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Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Thiselton’

Special thanks to Adrianna at IVP for a review copy of this book.

Anthony Thiselton is a well-known figure in contemporary biblical studies, a man crossing a number of specializations: New Testament exegete, systematician, philosopher (especially as it relates to hermeneutics).  In this little volume (162 pages of text) the reader is treated to a little bit of everything: a summary of Paul’s life and teaching (Thiselton the NT scholar), forays into Paul’s contribution to Christian doctrine (Thiselton the systematician), and even a final chapter on Paul and postmodern thought (Thiselton the philosopher).  Thiselton is a rare breed in that he is quite capable in all of these areas, and even rarer for offering The Living Paul, a book written for those perhaps unfamiliar with Paul and the debates surrounding his writings.

For much of the book, Thiselton succeeds in providing an informed and stimulating “introduction to the Apostle’s life and thought” (as the subtitle goes).  His opening chapters on “obstacles to appreciating Paul” are helpful, particularly his discussion of “new creation” (which is essentially Thiselton fleshing out the “already/not yet” in Paul’s writings).

One helpful aspect of the book was how Thiselton situated Paul the letter writer in his discussion of Paul the travelling missionary pastor.  This helps the reader understand how letters such as 1-2 Thessalonians and the Corinthians letters fit into Paul’s ministry as a missionary rather than seeing them as detached from his church planting (after all, Paul the Letter Writer and Paul the Missionary both fall under his role as Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles).  Unfortunately, Thiselton does not carry this out for all of Paul’s letters, including overviews of some within various chapters.  Because of this, this book is not the ideal place to get an overview of each Pauline letter, but it does help to tie the letters into his broader ministry and theology, something that can be lost with other approaches.

Chapters 5, 6 & 7 showcase Thiselton’s abilities as a theologian.  With admirable clarity he demonstrates how Paul sets the stage for later articulations of the Trinity, noting that neither Jesus nor the Spirit are created beings in Pauline theology, and that God, Jesus and the Spirit co-operate in remarkable ways (in creation, redemption, prayer, and so on).  There are a couple points that will cause discomfort for some readers: his reliance on Moltmann’s understanding of God co-suffering with Jesus, and his claim that many have an understanding of spiritual gifts that is “too supernatural” (I know of many missionaries and third-world believers who would laugh at this claim).  I also found it interesting that Thiselton, while engaging multiple scholars, does not interact with Gordon Fee’s massive book on the Holy Spirit in Paul’s letters.  But all in all I found these chapters stimulating and creatively presented.

Perhaps my favorite chapter (16) was his treatment of eschatology.  He ably and concisely demonstrates the weakness of many contemporary evangelical approaches.  “Paul is less interested in individual destiny, or survival of death, and ‘heaven’, than in the three great corporate and cosmic events of the resurrection, the last judgement, and the Parousia of Christ” (p135).  He also rejects the approach of Bultmann which sees eschatological passages as dealing strictly with present behavior, as well as attempts to equate Paul’s hope with “secular progressivism.”  His discussion of the resurrection of the body and Christ’s return explains Paul’s thought clearly without losing the audience at hand.  If someone is looking for a succinct treatment of 1 Corinthians 15 to recommend, this is it.

The last chapter on “Paul and postmodernity” was an interesting read, though I’m afraid that someone without at least a basic familiarity to postmodern philosophy will be easily lost.  If this book were being used in a church study group, it would be best to have someone on hand well versed in these discussions to explain the issues and why they matter.

This book, as good as it is, is not without some problems, as I see them.  First, the constant reference to the disputed nature of some of the Pauline corpus (Colossians, Ephesians, the Pastoral Epistles) gets tiresome quickly.  I would much prefer Thiselton note the debate early in the book, chose a side and stick with it.  Instead, he annoys the reader with “if we allow Pauline authorship of Ephesians” and “the perhaps deutero-Pauline Pastorals” type comments throughout the book.

Second, there were a few times when Thiselton would refer to a scholar, but never cite that person’s work.  Thus, while I now know that Terence Donaldson defends the “New Perspective on Paul,” I know neither who Terence Donaldson is nor what he has written on the subject.  Why mention him at all?

Lastly, the clarity with which Thiselton writes (praised above) is inconsistent.  Maybe I was tired, but while reading his chapter on justification, I got confused- and I’m familiar with the discussion!  While a scholar will appreciate the brief summary, I have no idea how any layperson (the audience of the book, mind you), with little-to-no orientation to the discussion, would be able to keep up.  The problem is that Thiselton spends too much time surveying the various approaches (this happens in other chapters, but it kills this one).  There were simply too many names thrown about to be helpful.  What I wanted was Thiselton’s thoughts on Paul’s doctrine of justification (after all, I’m reading Thiselton’s book!), but had trouble sifting through the discussion to discern his view.  Interestingly, I’d make the same criticism about his massive commentary on 1 Corinthians

Does Thiselton succeed in offering an accessible guide to Paul’s life and thought?  For the most part, yes.  There are portions of the book that are simply outstanding and would benefit anyone who reads it.  But there are other points when I’m just not sure he hits the target audience.  The teacher in the local church (which is what I do and the perspective from which I write this review) would do well to refer to The Living Paul in preparation and could even have certain chapters picked out for church members to read, either leaving out the more confusing portions, or taking extra time to explain them.

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