The Pastoral Problem with Theological Statements

With the recent (ill-timed, it would seem) release of a theological declaration regarding human sexuality, signed by the likes of J.I. Packer and D.A. Carson and folks from their respective camps (British evangelicals and Gospel Coalition American Calvinists), the Christian news sources have been all a-flutter along the same lines that they tend to be with all these such statements and all these such discussions. The (broadly speaking) traditionalist Right* has made the typical claim that they feel adequately communicates their historic orthodoxy, while the (broadly speaking) progressive Left* has responded in typical outrage and frustration, even crafting a reflective statement of their own (courtesy of Nadia Bolz-Weber). *Left/Right, notably, are horrible terms to use when speaking of theology. Continue reading “The Pastoral Problem with Theological Statements”

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Reading David Bentley Hart (and His New Book of Essays)

Hart- Hidden and the ManifestTo my mind, there are few intellectual delights sweeter than reading the well-tuned prose of David Bentley Hart. I’m aware that this statement may occasion a few chortles and raised eyebrows—I think of the pastor friend who said Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite was the most difficult thing he’s ever tried to read and consequently gave it away— but over time, Hart’s writings have become to me like the sipping of a fine port after so many cans of Dr. Pepper or Mahler’s Resurrection symphony after so many Beyoncé songs, if you prefer. Hart’s new book of previously published essays is more digestible than Beauty of the Infinite, —more hours d’oeuvre style than full dress, if only because if you’re not enjoying the taste of one essay you can grab another—but it’s certainly contains the caloric content and the substance of a rich and full meal.

Hart’s book is a theological and philosophical treasure and is a rich testament to his unerring learnedness, eloquence and profound intellectual range, as John Milbank attests on the back blurb. Perhaps I may serve you better, dear reader —oh you, likely tortured soul, this far deep into philosophy and theology!— if instead of trying to tidily summarize these essays, (you really must just spend time with them), I am able to position you to better understand Hart when you do decide to finally try and read him.

There is no doubt that it is much easier to digest a three minute Beyoncé song than a 45 minute Mahler symphony and so you must know that reading Hart takes work and time. He is an acquired taste and if you’re anything like me, you will have several different stages in your journey with David Bentley Hart, resembling, somewhat strangely, the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief.

  1. The first was the bewilderment stage– In this stage I was determined to understand what the man was saying even if it meant coming at the cost of spending more time looking up the words he was using than actually reading him. My first encounter was reading Atheist Delusions as a college undergrad and at many times I really had very little idea of what, exactly, Hart was saying but I knew that it looked very impressive and that I very well would like to swordfight with atheists this way some day and look as smart and accomplished doing it. But what exactly did it mean to be rather petulant or have a note of asperity? Dictionary… This stage often continues into the present.
  2. The Cheerleading or the Righteous Anger phase– This phase found me running up to the New Atheist bullies, or anyone that would disagree with him, behind his coattails—Hart, the brave older brother— casting stones and then running away. “Take that you bad guys that don’t believe in Jesus! I’ve got a very smart and clever brother that will take you to task.” In this phase, I enjoyed the ammunition that Hart gave me and felt that if he could be so disparaging to any and all that disagreed that it was not only appropriate to belittle opponents so and take great pleasure in laughing at their intellectual inferiority. As a young apologist wannabe sentences like “Dennet’s book is utterly inconsequential—in fact, it is something of an embarrassment…“ and “Dawkins [the] tireless tractarian [with an] embarrassing incapacity for philosophical reasoning” were like bullets in the chamber of my rhetorical gun. This stage lasted for about three years or until around the second year of graduate school when I realized that this roughshod apologetic approach might be winning some battles but losing the war.
  3. The Turn (Kehre)– In this stage I found myself distancing myself from Hart and his spewing prose and wondered why Hart seemed so angry all the time. Why all the vitriol? Doesn’t Paul say that if he speaks without love he is but a clanging cymbal? Was it really necessary to disparage those who thought differently than he did so hostilely? Doesn’t he like anybody? I found myself being frustrated with his disparagement of anyone and everyone that didn’t agree with him.
  4. Engagement– This stage began in earnest again with the release of Hart’s book The Experience of God in 2014. I was at the tail end of an M.A. in philosophy and I found that Hart’s book nicely captured many of the philosophical arguments I had been studying, tidying them up in their relationship to my faith and why, exactly, these ideas mattered—something that is easily lost in the midst of studies. I relied heavily on his exposition of the anologia entis why the prennial philosophical question of “Why is there something rather than nothing” was misunderstood, ignored, and unanswerable by modern atheists— in my case, Feuerbach.
  5. Acceptance– In the end (which I consider to just have arrived at with the reading of these essays), I got over Hart’s cantankerousness because he is just too helpful and brilliant to write off as simply a demagogue. It seems that even Hart’s heart has begun to softent: he writes in the preface to this new volume that “I have also decided not to attempt to soften some of the more immoderate or provocative remarks in these essays, despite my resolve to strike a more emollient tone whenever I can…” Whether this change of tone is strictly for personal advancement or arises from the injunctions of the gospel that Hart proclaims, I could not say, but I was assuaged (not that I really needed a reason to be) and am curious how Hart’s invective will change in his future work.david-bentley-hart

Maybe your relationship hasn’t been nearly as tumultuous as mine has. Who knows? Maybe you have not the slightest idea what I am talking about and yet have read this far! Regardless, this collection of essays is a treasure and it will be a volume continually close to hand, both for its example of the power of rhetoric and for its rich expositions of the most basic and fundamental tenants of Christianity read in the light of the best of the tradition. Who can resist sentences like: It imbues the works of Augustine’s senescence with an inexpungible tincture of tragic moral idiocy, one that he bequeathed to broad streams of Catholic and Protestant tradition” (139) and “Ultimately, Heidegger succeeds only at returning to an oblivion of being as profound as his own… (24)?

Did I mention that Hart makes for a rather polarizing figure?

If there is one interweaving thread throughout Hart’s work (and these essays) it is the continual reference to the “conceptual revolution” of Christianity’s understanding of Being. That is, because of its doctrine of creation, Christianity forced a reconceptualization of the entire history of metaphysics. As Hart says,

Herein lies the great ‘discovery’ of the Christian metaphysical tradition: the true nature of transcendence, transcendence understood not as mere dialectical supremacy, and not as ontic absence, but as the truly transcendent and therefore utterly immediate act of God, in his own infinity, giving being to beings (109).

In other words, God is not some type of super creature among creatures (or man writ large as Feuerbach would have it) but existence itself. “Without him nothing was made that was made.” Hart uses this Thomistic doctrine between ens and esse to ground his critique of Heidegger in the first essay “The Offering of Names” and to summarize the uniqueness of Christian thought in “The Destiny of Christian Metaphysics” and it also features prominently in the title essay “The Hidden and the Manifest.” There are two important treatments of the much-maligned doctrine of God’s impassibility as well as two essays on Gregory of Nyssa an extended treatment of Milton and discussions about infinity.

If you’re just beginning with Hart or a fairly recent comer to metaphysics then I would suggest you start with Experience of God and then pick up this book of essays. (If you’re really just a pugilistic looking to excoriate your opponents, The Atheist Delusions is the book for you, though chapter 15 in that book I consider maybe the high point of any book I’ve read in the last five years. And it’s probably thanks to Hart that I even know what a pugilist is….) You’ll be glad you did.

To Be or Not to Be? It Is the Question

To be or not to be? We ask ourselves this question everyday, whether we realize it or not, through probably not in the existential context in which Hamlet gave us this most famous of lines. But we do decide in every action whether or not what we do will give us being or deprive us of what it means to be fully human. So, what does it mean to live a full and complete human life? I’m so glad you asked! Let me tell you what my friend James Schall has to say on the matter. Let me begin with a story. Schall-Life of the Mind

In graduate school, I asked the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) if I could be their campus representative, which I realize now, is somewhat akin to asking the fire department if I could bring my watering can to help fight their fires. They probably rolled their eyes but they obliged and so I became the pioneering member of ISI at the University of Dallas. ISI is a conservative educational organization whose purpose is to teach “the core ideas behind the free market, the American Founding, and Western civilization, ideas that are rarely taught in [the] classroom” and so being the ISI rep at a school like the University of Dallas— which exists to teach the great books and keep Western civilization alive— did not make me their most valuable asset. A majority of the students were already bought in to ISI’s core ideas and so I now realize why I could never get anyone to contact me with questions I had. (Book reviews can be so cathartic!) ISI has a lot of rich people who give them a good deal of money and so I became the recipient of boxes of free ISI books. One of the thinkers they introduced me to was Father James Schall, S.J., through his book The Life of the Mind. I remain forever indebted.

C.S. Lewis famously said that one has not read a great book until they have read it more than once (though you have to read it once to read it again). I would place Schall’s oeuvre in that category, and Life of the Mind is no exception. It is a book that could be profitably read over and over in order to discover anew or for the thousandth time what truly matters and what one should spend their precious time pursuing. Schall’s book is like a fortune cookie from Ancient Athens in that you can turn to almost any page, select any sentence, and meditate on its profundity throughout the day. Let me concretely apply this bold statement by opening the book at random to three places and recording what I find, which I can do, because I am my own editor.

  1. “We do sense, however, that we need speculative reasons to explain of justify our practical decisions and actions, especially if we suspect that what we do is wrong by some transcendent standard—that is, if we presume we do have such a thing as a conscience” (124, The Whole Risk for a Human Being).
  2. “Modern economics has shown ways for the drudgery of labor to be performed with dignity and profit by free citizens. If one thinks, for instance, of modern sewage and waste management systems, we see how the work formerly forced on slaves can be carried out in another, more human, way” (29, Artes Liberales—The Liberal Arts).
  3. “Not only am I, I, but that which is not myself is just as real as I am” (107, The Metaphysics of Walking).
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Father Schall, walking metaphysically, metaphorically, with a magnificently misaligned name tag.

Look at the chapter that last citation is taking from: The Metaphysics of Walking! What does that even mean!? I know that you are intrigued. Other chapter titles include such gems as: On the Things That Depend on Philosophy; On the Consolations of Illiteracy, Revisited; Books and the Intellectual Life; On the Joys and Travails of Thinking.

If you are looking for a good graduation present for either high school or college seniors, look no further my friends. One of the most shocking moments of Schall’s book to our modern sensibilities is when he reminds us that some pleasures are worth pursuing and others are not. In other words, some things are better than others! Any author willing to sacrifice his career at a prestigious East coast university (Schall teaches at Georgetown) with such a brazenly old-fashioned statement deserve a standing ovation.

I had the privilege of meeting Schall in grad school—I hope that I gave him a standing ovation, alas, I cannot remember—and I consider it one of the highlights of that period of my life. Wearing an eye patch and continually dabbing the excess saliva from the corners of his mouth as he spoke, Schall’s body was deteriorated but his face beamed like a child, mind sprightly, eyes radiating with the joie de vivre that comes from a life of disciplined intellectual delights and the continual back and forth of students and teacher. The Life of the Mind is a book that every person should have on their bookshelf, and hopefully, more often than not, in their hands. There are few books that come to my mind so full of life and wisdom and few thinkers that have done so much with the joys and challenges of the intellectual and spiritual life as Father James Schall. It will be a sad day, indeed, when his astute mind and childlike countenance go to find their final rest.

Preach

 

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There’s a new Gallup poll out on what makes people go to Church, according to Christianity Today, and it’s kind of awesome. The number one reason why folks go to church is to hear sermons about Scripture. 82% of Protestants cited a rigorous exposition of Scripture as what draws them to Church. I say “kind of awesome” because the best answer would be “I go because she is the body of Christ and we love her and want to build her up” but I imagine that answer wasn’t an option on the Gallup poll.

Here’s the money paragraph from the article.

Last year, Ed Stetzer cited several examples of congregations (such as Oklahoma megachurch Life.Church) that shifted toward more rigorous teaching once they noticed interest from the unchurched: “In other words, those for whom sermons were being dumbed down aren’t dumb. They are interested in the truth or else they’d be out golfing.”

I’ve long believed that churches, evangelicals in particular, make things far too easy on folks in the pews by “contextualizing” things in such a way that it’s impossible to distinguish from the wider culture. This survey shows that is a mistake. Here’s to more rigorous teaching and more demanding church going that holds a certain finger to the way culture does things and is her faithful self in serving our Lord.  

Seeing Walking Trees: Jesus’ Healing of the Blind Man in Mark 8

Blind Man

I was asked today what is going on in Mark 8 when Jesus’ healing of the blind man falters in the first attempt and he has to touch the man again. It’s a strange story and I had no reply. So I went home and did some reading. Here is the story as told by Mark:

22 And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. 23 And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” 24 And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.”25 Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village” (Mark 8: 22-25, NRSV).

What in the world is going on here? I’ve never paused to look at this story in depth but when I have read it I’ve always flown past it and thought, “well, Mark includes that so that we see the humanity of Jesus and how even he had to ask for more faith sometimes” or something to that effect. But I took a look in Lawrence R. Farley’s fantastic Orthodox commentary on Mark this afternoon and this is what he had to say, shocking in its blunt simplicity:

“The healing of the blind man in stages is narrated at this point to embody the blindness of the disciples, who are also only gradually enlightened as to who Jesus really is. Like the blind man from Bethsaida, the disciples are blind to Jesus’ true messianic significance” (125).

When I read it I thought, “Oh, that’s nice but that sounds much too clever and simple.” But then I went back and looked at what bookends this particular healing and I think Farley is absolutely right. Look at what immediately precedes the healing of the blind man:

17 And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

And then immediately following the healing of the man is the climax of Mark in the Petrine Messianic declaration:

27 And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”

Do you see it now? Mark is telling us to look, really look, at who Jesus is. Like the man from Bethsaida, we may have to look twice in order to really see. Brilliant. This studying Scripture stuff never gets old.

Paul and the Christian Life: A New Perspective Reading

McKnight- Apostle Paul and Christian Life

The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical and Missional Implications of the New Perspective Eds. Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica
Baker Academic, 2016. 209 pp.

What is it that makes a person a Christian? Or, more specifically, what does it mean to apply Paul’s letters to the center of the Christian life, especially in the light of the “new perspective” of Pauline exegesis? Those provocative questions orient The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life, an important volume that belies its small stature. There’s a lot packed into barely two hundred pages here and because of its subject matter —Paul tells us that everything is different now because of the good news of Jesus—it is not a quick read. Let me briefly recount what I think are the two strongest features of the book before diving into some comments on what the new perspective is and then concluding with more detailed exposition of why the contributors to this volume think the new perspective on Paul (NPP) matters so much for how we read Paul and apply his letters to the Christian life. Given the scope this book covers (nothing less than the whole of the Christian life) and the lens through which it does so (nothing less than the first revolution in Pauline exegesis since the 1500s) this review has turned into a bit of an essay itself!

  1. Introduction

The most important and notable element of this book is the centrality of the person of the Spirit to the each contributor’s understanding of the Christian life—a welcome surprise given the absence of the Spirit in many presentations of the Christian life. Jimmy Dunn’s treatment of Galatians in the first essay of the volume sets the stage for the prominence of the third Person of the Trinity throughout:

If Paul’s emphasis on faith—we might properly say faith alone—is so clear in Galatians, it is equally noticeable that the gift of the Spirit is almost as important for Paul in the same letter. Indeed, it is somewhat surprising that in the history of interpretation…much greater emphasis has been given to the importance of ‘justification by faith’ in Galatians that to the gift of the Spirit… (10).

Patrick Mitchel says the same thing, but more provocatively: “The Galatians’ reception of the Spirit by faith, just as much as their justification by faith, is a fulfillment of the blessing promised by God to Abraham” (92).

If you had asked me prior to reading Dunn’s and Mitchel’s essays in what Pauline letters the Spirit plays a prominent role, Galatians would not have come to mind. This book provided a welcome corrective to my poor readings of Galatians. In fact, this volume brings out the striking reality that without an intentionally focused hermeneutic of reading Paul through the lens of the centrality of the Spirit in the Christian life (hunt the pigeon! Sarah Coakley says in God, Sexuality and the Self), one will not read Paul well at all. Case in point: my reading of Galatians solely in terms of “justification”. These essays understand that the Spirit is the Person who empowers the believer to actually live as Jesus commanded. (I was struck reading the gospel according to John today that Jesus tells his disciples that it is actually better for Him to leave so that the Spirit might come upon them [16:17]. Do we take the Spirit seriously enough to take Jesus at his word?)

The second most important feature of this volume is the way in which the essays are soaked in Scripture. The contributors have not availed themselves of the opportunity to give a window dressing treatment of Paul in order to tell us what they really believe the Christian life is all about. They have taken Pauline exegesis and its importance quite seriously and it’s clear that each writer has a high value for Scripture. In fact, the index of Scripture citations takes up six pages at the back of an already short volume. The amount of Scripture included in each essay makes this book a slow read, like I mentioned above, but it also provides the reader with a tour through the letters of Paul

Let’s turn now to the way the readers interpret Paul. What is the “new perspective on Paul” and why does it matter?

 2. The New Perspective on Paul

The subtitle of The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life is, “Ethical and Missional Implications of the New Perspective.” I imagine to some picking up this book that will prove something of an enigma. The new perspective on what, exactly? The editors, Scot McKnight and Joseph Modica, assume that the new perspective on Paul is ubiquitous enough of a term now to omit the genitive of ownership—the new perspective on Paul—and while that may, indeed, be the case, it would seem worthwhile to provide a brief foray into the new perspective in order to be able to provide any comment in the last section on why the contributors in the book think its vital to read Paul in this way. There are those that will scoff at the last sentence: “Of course we know what Paul was trying to get at and even the suggestion of a “new perspective” means that you have all lost the ‘gospel,’” I can well imagine someone saying. But this volume proves that those who think the new perspective is an important corrective to distortions in the reading of Paul are just as devoted to the text and the message of Scripture as those who warn their flock of this “dangerous reading” of Paul as I myself have been advised.

The three-page introduction (I told you it is a short volume!) gets the ball rolling by referring to the “origins and impact of the NPP”, beginning with the trifecta of Krister Stendahl, Ed Sanders, and Jimmy Dunn (xi). Perhaps those names are familiar to you, perhaps not. If not, that’s ok, but hang on because what they have to say is important, if for no other reason than it’s a virtue to be confident enough in the truth of Jesus to listen to what those who take Scripture seriously have to say, even if you’ve only heard nasty things about it.

If you’d allow me a fairly extensive autobiographical note at this point,—which hopefully will help flesh out why the new perspective should matter to you— my first true wrestling with the NPP (outside of a general reading of N.T. Wright) came not five years ago at a table in a small shack on vacation in the lake of the Ozarks. For several years before that vacation, I had been doing a fair amount of reading on the conflagration over the doctrine of justification between John Piper and N.T. Wright (including attending the seminal 2010 Evangelical Theological Society meeting between Wright and Schreiner) and was lead to a small little book by Krister Stendahl. Stendahl, I read, was a Lutheran pastor and scholar that needed to be taken seriously in order to understand the modern context of Pauline studies of which the debate over justification was but one part of the whole. (As any true student of any subject will know, trying to immerse oneself in one topic almost inevitably leads to the necessity of reading a whole trove of other books which provide the larger context which enables you to even begin to get into the material one originally intended to study.) Stendahl’s book, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (1976), was small enough that I felt like I could take it on vacation and have the chance time to finish it without it being too mentally draining for me to have a restful vacation.

If the idea for my vacation was for some mental relaxation, the book proved to be a poor choice. The book proved to be a fairly quick read, indeed, but its contents were both frustrating and exciting to my then current understanding of Paul. Paul, I had been taught, was the guy that made it relatively clear that the purpose and fulfillment of Jesus’ mission on earth was to die so that we might be saved from our sins, thereby attaining salvation and reserving our spot in heaven after death. Our “acceptance” of this message meant that we trusted in its historical truth correctness through our faith and that its life-changing ramifications would mean that we became people through which the fruits of the spirit were developing. A good Christian would tell his or her friends this good news: you can stop trying to be good people in order to make yourself ready for heaven, that’s impossible. Instead, you can that you are a forgiven sinner because you are forgiven through Jesus and can now be sure that you will go to heaven when you die! Any good friend in my circle would have immediately known what the question, “where are you going?” was truly about. We weren’t asking people if they were going to the mall!

I considered this summation of Paul’s message of Jesus life as pretty much the gospel truth aside from the obvious untruth that salvation involved going to heaven. We were meant for the new heavens and new earth that really began here and now I never tired of telling people! But essentially, that’s what Paul wrote and so that’s what we should be telling folks. But reading Stendahl that day at the lake made me question whether or not that reading of Paul could still hold.

Now I know that some at this point may want to say to themselves, well that’s because Stendahl must be preaching a false gospel that must be rejected. But hold on, because that’s not what Stendahl was doing.

What he was doing, was asking whether or not we have been reading Paul well. The question that he asked in its essence was: “Have we been reading Paul as Paul’s 1st century Jewish audience would have read him, or have we been reading him with our 16th century Reformation spectacles on?” Stendahl made me ask things like: Do the “works of the law” that Paul often refers mean simply “good deeds” as Luther would have it, or is Paul talking about something specifically Jewish? Is the message of salvation primarily addressed to individuals or is there a larger, corporate element that we have missed?

Stendahl’s little book went quite a ways to convincing a lot of people, myself included, that we have not been reading Paul from the understanding of his original audience but from the questions that the Reformers were asking. Stendahl showed me that the old perspective reading, while not “wrong” necessarily, certainly didn’t contain the fullness of what Paul was getting at.

That same day after reading Stendahl, I went back to read Galatians, one of the two most important sites of the NPP (the other being Romans) and thinking, “Stendahl has raised some really important questions but now I can’t make heads or tails of this text. If Stendahl is right, Galatians seems to be a completely irrelevant old book on a debate between the finer points of the Jewish “works of law.” I was both excited and confused. My “old perspective” reading of Paul no longer seemed possible but what I was learning was the “new perspective” seemed irrelevant at best. Where did I go from here?

Enter the second character in the trifecta that the introduction lists, E.P. Sanders. Sanders volume, Paul and Palestinian Judaism challenged the prevalent understanding that the Jews of Paul’s day thought that they could earn their salvation through “works of the law.” Without getting in to any detail, Sanders’ book caused a massive shift in understanding the attitude with which Jews approached their standing under the covenant and, thus, their “salvation”. The introduction to The Apostle Paul and the Christian life says that what Sanders’ book did was shift the understanding that “Judaism was not a works-based religion emerging from human effort but one emerging from divine election and the obedience expected of those who were already in the covenant” (xii). Sanders termed this understanding of Judaism, covenantal nomism. That is, the covenant is what “gets one in” and following the works of the law is what allows one to “stay in.”

The last character in the trio is Jimmy Dunn who caused everyone to rethink just exactly what the contentious phrase “works of the law” (ta erga nomou) was referring to. Dunn saw the phrase as referring to “badges” or “boundary markers” of the Jews like food laws, circumcision etc., which Paul criticized on account of the new saving work of Jesus. It was Dunn that applied Sanders’ shifts in understanding to Paul.

To put it simply, the new perspective changed the question from Luther’s (and the “Old Perspective’s”) “how can I as a sinner find a gracious God” to the question that embodies the heart of Paul much more holistically: “what effect has the incarnation of Jesus had on who are now truly part of the covenant people of God?”

That’s as far as I think we should go into the history of the NPP in this review; if you are unfamiliar with it, I hope that this has whetted your appetite to learn more and, ultimately, to go back to Paul’s letters. For my money, Patrick Mitchel’s essay is the most substantial contribution in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life and he provides a good introduction to the NPP in a short amount of space. McKnight and Modica suggest Keith Yinger’s The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction, which I would also recommend (it’s only about 100 pages), and also Michael B. Thompson’s The New Perspective on Paul as useful introductions, though I can only speak to Yinger’s fair treatment.

III. Going Deeper

In the introduction, McKnight and Modica state that their reason for using the new perspective as the lens through which the book reads the apostle Paul is because it “offers a fresh and rich approach as one grapples with the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the Christian life” (xiii). One of the results of the NPP Timothy Gombis says in his essay is, “the space created for reading justification in the contexts of Paul’s arguments and for allowing many other aspects of Paul’s richly textured theology to emerge into view” (103). That’s a fine summary of what the contributors of this volume believe the NPP has to offer for the life of everyday discipleship: a renewed look at the letters of Paul that focus on the Spirit and the Church rather than heaven and the individual. No other writer is as critical of the Old Perspective’s emphasis on individual justification and holiness as Scot McKnight this lengthy quotation suggests:

The old perspective generated an individualistic understanding of the Christian life; the old perspective focused on personal redemption and thus on happiness now and eternal life with God when we die; the old perspective saw the mission of God in getting people saved, even if the word salvation gets expanded into the social sector for some; the old perspective tended at times (not always) to minimize social efforts because personal redemption and eternal life became the whole message; the old perspective never had ecclesiology at its center and sometimes diminished the church” (128, original emphasis).

For McKnight, it is clear that the importance of the new perspective lies in the move away from the individual and toward the community united in love for one another through the Spirit of Christ:

The mission of the apostle Paul is to form fellowships in separate cities that embody the new sociopolitical and economic and spiritual order….My contention is that for Paul the Christian life was learning how to live in this new ecclesial identity that demonstrated to Rome not is parading of power and status but instead a parade of sacrificial love and care for all. This is why I contend we need to reclaim Paul for the American church (145).

To sum up: The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life is a welcome addition not only to Pauline studies but also to the everyday life of the Christian disciple. It is a unique volume, employing a formidable cast of New Testament scholars who take the footnotes of Pauline scholarship very seriously but do so in this volume in order to help the believer interact with her colleagues at work in a more thoroughly Pauline, that is to say, Christo-centric, way. This book takes the new perspective seriously as a reading of Paul that has major ramifications for everyday discipleship and for furthering the life and mission of the Church. At barely two-hundred pages, it is a serious work not only for those curious about the new perspective but for the seasoned scholar as well because it furthers our understanding of just what Paul’s letters are all about. For those who take Paul and Scripture seriously enough to come back to the text daily and wrestle anew with what the Spirit is doing in the pages and words of the living word of God, The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life is a vital read.