The Living Paul. An Introduction to the Apostle’s Life and Thought.
William W. Klein's review of Anthony C. Thiselton's "The Living Paul. An Introduction to the Apostleâ€™s Life and Thought."
Anthony C. Thiselton. The Living Paul. An Introduction to the Apostle’s Life and Thought. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009. x + 190 pp. Paperback, $20.00. ISBN 978-0-8308-3881-3.
Professor Thiselton is known mostly for his several books on the topic of hermeneutics, including several technical and weighty (some might say opaque!) tomes, as well as a recent shorter introduction [Hermeneutics. An Introduction. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009)]. Following two commentaries on 1 Corinthians, this short volume on Paul presents readers with a very accessible introduction to the great Apostle’s central theological themes. For the record, Dr. Thiselton is currently professor of Christian theology at the University of Nottingham in England.
The genius of this volume stems from one of Thiselton’s demonstrated strengths–a comprehensive knowledge of significant and current thinking on the topic. He’s conversant with the best scholarship of the past generation–especially the entire twentieth century–as well as what’s going on in the most recent discussions of Pauline studies. If readers suspect the likes of Dunn’s The Theology of St. Paul the Apostle or Schreiner’s Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology to be too daunting, or professors wish to assign a shorter text for a course, The Living Paul will serve them well.
After dismantling several obstacles to a sympathetic study of Paul (e.g., that his teaching departs radically from the mission of the historical Jesus, or that Paul’s radical call and conversion set him apart from modern readers), Dr. Thiselton surveys Paul’s career in two succinct chapters, fitting in his epistle-writing career along the way. After that start, most of the remaining chapters consist of Thiselton’s program to illuminate Paul’s central themes and their practical implications for belief and ministry today. Not content only to explicate Paul, Thiselton raises important questions and interpretive problems all along the way. So, e.g., in his chapter on the Holy Spirit in Paul, he asks: What is prophecy? What is the gift of tongues? What is the nature of healing? Is the Holy Spirit a ‘person’? On another front, he cautions readers against assuming that Paul taught either infant baptism or the baptism of believers only (pages 123-24). But, could it be both? Or can we simply not know since in the history of interpretation both have defenders? This approach characterizes the entire book. He helps readers see not only the significance of Paul’s theology for first-century readers, but also how readers today might understand that teaching.
Hermeneutical buff that he is, Thiselton is ever-conscious of the philosophical strata of both Paul’s day and ours. Regularly he sets Paul’s thinking in the context of our postmodern world–even to the point of distinguishing in places the uniquely American brand of this thinking (though he is very British himself). Thus we learn, “… humankind, apart from Christ, stands in solidarity with Adam …; on the other hand the new humanity ‘in Christ’ provides new creation and a new corporate solidarity. … Postmodern thought understands this well in contrast to the individualism of modernity from Descartes and the secular Enlightenment onwards” (page 79). This construct of corporate solidarity is only one example of how Thiselton sets Paul’s thinking apart from many modern interpreters who approach his thought via modernity’s individualistic categories. The book’s final chapter is entitled, “Paul and postmodernity,” in which he seeks to answer the question, “Is postmodernism confined to our era?” Thinking of postmodernism as a mood more than an era that follows modernism, Thiselton considers and compares recent writers with Paul’s relevant themes–a section that may lose many unsophisticated readers. Fortunately, it’s the final chapter of the book and may safely be ignored without detracting from the book’s overwhelming value.
As one would hope, Thiselton is thoroughly conversant with the so-called “new perspective on Paul” (and its various ancillary concerns), particularly when he discusses Paul and the law. Illuminating word studies punctuate the book. Judicious reflections abound, though, of course, readers will always find positions with which they disagree. If there’s any weakness in the book, it probably owes to its brevity. In a number of places, readers could wish more nuanced conclusions, defenses for deductions too hastily drawn, or solutions to issues left unresolved. But if the main sections of the book comprise only 147 pages, we can’t realistically expect more elaborations. For a succinct take on Paul that will steer readers in the right directions, I recommend following Thiselton’s lead.
William W. Klein, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament