Have we missed St. Paul’s message… the proverbial forest for the trees?
During the debate between New Perspective, Old Perspective, and everything else about Paul’s intellectual origin, what may get lost is Paul’s goal of the Gospel. In a new book, the first in a series edited by renowned Pauline Third-Way scholar, Michael F. Bird, David A. deSilva proposes that at the center of Paul’s message is one simple concept: transformation.
The goal of Transformation: The Heart of Paul’s Gospel is simple: “to propose a way of thinking about Paul’s gospel — a vision for what God is seeking to bring about through the death and resurrection of his Son, the indwelling of his Spirit, and his future intervention in cosmic affairs.” (pg 5) While deSilva writes with an evangelical perspective in mind, his reach extends to others as well, especially with the centerpiece of his tripodic proposal. Indeed, the indwelling of the Spirit is what makes up the idea of transformation.
The book is divided into four chapters. The first chapter is deSilva’s case for a “broader understanding of Paul’s Gospel of Transformation.” He is hesitant about assigning too wide a gulf between justification and sanctification. He points to several Christian traditions that highlight one over the other. He posits that Paul would be troubled at the separation and a creation of “an order of salvation.” Indeed, I think we should be too. He argues five points against such a false separation (pg 10), all of which sound Wesleyan (if I may be so biased). Indeed, deSilva suggests an ongoing justification, from the initial acquittal to the “final justification.” For Wesleyans, we see this act as the journey of grace, albeit with three stages of grace (prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying). Regardless of my bias, the thesis is simple: There is no momentary act of salvation, but an ongoing changing of the person into the new creation, and thus, transformation. For the rest of chapter 1, deSilva lays out well the reasons why his five points are sound, calling on Scripture and Reason (scholarship) to aid him. He explores the “why” of transformation (i.e., God shows no partiality) and delves into the debate of what justification actually means.
Chapter 2 turns to explore what transformation means to the individual and to the individual’s freedom within Christ. He begins, again, but setting the initial act of justification within the framework of the entire Christian journey. Paul simply does not spend a lot of time detailing this theological point, but rather spends a majority of his time instructing the Church what this means and how this looks (how transformation looks) in the body (and the body made up of individuals).
In chapter 3, deSilva explores the community’s transformation as individuals who are opposed to one another in life become conformed to a unified body. Yes, reconciliation is a part of the transformation which is the heart of Paul’s message (at least according to deSilva). So is ecumenicalism, it seems. I dare say, this chapter is important to the overall concept of Christian unity. This chapter speaks to me as one who believes heavily in John 17 as a mission for today’s Christian. The final chapter is deSilva’s answer to contemporary eschatological enterprises and, I think, empire criticism. It is a rewarding chapter, but one that is best not explained in a review.
I was apprehensive about this book. When I begin an introduction of a book on Paul’s message by exploring the Roman Road(s), I am easily turned off of the subject matter. However, I am glad my first, brief, and uninformed opinions were wrong. There is no hero worship of Paul, NT Wright, or Luther, only a straightforward and enticing examination of the heart of Paul’s message. The more I read, the more I enjoyed it. The more I read, the more I learned. The more I read, the more my opinion of Paul and post-Reformation views on Justification were…well, transformed.
I cannot help but to read books on justification and sanctification as a Wesleyan — and as one attempting to, occasionally, write a dissertation on the atonement mechanism in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. I see a lot of my views of Wesley’s views in this book, and not least because deSilva quotes the 39 Articles and refers to Wesley several times. I think I see a connection between Wesley and this book because of what I perceive as the ongoing work of Grace in the life of the Christian, which deSilva assures us is the heart of Paul’s message. I would encourage all Wesleyans (and Arminians) to pick up a copy of this book as a way to build their own personal theology. I would equally suggest all others read this book to understand better what other Christians feel about the journey of grace, but grounded only in Paul’s writings. Finally, those of us interested in Christian unity should at the very least read chapter 1 and chapter 4, first to understand the heart of Paul’s mission and second to understand how this applies to us today as we try to build Christian unity.
This book is available in several different formats from Amazon, Logos, and Lexham Press.