Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together”

9780334049760Last year, SCM Press published a new edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together

Here’s an extract from Samuel Wells’ foreword:

“The most significant words in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together are these:

In a Christian community everything depends upon whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain. Only when even the smallest link is securely interlocked is the chain unbreakable. … Every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of the fellowship. (p. 72)

Life Together was published in 1939. In 1939 Germany was ruled by a regime that had no time for the weak. And those who opposed the regime had to think carefully about the resources they had for resistance. For Bonhoeffer, what the resistance had was the body of Christ – a securely interlocked chain, where weak and strong were unbreakably joined by the unity of Christ Jesus. How to grow such solidarity? What habits of life and mind and community are required to make such unbreakable bonds? That is what Life Together is about. It is written in a timeless style that makes it readable alongside the Rule of St Benedict among the archetypes of Christian community; but it is not a timeless rule. It is written in the face of pressing, poisonous and pernicious evil. And itis about overcoming evil with good, in practical, purposeful land proven ways.

Bonhoeffer is quick to dismantle sentimentality about communal life. Disillusionment is inevitable – and good. ‘God hates visionary dreaming’; nothing destroys a Christian community more readily than a person who allows their visionary ideal to become a governing principle against which God, the community and themselves may be judged. True community, by contrast, ‘is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate’ (p. 18). Sin need not destroy community, but can provide the occasion for deepening one’s awareness that no member of the community can live by their own words and deeds, but only by Christ’s forgiveness. Likewise Bonhoeffer is not interested in calls for godly leaders, noble authority figures or charismatic sources of inspiration: such desire springs from ‘a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men, for the establishment of visible human authority, because the genuine authority of service appears to be so unimpressive’ (p. 84). Again one must recall the backdrop of Nazi Germany.

Community is fundamentally a privilege. Bonhoeffer never underestimates the challenge of living with others, but he is overwhelmed by the joy of sharing the precious gifts of faith with others who treasure it like one does oneself. To share the ‘physical presence of other Christians’ (p. 9) is a ‘gracious anticipation of the last things’ (p. 8) – an opportunity denied to the prisoner, the sick person and the Christian in exile. Martin Luther insisted that the kingdom of God meant being in the midst of your enemies; so the opportunity to be in community with other Christians, occasionally or permanently, is ‘grace upon grace’ – the ‘roses and lilies of the Christian life’ (p. 10). Pastors and zealous members of congregations can be apt to forget this great privilege. But Bonhoeffer is uncompromising in his castigation of their ingratitude: if such a person is simply finding their wish dream is being shattered by God, they should either be thankful for being divested of their dream or penitent for their own failure and unbelief (pp. 17–18).

What community offers is the gift of discovery about the self, about others and about God. If you can’t be with yourself, being with others isn’t going to help you. There’s no getting away from the dimension of faith that has to be faced alone: ‘Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God’ (p. 57). Any kind of community living that isn’t based on being able to face such things alone is little more than a distraction.

These are sobering words. But some of Bonhoeffer’s most salutary remarks regard what it means to be with one another. He is under no illusion about these things: ‘From the first moment when a man meets another person he is looking for a strategic position he can assume and holdover against that person’ (p. 69). But there are seasoned ways to withstand such human shortcomings. One such is custody of the tongue. ‘It must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him.…To speak about a brother covertly is forbidden, even under the cloak of help and goodwill.’ How then to discern about a troublesome brother? Speak to God instead. We should ‘speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ’ (p. 23). Thus one may ‘cease from constantly scrutinizing the other person, judging him, condemning him, putting him in his particular place where he can gain ascendancy over him and thus doing violence to him as a person’ (p. 71). Only if one lets go the exasperation that ‘God did not make this person as I would have made him’ and realizes that God gave me this person not to dominate and control but as a way to find divine love, can one find the other person an occasion of joy rather than a nuisance and an affliction. The difficult part is to accept that God did not create every person in my image; instead it turns out every person is made in God’s image. The sooner we realize this, the better for us. The world is turned from a burden into a gift. And this truth crystallizes in the practice of intercessory prayer.

A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face, that hitherto might have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner. (p. 65)

In intercession we see our brother under the cross of Christ. ‘Then everything in him that repels us falls away; and we see him in all his destitution and need. His need and his sin become so heavy and oppressive that we feel them as our own, and we can do nothing else but pray: Lord do thou, thou alone, deal with him according to thy severity and thy goodness’ (pp. 65–6). But this is not done from magnanimity. It is done from repentance. The only way to forebear the sins of others is to consider oneself the greatest of sinners. One can find extenuations for the sins of others; but for one’s own sin, there is no excuse. One cannot truly serve another unless one regards one’s own sin as worse than theirs (p. 74).

Thus do we discover that all true being with the self and being with one another is a way of being with God. Every relationship, every interaction with another is mediated by Christ. ‘Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. …Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ embodied and would stamp upon all men’ (p. 23). This is how we meet God in community. Direct experience of God is something that may or may not be granted: but such experiences are not what Christian community is about– for the community lives by faith, not by experience.

Life Together may seem a book locked in its time. If you assume a treatment of community should have a finer awareness of gender, and not assume male singleness as the norm; if you are quick to pick up assumptions of class and leisure; if community seems a cover for sublimated urgings of sexuality, in ways Bonhoeffer is ignorant of or chooses to ignore; then this may not be the book for you. But if you are looking for knowledge of God rooted in deep knowledge of the self; for paths in which other people can be invitations into grace rather than obstacles to holiness; and for a way to build Christian community that is true enough to withstand the onslaughts of persecution, terror and destruction, then you are about to read possibly the finest handbook available to Christians of how to live as the body of Christ. It is perhaps the most succinct legacy of Bonhoeffer’s remarkable witness.”

You can find out more about the new edition of Life Together here . And look out in the coming months for news of our new edition of Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, published next year.

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Message to our lovely new followers!

Thanks to everyone who has followed this blog in the last few days. If you haven’t had your free copy of the Reflective Disciples ebook yet, we’ll be in touch in the next few days to make sure you get a copy.

If you followed via wordpress, rather than by leaving your email address in the box, you’ll need to get in touch with us with an email address so we can send you the details about how to claim your ebook. Just email David.Shervington@hymnsam.co.uk, and we’ll get that sorted!

We hope you enjoy the mix of new book news, extracts and opinion featured on the SCM Press blog.

 

 

 

SCM News, Autumn 2016

Welcome to another quarterly round-up of what’s happening at SCM Press.

Michael Ramsey Prize 2016

We were delighted to hear that Professor John Swinton, won the Michael Ramsey Prize 2016 for his book  Dementia: Living the memories of God

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The prize was presented by the Archbishop of Canterbuty, Justin Welby at the Greenbelt Festival in August. Archbishop Justin said: ‘John has written a book which is deeply challenging and brings to bear a coherent theological approach, with clinical background and understanding, to an issue that has touched many of us, and is one of the great issues of our society. He has done the church and our country a huge service.’

John Swinton is Professor of Practical Theology and Pastoral Care in the University of Aberdeen. Dementia is Swinton’s second book with SCM Press and offers compassionate and carefully considered theological and pastoral responses to dementia and forgetfulness.

You can buy a copy of Dementia here

FREE ebook giveaway!

9780334046028In case you missed it, just a quick reminder that we’ve got 100 ebook copies of Roger Walton’s wonderful book The Reflective Disciple to give away free. To claim your free ebook, simply subscribe to this blog using the box on the left. Not only will we then be in touch to let you know how you can get hold of your free ebook, but as a subscriber you’ll also get news of every new post on this blog delivered straight to your inbox.

SCM Press at the AAR/SBL, San Antonio, Texas

The AAR/SBL Annual Meeting is being held between November 19th and November 22nd. As ever, SCM will be represented by our partner in the US, Westminster John Knox Press. If you’re attending do come and find us at the WJK stand where you’ll find the latest SCM titles  on display and you can meet the editor for SCM Press, David.

If you’d like to make an appointment with David ahead of the meeting, do get in touch and he’d be happy to chat with you about any book project ideas you might have. Email David.Shervington@scmpress.co.uk

SCM Research

scm research logo cropAs mentioned in the last SCM News, the new SCM Research strand provides a vehicle for publishing research-level monographs, aimed primarily at an academic library market.

Reflecting our aim to be a publisher of ‘cutting edge theology’ we hope that this new area of SCM will allow us to publish new voices from within the academy as well as established scholars within theology and biblical studies.

Alongside this publishing stream,  we’ll be visiting a variety of university departments and theological colleges over the next few months to speak to researchers and early career academics about how to go about publishing that difficult first monograph.

If you would like more information, or you’d like to submit a book proposal for consideration in the SCM Research publishing programme, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with the editor David Shervington (David.Shervington@scmpress.co.uk)

 

New from SCM this autumn…

97803340539342In October, we’re publishing a Companion to the Old Testament by Hywel Clifford, Douglas Earl, Ryan P. O’Dowd and Lena-Sofia Tiemeyer.

Each of the core chapters in this introduction to the Old Testament covers three areas:

*An introduction to the general significance of each section in its ancient context.

*A survey of major ways these sacred texts have been interpreted in the global history of Christianity

*Suggestions for how its texts apply to Christian ministry and mission today.

John Barton, Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, Emeritus at Oxford University offers this assessment of the volume:

“An excellent new resource for Old Testament studies. Written from an avowedly Christian perspective, the Companion surveys the history of interpretation of each major section of the Old Testament in the patristic, mediaeval, Reformation, and modern periods, and then turns to a global perspective and the use of the OT in ministry and mission. Accessible as well as learned, and with up-to-date and comprehensive advice on further reading”.

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13 years ago, Andy Milne started Sorted, a fresh expression 9780334054092of church based in Bradford. Since then he has pioneered numerous other churches, and offshoot projects have been pioneered in London and Nairobi.

In The DNA of Pioneer Ministry, Andy tells the Sorted story, along with his years of experience within pioneer ministry to  relate the lessons and methodologies he and his team have learnt so that pioneers, missionaries and the wider Church may be better equipped and informed when pioneering fresh expressions, mission communities and church plants in a whole range of different contexts.

According to George Lings, Director of the Church Army’s Research Unit, the book “deserves to become a standard text for pioneers and planters of all kinds of fresh expression of Church”.. Published in October..

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pattern-ofMinistry has always changed, adapting to time and place. But in The Pattern of Our Calling: Tradition and Theology in Ministry (published in November), David Hoyle, Dean of Bristol Cathedral and member of the Archbishops’ Development and Appointments Group, argues that the pace of change has increased. There is a greater need for success and less tolerance of diversity. A few high-achievers hold up their heads whilst others struggle or wonder how to make sense of what feels like failure. Our theology is impoverished and we are so quick to adopt new models that we have forgotten our own past. This book explores the changing theologies of ministry during the church’s history with the aim of challenging the lack of theological reflection in some of today’s results-driven understanding of ministry that seems more influenced by the business world than by Christian theology and tradition. Setting out to explain why theologians said what they said about ministry, why it might matter, and why it might be exciting, David Hoyle covers nearly two thousand years of theological reflection from the Didache to Michael Ramsey and current writers, and provides a synthesis not found anywhere else. The book offers realistic sustenance to practitioners struggling with the new demands on clergy.

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A parish church gathers people together from acrossLayout 1 the community and is a site of resistance against the increasingly atomized and segregated society in which we live. The social and political revolution at the heart of parish life is people learning to relate to each other in the name of Christ.

In The Parish Handbook, Bob Mayo reflects honestly and wisely on the ordinary living which is at the heart of parish life. Drawing on a wealth of experience and research, the handbook brings together sociological observation and theological insight to shape sound practical theological reflection.

The Rt Rev Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington and President of St Mellitus says of the book “This is a hugely valuable book. It is more than a handbook – it is a guide, a collection of jewel–like insights, a distillation of years of experience that gives a genuine taste of the gritty reality and the sheer privilege of parish life and ministry.”

The book is published in November.

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9780334054221In December, we’re publishing In a Glass Darkly: The Bible, Reflection and Everyday Life . In the book, Zoe Bennett and Christopher Rowland engage in a critical dialogue between practical theology and biblical hermeneutics. The book considers the role of emotional engagement and critical understanding in biblical interpretation and presents being critical as an act which is just as much appreciative as it is suspicious.

Zoe Bennett is Senior Lecturer and Director of Postgraduate Studies in Pastoral Theology at Anglia Ruskin University and the Cambridge Theological Federation. She is the author of Your MA in Theology (SCM Press 2014). Christopher Rowland was formerly Dean Ireland’s Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture and Fellow of The Queen’s College, Oxford from 1991 until 2014 and is a co-author of Theological Reflection for Human Flourishing (SCM Press 2012).

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Look out too for the second edition of John Swinton and Harriet Mowatt’s widely used textbook Practical Theology and Qualitative Research, to be published in October. The authors examine methodologies of the social sciences and questions how they can enable the task of theological reflection; examine the relationship between qualitative and quantitative methods and highlight the significance of both for the task of practical theology. They also take the reader through the actual process of developing and carrying out a research project using the author’s own research as case study examplesIn this second edition, case studies and all bibliographies have been updated plus a new chapter has been added.

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In the diary this autumn

November 8th – ‘DNA of Pioneer Ministry’ Book Launch, Holy Trinity Church, Leeds. An opportunity to hear from the author how ‘Sorted’ practically uses a pioneering model of doing church.

November 19th-22nd – AAR/SBL Annual Meeting, San Antonio, Texas

Subscribe to our Blog and Claim Your Free Ebook

9780334046028We’re offering the next 100 subscribers to our blog a free ebook copy of Roger Walton’s ‘The Reflective Disciple’, as a thank you for signing up.

The Reflective Disciple explores what it means to be a disciple today and how to follow Jesus in a world which is populated and shaped by issues, ideas and dilemmas not encountered before. In the face of globalization, postmodern culture and the end of Christendom, Christians and would-be Christians have to tackle choices and questions for which they feel ill-equipped and for which there are no easy, ready-made answers. The way forward is in understanding the dynamics of Christian discipleship, grasping a fresh vision of God and learning the art of faithful reflection. It is, says Julie Lunn of the Wesley Study Centre in Durham, ‘a book to be read by all trying to live as disciples in the 21st century’

To receive your ebook copy of The Reflective Disciple simply subscribe for free to this blog via the box on the left. If you’re one of the fortunate 100 subscribers, we will be in touch with you as soon as we can to let you know how to download your free ebook.

Here’s an extract from the introduction, to whet your appetite:

“On 16 October 2007 The Guardian G2 magazine carried a story about the England rugby Team. This was not surprising, as it was the week before the final of the World Cup in which England were to play South Africa. There was a bit of rugby fever all that week, made more intense by the fact that England had performed dismally in the opening stages of the competition and then gone on, against all the odds, to beat both Australia, the favourites, and France, the hosts. In the lead up to the match, the article was exploring how well the teams represented the countries whose names they carried, in terms of the range of people in the squads. Attempting to show how inclusive and representative the England team was, there were short profiles of players, including one on Jason Robinson who, according to the journalist, was ‘proof that the squad can absorb a player from any background’. Robinson was presented as ‘different’ in two ways. First, he was a working-class lad from Chapeltown, Leeds, born of a white mother and black father he never knew and, second, he had become a ‘born-again Christian who now eschews nights out with his team mates in favour of a takeaway pizza and Bible study in his room’.
There are several things of interest in this journalistic snippet. First, there is an assumption that to be a Christian is somehow different and odd. A century earlier it would have been almost unthinkable to suggest that being a Christian and playing rugby for England were somehow strange or incompatible attributes. Now, it seems, people professing Christian faith are perceived as unusual and it is an exceptional case when such people can be included in a national team. Ironically, attitudes to faith may have moved in the opposite direction to the other ‘difference’ noted about Jason Robinson: his ethnic and working class origins. It is not difficult to believe that the racist attitudes prevalent in the structure of our society would have made it very difficult for someone who was born of a white mother and black father to reach the top of the sporting world in Britain even 40 years ago despite his or her outstanding talent. One hopes that this may have changed profoundly, though the article may bear witness to a continued prejudice. If, on the other hand, the journalist intended to say that now talent wins out, then it makes the view on faith even more striking. For, while attitudes that discriminated and excluded on the basis of ethnic or class background may be being broken, during the same period, being a Christian has increasingly been seen as odd and marginal. British Society has changed profoundly in its view of religion. The media now regularly portrays Christian faith as quaint – a curious hangover from the past; or quirky – the unusual interest of a few; or even dangerous – a view of life that only brings division or destruction or holds humanity up in its progress.3 It should be clear that to choose to be a follower of Jesus today will not be done to court popularity and gain society’s approval. To be a disciple today in the UK is often to be at odds with the wider culture, and thus the path is a hard one to take.
Second, the article’s cameo of what it means to be a Christian is interesting. According to this brief picture of Jason Robinson, following Jesus is not about drinking or having a good night out with the lads but is about studying the Bible. Even if the report is inaccurate about Jason’s Christian lifestyle, these phrases in the article suggest that being Christian, in most people’s minds, takes a concrete and discernible form. There are things you do and things you do not do, which mark out that you are a follower of Christ. In other words, discipleship is to do with identifiable practices – regular activities, actions and attitudes – that characterize the life of a Christian.
Most Christians would want to add to this brief and perhaps misleading set of characteristics. Many would include the practice of forgiveness, loving one’s neighbour and witnessing to faith. Others would stress the struggle for justice for all people, especially the poor and vulnerable. Some might include the practices of fasting, or regular sharing in the Eucharist, or embracing non-violence as a way of life. There would be many that would point to the beatitudes (good attitudes and actions) quoted at the beginning of this introduction. Perhaps all would want to cite the practice of prayer and worship as a feature of Christian life. Jeff Astley4 identifies a range of attributes that includes beliefs, actions, attitudes and emotions which together constitute what it means to be Christian. Thus, Christians, as well as those who observe them, accept that discipleship is, at least in part, located in a set of characteristics and practices.
There are some intriguing features missing from this miniature sketch of Christian discipleship. Notice that it speaks of Jason Robinson becoming a Christian but tells us nothing about the story of this change. How did it happen, who was involved, what experience did he go through and how did this change his relationship to God? All this is hidden from us, and while the author cannot be indicted for not telling us everything about Jason Robinson’s faith story – he was after all writing about rugby – the one-line summary of Christian commitment he offers us omits some vital ingredients.
One can find out a little more about Jason Robinson’s conversion. Apparently, another great rugby player had a considerable influence on him. Va’aiga Tuigamala, nicknamed Inga the Winger, was a team mate of Jason Robinson at Wigan and his quiet contentment with life made a big impression on Robinson.5 It was not until later that Robinson became a Christian himself but the relationship and what he saw in his team mate was important. Through this he sensed and discovered a relationship with God for himself. I can say that for myself there was a similar journey. I met a group of Christians and while one could identify some practices and activities that marked them out, it was not the outward attributes or even the inner attitudes that were the most attractive – some were singularly unappealing, as they looked like hard work – but I was attracted by the sense that the Christian people I had met had a living relationship with Christ that enlivened them and steered them through life. This was the vital factor in my becoming a Christian and discovering the reality of that living relationship with God for myself. This adds a third piece to the jigsaw of discipleship today. Discipleship is always a human story, a life journey that finds its meaning and is animated by the relationship at its heart.
The other bit we can’t see from the vignette is what kind of God it is that Jason Robinson believes in. It is clearly the Christian God, the one who is known through Jesus, but what is this God like, what is God’s essential character, how does God act in the world and what does trusting in this God imply for our lives? If we want to understand and practise Christian discipleship, the picture of God at the centre of that way of life is of crucial importance. Only by knowing something of the God revealed in Jesus can disciples live by trust in God.
These four elements, which this newspaper article helped highlight, are all aspects of interwoven threads in discipleship:

Discipleship is always lived in a particular context, place and time.
Discipleship is manifest through practices (attitudes and actions) in everyday life.
Discipleship is living out faith in a real human story.
Discipleship is deeply related to the view of God at its centre”

The Revd Roger Walton is President of the Methodist Conference 2016-2017 and chair of the West Yorkshire Methodist District

Paul -Still Shaping Ministry 2,000 Years On…

He’s never been far from the centre of attention, and apparently he’s set to be the subject of a new biblical epic, and played by none other than Hugh Jackman. There’s no denying that the author of almost half of the New Testament continues to stand at the centre of conversation both within New Testament scholarship, and in debates across all church traditions.

We’ve turned our attention to the apostle Paul in two of our major publications in 2016.

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CsZHM_oXgAwicT0.jpgPaul’s impact on ministry today is profound. We shape much of our liturgy around his words, and he has shaped our understanding of Christian baptism. It’s to this which Nicholas Taylor turns in his book, Paul on Baptism, published this month. We asked Nicholas, who is Rector of St Aidan’s, Clarkston, and a member of the Doctrine and Liturgy Committees of the Faith & Order Board of the Scottish Episcopal Church, to explain more about his book in his own words:

“This book is premised upon a number of observations, most of which might seem self-evident, but which do not seem to have been fully explored:

Paul’s letters are written in a context of mission, and address issues in the lives of newly formed communities of recent converts to the Christian gospel, and not questions which vex long-established churches, still less denominations.

The theology which modern interpreters abstract from Paul’s letters needs to take this context into account, and recognise that the people and communities addressed, and indeed the author(s), inhabited a world in which the values and assumptions which inform contemporary exegesis and popular devotion were not presupposed.

We need to understand, so far as is possible, the culture in which Christianity emerged, and the ways in which it shaped identity and family life, as well as what moderns might define as religious belief and expression.

Given that conversion was the context in which Christian Baptism was first administered, we need to appreciate not only how and when rites were understood and conducted, but also how change in identity and allegiance was effected in the lives of individuals and families in ancient society.

Given that supernatural powers were perceived to be ubiquitous and active in ancient society, and were considered susceptible to influence through rituals and cultic observances, we need to consider how divine power was understood by the first Christians, and how it was perceived to operate through and as a consequence of rituals such as Baptism.

These observations, and the questions they raise, inform the study of relevant passages in Paul’s letters and in the book of Acts. Some consideration is also given to developments in early Christianity, as Christian identity came to be acquired by birth rather than conversion.

Some reflections are offered, and questions raised, for contemporary practice, whether Baptism is administered in a context of Christian mission or of continuing pastoral care of established congregations, and of the issues raised for authentic ministry when neither situation prevails.”

Paula Gooder, theologian in residence at the Bible Society, had this to say about Paul on Baptism:

“This book is a brilliant example of the best scholarship offered at the service of the church. Anyone who wants to think deeply about their own theology of baptism, inspired by the Pauline texts, will find this an invaluable source of lucid and thoughtful insight. I highly recommend it.”

Click here to order a copy, and find out more.

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264948_aul%20full%20cover.jpgEarlier this year, we published E.P .Sanders’ major new work Paul: The Apostles Life, Letters, and Thought.

E.P. Sanders has for many years been one of the leading scholars of Paul’s life and work.

As well as giving a detailed study of the life of Paul and a close reading of Paul’s letters, Sanders offers profound and wide-ranging insights into the legacy of the man without whom Christianity would not be what it is today.

Here’s a quick extract:

“Paul, apostle of Jesus Christ, was one of the greatest religious leaders of all time. He is also one of the very few from the ancient world whom we can study firsthand thanks to the fact that he wrote letters and that some of them were saved, edited (very slightly), and published. We have no idea how many letters Paul wrote to churches and individuals during his apostolic career. From those that we have, however, we learn a great deal about the world in which he lived, his activities, his personality, his assistants and colleagues, his enemies, his churches, and, most interestingly of all, his thought. Throughout his life, Paul was passionately committed to his cause: first the cause of persecuting the Jews who were followers of Jesus, then of spreading the movement that he had formally tried to stamp out. His letters express his passion; it is one of their most striking features. In this work I have tried to let Paul, the passionate man who was obsessed with his cause, shine through his sometimes difficult theological arguments.

Paul was controversial in his own day. He had heated—almost violent—arguments with other members of the early Christian movement. He denounced his opponents in vivid terms, and his letters have inspired religious polemicists (people who wage verbal warfare) for centuries.

Since Paul’s letters are occasional and informal (rather than being polished and revised for wide use), we have an intimate portrait of him and his thought. The letters are sometimes movingly self-revealing, as when he is pushed to boasting by the Corinthian opposition. He sometimes bares his soul in a way that is very rare in ancient literature.

Paul would be one of the most interesting people in the ancient world to study even if he occupied a smaller place in history. But, of course, he is one of the most influential figures in the history of the Near East and the West. Paul was trying to convert gentiles (non-Jews) to worship the God of Israel and to accept Jesus as the Son of God and savior of the world. Other missionaries had this same task, but Paul was the preeminent ‘apostle to the gentiles.’ He faced the problem of thinking up new theological expressions and new practices for a movement that, though deeply rooted in Judaism and thus in some ways old, was partly new.”

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PS – Whilst we’re on the subject of Paul, don’t forget the SCM Core Text on Paul by Geoffrey Harris. Intended as a student-friendly textbook, it seeks to reconcile Paul the thinker and Paul the man of action and shows how Paul’s early life held important strands of thought which informed his later theology. Paul’s conversion and his reflection upon its meaning led him to develop a ‘resurrection theology’ from which much else followed on.