Four Views On The Apostle Paul

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Michael F. Bird ed., Four View on The Apostle PaulGrand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, July, 2012. 240 pp. Paperback, $17.99.

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While Understanding Biblical Theology received the first vote, Four View on The Apostle Paul received the most votes for review. Though you may not know it, the day before Thanksgiving is actually the perfect time to talk about Paul, since he talked thanksgiving more than anyone else published in the first century (which you can read about for yourself in this book). This isn’t my first multi-view book to review (see the series on justification and the single entry on hermeneutics), but it is my first in the Zondervan Counterpoints series, and I’ve got Zondervan Academic to thank for this copy!

Overview

I’m guessing you can see the names of the four contributors on the cover of the book. If you’re like me, you may not immediately recognize the view they represent. Upon discovery, I felt it was a very eclectic mix, but see for yourself:

  • Thomas Schreiner (Reformed Baptist view)
  • Luke Timothy Johnson (Catholic view)
  • Douglas Campbell (Post-New Perspective view)
  • Mark Nanos (Jewish view)

To say we’ve got quite a diverse group for a conversation is an understatement. Actually, I’m not sure you could create a more diverse group than this. There is diversity in perspective as well as diversity in presentation and focal point. In the midst of that, each contributor was asked to “touch on four key areas in their respective essays” (10):

  • What did Paul think about salvation?
  • What was Paul’s view of the significance of Christ?
  • What is the best framework for describing Paul’s theological perspective?
  • What was Paul’s vision for the churches?

Helpfully enough, Michael Bird summarizes each contributor’s answer to each of these questions in the introduction. I won’t reproduce that here, but in my opinion, this is some good editorial work upfront.

As for the essays themselves, I thought Schreiner and Johnson had the strongest presentations. They each more or less organized their essays around headings related to the four question, and each supported their arguments by extensive use of Scripture. In terms of crafting an essay unpacking the theology of Paul, these authors show us how it’s done.

When it comes to Campbell’s essay though, he focused almost the entire space on an exposition of Romans 5-8 to illustrate his post new perspective paradigm. This is mainly because he sees that section of Romans as pivotal for understanding Paul. However, this weakens his argument since he buttresses everything on his specific understanding of those four chapters.

As for Nanos, his focus is first on clearing anti-Semitic debris in Protestant readings of Paul. Then, he spends the bulk of the remaining space arguing for a different understanding of Paul’s continuing relationship to Judaism than is typical. In short, Nanos sees Paul as still practicing Judaism, but reoriented around Jesus. He makes some intriguing points, but ultimately fails to persuade.

Strengths/Weaknesses

Though I’m glad that someone published a multi-view book on Paul, I still think there is room for improvement, and would look forward to seeing another. I think this volume ultimately falls short of being really helpful (to me at least), and for at least a couple of reasons.

First, the diversity of contributors leads to dialogue that switches between surface level affirmations of commonalities and deep disagreements. Schreiner probably received the harshest rebuttals, though he was himself was very congenial in his responses. In general though, these four perspectives are about as diverse as possible. You have an evangelical Christian, a Catholic, a mainline Protestant, and a non-Christian Jewish view (Nanos lists his religion on his personal website as “Reform Judaism” which I don’t take to be a type of Christianity). With this collection of scholars, the most commonality is between the Reformed Baptist and the Catholic (who affirmed many of the same theological themes are were the only two who accepted all of Paul’s epistles as genuine). That, to me at least, means you’re dealing with some pretty radical diversity in perspective. I would have found the book to be more helpful if it included a smaller range of perspectives, but more on that below.

Second, and somewhat related to the first, there was no common agreement among the contributors about what parts of the New Testament Paul wrote. Schreiner and Johnson affirm the traditional view (and rightly so), while Campbell only accepts Romans, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians as Pauline (and focuses almost exclusively on Rmans 5-8). Nanos builds his case solely from Romans, 1st Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians. Though it does illustrate the diversity of perspectives on Paul, it also means that the views of Paul sketched by Schreiner and Johnson will meet unavoidable disagreement from Campbell and Nanos if for no other reason than the they are working from non-Pauline (in the critical perspective’s eyes) texts. I don’t recall this being mentioned as a criticism, but from my perspective, it made Campbell and Nanos’ views less persuasive since they weren’t considering all the data. If you accept the critical perspective on Paul, this won’t be a problem for you, or if it is, it’ll be in the other direction (Johnson and Schreiner consider too much data).

Conclusion

While some may welcome the radical diversity of perspective, I found it less helpful. If you’re looking for a book that will give the broadest range possible for perspectives on Paul, then this book is for you. If you’re interested in differing perspectives on Paul within evangelical Christianity, this book has little to offer you. If you’re somewhere in the middle, and you are interested in Pauline studies, this book should probably be on your shelf. It is current, easy to track with, and offers four scholarly, yet accessible perspectives on Paul. I would have found it much more beneficial if the views were something like this:

  • Classic Reformed (Schreiner works, or get someone like Frank Theilman)
  • Progressive Reformed (Michael Bird)
  • New Perspective (just get N.T. Wright, or perhaps James Dunn)
  • Storied Perspective (someone like Daniel Kirk)

Now, that is the book I would have liked, but that’s just me. I can’t really criticize this book for not being my ideal. This book is well written, and well edited. Bird does a good job of framing the discussion and the essays themselves are easy to follow and understand (Campbell being almost an exception just because he is trying to reinvent the wheel) and very stimulating (even when ultimately unpersuasive). While it was helpful to see such stark perspectives on Paul, it wasn’t not all that personally edifying to me. 3 of the 4 perspectives are pretty much off my radar, and though interesting, and not perspectives on Paul I would adopt, both for theological and exegetical reasons. I wouldn’t want to back into the 4th perspective (Schreiner’s), so I’d like to explore more within the range surrounding it but not identical to it (hence my proposal for views I’d like to see interact).

But, with all that said, this belongs in your collection of Pauline books, granted you have such a collection. If you don’t, and you’re just embarking on Pauline studies, I don’t think this is the best place to start. I’d pick up individual smaller volumes, perhaps even starting with the one written by the editor of this volume (that would be Michael Bird’s Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message). That’s what I’d do, but you’ll have to make the decision for yourself. For me, this book just reminds me that I seriously need to make time to start reading Ridderbos’ Paul: An Outline of His Theology. As for when that happens though, your guess is as good as mine!

Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

4 thoughts on “Four Views On The Apostle Paul”

    1. Yeah I’ve seen you talk up Holland, so he’s definitely on my list. But, I’m doing my best to stick with books I’ve already got before purchasing more! (As you can guess, I’m really hit or miss on being successful at this)

  1. Bro, aren’t you going to say ANYTHING — at all — about the content of the book, the raison d’etre of the book in the first place, to discuss a variety of descriptions of what Paul thought about salvation, the place of Christ, etc? Now that you have written an intro to the kind of book it is, could you say something about its assertions? Thanks! (Lord bless! I only “sound” mad….)

    1. I could, but I just didn’t like the book enough to interact with it beyond the way I did. I opted for a meta-review instead of a blow by blow critical review (which I think you’re getting at when you say “say something about its assertions”).

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