“The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life” – A Short Review

I’ve been meaning to get back to blogging on a regular basis. As it turns out, I write semi-regularly for my seminary’s blog: www.TalkingPointsGR.com. I just wrote this piece for an upcoming post about a new book written by a faculty member at GRTS. So I thought I would re-post it here as a move toward getting more regular content online! I found it to be a very helpful read and hope you go out and pick up a copy for your shelf. Dr. Tim Gombis is my M.Div. adviser, colleague, and friend, so I was excited to sit down and work through the book in detail. I plan to do a few follow up posts on the finer points of the book in posts to come. 

 

The Apostle Paul and the Christian LifeThis March, Dr. Timothy Gombis, Associate Professor of New Testament here at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary,  published a chapter in an edited volume along with several notable scholars such as N.T. Wright, Bruce Longenecker, and James D. G. Dunn. The new book is titled, The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical and Missional Implications of the New Perspective, edited by Dr. Scot McKnight and Dr. Joseph Modica.

The book explores how the New Perspective on Paul can deliver fresh insights into  topics surrounding missions and ethics. Each chapter of the book is written by a different scholar, focusing on themes in Paul’s letters as they relate to biblical and systematic theology. These themes range from treatments of individual New Testament books, such as Galatians and Ephesians, to missiology and how Paul’s Trinitarian logic works in biblical theology. The book is highly accessible (<200 pgs)–a perfect text for both your reference shelf and for casual reading.

Dr. Gombis contributed a chapter titled, “Participation in the New-Creation People of God in Christ by the Spirit.” His chapter argues that the focus of Paul’s pastoral reflections are on the Church corporate, which he defines as “the new-creation people of God made up of individuals-in-community” (p. 104). Paul’s letters are not primarily intended to be abstracted theological “truths” to Christian individuals because “Paul does not conceive of individuals living the Christian life in isolation from the community” (p. 104). As such, Paul’s pastoral aims for his audiences must remain at the front of our interpretive vision.

Gombis’ approach forces readers of Paul’s letters to shift from searching for abstracted theological ideas as they relate to individuals. Instead, he invites them to consider the broader structure of Paul’s logic, who is encouraging entire communities of God’s people to live in light of their newly redeemed identity in Christ.

Because identity formation is central for God’s people, Gombis argues they should frame their new identity in Christ from Scripture’s narrative.  As a result, he structures his chapter around the scriptural metanarrative of creation-fall-redemption, which finds its climax in the Christ-event–His life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Gombis demonstrates that Paul himself does the same thing whenever he communicates pastoral advice to Christian communities, drawing upon language from significant biblical events. Finally, Gombis provides a biblically saturated and thoroughly Trinitarian framework for reading Paul by showing that Christians participate in Christ by the Holy Spirit.

To be clear, there is no unified or singular “New Perspective” on Paul. Rather, the name represents a wide range of New Testament scholarship, which emphasizes that  Paul should be read in light of his first century context.

On that note, this volume is helpful in two ways. First, it brilliantly represents the theological and methodological diversity among prominent voices in the New Perspective conversation. Second, it answers important objections to the New Perspective that I have often heard during my studies. One primary objection is that the New Perspective is a “heady” or overly academic project with little pastoral pay-off. In other words, the New Perspective’s emphasis on rightly constructing the world of the first century has the potential to obfuscate a straight forward reading of the biblical text and muddy the otherwise clear waters of interpretation. This book proves this kind of critique to be short-sighted.

Furthermore, the book masterfully demonstrates the very real, practical, and clear relevance of the New Perspective for everyday Christian discipleship. The authors illustrate how if we simply follow what “St. Paul really said“ in light of his first century context, then we can get to the heart of the New Testament worldview and access a rich wealth of pastoral insight for everyday modern Christian discipleship.


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