1. Why Paul?

Of the making of books on the apostle Paul there is no end. I have scores of them on my bookshelves, and there are hundreds more in my seminary’s library. I have written two such books myself, plus a Ph.D. dissertation—a total of nearly 2,000 pages. Most of my professional colleagues in biblical studies have written, or are writing, at least one book on Paul. So why yet another, especially one for serious lay readers, beginning students, and those who are not immediately attracted to Paul?

Before answering that question, we should pause to consider the context in which we read and write about Paul. If the first decade is any indication, the twenty-first century will be an era characterized by new forms of both imperialism and tribalism, each marked by violence and, often, motivated by religious commitments. In fact, some influential voices suggest that religion is the problem. And of course Paul is a religious figure. So is Paul part of the problem?

While the global situation is marked by quests for domination and by bitter divisions, the situation in many Christian churches seems to be a microcosm of the larger world, minus (usually) the violence. Since the name of Paul is often invoked on both sides of a debate or rift, we wonder again, Is Paul part of the problem?

Not in my view. I think that we can, and must, read Paul as our contemporary, and as Scripture.

Reading Paul’s Letters as Scripture

The answer to “Why another book on Paul?” lies in my conviction that too many books, even the best ones, treat him only as an ancient figure, not as our companion and contemporary, much less a conduit of divine revelation. The extreme version of this view is implied in the following quotation from the perspective of the social sciences:

Modern Christianity in all its forms has little to do with its ancestral expressions in the Jesus groups of Paul’s day, as we hope our commentary will demonstrate.

The authors of this sentence are rightly trying to help their readers enter the world of the first century and not impose their own situations on first-century documents. But they do so at great expense, losing Paul as a spiritual guide. They abandon the very reason Paul interests people in the first place: what he said to “Jesus groups” then he says also to Christians today. Paul’s writings, after all, are Christian Scripture. They are part of the Christian Bible, which is recognized by Christians as the primary authority for our knowledge of God and the primary instrument of God’s ongoing address to the Christian community.

Thus I want to read Paul, and help others read Paul, as Scripture, as—to be blunt—the voice of God speaking to us. This approach is obviously quite different from that of the social sciences. It is even different from some allegedly theological readings that stress the fact that Paul writes about God but say nothing of how Paul brings the word of God to us. My approach assumes, as Joel Green has eloquently argued, that we are part of the same community to which Paul’s first recipients belonged—the church universal. Green says:

The first question, then [in the interpretation of the Bible as Scripture], is not what separates us (language, diet, worldview, politics, social graces, and so forth) from the biblical authors, but whether we are ready to embrace the God to whom and the theological vision to which these writers bear witness.

He continues:

[I]n the same way that to refer to the Bible as Scripture is a theological statement, to speak of the church, theologically, is to speak of its oneness across time and space. There is only one people of God.

That is, historical judgments about the audience of a biblical text stand in tension with the theological affirmation of the oneness of the church that receives this biblical text as Scripture. Historical criticism assumes what Christians can never assume—namely, that there is more than one people of God.

That is, the writers and readers of Scripture constitute one community of faith.

To be sure, there is merit in remembering that Paul and his letter-recipients lived in a culture different from our own. We need to acknowledge the distance between now and then, and we need to employ tools to understand “then.” But the perspective that stresses difference should not be the governing view we bring to the reading of Paul. If it is, we betray the apostle’s own purpose in writing and forget the very meaning of the word “Scripture.” It is especially ironic that so many professional scholars of Paul continue to distance him from us when even people outside the church and outside the guild of biblical scholars—for instance, European political philosophers—find Paul of great contemporary value.

This is not to disparage historical study but to place it in a broader interpretive framework. This book assumes that we read Paul best when we read him speaking to us and for God. We need to read him as an apostle and prophet—as most people inside the Christian church have traditionally done. If readers seek other approaches, there are many good books to satisfy them, and those books can also help people who read Paul as Scripture. But if readers are at least willing to try this approach, they may find it no less responsible, and far more satisfying, than the “objective” approaches that ignore Paul’s claim to speak the word of God.

I am well aware that many people are less than certain that Paul speaks for God. There are at least two major reasons for this hesitation. First, Christians follow Jesus, not Paul, and we find Jesus in the Gospels rather than in the letters of Paul. Jesus proclaimed the world-changing arrival of God’s kingdom, while Paul only preached “justification by faith,” or so it is often thought. Thus, some think, Christians should major in the gospels and minor, at best, in Paul, whereas many Christians, especially Protestants, have done just the opposite. Moreover, some people believe that those who focus on Paul have turned his writings into a source of theological ideas, such as justification, that often seem irrelevant to everyday life or the great social problems of our day. Second, many people find in Paul other ideas that seem offensive to postmodern ears—his alleged disdainful view of women, condemnation of homosexuals, conservative politics and unquestioning support of authority, exclusivist tendencies, and arrogance. If this list is a fair summary of Paul’s views, he could justifiably be seen as part of the problem.

It would take an entire book to address these two concerns—irrelevance and offense—fully. But two quick rejoinders may be helpful. First, Paul is not as distant from Jesus as he might, at first glance, appear. The kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching was about the universal reign of Israel’s God and the creation of a new community embodying God’s covenant and character by living together as Jesus’ disciples. So, too, with Paul, except that his experience of the resurrected Jesus led him to reframe the message of God’s reign as the lordship of Jesus, God’s Son and Messiah, and of life in him. In the context of first-century Rome (and of twenty-first-century superpowers), both Jesus and Paul proclaimed, in word and deed, the “empire” of God. Whatever else justification means, it means participation in the life of this one God of the covenant who reigns supreme and deserves our loyalty.

Second, Paul may be both less and more offensive than he is normally thought to be. A new approach to Paul that takes his radical gospel seriously will have to re-examine the common understandings of his views on controversial matters. He may, for instance, be far less politically and socially “conservative” than we think. Yet he may also be far less “tolerant” on some issues than we want. The purpose of this book is not to settle all those difficult aspects of Paul, but to provide a wider framework for understanding and grappling with them.

This book, then, is a guide to reading Paul. As such it is not a traditional “introduction,” though it touches on many subjects covered in such works. Rather, after this preliminary chapter, there are three chapters on Paul, his letters, and his gospel. The book is then organized around eight themes that lie in and behind his letters. Understanding these essential themes will allow the reader to hear them as they echo throughout the letters and, I trust, to be caught up in them as the living and active word of God. A short final chapter attempts to synthesize that word spoken through Paul and to us.

This does not mean that we will never struggle with Paul’s letters, and we may even debate with the apostle. His contemporaries certainly did, and within about a generation people were already misunderstanding and even abusing Paul’s letters, because like the rest of the Scriptures they are hard to understand (2 Pet 3:15–16). But just as a purely historical perspective should not govern our reading of Paul, neither should an antagonistic one. Yes, Paul has been and can be misused, but Paul has been and can be trusted—trusted to speak for God and to light a fire of understanding and devotion among those who read his letters.

Some readers will be aware that there is scholarly dispute about which of the thirteen New Testament letters attributed to Paul were actually written by him and which were, or may have been, written by his “disciples” a generation or so later. Seven of the thirteen are called the “undisputed letters” (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon) because scholars agree almost universally that they come from Paul. This book is based largely on the undisputed letters, with some backup support from the disputed correspondence.

Paul in One Sentence

Some readers of this book will also wonder about its particular “take” on Paul: “old school,” “new perspective,” “post-new perspective,” “fresh perspective,” or what? My work on Paul defies easy classification. It will be better to begin with a glimpse of Paul’s grand scheme as I see it, doing so in one long sentence, as follows:

Paul preached, and then explained in various pastoral, community-forming letters, a narrative, apocalyptic, theopolitical gospel (1) in continuity with the story of Israel and (2) in distinction to the imperial gospel of Rome (and analogous powers) that was centered on God’s crucified and exalted Messiah Jesus, whose incarnation, life, and death by crucifixion were validated and vindicated by God in his resurrection and exaltation as Lord, which inaugurated the new age or new creation in which all members of this diverse but consistently covenantally dysfunctional human race who respond in self-abandoning and self-committing faith thereby participate in Christ’s death and resurrection and are (1) justified, or restored to right covenant relations with God and with others; (2) incorporated into a particular manifestation of Christ the Lord’s body on earth, the church, which is an alternative community to the status-quo human communities committed to and governed by Caesar (and analogous rulers) and by values contrary to the gospel; and (3) infused both individually and corporately by the Spirit of God’s Son so that they may lead “bifocal” lives, focused both back on Christ’s first coming and ahead to his second, consisting of Christlike, cruciform (cross-shaped) (1) faith and (2) hope toward God and (3) love toward both neighbors and enemies (a love marked by peaceableness and inclusion), in joyful anticipation of (1) the return of Christ, (2) the resurrection of the dead to eternal life, and (3) the renewal of the entire creation.

This complex sentence—complex in terms of both structure and content—will make much more sense by the end of the book. In fact, I would urge readers to return to this sentence after they have digested its contents in the chapters that follow.

Summary

Why read Paul in our context? As a Christian, I read Paul, and I invite others to read him, because his letters are Scripture. But I will also contend in this book that when we unpack the long sentence printed above, we find that Paul speaks powerfully to the life-threatening, violent imperialism and tribalism of this century and of any century.

Reflection

  1. What comes to mind when you hear or read the term “Scripture”?
  2. How would you describe the context in which you read Paul?
  3. Which aspects of Paul and his letters have you found inspired and inspiring?
  4. Which aspects have you found troublesome, and why?