James W. Thompson. Apostle of Persuasion: Theology and Rhetoric in the Pauline Letters. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.
1. What kinds of questions—scholarly or otherwise—inspired you to write this book? Were there any new questions or issues that intrigued you in the course of your research and writing?
Hans Dieter Betz’s commentary on Galatians resurrected the rhetorical study of the letters of Paul after almost a century when that approach had largely disappeared. Soon others were applying the method to other Pauline letters. I was impressed by the method because it presented a holistic approach to the letters rather than the constant speculative attempts to look for the sources behind the text. Although I largely disagree with Betz’s conclusions—and those of others who apply the method—I saw its value. At the same time, I observed that NT theologies treated Paul’s letters as collections of abstract ideas and ignored the persuasive intent of the letters. Thus the rhetorical and theological approaches lived in two worlds. In this book I attempted to integrate these two approaches. I argue that, while Paul may be the first theologian, he was a pastor most of all. His central concern was the moral formation of his communities, and his persuasive task was to shape communities into the image of Christ. He had basic theological convictions, but he articulated these for persuasive effect. Thus, if Paul appears inconsistent, as NT theologies maintain, his larger purpose of persuasion has to be taken into consideration.
2. In what way do current trends in Churches of Christ influence or even surface in your commentary?
It appears to me that Churches of Christ discovered God’s grace and the traditional Protestant view of justification by faith shortly before this view was being challenged by the new perspective on Paul. While the traditional view of justification by faith focused on “getting in,” more recent Pauline theology (“the new perspective”) has focused on the Christian life and the transformation of communities. Perhaps my study is more of a challenge to current trends in Churches of Christ insofar as grace is often misunderstood today. At the same time, my consistent focus on ecclesiology reflects the way that Churches of Christ have shaped me. The missing dimension in the traditional Protestant understanding of grace and justification is the individualization of this concept. All of my work focuses on ecclesiology.
3. Is there anything you would like to have said or included, but could not due to the constraints of time or format or etiquette?
Having written an entire series on Paul, I have been able to make my case, building successively on each book.
4. What common arguments or stereotypes in Pauline studies do you wish would be laid to rest?
As I have mentioned above, the popular stereotype of Paul is that the center of his theology is justification by faith. I agree with the new perspective that this category was important to Paul, but it was primarily a category used to defend the Gentile mission. The other popular stereotype comes by the misunderstanding of Paul in his own historical context, which leads to negative judgments of Paul on social issues such as slavery and the role of women. Any good historian recognizes that we do not judge people by the standards of our own social setting.
5. Who are some NT/Pauline studies scholars outside the anglophone world that students should read, and how have they influenced your perspective (in this book, or more broadly)?
Anyone who knows my work knows how much time I have spent with German scholarship. I came of age when the ultimate word was whatever Käsemann, Schweizer, Bornkamm, etc. said. I have especially liked the works of Peter Stuhlmacher and Martin Hengel, both of whom have challenged some of traditional Protestant scholarship. Much of my current work was influenced by an article by Udo Schnelle several years ago, according to which transformation was the center of Pauline theology. My translation of his book, The First Hundred Years of Christianity, will be available in a few months. I have developed the focus on transformation in a series of books on Paul.
6. How do you hope this advances the conversation in your scholarly discipline? What books or essays or further research do you think your commentary elicits?
I hope that more scholars will engage the letters to Timothy and Titus in terms of ministerial I hope that theology and rhetoric will not be treated as separate disciplines, but that we will discover the interaction of what have been separate disciplines.
Several arguments should elicit a response. In the first place, I show the limitations of both epistolography and rhetoric in the study of Paul, arguing that Paul’s letters have some characteristics of both, but are sui generis, making arguments that are intelligible only to those who shared his premises. In the second place, I challenge the common view that the church at Antioch was formative for Paul’s theology. I demonstrate considerable continuity from Jesus to the Jerusalem church to Paul. Those who know rhetoric better than I do can certainly refine some of my arguments about Pauline argumentation.
7. What impact would you like your work to have on the Church generally and Churches of Christ specifically?
I would like to demonstrate how theology is done. Paul is an example of theology done for the sake of the church. He took actual situations, and reflected theology on actual situations, applying his basic theological convictions to the ongoing debates within the church. For Churches of Christ, either proof-texting or pragmatism determines the decisions that are made. I would hope that we can learn theological method from Paul. Churches of Christ, along with other Protestants, have followed Luther in the focus on making converts, but have neglected the importance of transformation. I hope this, as well as my other books, help on this.
8. What kind of research or focus is on your horizon now that this project is finished?
For some years now I have been engaged with local synagogues. I am a regular at Temple This is the fifth in a series on Paul. I have several topics in mind, but I haven’t developed them yet. What interests me most at this stage of my career is theology for the sake of the church. Issues in church life take me back to theological reflection, and my theological reflection always takes me back to the life of the church. I remain active in the SBL Hebrews seminar, and I will continue the conversation on this homily.
James W. Thompson is scholar in residence at the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. He is the editor of Restoration Quarterly and the author of numerous books, including Moral Formation according to Paul, Pastoral Ministry according to Paul, The Church according to Paul, and Hebrews in the Paideia commentary series.