Review: Moral Formation According to Paul

Moral Formation according to Paul: The Context and Coherence of Paul’s Ethics

James W. Thornton (Baker Academic, 2011)

Paul is not a theologian. Daring claim, but one that appears to be justified by James W. Thornton’s new book, Moral Formation according to Paul. This is not to say that Paul is not interested in theology. He is. Rather, it is to insist that ethics, far from being an add on to Paul’s theological thought, is the key to understanding Paul rightly. Paul’s theology grows out of a desire to shape the identity of the ethnically mixed Christian communities he founded through ethics. If Bultmann, in other words, sundered Paul’s letters into unrelated indicative and imperative sections, Thornton puts them back together by insisting that the imperative must come first.

Paul, says Thornton, stands squarely in the ethical stream of first century Hellenistic Judaism (Introduction and Chatper 1). Paul argues in the same way, often appealing to the same biblical texts. The Hellenists were concerned with maintaining Jewish identity in Diaspora by forming distinct communities. Paul, says Thornton, has a similar strategy with his fledgling churches, with two significant differences: his communities no longer have an ethic foundation, but are mixed communities of Jews and Gentiles and Paul’s Hellenistic approach has been radically re-oriented by Jesus. Paul’s communities will receive, mould, and maintain their identities by living lives worthy of the Gospel.

Subsequent chapters, (2 through 8) then look at specific examples in the Pauline and disputed letters that flesh out this thesis. Thus, community formation and moral instruction in the Corinthian Correspondence  is the subject of chapter 2. This is followed by the place of ethics in Paul’s overall catechesis in 1 Thessalonians (chapter 3), the virtue and vice lists (chapter 4), the Law (chapters 5-6), the love command (chapter 7), and the disputed letters (chapter 8). The book follows with a conclusion that, drawing on previous chapters, presents a convincing argument that Paul’s moral vision is coherent (these are not haphazard or ad hoc instructions), and, while inevitably incomplete, contains the keys for further moral reasoning within the early communities in Paul’s absence.

Paul, concludes Thornton, is teaching his communities to read and live the Law, and especially the summary thereof in the holiness code of Leviticus, through the lens of the love of neighbor command which is given fresh emphasis by the Lord himself. Paul does not end the Law in other words, but keeps it at the core of his moral vision. It is changed by a Christological reorientation, but it is not set aside.

I am not a New Testament scholar. But I do expect that this book will create a stir in Pauline scholarship, especially in the renewed debates on justification. For if Thornton is right, justification by faith simply isn’t the article by which the church stands or falls. More than that, though, is beyond my competence to say.

This book is very important for pastors who, like me, are trying to convince their people that the Old Testament continues to be an abiding witness to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and an important ethical witness about how Christians are to conduct themselves. “Why can’t we just do what the disciples did in Acts 15 and throw out the Old Testament?” Have you heard that question? I have! Or “Jesus said nothing about sex. Why are we so hung up on it?” If I had a nickel. . . . Thornton gives pastors a powerful reading of Paul from which sensitive pastors and curious lay people can wrestle with these and other related questions, and come to some surprising answers.

If you are looking for a good antidote to “creeping Marcionism,” James Thornton has given you one here!

Leave a Reply