Book Critique “Counterpoint: Four Views on the Apostle Paul”


In Peter’s second epistle, the author writes of Paul, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:16) It is almost certain that Paul had already passed from the scene when this was written, but one has to wonder how Paul would have felt about the charge. Although he was not the most prolific writer in the Bible, his letters and those that were traditionally believed to be his, have received more scrutiny, been the subject of more sermons, and the topic of more books than any other single author in scripture. Outside of Christ, no single man has had more influence on the shape and doctrines of the church of our day. And yet, two millennia later, we still can come to no consensus on what Paul wrote and believed even on the most fundamental issues.

Birds Four Views of the Apostle Paul is an excellent case in point. In this book, four different scholars from four different backgrounds will tackle what they believe to be Paul’s perspective on four issues: Christ, salvation, the Church, and Paul’s key theological framework. The four scholars who have contributed towards this book are Thomas Schreiner, a reformed baptist, Luke Timothy Johnson, a former Benedictine monk who is writing from a Catholic position, Douglas A. Campbell, whose position is classified as “Post-New Perspective,” and Mark Nanos, a Jewish scholar. Each contributor has written an essay covering the four above mentioned topics, and then the other three scholars have written a short response to that essay.

The Reformed Baptist Perspective

Schreiner opened up his essay declaring right up front that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ demanded that the Old Testament needs to be read in a new way. From his perspective, this is the central framework of all of Paul’s writings and he writes 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.” While Johnson and Campbell both stated their agreement with this, Nanos did not. He wrote, “Paul’s own experience puts that conclusion in serious doubt!”

With regard to Paul’s perspective on Christ, Schreiner writes that he is “the heart and soul of Pauline theology.” In defense of this claim, he points to how the sacraments and early church liturgy as well as Old Testament prophesy all point us to Christ. He also points out how our entire lifestyle, be it what we eat and drink, marriage, family, celebration, and everything else we do should be under the Lordship of Christ. He writes, “There is no corner of life, no word or action, that should be carried out apart from Christ. Everything should be done in his name.” Nanos did not make a clear response on this topic, but Campbell and Johnson were both again in clear agreement. Johnson writes, “His account of the importance of Christ for Paul… is impressive.”

The largest segment of Schreiner’s essay revolves around the theme of salvation. He posits a typical reformed view of substitutionary atonement. This view can be summed up in his statement, “Jesus died as the representative of and substitute for his people. Those who put their faith in him are spared from the punishment they deserve.” Almost as an afterthought at the end of this section, he adds, “It is a mistake, however, to conclude that the whole of Paul’s soteriology is encompassed by justification. Paul also describes God’s saving act in Christ as redemption, reconciliation, sanctification, transformation, adoption, victory over evil powers, and so on. We must guard against a one-dimensional reading of Paul that restricts his theology to one metaphor.” This seems a little disingenuous since he spends nine pages on substitutionary atonement and barely gives more than a nod to any of these other Pauline motifs. Both Johnson and Campbell take Schreiner to task on this point. Johnson points out that, “Schreiner’s treatment of sin depends entirely on Galatians and Romans rather than a reading of Paul’s letters as a whole.” And also, “the texts cited by Schreiner are twisted to support his assertions.” This author noticed one glaring example of this when he wrote, “Human beings are by birth destined for wrath” but then quoted Ephesians 2:3 to support this statement. This verse clearly is stating the opposite when Paul says it is because we were, “gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts” that we were deserving of wrath. This is one of many examples where Schreiner is reading his Reformed Baptist theology into scripture rather than allowing it to speak for itself.

Campbell adds his own critique. He writes that “this model of the gospel clashes with the model that he has already committed to — a model grounded in Christ, God’s love, and election, and that is carried through in the life of the Christian primarily by the Spirit in transformational terms.” He continues, “God’s primary attitude in Christ toward those “on the outside” is, as Schreiner notes, one of engagement and love… However, the Melanchthonian account of the gospel introduced by Schreiner essentially overrules this insight (!), claiming that God’s fundamental posture toward outsiders is punitive.”

With Regards to the church, Schreiner writes, “Paul appropriates terms from the Old Testament to describe the people of God in the New Testament… Such appropriation suggests that it is fitting to say that the church of Jesus Christ is the “true” Israel for Paul.” He brings this back to his central theme again by pointing out that since Paul calls the church the body of which Christ is head, the central focus is on Christ, not the church. In everything and in every way, Christ is the focus of Pauline teaching.

The Roman Catholic Perspective

Johnson begins his essay weighing in on the controversy concerning which letters attributed to Paul belong to him as well as what general insights we can glean from the Pauline corpus. He then states that the key interpretive framework of Paul is built around three religious realities. These are the religious experience of Paul, the religious experience of his readers, and the “complex of traditions and practices of the community already in place when Paul became a founder of churches and writer of letters.” Schreiner is in full agreement with this assessment when he writes in his critique, “Paul’s theology grew out of a powerful experience with Jesus Christ, one that was shared by those in his churches, and Pauline traditions reflect on the significance of that experience.”

Johnson writes much the same as Schreiner with regards to the centrality of Christ when he writes, “It is Christ who inaugurates the new age, indeed the new creation. It is in light of Christ that all previous understandings of God must be evaluated… He is more than simply another human leader; he is “God’s Son,” whose existence carries with it the destiny of humanity as a whole.” Even Nanos gives grudging acceptance to this perspective when he writes, “The overall discussion of Paul’s view of Jesus and the implications for those who believe in him as Christ is wide-ranging and balanced.”

Johnson presents a much more balanced view of Paul’s perspective on soteriology than Schreiner did. He briefly explains five different metaphors Paul used that were “drawn from the social and religious realities of Greco-Roman culture.” These metaphors are: diplomatic, economic, forensic, cultic, and kinship-based. About them, Johnson writes, “No single metaphor is the most important or governs the others.” Even though he, like most reformed theologians, focused primarily on one aspect of soteriology, Schreiner agrees with Johnson that, “Salvation, according to Paul, is multifaceted and hence is unpacked with a variety of metaphors.”

With regard to the church, Johnson writes that “Paul proposes that the role of the church is to be the place in the world where the work of Christ in reconciling humans to God should be realized in practice by the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles and the harmony between male and female.” Nanos reads his own interpretation into this in perceiving that reconciling Jews and Gentiles means that Gentiles, through the community of church are to learn how to live Jewishly while neither becoming Jews nor remaining idolators.

The “Post-New Perspective” View

Schreiner and Johnson both addressed the four issues at stake topically. For the most part, they used a comprehensive view of the entire Pauline corpus to do so. Campbell takes almost the exact opposite approach in his essay. After a brief explanation of what the New Perspective on Paul is, and why he considers himself a “Post-New Perspective” theologian, Campbell turns the remainder of his essay into an exposition of Romans 5-8. This bears a large similarity to another New Perspective theologian, N.T. Wright, who spent a significant portion of his book The Day the Revolution Began on these same four chapters. There does seem to be many echoes of that book in this essay.

With regard to the theological framework of Paul’s writings, Campbell points to three themes: First, the revelation of God to Paul, second, the Triune God who has been revealed, and finally, the mission to which Paul has now been called. Schreiner praised Campbell for highlighting the trinitarian nature of Paul’s thought. Neither Johnson nor Nanos acknowledged it. Both instead chose to dive right into a critique of his Romans 5-8 exposition.

From Campbell’s perspective, the trinitarian nature of God also plays a role both in Paul’s understanding of Christ and in Paul’s soteriology. About the former Campbell writes:

Critical distinguishing features of Christ are that he is, on the one hand, the Son of the Father, and, on the other, the one bound up with the Spirit. To remove either of these two links would disrupt his identity and nature decisively; these relationships are constitutive of his being and personhood. And we learn from this that Christ’s personhood is relational. Christ is who he is because of whom he is in a relationship with.

With regard to salvation he writes, “this triune God is known in an act of redemption as Christ enters into a hostile world to rescue it. This God is saving the cosmos through Christ—and in a humiliating and costly way. Hence salvation, in this sense, is part of the being and identity of God.”

Neither of these topics nor what little Campbell had to say about the church, were addressed at any length. What little he did have to say had to be teased out of his Roman’s exposition. All three other scholars had issues to take with Campbell’s choice to use such a narrow scope of Paul’s writings to make definitive statement’s about the whole. Schreiner wrote, “it is inherently distorting if one privileges these chapters at the expense of the remainder of his writings.” Johnson says much of the same, “Campbell’s decision to eliminate from consideration— and with no real argument for doing so—the first four and the last eight chapters of Romans, goes beyond the idiosyncratic to the irresponsible.” Nanos doesn’t directly comment on this, but among his many references to Paul’s writing in his critique of Campbell’s essay, he does not once quote or refer back to anything within Romans 5-8.

The Jewish Perspective

Mark Nanos’ essay was a difficult one to follow. In the introduction, it was promised, “that each of the contributors would touch on four key areas in their respective essays.”  Schreiner and Johnson tackled these topics directly. Campbell hit on them indirectly through his exposition of Romans 5-8. Nanos does not touch on them at all.

He begins his essay with an explanation of why Jews have historically hated Paul. From Nanos’ perspective, this is because those who have interpreted Paul have used a strawman version of Judaism as a counterpoint to contrast his theology. Nanos writes, “Imagine if a religious group presented the values of your group in negative comparative terms while simultaneously claiming to exemplify the ideal values you actually perceive your group to uphold… not only stereotyping your group with values you do not hold, but at the same time claiming to be the “true” version of what your group should be.” Is it any wonder that Jews are not fans of Paul?

Nanos then goes on to present his perspective of who Paul is, but that perspective is completely unrecognizable for anyone who has read Acts and the Pauline epistles. Nanos himself acknowledges that he does his best to ignore Acts in his reading of the Pauline epistles. His view of Paul is a devout Jew who not only never converted from his Judaism but also encourages other Jews to continue in it as well. At the same time, this fictional Paul wants to keep Gentiles from fully proselytizing into Judaism yet to live as closely as possible to the Jewish moral and ritual standards. According to Nanos, “Jews must remain Jews, non-Jews must remain non-Jews. The truth of the gospel that the end of the ages has arrived in Christ, as promised… must be symbolized by the policies and lifestyles of the community of those who confess Christ. They must together practice Judaism as equals within these Jewish subgroups, yet remain different.” In other words, Paul didn’t want gentiles to become Jews only because then God’s promise to Abraham of a “light to all nations” would not be fulfilled. They can’t become Jews, but they must act as though they did.

In his critique, Schreiner acknowledges that Nanos is right that Judaism has often been misrepresented. He then proceeds to pick apart pretty much every other point Nanos made throughout his essay even saying at one point that his “reading is wrong, I would suggest, at nearly every point.” Johnson adds that Nanos’ understanding of Judaism was anachronistic. He was reading into Paul’s time an understanding of Judaism that did not truly come into existence until the third century. Campbell uses much of his critique to point out that most of Nanos’ legitimate complaint against misrepresentation is a necessary byproduct of the reformed, what he calls Melanchthonian, substitutionary atonement model.

My Agreement

Of the four perspectives presented in this book, I am most in agreement with Johnson. This surprised me because I was expecting, going into this to find myself most in agreement with Campbell. While I don’t consider myself fully in the “New Perspective” camp, I do feel that I align much more with N.T. Wright than I do with John MacArthur. That said, I feel that Johnson’s portrait of Paul’s theology was the most accurate and balanced. I have serious issues with a traditional understanding of the traditional reformed understanding of substitutionary atonement upon which Schreiner so heavily leans. Campbell is right in his critique of this view as:

a presentation of Paul’s “gospel” initially as a problem generated by God’s (retributive) justice and a general human failure to obey the law, which self-evidently elicits divine wrath in the form of punishment… This model of the gospel clashes with the model that he has already committed to — a model grounded in Christ, God’s love, and election, and that is carried through in the life of the Christian primarily by the Spirit in transformational terms.

On the flip side, Campbell’s choice to examine the issue using such a narrow window of Paul’s writings (Romans 5-8), left too much unsaid and unexplored. I feel as though I did not get a significant enough explanation of his views on Paul’s perspective of these four key topics to make an informed decision on whether I might agree or disagree.

Johnson presented his position well and in an informed and balanced way. Although I might night nitpick some of his terminologies, like “the energy field of the Holy Spirit,” for the most part I did agree with what he had to say. While we might disagree on other theological issues, with regards to Paul’s perspective on these four key areas, we are largely in agreement.

My Disagreement

Of the four essays in question, the one on which I am most in disagreement was with Nanos. I agree with Bird that Paul’s perspective on Christ, salvation, and the church are key issues within Paul’s writings. No significant exploration into Pauline theology can be complete, or even remotely accurate, without at least addressing these issues. And yet Nanos did not even touch on them.

I do agree with him that Judaism has been poorly portrayed in many explications of Pauline thought. I would go so far as to say that if Luther had not been so antisemitic in some of his writings, a Germany with Hitler as its head would never have been possible.

But that is about all I can agree with him on. I do not agree with his view that Paul proudly maintained his Judaism throughout his ministry. Galatians 2 and Philippians 3 both make such a view impossible. I also disagree that Paul strived to maintain as separate and distinct Jewish and Gentile Christ-followers. If anything, he put all his energy into doing the exact opposite. In Christ, there is no Jew nor gentile (Galatians 3:28). In addition, I do not agree with his understanding of the cross when he wrote, “Jesus was executed for being perceived to represent a threat to Roman order, likely because of fears of an uprising in the making. There are several issues here. Among the most important is how the policy of not converting non-Jews into proselytes represented a threat (“offense”) to the Roman ordering of proper social behavior.” The cross was not just a “threat to the social order.” The cross is the power of God (1 Cor 1:18), it is the means of our reconciliation (Eph 2:16), it is my peace (Col 1:20), my freedom (Col 2:14), and Christ’s triumph (Col 2:15). I understand why Nanos would want to downplay its significance, but I cannot even begin to agree.

My Views

If one were to look at the sermons found in the book of Acts, it will quickly become clear that there are three key points addressed in each one. It does not matter if it is Cephas or Stephen, Philip or Paul, every message will contain three key issues. 1. Jesus died. 2. Jesus rose. 3. Jesus saves. In the first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul himself stated that these three issues were of utmost importance (1 Cor 15:3-4). If someone is looking for a framework of Pauline theology, this is it. Jesus died, Jesus rose, and Jesus saves.

As to who this Jesus is, Paul has two answers: First, he is Lord. Multiple times, in every epistle except for Titus, Paul refers to Jesus as Lord. In addition to this, since Paul quotes mainly from the Septuagint, it is almost certain that in calling Jesus “Lord”, he is not just calling him our Master, but also our God. Also in every epistle many times (including Titus), Paul also refers to Jesus as Christ. He is the Messiah. He is the Anointed One who has come to redeem his people.

With regard to soteriology, I would agree with Johnson that Paul uses many metaphors and none of these should take primacy over the others. As Goethe has said, “every analogy limps” and any overemphasis on any one of these metaphors can lead towards a distorted view of salvation and the nature of God. From my perspective, Romans 8 best describes the three concepts Paul uses in reference to Salvation. First, there is Justification. “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) In archery terms, this is the instantaneous moment the arrow has been released from the bow. Then there is sanctification. “If Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of the Spirit who lives in you.” (Romans 8:10-11) Going back to our archery terms this is the movement of the arrow from the bow towards the target. We are predestined to be conformed into his likeness (Rom 8:29) Finally, there is the future moment when the arrow will hit the target. This is glorification. “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved.” (Romans 8:23-24) Any Pauline understanding of salvation must include justification, sanctification, and glorification.

Finally, with regards to the church, I see in Paul an emphasis on unity through diversity. This can be seen in his discussion on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, there are many parts but one body, many gifts but one spirit. It is also in the Ephesians 4 look at leadership gits, there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God… and many gifts for the building up of one church. The same theme can be found in the Romans 12 look at ministry gifts. “For just as each of us has one body with many members… so in Christ, we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts…” but we are “devoted to one another in love.” (Rom 12:4-10)

When it all comes down to it, this is the point of Bird’s book, Counterpoints. Three Christian scholars and one other from the outside looking in, each have their perspective on what Paul is writing about. Although there is disagreement, this conversation is held with love and respect. As long as each of those Christian scholars has highlighted the centrality of Christ (which they have), then it is completely fine to have disagreements on the peripherals. They each agree that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

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