Review: The Apocalyptic Paul

The Apocalyptic Paul: Retrospect and Prospect (Cascade Library of Pauline Studies), Jamie Davies, Foreword by John Barclay. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2022.

Summary: A survey of the major contributors to the Apocalyptic Paul movement within Pauline studies, as well as a discussion of some outstanding areas for discussion and proposals of bringing biblical scholars in the Apocalyptic Paul movement, theologians focusing on apocalyptic, and those studying the Jewish apocalyptic tradition into conversation.

In the field of Pauline studies, one of the recent developing schools of thought has been that of the Apocalyptic Paul. I’ve found myself grappling to understand this school. What is meant by apocalyptic? How is Paul apocalyptic? As it turns out, even this is a point of discussion according to this helpful survey by Jamie Davies. As indicated by the subtitle, Davies spends the first part on retrospective, surveying the leading scholars in the lineage of Apocalyptic and Apocalyptic Pauline studies. Then the second part deals more with future trajectories in Apocalyptic Pauline studies, looking both at critiques and possible engagement between Apocalyptic Pauline studies and systematic theologians and scholars studying Jewish apocalypticism. He concludes with delineating a number of outstanding questions that these three fields of study might pursue together.

The first chapter in part one traces the history of apocalyptic studies from Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer who focused on the apocalyptic character of Jesus, through Rudolph Bultmann’s demythologizing of apocalypticism and his student Ernest Kasemann’s assertion that apocalypticism is the “mother of all Christian theology.” The chapter concludes J. Christiaan Beker’s focus on apocalyptic in Paul emphasizing the triumph of God and J. Louis Martyn’s that elaborated this triumph around the theme of invasion. Chapter two then introduces more recent scholarship: Martinus de Boer’s two tracks of cosmological and forensic apocalyptic eschatology, Leander Keck’s ex post facto approach that reasons from the resurrection of Jesus to understand salvation history, Beverly Gaventa’s focus on the singularity of the gospel in the apocalyptic Paul, Douglas Campbell’s critiques of foundationalism in theology, Susan Eastman’s focus on language, identity, and agency, particularly Paul’s use of maternal language, and Lisa Bowen’s work on epistemology, heavenly ascent, and cosmic warfare. Chapter three completes part one by reviewing the apocalyptic turn in systematic theology and some of the representative scholars in this “turn”: Walter Lowe, Nathan Kerr, Philip Ziegler, and Douglas Harink. All of these wrestle with the idea of the divine interruption of apocalyptic theology, the invasion of God into the present age.

Part Two moves from survey to a constructive engagement between Apocalyptic Paul scholars and both systematic theologians, especially Barth, and Jewish apocalyptic scholars. In chapter four, he identifies unsettled questions and outlines the discussions from scholars in these three areas. The questions include whether apocalyptic means eschatological, de Boers “two tracks” of cosmic and forensic apocalyptic eschatology and whether this dichotomy may be overcome, the compatibility of wisdom and apocalyptic theology, and how retrospective approaches understanding salvation history reading back from the revelation of Jesus versus progressive salvation histories like that of N. T. Wright. Then in chapter 5, Davies utilizes this threefold engagement to look at three specific matters: the “two ages” with interesting proposals of seeing it rather as this present temporal age intersecting with the eternal through the revelation of Jesus, a study of 1 Corinthians 2 and what we can learn of Paul’s apocalyptic epistemology, and finally a study of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4, considering the interplay between cosmology and eschatology.

Davies concludes then for an appeal for this constructive theologizing to go on rather than for scholars to remain in siloes. Davies also raises the issue of the necessity of avoiding a Pauline canon within a canon, emphasizing the importance of engagement with other biblical scholarship. The challenge is between the necessity of specialization versus being a “jack of all trades.” Yet what Davies does both retrospectively and prospectively is offer a good example of the benefit of such engagement. He shows how each needs the other and cannot operate in a silo. What he does then is offer not only a valuable survey for someone new to the discussion of “the Apocalyptic Paul” as well as gesturing toward future fruitful avenues of research and engagement. Such a work is of value for both the prospective scholar and the “pastor-theologian” who seeks to make God’s whole counsel clear to God’s people.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?

Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity, David Wenham. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1995 (print on demand).

Summary: A study of the relationship of Pauline thought to the teachings of Jesus by a comprehensive effort to compare them on a number of major themes.

One of the more discussed questions in Pauline studies is whether Paul may be considered the real “founder” of Christianity as we know it. For one thing, Paul rarely quotes Jesus, and aside from the death and resurrection of Jesus, seems to have little interest in the ministry of Jesus. On the face of it, his teaching seems to have different concerns, everything from justification by grace through faith, the inclusion of the Gentiles, and the ordering of life in churches.

This work was brought to my attention when I reviewed Who Created Christianity, a festschrift honoring Wenham’s work. That work was not possible without this one, and I found it sufficiently interesting to dig into the work that began it all, published by Wenham back in 1995. Wenham’s project in this work was nothing less than a comprehensive comparison of the teaching of Jesus and the thought of Paul. His method, which he outlines in the first chapter is to set the teaching of Jesus and Paul side by side in six major areas in chapters two through seven. He considers that of Jesus first, and then that of Paul. This in itself reveals many areas of consonance as well as divergence. The second part of each chapter is even more important. Wenham looks for connection between Jesus and Paul, and whether this can be argued to go back to the teaching of Jesus. These may be one of the following: formal tradition indicators, where Paul indicates he is drawing upon the words of the Lord, such as in teaching on divorce in 1 Cor 7:10; references to things known by his readers that would have come from Jesus, as in 1 Thes. 5:1-2; verbal and formal similarities, such as Paul’s “yes, yes” or “no, no” in 2 Cor. 17-18, and similarities of thought.

Wenham deals with the question of correlates not demonstrating relationship. His own approach is one in which, if the accumulated evidence shows a number of highly probable or plausible connections, then it may be argued that there is a likelihood of dependence of Paul on the Jesus tradition.

In chapters two through seven, Wenham applies this method to the following:

  • The Kingdom of God
  • Who is Jesus?
  • Why the Crucifixion
  • Jesus and the Community
  • Living in Love
  • The Future Coming of the Lord

Chapter 8 takes a slightly different approach, surveying the life and ministry of Jesus, considering what Paul might have known of his birth, baptism and temptation, ministry, miracles, and lifestyle, transfiguration, passion, resurrection and exaltation.

Finally, Wenham draws together his conclusions in chapter 9, some of which I will highlight. While Paul doesn’t use kingdom language very often, he teaches that new creation, a new situation has come in Christ. Jesus speaks of himself as the Son of Man and Paul of him as the new Adam, and also uses the “Abba” language distinctive to Jesus. At the last supper, Jesus sees his suffering as redemptive and bringing in his coming kingdom and Paul sees the redemption of sinful humanity, and a strong connection in Paul’s writing about the last supper. Jesus speaks of the destruction of the temple and the community and mission of the twelve. Paul sees the new temple composed of Jews and those incorporated into the church through the Gentile mission. There is a common thread of the primacy of the law of love and a vision of the last things. Wenham also sees difference but contends that the pre-passion and resurrection setting of Jesus in a Jewish world, and the post-Pentecost, Gentile setting of Paul’s thought accounts for differences. He shows how Paul’s thought is a development rather than departure from the teaching of Jesus. He also has some intriguing ideas in a concluding note about Paul’s gospel sources in relation to the Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Q sources of synoptic scholarship.

While taking nothing away from Paul’s importance to the Gentile mission in the urbanized Roman empire, Wenham contends that “Paul would have been horrified at the suggestion that he was the founder of Christianity” (p. 409). Rather, he would consider himself a follower, indeed a “slave” of the one he encountered on the Damascus road.

This is not only a wonderful contribution to Pauline studies but also to biblical theology, in considering the continuity, indeed the origins of our Christology across the gospel. I suspect there are those who would be more skeptical of Wenham’s connections and conclusions, giving less credence to dependence upon Jesus. But what Wenham does accomplish is the removal of the wedge some would drive between Jesus and Paul, while doing full justice to the biblical material. So much of Pauline studies has been dominated by the “New Perspective” discussion which may lead to overlooking Wenham. Amid discussions that may threaten to eclipse Jesus, this work both honors Paul and exalts Christ.

Review: Paul & The Power of Grace

Paul & the Power of Grace, John M. G. Barclay. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2020.

Summary: Looks at the theology of Paul through the lens of grace, an unconditioned and incongruous gift for Jew and Gentile alike, personally and socially transformative.

John M. G. Barclay stirred up a conversation in Pauline studies in 2015 with the publication of Paul and the Gift, an analysis of what Paul meant by “grace.” This book represents both a distillation and extension of the ideas of the former book. It is less technical, expands the analysis beyond Galatians and Romans while summarizing the previous work in these texts well, and does more to consider the present implications of these ideas.

His central contention, based on analysis of charis in other Second Temple Jewish texts, and especially of Paul in Galatians and Romans, is that grace may be understood as God’s unconditioned and incongruous gift that is both personally and socially transformative. “Unconditioned” emphasizes that there is nothing the individual does to deserve the gift. It is not unconditional, because the empowering presence of God’s grace in those who trust in Christ, is meant to transform people who live new lives in dying bodies, and transforms social relationships, creating a new community making no distinctions by ethnicity, gender, or status. All this is redounds to the glory of God. It is also incongruous whether for the Gentiles as uncircumcised outsiders or for disobedient Jews. Indeed, Barclay points to Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 as an example of the incongruity of grace in saving all Israel.

In this work, Barclay extends his analysis to the Corinthian correspondence and Philippians. He notes Paul’s treatment of grace and power in Corinth, how the incongruity of grace overturns the power value system of Corinth. and what it means to be “in Christ,” as Christ’s gift of himself to the believer in Philippians. He then extends the significance of grace as gift in inspiring giving communities, generously given to one another where all are cared for, as well as to other communities, as in the offering for Jerusalem, from when the gift of Christ arose.

Barclay addresses the various “perspectives” on Paul and what his own contributes to each. To the traditional Protestant view, his unconditioned but not unconditional reconciles the free aspect of grace and the obedience of faith as the consequence of grace. To Catholics, there are not two stages of grace, but grace transforms, eventuating in good works. For the New Perspective folks, the incongruity of grace explains the inclusion of the Gentiles and the hope for the nation of Israel. For the “Paul within Judaism” people, the incongruity of grace reconfigures his understanding of the law in ways that offer hope both for Israel and the nations.

A concluding chapter considers contemporary implications. Incongruous grace doesn’t recognize distinctions when it comes to who is included. The generosity of giving is one that recognizes all are “gifted,” regardless of economic status. And we all need the gifts of each other as manifestations of God’s incongruous gift.

I appreciate the explicit focus on “grace” in Paul, both for the correctives Barclay brings to notions that smack of “cheap grace” while focusing on the incongruous, unconditioned initiative of God. I’ve often sensed that grace gets eclipsed in the covenantal nomism and focus on faithfulness in various renderings of the New Perspective. Yet Barclay draws on the wealth of learning about Second Temple Judaism to sharpen our understanding of grace such that we don’t read the Reformation back into the New Testament language of grace. And the material about how grace transforms in this volume casts a joyful vision of the possible of our life in Christ, where incongruent grace transforms us into people living congruently with that grace.

Review: Voices and Views on Paul

Voices and Views on Paul: Exploring Scholarly Trends, Ben Witherington III and Jason A. Myers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A discussion and analysis of recent Pauline scholarship focusing on E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright, John Barclay, Stephen Chester, and Louis Martyn.

As you may gather from my reviews, there has been a plethora of scholarship on Paul in recent years. This is one of those works that offers both a helpful review of some of the key scholarship in this field as well as evaluation that both affirms what the writers see of value, and offers some critique. Ben Witherington III has written a number of commentaries on the Pauline writings as well as a significant work on the new scholarship on Paul, The Paul Quest, first published in 1998, when much of the “New Perspective” scholarship was still a “new” thing. Since then, a number of the key figures have written newer works, in some cases revising their views. Also, in more recent year the “apocalyptic school” led by Louis Martyn has generated its own discussion and reading of Paul. And lastly, John Barclay has focused on the theme of grace and gift in Paul and Stephen Chester has contributed Reading with the Reformers, an effort to reconcile old and new perspectives.

The two authors divide up the treatment of these figures between them with Witherington contributing a chapter on N.T. Wright and the chapter on Barclay and Chester and Myers taking the chapters on E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, and on Martyn and others of the apocalyptic school. Both offer overviews of key works, as well as appraisal. Here were a few impressions from my reading:

  1. There is an ongoing discussion of what kind of Jew Paul is. So much of the discussion has been around Paul and second Temple Judaism, but there was the observation that there may be more need to pay attention to Paul’s diasporan roots.
  2. I was impressed by the contrast between E. P. Sanders and James D. G. Dunn in terms of their engagement with their critics. Dunn was far more engaged than Sanders, and his later work reflected this engagement. The authors rightly note the wonderful model Dunn, who recently passed, gave us.
  3. I’m also struck by the greater nuancing that has occurred over time on what is meant by “works of the law” recognizing both the boundary conditions that were a barrier to Gentile inclusion and that Paul had broader understanding of what this phrase meant.
  4. Another matter for continued discussion is the status of Israel and the how the promise that “all Israel will be saved” will be accomplished. Will there be a single way of salvation or distinctive ones?
  5. Myers concedes that there is no accepted definition of “apocalyptic.” I did feel at times there was this “what exactly are we talking about” feel. It is apparent that these scholars may have much to contribute to the understanding of Romans 9-11, and do recover a dimension to Paul’s perspective overlooked by the New Perspective discussion.
  6. Finally, I have concluded that I really want to read the work of John Barclay and I’m intrigued by Stephen Chester’s project.

Probably the least appreciative treatment in this collection is Witherington’s of N.T. Wright. While acknowledging the overall value of Wright’s scholarship, Witherington has a number of critiques, including Wright’s ideas about Christ and Israel, supercessionist tendencies, his exaltation Christology to name a few. Witherington has a history of engagement with Wright, including a blog series on Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God that went to somewhere around one hundred installments. Unlike some who have argued for traditional views of Paul, Witherington carefully engages Wright, affirming helpful aspects of his scholarship, but also noting where he clearly differs.

One other feature of this work, that I’ve seen Witherington do before is team up with younger scholars, noting very clearly their contribution to the work, and introducing them to the scholarly world. This is also a model of generous scholarship to be commended and encouraged not only in the theological world but in the wider academy.


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

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, a New Covenant Jew


Paul, a New Covenant JewBrant Pitre, Michael P. Barber, John A. Kincaid (Foreword by Michael J. Gorman). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2019.

Summary: In answer to the question of “what kind of Jew was Paul?”, three Catholic scholars, focusing on 2 Corinthians 3:2-16, argue that he was a new covenant Jew and then relate this idea to apocalyptic, Christology, atonement, justification, and the Lord’s supper.

There is a cascade of literature in Pauline studies in recent years, difficult for any reviewer to keep up with unless one makes this one’s focus. One of the qualities that makes this work stand out is that it is the work of three Catholic scholars, seeking both to interact with and contribute to serious Pauline scholarship, and to do so in a way faithful to Catholic tradition. The other distinctive of their work is their proposal answering the question of “what kind of Jew was Paul?”

The first chapter considers this question and alongside the alternatives of former Jew, eschatological Jew, and Torah-observant Jew, the authors propose that Paul is a new covenant Jew. They center their contention on Paul’s self-description as a minister of a new covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6) and the broader context of 2 Corinthians 3:2-16. They argue that this best explains both the discontinuities (“new”) and continuities (“covenant”) evident in Paul’s ministry and letters (this work focuses on the seven uncontested letters of Paul).

Remaining chapters then press out the connection of this idea to other Pauline themes. With regard to apocalyptic thought, they note the continuity of Paul’s thought with the idea of two ages, and the discontinuity in the assertion that in the death an”d resurrection of Jesus, the new age has already begun, new creation already is a reality, and both Jews and Gentiles already part of the heavenly Jerusalem. This is, in the words of Michael Gorman, an “apocalyptic new covenant.” Along the lines of Jewish expectation, Jesus is a very human figure, according to Paul. Yet Paul also asserts that he is in “the form of God” and “equal with God,” on the creator side of the creature/creator divide. Paul’s new covenant hope is in a Messiah both human and the divine Son. For these scholars, the cross is not only new covenant sacrifice by the apocalyptic revelation of the character of God in the self-giving of his son–a revelation of both righteousness and love.

The chapters that are most “Catholic” and might evoke the most discussion are those on justification and the one on the Lord’s table. The authors contend that justification is not merely juridical but, drawing on Pauline language, contend that justification also involves three transformative realities in the life of the believer:

  1. Cardiac righteousness, in which the heart of the believer is transformed resulting in an obedience of the heart, and obedience of faith. (2 Cor. 3:9; Romans 10:10).
  2. This righteousness comes through baptismal initiation (Romans 6:11; 1 Cor. 6:11; Gal. 3:24-27).
  3. Through our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, reflected in baptism, we are being conformed to the image of Christ, which Paul describes under the term, justification (cf. Gal. 2:15-21; Phil. 3:7-12; Romans 6:1-11).

Finally, with regard to the Lord’s Supper, they draw out the connection between participation in Christ and participation in drinking the cup, eating the bread of the sacrifice. They note the strong cultic language in Paul’s discussion of the Lord’s supper and emphasize its sacrificial nature. The authors make a strong exegetical case for their contention, although I would contend one can understand the Lord’s supper as participation in Christ’s sacrifice, without the elements becoming body and blood, that is, a sacrifice (although the authors do not assert this explicitly, but draw parallels to Old Testament sacrifices, and the consumption of these).

In these last two chapters, the authors walk a fine line between Catholic and post-Reformation discussions. They raise important exegetical issues and cite other scholars from the wider discussion whose work aligns with their conclusions. They make a proposal about how we might understand Paul that echoes his own self-description and that plausibly connects with other themes in Pauline teaching. Their work suggests the potential of biblical theology to foster constructive engagements between different parts of the church around the biblical text.


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: Participating in Christ

Participating in Christ

Participating in ChristMichael J. Gorman. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019.

Summary: A discussion of what it means to be “in” Christ, or to participate in Christ, drawing from the Pauline letters, and particularly what this means for living a cross-shaped and resurrection-infused life by which one becomes increasingly like Christ and God.

This book is about a small word, “in,” that carries a vital and transformative idea for the Christian believer. Anyone who has read Paul’s letters will no doubt have encountered the phrase “in Christ” numerous times. But what should we understand the significance of this phrase to be, both with reference to Christ and for those who have believed in Christ.

Michael Gorman argues that this is the language of participation of union, of an intimate sharing with Christ, and much of his work has been to develop the implications of participation for Pauline theology. His argument begins with the cross, which is at the heart of the revelation of the person of Christ, even as risen Lord. Furthermore, the cross not only tells us what Christ is like, but what the Godhead is like, a God of self-emptying love. And finally the cross reveals what both human beings and the church are meant to be, that individually and collectively, to be in Christ is to take on the cross-shaped character of Christ and God. The cross is not only the source but the shape of our salvation as we live by faith and faithfulness, love, power, justice and hope. Because the cross of Christ reveals the character of God, our lives are God-like (Gorman develops the idea of theosis here, perhaps the most controversial aspect of his work). The cruciform or cross-shaped life is not merely imitative, but transformative through participating in the life of the risen Messiah through the Spirit.

Gorman argues for justification as a participatory event that is both forensic in our trust in Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, and that incorporates us into Christ’s body as we share in his covenant faithfulness in our death to sin with Christ and experience in his resurrection the power to live a cross-shaped life. Therefore what Gorman proposes is a theology that bridges the divide between the historic forensic view of justification, and the New Perspective on Paul that focuses on justification as covenant inclusion into the people of God through the faithfulness of Christ.

To participate in Christ is not merely to believe but to become the gospel, advancing it through our embodiment of the cruciform life in reconciliation, restorative justice, forgiveness, and non violence. The transformative work of justification is also one of justice-ification. As we are transformed individually and corporately through being reckoned righteous or just before God (the same word in Greek), we embody this work in pursuing cruciform justice in society

Gorman develops these ideas in nine chapters considering Pauline texts from the Corinthian, Roman, Galatian and Philippian letters, ones universally accepted as Pauline. His final two chapters apply these ideas to the church today, the first through an imaginary epistle of Paul to the church in North America, in which he challenges the pursuit of political power and alignments with a call to cruciformity and latter in which he explores the critical relevance of the resurrection for both Christian hope, and resurrectionally infused ethics in the present.

I like the focus on this simple but often overlooked aspect of Christian living–what it means to live in Christ and how this is evident in the believer’s life. The cruciform shape, resurrection power, and missional presence in the world all are vital for both the individual believer but the body as a whole. I did wonder about the connection between our participation in Christ (and his body) and the idea Paul also develops of our partnership (koinonia) with one another. Gorman doesn’t develop this, but it seems a natural corollary to participation, and speaks to how Christians exercise solidarity across national and ethnic and gender and class lines in the gospel.

I’m also drawn to the way Gorman reconceptualizes the discussion between the New Perspective and forensic camps around justification, particularly in his emphasis on the transformative aspects of justification or being “righteoused.” While we sometimes separate justification and sanctification, and there are dangers of confusing them, to emphasize that justification does not just address our status but also the beginnings of new creation in the regenerate believer seems vital. This is a very different take than in Garwood Anderson’s Paul’s New Perspective (reviewed here) which takes more of a chronological approach to explaining passages that support more of a forensic view and others that support more of a covenant inclusion view as reflective of development in Paul. I’d love to hear the dialogue between these two scholars!

In any event, I found the book a rich exploration of the significance of being “in Christ,” a short phrase we often gloss over. I won’t be able to look at it in quite the same way again, thanks to Michael Gorman’s work.


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: An Anomalous Jew

An Anomalous Jew

An Anomalous JewMichael F. Bird. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.

Summary: A collection of studies on the life and ministry of Paul that explores this unusual Jew who is comfortable moving among Greeks and Romans as he proclaims the Christ he encountered on the way to Damascus.

About the only thing scholars can agree upon concerning the Apostle Paul is that he was born a Jew. In an introductory chapter, Michael F. Bird surveys the options most commonly chosen to explain this apostle who claims on one hand that everything from his former life as a Jew is “crap” compared to the surpassing worth of Christ, and yet “becomes a Jew, in order to win the Jews.” Is he really a former Jew who has abandoned Judaism? A transformed Jew, an Israelite in Christ? A faithful Jew? Or a radical Jew? There is something to be said for each of these views and significant scholars associated with each one. Bird proposes an alternative–Paul is an anomalous Jew because he tries “to create a social space for a unified body of Jewish and Gentile Christ-believers worshiping God” (p. 28).

In succeeding chapters, Bird presents five “studies” (most individually published elsewhere) that underscore the anomalous character of Paul’s Jewishness, shaped by his mission to Gentiles and Jews. He begins by exploring Paul’s ideas of salvation, which both comes from the Jews and is for the Jews, but is also for the Gentiles and found in Christ, and not Torah. Chapter 2 shows how Paul is indeed apostle both to Gentiles and to Jews and how much the latter occupied his attention. Chapter 3 addresses the debate between apocalypticism and salvation history in Paul through a study of Galatians showing both elements reaching their height in the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. Chapter 4 focuses in on the incident at Antioch described in Galatians 2:11-14 as the beginning of Paulinism “understood as the antithesis between Christ and Torah when the salvation and equal status of Gentiles is on the line” (p. 203). It also marks a parting in the ways between Paul and the Jerusalem church, not absolute as evident in Paul’s efforts for the relief of that church. Finally, chapter 5 explores the “anti-imperial” undertones of Paul’s letter to the Romans. On its face it presents no civil or military challenge to Roman order. Yet its assertions of the kingdom of the Messiah and the new sociopolitical entity of the church in fact was a profound challenge to Rome which would ultimately supplant empire.

Bird writes:

    “In sum, Paul was a religious anomaly. He appeared on the scene of the Greco-Roman world like a sudden yet small ripple moving upon the waters of a still river. He goes mostly unnoticed in his own time, and yet by the time the ripple reaches the shore of the modern age, it has become a tsunami. Paul’s anomaly, offensive as it was to the Jews and odd as it was to Greeks, became the Gentile Christianity that eventually swallowed up the Roman Empire and that, even to this day, two millenia later, casts its shadow upon the religious landscape of the world. Not bad for a Jewish tentmaker from Tarsus!” (p. 30)

Of the writing of books on Paul, there seems no end! What makes this one distinctive is that it provides a reading of Paul’s life and mission that reconciles seemingly disparate threads of scripture and explains them by Paul’s vision of the new people, Jew and Gentile together, formed by Messiah Jesus. It explains both the consonant and dissonant elements in his Jewishness, his reaction at Antioch, and the content of his letter to the Roman church.

Michael Bird represents a younger generation of theological scholars from “down under” who are beginning to make their mark in biblical and theological studies. I look forward to hearing more from him and others like him!


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.