April 25, 2009

Eckhard Schnabel, Paul the Missionary

Schnabel, professor of New Testment at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, presents a distinctive and thorough treatment of the Apostle Paul by focusing on Paul as a missionary. There can be no doubt that keeping Paul's missionary motivations in mind helps illumine Paul's thinking and writing, and furthermore, that investigating the way Paul carried himself as a missionary has bearing on what it means to be a Christian and more specifically a missionary in our twenty-first-century context.

Relying heavily on what must be an even more exhaustive treatment in his two-volume Early Christian Mission, Schnabel first sets out to describe the mission Paul undertook (dividing Paul's "travels" into fifteen different "periods" of mission), the task he set for himself (or maybe better, the task he saw himself as being given), and the message he preached. He then synthesizes this material in two chapters that discuss Paul's strategies and his methods for carrying out that mission. In the final chapter, he brings the study to bear on questions of mission in the current context, both in understanding why and how a church should grow and in what way current missionary endeavors should be informed by Paul.

I found the descriptive portions of the book to be informative, and though keeping track of fifteen "periods" of mission over Paul's career is cumbersome, it also helpfully breaks up the more traditional missionary "journeys" in a way that better reflects the reality of Paul's undertaking. Easily lost in the old scheme are the significant periods spent in various locations in sustained ministry, whether the two years in Ephesus or the six months in Athens, the sorts of durations that are more obscured than illumined when talking about "travels" or "journeys."

Schnable focuses repeatedly in the book on a couple important themes. One is the primacy of God in Paul's mission. Paul saw himself as called and appointed by God, in his service, dependent upon him, and ultimately accountable to him. No other responsibility, no other obligation, and no other message could supplant this one in the apostle's thinking. A second emphasis is that it is the gospel itself that dictates Paul's strategies and methods, not a grand itinerary or a finely-honed rhetorical presentation. Paul understood the deep need of all humanity to come to faith in Jesus Christ, and he undertook whatever ministry was expedient to bring about that end. He may have developed some patterns of ministry (such as going first to the synagogue), but these were always subservient to the message he proclaimed.

Schnabel's final chapter is an application of the study to the modern situation in the church and in missions. Some of the critique, such as his discussion of the "homogeneous unit principle" or of church planting, proves quite insightful, as is his caution against the search for the right "method" for church growth or evangelism instead of focusing on the gospel message. But at other points, his critique seems quite disconnected from the five substantive chapters on Paul, such as his discussion of "seeker-driven" churches or "atonement," where very little discussion of Paul is actually brought to bear on the matter at hand. While I would agree with many of his comments regarding "mega-churches," his discussion is very heavily dependent on David Wells and Os Guiness, and I think unfairly equates mega- or seeker-sensative churches with a dearth of theology. Criticism aside, though, the final chapter ends with some very helpful discussion of how study of Paul can and should inform how we do "missions" in the twenty-first century, and much wisdom can be gleaned here by pastors and missionaries. In all, Schnabel has written a detailed study of Paul that focuses on his missionary context and undertakings and it is helpful both in illuminating Paul and his thought as well as in guiding our application of the gospel message in our own day.

A final, reluctant but necessary note is in order here. This book desperately needed a good proofread before going to press. I was distressed by how many errors remained in the printed edition, and though I was just annoyed by inconsistencies in the footnote style or confused punctuation, there were numerous instances were the sense of a sentence was indecipherable. While I'm usually annoyed when reviewers point out one or two typos in a book, in this case, it really did detract from this worthwhile book.

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