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Book Reviews > New Testament > The Gospel to the Nations: Perspectives on Paul’s Mission

Ray VanNeste

Ray VanNeste
Director of the RC Ryan Center for Biblical Studies and Assistant Professor of Christian Studies

The Gospel to the Nations: Perspectives on Paul’s Mission
Peter Bolt & Mark Thompson, eds.
Details: 2000, Intervarsity Press, Amazon.comISBN: 0830815570
Posted: August 30, 2002


This book is a wide ranging collection of essays on various aspects of Paul’s mission in honor of Dr. Peter T. O’Brien, Vice Principal of Moore Theological College, Sydney, Australia, who in his ministry has served as a missionary and a prominent scholar in the field of Pauline studies and mission.

The tribute to O’Brien by Peter Jensen (O’Brien’s boss!) is well worth a read, setting an encouraging model for those who would pursue evangelical scholarship. Referring to O’Brien, Jensen writes, ‘His area of expertise is the New Testament, but his interest is the knowledge of God - The aim of theological education as he understands it is to lead students into an ever deeper knowledge of the living God, and to equip them to preach the message of the gospel through the exposition of the Scriptures in all the world’ (3). May his tribe increase and may I be counted among its number! We look to our elder statesmen in evangelicalism to provide leadership and example; and, Peter O’Brien has given this.

Following the tribute, there is a section on Paul’s mission in biblical theological perspective. In this section, Graeme Goldsworthy provides a stimulating essay plotting the way in which Paul’s mission fits within the unfolding work of God in redemption in continuity with the promises of the old covenant. Goldsworthy argues that Paul’s mission was shaped by the way Paul understood his own ministry within the biblical theological framework of God’s dealings with Israel and the world. William Dumbrell follows with an essay on Galatians 3:1-14 and how Paul’s argument rests on an understanding of the relation between the old and new covenants. This essay touches on issues relating to the New Perspective on Paul. This section is then completed by an essay by Andrew Shead on ‘The new covenant and Pauline hermeneutics.’ Shead argues for a specific reading of Jeremiah 31:31-34 and suggests that this serves as Paul’s hermeneutical lens for his exegesis of Exodus 34 in 2 Cor 3.

The next section is considerably longer dealing with various aspects of the Pauline mision. Moisés Silva investigates the phrase ‘the truth of the gospel’ in Galatians. Ralph Martin contributes a more wide ranging essay on theology and mission in 2 Corinthians. The Gospels and Acts are then taken up in separate essays by David Wenham, Howard Marshall, and David Seccombe. Wenham and Seccombe address in different but complementary ways the question of the place the story of the life of Jesus had in the preaching and mission of Paul. Marshall examines Luke’s portrait of the Pauline mission, arguing among other things that Luke intended the picture of Paul to serve as pattern for the ongoing work of the church. Scott Hafemann then takes up the role of suffering in Paul’s mission and argues that Paul’s mission and theology are an inseparable unity. Richard Longenecker examines how Paul distinguished between essentials and adiaphora in his mission and how this likely helped further the work. One might debate his use of Luther as an example in making such distinctions, but the general point is helpful. Donald Robinson examines Romans 11:11-24 and its implications for the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Don Carson gives an interesting and penetrating analysis of the integration of prayer and mission in Paul at a holistic, theological level. David Peterson then argues that maturity was one of the key goals of Paul in his mission. Colin Kruse, drawing from Acts, Paul’s letters and the apostolic fathers, gathers information on the ministry which took place in the Pauline churches after Paul moved on. This section closes with Andreas Köstenberger addressing the contested issue of the role of women in the Pauline mission. Köstenberger builds on his previous work in this area and surveys both the descriptive and didactic passages (which he helpfully distinguishes) on the role of women in Paul’s letters, concluding that women were not allowed to serve as pastor-teacher or elder but were involved in other significant ministries.

The next section consists of 6 essays on the milieu in which the Pauline mission took place. Michael Hill takes up the issue of Pauline ethics by examining the logic involved in the move from theology to ethics in the letter to the Romans. Paul Barnett takes up the question of whether or not there was a Jewish mission to Gentiles in the NT era. He suggests that the differing conclusions of previous scholars results from differing definitions of ‘mission.’ He suggests a real ‘mission’ must include the goal of Gentiles becoming circumcised and concludes there is insufficient evidence to establish the existence of a widespread mission of this sort. Bruce Winter, then, highlights and examines various difficulties which faced the Pauline mission countering the idea that the first century was an age particularly receptive to the gospel and particularly easy for travel. Winter helpfully states, ‘There has never been an “ideal” age where society found the Christian message one that was amenable to its aspirations’ (294). Edwin Judge then presents an essay on the impact of Paul’s gospel on ancient society. Richard Gibson probes evidence for Paul’s encounter with Stoicism and possible insights this could offer for mission today. In a similar vein Peter Bolt examines how Paul’s message of divine wrath would have conflicted with the emerging Middle Platonists as represented in the writings of Plutarch. Bolt suggests Plutarch, like many people today, would have been uneasy with Paul’s language, but there is no way around Paul’s straightforward language. Indeed it is this ‘bad news’ which makes the ‘good news’ so glorious.

The last section of the book contains two essays on historical developments from the Pauline mission. Robert Doyle turns to the early church fathers’ affirmation of the deity of Christ, particularly at Chalcedon, and the critique of this position by Morna Hooker. Doyle, drawing on O’Brien’s commentaries on Colossians and Philippians, rebuts Hooker’s exegesis, defends the creedal formulation, and points to the important theological implications for many areas including propitiatory atonement, the church and mission. Finally Mark Thompson closes the book with a probing essay on the role of Paul’s writings (and Scripture generally) in the task of systematic theology. He critiques how much of modern systematics too easily dismisses Scripture and provides seven observations for a more robust systematic theology in the new century.

In summary, this is a useful book containing many insightful and helpful essays ranging from specific letters of Paul, to background issues, to systematic theology. The major criticisms from this reviewer are simply in formatting. First, it would have been useful to have had a list of the contributors with their current place of ministry. Second, there is one combined bibliography at the end of the book, but I found myself wishing I could have the bibliography from certain essays in isolation for greater ease of reference. However, these are minor quibbles. This book is highly recommended and with its overall strong commitment to evangelical theology and concern for mission is a fine testimony to its honoree.

University of Aberdeen

Ray Van Neste

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