Reading, Re-reading and Reinventing Paul

I have something of an obsession with the idea of reading more deeply in a subject and thus coming away with a deeper knowledge of one specific topic, idea or area of thought.  Please note that I said “the idea of” as I have pursued this idea in theory a great deal more than I have actually practiced anything like it.

This is why I have a rather large collection of books on conservatism for example.  Or the entire American Presidents Series.  Why I purchased a number of books that act as primary documents of sorts for Black History Month.  Oh, and shelves of books on myths, legends and fairy tales.  I often act as if collecting books on a subject will force me to read more deeply in a topic and thus gain knowledge (see yesterday’s post).

Alas, I rarely get beyond a book or two and soon the collection stares at me from the shelf mocking me… (I never got to the primary source books for Black History Month).
a stack of books on Paul
But I am here not to castigate myself, but to report on my current assignment which I am actually managing to stick with so far: reading books on Paul (another of my mini-obsessions).

Read so far:

Currently (re)reading:

Planning to read:

Stretch Goals:

What about you?  Any themes to your reading this summer? Any obsessions in your book collecting?

The Lost Message of Paul by Steve Chalke

Probably only the closest of readers of this blog would be aware of my theological leanings which are unique; some might even say heretical. Influenced by N.T. Wright, intrigued by Rob Bell, eventually finding Andrew Perriman I have come to adopt a narrative-historical hermeneutic rather than the dominant historical-grammatical approach of modern evangelicalism.

So when offered a chance to review The Lost Message of Paul I was excited.

We have misunderstood Paul, badly.

We have read his words through our own set of assumptions. We need to begin with Paul’s world view, to see things the way he saw them.

· What if ‘original sin’ was never part of Paul’s thinking?
· What if the idea that we are saved by faith in Christ, as Luther argued, was based on a mistranslation of Paul’s words and a misunderstanding of Paul’s thinking?

‘Over the centuries,’ writes Steve Chalke, ‘the Church has repeatedly failed to communicate, or even understand, the core of Paul’s message. Although Paul has often been presented as the champion of exclusion, he was the very opposite. He was the great includer.’

Given my theological journey, if anyone is open to a book about the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Paul, I am.

But this book was a disappointment. Perhaps it was because at first I was only able to read it in fits and starts, but it struck me as just not well organized or written. Despite my avid interest in the subject, it did not grab or hold my attention. I almost had to force myself to read it.

It is an attempt to popularize certain academic understandings or scholarly debates, particularly what is known as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), but does so at a superficial level and in one sided fashion. The style is discursive and meandering jumping between theology and devotional and social issues seemingly at random. It just didn’t flow for me.

There really isn’t anything particularly new here for anyone who has been following this debate. Which brings two challenges: 1) I have a hard time recommending such a meandering and hard to follow book to someone who wants to learn about this approach as there are much better books out there for those who want to understand the debate surrounding Paul and 2) if you are already familiar with the debates I am not sure what this adds.

Those who want to use NPP to reject evangelicalism and who embrace a progressive, for lack of a better term, approach this book will be embraced. And for those who reject either NPP, progressive theology, or both this book won’t change anyone’s mind. And as a few of the critical reviews note, Chalke writes as if his approach is obvious and a given rather than a highly controversial one.

I agree with Chalke on NPP and I agree that many in the church have flattened the story of the Bible into over-simplified theology (accept Jesus or go to eternal torment in Hell). He highlights the importance of Second Temple Judaism and the problematic nature of Luther’s approach. But again, he then assumes that the only logical end result is progressive Christianity stripped off almost all its credal beliefs. It is not a humble wrestling with the challenging issues of faith today but a rather arrogant proclamation that Chalke has it all figured out and has discovered true Christianity.

When I went to look at other reactions to compare to my own, I found mostly negative reviews. Here is a sampling:

There are useful things in this book about reflecting on Paul’s context, central purpose and primary target audience – but Chalke’s actual reading of Paul is highly selective and leads not to clear understanding but further lack of clarity.

The rest of the book is mainly taken up with an attempt to rewrite the theology of heaven and hell; including a lengthy excursion into Dante’s architecture of the afterlife.

I found the arguments more emotive than compelling. They are based on a selective use of Paul, a long line of straw men and a failure to interact with a wide range of evangelical scholars who have written on the subject.

I cannot recommend this book; there are better popular treatments of Paul’s thinking. Try Tom Wright’s Paul: A Biography.

Inspire Magazine review

David Robertson’s initial reaction was pretty harsh (see below) but he offered a more tempered but still critical review in Christianity Today.

This is an easy to read, and well-written book – much better stylistically than the earlier work. As always with Chalke the book will be described as ‘controversial’ and will delight some (like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren) and appall others. From a personal perspective I found that The Lost Message of Paul contained some interesting information, provocative arguments, challenging questions and old heresies.

Steve argues that ‘all the old narratives are dead’ and that we need a ‘new story’. He blames Augustine, Luther and Calvin for getting Paul’s message wrong. But his new story suffers from some major defects.

David Robertson in Christianity Today

He appreciated the writing more than I did but I did not read his previous book so have nothing to compare it to.

This is a better-written work than his previous…but after a slightly promising start, it quickly went downhill.  You will discover very little about the Apostle Paul here – and his lost message.  But you will learn a lot about what Steve Chalke thinks – and lo and behold, it appears that all along Paul and Jesus were really 19th Century Protestant liberals, who spoke in an evangelical code – which remained hidden – until Steve came to reveal ‘the lost message of Paul’.   Overall, whilst there are some insights, this is a shockingly bad book.  Chalke speaks as though he is an expert in Greek, Hebrew, History, Theology, Psychology, Science – whereas in reality he just cherry picks and quote mines sources which support his pre-determined destination – and amazingly he arrives there.   A Bible that is not the word of God, a Jesus who didn’t exist, a heaven and hell that are only on earth….a cross that did not atone and a God who fails….This is about as far as it is possible to get from Christianity whilst still claiming to be a Christian. 

David Robertson at The Wee Flea

Tom Creedy offers a very thorough and critical review and helpfully offers other, and better, sources for those who want to learn more.

As you can probably tell, I can’t recommend this book. Steve seems to be surprisingly unaware of a number of books and positions on Paul, as well as unwilling to take his own advice in reading and interpreting Paul. Of this almost 300 page book, some of it is helpful (some reminders on hermeneutics, and an acknowledgement that Paul and Scripture have been abused in the past and present), but it is like trying to pick only Minstrels out of a pack of Revels (an english chocolate that is, quite literally, a mixed bag). In fact, I’d go further: I think Steve should ask SPCK, his current publisher, for the rest of Tom Wright’s back catalogue, as well as dig into Paula Gooder, John Barclay, etc. It should be revealing that for a book purporting to open up a conversation about Paul, it simultaneously isn’t endorsed by any Pauline/New Testament scholars, and in my limited knowledge doesn’t engage with some of the key voices in the relevant discussion. For interested readers, New Testament scholar Michael Bird has a really helpful list of some of the best recent books on Paul

Thomas Creedy review

Chris Goswami at 7minutes has a much more positive view and gets at the challenge of the book. It has some valid points but always pushes the arguments to the limits and beyond and thus undercuts its ability to persuade.

 “We all know the stories of the pain caused by the misreading of Paul through the centuries … to justify some of the most brutal and repressive episodes in human history  … including apartheid, subservience of women, abuse of the environment and oppression of gay people”.

Steve Chalke is right about that and at the very least this book might soften some of the hard edges of the church. And he is right about the church at times being preoccupied with personal salvation: “go to church and get into heaven” is a cheap gospel as he makes clear.

On the other hand, Chalke’s “everything you know about Paul is wrong” proposal is built on selected scriptures and will be upsetting to ordinary church-goers. So, to conclude, this book is a helpful contribution, it takes some of the recent technical discussions on Paul (including NPP) and makes them more understandable to the ordinary church-goer, but I would not recommend it widely.

7minutes review

I didn’t dig into progressive reviews but clearly those who side with Chalke embraced this book.

THIS is a book that every preacher should read. Why? Once you have had an opportunity to engage with St Paul’s message as articulated here, it is “literally world-changing”. As its author confesses at the outset, the ideas presented are not his own: they represent a huge body of thought relating to Paul which has emerged since the1960s. The ideas are, though, brilliantly and very accessibly presented in this book.

[…]

This book could be seen as an extended meditation on the sentence “God is love”: “Once you understand that, everything else cascades from it. Every other category or concept in Paul’s thinking — the righteousness of God, the cross, the judgement seat of Christ, justification, anger.” Chalke quotes Barth: “If God exhibits characteristics of anger, judgement and the like they are never more than ‘repetitions and amplifications of the one statement that God loves’.”

“Love never fails,” Paul writes. Chalke speaks with the authority of someone who has dedicated decades, through the Oasis Trust, to attending to those who have been written off by society, seeking not to fail them. He argues that God in Christ does the same eternally, and Chalke quotes Barth again: “I don’t believe in universalism, but I do believe in Jesus Christ, the reconciler of all.” Chalke explains what this means to him in helpful detail.

Church Times review

Whew, that is a lot to digest! I hope I have given enough information for readers to get a sense of book, its approach and the pros and cons. For whatever reason, I did not enjoy it despite agreeing with much of the underlying issues Chalke is trying to highlight. In the end, I think there are better books out there to tackle this important subject.

Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective by Andrew Perriman

I will confess that the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s Love Wins has caused me to reconsider a number of my theological assumptions.  This reflection and development, however, is not tied just to Bell.  I had already begun to explore NT Wright and the New Perspective on Paul for example, but it certainly sparked a more focused meditation and thought process as I sought to make explicit what had been a vague collection of thoughts and instincts. (This will only reinforce for some that Bell is a false teacher leading people on the path to perdition, etc.)

Andrew Perriman 1
Andrew Perriman 2011 (via Flicker)

Somewhere along the line I discovered the work of Andrew Perriman and his narrative-historical approach to biblical study and a post-Christendom path for the People of God.  I find his work and approach fascinating, challenging and often quite convincing.  I have spent hours reading his blog; deep diving into scripture, eschatology and theology.  As I said, fascinating and challenging.

This in turn led me to Perriman’s books. And I started with his e-book Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective.  As I noted at Goodreads, it is hard to review this book as it is really a collection of blog posts. If you are interested in the subject and have some solid background in the issues involved you will probably find it fascinating (or perhaps infuriating if you don’t share the author’s perspective). I enjoyed immersing myself in Perriman’s thoughts on heaven and hell but did sometimes wish he offered more of a primer on the issues or had time to slow down and unpack some of the details, etc.

Spoiler alert! Perriman believes common conceptions of both heaven and hell are not biblical, and are products not of scripture, but rather are cultural and institutional developments (and products of a theology which has locked in systematic doctrine at the expense of an accurate and historical reading of scripture).

Perriman has a unique take on eschatology (a version of preterism, with narrative theology and new perspective aspects, I believe – although he would probably reject that description) which I find compelling in many ways but which is certainly not straightforwardly orthodox or traditional.  Traditionally eschatology would mean the study of end times or last things. Andrew’s perspective, however, envisions it as “decisive, theologically significant historical events in a foreseeable future.” So the New Testament is not focused on the “end of the world” per se but on the Jewish war with Rome and the fall of the pagan world and the triumph of the martyr church.

With this in mind, from his perspective scripture is primarily to be understood as historical and narrative rather than theological and metaphysical. He also stresses a community rather than an individual focus. As such he rejects traditional conceptions of hell (a literal place of eternal fire and torment, etc.) and heaven (a physical place believers go immediately after death to be with God and await the second coming) as cultural artifacts not scriptural formations.

Whether you agree with all of his conclusions, or all of his exegesis, I find his approach refreshing and useful for getting beyond stale and route arguments.  I like this quote in particular:

Theology should not flatten scripture into dogmatic abstractions and generalities. Theology should seek to follow, and sympathetically narrate, the tortuous journey of faithfulness as it picks its way across the complex, broken, mountainous landscape of history.

It is also worth pointing out that his theology and eschatology are based on a close reading and understanding of the biblical texts not on a desire to remove difficult or hard doctrines. It is post-modern in a sense (or perhaps post-Christendom) but not with the connotation of removing or denying truth, etc.  As I said, fascinating to me but not for everyone. And of course, if you wanted to you could read all of this on his blog.

So on to the book.  Keep in mind also that I read this book almost a year ago but have never quite got around to publishing this review until now (I have been fiddling around with it off and on). So some of this might be a little fuzzy.  I have, however, continued to read Perriman’s blog, and his other books, so perhaps have a better understanding of his overall perspective. Much of the argument is complex and detailed but allow me to outline the basics (most of which are noted here).

Judgement in scripture comes in the form of destruction; both of nations and people.  “The wages of sin is death” is the formula here.  God judges nations and people and they are destroyed. From the flood to the destruction of the temple to exile this is the pattern in the Old Testament.  There is not a universalized, metaphysical/spiritual conception of post-mortem judgement.

In the New Testament the perspective is the same but the focus looks forward to the coming judgement on Israel and the Jewish War with Rome.  And it is through this lens that passages about judgement should be viewed.  Perriman understands the images used in the NT to be motifs from the OT intended to prophetically warn Israel about their impending judgement at the hand of pagan Rome.  These images are about historical judgement and events not universal judgement for every individual.

The next horizon in the narrative is the judgement on Rome and the pagan world. God has judged his own people and then will judge their persecutors the idolatrous pagan nations.  After His resurrection Jesus is elevated to the right hand of God, and made ruler of the nations, and he will come to judge and to destroy.  The church must mirror Christ’s faithfulness to survive this time of judgement and enter the age to come. Christ will be shown to be victorious and those who remained faithful will be vindicated.

The third and final horizon is the culmination of this victory when death itself is destroyed and we see a new heaven and a new earth.  Again, in Perriman’s view, the passages in Revelation are not about personal torment but about the destruction of all that is contrary to God’s good creation.  The second death is just that, the destruction of all even death itself.

Perriman uses this focus or frame to analyze and discuss the relevant passages in scripture pertaining to hell, judgement, life after death, etc.  Some of this is in the specific context of the debate over Bell’s book and some of it is more general.  But Perriman effectively uses the debate to explore the issues. He moves from his general perspective, to the Bell debate, to addressing specific passages.  He agrees with Bell on some issues/approaches but brings a much more tightly argued and focused perspective.

But like Bell he is attempting to help Christians put aside their cultural and doctrinal assumptions and approach scripture with fresh eyes; letting scripture guide us rather than guiding scripture towards conclusions we want to draw.

Perriman than turns his eye toward heaven and deconstructs our conceptions of this term in much the same way:

By comparison with “hell”, which in its traditional sense is not a biblical idea, “heaven” ought to be a fairly straightforward theological concept to explain. Surely heaven is simply what belief in Jesus is ultimately all about? It’s where we go when we die.

[…]

Unfortunately, our popular beliefs about heaven are almost as misconceived as the belief that there is a place called “hell”, deep in the bowels of the cosmos, where the wicked – by “wicked” is often meant “those not chosen” – will be tormented for eternity. Heaven certainly exists, but it is opposed in scripture not to a metaphysical hell (as alternative final destinies), but to earth, in recognition of the fractured structure of creation. The fundamental problem addressed all the way through the biblical metanarrative is not: How are people to get to heaven? but: How is God to live in the midst of his creation?

In Perriman’s eyes the focus is not, with some limited exceptions, about going up to heaven but about heaven coming down to earth. It is about new creation; a people set apart to reflect the reality of the one true God, maker of heaven and earth, into the world.

Perriman than wraps everything up with another unorthodox proposal. He believes that scripture teaches a limited historical resurrection for the martyr church who will then reign with Christ throughout time until the new heaven and new earth.

This would mean that all except Jesus and the martyrs will be raised after the earth and sky have fled away. Including believers. We die. We are dead. We are raised at a final judgment. And if our names are not written in the Book of Life, we are thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death, a second destruction (Rev. 20:11-15). The end.

As I noted at the start, this is not an easy book to review or summarize. It is largely a collection of blog posts but posts that include detailed exegesis and commentary.  Perriman’s perspective may be unorthodox but it is throughly grounded in scripture and based on a great deal of thought and study.  You may not agree with his conclusions but if you have an open mind and a generous spirit you will be challenged and given food for thought in your approach to the bible.

November is theology month at Collected Miscellany

I hereby declare the month of November as Theology Month here at CM.  (Yes, yes, I realize I have not had exactly stellar success with these sorts of campaigns previously but it is my blog and I can do what I want to.)

I have been reading a decent amount of theological or spiritual books lately and have been procrastinating writing the reviews.  So this will give me a chance to put the spotlight on those books and post reviews.

So stay tuned for some reviews focused on the New Perspective on Paul, Heaven and Hell, and the Book of Psalms, and more.  We will be looking at books by NT Wright, Andrew Perriman, and Alister McGrath, just to name a few.

UPDATE: Here are the books we have covered so far. I will attempt to update this list throughout the month.

All the Saints by NT Wright

A Long Faithfulness by Scot McKnight

 

November is theology month at Collected Miscellany

I hereby declare the month of November as Theology Month here at CM.  (Yes, yes, I realize I have not had exactly stellar success with these sorts of campaigns previously but it is my blog and I can do what I want to.)

I have been reading a decent amount of theological or spiritual books lately and have been procrastinating writing the reviews.  So this will give me a chance to put the spotlight on those books and post reviews.

So stay tuned for some reviews focused on the New Perspective on Paul, Heaven and Hell, and the Book of Psalms, and more.  We will be looking at books by NT Wright, Andrew Perriman, and Alister McGrath, just to name a few.

UPDATE: Here are the books we have covered so far. I will attempt to update this list throughout the month.

All the Saints by NT Wright

A Long Faithfulness by Scot McKnight