Spirituality According to Paul – Rodney Reeves (Book Review)

Perhaps my biggest research interest is in the subject of discipleship in the New Testament, and especially in Paul. So, when I saw the title Spirituality According to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ (Rodney Reeves, IVP, 2011), I quickly got hold of a copy. Here is Reeves’ big idea

Participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ was the template of Paul’s spirituality. (15)

Working from the confession in 1 Cor 15:3-8, Reeves breaks Pauline spirituality into three parts:

Paul believed the gospel was a Spirit-filled life that empowered Christ believers to sacrifice themselves (death), to rely on each other (burial), and to live as heavenly people (resurrection). (16)

The background of the book is very interesting to me and relevant to many of us who teach Paul. Rodney came to realize that normal students are not nearly as excited about the scholarly debates on Paul that we researchers get all bent out of shape over – imagine that! At the end of the day, Rodney’s students wanted to know what my students also want to know – what would it look like to follow Paul’s advice today? Was Paul right? Is Paul the model of a good Christian?

They want to take Paul’s advice seriously. It’s not enough for them to understand the historical meaning of Paul’s letters. They want to know–they must know!–if Paul’s gospel still matters today, especially since the apostle dealt with some of the same issues we face: gender battles, social contests, racial prejudice, marital struggles, sexual vices…Because Paul’s instructions are so specific, based on his experiences and ideas about what the gospel should look like in his time, we can’t help but wonder: is Paul’s timely advice timeless? (10)

The book is divided, sensibly, into three sections, focused on “crucified with Christ,” “buried with Christ,” and “raised with Christ.” The first set of chapters (under “crucified”) focuses on epistemology and cruciformity – two of my favorite subjects! These chapters are spot on, full of good wisdom. The second set of chapters, under the heading of “buried with Christ,” seem to all be about community and the social “body of Christ.” Death to self means being freed up to live and love together. The last section, “raised with Christ,” looks at themes like confession, hope, and engaging the powers of the world.

Rodney ends with a helpfully summarizing conclusion. What would it mean to be like Christ? How do we imitate Paul, imitating Christ?

He [Paul] would remind us of “his ways” in Christ Jesus, that the gospel is imitating Christ in his death, burial and resurrection, walking in the power of his Holy Spirit…To live the crucified life, to share life together as the body of Christ, to walk in the resurrection power of Christ would be good news for his time and for our time. (235)

I really enjoyed reading this book, mainly because Rodney is a skilled communicator with loads of good illustrations and a winsome style. Two things are important to keep in mind if you are interested in this book. First, I found the title a bit misleading. I don’t hear people use the language of “spirituality” very much. On the one hand, it has a classic ring to it of piety, but Reeves mentions life in the Holy Spirit, so it could be directly related to that as well. I think perhaps “Discipleship” may have worked better for the book, if only for clarity. Or he could have dedicated one whole chapter to life in the Holy Spirit.

The other thing is that this is not an academic-y, theoretical work. It is more of a pastoral work. That is not a criticism – I am excited that scholars like Rodney wish to address a broader audience. I only mention this because researchers will not find much “new” material here. Also, I had trouble working out key ideas or themes as I moved from chapter to chapter. Often, after reading a chapter, I thought to myself, “He has some really good points, but what is the chapter’s main idea or argument?” For many chapters, I could not answer that question. I will carry away from this book “trees” insights mostly, not very many “forest” ones.

If you are interested in Pauline ethics, discipleship, and/or epistemology, this is a fun and worthwhile book to read.

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2 thoughts on “Spirituality According to Paul – Rodney Reeves (Book Review)

  1. I like the general point – that Paul’s gospel invites believers to share in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection… but it sounds like the way he divides various ethical imperatives into those three images is a little forced. Did you find that to be the case? It seems to me that Paul can be really flexible about the way he applies the imagery of imitating/inhabiting Christ – so, for example, “risenness” could be used to encourage believers to love one another, just as much as “death” or “burial” could be used for this theme.

    1. I had a similar concern when I read the introduction, but Reeves does a pretty good job making his case for “burial” language, especially as it is connected with baptism, for example, in Romans. It is not a rock solid case, but it is worth investigating further. I would be interested in knowing, now, how the apostolic fathers referred to the burial of Christ and/or Christians as “buried in baptism” and what that entials – if such subjects come up.

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