Review: Perspectives on Paul

Perspectives on Paul: Five Views, Edited by Scot McKnight and B.J. Oropeza. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.

Summary: Presents five perspectives on the ministry and message of Paul: the Catholic, traditional Protestant, the “New Perspective” pioneered by E.P. Sanders, the Paul within Judaism perspective, and the Gift perspective.

Beginning with the work of E. P. Sanders and those who followed him, there has been an explosion of Pauline scholarship, often some version of “perspective” on Paul. The editors of this volume offer a brief overview of the recent scholarship in introducing the five perspectives in this volume:

  1. The Roman Catholic Perspective. Brad Pitre, affirming the New Perspective contribution to understanding Second Temple Judaism’s covenantal nomism, contends that the Catholic view of faith and works has strong resonances with the New Perspective, which for him is not that new.
  2. The Protestant Perspective. A. Andrew Das sets forth the traditional Protestant perspective on justification by grace alone with works as a response to being saved. He also recognizes that the New Perspective gives the lie to stereotypic faith vs. work caricatures.
  3. The New Perspective. James D. G. Dunn offers a restatement of the New Perspective, valuable because it may be one of the last pieces of writing from this scholar before his death in June of 2020, particularly affirming Paul’s theology of justification that crossed cultural boundaries.
  4. Paul within Judaism. This perspective, discussed by Magnus Zetterholm, takes the Second Temple Judaism of Paul further and insists that Paul never left Judaism or its practices, while teaching non-Jews to live consistently with Judaism while respecting their Gentile identity.
  5. The Gift Perspective. John Barclay contributes perhaps the newest perspective, one that sees the gift of Christ, his grace as making sense of the promises to Abraham, the experience of the Spirit, and the oneness of God.

Each of the contributors respond to others with a concluding response from each contributor. What is striking (perhaps apart from A. Andrew Das’ response to the Catholic perspective), was that this wasn’t one versus the others, but each in conversation with the others. It was striking the widely shared consensus on the New Perspective, particularly in its shattering of stereotypes of Judaism that lead to anti-Semitism. More clearly we see the Paul who is a product of second temple Judaism as well as apostle to the Gentiles. James D. G. Dunn candidly admitted his lack of reading of the early fathers in conversation with Brad Pitre. In addition to the irenic character of the conversation, one sensed a convergence of perspectives. Not that there was total agreement, particularly in the nuances. But one had the sense of scholars at different vantage points considering the same object, Paul, and gaining a fuller perspective from the perspectives of each.

This, to me, represented the best of theologians from different perspectives in conversation. In addition, between the editors’ introduction and the interactions around each perspective, this book is a good introduction to recent Pauline scholarship in a single volume, drawing upon the very best from each perspective. Dennis Edwards adds a concluding essay considering the pastoral relevance of the discussion. This is one of the very best “perspectives” books I’ve encountered.

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

Review: Paul and His Recent Interpreters

Paul and His Recent InterpretersPaul and His Recent Interpreters, N. T. Wright. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.

Summary: N.T. Wright surveys the scholarship in Pauline studies over the past fifty years engaging scholars developing the “new perspective”, “apocalyptic”, and “social history” approaches to Paul.

It is hard to believe but N.T. Wright has not been able to say all there is to say about Pauline scholarship in his two volume (1700 pages) Paul and The Faithfulness of GodPaul and His Recent Interpreters is a companion to that work in which Wright develops his own understanding of Paul’s life and thought. Here he engages other scholars who have been working in this field, particularly in the last fifty years, carefully summarizing their work and offering a critique in light of his own scholarship.

After a preface which outlines the program of the book, Wright begins with a review of the antecedents of the current scholarship, particularly the work of F. C. Baur and the history of religions school and the discussion of Christian origins as distinct from Judaism as Christianity moved into the Hellenistic context. The other major figure he considers here is Albert Schweitzer who first challenges the “forensic” understanding of justification as central to Paul’s thought with the proposal that “being in Christ” is central.

Most of the book considers three schools of thought in Pauline studies. The first is the “new perspective”. Here Wright deals with the work of E. P. Sanders and J. D. G. Dunn, who worked to understand the Jewish origins of Paul’s thought, working with the rich emerging material on first century AD Judaism. In many ways, Wright’s own work is closely associated with this school, although he particularly differentiates himself from Sanders in arguing that the central idea of Paul’s thought is not “participation in Christ” but rather the “covenant faithfulness of Christ” which has been extended to the Gentiles. More briefly, Wright engages his “old perspective” (Lutheran and Calvinist) critics.

The second school he discusses is the apocalyptic school arising from the work of Kasemann, whose proponents include J. C. Beker, M. C. DeBoer, and J Louis Martyn. Wright, while indeed acknowledging the place of apocalyptic, the inbreaking of a new age in Christ, he strongly differs with these thinkers, and particularly Martyn, who make this a centerpiece of Paul’s thought, and especially with Martyn’s treatment of Galatians, where he strongly questions Martyn’s exegesis.

The third school is that of social history, whose leading figure is Wayne Meeks, author of The First Urban ChristiansHere Wright is genuinely appreciative of the insights into the kind of communities Paul formed in the Mediterranean cities where he planted churches. What he wishes for is more exegetical work linking this historical work with the Pauline corpus. He concludes this section by briefly considering the more recent political readings of Paul.

One senses that in his critique, Wright is trying to do two things. One is to plead for the integration of these three schools, which he has tried to do in his own work. The other is to plead the case for careful exegesis in conjunction with the historical and theological work of these perspectives. He notes that of the figures he studies, only Martyn has actually written a commentary on a Pauline work, Galatians.

I found myself at a disadvantage on two scores in reading this work. While familiar with some of Wright’s basic ideas about Paul, and the New Perspective, I haven’t read Paul and the Faithfulness of God (yet). I also have not read any of the scholars with whom he interacts except for Wayne Meeks, so I have to take Wright at his word. That said, his review of the field serves as a helpful introduction to the last fifty years of scholarship and points the way for the New Testament and Pauline scholar who wants to pursue these matters more deeply. And Wright sets a high standard for scholarship that is both critical and generous in the pursuit of truth. It is a delight to observe virtuosity in any discipline. This was clearly in evidence in Wright’s engagement with these scholars.

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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. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”