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Four Views on the Apostle Paul

Four Views on the Apostle Paul

by Michael F. Bird, Stanley N. Gundry (Editor), Thomas R. Schreiner (Contribution by), Luke Timothy Johnson (Contribution by), Douglas A. Campbell (Contribution by)

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The apostle Paul was a vital force in the development of Christianity. Paul’s historical and religious context affects the theological interpretation of Paul’s writings, no small issue in the whole of Christian theology.

Recent years have seen much controversy about the apostle Paul, his religious and social context, and its effects on his theology.


The apostle Paul was a vital force in the development of Christianity. Paul’s historical and religious context affects the theological interpretation of Paul’s writings, no small issue in the whole of Christian theology.

Recent years have seen much controversy about the apostle Paul, his religious and social context, and its effects on his theology. In the helpful Counterpoints format, four leading scholars present their views on the best framework for describing Paul’s theological perspective, including his view of salvation, the significance of Christ, and his vision for the churches.

Contributors and views include:

  • Reformed View: Thomas R. Schreiner
  • Catholic View: Luke Timothy Johnson
  • Post-New Perspective View: Douglas Campbell
  • Jewish View: Mark D. Nanos

Like other titles in the Counterpoints: Bible and Theology collection, Four Views on the Apostle Paul gives theology students the tools they need to draw informed conclusions on debated issues.

General editor and New Testament scholar Michael F. Bird covers foundational issues and provides helpful summaries in his introduction and conclusion. New Testament scholars, pastors, and students of Christian history and theology will find Four Views on the Apostle Paul an indispensable introduction to ongoing debates on the apostle Paul’s life and teaching.

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Counterpoints: Bible and TheologySeries Series
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5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)
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18 Years

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Four Views on the Apostle Paul


Copyright © 2012 Michael F. Bird, Thomas R. Schreiner, Luke Timothy Johnson, Douglas A. Campbell, Mark D. Nanos
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-310-32695-3

Chapter One



In this essay I will attempt to explain the framework of Pauline thought, his view of Jesus Christ, his theology of salvation, and his view of the church. Obviously, given the space constraints of the essay, I can only sketch Paul's thought in these areas. Therefore, my goal is to try to show inductively from his letters what he thought; interaction with other views will be kept to a minimum.

The Pauline Framework

What framework should we use for reading Paul's theology? And how should we derive that framework? Some scholars have read Paul in Gnostic or Hellenistic terms. Both approaches, however, fail to read Paul within his own historical context. If we read Paul inductively, it is clear that his theology was formed by the Old Testament. Martin Hengel has demonstrated that Judaism in the Second Temple period was influenced significantly by Hellenism. Such a judgment does not falsify the truth that the Old Testament fundamentally shaped Paul's understanding of his gospel. I am not arguing that Paul came to the Old Testament with a blank slate and concluded that Jesus was the Messiah. He believed that Jesus was the Messiah only after encountering him on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1–19; Gal. 1:11–17). Certainly Paul's experience with Jesus provoked him to read the Old Testament in a new way. And yet Paul was also convinced that the Old Testament should be read as pointing to Jesus, so that those who failed to see that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies were not merely intellectually deficient. Their sin blinded them from seeing the truth of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (2 Cor. 4:4–6).

Paul believed, then, that the great events of Christ's ministry, death, and resurrection, and the pouring out of the Spirit fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. Yet this truth must be held in tension with another truth. Not only was prophecy fulfilled in the coming of Christ, but it was also the case that a mystery was revealed. In Pauline terms a "mystery" is something previously hidden but is now revealed. The full significance and the implications of the work of Christ were not evident simply by reading the Old Testament. Every reader, according to Paul, should see that Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. At the same time there are dimensions of the fulfillment that occurred in Christ that are only plain retrospectively. Both prophecy and fulfillment and mystery and revelation must be correlated and held in tension when articulating Paul's understanding of the Old Testament.

If we reflect on some of the central promises in the Old Testament, Paul clearly sees them as fulfilled in his gospel. For instance, the Old Testament prophesied that all nations would be blessed in Abraham (Gen. 12:3; 18:18, etc.). Paul maintains that this promise has been fulfilled in his gospel inasmuch as the Gentiles are justified by faith (Gal. 3:6–8). The great liberation of Israel from Egypt took place in the exodus, and Isaiah (Isa. 11:11–15; 40:3–11; 42:16; 43:2, 5–7, 16–19; 48:20–21; 49:6–11; 51:10) and other prophets looked forward to a new exodus in which the Lord would liberate and free his people from their enemies. When Paul refers to the "redemption" accomplished by Christ, he draws on exodus language, signifying that believers have been liberated by the cross of Christ (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14). Paul specifically ties the liberation accomplished by Christ to exodus motifs in proclaiming that Christ as the Passover was sacrificed (1 Cor. 5:7). Similarly, the Old Testament animal sacrifices anticipate and find their consummation in Christ's sacrifice on the cross (Rom. 3:25; 8:3; Gal. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:21). The sacrifice of the Servant of the Lord prophesied in Isaiah (Isa. 53:4, 11–12) has become a reality with the self-giving of Jesus Christ on the cross (Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:1–4).

The new exodus that was promised includes the promise of the resurrection—the final vindication of God's people (Isa. 26:19; Ezek. 37:1–14; Dan. 12:1–3). The resurrection, which signifies the arrival of the end, has irrupted into history with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (Rom. 4:25; 8:11; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:1–23; 2 Cor. 4:14). That resurrection is another way of saying that the new creation has dawned, which Isaiah prophesied (Isa. 65:17; 66:22). The advent of the new creation signifies that death and sin have been defeated. And Paul teaches that Christians now enjoy victory over sin and death since they have died with Christ and have risen with him (cf. Rom. 6:1–14; Eph. 2:5–6; Col. 2:12, 20; 3:1). Believers are now a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), and the old era of the law no longer rules over them (Gal. 6:15).

The Pauline perspective on the law and the claim that believers are no longer under the law (cf. Rom. 6:14–15; Gal. 3:10, 22, 25; 4:3–5; 5:18) show that the new creation has been inaugurated and the promised new covenant of Jeremiah is a reality (Jer. 31:31–34). Believers are no longer under "the old covenant" (2 Cor. 3:14), for a new covenant has begun with the death of Christ (1 Cor. 11:25) and the gift of the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:6). Those who argue that believers must continue to subscribe to the Mosaic law have failed to see that a new age has come, so that they are content to live in the "present evil age" (Gal. 1:4).

To summarize the Pauline framework, the apostle teaches that the new exodus, the new covenant, and the new creation have arrived in Christ. But a crucial proviso must immediately be introduced. Even though the new age has been inaugurated in Jesus Christ, it has not been consummated. The eschatological tension in Paul's gospel returns us to the theme of a mystery fulfilled. It is not apparent in reading the Old Testament that the promise of salvation would be fulfilled in an already but not yet fashion. Hence, the resurrection and the new age have entered history through Christ's resurrection, and believers are raised with Christ spiritually. Nevertheless, believers still inhabit mortal bodies (Rom. 7:24; 8:10). Their future resurrection is certain because of Christ's resurrection (Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:14; 1 Thess. 4:14), and yet there is an interval between Christ's resurrection and the resurrection of believers (1 Cor. 15:23–28). The new creation has dawned in Christ, but the old creation continues (Rom. 8:18–25), so that believers long for the day when God will raise them from the dead and renew the created universe.

In the Old Testament the coming of the Spirit signifies the fulfillment of God's promises and the advent of the new creation (Isa. 32:15; 44:3; Ezek. 11:18–19; 36:26–27; Joel 2:28). No wonder the apostles in Acts correlated the baptism of the Spirit with the coming of the kingdom in its fullness (Acts 1:6). Paul, in particular, emphasizes that believers are people of the Spirit. If one lacks the Spirit, one is not a Christian (Rom. 8:9). Circumcision is not necessary to belong to the people of God, for the gift of the Spirit removes any doubt about whether one is a believer (Gal. 3:2, 5). Nevertheless, the gift of the Spirit does not entail the immediate consummation of all that God has promised. The Spirit is the seal and guarantee that God will redeem his people by raising them from the dead (2 Cor. 1:21–22; Eph. 1:13–14). The Spirit is the firstfruits, certifying that God will complete his adopting work on the day of resurrection (Rom. 8:23). The Spirit, in other words, demonstrates that believers live between the times. The blessings of the new exodus, the new covenant, and the new creation are theirs, and yet they await the day when death will flee forever. One of Paul's fundamental frameworks, then, is the already but not yet character of his eschatology.

The Centrality of Jesus Christ

We can scarcely do justice to this theme in such a short essay, for surely Jesus Christ is the heart and soul of Pauline theology. Every topic discussed here is Christ-centered, whether it is the Pauline framework or his teaching on salvation and the church. My goal here is to unfold the



Of the three essays to which I am responding, that by Professor Thomas Schreiner is the easiest for me to engage, partly because his conception of the assigned task corresponds to my own—he tries to account for the Paul of all the letters rather than of just a few—and partly because on some points of his presentation I am in substantial agreement, while on others I take only partial exception. His account of the importance of Christ for Paul, for example, is impressive; I especially applaud his polythetic approach to the subject, as he asserts that Christ's significance is not to be weighed only by Paul's propositions, but in the many modes through which Christ permeates Paul's experience and practice—and, to be sure, the experience and practice of Paul's readers—so that "one's entire Christian life is to be lived under Jesus' lordship."

The first issue on which I take partial exception is Professor Schreiner's locating the framework for Paul's thought in Scripture, and specifically the fulfillment of Torah in the new creation that is life in Christ. It is, to be sure, a reasonable choice. Certainly, the conviction that the good news is "according to the Scriptures" is one that dominates some of Paul's letters (1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians) and is virtually the theme of his longest (Romans). But if I were to claim that "the fulfillment of Scripture" was in any comparable way present in the other letters— Philemon, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Colossians—I should be considerably overstating the case. Scripture is not only absent by way of citation from these Pauline compositions, but it is difficult to see how the fulfillment of Scripture is a framework for them. Other letters that do contain scriptural citations or allusions (such as 1 and 2 Timothy) do not display a scriptural "framework" in the manner so obvious in Romans.

More important, I think, is that Professor Schreiner's depiction of the "fulfillment of Scripture" misses the complexity of Paul's engagement with Torah. Please note that I am not disputing Professor Schreiner's basic point; it is well supported by such passages as Romans 15:4 and 1 Corinthians 10:11. Rather, I am suggesting that Paul's relationship is much more tensely dialectical than Schreiner proposes. He captures some of this when he notes that Paul proclaims a "mystery" not fully anticipated by Scripture; but he restricts this to the "already but not yet" character of eschatology. In fact, Paul's rereading of Torah in light of the crucified and exalted Messiah is strong and at times subversive. His claim in Galatians 3:1–14 that those who receive the Holy Spirit are in fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham completely reinterprets the meaning of Genesis; his allegory concerning the two sons of Abraham in Galatians 4:21–29 does more than a little violence to the plain sense of the same composition. And his shocking twist of Exodus 34:29–35 and the veiling of Moses' face is at the least interpretively high-handed. In the Pauline dialectic, Scripture is at least as much read in light of Christ as Christ is read in light of Scripture.

The second of Professor Schreiner's emphases with which I take issue concerns sin, which he makes, without qualification, "what believers need to be saved from." This is itself an odd formulation—what do "believers" need to be saved from?—but still stranger statements follow. He says, "The just judgment of God awaits all who do not repent and fail to place their trust in Jesus Christ, for 'all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God'" (Rom. 3:23). This collapse of Paul's humanity (Jews and Greeks) into "believers" and sin into "failure to place their trust in Jesus Christ" strikes one as an unusual reading of Romans 1–3, but it appears to be no accidental reading, for Schreiner states that Paul's declarations concerning those who kept the law (written or not) in Romans 2 points to "the work of the Holy Spirit in those who have confessed Jesus as the Christ" (2:28–29).


Excerpted from Four Views on the Apostle Paul Copyright © 2012 by Michael F. Bird, Thomas R. Schreiner, Luke Timothy Johnson, Douglas A. Campbell, Mark D. Nanos. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michael F. Bird (PhD, University of Queensland) is lecturer in theology at Ridley Melbourne College of Mission and Ministry in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission, The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies on Paul, Justification, and the New Perspective, Evangelical Theology, Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A moderate Case for Gender Equality in Ministry and editor of The Apostle Paul: Four Views. He is also a co-blogger of the New Testament blog "Euangelion."

Stanley N. Gundry is executive vice president and editor-in-chief for the Zondervan Corporation. He has been an influential figure in the Evangelical Theological Society, serving as president of ETS and on its executive committee, and is adjunct professor of Historical Theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. He is the author of seven books and has written many articles appearing in popular and academic periodicals.

Thomas R. Schreiner (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament and associate dean of Scripture and interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. The author of numerous books, he is the preaching pastor of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

Luke Timothy Johnson (Ph.D., Yale) is the R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. His research concerns the literary, moral, and religious dimensions of the New Testament, including the Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts of early Christianity (particularly moral discourse), Luke-Acts, the Pastoral Letters, and the Letter of James. A prolific author, Dr. Johnson has penned numerous scholarly articles and more than 25 books. His 1986 book The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, now in its second edition, is widely used in seminaries and departments of religion throughout the world.

A former Benedictine monk, Dr. Johnson is a highly sought-after lecturer, a member of several editorial and advisory boards, and a senior fellow at Emory University's Center for the Study of Law and Religion. He received the prestigious 2011 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his most recent book, Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (2009, Yale University Press), which explores the relationship between early Christianity and Greco-Roman paganism.

Douglas Campbell is a New Testament professor at Duke Divinity School. His main research interests comprise the life and thought (i.e. theology and its development) of Paul with particular reference to soteriological models rooted in apocalyptic as against justification or salvation-history. However, he is interested in contributions to Pauline analysis from modern literary theory, from modern theology, from epistolary theory, ancient rhetoric, ancient comparative religion, modern linguistics and semantic theory, and from sociology. His recent publications include The Rhetoric of Righteousness in Romans 3:21-26, and he edited The Call to Serve: Biblical and Theological Perspectives on Ministry in Honour of Bishop Penny Jamieson. Dr. Campbell has also written The Quest for Paul's Gospel: A Suggested Strategy (2005), and The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (2009).

Mark D. Nanos is Soebbing Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, Rockhurst University. Visit Mark's website at www.marknanos.com.

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