Paul and the Good Life
Transformation and Citizenship in the Commonwealth of God
- ISBN: 9781481313100
- Published By: Baylor University Press
- Published: November 2020
Julien C.H. Smith’s Paul and the Good Life: Transformation and Citizenship in the Commonwealth of God focuses on Pauline Christology and Pauline soteriology. Concerning Christology, the volume seeks to account for Paul’s understanding of Jesus Christ and how that understanding shapes his views on Christian morality, or the good life. In the introduction, Smith contends that Paul, like others in his milieu, pursued the good life within a “shared framework” which has four components: citizenship, character, community, and creation (3–4). Concerning soteriology, Smith argues in chapter 1 that Paul views the good life and eternal life as two aspects of salvation, a present experience that will continue into eternity. Together, these two themes inform Smith’s thesis: “For Paul, eternal life and the good life are inextricably bound together in his concept of salvation. The good life is not a means to another, different destination, but a part of the process. After developing his premise that Paul views Jesus as a king with power to transform a world trapped under the power of sin, Smith turns to examinations of Paul’s letters in relation to the fourfold framework.
Chapter 2 (“Citizenship”) considers citizenship with a reading of Philippians, beginning with some key terms. First, polis refers generally to a community in which values and identities take shape. Second, pistis is “embodied allegiance” (27). Citizenship refers to the inseparable relationship between polis and pistis which, in antiquity, were inseparable from efforts to achieve the good life. Such moral efforts are, therefore, political and communal in nature (32). In the ideal polis, according to Greco-Roman perspectives, a virtuous philosopher-king and benefactor impresses divinely granted virtue on citizens, who grow morally through their allegiance to the king and participation in the polis (27–43). In Philippians, according to Smith, Paul “reconfigures” this arrangement (38). As citizens of the “heavenly commonwealth” (politeuma), believers should give their allegiance to King Jesus and embody his virtue (phronēsis; 53). Smith argues these points persuasively by, above all, grounding them in Paul’s language of citizenship (Philippians 1:27; 3:20).
In chapter 3 (“Character”), Smith examines moral formation in 2 Corinthians. He argues that Paul describes believers’ transformation through their association with Jesus, an assertion that entails a “process of character formation” and “transformation by vision”—particularly of the “‘image’ of Christ” (67). Smith then offers a primer on ancient conceptions of the ideal philosopher-king, the ruler as the living law, and transformation of people by association with the king. It is against this backdrop, Smith contends, that one should interpret 2 Corinthians 2-4. He claims that, although Paul rarely uses kingship language, readers miss his regal references because they do not share the cultural knowledge needed to perceive Paul’s intimations (68).
According to Smith, attention to kingship discourse shows that Paul compares Moses and Jesus as philosopher-kings, portrays Jesus as a suffering king and living law, and describes Christ-believers as transformed through association with Christ the king and embodied practices. On these points, the book would benefit from more evidence that Paul’s rhetoric indeed implies kingship. Smith’s ancient interlocutors (e.g., Philo, Life of Moses) discuss ideal kingship explicitly, but one can find it in Paul only by aligning him intentionally with such discourse, or by drawing on Philippians to understand claims made in 2 Corinthians. Smith may be correct that Paul evokes conceptions of kingship in 2 Corinthians. But more evidence from the Corinthian correspondence is needed to solidify his claims.
In chapter 4 (“Community”) Smith discusses corporate worship as a (ritual) means of cultivating virtue and establishing unity. To do this, he reads Ephesians and Colossians alongside a diverse mix of thinkers: the ancient Confucian scholar Xunzi, Pierre Bourdieu, and James K.A. Smith. Julien Smith argues that, for Paul, worship is vital for establishing and maintaining the church’s unity and is indispensable for the apostle’s view of human flourishing. It “instills a new habitus, thereby enabling the church to inhabit the present-and-coming-reign of Jesus” (125). Virtue and unity are inseparably joined as a divine accomplishment that empowers and demands human agency (143).
Smith turns in chapter 5 (“Creation”) to “anticipation of the glorified king” in Romans, which he situates in three contexts: Roman “golden age” propaganda, ancient agricultural practices, and agrarian themes in Israel’s scriptures. Importantly, Rome’s propaganda concerning agricultural prosperity existed in tension with the material realities of agricultural decline and a loss of “agrarian virtues” (145–69). Smith lucidly describes the developments that led to that contradiction and examines Romans 5–8 in relation to it. There, Paul describes glorification with Christ, a future event that requires that believers grow in the (agrarian) virtues of hope and endurance amid suffering in the present. This enables these believers to imagine a future that differs significantly from the present and to persist patiently in anticipation the new age that God will bring into being (175).
Smith’s synthesis, organized by his fourfold framework, yields a coherent vision: the good life for Paul includes allegiance to and suffering for King Jesus in the heavenly commonwealth (citizenship); corporate practices that transform “citizens” into the image of the divine king (character); unity and virtue achieved through communal worship (community); and a telos of glorification, which shapes virtue in the present (creation). The book closes with contemporary implications and an evocative summation in the form of a fairytale.
Smith’s work faces backward and forward. It examines Paul’s conception of the good life by reading him against ancient landscapes. It also offers contemporary moral and theological insights, in part, by putting Paul into conversation with recent writers such as Lesslie Newbigin, Dallas Willard, and Wendell Berry. The result is an inviting, accessible, and pedagogical discussion of Paul’s letters that includes personal stories and witty analogies (Smith would seem to be a good teacher!). Therefore, the book is useful for multiple audiences. Its accessibility makes it fitting for upper-level undergraduate classes. Its detailed engagement with Paul’s letters, ancient texts, and contemporary sources make it an option for graduate-level courses. As a contribution to Biblical studies, New Testament scholars should consult it, and, as constructive moral-theological work, it is a relevant resource for religious practitioners.
Frederick David Carr is assistant professor of biblical studies at Northeastern Seminary.Frederick David CarrDate Of Review:February 28, 2022