Review: Making Sense of Paul by Virginia Wiles
I picked this book up quite some time ago, but didn't get past the first few pages until recently. There was something about the style of writing that I found off-putting. The other day I decided to give it another chance, though, and I'm glad I did, because this is a very good book.
It occured to me that I've never actually read a book about Paul's theology before. This was surprising, since I own quite a few books about Paul, and I took a course concerned exclusively with Paul when I was an undergraduate. But those books were largely concerned with critical scholarship. This book is quite different.
Wiles explains in the preface,
The book presumes a particular understanding of theology... In my understanding, the language of theology interprets (and thus enables) human life by raising questions about what is of ultimate importance in human life and experience. That is, theology primarily concerns human life rather than doctrine. (xi)I thought this was a refreshing way to think of theology.
Wiles is largely concerned with what she calls "the terminological gap." She points out that "Paul uses several terms in his writings in an almost technical way," like "sin, law, Christ, body, flesh, believe, spirit," etc. (3). These words are all familiar to us today, but "what we mean by these words usually differs markedly from what Paul meant by them" (3-4). This is particularly true of words like "righteousness" and "justification," which have come to be (mis)understood in a way that really takes the edge off of Paul's message.
For example, Christians often assume that the pattern of repentance and forgiveness is somehow a part of Paul's teaching on justification, which seriously blunts the effect of his message: "as Paul states it, the gift of justification comes with no qualifications -- there is no mention of repentance. And therein lies the scandal of Paul's message" (99).
Wiles also does a fine job of explaining Paul's seemingly contradictory teaching concerning the law. I won't say too much about this right now, because I want to write about it at length some other time. I had never been able to make sense of Paul's ambivalence towards the law, so I quite enjoyed this part of the book.
There are a few comments scattered throughout the text that left me scratching my head. For instance, Wiles suggests that "To be a monotheist in our day and time and in this Western world is both to accept the dominant cultural assumptions about the nature of the divine and to express an enlightened tolerance for religious diversity" (emphasis added; 13). I don't know about that. I would argue that the least tolerant people in "this Western world" tend to be monotheists! I also thought some of the sidebars (which are quite numerous) were unnecessary. But these are minor quibbles, and don't really detract from the book as a whole.
When I took the undergrad course on Paul a few years ago, I started to feel that maybe he has been misunderstood. Now having read this book, I'm quite certain of it. Paul hasn't been the most popular biblical writer in recent decades, at least not among progressive Christians. But I think if we understand Paul on his own terms, we'll find that his message is far more radical than our conservative co-religionists would like to believe.