Paul’s Ethics

Furnish, V.P. Theology and Ethics in Paul (Abingdon: 1968).

V.P. Furnish, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Southern Methodist University, set out, in the late 60’s, to determine ‘the essential character and structure of the Pauline ethic’ (8). Since Bultmann’s persuasive argument that ethics could not be separated from theology (contra Dibelius and Dodd), what was still left to explicate were the ‘theological presuppositions’ of Paul’s ethics. This required an investigation into the structure of his ethical thought and its foundations. He later puts the question, ‘What is regarded as the touchstone of his ethic?’ (11). One senses Furnish’s conclusion even from the beginning introduction as he makes quite clear that Paul’s theology and ethics are so closely related that one struggles, even, heuristically, to determine how the former influences the latter. Indeed, Furnish eventually argues that even Paul’s gospel proclamation was not ‘theological’ if that meant that it wasn’t also ethically-driven.


Though Furnish surveys a number of possible ethical wells from which Paul probably drank (early Jewish literature, Hellenistic moral philosophy, Rabbinic thought), he, unsurprisingly, found that only two sources seemed to be heavily impactful: the Old Testament and early Christian materials. In terms of the Old Testament, Furnish disagrees with von Harnack that Paul took no interest in the OT ethically. But, Furnish does conclude that Paul neither interpreted the OT commands casuastically nor did he elaborate on them (33f). Thus, ‘There is no evidence which indicates that the apostle regarded it as in any sense a source book for detailed moral instruction or even a manual of ethical norms’ (33).

But, Furnish admits, Paul does apply OT moral lessons with a view towards the edification of his churches. And, Paul can look back on the history of Israel, in the light of Christ, and see moral truths especially in the narratives of Scripture (43). In terms of contemporary influences, though, Furnish does admit that Hellenistic Jewish literature does seem to come close to Paul’s paraenetic style and ethos (such as the Wisdom of Solomon and Pseudo-Phocylides). Furnish is intent on arguing for the complexity of influences on Paul, both Hellenistic and Jewish.

‘A one-sided decision about Paul’s background, whether in favor of his Jewish or Greek heritage, is bound to result in a one-sided interpretation of his ethic. THis ethic can be brought into sharper focus when it is acknowledged that Paul was a Jew of the Diaspora–of the Hellenistic world’ (50).

Furnish, perhaps tired of the source-critical approaches of his predecessors, finally argued that Paul’s ethics must be appreciated in terms of his revelation of Christ and the new reality following the death and resurrection of the Messiah. So, ‘He writes always as an apostle, as a man in Christ. The structure of the Pauline ethic is not yet laid bare when only its several specific “sources” are uncovered’ (66).

Paul as Apostolic Moralist

In a chapter on the nature of Paul’s exhortations, Furnish points out that the ethical instruction Paul supplies is always ‘concrete and relevant’ – he is ministering to specific people in particular circumstances. Paul is not a philosopher. But, there is a tension in this concreteness, for Paul does not just limit ethics to specific behaviors and particular areas of one’s life. Paul’s exhortations are also ‘inclusive’ insofaras they apply to all aspects of one’s life (inner and outer, present actions and future actions). It is critical for Furnish, then, to observe how relational Paul’s ethical language is – as in his use of familiar metaphors – instructing as father to his spiritual children, encouraging as a brother in the Lord.

The Manner of Pauline Exhortation

Furnish also observes the variety in which Paul expresses his ethical demands. Aside from direct appeal, Paul uses stories to encourage reflection on moral problems. This Furnish calls ‘hortatory narrative’ (95). Also, Paul can draw out important ethical implications based on declarative statements: the ‘imperatival indicative’ (97). Such variations demonstrate the organic nature of Paul’s ethics.

The Theological Framework of Paul’s Ethics

When Furnish finally comes to the matter of the logical of Paul’s ethics, he expresses it in a tri-fold manner. It involves ‘a compound of Paul’s theological, eschatological, and Christological convictions’ (213). Furnish dwells most on the eschatological component.

Furnish sees Paul’s eschatology as the ‘heuristic key to Pauline theology’ (114) which has far-reaching implications for his ethics. Though Furnish is reluctant to use the word ‘apocalyptic’, it seems more appropriate for his reasoning as he finds central to this eschatology the presence of enslaving powers and the hegemonic domination of flesh and sin in the present evil age.

‘Paul believes man’s bondage to the powers of this age is so complete and complex that onlt the transcendent power of God can suffice to effect his release. In the death and resurrection of Christ this redeeming, reconciling, rightwising power of the coming age has already broken in and through the Spirit is even now at work for man’s [sic] salvation…By his obedience unto death the “Lord of glory” enters into the enemy kingdom of sin and death, and by his resurrection from the dead shows that those alien rulers are ultimately subject to God’ (180).

Furnish is attentive, then, to the already/not yet nature of Paul’s eschatology. The ages are, as it were, overlapping such that God’s power is already effective in Christ. But, because the new age has not come in its fullness, ‘the powers of this age stand over against the power of God’ (135). The decision to obey the truth of the Gospel of Christ, then, is an act of allegiance to the power and authority of Christ: ‘The total claim which Christ’s lordship lays upon the believer is a basic and pervasive element of Pauline thought’ (169).

Furnish explicates this in terms of participation; as the believer participates in the death and resurrection of Christ, ‘Christ’s death is the actualization of God’s power and puts an effect check on sin’s tyrannical hold’ (172). This perspective, of allegiance and union, is built on the assumption that Christian faith enacts a change of lordship: from slavery to Sin to slavery to the Lord. Thus, Christian ethics is not the actions of a totally ‘free’ and independent human, but an act of obedience to a good and powerful lord. Furnish explains, ‘In [Paul’s] view man [sic] does not live apart from commitments; his life is never finally his “own,” and so the question only is to whom it should be given, to whom it should belong: to sin or to righteousness’ (177).

Furnish, then, is fond of the idea of participation as ‘belonging’ (see 178-9). This can explain the inherent link in Paul between suffering and ethics. Both demonstrate where one’s allegiances lie. ‘Paul regards faith’s obedience as a radical surrender of one’s self to God, a giving of one’s self to belong to him as a slave belongs to his master’ (204).

This leads Furnish to infer that Paul’s ethic is more about obedience or imitation than determining ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ as if from a rule book. The believer, for Paul, must discern the will of God which is ‘ever newly sought and found’ (188-9). Of course the believer is not left to his own conscience. The Holy Spirit acts as a ‘guide for the believer in practical matters of conduct’ (231). Indeed, the community of faith protects, nurtures, and aids the believers as well (233).

The second and third components of Paul’s ethic (theological and christological) are naturally intertwined with Paul’s eschatology. The ‘theological’ element is a conviction that humanity is completely dependent on God’s sovereign power and owe service and obedience to him alone. The Christological part centers on the Christ event, his paradigmatic and cataclysmic act of obedience to God such that others can participate ‘in his body’ and experience freedom from sin’s power in order to come under the ‘dominion of God’ (218). Christ also becomes a model (see Phil 2:5-11) of obedience and proper service to God.


Everywhere Furnish’s analysis is marked by careful exegesis of Pauline texts and balanced, fair conclusions. The approach to Paul’s ethic is chary and nuanced. He rightly concludes that ‘ethics’ is not the ideal term for how Paul understands appropriate human behavior in Christ. For Furnish, Paul’s better understood when the eschatological (or apocalyptic) dimensions of human existence are understood. Though God has conquered the evil powers of sin and death through Christ, they still vie for human enslavement. God, says Furnish, is the only one worthy of worship and human obedience is expected by God and empowered by Christ through the Spirit. Paul’s ‘ethic’ is, if one must use the term, as ethic in conflict. A morality of warfare. The already/not yet dimensions of the overlapping of the ages mean that believers have new empowerment, but also unrelenting foes that seek to delude, confuse, distort, and sully the theological imaginations of God’s holy people. One is most prepared to follow God when he or she understands what it means to belong to Christ.

In many ways, no one has surpassed the excellent work done by Furnish and most have taken portions of his work and developed them further, elaborating on what he may have just touched upon. This work is engaging, honest, readable, and theologically rich. Every student of Paul must read this book.

4 thoughts on “Paul’s Ethics

  1. I only want to know if you have read Rosner’s ‘Understanding Pauls Ethics’ and your views on it as it relates to your own work.

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