by Jake Raabe
These are strange times for the apostle Paul. The contemporary resurgence of Calvinism and Reformed theology as promoted by writers like John Piper has prompted a renewed interest in the traditional Protestant interpretations of Paul. At the same time, a movement known as the “New Perspective on Paul,” launched by E.P. Sanders and popularized N.T. Wright, has questioned these traditional interpretations of Paul and has gained a significant following.
As these two schools of thought on Paul compete, a third, arguably more influential camp has arisen within Protestantism. Though it lacks a formal name, it is best characterized as either a partial or full rejection of Paul as an authoritative figure within Christian theology. In its least radical form, it juxtaposes Paul and Jesus with the assumption that they conflict. At its most radical, it rejects Paul as a corruptor of Jesus’ simple ethical message into a dry series of oppressive doctrines.
The rise of this third Paul-challenging group is the backdrop for Paul Behaving Badly. The book’s subtitle summarizes the charges the authors seek to address: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk? Authors E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien (cowriters of the excellent Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes) seek to defend Paul against various charges that have become commonplace in popular discussion. Each of the books nine chapters detail and answer a different accusation ranging from character issues (“Paul Was Kind of a Jerk;” “Paul Was a Hypocrite”) to social problems (“Paul Supported Slavery;” “Paul Was Homophobic”).
Richards and O’Brien do a fine job of stating the case for all of these charges before making their case and deal with each issue fairly. They take the claims of their opponents seriously and never shy away from addressing potential objections to their arguments.
Though each charge receives its own chapter, two claims form the basis of most of their responses. First, Paul should be read and judged according to his original cultural context, not ours. Second, they advocate for reading with a “trajectory hermeneutic,” which pays attention to both Paul’s position in relationship to the larger Roman culture and the “trajectory” which his claims set for discussion of the issue. On the issue of women, for example, Paul was more liberal than his culture; in issues relating to sexuality, he was more conservative. These two claims guide the authors throughout their defense of Paul and his theology.
For readers who believe that the words of Paul are in some sense inspired by God, Paul Behaving Badly is a well-written guide to dealing with culturally difficult passages. For readers who don’t hold this belief but are willing to hear a reasonable defense of Paul against more modern claims, few books are more readable and sympathetic to their concerns. Thus, Paul Behaving Badly is a fantastic resource for those in any camp.
What are your thoughts? I look forward to hearing from you!