Book Review: Reading Paul
My thanks to the great chaps at Wipf and Stock for a review copy of Michael J. Gorman's Reading Paul, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008
It is not often that I am as excited about getting a book in the post as I was waiting for Michael Gorman's Reading Paul. Apart from the fact that Gorman is a most accomplished Pauline scholar, I simply love introductory books on biblical themes. Indeed, if I'm honest, even if a book is targeted for beginners I often learn a lot more from them than many others. Also promoting my interest in this book were the blubs by Richard Hays and Joel Green, both of whom were fairly unrestrained in their praise of this little book: 'This splendid introduction to the Apostle Paul is the best book of its kind', said Hays; 'Michael Gorman has given us an extra ordinary gift', wrote Green!
But what particularly attracted me to this little book
was its focus. Instead of detailing a Pauline chronology and the various steps in Paul's missionary journeys (matters that tend to leave me a little cold), Gorman focuses upon providing a framework for understanding Paul's theology. In practice this means that Gorman examines, after three chapters on Paul, his letters, and his gospel, 'eight themes that a lie in and behind his letters' (6). Gorman's project is not, however, an exercise in abstract theologising, but rather aims to present Paul's letters as Christian scripture. He argues:
'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."' (4)
As I noted in a previous post, Gorman introduces his task by attempting to summarise Paul in one sentence. This sentence introduces all the themes that he will seek to unpack in the following chapters. He first examines the apocalyptic in Paul. Quite rightly, in the next chapter, he goes on to examine 'the Gospel of God' in terms of covenant faithfulness. Gorman thus avoids the false either / or between apocalyptic and covenant. Naturally he draws from Tom Wright's work at this point, especially his language of Christ as the 'climactic event' of God is dealings with Israel (68). After examining the meaning of Christ's death in Paul, he turns, in chapter 8, to examine the meaning and (eschatological) logic of the resurrection in Paul and the meaning of the statement 'Jesus is Lord'. In this chapter Gorman pays particular attention to eschatological claims and is careful to emphasise the physicality of Paul's hope.
In a chapter that no doubt some will want to read first, Gorman then turns to the question of justification by faith. Naturally, he emphasises participation in Christ. To no doubt cause disappointment for some and prompt others to sing for joy, he explains in a brief footnote his position on E. P. Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism:
'Although other aspects of this book have been rightly challenged, and although Sanders does not offer a fully satisfying account of the connection between justification and participation, he was on the right track' (113 n.6)
However, Gorman maintains that there are several interlocking streams of biblical thought informing Paul's understanding of justification/righteousness (114-115). This enables him to not only lampoon 'cheap grace' but also affirm that there is truth in different approaches to justification in Paul (traditional Protestant and 'new perspective'). For Gorman 'justification and participation are two sides of the same coin, the coin of relationship to God in Christ by the Spirit, because faith for Paul is above all sharing in the fullness of Jesus that culminated on the cross ' (130).
Gorman then goes on to discuss the meaning of the church as 'God's countercultural and multicultural beloved community that walks in the Spirit of Christ' (143). This leads naturally into his eleventh chapter and a discussion of his notion of 'cruciformity'. He proposes that '[h]oliness for Paul, we have suggested, is a countercultural life shaped by the presence of the crucified and resurrected Christ who is present within his people' (145). He maintains that '[c]ruciformity, conformity to Christ crucified, is Paul's all-encompassing spirituality' (165). It is within this frame that Gorman discusses the meanings of 'faith', 'Love' and 'hope'.
In chapter 12 he returns again to eschatological themes. He argues that '[g]ross misunderstanding and misdirected zeal characterize much popular, and even some more sophisticated, theological reflection on the things to come' (179). Of course, this involves the compulsory sideswipe at the anti-creational Left Behind novels!
The themes of the final chapter (the character of God, the theopolitical character of the Gospel and the church, some things that should mark out the church, and the inseparability of faith, hope and love) show particularly clearly how Gorman, in this book, has treated Paul's letters as scripture. Indeed, at end of each chapter is a useful summary as well as a number of questions for reflection. In other words, this is an ideal book for group discussion on Paul. In fact, I plan to use it soon in a church group myself.
I will not here detail all potential points of disagreement, but I will mention just a few thoughts. First, I remain unconvinced that '[c]ruciformity, conformity to Christ crucified, is Paul's all-encompassing spirituality' (165). While not directly engaging with this question, the kind of material analysed in my doctorate puts a question mark after such a claim. Second. I'm not sure that Wright's language of 'climax', which Gorman simply adopts, is the best. While I suspect Scott Hafemann goes too far in the other direction, do see his critique of Wright on this point in his review of The New Testament and the People of God in JETS 40 (1997), pp. 305-308. Third, I am not sure Gorman managed to grasp the historically contingent nature of Paul's eschatology firmly enough (cf. the works of Andrew Perriman for more on this topic. Though like Hafemann, I suspect he goes too far at various points as well). I would also have liked more discussion about the practice of reading the context of the OT texts which find allusion and citation in Paul's letters. Of course, it is easy to make such 'know-it-all' comments at the end of a review. The hard work has been done by Gorman, and I agree with Green: Gorman's book is indeed a precious gift.
Labels: Book Review