Dr Gary Burnett has published a short study on the writing and theology of Paul under the title Paul Distilled. I had the chance to ask him about his book—why he wrote it, what approach he takes, and why it could be of help to us.
IP: How did this book arise, organised in a series of short chapters as it is?
GB: At the beginning of the pandemic, when we were all desperately washing our hands, couped up in our homes and watching the dreadful scenes from round the world on our TVs, I wanted to do something to encourage people. So I made a series of short YouTube videos which looked at aspects of Paul’s thought, and tried to get across some of the inspiration and excitement I get from reading Paul. The feedback from these was great, and I began to think it might be worthwhile to take the basic idea of short, easily accessible episodes into book form. And happily the folk at Wipf and Stock, with whom I’d published before, liked the idea.
IP: You use the metaphor of Paul ‘distilled’. What made you think of this term, and why might this be a helpful approach to understanding Paul?
I was aware that a lot of Christians find Paul a little difficult—they get a bit lost in those long sentences in Ephesians or they find a big letter like Romans difficult to follow, and Paul’s letters just don’t seem as easy or attractive as the Gospel stories (at least on the surface!). So I wanted to present something of the essence of Paul’s thinking and writing in a way that would be easy and interesting to read, but that would try and tease out the relevance of Paul in our world, taking into account his first century situation. And I wanted it to be lively, to try and get people excited about Paul and his message.
Distillation is a common technique in making perfume. Lots of perfume manufacturers refer to their product as an “essence.” It’s the characteristic fragrance of the plant from which it is derived. So I was trying to distil down Paul’s thought to the essence—what’s most characteristic of it and what it is that made Paul tick, and what’s of most relevance to our situation. That I thought might be very helpful for those who find reading Paul difficult or off-putting.
IP: Early on, you ask the reader to be patient with Paul, trying to read him in his ancient context. How has your own academic study helped with this task, and which aspects of Paul do you think it helps us with most?
GB: I’ve been studying and teaching Paul for more than twenty-five years in universities and theological colleges. So I know that understanding Paul’s historical context is very helpful—vital, actually—in getting to grips with what he had to say to the various churches to which he wrote. If we can understand the world he and they lived in, and understand something of Paul’s Jewish background and commitment to his scriptures, then I think it opens the text up for us, perhaps in fresh ways, and enables us to see how it might apply to us and our world. So I tried to draw on my understanding of that historical context and it seemed to me that Paul has a great deal to say about issues that concern us greatly now – like poverty, peace, justice, being loved and anxiety.
IP: I was very struck that you focus, in the first two chapters, on Paul’s emphasis on the love of God, which is not usually where studies of Paul start! What made you focus on this, and how does reading Paul in context help us to see its importance?
When we think of Paul, very often our next thought is “justification by faith,” and when you read academic treatments of Paul, you find long discussions of eschatology, the meaning of righteousness, Jews and Gentiles and so on, but as I started writing Paul Distilled, and as I read through Paul’s letters again, I was really struck by the prominence of the theme of God’s love. I was heartened, when after Paul Distilled was published, I read Patrick Michel, in his wonderful book on the theme of love in the Bible, calling Paul “the apostle of love.”
And once you’re alerted to this, you begin to see it almost everywhere in Paul’s letters. He is someone who is deeply moved by the “Son of God who loved me” and sees that underpinning the death of Christ is God’s love for humanity. A knowledge of that love is what sustained the people to whom he wrote – like the Romans, hard pressed by all the pressures of poverty and persecution, whom he assures will not be separated from God’s love by anything they are facing. This love can enable them to be more than conquerors, even in the midst of their very tough circumstances.
For Paul, this incredible love of God begins with the cross but is to be made known in a thousand practical ways in the lives of Jesus followers. Over and over again, Paul encourages the people to whom he writes to love one another, care for one another, bear each other’s burdens, to do good, to be devoted to one another, to show love and mercy to everyone. Interestingly, he doesn’t have much to say about us loving God – it seems the way he expects us to do that is by loving others.
Understanding something of the situation in which the first Christians lived – most at or under subsistence level, coping with neighbours suspicious of a group who were dishonouring the gods, politically vulnerable, living in a very violent world, some of them in slavery – helps us realize how revolutionary and transformative the gospel’s message of love was. This was why Christian faith grew so rapidly from the first century onward. It really was the power of love. And Paul’s letters are full of it—importantly, of course, based on God’s prior and ultimate love in Christ.
IP: Your chapter headings appear to be guided more by the content of Paul’s letters, and less by the issues that have been debated by scholars. Why do you think that is important—and how have you addressed the controversial issues?
GB: Clearly I’m aware of the issues debated by scholars with respect to Paul, but I wanted to take an approach that might pique readers’ interest by looking at themes that seemed to me to emerge quite strongly as Paul addressed the circumstances of the churches to which he wrote. Paul’s theology emerged as he reflected on his dramatic meeting with the risen Christ and then read his own scriptures to understand what God had done in Christ. It was then worked out practically with the new groups of converts dotted around the Mediterranean world.
So as we try and understand the lives of these people and see how Paul sought to apply the good news of Jesus to them in his letters, it gives us a good start as we in turn try to see how the gospel might be relevant in our own world. The debates by scholars are important and at times lie beneath the surface of what I’ve written, but I hope that what I’ve been able to do is to draw some resolution out of those debates in a way that is helpful for the non-specialist reader.
I hope, however, there will be some people whose appetite for understanding Paul better will be whetted by my book, and I’ve made one or two suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter.
In terms of controversial issues, there may be some serious readers of Paul who take issue with the way in which I’ve approached one or two issues. In my chapter on justice, for instance, I’m aware that I’ve only scratched the surface of justice or righteousness language in Paul, but rather than attempt some sort of full treatment, I decided to focus on one way in which we might think of some of the things Paul says, and one which I hope has resonance in our own situation. Happily, I was able to rely on the work of some very well-respected scholars.
Some others might quibble a bit on my treatment of Paul and the poor, depending on their view of poverty levels in the first century. Again though, I felt I had good support in the recent literature, and I did think this was a really important issue to get people thinking about. Most of the Christians in our world live in vulnerable, marginalized communities and we affluent Christians need to take much more account of that and our responsibilities as part of the body of Christ. What was interesting to me, and a little discouraging, was that of the ten “Paul in Ten” videos I made, the one least viewed was that on Paul and the poor.
IP: I was glad to see a chapter focussing on the Spirit in Paul, which some introductions pass over. Why do you think the Spirit is so important in Paul’s writings?
GB: As I wrote the book, three core themes in Paul emerged for me—the love of God, the resurrection and the Holy Spirit. The reality of these is what motivated and energized Paul and enabled him to cope with the struggles he faced during his life – the beatings, the lack of life’s basics, imprisonment and antagonism from all quarters. We often think of Paul as a theologian, a great thinker, but as well as that, Paul was a man of the Spirit, who had mystical experiences, who saw God work through him in miraculous ways. He told the Romans that his proclamation of the gospel was attested, “by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God,” and the Corinthians that he didn’t rely on fancy talk, but on a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power.”
As he read his scriptures, Paul knew that the age of the arrival of God’s kingdom was to be marked by the presence and power of God’s Spirit. That new age, of course, had arrived in the person of Jesus. And this expectation was borne out by what Paul saw in the communities of Jesus followers, in their worship, their communal life and the power for individuals to live in new, joyful ways. So it’s not surprising that Paul talks so much about the Spirit in his letters – it’s the air that he and the first Christians breathed.
IP: You offer a broad-brush picture of Paul’s positive attitude to women in ministry and community—but don’t have space to address in detail the two ‘difficult’ texts you mention (in 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2). How do you see these two kinds of discussion fitting together?
When many people consider the question of women in ministry, their starting point is often the two texts in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. I’m convinced that this is the wrong place to start, so what I wanted to do was to point out that if we start with Romans 16 and the women mentioned there who are clearly in leadership roles, and with other aspects of Paul’s theology which affirm women in a way that was quite counter-cultural, we might need to look at the Corinthians and Timothy texts differently.
As you say, I didn’t have space to look fully at all the exegetical questions and issues for each of these, but I’ve given some suggestions for where readers might go if they want to do that. There are important discussions to be had around both of those texts, but a more general appreciation of the weight of evidence elsewhere in Paul is an important starting point. And that’s what I wanted to get across.
IP: How do you hope people will make use of your book?
A number of people have commented to me that the book has rehabilitated Paul for them! Some of these have been women whose experience in churches has been less than positive, because of the way some Pauline texts have been used. So I hope that those who read it and find it helpful and will encourage others to read it too! But also, at the end of each chapter there are a list of questions for consideration, which makes the book ideal for use in church home groups or bible study groups. I’m glad to say that the book is being used in this way in a variety of church denominations.
I hope I’ve taken away a little of the fog that some people find when they read Paul’s letters. If I’ve been able to do that, I think they will, like me, find what he has to say very relevant to our world, and personally encouraging, inspirational and maybe more than a little challenging!