J. R. Daniel Kirk, assistant professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, thinks that too many Christians view the teaching of the Apostle Paul as he himself once did: full of rigid theological prescriptions, focused on the internal transformation of individuals at the expense of communal concerns, endorsing an authoritarian status quo at the expense of liberation. In response, Kirk invites readers to follow in his own footsteps by embracing an alternative reading of Paul. Our understanding of Paul (not Paul himself, Kirk stresses) must be "deconstructed" (p. 6). The means of this deconstruction is a narrative reading of Paul that sets his teaching within the story of Israel and maintains close contact with the teaching of Jesus.
In the first four chapters of the book, Kirk develops his approach. In a move that typifies the entire book, Kirk begins with the Gospels, which, he argues, stand in strong continuity with the story of Israel in the OT. The vision of holistic redemption that affects the entire creation in the Gospel narratives demands that evangelicals move beyond a concern with forgiveness of sins and the salvation of the individual to embrace a bigger understanding of "gospel" that includes establishing Christ's lordship over the entire earth and the redeemed community that Christ seeks to create. Read through a narrative lens, Paul's letters can be understood to fall into line closely with these Gospel-emphases.
In the next five chapters, Kirk applies this approach to four matters. Inclusion is a fundamental Pauline emphasis, one to which Paul's teaching on justification, properly interpreted, contributes significantly (note here Kirk's earlier book, Unlocking Romans [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008]). [Editor's note: Jason Meyerreviewed this book in Themelios 35.1.] The hierarchical view of gender roles often attributed to Paul can be modified and brought into line with other "liberative" texts in Paul and, importantly, with the testimony of the Gospels, when the concern to avoid undue offense in the first-century culture is factored into our interpretation. The same concern explains the apparent endorsement of social hierarchy in some Pauline texts. Fundamental to Paul's vision of redemption is a community of equals that actively pursues social justice-a vision that continues the strong emphasis on social justice in the teaching of Jesus. Finally, Kirk outlines Paul's sexual ethics from the standpoint of his narrative reading. Paul, as Jesus, is fundamentally concerned with faithfulness within marriage.
The arguments of Kirk's book will be familiar to those who have followed the writings of N. T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and John Franke (all quoted favorably). And, of course, there is much to be said for a movement that seeks to connect more effectively Paul with Jesus and both with their Jewish world. There is no doubt, also, that the problems all these scholars are trying to rectify-a preoccupation with the individual, a simplistic reading of Scripture that misses its larger themes, a focus on correct thinking to the neglect of faithful living-are genuine problems (even if not so widespread or blatant as Kirk's caricatures would suggest). Looked at in this light, Kirk's book is a useful corrective to certain unfortunate tendencies in some pockets of evangelicalism-a corrective that, by the way, is to be commended for its accessibility to a wide audience.
However, Kirk's attempt to rescue Paul from a certain imbalance creates an imbalance of its own. Arguing for a "narrative dynamic" in Paul is popular these days, and no doubt justified to the extent that a grand narrative underlies Paul's thinking about the significance of Christ. But Paul does not write narratives; he composes arguments that take up the stuff of this narrative. Kirk gives too little attention to specific statements (yes, even "propositions") in which Paul claims to provide definitive interpretation of this narrative and to specific commands and prohibitions by which Paul seeks to frame the way believers are to live out this narrative. To his credit, Kirk is well aware that his interpretive method-and especially, perhaps, the issues he chooses to emphasize-is open to the charge that he is reading certain contemporary cultural emphases into the letters of Paul (see pp. 138-39, 202). But his awareness of the problem does not mean he escapes it.
I am especially puzzled by his treatment of homosexuality at the end of the book. He accurately notes the clear condemnation of homosexuality in Paul, dismisses the claim that Jesus's silence on the issue should be determinative for us, notes that Paul is at this point running against his culture (in contrast to his apparent endorsement of patriarchy and slavery), and admits that we have no evidence of a Pauline endorsement of homosexuality. Clear enough, I would have thought. And yet Kirk then opens the door to the possibility that faithful homosexual unions may, after all, find a place within authentic Christian living. Faced with the pretty clear evidence that Kirk himself amasses, I found general and vague appeal to biblical principles to suggest that we might reconsider "the finality of the biblical depiction of heterosexual marriage as the only viable Christian option" (p. 185) to be quite unconvincing.
More generally, and more seriously, Kirk's approach to this issue may manifest his fundamental approach to biblical authority. Without minimizing the very real issues about our ability "objectively" to read Scripture, well known to all of us by now, I think Kirk's tendency to diminish the authoritative voice of Scripture (p. 7)-or perhaps, in practice, the authority of particular pronouncements within Scripture-may play a role in his rather incoherent treatment of this issue.