Review: Roger Mohrlang. Paul and His Life-Transforming Theology: A Concise Introduction.

From the Themelios website:

Paul and his Life-transforming theology

Roger Mohrlang. Paul and His Life-Transforming Theology: A Concise Introduction. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013. xii + 170 pp. $21.00.

According to the author, this book “is designed to be a concise, inviting introduction to the greatest of the early Christian missionaries, the Apostle Paul” (p. ix). The book largely succeeds in achieving this aim. It has obviously grown from the author’s lifetime of work in Pauline scholarship, yet it is written in a non-technical style which renders it accessible to a range of audiences. Mohrlang engages with alternative views on a number of key issues, yet writes as a convinced and unashamed evangelical. He keeps the text of Paul’s letters as the primary focus of his work and does not allow himself to be distracted by unnecessarily detailed debates. He frames his discussions in an engaging and relevant manner, emphasising the element of personal / moral transformation in Paul’s theology. Furthermore, at the end of each chapter, he provides insightful suggestions for ways in which Paul’s theology might challenge modern evangelical culture.

In the first three chapters, Mohrlang discusses the relevance of Paul for today (ch. 1), introduces Paul’s letters—accepting all thirteen as authentic—(ch. 2), and provides a brief biography of Paul’s life, largely drawn from Acts (ch. 3). Unfortunately, the discussion of the individual letters in ch. 2 is a little too brief. Mohrlang himself warns that much of Paul’s writing “is not abstract theology but advice for specific issues that must be interpreted contextually” (p. 5). However, in these opening chapters he provides very little discussion of these specific issues, and his approach in the rest of the book is largely synthetic—various themes are discussed, quotations are used to illustrate the themes, and footnotes are provided to demonstrate places in the letters where the themes appear. A more detailed overview of the specific issues behind each of the letters in chapter 2 would have greatly helped readers to understand the context(s) of the subsequent discussion. Nevertheless, there is a helpful appendix on pp. 161–68 with details on the specifics of Paul’s letters. I suggest that teachers recommend that their students read this appendix between chapters 2 and 3.

The book treats the following themes in order: the person of Christ (ch. 4), the work of Christ with a focus on his death and resurrection (ch. 5), sin and judgment (ch. 6), the nature of salvation (ch. 7), divine election and human responsibility (ch. 8), justification (ch. 9), the Law (ch. 10), apocalyptic eschatology (ch. 11), the Spirit’s work in the Christian life (ch. 12), sin and assurance (ch. 13), motivation for ethical living (ch. 14), the church as the family of Christ (ch. 15), Christian hope (ch. 16), Paul’s mission and ministry (ch. 17), and finally—and quite helpfully—suffering in the Christian life (ch. 18).

Mohrlang is generally judicious in his choice of how much detail to enter into on debated issues. His choice of detail in each case depends on how close the issue is to his overall purpose to expound the life-transforming nature of Paul’s theology. On some issues, he provides little or no discussion at all: e.g., the role of women in church and family (he mentions women involved in gospel ministry, but claims that Paul largely conformed to the restrictive cultural norms of his day which are no longer seen as relevant by many Christians today, pp. 124–25). On the nature and future of “Israel”, he maintains that Paul has two quite different notions of “Israel” in mind: national Israel, for whom Paul enigmatically holds out some hope for salvation, and the “real” Israel, i.e., all believers in Christ (pp. 48–49). On the use of the Law, he provides a nuanced discussion of the Pauline texts themselves and affirms a moderate reformed position (the Law is not the means of salvation nor the comprehensive guide for daily living; it convicts people of sin and points them to Christ; nevertheless the moral commandments are still God’s will and as such are eternally valid), but does not enter into discussion on the various other views in Christian tradition and scholarship (pp. 69–80). On the meaning of debated phrases such as “the works of the law”, “the faith of Christ”, and “the righteousness of God”, he expresses his own views in the main text (“works of the law” refers to careful observance of all the commandments; “the faith of Christ” includes an objective genitive and refers to trust in Jesus Christ; “the righteousness of God” is the righteousness God attributes to people when they put their faith in Christ) but also provides a relatively extensive discussion of alternative views in footnotes (pp. 62–63). On the meaning of the “I” in Romans 7:14–25, he provides a detailed discussion of the alternatives in the main text before presenting his conclusion that the passage is not about the experience of believers (pp. 95–99). On the question of the relationship between divine election and human responsibility, he seems to give equal weight to the respective emphases of Calvinism and Arminianism (p. 53), concluding that Paul has a valuable yet “paradoxical” perspective (p. 59).

A very nice feature of the book is the plethora of extensive quotations from Paul’s letters. The translations are Mohrlang’s own, and are rendered in clear contemporary English. This translation style fits in well with Mohrlang’s aim to provide an accessible introduction to Paul’s letters. At times, however, Mohrlang’s translations over-interpret Paul’s words in such a way that theological conclusions are placed directly on Paul’s lips without sufficient warrant from the text at hand—for example, Mohrlang translates Romans 1:17 (lit. “the righteous one by faith will live”) as “the person who is considered righteous by faith will live” (p. 64, emphasis mine).

Overall, this book is a careful yet highly readable and concise summary of Paul’s theology. It is recommended for new students or ordinary Christian readers who are seeking an introductory-level overview of Pauline theology.

Lionel Windsor
St Augustine’s Anglican Church, Neutral Bay
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia