Book Review: Scot McKnight and B. J. Oropeza, eds. Perspectives on Paul: Five Views

McKnight, Scot and B. J. Oropeza, eds. Perspectives on Paul: Five Views. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2020. 285 pp. pb. $29.99.   Link to Baker Academic

Some might question whether there is a need for yet another “five views” on Paul. This book is similar to Four Views on Paul edited by Michael Bird, Zondervan 2012), which also included a Reformed (Thomas Schreiner), a Catholic Perspective (Luke Timothy Johnson) a Post-New Perspective (Douglas Campbell) and a “Paul within Judaism” chapter (Mark Nanos). Focusing just on justification, Beilby and Eddy edited a five views book featuring a Roman Catholic view (Collins and Rafferty), two reformed views (traditional by Michael Horton and progressive reformed by Michael Bird), a New Perspective view by James Dunn and a “deification view” from Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen (IVP Academic 2011). There are others, including the recent Voices and Views on Paul, edited by Ben Witherington III and Jason A. Myers (IVP Academic 2020).

Perspectives on PaulAs with most “five perspectives” books, Perspectives on Paul is set up like a conference seminar. Each essay is followed by a response from each of the other perspectives. In this book, the original presenter is given a few pages to reply to these responses. The book begins with an overview of the last forty years of Pauline scholarship. All recent books on Paul use E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism as a convenient watershed since it launched the New Perspective on Paul. For the last several decades, Pauline scholarship has been dominated by those who react against some theological implications or those who seek to push beyond Sanders’s view of Paul and his relationship with Second Temple Judaism.

The introduction to Perspectives on Paul therefore begins with an overview of Sanders’s main arguments followed by a summary of two major proponents of what has become known as the New Perspective on Paul, James Dunn and N. T. Wright. There are six benefits related to studying Paul through the lens of the New Perspective (11): First, the New Perspective provides a better understanding of Paul’s letters. Second, it avoids individualistic readings and western perceptions of Paul’s letters. Third, the New Perspective reduces anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism by studying the literature of Second Temple Judaism closely in order to avoid mischaracterizations of what Jews believed in the first century. Fourth, the New Perspective provides for more continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament than typical of older studies, which saw a decisive break between Paul and Judaism. Fifth, this continuity between the Testaments allows for more continuity between Jesus and Paul. Sixth, the New Perspective also opens up the possibility of continuity between Roman Catholics and Protestants over the doctrine of justification.

This last benefit is often perceived as the greatest flaw for the New Perspective by some Protestants. James Dunn and N. T. Wright are overthrowing the assured results of the Reformation. This perceived attack on the Reformation sometimes results in fiery rhetoric that lacks engagement with the Pauline letters. In November 2010, I attended the Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting, which focused on Wright’s view of justification. (Here are my comments on the three plenary addresses by Thomas Schreiner, Frank Theilman and N. T. Wright). One of the parallel sessions claimed to be an answer to the New Perspective, yet the paper did not engage with the New Perspective directly and concluded what was wrong with the New Perspective is it challenges Reformation theology. In fact, the paper concluded with a lengthy citation of the Westminster Confession (as a mic-drop).

The second part of the introduction therefore surveys the reactions both for and against the New Perspective. The editors provide copious footnotes to the avalanche of anti-New Perspective literature. Among the post-New Perspective studies briefly surveyed in this section is the Paul within Judaism” view represented by Magnus Zetterholm in chapter 4, Francis Watson’s Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles (Cambridge, 1986) and revised by adding the subtitle Beyond the New Perspective (Eerdmans 2011), Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God (Eerdmans 2009) as a representative of the apocalyptic view on Paul, and John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2017), also featured chapter five of this volume.

Brant Pitre outlines the Roman Catholic Perspective on Paul. Pitre shows that Sanders’s interpretation of Paul is very close to Catholic soteriology and Sander’s exegesis of Paul unintentionally arrived at the same conclusions as patristic, medieval Catholic interpreters and the Council of Trent (27). He therefore examined several issues in Sanders, in patristic writers, and Trent. In fact, he points out that the Council of Trent’s decree and justification “Paul over fifty times and the Bible over one hundred times. He does not therefore understand statements from N. T. Wright like “the Council of Trent responded by insisting on tradition” (54). Pitre does not see a contradiction between Paul’s doctrine of “initial justification by grace through faith and final justification according to works enough by faith alone” (52)  In Zetterholm’s response, he observes that it is “quite ironic; Paul, the great hero of Protestantism, turns out to have been the first real Catholic (68).

A. Andrew Das gives the Traditional Protestant Perspective on Paul, although Das prefers to call his view a “newer perspective” (85). Das recognizes agrees with Sanders that not all Second Temple Jews affirmed a legalistic approach to salvation. But unlike Sanders, he thinks some Jews were legalistic and Paul responds to that claim. He therefore spends much of this chapter examining Galatians 3 and Romans 4 in order to argue Abraham was a model of obedience for Second Temple period Judaism. Paul demands perfect obedience to the law, but this is “not necessarily a commentary on Second Temple Judaism, but a consequence of his Christological emphases” (94). For Das, following the law is a mere human endeavor which stands in contrast to the gift of justification.

James D. G. Dunn is the obvious choice to present the New Perspective on Paul. Many of Dunn’s ideas are so well known by this point he can summarize briefly his views on Galatians 2:16 and the Antioch Incident. However, he makes the bold suggestion that Luke complicated the history of early Christianity by qualifying Paul’s claim to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Luke shifts the initial preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles to Peter (Acts 10) and omits the details of the Antioch Incident. By glossing over the sharp conflict described in Galatians 2, “Luke the apologist has taken over from Luke the historian” (142). Paul’s gospel of salvation through faith alone “was lost to sight in Luke’s history and in subsequent history that he had in effect encouraged” (145). This view of whether Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone was lost is controversial. Pitre claims justification by faith is in the patristic writers (151). Das focuses a broad range of Jewish and Gentile interaction around meals, which “would be perceived by some Jews as a reeking of idolatry if not also law violations” (158). Barclay does not address Luke’s reception of Paul since it is not central to the New Perspective, suggesting that Dunn’s comments on Acts “reflect a strong, subterranean influence of F. C. Bauer” (164). Dunn confesses he has over-written in the topic and should have held the discussion of Luke’s reception of Paul for another time (168).

Magnus Zetterholm lays out the “Paul within Judaism Perspective.” For Zetterholm, the Pauline scholars must determine “what Paul is communicating in the socio-religious-political situation in which he lived, no matter the consequences for normative theology” (66, emphasis his). Torah observance was only a problem for Paul regarding Gentiles. Although he expects non-Jews in Christ to conform to certain moral standards (such as refraining from idolatry), he never expected the Gentiles to keep Torah. Jews who are in Christ should continue to keep the law. Zetterholm observes that Paul is called to be the apostle to the nations, The theological problem Paul faced was not related to how Israel is going to be saved. Of course, Paul touches on Israel’s salvation, but he has far more to say about how the pagans are going to be saved. For Paul, Israel’s salvation was never in doubt (189). Gentiles will be included in the final salvation without giving up their ethnic identity: they do not convert and “become Jews” (whatever that might mean in the context of Second Temple Judaism).   

The “Gift Perspective on Paul” appears in a book on Pauline viewpoints. John M. G. Barclay briefly summarizes his Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015) and explains how his view extends the insights of the New Perspective. Although it might seem strange to include a recent book on Paul as “perspective,” Brant Pitre suggests Barclay’s book will prove as consequential as Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism (237). As Barclay states, the “Gift Perspective on Paul” perspective is not as much a well-defined school of interpretation, but rather a loose constellation of viewpoints centering on the definition of grace as an incongruous gift illustrated by the wide diversity of use within second temple Judaism. Paul stands within the spectrum and applies the idea of grace to his Gentile mission. It is not whether there would be a mission to the Gentiles, but how the Gentiles would be included. Of importance is for Barclay is Romans 9–11, which “displays a complex dialectic between the Christ event and the scriptural story of Israel” (231).

Conclusion. To a certain extent, the title of this book is misleading. The five perspectives are all more or less in conversation with E. P. Sanders. As the editors make clear in the introduction, even the traditional view has taken new a new shape because of Sanders. Das says he is in “largely in agreement with Sanders” and Barclay’s recent nuanced view of grace (84) despite representing the Traditional Protestant view. Are there other more aggressively traditional Pauline scholars who might have provided more contrast with Sanders? Thomas Schreiner comes to mind, although he contributed to the Four Views on Paul (Zondervan 2012).

One important view missing in this book is the Apocalyptic Paul. Of course editorial choices must be made and keeping these multi-perspective books to four or five is likely the preference of the publishers. In my review of Voices and Views on Paul, I complained there was too much New Perspective and the Paul within Judaism view was missing. Perhaps this book could have been improved by expanding the introduction to include Dunn’s views, allowing for a chapter on Apocalyptic perspective. However, this would deprive the reader from enjoying one of the last essays Dunn wrote. In fact, the book is worth reading, if only for Dunn’s contributions.

Book Review: Brant Pitre, Michael Barber, and John Kincaid. Paul, A New Covenant Jew: Rethinking Pauline Theology

Pitre, Brant, Michael P. Barber, John A. Kincaid. Paul, a New Covenant Jew: Rethinking Pauline Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2019. 310 pp. Pb; $35.00.   Link to Eerdmans 

In the introduction to this volume on Pauline theology, the authors state their modest goal of contributing to a few of the major debates within scholarship, limiting themselves to recent exegesis of Paul’s undisputed letters (6). This requires unpacking Pauline theology in the light of the original context.

Pitre, New Covenant JewThe first two chapters of the book examine Paul’s relationship with Judaism. Would Paul have identified himself as a “former Jew?” For most twentieth century Pauline scholarship, the answer is “yes.” Paul was a former Jew in the sense that he underwent some sort of conversion experience and became, in the view of Rudolf Bultmann, a representative of “Torah Free Gentile Christianity.” Although the authors of this volume do not use the term, this view is the Old Perspective on Paul challenged by E. P Sanders.

Others consider Paul to represent an Eschatological Jew. This view would answer the question, “Would Paul have identified himself as a former Jew?” with a “sort of.” The authors follow Dunn in this section, although they do not refer to this as the “New Perspective on Paul.” Rather than focus on how Paul’s theology cuts across the grain of the Judaism of his day, this position would argue Paul in some ways stays within Judaism. James Dunn argued Paul experienced a conversion, but it was “a conversion to a better, a more correct understanding of [God’s] will and purpose for Israel” (23, citing Dunn’s Jesus Paul and the Gospels, 141). Three things stand out in this perspective. First, the “already” of the new creation began with Jesus. For Paul, becoming a Christian means becoming a new creation. Second, this new creation is to be “in Christ” rather than “under the Law.” This participation in Christ is central to Paul’s theology. Third, the “not yet” of new creation implies an end-time conversion of the remnant (Romans 11:26).

A third view is Paul as a Torah-observant Jew. This is often called the “Paul within Judaism” and is represented by the work of Mark Nanos, Paula Fredriksen, Magnus Zetterholm, and Pamela Eisenbaum This view of Paul would answer the question, “Would Paul have identified himself as a former Jew?” with a resounding “no.” Paul did not convert to Christianity and he never uses the term “Christian” to refer to himself or any other believer in Jesus. Paul continued to observe the Torah and would have told a Jewish convert to continue observing the law. Paul did not require Gentiles to keep the law on order to be right with God. Since the authentic letters of Paul were written exclusively to gentile audiences, modern scholars on;y hear Pau’s argument against Gentiles keeping the law. Regarding Romans 11:26, opponents of this view argue Paul does not say “all Israel will convert to Christianity” but “all Israel will confess Jesus as Messiah.”

On contrast to these three views, Pitre, Barber and Kincaid describe Paul as a “New Covenant Jew” because that is the terminology he uses to describe himself (39). They build on the work of Protestant scholars like Michael Gorman, Richard Hays, N. T. Wright, Michael Bird and Catholic scholars like Joseph Fitzmyer, Frank Matera and Scott Hahn. Since this description is “drawn from the Jewish scriptures (Jer 31:31-34), it has within itself the power to account for elements of both continuity (“covenant”) in discontinuity (“new”) with Judaism on Paul’s theology” (39). Paul understands himself as a minister of this new covenant and that there is always a balance of divine and human actions n Paul’s theology. To argue “the law is not sufficient to save is hardly anti-Jewish” (45). In fact, for Paul, “the new covenant involves emotive faithful obedience that transcends that which was possible under the Torah” (63).

Another aspect of the question “What kind of Jew was Paul?” is the recent trend in Pauline scholarship to describe his theology as apocalyptic. By apocalyptic, some scholars mean radical discontinuity between the ages is often described as a “eschatological invasion” (J. Louis Martyn, Douglas Campbell, for example). Other scholars use the term “apocalyptic” to emphasize continuity between Paul’s teaching and its early Jewish context (N. T. Wright, Michael Gorman, for example). The authors attempt a “both-and” approach which argues Paul’s theology is deeply rooted in early Jewish apocalypses (continuity), but he radically transformed that Jewish theology around the revelation of what God has done in Christ (discontinuity). Jewish eschatology can be described as “two worlds theology,” this age and the age to come. In Paul, these worlds overlap. This world is giving way to the world to come; the old creation is becoming a new creation. The overlap of the ages Paul describes as “in Christ” (73). This is clear in Paul’s contrast between a heavenly citizenship in an earthly citizenship. Yet for Paul, Christians two realms, they are still on earth, yet they are also in the heavens (88). Paul makes claims that are indeed radically discontinuous with the Judaism of his day. But he describes the revelation of Jesus Christ in this new age in ways that are consistent with the Second Temple Judaism.

The next three chapters apply this view of Paul as a New Covenant Jew to three theological issues: Christology, the Cross and the Atonement, and New Covenant justification through divine sonship.  In each Paul’s theology is in some ways consistent with Second Temple Judaism, yet in other important ways it breaks new ground. With respect to Christology, the authors observe that Paul is deeply rooted in first century Judaism. Yet at the same time he goes well beyond early Jewish sources in his messianic claims (96). There is no doubt that Paul understood Jesus as the Messiah. Yet he also clearly teaches that Jesus has equality with God Philippians 2. In 1 Corinthians 8:5-6, Paul inserts Jesus into the Shema, “there is one God and one Lord” (116). Paul describes “Christ’s relationship with believers in terms that Jewish readers would have associated exclusively with the one God of the Shema (Deut 6:4-6)” (123).  

Regarding the cross and the atonement, the both-and approach emphasizes Jesus’s death is a sacrifice of atonement or redemption (continuity), yet Paul insists salvation occurs through a divine gift of love (discontinuity, 130). Atonement, ransom, and redemption are the vocabulary of Second Temple Judaism, yet Jesus’s death is not only a sacrifice. Certainly, Paul presents Jesus’s death is a covenant sacrifice, but he emphasizes that Jesus gave himself for us he underscores the gracious nature of Christ’s work on the cross. This chapter is deeply influenced by John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015).

This discussion of the atonement leads naturally to Paul’s view of justification. Pitre, Barber and Kincaid observe much of the contemporary debate and Reformation theological disputes neglect the way justification terminology would have been understood in ancient Judaism. They therefore discuss whether Paul’s doctrine of justification brings about a “change in character” or a “change in legal status” (163). Once again, Barclay’s Paul and the Gift influences the discussion. The authors agree with him that “Paul avoids viewing the divine and human actors as somehow in competition with one another” (169). In the old covenant the problem was always the heart of God’s people. The people could not keep the Torah because the Torah could not change the people. The authors conclude “saving righteousness of God in justification is a singular righteousness that concerns both legal standing and the quality of the believer” (179).

Early in the book, the authors observe Paul’s new covenant ministry among the Corinthian’s involved the liturgical celebration of the new covenant in the Last Supper (47). This is developed in more detail in chapter 6, “The Lord’s Supper in the New Creation.” The authors continue to work their both-and method. The Lord’s Supper celebrates the sacrificial death of Christ. As such, there are numerous allusions to Jewish sacrificial tradition in the key passage in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, especially when read alongside Exodus 24:6-8. Since Paul connects Christ’s death as a covenant sacrifice to the Passover lamb, he emphasizes that Christ’s sacrifice would involve a cultic meal (239). This is the continuity with the old age; the discontinuity is Paul’s insistence that the bread in the cup or a foretaste of the new creation found in the life-giving Spirit (243). By participating in the Lord Supper, “the gathered community becomes what is consumed, the body of Christ” (250).  

Conclusion. Pitre, Barber and Kincaid suggest a slightly new way for reading Paul as a “New Covenant Jew” that take seriously recent studies in both the Apocalyptic Paul and the “Paul within Judaism” view. A “both-and method” stresses Paul’s continuity with his Jewish world, as well as his view of the radical changes to that world caused by the apocalyptic appearance of Jesus “between the ages.” As with most both-and positions, both Apocalyptic Paul scholars and Paul within Judaism” scholars will probably find the New Covenant Paul as familiar, yet not quite satisfying. Nevertheless, this is a stimulating account of Paul’s thought which gives voice to Paul’s roots in the Jewish world without ignoring the radical nature of his thought.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Titus 3:9-11 – Dealing with Those Who Disagree

Because of the descriptions of the false teachers in the background of 1 Timothy and Titus, scholars often suggest the letters were written well into the second century. There is some similarity between the description in Titus to the followers of Marcion (explaining why Marcion would not have accepted the books as authentically Pauline) or an early form of Montanism. Montanism was a charismatic revival of the middle/late second century and the Pastorals Epistles do not mention the ecstatic gifts of the Spirit.

Other scholars suggest the description of the false teachers is “generic.” There is no specific threat to the churches overseen by Timothy and Titus, but this is the sort of generic anti-heretic language which could be applied to any number of churches. This is similar to modern political rhetoric, Republicans always accuse Democrats as favoring “tax and spend” and Democrats always accuse Republicans of being in the pocket of the NRA. Whether those things are true or not about a given politician, the accusation will almost always be made. In Titus, Paul could be laying out a laundry list of the typical things his opponents have said and done, whether he has a specific false teacher in mind.

Could the be a an early form of Gnosticism or Montanism? This is always possible, depending on the definition of “proto.” The mixture of Greek philosophy and Jewish asceticism that becomes Gnosticism later in the second century may have its roots in the very churches planted by Paul. But the false teachings that the writer is dealing with is not at all close to the Gnostic teachings of the second century. To argue against “foolish myths and genealogies” as Paul does here is applicable in the first century as much as the second (or third or twenty-first!)

Regardless of the source of false teachers in Ephesus and Crete, Paul provides a three-step method for dealing with these troublemakers. The steps seem reasonably clear, but it is hard to know how to use them in a contemporary context. Paul is not describing a medieval excommunication or some sort of strange shunning-ritual. He wants his churches to be unified around a core yet also to preserve some diversity within the members of the church. How does this work?

The first step is to avoid teachings which create quarrels and dissensions. This cannot include the core elements of the Faith, the things Paul has already defined as “sound doctrine” in Titus 3. What things might be considered “divisive” our context? Paul is talking about drawing lines which include some and exclude others. to a large extent, the modern church has dealt with this by dividing up into a wide range of denominations. This would be intentionally divisive attitude designed to cause quarrels in the church. I have occasionally been asked to preach at conservative a church which used the King James Bible only; if I intentionally preached out of a NIV Bible, the congregation would be so angry they would never hear a single word I said. Imagine if I were asked to preach in a Christian Reformed church and did a classic dispenstionalist sermon on the Rapture!

Second, if there is a person who cannot set their divisiveness aside, then they are to be warned. The text says the false teacher “stirs up dissension,” indicating they are looking for an opportunity to argue over his special doctrine. This too becomes a difficult to apply in a modern context since people want to share their views in a welcoming and affirming environment. But the divisive person is not discussing an issue in order to gain a clearer understanding, they are pushing their agenda in order to make coverts to their fringe position. I understand what it is like to have a view out of step with the majority and I try not to be divisive on the issues I know will cause people to be upset.

Last, if the person continues to stir up dissension, then the church is to shun the person as a false teacher. This is very controversial since ostracizing someone from a group is a very “un-American.” Paul seems very prejudiced and arrogant to force someone who believes differently out of the church! “Shun the heretic” has a positively medieval sound to it which most modern people would like to avoid. We want to have open and honest discussions about our differences and come to a respectful understanding whether we agree or not. But for Paul, the presence of someone teaching unhealthy doctrine or advocating impure practices in the church can only damage the church.

Most likely these steps will look different in different cultures (African churches vs. American churches, for example). I have been a university professor for many years, and every once in a while I have a student who seems to want to argue about everything I say. It is not that they want to learn anything new, they just like to debate and argue (and probably waste class time so the test gets postponed). In a few cases the student was not interested in an open discussion of new ideas, they wanted to shut down anything they disagreed with and force their ideas on the group. I can think of examples from the most Fundamentalist students ever to the hyper-Calvinist (and one really odd Arminian). Although I have yet to shun a student, I have asked them to realize they are not in debate club and other students want to learn.

How do we use this material to preserve the unity and promote diversity within a local church?

The Pastoral Epistles – The Opponents in Ephesus

One of the problems for reading the Pastoral Epistles is the identity of the “opponents” in Paul’s churches. Paul seems to have a group of elders in mind who are in rebellion against his Gospel, What is more, the opponents in Ephesus are like the people predicted to come in the “later days.” Jesus also described false messiahs and prophets who would come claiming to be messengers from God. First and Second John both describe teachers with wrong views about Jesus as “antichrist.”

Wolf Stealing Sheep

The idea that the “last days” have arrived in common in the New Testament, the earliest church believed that Jesus could return at any moment. In this they were correct. In 2 Thess 2 Paul teaches that in the last days there will be an apostasy, a falling away from the truth. In the last days, this falling away will be so intense that people will choose to believe the Man of Lawlessness, the Anti-Christ, rather than the truth of the gospel.  Did Paul actually believe that he was living in the last days?  I think that he did, but every generation of the church have had at least some people who thought they were in the last days!

But this text cannot be directly applied to any particular modern false  teaching in order to declare that we are “in the end times.” Certainly Jesus can come back at any moment, and there are plenty of people teaching all sorts of things in the name of Jesus that are simply not in line with the truth. But that is the condition of all of church history!

Paul describes the opponents in Ephesus as sub-Christian. They have Christian like ideas, but when examined in the light of the truth they are in fact not Christian at all.  Paul is not dealing with a group of people who have a honest difference  of opinion on a theological issue.  His opponents in Ephesus have rejected key elements of the gospel which separate them from the truth.

  • They have abandoned their faith. The verb Paul uses here (ἀφίστημι) is the same as 2 Thess 2, but also Acts 5:37 to describe a messianic pretender who led crowds astray. In Deut 7:4 it is used for turning away from God to worship other gods. These opponents have rejected the core truth of the Gospel (1 Tim 3:16) and can no longer be described as within the faith.
  • They follow “deceitful spirits” and hold to the “teachings of demons.” This seems like a strong polemic, the sort of thing that we would not say about an opponent today. But there are a number of Pauline texts that describe real spiritual warfare. In 1 Tim 3:6-7, for example, Paul warns that a leader in the church ought not be a recent convert, since it is possible for him to become prideful and fall into the devil’s snare.
  • They are hypocritical liars. Combining hypocritical and liar indicates that their teaching appears to be well-intended, but it is in fact false. This indicates that the opponents are not simply fooled into teaching something that is false, they are choosing to maintain a lie for some reason (Towner, The Pastoral Epistles, 291).
  • Their conscience has been seared with a hot iron. There are two ways to read this line. First the phrase may refer to someone who has told a lie so many times that they believe it, that there conscience no longer functions as it ought. They are numb to the truth, etc. Second, it is possible that this refers to being branded. The verb (καυστηριάζω) can mean sear, but it can also refer to branding someone with a hot iron. “The imagery suggests crime published with a branding mark on the perpetrator” (BDAG). In either case, their conscience has been destroyed by the “doctrine of demons” that they no longer know if they are teaching the truth or not.

I am not sure it is possible to identify the opponents from these four items alone. What is certain is that there are people in Paul’s churches in Ephesus who have defected from the Gospel in such a way that the are not Christians at all. Timothy is warned about these people and told to appoint elders who cling tenaciously to the gospel and are truly godly.

What are the Pastoral Epistles?

First and Second Timothy and Titus are usually described as “pastoral epistles.” The standard view of these three letters is that Paul is writing to individuals who he has placed in a leadership position overseeing churches. Paul Anton first called these three books as pastoral epistles by in 1726. The description has become so common that nearly every commentator on the books has described the letters as “church manuals” or “advice to young pastors.” This assumption is rarely questioned.

In the traditional view of these letters, young Reverand LovejoyTimothy has taken on additional responsibilities as a superintendent over several churches planted by Paul. First Timothy is therefore letter is personal advice to Timothy on how to organize the church, as well as other ministry related issues.The second letter written to Timothy is to ask him to come to him in Rome, and to bring Mark with him, but the pastoral emphasis is still the main theme. In Titus, the content is very similar to First Timothy, elders are described, and various potential problems are addressed.

Gordon Fee, however, has called the description of these three letters as “Pastoral Epistles” into question. As Fee notes, if these are “church manuals” they are not particularly effective ones. We end up with far more questions about the church after reading them! It seems hard to believe that such a wide variety of church structures and styles would all call upon these letters to validate their own church practice, if in fact Paul intended them to be read as “manuals for doing church.” Furthermore, he states “It is a mistaken notion to view Timothy or Titus as model pastors for a local church. The letters simply have no such intent” (147)

The key, for Fee, is to read seriously what Paul about his reason for writing the letters in 1 Timothy 1:5 and 3:15. In the light of Paul’s speech to the elders from Ephesus in Acts 20:17-35, it would appear that the purpose of the letters might very well to be false teachers in the Ephesian community.

1 Timothy 1:3 As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer

1 Timothy 3:15 …if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.

Acts 20:30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.

These verses do not concern organizing the churches from scratch, as if Paul has done just a bit of church planting and Timothy is sent in to finish the job, like a modern evangelist with a followup team. There seems to be a serious false teaching that has caused the church at Ephesus serious problems. The problem is internal (Acts 20:30), people from the inside have begun to teach things opposed to Paul’s message. As Fee puts it, “What we learn about church order in 1 Timothy is not so much organizational as reformational” (146).

This observation may help with the most difficult problem of 1 Timothy. If Fee is correct and the problem is straying elders, does this effect the way we look at the list of qualifications for elders? What about the prohibition of woman teaching and exercising authority in 1 Timothy 2:11-12?

 

 

Bibliography: Gordon D. Fee, “Reflections On Church Order In The Pastoral Epistles, With Further Reflection On The Hermeneutics Of Ad Hoc Documents.” JETS 28 (1985): 141-151.