Monday, July 8, 2013

‘Interpreting the Pauline Letters: An Exegetical Handbook’ by John D. Harvey – Book Review

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Being a seminary student, I love when the opportunity presents itself to review a Biblical Studies book. That opportunity is here today; I will be reviewing ‘Interpreting the Pauline Letters: An Exegetical Handbook’   by John D. Harvey.

Here is the synopsis of this book:

Interpreting the Pauline Letters: An Exegetical Handbook begins by exploring the components of narrative – setting, characterization, and plot – and then develops the foremost theological themes in each of the books traditionally ascribed to Paul. This method sets the task of exegesis within the literary context of first-century letters as well as the theological context of major truth of Paul’s first-century message to a twenty-first-century audience. Designed as a handbook for seminary and graduate students, the book provides a go-to guide that will also serve seminary-trained pastors, upper-level college students, and well-motivated lay people. As readers work through this handbook, they will begin to see and interpret the narrative writings as Paul intended them to be understood.

Here is the biography of the author:

John D. Harvey is Professor of New Testament and Dean of Seminary &
School of Ministry at Columbia International University. Harvey is the author of Listening to the Text: Oral Patterns in Paul’s Letters,   Greek is Good Grief: Laying the Foundation for Exegesis and Exposition, and Anointed with the Spirit and Power: A Biblical Theology of Holy Spirit Empowerment. Dr. Harvey is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, the Institute for Biblical Research, and the Society of Biblical Literature. He has written book reviews for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society as well as contributing articles to a number of theological dictionaries.

In the Prelude, Dr. Harvey explains the interest in Paul’s letters:

Among the books of the New Testament, Paul’s letters are second only to the Gospels in interest and popularity. From the magisterial presentation of the gospel he preached (Romans) to his personal appeal on behalf of Onesimus (Philemon), Paul’s letters have fascinated lay people and scholars alike. The message in Galatians, of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, captured Luther’s heart and sparked the Protestant Reformation. Five centuries after Luther, the “new perspective on Paul” continues to stir discussions of Paul’s letters. (p. 17)

He goes on to explain the purpose for his book:

Yet the historical, cultural, and linguistic distance between Paul’s time and ours poses challenges for understanding and applying the teaching of his letters. It is those challenges that prompt this handbook on Interpreting the Pauline Letters. The first three chapters seek to place Paul’s letters within the genre of first-century letter writing, to set Paul’s ministry within its historical context, and to provide an overview of Paul’s theology. Then the focus shifts to the tasks of interpreting, appropriating, and communicating the message of passages from Paul’s letters. The objective is to set out a method for taking a passage from text to sermon, and two passages (Col. 3:1-4; Phil. 3:12-16) serve as examples of applying that method. (pp. 17-18)

Paul is one of my favorite people in the Bible. I am always enlightening and fascinated when I read his books. This book is therefore perfect, in my opinion.

This book came at a very opportune time for me! I had to present a talk on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 in my ‘Teaching with Skill and Influence’ in my seminary class this summer. I was able to glean valuable information from this really helpful book.

In the chapter on interpreting passages in Paul’s letters, Dr. Harvey explains what is required in this exercise:

Interpreting a passage in Paul’s letters requires close attention to its historical, literary, and theological aspects. It is important to consider which aspects of a letter’s introductory matters might contribute to a better understanding of the passage, and what historical-cultural-religious research might shed light on details of the passage. It is equally important to consider the passage’s context – both its place in the letter’s overall argument and its relationship to the paragraphs that immediately precede and follow it – structure, and syntax, as well as key words that occur within the passage. Finally, it is important to consider the ways in which parallel, similar, and contrasting passages contribute to understanding the passage under study and the ways in which the passage contributes to the overall teaching of Scripture. (p. 144)

One thing I enjoyed about this book is the fact that Dr. Harvey not only looks at the books of Paul through the eyes of a theologian, but also through the eyes of a Christ follower. Here is one paragraph in particular that caught my attention and captured my heart:

Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are the focus of the gospel. He is the revelation of God’s righteousness, the end of the Old Testament law, and the inaugurator of the new covenant. As a result of his virtuous life, his vicarious death, and his victorious resurrection, he is supreme over all things, including the church, which he unifies as its head. At his return, he will be manifested in glory, and the promise of being manifested with him in glory is the believer’s hope. (p. 99)

Although this book is geared to seminary and graduate students, I found the book to be very user-friendly. Some academic books are written way above the comprehension of the average person. This book requires the reader to pay attention, but it is interesting and understandable. I thank Dr. Harvey (who I hope to meet at this year’s Evangelical Theological Society meeting this year) for providing this wonderful tool into the life work of Paul.

This book was published by Kregel Academic and provided by them for review purposes.

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