June 26, 2009

Mark Reasoner, Romans in Full Circle

Mark Reasoner's Romans in Full Circle (Westminster John Knox, 2005) is a brief but very helpful survey of historical approaches to Paul's most theological letter. He chooses twelve loci from the letter (heavily weighted to the first eleven chapters, since that is where most of the attention has historically been paid). For each locus, he sets up briefly the issues at hand, and then proceeds to lay out a selective but informative history of interpretation focusing on some of the major interpreters throughout history. He always starts with Origen, and then proceeds through major developments, usually hitting on Augustine, Abelard, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth, and Post-Barthian and Narrative approaches (and occasionally mentioning Pelagius and Erasmus, among others, as they are pertinent). This survey usually shows how major interpretations developed, where they changed, and what bearing they have on other loci.

Reasoner's premise is that Romans interpretation is moving in a "full circle" from Origen, who focused especially on the relation of Jew and Gentile in the letter, through Augustine and the focus on the individual, through Luther and a focus on Justification, through Barth and a focus on God and his righteousness, and back through the new perspective and narrative approaches to the relation of Romans to Israel's story and the role that the relation of Jew and Gentile plays in the structure of Paul's argument.

This attention to the original setting, he asserts, is leading readers back toward Origen. He concludes, "These approaches include reading both Christ's faithfulness and faithfulness in Christ as in view in Romans 3, a willingness to discus the universal scope of Christ's obedience at the end of Romans 5, reading the ego of Romans 7 as someone who is not fully in Christ, insisting on a human will whose free choices have real consequences in the order of salvation . . ., viewing ethnic Israel as God's chosen people (Romans 9-11), and reading 13:1-7 with deconstructive strategies that emphasize how believers must not always be subject to the government" (145).

Though he doesn't explicitly set out to evaluate or contextualize the "new perspective," I think Reasoner's survey shows how many parts of the "new" perspective are in fact quite old, giving pause to the oft-leveled criticism that the new perspective is taken with "novelty." Like I mentioned, this book doesn't set out to advocate or criticize the new perspective, but it does provide some important material for the debate.

Michael Bird, Introducing Paul

Michael Bird's Introducing Paul (IVP in England used the whimsical title A Bird's Eye View of Paul for this same volume there) is a great little introduction to Paul's life and thought. In this short book, obviously intended as a college or seminary text, Bird cover's the necessary ground for an intro, dealing with matters of upbringing and training, Paul's conversion, his literary legacy, the important components of his thought, and his ethics and spirituality. Bird's coverage of these areas is uniformly well written and up to date, reflecting the latest issues and advances in scholarship without giving over to a faddish interpretation of the apostle. One leaves the pages understanding the contested ground but at the same time having a well-grounded understanding of Paul's theology that reflects both the best of the historic interpretations of Paul and some important modifications and improvements from the "new perspective."

Bird does a great job of situating Paul in his second-temple Jewish contect, and notes how the Old Testament and Judaism provide the important seedbed and framework for his thought, while also noting the role of Rome in his thinking.

Bird's book is my favorite introduction to Paul that I have so far encountered. He straightforwardly deals with the important issues, he gives solid background and well-reasoned and balanced conclusions, all the while inviting the reader into Paul's rich and gospel-focused world. An extremely good book; thanks Mike. I look forward to digging into his more substantive Saving Righteousness of God at some point in the future to see how some of this plays out in more detail.