessalonians and Philippians, the emphasis is on a faith(fulness) in adversity, in persecution and in imprisonment. Gupta also parallels Paul’s teaching to that of the letters to the churches in Revelation. In 1 Corinthians, Gupta shows that “Faith is recognition of and a living into a poverty of self-generated, self-reliant knowledge and wisdom. It is a clinging to the ‘strange wisdom’ of God in Christ Jesus.” In 2 Corinthians, faith looks not at material forms or idols but believes and lives into unseen realities, in this case a believing faith.

In his treatment of Galatians, Gupta explores the question of agency. In dealing with the question of faith and works, Gupta moves beyond the New Perspective’s Covenantal Nomism, which involves faith and the obligations of faith under the covenant, to what he calls Covenantal Pistism, where the focus is on the covenantal relationship with Christ, and the centrality of his mediatorial work, where faith is living “in Christ.” He then turns to the faith language of Romans 1:16-17, and argues for this reflecting the idea of trusting faithfulness that commits one’s life and existence to God.

Gupta engages, rather briefly, in a discussion of pistis Christou in light of his prior development of the idea of pistis. So often, this discussion runs along either-or categories of human faith, almost as a work, or the initiative of the faithfulness of Christ. He opts for a third way of understanding pistis Christou as participation in the faithfulness of Christ by a relationship of utter trust in Christ’s saving work. The translation shorthand for this, somewhat awkward, is “Christ-relation(ship).”

His final chapter then is one of synthesis, weaving together his ideas of faith as trust, belief, and faithfulness and his ideas of Christ-relation. This statement about human agency near the end seemed to me to capture the various strands of this study:

   I don’t want to belabor the point, but this retrospective discussion of the divine-human agency question, with special interest in faith language, can help to reconceive of the matter as more than a formula (what amount of divine or human contribution equals salvation?) This is a non-starter for Paul. Christ is all in all!, he would say. But we cannot discount the way πιστις functions for Paul anthropologically, epistemologically, and socially as the way believers relate to God through the Christ-relation, which is necessarily thoughtful and participatory (socially, volitionally, existentially, etc).

Gupta offers us a valuable work that moves us beyond the either-or discussions of faith and faithfulness, of sovereign grace and human agency in Paul to one that both magnifies the faithfulness of Christ and the all-embracing life of faith in relation to Christ who has acted efficaciously on our behalf on the cross. He points the way to the richness of faith in Christ, not merely affirming doctrines, or praying prayers but a life of devoted loyalty and trust in all things, because of the surpassing great work of the Faithful One.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Paul


Paul: A Biography, N. T. Wright. New York: Harper One, 2018.

Summary: Wright translates his scholarship that gives a “new account” of Paul’s life into a popular biography, tracing the life and thought of the apostle through the letters he wrote and narrative of his journeys.

Over the last thirty years, perhaps no one has written more on the life and thought of the Apostle Paul than N. T. Wright, most notably his two volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Wright is associated with what is called “the New Perspective” on Paul. What he has done in this volume is distill his scholarship into a highly readable account of the life and thought of this apostle. Reading this, you will see some of the ways Wright casts the life of Paul in new perspective.

We see this in his portrayal of Paul’s Damascus road experience. He imagines Paul possibly reflecting on the vision of Ezekiel, perhaps praying the Shema, when suddenly he gazes upward…into the face of Jesus, whose followers he has been persecuting. Wright challenges us to see that this was not a conversion to a new religion, but the shattering and transforming realization that Jesus was the fulfillment of the scriptures Paul had studied so long–that he “had been absolutely right in his devotion to Israel and the Torah, but absolutely wrong in his view of Israel’s vocation and identity and even in the meaning of the Torah.”

He then traces the travels of Paul from the formative years in the wilderness and Tarsus where he rethought everything in the light of Christ, and then his successive journeys taking the message of Christ into Asia Minor, then later into Europe in Philippi, Athens, and Corinth. In the Galatian controversy with Peter and his subsequent letter, we catch the first glimpse of Paul’s transformed vision, where he sees both Jew and Gentile incorporated and included into a new people enjoying the blessing of Abraham’s faith. It is this that explains his methodology of teaching in synagogues, and then to Gentiles who will hear him and seeking to form new communities made up of those who give allegiance to Christ, and share table fellowship.

The biography offers some of Wright’s distinctive judgments on matters scholars have debated, southern versus northern theories of Galatians (he opts for south), and the origin of the prison letters, neither from Caesarea or Rome, but during an imprisonment in the latter part of his time in Ephesus. Wright explores this as a nadir of Paul’s ministry, both in the experience of prison, but also in the receipt of disturbing news from Corinth from those questioning his reputation. He proposes that this accounts for the somewhat disjointed style of 2 Corinthians, written after his release. He also believes that after writing this, he penned his magnum opus to the Romans, spelling out to a church where tensions existed separating Jew and Gentile, the purpose of God to include Gentiles with Jews as heirs of the promise of the covenant to make one new people.

Throughout, Wright explores the character of this apostle, who he describes as “bossy” on the voyage to Rome, and often troublesome in jumping into the fray. Paul did not let sleeping dogs lie. But Wright also argues, that like many “angular” entrepreneurs, it was these very qualities that, on a human level accounted for the success of this apostle in establishing these new communities across the Roman empire.

The work was a delight to read on many levels, as a reflection on the career of Paul and as an exploration of the relationship of Jesus and the hope of Israel revealed in Torah and the prophets. I savored his insights into each of Paul’s letters, and the vision of the church Paul articulated, that would sustain a movement long after his martyrdom, even as it continues to do so to this day.

Paul has often been maligned as a misogynist, as a heretic from his Jewish origins, and more. For others, we read him through Reformation glasses. Wright may or may not convince you otherwise, but this marvelous distillation of his scholarship will make you both think about, and hopefully rejoice in, what this apostle accomplished. And perhaps it will help you read his letters with new eyes.

Review: God and the Faithfulness of Paul

god and faithfulness of paul

God and the Faithfulness of PaulChristoph Heilig, J. Thomas Hewitt, and Michael F. Bird, eds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.

Summary: A collection of papers assessing N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God by scholars from a number of fields of theological study, with a concluding response from N. T. Wright.

In 2013, N. T. Wright published his 1700 page masterwork on Pauline theology, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (hereafter PFG). Since this time, the work has spawned numerous reviews, other scholarly works, and an extended response from N. T. Wright, Paul and His Recent Interpreters, (reviewed here). What distinguishes this work, which comes to half the length of Wright’s, is that it represents assessments of scholars who are specialists in a number of the fields upon which Wright draws in his work, from Jewish studies, to exegesis, to biblical and systematic theology. Furthermore, noting that gap between English and German scholarship on Paul, this work brings together scholars from both.

The work is broken into five parts with a concluding epilogue in which Wright responds (in a mere 57 pages!) to the contributors. An online version of the Table of Contents may be found here. I will not try to discuss all thirty essays as well as Wright’s response but rather what were for me some of the most salient essays, realizing this does not do justice to the high quality of others.

Part One consists of a single chapter by Benjamin Schliesser that situates PFG in the scholarly landscape, noting it as a negative reaction to the work of Rudolf Bultmann, and setting it alongside the works of Dunn, Schreiner, Wolter, and Schnelle. Part Two consider a number of methodological issues from hermeneutics to history in six chapters. I found the discussion of Wright’s “critical realism” and its particular association with Ian Barbour of interest, as well as the critique in a couple of the essays of Wright’s exclusive focus on Pauline material on Paul to the exclusion of Lukan material.

Part Three focuses on contextual issues ranging from the Jewish context which plays such an important part in Wright’s work, particularly in a somewhat biting essay by James Charlesworth to a more irenic discussion of Wright’s lack of engagement with middle Platonism by Gregory Sterling. Wright conceded this latter critique in his response. Two other essays concern the cultic context and a significant essay by Seyoon Kim on Paul and the Roman empire.

Part Four is the longest section of the book, comprising twelve essays, on exegetical issues. I thought Gregory Tatum got Wright wrong in his chapter on law and covenant, attributing a forensic perspective to Wright more characteristic of his opponents. James D. G. Dunn takes Wright to task for how little he addresses the New Perspective.  Peter Stuhlmacher’s chapter on Wright’s understanding of justification and redemption is particularly outstanding for its discussion and critique of the ideas of exile and the role of Abraham in PFG.  There is also an essay on apocalyptic by Jorg Frey, highly critical of Wright’s account of apocalyptic in Paul, the one essay to which Wright responds at length in the epilogue.

Part Five concerns implications. Sven Ensminger’s work on Barth and Wright seemed to be mostly about his hero, Barth, with little engagement with Wright or Paul. More positively, Frank Macchia’s essay (and several others in this volume including Levison’s in Part Four) drew attention to Paul’s Pneumatology in Wright. Edith Humphrey extends Wright’s ideas about sacramentality and the sacraments. The final essay by Schnabel concerns both mission and the discussion of whether Paul’s experience on the Damascus road was one of conversion or call.

The concluding epilogue (Part Six) is devoted to Wright’s responses to the various essays in twelve sections. For the most part, the responses are gracious, acknowledging where the writer has challenged his thought helpfully, and sometimes, where the writer has misunderstood him, notably Frey, who gets ten pages of response. Often Wright’s response is to cite the length of his work and to go into matters further as some would have him would have resulted in a much longer, and perhaps more tedious work.

There are several strengths to this work, particularly the assessments from specialists of a number of claims Wright makes in his broad sweeping work. Also, one who has been around academics in scholarly conference will recognize the cut and thrust of serious scholarly work, where the function of critique is to refine and sharpen thinking.

The work demands close reading and one benefits greatly by having a copy of PFG at hand and having read it. I have to confess that I have only read summaries and reviews and so I honestly felt I was, for the most part, listening to one side of a nuanced conversation. What this collection underscored for me was what a singular work PFG is to evoke so much rigorous discussion from so many perspectives. Now to figure out when I can give a few months of careful attention to this work!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Paul’s New Perspective



Paul’s New Perspective, Garwood P. Anderson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016

Summary: Argues that both the traditional Protestant perspective and the New Perspective on Paul are each partly right, based on the idea that Paul’s ideas on salvation developed as he wrote over a period of time and addressed different circumstances.

If you follow the discussions in biblical theology at all closely (something of a personal idiosyncrisy), you may be aware that since the work of E. P. Sanders over thirty years ago (and followed by contributions and modifications by James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright, among others), there has been what is called the “New Perspective on Paul (NPP),” It argues that the Traditional Protestant Perspective (TPP), traced back to Luther with its focus on justification not by works of the law but by grace through faith, is a mistaken reading of Paul. Beginning often with the book of Galatians, these proponents argue that “works of the law” are the defining boundary markers of God’s covenant with the Jews that kept Gentiles outside the covenant promises of God. These proponents contend that Paul’s emphasis is that by  faith (or the faithfulness of God through Christ), Gentiles are included in God’s covenant and part of God’s family apart from the boundary markers defined by the Jewish law. Those from the TPP fire back that this ignores the argument of Romans as well as passages like Ephesians 2:8-9 that focus on works more broadly, and for a forensic idea of justification where the righteousness of Christ is imputed by faith to those who believe.

Paul’s New Perspective could be a game-changer in this discussion. Garwood P. Anderson argues that the “contradictory schools of Pauline interpretation are both right, just not at the same time.” What Anderson contends against advocates of these contrary schools is that a static understanding of Paul’s thought is not the best way to understand the Pauline corpus as a whole, but that Paul’s thought developed over time and that a developmental understanding (not that Paul changed his mind) best explains the aspects of the Pauline corpus that each perspective has difficulties explaining.

The book divides into three parts. Chapters 1-3 explore the landscape of the discussion between the two perspectives as well as more recent post-NPP contributors. As part of this, in chapter 2 he considers three key passages in which Paul is seemingly uncooperative with either perspective: Philippians 3:1-11, Romans 3:21-4:8, and Ephesians 2:1-22.

In chapters 4 and 5, Anderson then contends for a particular itinerary of Paul’s ministry and the writing of his letters that lends itself to his thesis. He would contend for both an early date, and southern setting for the letter to the Galatians, next the Thessalonian and Corinthian correspondence, followed by Romans. He believes Romans is not Paul’s last work but that Philippians as well as the contested letters to Philemon, Colossians, Ephesus, and the Pastorals followed and are genuinely Pauline. While a number of critics would dissent, there is critical support for this chronology and Pauline authorship and Anderson briefly outlines the basis for these judgments, which are critical to his contention that a significant enough period of time elapsed in the writing of the Pauline corpus for Paul’s understanding of the salvation wrought by Christ to develop toward the vision of cosmic reconciliation (carefully delineated by Anderson) apparent in Colossians and Ephesians.

Chapters 6 through 8 then turn to an exegesis of the relevant passages following this developmental chronology, followed by a concluding chapter summarizing his argument. In these he shows particularly how the New Perspective gets Galatians more or less right on “works of the law” but that Paul’s use of “works” in later letters is not equivalent but reflects a developing understanding of the grace of God apart from human effort. He also argues that, while important, justification is not the center of Paul’s understanding of salvation, that the language of reconciliation informs this, and that perhaps most central is the idea of union with Christ.

I’ve tried to summarize in several hundred words a detailed argument that runs to nearly 400 pages in Anderson’s book and thousands of pages of writing over the years. No doubt I’ve glossed over many matters in both his and others’ scholarship. What I appreciated in this work is an effort to listen to the whole canonical Pauline corpus rather than to force it onto the Procrustean beds of either the old or new perspectives, either by ignoring uncooperative passages or dismissing books as pseudo-Pauline. What he proposes is not a compromise between the two perspectives, a via media, but rather a different way of conceptualizing Paul’s emerging perspective on salvation that allows for the intellectual growth of core convictions in a coherent and non-contradictory fashion.

Anderson speaks of having “friends” in both “camps.” I hope that his effort to articulate a “third way” will not result in “unfriendly fire” from both sides but rather promote the kind of theological reconciliation that would seem to be the fruit of the reconciliatory work of Christ, of which he writes, that enriches for all our grasp of the great salvation that is ours in Christ. I found that true for myself in the reading of this work, and trust it will be so for others.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Paul & Judaism Revisited: A Study of Divine and Human Agency in Salvation

Paul & JudaismThe New Perspective on Paul espoused by E.P. Sanders, J.D.G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright, each in somewhat distinctive ways, emphasizes the idea of continuity between the Apostle Paul and the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism writers. These theologians oppose the idea that the Old Testament focused on salvation by works of the law while the New Testament teaches salvation by God’s gracious initiative. They propose the idea of “covenantal nomism”, that is that God initiates a covenant relationship with his people and obedience to the law or commands of God follows as a response of covenantal faithfulness to God’s gracious work. The Apostle Paul’s main contention was that under the New Covenant, God has extended that covenant to all peoples and that covenant faithfulness continues to be the appropriate response of recipients of this grace. The “works of the law” to which Paul refers are the “identity markers” of circumcision, and ceremonial and food laws that excluded Gentiles.

My point in this review is not to discuss or debate the New Perspective (which I hope I’ve adequately summarized) but to review Preston Sprinkle’s recent work which takes a finer grained look at the contention of “continuity” between Paul and his various Jewish sources. First of all Sprinkle makes a distinction which he observes in Old Testament scripture between approaches to salvation that emphasize divine versus human agency. The latter he refers to as Deuteronomic and emphasizes that the blessings of the covenant depend on the human agency of keeping the law. The former he refers to asProphetic which emphasizes a perspective he finds in the prophetic literature that emphasizes human inability to keep the law or even come to repentance and the initiative of God to restore Israel apart from these things. The prophetic prospective also emphasizes divinely empowered obedience to the law that comes from heart renewal. Sprinkle would contend that this is in continuity with Paul.

He then explores the Qumran and other post-Old Testament writings, looking at the issues of the work of the Spirit, pessimism about human ability to repent and keep the law, the basis on which people are declared right with God, and the issue of judgment according to works. While he finds some instances of a more Prophetic perspective (particularly in some Qumran hymns, and Pseudo Philo and the Testament of Moses), he finds that most take a Deuteronomic or mixed approach that emphasizes human agency in repentance and observance of the law.

What Sprinkle helpfully does then, is show that the contention of continuity between Paul and Second Temple Jewish sources needs to be nuanced. His extensive survey of this literature, which he often parallels with Paul, makes the discontinuities apparent. What I wonder about however in his use of the distinction between Deuteronomic and Prophetic perspectives is, has he created or sanctioned a discontinuity within the Old Testament canon, and is this warranted? He simply seems to accept and argue this discontinuity, or at least distinction without consideration of the implications thereof.

The great value in this work is its exploration of the Qumran and other Jewish writings of the Second Temple Period in the light of the New Perspective discussion. What he makes clear is much of this literature reflects an “obedience to the law” rather than strictly “covenantal nomism” perspective. These sources do not speak with one voice, and not all are in harmony with Paul.