Remember the Future: The Pastoral Theology of Paul the Apostle
Jacob W. Elias. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2006. 539 pages.
Here is a clear and solid introduction to Pauline theology from a skilled interpreter and well-informed scholar. Jacob Elias, professor of New Testament at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, and copastor of Parkview Mennonite Church in Kokomo, Indiana, presents Paul’s first-century theology for twenty-first century readers.
The title, Remember the Future, emphasizes that Paul’s vision of the future was rooted in the past. Elias develops this in four parts. Part I, “Paul’s Vision of the Future,” focuses on two narratives in parallel. Elias shows how Paul interpreted his own story, from his robust commitment as a Pharisee to his life-transforming encounter with Christ, in light of his understanding of Christ as the exalted Lord and supreme exemplar of servant obedience.
Part II, “God’s Unfolding Story,” examines Paul’s interpretation of the story of Israel as climaxed in Christ and continued by the church. Here Elias takes us on a tour through 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians. We hear the reformulated Shema of Paul. We behold the story of God unveiling as creation . . . idolatry . . . bondage . . . liberation. We ponder whether Romans 9:1—11:36 is a lament for Israel patterned after Psalm 44. And we see “true Israel,” not as the church superseding or displacing Israel, but as an enlarged Israel of both Jews and Gentiles.
Part III, “A Community Shaped by the Future,” explores how God’s work in Christ becomes paradigmatic for shaping the community of faith. Elias leads us though key passages in Galatians, Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians. These passages show that Israel’s story in Scripture shaped Paul’s thinking regarding how “God’s invasive grace through Christ” impacts life, relationships, ethical decisions, and life’s tragedies (284).
Part IV, “Therefore, Remember the Future!” looks at the trajectory of Pauline faith after the founder disappears. Here Elias wrestles with 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, which were written in Paul’s name to carry on his legacy (478). As before, the grand story of what God has done in Christ shapes not only the admonitions, warnings, and councils, but also Paul’s vision of the future. Along the way, Elias uncovers an ancient struggle over what would be the defining story for believers and shows how Paul negotiated the tension between participating in God’s mission and maintaining church order.
Throughout Elias uses a narrative approach. Each chapter begins with a short, imaginative story about characters living within the narrative world of Paul. The stories not only present the Greco-Roman world of Paul, but also prepare readers to engage Paul’s theology in the rest of the chapter. For example, chapter seven begins with a story about Aegina, who chooses loyalty to Christ over allegiance to the emperor, persecution over patriotism. As the story unfolds, Elias creatively introduces a brief political history of Thessalonica, a description of how Christians met in tenement houses for worship, and explains why Christians aroused suspicion and opposition.
As each chapter unfolds, Elias continues the narrative approach by drawing out the formative stories and images embedded within and assumed by Paul, including those from the story of Jesus, Paul’s experience, Israel’s history, and the Greco-Roman world. For example, Elias provides convincing evidence that Paul interpreted his own life, and the life of Philippians, in light of “the story of Jesus” as represented in the christological hymn of Philippians 2:5-11. Or again, Elias shows Paul using the story of Abraham and Sarah to explain how Gentile Christians have been incorporated into the promises of God.
Elias is acquainted with current research and debates, and able to get to the heart of the matter without getting bogged down in the thicket of scholarship. However, Elias’s ability to remain above the bog might irritate readers who want clearer resolution to varying interpretations of Paul. For example, why Elias leans toward the traditional reading of Philippians 2:6-8, rather than the Adam Christology proposed by James Dunn, is left unexplained (72-74). Or again, after introducing various interpretations of “all Israel,” Elias seems to dismiss them by writing, “Whichever may have been Paul’s understanding, one thing is clear: He urges the Gentile believers not grafted into the pole of God to remember the future which God still has in store for the original covenant people” (234). Similarly, the controversial text about silencing women in 1 Timothy 2:11-14 is given only ten sentences without adequately addressing issues that bother contemporary readers (487-88).
Nevertheless, Remember the Future is a well-written work by an experienced and reliable guide to Paul and is to be commended for its overall clarity and refreshing narrative approach. It would be a good college or seminary textbook and a good selection for a reading group seeking to understand Paul’s vision of faith.