I am completing a review of James Thompson’s Moral Formation According to Paul for Interpretation (Baker, 2011) and I found this to be a valuable contribution to the subject of Pauline ethics. It is important to note that the field of “Pauline ethics” did not really exist prior to a few decades ago. Thanks to the efforts of folks like Victor Furnish, Brian Rosner, Michael Gorman, Richard Hays, Morna Hooker, and David Horrell, there is a serious interest in this subject.
Thompson, essentially, tries to accomplish two things. First, he urges that Paul’s primary concern as a missionary/pastor was to shape the identity and ethos of his believing communities. Paul, thus, was not a “theologian” who taught doctrines to foster “belief” alone. Rather, he was interested in shaping these churches and he was very concerned with their behavior and lifestyle as of first importance, not just “FYI” stock exhortation.
You might say, “Duh!,” but it has been one of the effects of the Reformation to separate “faith” from “works” and, unfortunately, “ethics” has long been subsumed under “works” and, thus, scholars of previous generations had a tendency to see it as something Paul was not interested in in the first place.
The second major objective of Thompson’s book is to set Paul’s ethical thinking within the context of Hellenistic Judaism. Now, folks like Wayne Meeks have done a splendid job comparing Paul to the Greco-Roman moralists of his age, but what Thompson offers is an engagement that also sets him in conversation with Philo, Josephus, Tobit, 4 Maccabees, and other early Jewish texts when it comes to moral formation. The clear conclusion is that Diaspora Jews were very concerned with moral formation as well, and presumed the Torah to be the ultimate tool to suppress the fleshly passions. It is interesting, then, to see how Paul engages in this wider discussion of self-control (what Stowers calls “self-mastery”) and how he draws from the Christ event and the apocalyptic reality of new life as well as Scripture and the covenantal wisdom of his Jewish heritage.
Thompson is a very good communicator and has done good research, packing a lot of helpful information into a rather short book. I wish he had interacted with Gorman (which he does not at all) and reflected more on ancient models of participation in God and the matter of moral formation. Richard Hays has a nice essay on this subject and I would have been interested in seeing this engaged in Thompson’s otherwise fine work.
In any case, if you are interested in Pauline ethics, you will find this book worthwhile and I warmly recommend it.