Book Review: “The Moral Teachings of Paul” by Victor Paul Furnish

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The author’s desire in writing the book is to address many of the false interpretations of Paul’s ethical teachings. This is accomplished by pointing out the flaws of the two extremes commonly taken in approaching Paul’s ethical teachings, as well as responding to several commonly misinterpreted or falsely applied teachings of Paul. As a result, the majority of the text is devoted to interpreting Paul’s understanding of marriage, sex, divorce, homosexuality, women in the church, and Christianity’s response to the Non-Christian world. The author goes into extensive detail on each issue in an attempt to uncover what Paul’s view most likely was on the subject. While the author’s conclusions may be questioned by readers, Furnish does accomplish the goals set out in the text and, for the most part, presents strong arguments from the text to support his claims.

While making his arguments, the author prefers to approach Paul from the viewpoint of the historical context in which Paul wrote. Furnish seems to believe that forming an accurate understanding a passage is heavily based on one’s able to read the passage as it would have been read by Paul’s original audience. Historical context is highly valued by the author and provides a backbone for many of the arguments made. Language also plays a valuable part of Furnish’s argument style, as his knowledge of Greek terminology is frequently used to defend his arguments and attack the views he disagrees with. The author seems to view himself as a valid authority in these regards because he rarely bothers to cite a source outside of the works of Paul and his own knowledge.

The Moral Teachings of Paul proves to be a mixed bag of strong and questionable arguments. There is a tendency on the part of the author to deny Paul’s teachings of any universal nature, claiming that Paul was reserved in the use of his authority and avoids an authoritarian view of himself (p. 51-52). The author prefers to present Paul as one who provides interpretations and opinions rather than direct command. This reviewer finds this to be a weak point in Furnish’s writing, in that he can at times fall into the “white elephant” category of interpretation that he speaks out against. While not all of Paul’s teachings were direct commands, Paul did claim authority directly from God (Gal. 1:11-12; Eph. 3:3-5) and made direct commands of the highest authority (1 Cor. 14:37). In this way it seems a misstep to so readily dismiss Paul as one who merely interpreted the faith and scripture that already existed. The most prominent issue with Furnish’s book, however, lies in the author’s inability to accept the notion that Paul could have changed or grown in his understanding with the passage of time. Furnish dismisses the pastoral letters of Paul because they contradict his understandings of Galatians 3:28 (p. 97-98). Ephesians and Colossians are also dismissed in the mind of Furnish because they reflect a change of Paul’s understanding of the immanence of Christ’s return (p. 102). By doing this the author has not only forbidden Paul to adapt and grow, but he has also created a means to negate many verses that could call certain arguments of his into question.

In spite of the aforementioned issues, Furnish does provide some very strong arguments that prove to be very well thought out and informative. In the chapter devoted to sex, marriage, and divorce, this reviewer found the majority of the author’s conclusions to be very well argued.  The author points out that Paul practicality in dealing with such matters (p. 42) and notes how in spite of Paul’s limited eschatological understanding,  there is still practical application which can be drawn from Paul’s writings on such topics (p. 46-48). In a similar way, Furnish’s chapter devoted to Paul’s understanding of the world proved to be informative and consistent throughout. This reviewer had no qualms in dealing with either of these passages.

Furnish’s third chapter deals with the homosexuality and devotes a strange abundance of time and effort to the topic considering how early in the chapter Furnish argues that “there is nothing in the Bible, including the letters of Paul, about homosexuality” (p. 57). Most arguments in this section are made form the point of view of Jewish and Roman contemporaries of Paul rather than scripture itself. The assumption here seems to be that Paul had a shared view with his contemporaries. Scripture is mentioned within this section, but only for the purpose of proving that these passages do not reflect the ethical problem being debated today. The general consensus appears to be that we could only assume what Paul felt about the issue based on his contemporaries, and even so this opinion would not be relevant today (p. 91). While it can be questioned why such a great amount of time was devoted to an area of discussion that proved to be inconclusive, it cannot be stated that the author was very thorough in this endeavor.

It is during his fourth section devoted to women in the church where Furnish makes some of his strongest and weakest arguments. A strong argument is made that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 was not of Pauline origin, but rather a later addition to the text (p. 102-106).  Furnish’s arguments have convinced this reviewer that these two verses were most likely not in the original letter and could easily be additions inserted by the early church or marginal comments which were accidentally added to the text cannon. While his argument for pointing to non-Pauline elements as a means to question the authenticity of the passage comes off as a weak argument that is based upon the assumption that Paul never changed his ideas or writing style (p. 105) , the real strength of this argument is made when the author points to early manuscripts as evidence of the addition of this passage after the fact (p.102-103). Another strong argument that has presented in backing his opinion that Paul had no qualms with women in church leadership is made in the case of Phoebe in Romans 16. The author goes to the original Greek language to demonstrate how in this passage the female Phoebe is describe using the masculine concepts of a “servant/deacon” and a “benefactor” (p. 119). This reviewer found Furnish’s argument to be very convincing and challenging in this instance.

It is also in the chapter dealing with women in the church where most of this reviewer’s problems with Furnish come to light. As mentioned earlier, Furnish has a tendency to dismiss passages the would contradict his theories as being non-Pauline in origin. While some arguments are valid, others boil down to the simple fact that Furnish does not allow the notion that Paul might have shifted in his opinion over time. There is a great deal of reliance upon Galatians 3:28 to combat any notion that Paul viewed male or female as being on anything but equal standing. Furnish even goes so far as to say that the differentiation of male and female ordained by God in genesis 1 is no longer  in place (p. 108). It seems to this reviewer that in this regard, Furnish is attempting to eisegete some of his own ideas onto Paul rather than consider the evidence that Paul perhaps didn’t hold a modern view of gender equality.

In conclusion, The Moral Teaching of Paul by Victor Paul Furnish, is a mixture of very strong and weak arguments. While some passages and topics are strongly argued and researched, others seem to be selective and manipulative of the text in order to seem more streamlined. Furnish has a great knowledge of history and language, but can at times stray into the “white elephant” approach to Paul that he warned against. The book is overall a great resource that this reviewer would highly recommend to others despite a few disagreements throughout the work.

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