October 06, 2008

Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul

Pauline studies have been an interesting and contested field for the past thirty years or so. Even the most fundamental tenets of Paul's theology have been brought into question. Central to the debate has been the question of whether the "Lutheran" reading of Paul and his gospel, which has held sway in the West since the 16th century (or the 4th if you go back to Augustine), is faithful to the essence of Paul's preaching or whether it distorts Paul's intent.

Westerholm, in this spectacular book, provides a great entry point into the debates, careful analysis of the various positions, and a clear, mature assessment of Paul and the modern debates about him. I think this book provides an ideal starting point for people who want to get the lay of the land in current study about Paul, while also interacting (mostly in the notes) with these positions. He then, with surprising humor and wit, puts forth one of the clearest statements I've ever read concerning how Paul understood "law," "righteousness," and "justification by faith." Westerholm brings in the best of the "new perspective on Paul," taking into account a fuller understanding of the Jewish backdrop of Paul's writings and a fuller account of Paul's own thinking on these matters, while also showing that the essential core of the "Lutheran" Paul, especially when augmented and corrected at points, helps present a full and accurate view of Paul's thinking.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is very well written, surveys the most important historical figures in the debate, the most important current contributions, both for and against the "Lutheran" Paul (with frequent use of their own words, so that each author's own flavor and emphasis comes out), and then brings this all together with a great presentation of Paul's thought. His work on the role of the law, summed up in nine theses in chapter 19, is especially good. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did. It has given me a grasp of all of these issues and debates, and a grasp of Paul's own thinking, that seemed almost too elusive to grasp before.


Anonymous said...

hmmm... sounds very tempting. I still haven't finished Francis Watson's book, but perhaps when I've finished that...

James K. said...

It is a great book. Watson's book is also on my list, and I'd be interested to hear your thoughts about it. It sounds like he has an interesting thesis to present. I'll watch your blog for comments. There's just so much to read, especially in the world of Pauline studies and the New Perspective. But that's part of the reason I loved Westerholm's book so much. He interacts so well with so many people in a very clear manner. I feel like I not only understand Westerholm's views now, but also Wright's and Dunn's and Thielman's and so on. Admittedly, it's Westerholm's take on them, but he seems very sympathetic in his summaries and interactions. And he's witty, so it's great reading.