Tag Archives | Paul

The Apostle Paul | Stanley E. Porter

The cover of Porter's The Apostle PaulMy first exposure to Paul’s life, thought, and letters came in my second year of Bible College when I was assigned F. F. Bruce’s magisterial Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free for a Pauline Literature class. One could view Stanley E. Porter’s Apostle Paul as a necessary update to Bruce’s work (xi). Porter begins with Paul’s background and reconstructs a chronology of his life and writing before analyzing the thirteen Pauline letters.

Porter is a specialist in the Greek language—a strength that shines through on almost every page. His knowledge of Greek allows him to situate Paul’s writing within broader Greek cultural norms, shining light on various details of Paul’s letters.

Particularly interesting was Porter’s section on pseudonymity. It is frequently argued that some of Paul’s letters are pseudonymous (written by someone other than Paul). Porter forces the reader to confront the implications of this view. First, it is fundamentally deceitful. The church from the start viewed the thirteen letters as Pauline which led to their canonical status. To believe that someone other than Paul wrote in the apostle’s name means the other person wrote deceptively. Second, there is the issue of double-pseudonymity. If you believe someone other than Paul wrote the letter, then the recipient is also in question, adding another layer of confusion. Porter repeatedly emphasizes textual evidence (or the lack thereof) over speculation and questionable hypotheses. The problem of pseudonymity, “combined with the evidence available, points to the Pauline letters being actually authentic” (168).

The New Perspective on Paul (led chiefly in various forms by Sanders, Dunn, and Wright) is another major area of debate in Pauline theology. Porter holds the traditional view against the New Perspective. For Porter, the New Perspective is not supported by Jewish evidence. Furthermore, the New Perspective misunderstands Paul’s use of language, especially the way that Paul understands “law.”

A major strength of this book is Porter’s balanced handling of the evidence for every Pauline question and debate. While he is never shy about stating his preferred option, the reader has unprejudiced evidence at hand to pursue a different reading.

I suspect The Apostle Paul will inspire a new generation of Pauline students to dig deep into the thirteen letters that bear his name.


Porter, Stanley E. The Apostle Paul: His Life, Thought, and Letters. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.

Perspectives on Paul | Ernst Käsemann

The cover of Kasemann's Perspectives on PaulErnst Käsemann (1906-1998) was a German theologian who earned his doctorate under the supervision of Rudolf Bultmann. Perspectives on Paul is a collection of seven essays which are based on four lectures he gave in America along with three additional articles. Each focus (as you might expect) on an element of Pauline theology.

As with any fifty year old theology book, it’s not enough to read the author’s argument—you have to understand what the author is reacting against. This is especially true here since, “[c]ontroversy is the breath of life to a German theologian, and mutual discussion is the duty of us all” (60). Käsemann’s sparing partners include Hans Conzelmann and Krister Stendahl. As if anticipating Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism (which was published a full decade later), Käsemann argues strongly for a view of justification which is fundamentally individual—over against Judaistic interpretation of the law. On the basis of Pauline thought, Käsemann argues that the justification of the sinner—not salvation history—is the centre of the Christian proclamation.

His words are eloquent.

Salvation never consists in our being given something, however wonderful. Salvation, always, is simply God himself in his presence for us. To be justified means that the creator remains faithful to the creature, as the father remained faithful to the prodigal son, in spite of guilt, error and ungodliness; it means that he changes the fallen and apostate into new creatures, that in the midst of the world of sin and death he once more raises up and fulfils the promises we have misused. (74-5)

Perspectives on Paul reminds the reader why Käsemann is one of the key Pauline interpreters of the twentieth century.


Käsemann, Ernst. Perspectives on Paul. Translated by Margaret Kohl. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.

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.

 

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