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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 64, 2016

MICHAEL WOLTER, Paul: An Outline of his Theology (trans. Robert L. Brawley; Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2015). Pp. xv + 476. Hard-back. US$79.95.

Michael Wolter is Professor of New Testament at the Faculty of Protestant Theology in the University of Bonn, and Baylor University Press brings his 2011 work, Paulus: Ein Grundriss seiner Theologie, to the English-speaking world in this clear and idiomatic translation by Robert L. Brawley that remains faithful to the original.

After a two-chapter biographical summary of Paul’s life up to Antioch, Wolter begins his outline of Paul’s theology in Chapter 4 with an examination of the term εὺαγγέλλιον, starting from a synopsis of its lexical meaning attested in Greek literature. Looking at a variety of Pauline passages, Wolter holds that “the gospel does not speak about the power of God … but that it itself is also God’s power that rescues and brings about salvation” (64). With Rom 1:16–17 as the “clearest expression” of Paul’s gospel, Wolter draws out from the notoriously difficult phrase “from faith to faith” the very Lutheran view that “Paul wishes to express that it is only faith and faith alone that lets God’s justice become efficacious in his gospel and turns it into the power that God that brings about salvation” (65). The meaning of “faith” becomes topic of the next chapter, where Wolter eschews a lexical overview of the multivalent Greek word πίστις and starts instead with the assertion that it refers “first of all quite generally to the agreement with the gospel proclaimed by him” (p. 71). But this only a starting point. Wolter goes on to invest further significance in this key term: πίστις is a permanent orientation of life that in Paul consists of maintaining the conversion that took place as affirmation of the gospel proclaimed by him” (81). Indeed, Wolter asserts that this conception of πίστις is “unique in comparison with the entire linguistic usage outside of Christianity—Jewish and non-Jewish” (81). With this key concept in place, Wolter expounds in subsequent chapters the salvific reality of Jesus’s death, baptism, the Holy Spirit, hope, the community of believers, ethics, justification on the basis of faith, and Israel.

The chapter on participation in Christ (or as Wolter prefers “Christ mysticism”) is of particular interest to the present reviewer due to his training in Pauline studies at Duke Divinity School, where this concept is taught by Richard Hays and others as a crucial part of Paul’s theology. Here, Wolter helpfully expounds the concept’s antecedents among such century-old German luminaries of “Christ mysticism” as Albert Schweitzer and Adolf Deissmann, but he unhelpfully focuses on the mystical emphases of the earlier scholars as if it is sufficient engagement with the nuances of contemporary scholars. For example, Wolter does not discuss the vital connection of this concept in Hays with the subjective genitive reading of πίστις Χριςτοῦ as the “faithfulness of Christ”—a reading he had dismissed almost out of hand in an earlier chapter as follows: “all who wish to interpret the expression Χριστοῦ in the sense of a subjective genitive have not thought through their interpretation to the end theologically” (76). In the end, Wolter rejects the idea that it is a key theological concept for Paul (251), concluding instead that “being in Christ” is merely intended “to express an existential belonging and dependence that cannot be imagined as closer or nearer” (239).

The best feature of Wolter’s outline of Paul’s theology is that it expounds a broad range of issues with constant reference to relevant passag-es in Paul’s undisputed epistles. That said, the book is not appropriate for beginners as an introduction to Paul’s thought because only one perspective—Wolter’s own—is presented to any sufficient depth as a worked out system. The beginner is not given a balanced overview of the respective merits and demerits of the various perspectives in Pauline scholarship, nor does Wolter’s frequent claim that his interpretations are “self-evident” put the beginner on notice as to which exegetical positions command a broad consensus and which positions remain controversial. Moreover, adherents of other perspectives of Paul are unlikely to find much common ground for dialogue and largely begged from the beginning. Nevertheless, this book should be of benefit to any reader of Paul already acquainted with the contours of the field and interested in a thoughtful and at times challenging reading of Paul on a large number of topics by a mature theologian working well within a Lutheran perspective.

Review by
Australian Catholic University