Review of Paul’s Theology in Context: Creation, Incarnation, Covenant, and Kingdom by James P. Ware

May 16, 2022

Ware, James P. Paul’s Theology in Context: Creation, Incarnation, Covenant, and Kingdom. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019, xiv + 270 pp., $30, paperback.


It would be an exaggeration to say that every scholar of Paul harbors an ambition to write a Pauline theology — but not too great of an exaggeration. The basic continuity among Paul’s letters, yet with important contingencies particular to each of them, beckons for synthesis. With Paul’s Theology in Context, James P. Ware (Ph.D., Yale University), professor of religion at the University of Evansville, tries his hand at this most common of endeavors. Ware succeeds in writing an accessible, engaging theology of Paul for pastors and pastors-in-training, which might also benefit scholars and informed laypersons. He even manages to frame the apostle in some fresh ways.

The Introduction (1–4) briefly sets out the preliminaries. First, Ware writes Theology in Context “for clergy, students, and laypeople who wish to enrich their understanding of the letters of Paul,” providing “a basic ‘map’ or guide to Paul’s theology that will illumine and enliven the study, preaching, and teaching of all his letters,” though he then adds, “I hope this book will also be of interest to my fellow biblical scholars, as well as to theologians who wish to work in a way conversant with Scripture” (1). Second, what makes this work distinctive among other Pauline theologies, according to Ware, is his twofold emphasis: both how Paul’s gospel is “the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and Scriptures” (1) and how it “would have been heard in the ancient gentile world into which it came” (2). (Here and elsewhere, italics are his.) The first has been well covered; the second, less so, though there has been renewing interest in Paul’s relation to the Roman world around him. Third, Ware’s study has four foci: creation, incarnation, covenant, and kingdom. And finally, Ware takes the entire thirteen-letter collection to be Pauline, at least in the sense of being written “by Paul in concert with a coworker authorized by the apostle to write on his behalf” (4), though Ware assures that nothing fundamental would change had he restricted himself to the seven undisputed letters.

Part One (5–39), on creation, includes two chapters. The first (“The Apostle of Creation,” 7–23) argues that “the creator God, distinct from his creation, is the fundamental conception within Paul’s thought” (20). Ware faults those who minimize the role of creation in Paul and those who have recently portrayed the apostle as something of a polytheist (Ware cites Paula Fredriksen and Bart Ehrman). To be sure, Ware says, Paul believes very much in other spiritual, invisible powers, but the important dividing line is not between the visible and invisible realms, but between creator and creation. In this sense, there is very much only one God, the Creator, for Paul, and this God was different from the other gods on offer in the ancient world. The second chapter (24–39) Ware titles, “The Good News of the Fall.” While pagan worldviews generally took human nature to be flawed and, in one way or another, sought to cope with that reality, Paul instead “offered the promise of a pitch-dark world made shining and luminous once again” (35). In this chapter Ware also gives a brief theological anthropology. For the apostle, we are designed by God to be composite beings: “Body and soul were made for each other” (28).

Part Two (41–91) is the most distinctive section of Paul’s Theology in Context. In it, Ware turns to the incarnation. Chapter 3 (43–61) sketches “The Two Streams of Expectation” in Jewish thought of Paul’s day. The first is well known: the hope for a Davidic messiah. The second is less discussed, but Ware takes to be “the truly central key to [Paul’s] Christology” (51): the hope that YHWH would dwell among his people. The incarnation “at one stroke resolved the mysterious and seemingly irresolvable conflict between the two streams” because, for the apostle, Jesus was at once the human king from David’s line and Israel’s God living among his people. The following chapter (ch. 4, “Paul’s Gospel of the Incarnation,” 62–75) rebuts proposals Ware disagrees with. The pagan myths of gods becoming human are not that close. Paul did not have a “low Christology,” nor did he have a “high Christology” reserved only for the risen Christ. In fact, Ware goes so far as to say, “Nicene theology is the direct creation of Pauline incarnational theology” (74). Whereas the creator-creation distinction is the (mostly unstated) foundation of Paul’s theology (as noted above), Ware locates “The Epicenter of Paul’s Theology” (ch. 5, 76–91) to be the incarnation itself. Today participation is often suggested as the core of Paul’s thought, and while “almost right” (88) — most of the chapter concerns how believers do achieve union with the triune God through the work of Christ — Ware finds participation insufficiently Christological. The incarnation sums up the central hopes and convictions of Paul in the figure of Jesus himself.

Part Three (93–136) includes three chapters on the theme of covenant. Chapter 6 (“Paul and the Law in Full Perspective,” 95–112) is Ware’s concise take on Paul’s relation to the law, a topic that has animated much of Pauline scholarship for the past several decades. He navigates between the “new perspective” (as James Dunn), the “two covenants” approach (as Stanley Stowers), and a modified “old perspective” (as Simon Gathercole). For Ware, Ps 143:2 (“… for in your presence no living being is righteous”) is of decisive significance. Paul does not have a problem with the law per se, only when the law is understood apart from a wider covenantal, merciful relationship with God. According to chapter 7 (“The Covenant and the Cross,” 113–25), it is Jesus’s death that fulfills the Abrahamic Covenant and enacts the promised New Covenant, and this love of God differs markedly from the self-serving devotion sought by pagan deities. The covenant brings communion with God. It also brings justification (ch. 8, “Justification within the Covenant,” 126–36). In this chapter Ware avoids many traditional binaries: according to him, the “righteousness of God” is both God’s own righteousness and that given to humans; it is both our forgiveness and our sanctification. These aspects of “righteousness” can be distinguished but not separated in Paul.

In Part Four (137–97), Ware traces the effects of Jesus’s death and resurrection under the title “Kingdom.” Chapter 9 (“Easter in Ancient Context,” 139–57) indicates how the “good news” would have sounded in the ancient world. According to Ware, bodily death was final among the pagans, even if some believed in a spiritual afterlife or cycles of reincarnation. At the same time, there are indications of a yearning for the final victory of life over death. This is what the Jewish God promised, and Paul proclaimed that Jesus Christ accomplished. Chapter 10 (“The Resurrection of the Body in Paul’s Gospel,” 158–74) is on 1 Corinthians 15. Against those who see Paul advocating a non-physical or ethereal body, Ware defends the traditional understanding of a bodily resurrection. He notes that the body is the subject across 1 Cor 15:36–54 (e.g., “is sown in decay” but “raised in glory”), and that the verb egeirō means “to raise” in the sense of “to sit or stand up,” not in the sense of “to ascend.” Thus, Paul is picturing our current bodies being renewed and standing up from the grave, not our souls ascending to heaven and being given a fundamentally different type of body. Chapters 11 (175–82) and 12 (183–97) turn from the consummated kingdom (the topic of chs. 9–10) to the inaugurated one that believers now inhabit. Ware relates the future hope to “The New Life” and “The New Law,” respectively. The former concerns topics like a Christian’s new status, the sacraments, and discipleship, and the latter is on Pauline ethics, applied especially to Christian love and sexuality. In chapter 12 Ware also distinguishes the law of Moses from that of Christ; he writes, “although Christ followers fulfill the righteous requirements of the law of Moses, they do not follow the law of Moses. They follow the new law of Christ” (183).

What remains of the book is something of a historical appendix. Part Five (199–233), “Paul and Christian Origins,” places Paul within a wider scope of early Christianity. Its first chapter (ch. 13, “The Gospel of the Eyewitnesses,” 201–16) contends that the earliest Christians were united in quickly according Jesus an exalted status. Ware presents 1 Cor 15:1–11 as his key evidence. Coordinating with the timeline Paul gives of his own life in Galatians 1–2, Ware trances this confession about the resurrection back to within a year or two of Easter morning. The second chapter in this section, and the final one of the book, is “Paul and Peter among the Apostles” (ch. 14, 217–33). Far from the factious beginning of Christianity that some reconstruct, Ware envisions an “apostolic college” working collaboratively with each other (218). The chapter title suggests a primacy of Paul and Peter, but at other times Ware places James (the brother of Jesus) and John (the disciple) among the “inner circle” (224), too. The authority of these four, in fact, radiates into most of the New Testament, as Ware places all but one of the twenty-seven books within the orbit of one of these apostles. (In addition to the books attributed to each of the figures, Ware associates Luke, Acts, and Hebrews with Paul; Mark with Peter; and Jude with James; and he links the “John” of Revelation with the anonymous author[s] of the Fourth Gospel and its Epistles.) Paul was no rogue, according to Ware. He was one of the central two-to-four inner apostles, and he was advancing a common cause with the others.

Paul’s Theology in Context is a useful guide to the apostle’s thought. I enjoyed reading the book. The prose is lively, and I learned a number of things from Ware. It will be especially welcome to Christians who believe that the later orthodox Christianity of the ecumenical councils basically got Paul right. Ware reads all thirteen letters as informing the historical Paul, and he reconstructs an apostle who believes in the Trinity and defends the bodily resurrection, among other matters. Ware’s portrait of Paul reminds me particularly of N.T. Wright’s, and, indeed, from the start Ware acknowledges his debts to Wright (3 n. 6). While it is hard to produce a definitive list of Paul’s central themes, creation, incarnation, covenant, and kingdom are certainly all defensible choices, and they provide a reliable way to organize the apostle’s thought. His twofold task of hearing Paul’s message against its Jewish and gentile background is wise, as well. From my perspective, the most distinctive and valuable aspect of this work is Ware’s attention to Buddhist and Hindu sages, which he demonstrates were known and read in the first century Roman Empire. Additionally, Ware’s lists of primary sources are long and diverse. His book also brims with interesting observations. For one example, on Rom 3:23 (“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”), Ware corrects that idea that “fall short” indicates that we come up short morally. This is true enough, from Ware’s perspective, but not the point here. Instead, hystereō means that we are “destitute or bereft of the glory of God” (32). It is a lament, not an accusation. For another, his defense of the bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 (in ch. 10) is innovative, noting details in the text I, at least, had heretofore missed.

At the same time, I doubt that Ware will win over many who are not predisposed to agree with him. His ambition at times outstrips the evidence he has space to marshal. Some scholars will balk at the very mention of a thirteen-letter collection, despite his assurances that nothing hinges on it. Others will worry about anachronism given, as I have noted already, that Ware’s Paul so neatly matches the creeds that would come hundreds of years after his death. (Indeed, in chapter 5, Paul is not only a good Trinitarian, but even a Western one: “The mystery of the Trinity, in which the Father begets the Son, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, is the foundation that underlies Paul’s participatory theology, 87!) Again, in chapter 6, Ware makes “admittedly a rather bold claim” that he has solved the debate between the old and new perspectives on Paul (96). In all these cases, I am not saying he is wrong to advance these positions. Other scholars have done so — as, for example, Matthew Bates has for a “Nicene” Paul in Hermeneutics of Apostolic Proclamation (2012). Rather, I merely imply that it would be impossible for Ware to prove these points within the scope of about twenty pages, which is roughly what he devotes to each of these controversial topics. But perhaps this critique demands too much of the book. After all, Ware writes for only secondarily for a scholarly audience.

I would recommend Paul’s Theology in Context especially for pastors and those in theological training at a master’s level. Although Ware seeks to write for a lay audience, as well, his book would significantly stretch those with only undergraduate studies in the Bible, let alone those with no academic theology. Because he has aimed higher than he meant, though, I would commend this as a resource for scholars. It is not the last word on any subject, but it is one coherent and stimulating organization of Paul’s theology.

Timothy A. Gabrielson

Sterling College

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