Framing and Interpretation

In Michael Bird’s Four Views On The Apostle Paul, for my brief review see here, each of the authors was asked to give their thoughts on, “What is the best framework for describing Paul’s theological perspective?” And in my opinion, one of the most interesting things about the book was examining how influential each author’s answer to this one question is on their overall reading of Paul.

Without going into detail, here is my view of their answers to the framework question:

1. Tom Schreiner – the now, not yet nature of Paul’s gospel (he also refers to as prophecy fulfilled (now), mystery revealed (not yet))

2. Luke Timothy Johnson – a balance of religious experience (Paul’s and his readers) and cultural heritage (Jewish and Greco-Roman)

3. Douglas Campbell –   revealed (revelation as the basis for Paul’s thinking on God), triune (the Trinity as the God who is revealed), missional (Paul is called to participate in the loving mission of God)…the primary focus is revelation (Greek apokalypto)

4. Mark Nanos –  Paul (who never left Judaism and continued to be Torah observant) wrote from the viewpoint that because the Messiah had come the new age had come (the addition of the non-Jews was the sign of the coming)

Now lets look at how two of authors perceives the overall objective of Paul (obviously grossly understated) and how I think the framework plays a major role in determining their perception:

1. Tom Schreiner – Christ-Centered and Cross-Focused: Schreiner starts with defining the problem – sin, judgment, wrath and beginning with grace shows how humanity’s salvation (reversal of the problem) is secured in cross. Schreiner’s account focuses on the what has been done and I believe this arises mainly from his now, not framework (must focus on the now, especially given the not yet is seen as mystery). I think this accounts for, what I would consider to be a weakness in Schreiner’s account, the lack of attention given to resurrection. It is not that the resurrection is completed neglected, but since it falls in the realm of not yet (at least for all except Jesus Christ) it gets treated as a secondary issue. I would not want to suggest that Schreiner actually believes the resurrection is a secondary issue, only if one decides to work within the now, not yet framework this is a natural (necessary?) result.

2. Luke Timothy Johnson – Rescue from Death: Johnson focuses on Christ’s rescuing humanity from alienation from God (death) and giving us a share in the life that is distinctive to God. While he agrees with Schreiner that there is now, not yet quality to this life, he believes Paul focuses on “in-between-time” of salvation where Christians are to conduct themselves in manner worthy of calling. This leads to an interesting distinction which I believe flows out of his framing of Paul’s thought. For the Johnson, the cross is crucial because there is tension between cross (history) and resurrection (experience) and in his account, the cross becomes the hermeneutical key to reinterpreting Torah, God’s gift, etc. While the cross is certainly hermeneutical, is it not also more than that? This is where the interaction between experience and heritage becomes the lens to understanding Paul, and reveals how his framing plays a crucial role in how he reads Paul.

Campbell’s revelatory and Nanos’ Jewish expectation viewpoints could be analyzed the same way, but for the sake of time (my time that is!) I think these two show how important framework is for interpretation. Framing is found in all interpretation, and I am not suggesting we need somehow to leave framework behind, just that we need to be conscious of how frameworks influence our readings.

That is why I found it so interesting in this book, the authors had to explicitly state their framework along with their interpretation. With the frameworks there for all to see, their influence became obvious. And it led me to think,

Am I aware of my own framework for interpreting Paul? Could I write it down for all to see and analyze?

Can I see the influence my framework is having on my interpretation (both good and bad)?

Does my framework so override my interpreting that the text is never allowed to question it?


Book Review – “Four Views on The Apostle Paul” ed. Michael F. Bird

Michael Bird – Four Views on the Apostle Paul (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012)

This is an interesting little book with a fascination of the number four. Michael Bird, the general editor, assembled four leading Pauline scholars to offer their views on four questions about Paul. Thomas Schreiner, Luke Timothy Johnson, Douglas Campbell, and Mark Nanos each take a stab at positively presenting their particular views on Paul and then the other three are given the chance to respond (leading to four articles in each section). The four questions are:

1. What did Paul think about salvation?
2. What was Paul’s view on the significance of Christ?
3. What is the best framework for describing Paul’s theological perspective?
4. What was Paul’s vision for the churches? 


Strengths – The first strength of the book is the collection of scholars included in the book (this is also a weakness, will explain later). Each of the writers, including the editor, are well known scholars who have impacted the field Pauline scholarship. It is a treat to see the four of them engage each other and the book offers a goal for those of us beginning our scholarly life to works towards (how to write, how to positively present views, how to critique, etc).

A second strength is the effort by each author to present their own views in a positive manner. What do I mean by positive? All to often in scholarship, it is required to spend as much time arguing against as arguing for something, and sometimes the arguing for gets lost in the shuffle. I really enjoyed that in each of the main essays the authors were arguing primarily for something. The responses are obviously critiques, but the essays, most likely due to length requirements, could not spend to much time engaged in polemical discussions. Thus, the book offers four essays by four respected scholars where each take a stand for something. This deserves to be commended.

A third strength are the contributions of Bird. It is not really necessary to write a normal review of this work because it has been provided by Bird in his introduction and conclusion. In the introduction, he takes the time to explain not only the overall aim and organization of the book, he also gives a concise, but useful, intro to each of the authors. The conclusion, which I would suggest be read before the essays themselves, lays out the main points of each author and the main critiques of his view. In short, it is an excellent primer for engaging the book, or if in a hurry to get the overall gist of the book.


Weaknesses – While the collection of authors is impressive, I would have liked to have seen more traditional perspectives presented in the book. Schreiner fits the bill in this respect, as he presents a classic view of the Reformed Protestant Paul, but the other three authors do not. Johnson does not represent a traditional Catholic (is that as ironic as it sounds?), Campbell does not represent traditional anything (at least in a contemporary sense), and Nanos does not represent a traditional Jewish view. I admire these scholars and enjoyed reading their essays, but in a volume such as this I would have preferred to find a better representation of the traditional views on Paul.

A second weakness is the amount of ground each scholar was expected to cover. The four questions engaged in this book are indeed significant, but to expect them to be covered in essay’s of this length is difficult. I felt this led to several shortcomings in the book. First, the authors were at times required to assert arguments without having the room to construct them. Each of the authors tried to point the reader to other places where the arguments were explained (lot of footnotes saying, “See my article in…”), but if they focus of the book had been narrowed more of the explanation could have been in the book itself. Second, I think this lead to a disjointed effort by the authors. While Schreiner and Johnson seem to have been writing about the same thing, Campbell and Nanos’ essays seem to belong to another discussion. Some of this is do to the views of Campbell and Nanos, but it also a result of the broad focus of the book. I believe if the focus had been narrowly defined the articles would have been more closely aligned with each other.


Overall – For me the most fascinating part of the book was how each author answered the framework question. It seemed that this one question,as much as anything else, led to the differences in interpretation. I hope to have a post later this week looking at this from the book.

In the end, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to those interested in Pauline scholarship. Four scholars deeply engaged in the ongoing conversation offering their views on critical questions in the field, without a doubt it is worth a read. Plus, if you are familiar with Pauline scholarship it shouldn’t take all that long to read (and even if you are not, it can serve as a primer to the discussion).