Spring 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 1 · pp. 2–3 

From the Editor: Essays on Paul

Vic Froese

The Apostle Paul may not have been the founder of Christianity but there is no doubt that his role in defining it was huge. It’s difficult to imagine that Western Christianity would be the same if we’d had the Gospels but none of Paul’s letters.

His legacy, of course, is controversial. Paul’s Epistles were at the center of St. Augustine’s argument with Pelagius on the doctrine of original sin, which has been so divisive in the West. A thousand years later Martin Luther read Paul’s letters and ignited a revolution that restyled the landscape of the Christian world. Divergent interpretations of his writings have created animosities—not entirely subdued yet—among various Christian schools of thought: by-grace-alone Lutherans versus grace-and-works Catholics; five-point Calvinists versus free-will Arminians; penal substitutionists versus Christus Victors, and so on. And in the late modern age, Paul’s detractors have not been few: Friedrich Nietzsche detested him as a power-hungry exploiter of the noble philosophy of Jesus; feminists disparage him for urging women to be submissive to men; gay people revile him for his unqualified condemnation of homosexuals; and Jews castigate him for launching two millennia of murderous anti-Semitism.

Though chastened by these criticisms, the study of Paul’s thought proceeds undeterred. In fact, it seems to have intensified as new approaches to his teachings have developed. Despite its declining profile, the “new perspective” approach to Paul (explained in the first essay below), has left its mark—few self-respecting scholars today will assume it is obvious what Paul means when he rejects salvation by “works” or refers to Jesus followers as “justified.” Other scholars have uncovered a political Paul, whose theology implied a radical critique of Roman imperialism and its pretensions. Perhaps the most surprising development is the appreciation for Paul that some Continental philosophers have gained, who tout Paul as the originator of radical social and political ideas that have a renewed relevance in our postmodern, post-Christian, hyper-pluralist context.

The odds would seem slim that the power of Paul’s letters to stimulate new responses will fade any time soon.

The essays in this issue of our journal suggest as much. Stephen Westerholm, no stranger to the “new perspectives on Paul” debates, offers his critical assessment of where those debates stand, now that the dust has more or less settled. His essay will be especially useful to readers unfamiliar with the issues and those still working their way through them.

Ryan Schellenberg carefully examines the issues of universality and ethnicity in Paul’s writings, showing us that Paul’s views are not nearly as cut and dried as we often think. And he does not shy away from {3} suggesting how the insights gained from his study of Paul might help Mennonite Brethren rethink their ideas of how ethnicity relates to faith.

In Doug Harink’s provocative paper, he demonstrates that a new concept of justice is integral to Paul’s letter to the Romans, despite the common perception that its near obsession with grace and faith eclipses everything else. The ethical implications of that concept are also indicated, perhaps all too briefly.

Coincidentally, Gordon Zerbe’s study of Paul’s letter to the Romans likewise focuses on the theme of justice. But in his paper, Zerbe argues that, in Paul’s thinking, the cross shifts our gaze from punitive, retributive justice to God’s welcoming, restorative justice. This shift has ecclesiological implications, he says, for Paul insists that a Christian community that welcomes strangers best embodies the gracious hospitality God reveals in Jesus.

Demonstrating the trustworthiness of the “inauthentic” letters of Paul is Jon Isaak’s concern. Unconvinced that the disputed letters deviate wildly in content from the undisputed ones, he makes a strong case for regarding them as fundamentally congruent with the contours of Paul’s thought in the authentic letters.

Finally, Doug Miller’s paper analyzes the notion of faith from a more broadly biblical perspective. He suggests that biblical faith is fully consistent with the belief, trust, and corresponding actions required of anyone dealing with human authorities but having imperfect knowledge of their competency. Miller also helpfully notes the serious dangers that can arise when belief, trust, or action is neglected and one of the others dominates.

In our Ministry Compass section, George Shillington gives us a finely crafted exegetical reflection on Romans 7. Recommended Reading consists of a selected bibliography of recent monographs on Paul’s thought. Our book reviewers offer their thoughts on books on such topics as Paul’s rhetorical education, the history of MCC Canada, and the latest trend in youth ministry. And, this being the spring issue, the Current Research bibliography makes its annual appearance.

Vic Froese, General Editor