James W. Thompson. Moral Formation according to Paul: The Context and Coherence of Pauline Ethics. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011. xv + 256 pp. $24.99/£13.52

In Moral Formation according to Paul, James W. Thompson engages in a broad and detailed comparative survey of the contested and uncontested Pauline epistles with canonical Scripture, and non-canonical Jewish and Greco-Roman sources in order to correct the frequent scholarly assertion that Paul’s ethics consist of an essential adoption of Greco-Roman philosophy (p. 11), to the exclusion or neglect of the relevant antecedent and contemporaneous Jewish sources (p. 16). He notes that despite the “formal connections” often cited by scholars, nevertheless “major differences between Pauline ethics and the ethics of the Hellenistic moralists suggest the limitations of Hellenistic morality as a consistent source of Pauline ethics or as the basis for the coherence of Paul’s ethical instructions” (p. 11). Thompson is successful in showing significant differences between Paul and the Greco-Roman moral philosophers. Yet, he is careful not to neglect the undeniable existence of some degree of influence between the two streams. I find Thompson to land in the realistic middle ground which is governed by the evidence, and which recognizes the source of Paul’s ethics as influenced generally by Hellenism, but primarily by Jewish streams of thought.

The thesis and proposal of the book is well-argued and convincing. As someone who is carrying out doctoral work in the area of Pauline virtue and vice catalogues, and thus having read practically every popular and academic work on the market on the topic of Pauline ethics, I can say with certainty that this book stands out as one of the top, if not the best, single volume works on Pauline ethics available today. Its unique ability to combine brevity with breadth, and its focus on both the lexical content and the conceptual coherence of Paul’s approach to morality within his Greco-Roman and Jewish context is unmatched in the field. Of the many strengths in the book, we shall now highlight a few, followed by a brief look at some of the (in my view, minor) weaknesses of the book.

Firstly, Thompson’s attention to the Hellenistic sources is objective, concise, and helpful. He provides a strong digest of some of the main streams of Hellenistic thought (p. 7-8) which serves as a perfect introduction for newcomers to the topic because of its brief (yet not simplistic or generalistic) presentation of the schools of Hellenistic ethics. Likewise, his presentation of the ‘history of scholarship’ on Hellenistic ethics and Paul, from Dibelius to the present (p. 10-11), will certainly be helpful for both the seasoned scholar and the beginning student, pastor, or lay person. His articulation of the general, but notable, critical differences between Paul’s communal ethic of moral transformation and the individualism of eudaemonia (p. 8; cf. 59, 89, 109), and of Paul’s lack of the Hellenistic Cardinal Virtues (p. 89) help to illuminate Paul’s uniqueness within the context of other Greco-Roman ethical schools. Additionally, and relatedly, in drawing attention to the differences between competing patterns of thoughts within Hellenism, such as the difference between the Stoic idea of the eradication of the passions and the Aristotelian perspective in which the passions are simply controlled (p. 89 ), Thompson effectively demonstrates the variegated nature of Hellenism itself, thus avoiding the error made by many in the pulpit, pews, and academy in which Hellenism is viewed as a general homogeneous phenomenon without attention to the detail of the distinctive writer or school of thought.

Next, in contrast to Greco-Roman thought, and arguably the most powerful theological and practical element of the book, is Thompson’s identification and explication of Christian communal love as the coherent link and key to all of Paul’s moral discourse (p. 12). Now, this claim and notion of the centrality of love (p. 80, 157) for Paul is, in itself, not at all new. Indeed, one could call it the common denominator of the majority of interpreters of Paul’s ethics. However, what makes Thompson’s treatment unique is: (i) his situating and articulating of the concept of Christian love within the context of moral communal transformation, and (ii) his attention to the concretization of Christian love through the virtue lists and the moral usage of the OT and Jewish traditions. In terms of the communal nature of Christian love, which Thompson sees as a “distinctive element in Paul’s moral instruction” (p. 109), he demonstrates how, in texts such as Rom. 14:19, Paul aims at the building up of the other as central to his moral vision for Christians and the Church (p. 84). This element of Pauline morality, shows that “the moral life cannot be lived in isolation, but only in the company of others who are called to be elect and holy members of the family” (p. 62). Thus, Thompson not only elucidates and articulates the communal nature of Paul’s moral teaching, but he situates and underlays this notion within the Jewish narrative themes of election, ekklēsia, and the concept of holiness. This serves the function of constructing the community identity around the love of Christ in continuity with the concepts and characteristics which always defined the people of God, Israel (p. 54, 55, 62).

Other strengths in the book are the attention to the unique Jewish provenance of certain ethical terms, such as porneia, makrothumia, akatharsia, and splachna oiktirmou (p. 73, 75, 85, 186, and 188). This point, coupled with the convincing case made for the intertextuality of the Wisdom tradition, the Holiness Code, the Law, and the Old Testament in general contribute to the firm establishment of his thesis by providing strong ties to Jewish narrative concepts and to particular words which are well-attested in antecedent Jewish literature, but less so in Hellenistic writings (p. 15, 47, 84-85, 97, 118-125 etc).
Thompson strikes a perfect balance in explicating the uniqueness of Paul’s pessimistic anthropology. He notes that Paul’s anthropology exhibits an “extraordinary pessimism concerning the human potential to do the good apart from Christ…” (p. 6), which appears to be an anomaly “in the Jewish tradition” because it suggests “that no one is able to do good or to keep the law” (p. 148-149). It is also different from the Hellenistic tradition in that, for Paul, the problem of the human ethical predicament cannot be overcome by education (p. 148). However, Thompson rightly balances this correctly diagnosed and demonstrated pessimistic Pauline anthropology with a focus on the Spirit-empowered ability of the believers to keep moral demands (p. 143). This dual focus is a corrective to both overly optimistic readings of Paul, and to the overly negative view of many which does not give proper attention to Paul’s doctrine of the Spirit as central to his moral teaching, on the basis of which, it is actually possible to carry out his ethical imperatives.

In addition to these strengths (and many more!), I perceived a few notable areas of weakness in the book. First, in regard to his use of Jewish sources, I find that Thompson’s continued reference to the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is problematic. While this document yields many helpful parallels, and even some seemingly exact matches with the Pauline epistles, many Pseudepigrapha specialists consider great portions of the Twelve Patriarchs to be later than Paul, and to have been heavily redacted by Christians, or perhaps even to have been composed by Christians. Therefore, it is not a reliable source for the study of pre-Pauline (or even post-Pauline) Judaism. Thompson does, however,  deal with many other, more reliable, Jewish sources in the book. These sources, quite apart from his treatment and comparative study of the Twelve Patriarchs, adequately make his case and prove his thesis. However, the uninformed reader stands the risk of being overly persuaded by connections between Paul and the Twelve Patriarchs which, considering the documents uncertainty, might prove to be governed by faulty insights, lexical anachronisms, and false parallels.

Likewise, I noticed a slight tendency toward which, after successfully and legitimately making his case on a particular element of his thesis, Thompson would conclude with an unnecessarily broad overstatement and/or generalization. These do not detract from the thesis of the book but they do present a distraction to the careful and critical reader. For example, while I agree with his general argument that the moral formation of Christians and the church is a major concern for Paul, I’m not sure that moral formation itself is “the ultimate goal of Paul’s work” or “the focal point of his theology” or Paul’s “primary concern” (my emphasis, p. 2, 3). It is certainly a central concern, and Thompson successfully proves this, yet I perceive that these statements are the result of hyperbolic correctives to the more commonly understated, subsidiary status afforded to ethics and moral formation generally within Protestantantism. Similarly, after showing the uniquely Jewish elements in many of Paul’s ethical catalogues, Thompson concludes that:  “Although the form of virtue and vice lists in Paul resembles aspects of Greco-Roman moral instruction, little in the actual content of Paul’s lists is indebted to the Greco-Roman moralists” (my emphasis, p. 109). Later he argues that, “The evidence of his letters suggests that Paul relies primarily, if not exclusively, on the Jewish interpretation of the Torah in giving specific instructions to his communities” (my emphasis, p. 208). Now, while Thompson does elsewhere indicate that Paul freely uses elements of Hellenism, and the book is generally successful in highlighting the oft ignored link to Paul’s use of the OT and Jewish Wisdom traditions in forming the center of his moral discourse, these statements warp the argument. It is simply not true that the content of Paul’s lists, in many cases, are entirely and uniquely Jewish, and thus distinguishable from the common pool of words used within the philosophical schools and Greco-Roman literature of the day. In many places, words are included by Paul which are ubiquitous in both traditions and thus the Jewish link is not as entirely exhaustive and exclusive as these broad concluding statements would seem to suggest. To say that Paul potentially relies “exclusively” on the Torah, is clearly disprovable and thus an unnecessary, unfounded, and erroneous overstatement.

Lastly, Thompson argues that, “The opposition between flesh and Spirit is not to be understood as an anthropological or ontological statement, for flesh and Spirit are the powers of the old and new aeons” (p. 143). I find this to present an invitation onto a rabbit trail with no satisfying end. The issue of the Spirit/Flesh metaphor in Paul is theologically complex and is better left for another book. Its appearance here, and the assertion that it is not anthropological or ontological, may be correct (or not), but the authors argument that Spirit/Flesh refers only to “powers” begs the question….What is a power? And furthermore, how does Thompson know this, and on what basis does he make this decision? I have no doubt that he would have robust theological and biblically-justified responses to these questions which he could offer in support of his position, however, none of them appear in this book.

In conclusion, and despite these minor points of disagreement, Moral Formation according to Paul is a profoundly well-researched and balanced work. Its brevity and style make it accessible to an extremely wide audience, but its core components present a serious and weighty scholarly contribution and corrective to streams of biblical studies which have largely ignored the primacy of the OT and Judaism to Paul’s moral vision, and to elements of the church and academy that have relegated the idea of moral transformation to an optional “appendix” to the more forensic elements of New Testament soteriology. Most importantly, Thompson is able to articulate, demonstrate, and prove both the communal (through the elect community in Christ, the Church) and the concrete (as illuminated by the behaviors given in the virtue lists and the OT teachings) nature of Christian love and Pauline morality. This not only sets his book apart from any that I’ve read on the topic, but it helps correct and redirect the trend in the church and the academy since Bultmann from an individualizing of NT morality, toward a morality of concrete ethical action which is empowered by the Spirit, carried out in necessary communal cruciformity, and rooted in the work of God among his chosen people through the ages, in the Scriptures, and ultimately in his Christ, Jesus of Nazareth.

Review by

John Frederick
PhD Candidate in New Testament
St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews,

Download this review as a pdf: Moral Formation according to Paul_Book Review


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