August 5, 2008

Paul: Apostle of God's Glory in Christ by Thomas R. Schreiner

I've just finished reading Tom Schreiner's Pauline theology, Paul: Apostle of God's Glory in Christ (IVP, 2001), and I must say that I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Schreiner's style is engaging; his scholarship, impressive; his evangelical passion, refreshing. The book is not without shortcomings, but, all in all, I found it to be both an informative and pleasurable read.

Schreiner's central claim is that the foundation of Paul's theology is the "centrality of God in Christ" (18). The conversation in which this volume takes part has heard a range of voices arguing that the center of Paul's theology is anything from justification to reconciliation, apocalyptic, salvation history, or the fulfillment of God's promises. Schreiner argues that to emphasize any of these important Pauline themes to the neglect others is to do injustice to Paul's theology and to the God whom Paul preached revealed in Christ who is himself the justifier, reconciler, revealer, savior, and promise giver. I think Schreiner is essentially right in his thesis, and his work in this book demonstrates the cogency of his claim.

The book champions a number of strengths. First, unlike many Pauline theologies, Schreiner uses all thirteen of the letters attributed to Paul to conduct his inductive study of Paul's theology. Authentic Pauline authorship of six letters claiming to be from Paul has been widely disputed by a significant number of scholars. Many of these arguments suggest that the disputed letters are theologically inconsistent with the so-called authentic Paulines. One of the major contributions of this volume is the demonstration of broad theological consistency across all thirteen of the Pauline epistles. It is easy to see how scholars who emphasize a particular theme (e.g., justification) as the center of Paul's theology might conclude that the letters which do not emphasize that them are not authentically Pauline. Schreiner shows, though, that if the foundation of Paul's thought is the glory of God in Christ, then all thirteen letters are easily seen as flowing from the same pen.

Another important contribution is Schreiner's claim that Paul's missionary vocation was formative for his theology. Paul's missionary vocation has been regularly neglected in studies of his theology. Schreiner emphasizes the fact that it was Paul's God given vocation to preach the gospel of Christ that energized his mission and helped shape his theology. Understanding Paul as a missionary helps the reader to understand his letters as pastoral wisdom given to particular churches to ensure their faithfulness to Christ.

Unfortunately, Schreiner reads Paul through Calvinistic lenses which leads him into several misreadings of important themes in Paul's letters. One of these misreadings has to do with Paul's theology of election. Schreiner rightly points out that Paul's theology of election must be understood in light of the Old Testament scriptures (237), and he rightly notes that "Israel was God's elect people on whom God placed his favor and love" (237-238). However, Schreiner forsakes the corporate categories of election of the Old Testament scriptures for unconditional individual election. He supports this argument by appealing to various texts, not least of all Romans 9:10-13 where God chooses Jacob and not Esau. The following objection may be made to reading this text as individual election to salvation. Paul is quoting Gen. 25 and Mal. 1. Both of these texts clearly have a corporate or national entity in view. God says to Rebekah, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other and the elder shall serve the younger " (Gen. 25:23). And in Mal. 1:2-3 The prophetic word, "I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau," is directed to the people of Israel. Categories in the Old Testament texts from which Paul quotes use corporate categories. Schreiner argues against corporate categories on the grounds that, "the attempt to divide groups and individuals is logically flawed. Groups are made up of individuals" (245). While groups and individuals cannot be entirely separated, there is a distinction between the two. In the Old Testament, proselytes who were formerly outside the elect community could enter into it while original members of the covenant could commit apostasy and suffer the curses of the covenant being cut off from their people. We see that the elect community could remain while the individuals within the community could change. As a unit, Romans 9-11 contains the most quotes from the Old Testament in any Pauline passage. The Old Testament understanding of election cannot be discarded when interpreting this text.

Schreiner's understanding of election is logically related to other misreadings of Paul's letters. For example, he also affirms that "Genuine faith is always persevering faith," (272) against the idea that true believers can commit actual apostasy (cf. 277). I do not have time to interact with this claim in detail, but I will note that Paul regularly warns the faithful about the possibility of judgment for faithlessness (Rom. 11:17-23; 1 Cor. 10:1-14). He even appears to note the possibility of his own apostasy (1 Cor. 9:26-27). Schreiner takes these warnings as a means of God's effectual grace to give true believers the gift of perseverance (287-288). In my view, this seems to undermine the reality of the warning.

Again, I must say that I enjoyed this book immensely. I find Schreiner to be a joy to read even when I disagree with him. This book is a good introduction to Pauline theology from the Calvinistic tradition within Protestantism. However, it should not be read as representative of, or even consistent with, the majority of the history of Christian thought. Many biblically minded and Christ exalting believers have read the scriptures quite differently. For this reason, Schreiner's work must be read critically. The book has a great deal to offer, but the reader should be aware of its significant shortcomings.

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