Paul’s Spiritual Vision 1

I’m convinced Pauline scholars and theologians have made Paul uninteresting. Jesus scholars have taken Jesus studies to the top and have made Jesus totally accessible, invigorating, human and (excuse me) relevant. Far too many Pauline scholars have mined the depths of Paul, have examined the intricacies of atonement and justification and soteriology and history but have failed to make Paul accessible, invigorating, and relevant.

I’ve seen good church folks as well as students roll their eyes into the back collar listening to yet one more nuanced explanation of Paul’s theology, to yet one more debate about justification, or to yet one more discussion of how eschatology and ethics are tied together in Paul. These are all important issues for the church, but what we need are some books that make Paul sing and sting again.

What do you do with Paul? Is Paul a struggle for you? What role does Paul play in your theology? Is he a major player or a minor player? Why do you think many struggle to make Paul “relevant”?

These same scholars know Paul breathes and lives a theology that was and indeed should be fresh and accessible and invigorating. They know this and they feel this but they also know Paul is dying in too many churches today. Seminary and college professors love Paul; seminary students and some college students love Paul; but getting Paul into the pew has been a challenge. It’s time more concentrated on how Paul’s spiritual vision can reshape the church. It’s more than time.

Rodney Reeves‘ new book, Spirituality according to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ, begins his book with this: “So what?” and that’s the question he gets and feels when he talks about Paul. The question can also be put like this: What difference does Paul make? These are the questions Reeves seeks to answer in this textbookish, theological study of Paul’s vision of the Christian life. Reeves is one of the exceptions today, and he joins folks like Tom Wright, Tim Gombis and Michael Gorman.

And his vision is 100% gospel-shaped. (I don’t mean soterian gospel but the apostolic gospel.) The three parts of his book are: Crucified with Christ, Buried with Christ, and Raised with Christ. Most today want to frame a soteriology that creates ethics or a justification that leads to justice, but Reeves anchors things in the gospel events of Jesus’ life.

Chp 1 is called “Foolish Death: Suffering the loss of all things.” It’s an excellent chapter. What did “cross” mean to the 1st Century Roman empire? It means death, humiliation, shame, humiliation etc. Paul’s own “conversion” was a Christ- and cross-encounter, and the result was a loss of everything. Paul’s old world died; a new day had arrived. He lost it all: family, status, ethnic pride. He gained only that loss.

He didn’t lose in order to gain, he didn’t give up in order to gain; his loss was his gain.

Reeves explores these losses as integral to gospel death: bragging rights, identity (and here he pokes patriotism in the eye), reputation, and he gained a new perspective.

Here it is in a nutshell statement: The cross “marked the end of his life, which was death, and the beginning of his death, which was life” (33). He plumbs Philippians a bit to see that the pattern is humiliation leads to a different kind of exaltation.

He tells a bit of a story at the end: a young girl driving with her father by a church asks “Who lives there?” The father says, “Dead people.”

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  • RJS

    I’m glad you are posting on this book – I found it intriguing in the IVP catalog and have it on my wish list.

  • Susan N.

    From the perspective of a lay-person, the Apostle Paul came alive for me when I read the entire Book of Acts. I got a feel for who Paul was, his passion and gift for preaching, etc. Then I read the entire Book of Romans. My brain nearly had a meltdown. If you start with the Book of Romans, and then parse the text into systematic pieces, how can one feel the essence of the author? As frustrating as Romans was (and is) for me, I still have a fondness for Paul, because of his story in Acts 🙂

  • DRT

    To touch on a very small part of the post, I have been contemplating the role of the feeling of purity in people in general and in the Jesus story in particular. The dirtiness of death on the cross really never hit home before. The act of being crucified condemns the reputation. It was probably palpable. It is the ultimate in being shown as out of group, impure and lacking authority.

  • Interesting, because in my little neck of the woods, it seems like all that’s taught or preached is Paul, Paul and more Paul!

    Paul’s writing came alive for me when I read his letters in the Message bible. I couldn’t believe how passionate and lively his writings were. The Fruits of the Spirit and the Corinthians Love verses are simply beautiful. The Book of Romans is now meaningful to me in a heartfelt way (instead of a textbook/doctrinal way).

    Peace, Brian

  • John G

    Looking at 2 Peter 3:15-16, it seems Paul has been hard to understand almost right from the start. Books like this one by Reeves, which seems to be trying to understand Paul in his own context, are definitely welcome then.

  • T

    Thanks for this. I’m glad you mentioned Gorman as well. Even his tiny book, Reading Paul, was wonderful. I’m adding this one to my Christmas list.

    To T from T? 😀

  • Read “Pauline Mysticism” years ago, which unpacks his favorite phrase “in Christ”. Brought his heart alive to me.

  • Scot, I’m glad you posted this. This sounds not only interesting but potentially very helpful. I like the question “What difference does Paul make?”

    The book is in my Amazon cart.

  • phil_style

    ” Spirituality according to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ, ”

    Imitation you say… which leads me on to my favourite all-time biblical commentator, Rene Girard.
    “The Gospels and the New Testament…do not claim that humans must get rid of imitation; they recommend imitating the sole model who never runs the danger of being transformed into a fascinating rival.” – RG

  • JD

    having reeves as a professor (unfortunately, not for a pauline class) first introduced me to the bible and the gospel as story. its been 5 years since his classes, and reading “the king Jesus gospel” helped to revive many of those discussions we had in class. reeves is a powerful thinker and devoted disciple of Christ who isn’t afraid to dismantle our preconceived notions and build us up again in Jesus Christ.

  • rev.spike

    Keeping with his position as a “Biblicist” Reeves does not shy away from asking hard questions, even when this causes him to run aground with American Evangelicalism or his own denomination. On one hand, he resists the post-modern tendency to “let the reader decide”, anchoring his answers in the Gospel. On the other, he does not hesitate to fall back on the reality that much of the Gospel is a “mystery”.

    Reeves is fresh. While interacting with other scholars, he avoids being derivative. He is the sort of scholar that instead of bringing God down to earth, lifts you to the Heavens to behold what you can.

    Awhile back, Reeves also wrote a great little book on how discipleship functions in each of the Gospels called “A Genuine Faith”. It is totally worth a read.

  • DannyD

    I completely agree with you @Rev-spike. I had Dr. Reeves as a prof in college, and I don’t think anybody made as much of an impact on me as he did. His lectures were profound and life-giving. Truly, one of the most anointed and gifted Bible teachers I’ve ever heard. I too thought his discipleship book was remarkable.

    Thanks Scot for bringing some well-deserved attention to a most worthy book/author.

  • Chris Ryan

    Paul came alive when I was in Dr. Reeve’s classes on Paul’s writings. He remains alive and vibrant and real to me nearly four years after taking those courses. I’m not the biblicist that Dr. Reeves is, and so I’m willing to pick a fight with Paul and disagree with him in ways Reeves is not, but I cannot help myself but to hear Paul pleading passionately that those in his context hear what he is saying because it matters. What he is saying matters because the gospel matters, and Paul’s life and teachings are (as he sees it) the gospel that is necessary for that time and place. I learned that I had to hear Paul and wrestle with him and risk him critiquing me before I critiqued him.

    This book arrived in my mailbox a few weeks ago, and as soon as Seminary finals are over I intend to devour the work. Paul’s theme was “Imitate me,” and though Dr. Reeves would never dared have asked us to imitate him, we all learned that we could and would not be worse for it. That spirituality is what it takes for Paul to breathe into our context. I look forward to the challenge of hearing Paul once again, engaging in that wrestling match once more, as mediated through Dr. Reeves in this book.

  • Mark D. Roberts

    Scot: Glad you’re paying attention to this book. It’s excellent. And Rodney Reeves is an extraordinary servant of God: brilliant, biblical, humble, passionate. He’s one of the finest teachers we’ve had at Laity Lodge (rather like you).

  • Jordan

    Scot: I am glad you are reviewing this book. I was blessed to have Dr. Reeves in class and I am continually challenged by him. I have had the chance to read this book and it is wonderfully written and uniquely challenging. I look forward to your review.

  • Susan, I really think Romans should be the last Pauline epistle a person reads. It’s his most systematic work of theology, but it’s also less personal than many of his other letters. I think you should get to know Paul through his other writings before you tackle it.

  • Amanda B.

    I am wrapping up a study that has taken me through the Pauline epistles, and I like Paul so much right now. I think the biggest game-changer for me was looking for the big picture of Paul’s letters, rather than getting hung up on the minutia (which is my tendency with EVERYTHING).

    I was pleasantly surprised by how incredibly down-to-earth Paul is. Yes, he writes some deep and difficult things, but he never does it just for the sake of spouting random doctrine at people. There’s always a real-life reason that what Paul is saying matters. His letters practically ooze with his affections for the churches he’s writing to, whether that’s the joyful tenderness of Philippians or the fiery urgency of Galatians. When I read his epistles, I see a man who is sacrificially pouring out everything for the God He loves and for the people he sees himself as remaining on earth to serve.

    I <3 Paul, and I'm really intrigued at this book now. 🙂


  • Matt Kimbrough

    Thanks Scot for promoting Reeves’ book. It is on my shelf to be read as soon as I finish King Jesus Gospel. Reeves was my professor and influenced my life quite drastically. He is a brilliant scholar who wants to not only read Jesus (and Paul) but also live out their stories (the Gospel) through his own life.

    I would also suggest A Genuine Faith as a read/review-worthy book. Thanks!

  • This book is amazing. Accessible, yet scholarly. It’s well worthy your time.