What Was Paul Thinking? A Study Text Introducing the New Perspective on Paul and Paul’s Thoughts on Women and Homosexuality

Book Review

Richard A. Brown, Blue Springs, Missouri: Isaac’s Press, 2010, 130 pp.

Considering the fact that the new perspective on Paul is not so “new” anymore, the lack of popular study material on the topic is perplexing. Richard A. Brown’s What Was Paul Thinking? (Blue Springs, Missouri: Isaac’s Press), 2010, is therefore a welcome attempt at the effort.

Though thoughtful and provocative, Brown sometimes moves too quickly through his material, sometimes packing thoughts too densely or insufficiently explaining his points. Subtitled A Study Text Introducing the New Perspective on Paul and Attitudes about Women and Homosexuality, this thin volume almost promises more than it can deliver. At just 130 pages, this eight-lesson adult Bible study text occasionally comes across more like an eclectic collection of random points than a theological study that carefully builds a well-organized argument.

The new perspective on Paul is essentially addressed in the first two chapters (“First the Forest, Later on the Trees” and “Call Not Conversion”). Only after articulating an overall position does Brown address “Paul’s Authentic Letters” (chapter 3) and “Paul’s Disputed Letters and Acts” (chapter 4). This reviewer at least would have liked to see these topics addressed in the opposite order: first the sources, then the theses. Having said that, this reviewer was pleased to note that Brown didn’t settle on the reductionist argument that “if Paul didn’t write it, it just doesn’t count.” Brown notes that (in a way characteristic of this study) in an all-too-brief statement on page 61:

The question arises, naturally, whether these authentication issues might disqualify any letter from being accepted as a reliable source of scripture. The answer to that is no, but they can help us to understand more fully possible meanings within these letters.

However, insufficient space is given to considering the more broad questions of canon and authority. For instance, the canonical approach of the above-referenced statement is apparently contradicted by the following statement on page 117:

Keep in mind, too, that the letters of Paul were addressed to specific believers, places, and times. He didn’t write them to become canonized scripture, much less set-in-stone commandments.

Both observations are pertinent: Pseudonymity does not necessarily mitigate scriptural authority; Paul did not intend to articulate systematic doctrinal truths for multiple generations. However, these statements deserve to be reconciled in a compelling hermeneutic. A working hermeneutic does not actually emerge until the final two chapters, the chapter on “Women’s Roles & Marriage” (chapter 7) and “Homosexuality Then & Now” (chapter 8). Only in these chapters does Brown specifically locate spiritual authority within the conjunction of “scripture, experience, and tradition” (cf. p. 108). Though this reviewer agrees with that model of authority, nevertheless it seems insufficiently articulated.

With respect to the new perspective on Paul, Brown presents a blend of Sanders, Dunn, and Wright, among others. Brown follows Sanders’ distinction between “getting in” and “staying in” the covenant (p. 16), Dunn’s articulation of “identity markers” (pp. 22, 23), and Wright’s emphasis on the “fulfilled-family-of-Abraham” (p. 68). This stands in some tension with Brown’s tendency toward the “two-covenant” approach of Gaston, Stendahl, etc. (pp. 14,15,21), however.

At any rate, despite its shortcomings, What Was Paul Thinking? nevertheless represents a laudable first attempt at lay adult Bible study and provides church leaders several tools to address these numerous issues.

Mark M. Mattison

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  • I appreciate Mark’s thoughtful review of my book, and in particular the fact that he cited at the very beginning what is perhaps the most important issue involved. Why is it, after all these decades of scholarly exploration within the New Perspective on Paul, that What Was Paul Thinking? is possibly the first published text intended for general adult Bible study?

    It has been a little more than 30 years since I was first exposed to ideas that have come to be identified under the name “New Perspective” as a student in Professor Lloyd Gaston’s classes at Vancouver School of Theology. Since then hundreds of books, journal articles, graduate-level theses, and dissertations by Christian and Jewish scholars have been produced. It makes for an impressive bibliography, much of it listed here at The Paul Page.

    I once heard it said that within all disciplines there is a gap between scholars and serious students on the one hand and those who popularize those ideas for the general public on the other–but the gap within the field of theology and religion is arguably the widest of all. Whether that is entirely true makes for an interesting discussion. Yet it should be apparent there’s a considerable chasm between the most well-known, respected theologians today and the so-called “pop theology” espoused by, for example, the Prosperity Gospel preachers on TV and radio.

    I live in the U.S. Midwest where it’s common to be asked by evangelical Christians, in particular, “Are you saved?” They’re looking for a yes-or-no answer, salvation being an individual’s personal and private concern made possible by Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (with Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith as the centerpiece of the gospel). However, I was reared in a faith tradition that regards “Are you saved?” as an essay question at the least and maybe even unanswerable in a larger sense. Let me just say that it was a memorable moment when Professor Gaston introduced the idea of “covenant faithfulness” to me (there were other memorable moments, as well).

    Any worthwhile text intended for adult Bible study should, I believe, attempt to bridge the gap between the scholarly community and the far-larger faith community. Of course, the easy path is to “dumb down” the theology, making it simplistic and shallow. It’s tougher to attempt to make it simpler and more understandable, while remaining grounded in responsible, thoughtful scholarship. That’s not the same as taking a scholarly work and just rewriting it with shorter words and less complex sentences. To start with it requires adhering to one of the basic rules of writing I learned back in journalism school: Know your audience and write to and for them.

    As one example, if I had written What Was Paul Thinking? for scholars I most likely would have done exactly as Mark suggested and placed chapters one and two after chapters three and four. But I felt I needed to capture the attention of my intended general audience (I don’t care much for using either “nonscholars” or “laity” here) and introduce to them some basics of the New Perspective, because I suspect most of them have never heard of it before. Put another way: once they know where I’m going, I can fill in some details on how and why I got there.

    As I noted in the book’s introduction, I am deeply indebted to the incredible work of so many scholars and researchers. The Paul Page provides an invaluable service to them and all who come here. Nothing would please me more than for vast numbers of people of faith to discover the New Perspective and broaden the dialogue among all the children of Abraham. If nothing else, it’s a whole lot better than “accepting Jesus so he can make you wealthy beyond your imagination.”

  • I look forward to purchasing a copy of your book. I have always been fascinated by the work and worth of Paul. I am presently on Jamaica and have not yet come across the book. How readily available is it?

  • I have used your new book as adult class material in our church school and we have all enjoy the study and have learned a lot because your book was so understandable to our students. You did not try to talk above our heads and we were able to really discuss the material.

    Thanks you so much for writing it just as you did, Richard.

Written by Faithlife Staff