Thinking Through Paul: A Survey of His Life, Letters, and Theology

Written by Bruce W. Longenecker and Todd D. Still Reviewed By Ben C. Dunson

Thinking Through Paul is written for classroom use and contains many additional resources besides the book alone (a DVD overview, instructor’s manual, sample exams and syllabi, etc.). The focus of this review will be the overall character of the book as well as contested areas in Pauline interpretation and issues of particular note for evangelical readers.

Part 1 (ch. 1) is a survey of Paul’s life insofar as we learn of it from his letters and Acts. This chapter does a good job summarizing the textual details without getting bogged down in detailed scholarly debates about chronology. While the authors typically find Paul and Acts to be reliable, they do not operate under the assumption that these texts are without error (e.g., comments on Acts 22:3 on p. 26).

Part 2 (chs. 2–10) surveys each of Paul’s 13 canonical letters. The authors’ goal is to situate all of Paul’s letters in their historical and social contexts and to provide the reader with a general overview of each letter. The majority of the material in these chapters is more or less a summary of the content of Paul’s letters, presented in a fairly neutral fashion. The authors do not attempt to interact exhaustively with debates about special introduction (author, date, addressees, etc.).

Some conclusions the authors reach on the most heavily debated issues in Pauline studies are as follows:

  • 1 Thessalonians is Paul’s oldest letter (p. 62).
  • We cannot know much about what Paul was referring to when he mentions eschatological events in 2 Thessalonians 2 (the “man of lawlessness,” etc.) (pp. 77–78).
  • Against some scholars, neither 2 Thessalonians (p. 80), nor Colossians (p. 223), is pseudonymous (p. 80). The authors do not, however, believe that the truthfulness of scripture is necessarily undermined if some Pauline letters are pseudonymous (p. 81). They are agnostic on Pauline authorship of Ephesians, inclining against it (pp. 244, 258). Paul probably wrote 2 Timothy, but not 1 Timothy or Titus, unless he significantly changed his theology on certain points (p. 290).
  • The authors are ambivalent about the debate over the North/South provenance of Galatians (p. 92).
  • Paul’s comments on the place of women in the church are morally mixed: even in the context of a single argument in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 some things Paul says “are more informed by the gospel than others” (p. 126; cf. pp. 277, 290, 359). Although they claim not to be picking and choosing which bits of Paul’s letters they will accept as normative for Christians today, it is hard to see how this is not indeed the case. One can attempt to deflect this criticism by claiming that Paul simply contradicts himself on moral issues (see e.g., pp. 290–91), but this does not solve the problem: what standard does a modern Christian use to determine which aspects of Paul’s ethical system should be accepted today and which ones should be abandoned as mere ancient cultural prejudices?
  • Canonical 2 Corinthians was originally two letters (chs. 10–13 written prior to chs. 1–9). The authors are fairly reserved in speculating how these two letters came together (pp. 146–48). Philippians is not a combination of originally separate letters (pp. 200–1).
  • Junia (Rom 16:7) was a female apostle, presumably in the same sense that Paul was an apostle (p. 171n6).
  • Regarding justification. In one place righteousness is defined in relational terms (e.g., p. 171 commenting on Rom 1:17: righteousness equals “right relationships of all kinds and dimensions”). However, when commenting on the phrase “the righteousness of God” (as in Rom 1:17; 3:21, 22; 10:3; etc.) the authors also argue that God’s justice is “a part of what it signifies” (p. 174). Accordingly, they seem somewhat sympathetic to the intention behind the classic Protestant understanding of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer (pp. 174–75), even if they are also leery of the doctrine itself (e.g., pp. 175–76: “righteousness is not something that God simply dispenses or downloads”). They appear to accept Ernst Käsemann’s definition of “the righteousness of God” as God’s “saving faithfulness” (pp. 176–77). The authors incline toward reading the Greek phrase πίστις Χριστοῦ (Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16; etc.) as “faithfulness of Christ,” while also insisting that human faithfulness remains imperative as a response to Christ’s faithfulness (pp. 312–15). In a related vein they propagate a mischaracterization of classic Protestant theology, namely, that it teaches that “justification by faith alone” means “justification by a faith that never produces works” (p. 314).
  • The “I” of Romans 7:7–25 “is probably Paul’s description of the situation of Jews who are not (yet) followers of Jesus” (p. 184).
  • When Paul refers to the end-time salvation of “all Israel” (Rom 11:26) he has the entirety of ethnic Israel in mind (pp. 186–87; cf. pp. 324–26). In speaking of the ongoing status of Judaism the authors reject a dual covenant scheme (one way of salvation for Jews, one for Gentiles) as well as “replacement theology” (the church simply supplants Israel in God’s saving plan).
  • Regarding the question of “Paul and Empire” the authors note that although Paul can speak approvingly of certain benefits of Roman imperial administration (e.g., Rom 13:1–7), the Gospel he preached was in tension with much Roman imperial ideology and praxis (pp. 334–45).

Part 3 (chs. 11–13) is devoted to theological synthesis. The authors, employing the categories of J. C. Beker, conclude that apocalyptic deliverance in Christ is the major theme that gives coherence to Paul’s letters, while also emphasizing that Paul’s thought remains situational and contingent (pp. 299–304). The last issue discussed in the book is the nature of moral reasoning and decision-making in Paul’s letters. The authors maintain that self-giving love (patterned on that of Christ himself) is key. The actual ethical decisions one makes must flow out of this basic attitude.

Thinking Through Paul (and its accompanying materials) is a well-designed resource. It does a good job of summarizing Paul’s letters and introducing students to their historical and cultural background. It is not, however, a book that evangelicals committed to a classic Protestant view of scripture will likely want to use as a textbook without substantial qualifications regarding its understanding of pseudonymity, inerrancy, etc.

Ben C. Dunson

Ben Dunson is associate professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas.

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