Sunday, May 2, 2010

Book Review: The Living Paul

This month's (actually this is April's - you'll get a second one this month) book review is The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle's Life and Thought by Anthony Thiselton. Thiselton is one of the world's foremost theologians, and is especially known for his work on hermeneutics. He has also written a major commentary on 1 Corinthians which is my personal favorite on that book.

In chapters one and two, Thiselton addresses barriers to properly understanding Paul. The first chapter shows that Jesus and Paul aren't at odds, Paul didn't start a new religion that didn't care about Jesus apart from his death and resurrection. Iin fact shows that there was a lot of overlap between the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Paul. The second chapter deals with the use of apocalyptic language. Often we don't recognize this aspect of the Pauline epistles. Here, Thisleton is especially helpful in showing the apocalyptic element of Paul's thought as well as how it can help us better understand the way that Paul believed God works in us an in the world. The concept of 'new creation,' which is an act of God worked in us, was key for Paul, especially in his ethical teaching. 'For Christians the new creation becomes the decisive and transforming dimension of their lives. Whereas much preaching today consists of anecdotes about human life, Paul's preaching was mainly about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this is why we easily miss some of the sheer excitement of the gospel' (15). This chapter was a top notch presentation of Pauline apocalyptic. It was clear, concise, very balanced, and pastoral.

The third and fourth chapters of the book seek to set out a Pauline chronology in which Thiselton deftly interweaves material from Acts and the undisputed Paulines to lay out a brief history of the apostles life and thought. Here he informs us for the first time of a seeming ambivalence towards Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals, which is an issue he brings up continually as if apologizing every time he refers to him. As best I can tell he sees Colossians as probably authentic, possibly Ephesians, and less likely the Pastorals, but he never takes a firm stance.

Chapters five through seven detail Paul's understanding of Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit, and seek to show how you can see trinitarian thought nascent in the writings of the apostle. One of my favorite portions of these chapters was his discussion of Jesus Lordship. "When Paul focuses on the Lordship of Christ, his view of Christ is primarily one of relationship rather than 'titles'" (46). It's mainly about the way in which Jesus relates to us and to the rest of creation. The later creeds with their assertions about Jesus' ontological status are certainly true, but that's not what Paul was getting at, primarily, when he called Jesus 'Lord.' Here, again, Thiselton was at his best. Even though each of these chapters were brief, his insight was penetrating.

Thiselton describes Paul's anthropology in chapters eight and nine. Here he looks at what it really means for us to be human, including discussing what it means for us to be made in God's image and explaining the meaning of important terms like, 'mind,' 'soul,' and 'spirit' among others. There is also a helpful discussion on sin, where Thiselton stresses that sin is not just 'missing the mark,' committing discrete misdeeds, but sin is a state involving alienation and bondage.

Chapter ten lays out Paul's understanding of the cross. Here Thiselton stresses that the cross was central for Paul, and that it was a sacrifice of substitution and also of participation. The eleventh chapter was on justification. This was one that I felt was a bit confusing at times. Justification is a particularly hot button issue in Pauline scholarship so Thiselton spent a lot of time focusing on framing the debate and making comments about it. While it's helpful, at times it made it difficult to understand his exact view (Danny makes this same criticism on this chapter in his review). I would have much preferred that this chapter was more independent and that he just told us what he thinks clearly and concisely like he does in the rest of the book.

Thiselton expounds Paul's understanding of life in the church in chapters twelve through fifteen, covering the nature of the church, the ministry of the word, the sacraments, and ethics. I found each of these chapters to be very helpful, especially in how they drew out the communal aspects of Christian life.

The sixteenth chapter covered eschatology. I especially enjoyed when summarizing Wittgenstein Thiselton showed how to properly connect eschatalogical expectation with ethics. 'Expectation is not a mental state...Expectation...consists of appropriate conduct or behavior in a given situation' (138). Living in expectation isn't about sitting around waiting for Jesus to return, it's about living in a way that's faithful to him as the soon to return Lord.

In the last chapter we get a fast and furious summary of suggestions on how Paul might agree with some aspects of post modernity but is totally at odds with others. Thiselton gives a brief overview of postmodernity and then spends about a page each interacting with about a half dozen of the most influential post modern thinkers. I think that this chapter should have been an appendix rather than part of the book proper as it's far beyond the scope of knowledge of even the most informed lay person.

There's much to like about Thiselton's work. Most of the time he is clear and concise, and despite the short amount of space he avoids superficiality. I also appreciated that Thiselton wrote with a theologians perspective. At several points, he helpfully showed how modern theology has appropriately or inappropriately developed Paul's thought.

My biggest complaint with Thiselton's work isn't the content, it's that he has somewhat missed his target audience. Even aside from the the chapters on justification and postmodernity I felt that the book overtly interacted with scholarship too much. I think that the majority of lay people would miss out on a fair amount by not knowing much about the scholars and debates that he frequently cites. Only the most studious lay person will be able to keep up. I would be hesitant to use this book in a teaching setting in the local church.

For pastors with a seminary education this book could prove to be a helpful introduction, or even a reintroduction to Paul as a sort of brush up on what they learned in seminary. The other niche for this book would be in a seminary class or graduate seminar on Pauline theology. There it would be an excellent textbook where each chapter could be fleshed out in more detail.

Overall Thiselton has done a very good job summarizing Paul and his writings. He has much to say that is insightful and practical and does a lot with very little space. I think that for a limited audience The Living Paul could be a very beneficial addition to their library.


  1. Good review, I think you and I are largely on the same page. Have you read Michael Bird's book, Introducing Paul? It aims for the same audience as Thiselton, only he actually does a good job in hitting it.

  2. Thanks Danny, I haven't read Bird's book. I was going to ask you if you had read it. I'll have to take a look at it one of these days.

  3. I reviewed it last year on our site. I thought about doing a side-by-side comparison between the two books, but that would be so far down the priority list that it'll never get done.