About a decade ago, I watched a YouTube video featuring New Testament theologian Anthony Thiselton. He was holding up one of his books (skip ahead to the 7:45 mark) and talking about how funny it is that he wrote a 1,500-page commentary on 1 Corinthians, which takes up about 13 pages in the Bible.
To most people outside the world of biblical studies, that does seem … extreme. But what can we say? Biblical scholars like Thiselton (and me) love to give careful and prolonged attention to all the details in Scripture.
Over the past few decades, the bulk of that attention seems to have been directed toward the life and writings of Paul. In 1998, James D. G. Dunn published his massive Theology of Paul the Apostle, weighing in at over 800 pages. Not to be outdone, 15 years later N. T. Wright produced double the size in his two-volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God.
As much as some might groan at the thought of reading (or reviewing!) a long book, many experts on Paul actually relish another opportunity to revisit the mystery and genius of the first and greatest Christian theologian. This describes the sense of anticipation with which I awaited a new study from Douglas J. Moo, A Theology of Paul and His Letters: The Gift of the New Realm in Christ.
Moo is widely known for his work on Romans, articulating and defending a Reformed, evangelical interpretation for a new era. He has also written books on a wide range of New Testament topics such as eschatology, creation care, the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament, law and gospel, sin and salvation, and men and women in family and ministry. In my view, Moo shines brightest as a writer of biblical commentaries, having penned insightful studies on Romans, James, 2 Peter/Jude, Colossians/Philemon, and Galatians.
A Theology of Paul and His Letters is a kind of theological textbook introducing the key aspects of Paul’s thought and weighing in on practically all of the “hot topic” debates it inspires. Moo’s goal is not to give extensive defenses of his own views or lengthy critiques of opposing views, but rather to articulate his own approach to Paul’s theology and its implications with some critical reflection. (A good amount of “color commentary” on scholarly debates happens in the footnotes.)
The book’s content is complex, but its organization is straightforward. In part one, Moo addresses necessary preliminary issues, like methodology, influences on Paul’s thought, and the foundations of Paul’s theology (more on that below). Part two offers a walkthrough of Paul’s life and Moo’s quick exposition of each of Paul’s letters. Part three, the longest section of the book, engages Paul’s theology directly: Christ and his gospel, the beginning of salvation, the problem of sin, the benefits of salvation, final eschatology, the people of Jesus Christ, and how to live out the faith in the here and now.
Reviewing a book like this is like reviewing the Oxford English Dictionary—there is no way to talk about everything, and no one would want that anyway. So permit me to make some general comments, and then I will hit some key topics of the book as I see them.
My first reaction to reading Moo’s tome is that it is a gift to students and scholars alike. His decades of careful study of Paul’s letters and penetrating engagement with current scholarship have culminated in this rich volume. A Theology of Paul and His Letters is not a reaction to current scholarship but a study of Paul’s letters that happens to converse with other modern interpreters. This ensures that Moo’s work will serve readers for many years to come.
Second, the book’s foundational concepts are well conceived and expressed. Moo identifies the “center” of Paul’s theology as Christ, particularly our “union with Christ.” This is probably obvious but still worth stating, because sometimes scholars get so excited about arguing for certain theological constructs that they overlook or underemphasize the person of Jesus and the divine-human relationship mediated by Jesus.
Thirdly, Moo introduces a (somewhat) new term to express what he considers the “organizing concept” of Paul’s theology: “the new realm.” The word realm is a bit awkward, Moo admits, but it aspires to capture several important elements at once: the new age, the transforming gospel, the presence of the Spirit, and the “new person” in Christ who lives out a new life in community, no longer under the domination of sin, death, and the anti-God powers. Moo’s “realm” language brings more concrete imagery to classic discussions of salvation history and eschatology.
I also want to mention the tone of Moo’s book. He is extraordinarily gracious in conversation with scholars on “the other side.” I could imagine a less mature scholar feeling the temptation to score points by dismissing other views or making them look stupid or amateurish. Moo not only treats his critics fairly but often quotes from and cites positively scholars he strongly disagrees with on some major issues.
Hitting the hot topics
Below, I have pulled out six hot topics in Pauline studies that Moo discusses in his book, and that struck me as worthy of further comment.
All 13 letters
When constructing his theology of Paul, Moo works with all 13 letters in the New Testament attributed to Paul’s name. That defies the academic trend of treating Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, and the pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) as “pseudepigraphy” (written by someone else). But Moo makes a strong case that separating out these letters and dismissing them creates a lopsided Paul. Including all 13 letters allows for a “messier” picture of Paul, which helps avoid artificially simplistic portrayals.
The new perspective on Paul
Moo champions core Reformational concerns like justification by faith and the salvation of the individual. Analyzing the so-called New Perspective on Paul, which questions the notion of first-century Judaism as a works-based religion, he admits it has challenged New Testament scholars like himself to be careful about representing the Judaism(s) of Paul’s time fairly and putting Paul’s language about works, circumcision, and traditions into proper historical context.
But Moo affirms that Paul’s gospel was primarily about the vertical relationship with God, not horizontal matters (like unifying Jews and Gentiles). While he acknowledges that Dunn and Wright affirm Paul’s concern for the individual, his vertical/horizontal distinction still strikes me as a bit limiting. After all, in Galatians, when Paul refers to how Scripture “pre-preached” the gospel to Abraham, the key message was “All nations will be blessed through you” (Gal. 3:8), a clear reference to the Abrahamic blessing extended to the Gentiles (v. 14). That doesn’t mean Paul’s gospel was only about unity or sociology, just that the vertical and horizontal elements are intertwined.
Believing and doing
Moo repeatedly returns to his perspective that the Law could not save because it was about “doing,” while Christian faith is about “believing.” Yes, Paul does contrast works of the Law with faith in Christ (Gal. 2:16), but is this really about the problem of doing? Moo gives frustratingly short attention to examples in Paul’s writing of belief and works going hand in hand. The apostle speaks, for instance, of “faith at working through love” (Gal. 5:6) and the “work of faith” (1 Thess. 1:3, NRSV).
I remember the late New Testament scholar R. T. France once noting that when Jesus critiques the Pharisees (Matt. 23:23), he points out their neglect of performing the “the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” The verse makes a reference to pistis, a Greek word meaning faith or loyalty, and poieō, which refers to doing. At least in Matthew’s eyes, then, faith is something we do or perform. This seems to challenge Moo’s statement that for Paul, believing “is not something that a person ‘does’—it is fundamentally receptive.” Faith, of course, really is a gift from God, and we receive grace and salvation rather than earning them through righteous deeds. But at the same time, we’re called to live by faith, exercising our will in ways consistent with that faith.
Moo spends time engaging the “Paul within Judaism” scholars, some of whom argue that while Paul’s letters are focused on Gentiles saved through Christ, he saw Jews as saved through the Mosaic covenant. Moo finds no evidence for this interpretation, as Paul praised Christ as Lord of all, Jew and Gentile (Rom. 10:11–13). He agrees with certain scholars that Paul would have respected believers who preferred to observe Jewish traditions (Rom. 14–15). Even so, he affirms that “the church must be a place where such specific [ethnic] identities take a back seat to one’s more fundamental identity as a Christian.” I think Moo’s points are legitimate here, though perhaps overstated at times.
Justification and judgment
Moo spends significant time and energy on justification, explaining it as “God’s judicial decision to consider a sinful human being to be ‘right’ before him—entailing both a declaration of innocence in the divine law court and also the conferral of a righteous status.” As he explains it, although union with Christ is the center of Paul’s theology, justification is still vitally important.
Moo insists that, for Paul, justification is “forensic” (a declaration of righteousness) rather than “transformative” (something that actually makes the believer righteous). We ought not to “smuggle” transformation into justification, he argues. But the question I wrestle with is this: If union with Christ is the core of Paul’s theology, and one cannot help but be changed by that relationship, how can it not directly affect Paul’s conception of justification?
Another thorny issue in this conversation is how justification relates to final judgment. Believers are justified by faith in Christ, declared innocent, but Moo admits that final judgment will truly examine the believer’s life and the deeds done in the body (Rom. 2:8–9; 1 Cor. 3:12–14). He does not explain, though, how Paul could emphasize judgment and the threat of divine wrath when justification is all but a settled matter. The only answer he offers is that justification texts, like Romans 5:9–10, take “priority” in Paul’s writings. It is unclear to me on what basis that is true. This seems like an attempt to resolve a tension in Paul’s theology that is not meant to be resolved, or at least not so easily.
Men and women in the family
Moo only briefly touches on the topic of women in the family and household. With an eye on the New Testament “household codes” (Col. 3:18; Eph. 5:22; Titus 2:5), Moo views wifely submission to the husband as a theological, and thus universal, imperative. This does not justify male abuse or deny that wives (like husbands) ultimately submit to Christ, but Moo supports a Christian version of patriarchy: “The husband, Paul suggests, has the difficult and challenging role of being the final authority in the relationship.” He appeals to passages like Ephesians 5:23 for theological support.
To see the problem with this argument, consider that Paul gives a similar command to slaves—encouraging them to obey their masters, even if Christ is their highest master. “Slaves,” he writes, “obey your human masters with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ” (Eph. 6:5, NET). It would seem difficult to validate wives submitting to husbands on theological grounds (which Moo supports) without also validating slaves submitting to human masters (which Moo rejects). Instead, I think it best to say that Paul was calling Christians to conform, to some degree, to the prevalent cultural norms of the time, as a way of maintaining positive relationships with outsiders. Ideally, over time, these relational dynamics should be transformed by humility, love, and grace.
Just as we have rethought the validity and morality of slavery, we ought to rethink patriarchy, and I think Paul would recognize the cultural freedoms we have now to free slaves and women from their respective forms of bondage.
Not the last word
Moo titled his book not “The” Theology of Paul and His Letters, but “A” Theology. He does not pretend he has written the last and greatest work on Paul. In fact, his work invites response and engagement. It is a specimen of thoughtful, mature academic reflection on Paul’s letters, with a view towards synthesis wherever possible. Along the way, Moo is sharp and incisive in criticism, humble in spirit, balanced in (most) conclusions, and ultimately focused on the heart of the Apostle’s thought: new life together in the new realm with Jesus Christ.
Nijay K. Gupta is professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lisle, Illinois. He is the author of Paul and the Language of Faith.