A Brief Review of
Navigating Paul: An Introduction to Key Theological Concepts.
Jouette M. Bassler.
Paperback: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
Reviewed by John Schaaf.
In Navigating Paul: An Introduction to Key Theological Concepts, Jouette M. Bassler, former editor of Journal of Biblical Literature, brings together a collection of essays to navigate some of the currents of the Pauline letters in such a manner so as each chapter stands on its own. Bassler writes in a fashion that is valuable to both the seasoned scholar and the novice by uniting a great deal of scholarship to provide what can easily be termed an extended glossary on some of Paul’s key theological views.
In chapter one, originally published in Interpretation 57.1 (2003): 24-32, Bassler begins by examining Paul’s view of grace. Affirming modern scholarship, Bassler makes it clear at the beginning of the chapter that grace was not central to Paul’s thought alone but to all forms of first century Judaism. Bassler continues the chapter by exploring the question of how Paul’s viewpoint was unique in the midst of a swarm of conflicting viewpoints. The chapter finishes with a discussion of what “his most polemical grace-language” was directed toward (1).
In chapter two Bassler turns her attention to a subject that has been hotly debated in more recent years: Paul’s view of the Jewish law. Bassler recognizes that “interpretations of Paul’s statements on the law, especially his rejection of ‘works of the law,’ seem driven to a large extent by extratextual concerns about consistency, about preserving the truth of Christianity as the interpreter conceives it, about anti-Semitic (more correctly, anti-Jewish) consequences” (20). Bassler appears to suggest a degree of flexibility in the usage of Paul’s language of “works of the law” in light of the required “strained exegesis” needed by the new perspective (17). With such flexibility Bassler recognizes the difficulties that are present in systematizing Paul’s theology in a way that may not have been present when originally written.
In chapter three, entitled “Faith,” Bassler surveys Paul’s understanding of the word pistis, usually translated “faith,” and its relation to Christ and the law (23). Here Bassler manages to significantly illustrate the value of her volume as she explores all the sides of the issue involved in the debate over translating a Greek phrase that is typically translated as, “faith of Christ” or, “faith in Christ. The chapter aids in explaining the complexities involved in the continuing conversation. With an eye to detail, Bassler illustrates her hold of the complexities as she clearly illustrates each proponent’s view.
In chapter four the phrase, “in Christ,” is explored in order to further understand its implications as a word of “Mystical Reality or Mere Metaphor” (35). Bassler maps out the controversy with brevity before looking at Paul’s participatory language and its meaning. Peppered with various insights, at the end of this particular chapter Bassler advises that when considering the term, one’s starting point “should be Paul’s words, not modern preferences. . .” (47).
Chapter five concerns the phrase, “the righteousness of God,” along with an evaluation at the end of the chapter on “justification.” Bassler makes use of the majority of the chapter to give background to the former before suggesting that the ultimate goal of Romans is to “demonstrate that God’s righteousness extends salvation to those not included among the covenant people, that is, to Gentiles who do not live under the law” (65).
The concluding two chapters deal with the future of Israel in chapter six, and the parousia and the resurrection of the dead in chapter seven. Written with an eye to the corpus of Scripture, the author does an excellent job of bringing out the different pieces of Scripture associated with each subject.
The strength that will be most apparent and valuable to the reader is the way Bassler handles the subject matter with brevity and with insight into the nuances involved in the current discussions. Although unnecessary, some may take issue with her refusal to commit the reader to an exclusive perspective at length. This, however, appears to be associated with the goal of exposing the reader to the range of scholarship connected to the material.
There is little doubt that this volume will be useful at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, as well as in our churches, and that its greatest strength will be its ability to expose the student to the texture of Scripture. In tandem with this wide audience is Jouette’s ability to bring seasoned ministers up to date on Pauline discussions.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com