Book Notice: Jerry Sumney on Steward of God’s Mysteries

Book Notice: Jerry Sumney on Steward of God’s Mysteries May 19, 2018

Jerry L. Sumney
Steward of God’s Mysteries: Paul and Early Church Tradition
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017.
Available at Amazon.com

In this book, Jerry Sumney critiques those scholars who suggest that Paul was a second founder of Christianity or even a radical innovator in creating Christianity. Sumney particularly has in his sights Hyam Maccoby, Barrie Wilson, and James Tabor. Sumney’s approach is to set up some criteria for what counts as traditional material and then to look at Paul’s use of tradition material pertaining to Jesus’ death, the identity of Jesus, salvation, the Lord’s return, and Lord’s Supper.

Sumney concludes that Paul offers no evidence about branches of the church that did not give a central place to interpreting Jesus’ death, Paul witnesses to a complex and exalted christology among churches earlier than and independent of Pauline influence, churches outside of Paul’s influence regarded Jesus as a mediator of forgiveness, redemption, and justification, Paul largely inherited traditions about Jesus’ parousia and Jesus cast as the eschatological judge, and Paul was not the inventor of a cultic meal that memorialized Jesus.  Sumney concludes:

Paul is not, then, the author or originator of the early church’s theology. He seldom develops new assertions about Christ’s nature or work or other theological doctrines beyond what is found in the traditions he cites. He seems to have contributed little to the development of those doctrines. His influence and his genius are seen in the ways he is able to bring those beliefs into new environments. He is able to draw implications from those beliefs that further explicate a belief or show its relevance to an ethical issue. He is the person we see responding to new questions and problems that predominantly gentile churches raise. He takes what the church confesses about God, Christ, salvation, or some other topic and uses it to argue for how belie3vers in his churches should relate to the world around them, conduct their own assemblies, and understand their own fate. He is not the first to bring gentiles into the church without requiring the same kind of Torah observance that Jews keep, but he provides a theological foundation from the church’s already believed confessions and liturgies. He is not the first to assert that God had raised Jesus from the dead, but he draws out the implications of that belief for the eschatological hope of believers. Neither is he the first to claim that Christ had ascended to God’s right hand, but he does draw implications for how to live as the church from that response to God to Christ’s self-giving death. And while he is not the one who authored the liturgy for the Lord’s Supper, he uses it to correct unacceptable behaviour at the communal meal (pp. 173-74).

All in all, a very helpful book about Paul as a receptor and interpreter of traditions, rather than a radical innovator. If you like this book, I would also recommend Benjamin A. Edsall, Paul’s Witness to Formative Early Christian Instruction (WUNT 2.365; Tubingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2014).

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