Tag Archives | Paul

Paul and His Letters | John B. Polhill

The cover of Paul and his LettersIt’s safe to say that the church wouldn’t exist in its current forms without Paul. Although the Spirit worked through many characters hinted at tangentially (Apollo, for example), Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. His complex background, dramatic conversion/commissioning, zealous missionary work, and extant letters have been a puzzle tackled by Pauline scholars throughout the ages.

Polhill’s book begins with about a hundred pages of introductory material on Paul before giving way to chapters about his key letters. Chapters about his travelogue are interspersed amongst the letters. Polhill presents a conservative view of Paul, assuming the Pauline authorship of the thirteen epistles that bear his name. At the end of each chapter a helpful bibliography for further investigation is included, divided into Greek-based and English-based sources.

I struggled with Polhill’s lack of subtlety in handling Paul’s motives and actions. For example, Polhill notes how “Paul remained a Jew even as a Christian . . . [h]e maintained Jewish practices, like taking a Nazarite vow (Acts 18:18) and participating in the vows of others (Acts 21:26)” (26). While it’s a given that Paul remained an ethnic Jew while following the Jewish Messiah, Polhill oversimplified the situation. Paul’s participation in the vows of others was conceived by James and company and implemented as a tactic to avoid a religio-political confrontation. (The ruse failed!)

Current issues in Pauline scholarship were undertreated. The “new perspective,” for example, receives a one page overview with the following summary statement: “The debate on Paul’s view of the law is far from finished and promises to continue for a long time to come” (297). Again, this statement is true but unhelpful. Such a major interpretive issue should be more thoughtfully handled. In these cases Polhill always assumes a traditional conservative view.

Paul and His Letters is a solid overview of the life of Paul. For a fuller picture of the enigmatic apostle, this volume should be supplemented by more current scholarship and divergent viewpoints.

Polhill, John B. Paul and His Letters. Nashville: B&H Academic, 1999.

The Acts of the Apostles | James D. G. Dunn

The cover of Dunn's The Acts of the ApostlesActs begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome. It starts with the Jewish people and ends up reaching the heart of the Gentile empire.

In this commentary, Dunn reads the text closely and provides a number of insights to help the reader understand how each story works in the broader context of Acts. He demonstrates that Christianity stands in unity with the Jewish faith while at the same time reaches beyond it in embracing the radical message of the Messiah in the power of the Spirit.

This commentary hits the sweet spot. It is non-technical and easy to read while at the same time deep and thoughtful. Dunn gives plenty of enough substance that will enrich your own understanding of scripture and give fuel to the teachers.

Dunn, James D. G. The Acts of the Apostles. Narrative Commentaries. Valley Forge, PN: Trinity Press, 1996.

Inexperienced Prayer | Tom Wright

N. T. Wright's Picture[Paul] knows that the prayers even of young and inexperienced Christians are every bit as powerful and valid in God’s presence as those of a seasoned apostle.

—Tom Wright, Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters (London: John Knox Press, 2002, 2004), 78.

Paul: A Novel | Walter Wangerin Jr.

The cover of Wangerin's Paul: A NovelWhile setting the category for this book review, I hit an impasse. Do I consider this a work of literature, theology, or spiritual formation?

When I was a young minister I bought Wangerin’s The Book of God. His novelization of the Old Testament made an impact on my study of scripture. He reminded me of the reality of these ancient stories. In Paul, he picks up the story where he left off. Wangerin combines an intimate knowledge of scripture, thoughtful exegesis, and a literary pen to create a work that will help the reader understand Paul more completely than before.

You could consider this a work of literature. The point-of-view shifts between the various characters (framed by the pseudo-musings of Seneca) are a profound way to revisit a well-known story.

Alternatively, it could be considered a work of theology. Many exegetical decisions had to be made about issues such as the purpose of the Gentile offering, the nature of Paul’s “thorn in his flesh,” and the circumstances and letters to the church in Corinth. Wangerin chooses wisely.

For me, this book was primarily a work of spiritual formation. Wangerin has enabled me to imagine what it would be like to live Paul’s life. You can almost feel the sweat and taste the dust of the ancient cities. The conflict between Paul and Jerusalem was profoundly disturbing yet moving. It helps me to place modern church conflict in perspective.

There were times when the action slowed and the detailed description started to feel excessive. As a whole, however, Paul: A Novel, is powerful work of Christian imagination.

—Walter Wangerin Jr., Paul: A Novel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000).

Torrance’s Incarnation 3.1: The Biblical Witnesses to the Virgin Birth

The cover of Torrance's Incarnation

The virgin birth is one of the chief places where the historic claims of the church collide with our enlightenment worldview. Torrance tackles this issue by first considering the biblical witnesses to the virgin birth (3.1), and then by drawing his conclusions (3.2).

Torrance follows the “scientific method” he explained earlier—he allows the mystery to declare itself according to its own nature. “It is a miracle” (87).

a) The Synoptic Gospels

The two gospels which tell us of Jesus’ human origin (Matthew and Luke) speak of the virgin birth. They speak this way unashamedly, despite offering human genealogies. It is curious that Luke, who places such a strong emphasis on the virgin birth in his gospel, doesn’t reference it in the birth of the church (Acts). Death and resurrection predominate the early church’s preaching.

Mark doesn’t mention the virgin birth explicitly, but a comparison of a synoptic passage reveals his belief in the doctrine. When Jesus spoke in his hometown, the people were astonished and said:

  • “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mark 6:3 ESV)
  • “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?” (Matthew 13:55 ESV)
  • “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22 ESV)

Matthew and Luke were free to imply or mention Joseph because they had already explained Jesus’ divine parentage. Since Mark did not narrate Jesus’ divine birth, he simply referred to Jesus as Mary’s son to avoid confusion.

b) John – the Gospel and the Johannine Writings

John’s gospel contains a specific reference to the virgin birth, should a variant reading be accepted: “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-3 ESV, emphasis mine).

As recorded in the ESV, “who were born” is plural, referring to the believers. The major manuscripts all give the plural reading except the Verona Old Latin. However, Turtullian, who is twice as old as our main codices, remarks that the Valentinians corrupted the text to make it plural because of their antipathy to the virgin birth.

If “who” is singular, it’s clear evidence of John’s belief in the virgin birth. If it’s plural, the evidence is not so clear, but still implied.

c) St Paul

Consider two Greek terms:

  • ginesthai – think “genesis”
  • gennan – think “generated,” the normal word for human birth

Paul develops a theology of Christ as the second Adam, sent from God. In Galatians 4, Paul uses gennan three times to speak of human generation, but only uses ginesthai to refer to Jesus’ genesis.

Like John, Paul’s writings are consonant with the virgin birth made explicit in Matthew and Luke.

Some Reflections

I find it strange that Torrance goes to such lengths to try to prove John’s belief in the virgin birth from John 1:13. His minority reading is unpersuasive and has not been accepted by today’s major translators. This isn’t to say that I think John disbelieved the virgin birth—it just wasn’t a matter of explicit reflection for him.

The man or woman who has come to see the face of God in the face of Christ [knows] that they can never master or dominate the mystery of Christ in their hearts, but can only acknowledge it gladly with wonder and thankfulness, and seek to understand the mystery of Christ out of itself, that is, seek to let it declare itself to them, seek to let themselves be told by the mystery what it is. (87)

Here’s where Torrance’s “scientific method” of understanding the subject according to its own categories pays off. The virgin birth cannot be understood from the outside—one must allow Jesus to reveal it as mystery and miracle.

← 2.2b: Outline of the Doctrine of the Person of Christ
3.2: The Doctrine of the Virgin Birth →

Philippians: Revised | Gerald F. Hawthorne & Ralph P. Martin

The cover of Philippians by Martin and HawthorneI did not expect to enjoy this commentary.

In fact, I don’t like the format of the Word Biblical Commentary series at all. The font size is small, the line spacing is cramped—even the paper quality is poor. I bought this book along with Fee’s NICOT entry on Philippians to prepare a sermon series. I fully anticipated on using Fee as my go-to, with Martin & Hawthorne as a second opinion

By the end of the introduction the tables had turned.

Gerald F. Hawthorne wrote the WBC entry on Philippians in 1983. Two decades later, in 2003, Ralph P. Martin was tasked with revising Hawthorne’s work. Martin wrote with charity and honesty when his views differed from Hawthorne’s. In the places where their views diverged, Martin set an example of how to disagree with grace.

This commentary excels in all areas. The introduction paints a good contextual picture of Paul’s setting and life in Philippi. As with all WBC entries, the Greek text is listed and discussed throughout the “Comment” section. Still, you don’t need to be a Greek scholar to understand the comments.

The best quality of this commentary was Hawthorne and Martin’s profound theological insight. Here are a few examples:

On the word “saints” in 1:1:

Ethics and religion belong together; relationship to God requires a moral response; God’s people must live like God. (7)

On “prayer” in 1:4:

Intercession indeed is the fundamental response of love within the community of believers. (20)

On “joy” in 1:4:

Joy is an understanding of existence that encompasses both elation and depression, that can accept with submission events that bring delight or dismay, because joy allows one to see beyond any particular event to the sovereign Lord who stands above all events and ultimately has control over them. (21)

Those three quotes are from the first 21 pages of commentary—280 more insight-packed pages follow.

Hawthorne & Martin’s Philippians: Revised is a detailed and inspirational resource on Paul’s letter which rewards a careful reading.


Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes | Kenneth E. Bailey

After benefiting immensely from Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, I knew I had to read Bailey’s book on 1 Corinthians. I was not disappointed. Bailey did what he does best: he uses his knowledge of Middle Eastern culture along with Coptic, Syriac and Arabic sources to inform his reading of the New Testament.

When you read 1 Corinthians, it’s easy to get the impression that Paul’s frustration with this particular congregation produced a letter that’s intensely situational, jumping from issue to issue. Structure seems to take a back seat to passion. It turns out nothing could be further from the truth.

The best part of this commentary is the way that Bailey discerned the structure of 1 Corinthians. It’s a carefully crafted five essay letter that uses Old Testament prophetic styles and templates. At the start of each section Bailey lays out the text structurally which helps the reader to see what Paul’s emphasizing.

I read through this commentary as I taught an informal Bible study at my church. It provided insight into the text along with pastoral considerations and illustrations to bring each passage alive. If you want to go further in 1 Corinthians, pick up Thiselton: either his comprehensive entry in the NIGTC series or the digest version: 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary.

The Evolution of Adam | Peter Enns

For Christians, the nineteenth century was rough.

With these words, Peter Enns launches into a work that not only explains why Christianity was roughed up in the modern era but provides positive steps forward. It turns out Christianity deserved a lot of the treatment it received—and it’s not too late to change.

This book explains how it’s intellectually viable as well as biblically faithful to believe both evolution and the divine inspiration of scripture. To take things one step further, it’s unfaithful to the Bible to use it as a hammer in 21st century scientific arguments.

I appreciate Enns’ tone. He respects both sides in this conflict he’s trying to reconcile. His respect for the particular issues facing evangelicals is evident in the way he structured the book. The first half discusses Genesis and the reconciliation of Genesis with science. The second half takes seriously Paul’s arguments that use Adam as an historical figure. You will even get a primer in the new perspective on Paul.

The most eye-opening part of this book for me was Enns’ description of Adam as proto-Israel rather than proto-humanity. If you understand the time frame the Pentateuch was finished, this reading makes perfect sense. It also offers many fruitful areas for further contemplation such as the Orthodox understanding of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

One last comment. Enns is very good at making difficult concepts understandable. If you’re interested in a new approach to the old bible/evolution wars that ravage our congregations, give this book a read.


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