Sunday, May 09, 2010

Book Notice: Thiselton, The Living Paul

The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle's Life and ThoughtAnthony C. Thiselton
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009

When I saw this title in the back of the recent issue of BBR I was very excited to get my hands on it. Those who know Thiselton are aware of his significant scholarship and his magisterial commentary on 1 Corinthians. When a scholar like this writes an introduction to Paul you are compelled to look at it. What's more, reading the blurb by the late Graham Stanton only heightened my interest: "In the hands of a master scholar and teacher, Paul's letters come alive for a wide readership. This is an outstanding, reliable guide to the great apostle's life and thought". 

Perhaps my expectations were set to high by the time the volume arrived at my door; truth is, I am not that impressed with it. I suppose the strength of the book is that it attempts to be comprehensive in a mere 162 pages of text. The seventeen brief chapters cover Paul's life and apostolic career as well as major theological themes: christology, theology, sin, the Holy Spirit, Justification and the law, the church, ministry, the sacraments, ethics and eschatology. In addition there is a chapter on postmodernism and Paul and two introductory chapters on obstacles to studying Paul. 

It's strength, however, is also its weakness. The discussions in my view feel quite truncated. While I appreciate a volume that seeks to introduce Paul comprehensively in brief, one feels that the discussions are insufficient. For example in a chapter on Jesus Christ in Paul, Thiselton does not discuss the term "Christ" or the broader issue of messianism. I felt several times that the discussion were incomplete or lacked sufficient transitions and conclusions. It seems as if in the quest for brevity key sentences were omitted. At times it seemed that Thiselton merely listed positions without much analysis. This is true of his section on "The law and faith" in a chapter titled "Justification and the law". Thiselton mentions abruptly a debate that James Dunn and Seyoon Kim are having about the nature of the 'works of the law'. After mentioning their differing views, Thiselton adds a quotation from N.T. Wright. There is no analysis of the three positions or how one is to relate Wright with the two others. This discussion is followed by what seems like a non-sequitor about 'gifts of the spirit' (100). The topic is crucial for Paul, but one leaves the page and one half without any better understanding of what Paul thinks about the relationship between law and faith. 

I'm always keeping my eye out for new introductions to Paul. Anthony Thiselton's book does provide discussions on a wide-ranging set of Pauline ideas, but I think it would confuse students more than help them. Conciseness is a characteristic of an excellent introduction, but The Living Paul is more elliptic than it is concise. 


Matt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt said...

For those who wish to hear Thistelton's own comments in relation to this book, see:

Thiselton makes it clear that this book is for the 'layman' and does not seek to pander to 'overspecialization'in NT studies. Hence, one might understand our beloved Mr. Bird's reservations, whoever well-informed they might be.
Anything by Thiselton is always well thought-out. I'll DEFINITELY be buying it (and put it next to my cherished copy of "A Bird's Eye View of Paul") ;D

Michael F. Bird said...

Matt, it was not Bird but Willitts who offered the review of Thiselton.

Matt said...

ah ha! Note to self: read carefully before posting. My apologies Mr Bird!

For those who read these comments, please amend my previous comment, inserting "Mr Willitts" where appropriate. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Matt, Mike doesn't want to be credited with my thoughts! ;)

I have not listened to Thiselton's comments, but I would certainly recommend Mike Bird's book over this one for lay person. I don't see a layperson connecting to the style or the presentation of the material. I understand and appreciate the attempt, but I don't think it successful as work for the layperson. Just my opinion of course.

Matt said...

Thanks Joel. I think that's fair enough. I still might buy it and read it. Michael's book is certainly very clear, no doubts there.

It's a shame YOU can't write a book about Paul and use a pun in the title too!

danny said...

I've read and reviewed both Bird's and Thiselton's books and, from the perspective of one who teaches the Bible in the context of a local church, I agree with Dr. Willits' conclusions. Thiselton's book doesn't, in my opinion, hit the audience, whereas Bird's is one I happily recommend. I've talked with others who have the same criticisms of Thiselton's work.