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Lunch » Tags » Book » Reviews » The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon » User review

This book and review will leave most readers dissatsfied some of the time

  • Aug 16, 2009
It is unlikely to get agreement over Paul from a Protestant (Episcopalian in this case) and Catholic theologian, given the Reformation holy war between the two denominations over Luther's theses, so strongly influenced by Luther's new (reformed even) reading of Paul. "The First Paul" is an attempt for such a conciliation, if not final reconciliation, and as such it can leave one of either religious persuasion in the battle (and many of other persuasions looking on from the sideline) only partially satisfied and searching for some essential missing ingredient.

I was attracted to pick up this book by the authors' claim that that they could "reclaim" the Apostle Paul's "Radical Visionary" status from the "Church's Conservative Icon." As a conservative Protestant layman who takes the Bible seriously and literally (but who is no theologian), I was somewhat taken aback--I have never considered Paul conservative. Reading Paul's letters, and of Paul's missionary journeys in Acts, I see a man fiercely involved in pursuing Christ both before his conversion--Christ Himself during Paul's conversion experience certainly took the pursuit personally--and after--Paul lists at different times the many difficulties he encountered pursuing Christ: stonings, imprisonments, trials, shipwrecks. . .. .

. . . . Through it all, Paul never wavered from proclaiming "Jesus Christ is Lord", "Christ Crucified", "Justification by Grace Through Faith", and life "In Christ"--all chapter headings in Borg and Crossan's book as they focus on these central doctrines of Paul. They do an excellent job in setting Paul in context: as a Jew among the Greeks surrounding them, as a Christian Jew among Jews opposing Christianity, and a Christian among Roman citizens.

A great example is Paul's repeated statement that "Jesus Christ is Lord". The authors remind us that the Roman emperor was referred to in exactly the same language that Paul used for Jesus. In this context Paul's formulation of "faith in Christ --> nonviolence --> justice --> peace" which the authors contrast to the Roman government formulation of "faith in the emperor --> violence --> victory --> peace" was truly revolutionary, and so threatening to the Roman power system that Paul was perceived as radical and gave his life for his uncompromising position, thus proving his radical faith with the ultimate reality.

While the authors explicitly seek to reconcile their denominational differences by going back to the "pre-Reformation" Paul of the Bible, one of the areas that may leave some readers dissatisfied is their treatment of "justification by grace through faith." I think most readers will agree with their statement that when Paul "contrasted faith and works, he was not thinking of faith-without-works--which cannot exist because faith always includes works--but about works-without-faith, which, unfortunately, exists all too often--sometimes from habit or guilt, sometimes from thoughtless repetition or calculated hypocrisy." (p. 156-157)

I also was inspired by the authors' discussion of what Paul meant by his admonition in Philippians 2:12-13 to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling": "We can only conclude that the reason we should fear and tremble about our salvation is not because God will punish us if we fail, but because the world will punish us if we succeed." (p. 182-184)

But in the end, as in most discussions of theology, the middle ground is mostly deserted, so this discussion of Paul and his theology will leave most readers dissatisfied some of the time. Hence the three-star rating that goes right down the middle and will leave most readers of this review--dissatisfied.

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Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #36
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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“A refreshing and heartening exculpation of a still routinely maligned figure of the first importance to culture and civilization.” (Booklist (starred review) )

“In this scholarly and engaging account . . . Borg and Crossan successfully argue that we must separate the genuine writings of the apostle from the writings attributed to him . . . This well-researched and highly readable account is recommended for all students of Paul [and] interested lay readers.”” (Library Journal )

“Paul is one of the most controversial figures in Christian history—and one of the most misunderstood. . . . Many will be thrilled with this fresh, erudite portrait of the man.” (Publishers Weekly )
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ISBN-10: 0061430722
ISBN-13: 978-0061430725
Author: Marcus J. Borg
Genre: Religion & Spirituality
Publisher: HarperOne
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