A pattern has emerged in recent years of books discussing one aspect of theology or another “as a way of life.” Adam Neder’s excellent, engaging, and accessible Theology as a Way of Life provides a theological account of theological education that draws upon Karl Barth. In September of 2023 Kevin Hector’s Christianity as a Way of Life: A Systematic Theology will be released. Why has this trend emerged? What does it mean to postulate Christian theology as a way of life, as opposed to what implied alternative?
The subject of this review is Joshua Jipp’s Pauline Theology as a Way of Life: A Vision of Human Flourishing in Christ. Jipp’s summary of his own thesis is worth quoting at length:
Paul has a robust understanding of how human flourishing depends upon the goal of human existence as sharing in the life of God. Paul’s theological exhortations and claims are derived from his belief that the person of Christ both definitively reveals the shape of a good life and enables others to live it. While he does not use the language of eudaimonia, Paul’s Letters bear the hallmarks of those ancient eudaimonistic moral philosophers who posited a singular supreme good for humanity’s life orientation. Like these ancient philosophers, Paul derives his theological convictions, ontological and cosmological statements, ethical exhortations, and pastoral counsel to his churches from and in service to his understanding of the summum bonum—namely, sharing in the very life of God through relation to Christ. Paul’s theological discourse serves this way of life and has direct consequences for humanity with respect to such existential matters as divine transcendence, death and finitude, friendship and social belonging, freedom and moral agency, the pursuit of Christian virtues, and facing suffering and death. (2)
In ch. 1 Jipp develops how conventional approaches to Pauline theology too often reduce the teaching of the Pauline epistles to abstract ideas, whereas Paul’s letters “console, rebuke, exhort, and encourage—in other words, they all have the rhetorical aim of producing real transformation among his churches. This is by no means to say that they are devoid of theology or to say that we cannot profit from our own attempts to provide doctrinal order to his claims, but it is to say that Paul’s theological discourse always serves to enable his churches to reach the goal of conformity to the person of Christ” (9). Though modern New Testament scholars have sought a quasi-objective, “disinterested” handling of Pauline theology, and historical description is valuable, Jipp rightly recognizes there are hermeneutical and existential consequences if one embraces the reality Paul is claiming. A committed interpreter is thus summoned by Paul to a particular way of life, “constantly pressed to ask, ‘what does this text or this statement claim for humanity?’ In other words, on this view, there is no neutrally ‘descriptive’ ground on which to stand, for Paul claims that the life of the crucified and risen Christ determines the very life of everyone (and this would include, of course, the interpreter of Paul)” (7).
Part I of the book is made up of chs. 2 and 3, which describe how ancient philosophers and modern Positive Psychologists understand the quest for human flourishing. Ch. 2 builds upon and interacts through with Pierre Hadot’sPhilosophy as a Way of Life and Kavin Rowe’s One True Life, and offers a sensitive reading of how ancient philosophers such as Cicero, Aristotle, and more described human flourishing as seeking a supreme good (22–27), necessitates virtue formation (27–33), requires good relationships among friends and families (34–39), requires responding well to adversity in preparation for death (39–45), and cultivates good habits (45–51).Ch. 3 offers a brief survey of how the field of Positive Psychology has described the quest for human flourishing over the last couple of decades since this field emerged in the late 1990s. With these conversation partners in mind, Part II of the book now re-reads the apostle Paul in conversation with these insights in mind.
In Part II, chs. 4–7 develop a Pauline theology of the good life, particularly as involving transcendence through sharing in Christ’s resurrection life, moral agency through sharing the mind of Christ, love in the Body of Christ, and spiritual practices that cultivate the character of Christ.
Ch. 4 argues that in Paul’s epistles “Christ is the singular supreme good of humanity since he alone enables persons to share in God’s life” (88). Jipp especially develops this from how human worth and values are shockingly transfigured in Philippians 3:4–14, and a host of related Pauline texts. Ch. 4 also develops how death is the fundamental human predicament, especially in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, and Ephesians 2 and 4. Finally, Jipp shows how Christ shares divine life with his people, reading Paul in conversation with historical theologians such as Maximus the Confessor on humanity’s renewal through union with the incarnate Word (100). Our old humanity was destroyed and crucified with Christ, so that now by the Spirit Christ’s life might be manifested in us, seen in texts such as Galatians 2:19–20 and Romans 6:5. Paul’s new covenant ministry centrally concerns the person of Jesus Christ himself, as Paul describes in 2 Cor 3:18 and 4:6 (101–102). A Pauline vision of human flourishing thus has points of similarity with ancient philosophy and Positive Psychology in the pursuit of a highest good and developing habits of resilience to overcome suffering wisely, but Paul’s vision of human flourishing distinctively involves a notion of transcendence not found in Positive Psychology in the resurrection of the dead, a notion markedly different from the Stoics as the suffering and death of this world is only overcome in Christ himself (109–118).
Ch. 5 is about life in the present, amidst sin and death and suffering: “if Paul’s vision of human flourishing is oriented toward a future, postmortem sharing in Christ’s resurrection life, then important questions arise as to whether there is any possibility of living a truly good life by sharing in the divine life now” (119). Gregory of Nyssa is not cited in this chapter, but Jipp expresses an outlook evocative of how Nyssen described the Christian life as of one of continued growth growth as we are conformed into the image of Christ, where Jipp writes:
…one of the primary ways Paul communicates his vision of sharing in resurrection life here and now is by describing a transformed moral agency whereby humans are able to think, act, and feel in a manner that is unified in its orientation toward loving and worshiping God. Humanity’s goal of sharing in the life of God through union with Christ, in other words, is not a passive state of bliss and tranquility; it is, rather, as we have seen from Philippians 3, a quest of active growth and conformity to the character of Christ—the one who reveals what it means to be human (120).
In Adam, humanity’s mind is debased and a kind of living death, but in Christ we can receive a transformed mind to share in the life of God, which Jipp develops from a host of Pauline texts such as Romans 12:1 (123–127). We are incapable moral agents, but transformed by the Spirit of Christ within us, such that the mind of Christ is manifested in our lives amidst an ongoing struggle against sin and even through death. Even if the presence of sin is not removed, its power has been broken and human beings can now become capable of thinking like we should (128). Similar to some Platonic and Stoic critique of passions, for Paul persons-in-Christ are capable of emotions ordered towards sharing in the life of God; “persons-in-Christ will not simply know what is right and do what is right, but they will also enjoy, delight in, and experience positive feelings when they knowingly choose the good. These good feelings or positive emotions are, for Paul, more than just bodily experiences as they arise from specific convictions about what one knows to be truly good” (134). Jipp notes that Augustine, in City of God 14.9, draws upon Paul’s emotional life as representative for Christians. Augustine perceptively recognizes that, for Paul, emotions in and of themselves are neither positive nor negative… whether an emotion is positive or negative ultimately depends upon its relationship to Christ as one’s supreme good” (155). Drawing on J. Louis Martyn, Jipp also shows from texts such as 2 Cor 5:15–21 that inhabiting the mind of Christ also entails a new epistemology, especially in light of the revelation of God’s saving action in the event of the gospel (141).
In ch. 6, Jipp shows how Paul’s vision of human flourishing relies not merely on an individual’s relationship to God in Christ, but on good relationships with others, especially in the body of Christ, and has wisdom for relating well to friends and broader society (157). These relationships especially involve a solidarity amidst diverse social and ethnic identities (166–170). In this portion of the book Jipp addresses some of the foremost contemporary objections to the notion that Paul’s epistles indeed offer a vision of human flourishing, particularly in light of how slavery, ethnicity, gender, celibacy and marriage (170–181). The eucharist and baptism are especially significant means by which are relationships are forged with others in Christ as a reconciling and forgiving community. In sum, “Paul shares with both positive psychology and ancient philosophy the rather basic and obvious commitment to the good life as entailing good social relationships, friendships, and even institutions. But Paul’s vision of human flourishing operates with the deepest conviction that persons-in-Christ only flourish together in the body of Christ” (193).
Finally, ch. 7 argues “if sharing in the life of God through the person of Christ is humanity’s supreme good—an eschatological reality that nevertheless has been inaugurated now through humanity’s relation to Christ and the Spirit—one must learn about the specific practices that facilitate growth toward humanity’s telos” (201). This especially involves cultivating Christ-like character (202–214), sharing generously with others (214–219), faithful endurance with patient hope in the promise of the resurrection amidst the adversity of life (219–224), and corporate worship (224–238). Jipp’s handling of suffering in the Christian life is especially insightful (220):
Not only are sufferings expected in a world that is not yet fully redeemed, but these adversities also play a significant role in enabling persons-in-Christ to attain their final goal of sharing in God’s own life. To be clear, while God’s sovereign plan works to use these sufferings to a good end (Rom. 8:28), the adversities and trials are not divine punishment or forms of judgment for persons-in-Christ. Neither does Paul say that God is directly responsible for adversity, pain, suffering, and bodily weakness. Rather, God uses sufferings and adversity to reveal his resurrection power through adversity and weakness and to produce faithful endurance and hope in persons-in-Christ. God promises that adversity and suffering will not overwhelm and destroy persons-in-Christ; instead, God accomplishes the “good” goal of using sufferings to produce the character of Christ and a stronger hope in the promise of eschatological life (Rom. 8:28–30).
This is a distinctive mindset from that of both ancient Stoics or modern Positive Psychology, even while Paul has some similarities with both on how perseverance can produce character.
Amidst the ocean of scholarship on Paul published every year, Jipp’s work represents a significant contribution, and his learned conversation with ancient and modern philosophy is worth engaging in far greater detail than is possible here. I have two minor questions or quibbles, both of which relate to the book’s title. First, what is a theology that is modified by the adjective ‘Pauline’? ‘Pauline Theology’ is sometimes explored as an objective of historical inquiry by critical scholars, and that can be legitimately helpful, so far as those lines of historical analysis can go. But ‘Pauline Theology’ is also sometimes spoken about by New Testament scholars with interest in the contemporary ecclesial and dogmatic significance of Paul as its own kind of dogmatics, epitomized by Douglas Campbell’s 740 pg. Pauline Dogmatics. But for self-consciously Christian readers of Paul, it is necessary that our theology be not only Pauline, but also informed by the rest of the canon of Holy Scripture, read in the society of the saints and under the rule of faith. The insights of Jipp’s book on Paul establishes groundwork for discerning how Paul relates to the broader canon of Scripture on these points, and it would be beneficial to read this book in conversation with other works such as Johnathan Pennington’s The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary. I do not fault Jipp for not doing that work here; only so much can be done in one volume. But I hope readers take up Jipp’s line of inquiry on Paul and extend it elsewhere in Scripture.
Second, while describing “theology” as “a way of life” has the formidable promise of integrating rather than separating theology from ethics, there nonetheless are some advantages to being able to clearly distinguish between theology and ethics. If this book were titled Pauline Ethics as a Way of Life, would its contents need to be changed? Again, I share Jipp’s affinity for Hadot’s approach to ancient philosophy, born out well in Kavin Rowe’s research, that we should not primarily approach Paul and/or ancient philosophers merely as “thinkers” to analyze their abstract thought, but rather we must understand how their thought was integrated with existential choice, as inextricable from an entire way of life. I resonate with Jipp’s criticism of the approach of James Dunn, where scholars are neither engaged in critical historical inquiry nor self-consciously Christian theological interpretation of Paul, but some kind of middle-ground. The problem is that “while it is often the case that Pauline theologies are written because the author believes in the enduring value and significance of the apostle, the standards of the guild that emphasize disinterested historical and exegetical descriptions often result in Pauline theologies that seemingly hold Paul’s theological claims at arm’s length” (6). While that is true, what if our models in theological interpretation of Paul were pre-critical interpreters such as Aquinas or Calvin? For instance, an interesting parallel to Jipp’s project is Michael Allen’s dogmatic account of justification which argues “the gospel is the glorious news that the God who has life in himself freely shares that life with us and, when we refuse that life in sin, graciously gives us that life again” (3). Is such a claim theology, or ethics? The answer is “yes!”—but I do wonder if, at the popular level or in less careful hands, talking about theology as a way of life might collapse theology into ethics and nothing more. Perhaps I am haunted by the ghost of how early 20th century liberal Protestantism subsumed theology into ethics, and so misreading all of this, but I think it is at least a trajectory worth cautioning against as “way of life” discourse has lately emerged as a trend.
Overall, Jipp’s book is focused, clearly-written, and well-argued; it should be accessible for non-specialist and educated lay readers. My sense is that there are at least three significant contributions in this book.
First, Pauline Theology as a Way of Life is a well-executed interdisciplinary work between Classics, Positive Psychology, and Pauline Studies. Aspiring Ph.D. candidates interested in writing a dissertation on Paul that involves inter-disciplinary conversations/methods would do well to take this book as a guide worth emulating. Second, ours is an age marked by pervasive confusion about theological anthropology, and Jipp’s book offers an enormously helpful path forward for navigating countless problems within and without the church about what it means to be a person, and what it means to flourish, in Christ. Even within the church, there are ways (both progressive and conservative) of talking about “wellness” and human flourishing that are less than Christian; Jipp’s exposition of Paul is a balm for such ailments, even if the balm we need sometimes stings. Finally, I hope that pastors and those who serve in Christian ministry will take up this book and not merely read it, but cultivate its insights in our churches and Christian communities. From small children to teenagers and young adults to middle-aged adults and retirees, it is not only confusing to discern what the good life actually is, but once discerned, it is extremely difficult to live out.
The church has the opportunity to model to the world what human flourishing looks like, an exhilarating and sobering vocation. To that end, we “bow [our] knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant [us] to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in [our] inner being, so that Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith—that [we], being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:14–19).