Can we find the essence of St Paul’s writing and theology?

Dr Gary Burnett has published a short study on the writing and theology of Paul under the title Paul DistilledI 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!

IP: thanks for your time Gary—and thanks for this really helpful study of Paul.

Gary Burnett taught New Testament in the Institute of Theology at Queen’s University Belfast for many years. He is the author of Paul and the Salvation of the Individual (2001) and The Gospel according to the Blues (2014). As well as managing a high-tech consultancy business, he runs the faith and music site Down at the Crossroads.

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

25 thoughts on “Can we find the essence of St Paul’s writing and theology?”

  1. Paul in a nutshell?

    Jesus Christ has personally redeemed you from your sins and gives you power to live like Him. Do so! And maintain unity between Jew and gentile in His church.

    • Anton – are you thinking of Romans 8: 3-4 ?

      What the Torah could not do, because Adamic, post-Fall human nature wasn’t fully up to the job, God has done. He sent His Son in a body just like ours, and in that human body He committed no sin, and thus ‘Sin’ as a power was vanquished. Thus, those who are united to Christ, via the holy Spirit, share (progressively) in Christ’s victory over Sin.

      Praise God !

  2. 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.

    Yes, this is the state of Christianity after 2000 years. We live in a civilisation of unprecedented technological complexity, where school education is universal and 50% of children go to university, studying a single subject, or at most two, for a further three years in a depth that Greeks and Romans would have boggled at — yet churchgoers baulk at any intellectual engagement with the letters of Paul, an experienced communicator who wrote to the congregations of the churches, many of them of little education (I Cor 1:26), on the assumption that they would understand what he wrote to them. And presumably they did.

    As for long sentences, our Bibles have already chopped them up into little pieces so that our less developed minds can chew them more easily. Eph 1:3-14, for example, is one sentence in the Greek, five in the ESV. King James’s translators had sufficient confidence in contemporary readers to leave it as one sentence.

    • Steve :

      1. The original Greek text didn’t have sentences. It’s up to the translators (whoever they may be) to decide where best to put the sentences (and punctuation).

      2. When Paul sent his epistles he probably sent them by messengers who were very well briefed by Paul, as to the meaning of the Epistle(s). Paul’s messenger(s) then may have been the one to read out the epistle(s) at the intended destination(s), and be on hand to elucidate the text, if necessary.

      3. The majority of the original listeners of Paul’s epistles may have had a distinct advantage over us, in that they were probably fully conversant in koine Greek (and thoroughly familiar with Hellenistic cultural practices).

      • 1. Sorry, but you’re wrong. Sentence identification is a matter of syntax. Punctuation follows syntax, not the other way round.
        2. That’s pure speculation, and in any case does not excuse translations which attempt to supply the meaning which they/you think was supplied by the messengers.
        3. Translators are fully conversant in koine Greek and their task is to translate it, so that we understand the text just as Paul and the Spirit speaking through him intended – which is a matter of being faithful to the very words.

        • But Steven, translation seems to be a bit more than ‘a matter of syntax’ and ‘being faithful to the VERY words’ (my emphasis). Isn’t it the THOUGHTS of Paul rather than the TEXT that needs to be translated?
          Or what do we do with something like:

          • Apologies. Correction: ‘Isn’t it the THOUGHTS of Paul rather than [simply] the TEXT that need to be understood [by readers of a translation]’

          • Bruce – Are you talking about a ‘meaning-for-meaning’ translation, rather than some wooden, literal ‘word-for-word’ translation ? If so,
            I would generally tend to agree.

        • Thank you, Steven.

          In response :

          (1). Different critical Greek editions of the New Testament text differ in the use of punctuation. Are you saying that this punctuation difference across the critical Greek editions, never occurs when it comes to the use of the punctuation mark ?

          (2). Of course experienced Koine Greek scholars are fully conversant in Koine Greek. My point was that whereas most Christians today are not conversant in Koine Greek, the exact opposite was the case during the First century CE.

          (3). The best translations of the New Testament are probably not ideologically committed to just one Translation philosophy. The overriding, ultimate consideration in New Testament translation has to be a ‘meaning-for-meaning’ translation – if a literal ‘word-for-word’ translation is either nonsensical, or obscures the text’s intended meaning.

          (4). Ephesians 1: 3-14 in the current King James Version is not one long sentence, but three. What particular edition of the ‘KJV’ were you thinking of, Steven ?

          (5). Would you describe yourself as a ‘King James Only’ person, Steven, and if so, do you prefer any particular KJV edition ?

          God bless you.

  3. Here is a song (from memory) that encapsulates Paul:

    Jesus, you are, the wisdom
    that comes from the Lord God,
    who has revealed his love.
    Our faith now rests on your power Lord,
    which your spirit has poured out on us.
    We declare the mystery,
    hidden before the ages,
    which God revealed for our glory.
    For we have received
    a glorious inheritance,
    pledged by the Spirit,
    and our eyes have not seen
    and our ears have not not heard
    what is in store for
    the hearts of
    the ones
    who love the Lord.

      • Agreed, P.
        Isn’t a main point of the article that Christians find Paul difficult to understand !?
        If the reality of all of the indicatives expressed by Paul eludes the Church, it is little wonder there are seismic fractures; little wonder the imperatives are to be evaporated.

  4. For me the essence of Paul must include,
    Gal 4:19 My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you.His doctrine was a Full Gospel, brought out of sin.slavery and death and brought into holiness,liberty and life,
    {the Promised Land }
    Nearly all his letter contain his desire that the Church might be perfect
    in all the fulness of Christ, such were also all his travailing prayers.
    “Christ in you the hope of Glory”.

    • My favourite Pauline prayer for Christians is this, Alan :

      “I pray that you .. may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length, width, height, and depth of God’s love, and to know Messiah’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

      (Ephesians 3:17-19).

  5. I’m glad to see the emphasis on LOVE in Paul. I’m inclined to view LOVE in inseparable relation to FAITH and HOPE, much akin to Michael Gorman’s recurring emphasis on this all-encompassing and integrative Pauline “triad.” It is remarkable to see, as well, that the triad proves fundamental to so much of Pauline-inspired Western moral theology from Augustine through Oliver O’Donovan.

  6. Indeed,
    And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory. 1 Tim 3:16
    But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace,
    To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen, ….. Gal. 1:15 + 16
    Act 26:18 To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.

  7. In line with the original premise consider A} The psalmist of Ps.56
    B} Understanding Paul
    56:2 Mine enemies would daily swallow me up: for they be many that fight against me, O thou most High.
    56:4 In God I will praise his word, in God I have put my trust; I will not fear what flesh can do unto me.
    56:5 Every day they wrest my words: all their thoughts are against me for evil.
    56:6 They gather themselves together, they hide themselves, they mark my steps, when they wait for my soul.
    56:7 Shall they escape by iniquity? in thine anger cast down the people, O God.
    2 Pet 3:16 As also in all his{Paul’s} epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.
    1 Cor 2:14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
    He when He is comesm, shall take what is of mine and reveal them unto you.


Leave a comment