“The Making of Christian Morality: Reading Paul in Ancient and Modern Contexts” by David G. Horrell

Horrell’s approach to Scripture makes him a less than reliable guide.

Horrell is right to recognize that nobody reads Scripture in a vacuum. We are all deeply affected by the social and intellectual contexts in which we live, and we all come to Scripture with various questions and biases, many of which we are often not even aware. It is also legitimate to seek insight from Scripture on contemporary issues that the biblical writers themselves didn’t contemplate. What Scripture says explicitly often has profound implications for things it doesn’t address. But some fundamental questions remain. Should our perceived contemporary needs direct us to downplay what Scripture emphasizes, or should Scripture itself set the agenda for what is most important?

 

This work is a collection of essays written over the past two decades by the prominent British New Testament scholar, David Horrell. In the not-so-distant past, mainstream scholars typically tried to study the New Testament merely in an objective, historical way. More recently, many of these scholars have shown renewed interest in how biblical texts may inform contemporary theological and ethical issues. Horrell writes as part of this latter movement. The book’s essays cover a wide range of topics related to the Pauline epistles. In Horrell’s own words, the three Parts of the book move “from the concrete social circumstances in which the earliest [Christian] communities gathered, through studies of Paul’s ethics, to the contemporary appropriation of the Pauline writings…” (xiii).

It is worth mentioning up front that although each chapter on its own is coherent, the essays do not come together very well to constitute a unified and coherent book. Near the beginning of the volume, Horrell admits that there are “a few points of overlap” (xiii) among the essays. This is an understatement—many discussions and comments that appear one place in the book are repeated elsewhere. Horrell decided not to eliminate the repetitiveness because he wished to uphold the integrity of the individual essays. The essays also contain a number of sections that repeat material from other books Horrell has written. Having read his work Solidarity and Difference (2d ed., 2015) shortly before reading the present volume, I noticed many strikingly similar discussions between the two. It is obviously within the author’s (and publisher’s) discretion to construct a book with this internally and externally repetitive material, but potential readers should be aware of this.

Part I (chapters 1-4) deals with the “sociohistorical context” of the early Christian churches and their surrounding communities. These essays engage scholarly debates that aren’t on the radar of most Christians reading the New Testament, such as what sort of home the worship services described in 1 Corinthians met in, or how wealthy Philemon was (or wasn’t). The essays in Part I will probably be of least interest to readers of Modern Reformation, although they may find thought-provoking material in Chapter 4, where Horrell discusses Paul’s use of family language (such as “brothers”) to describe fellow Christians.

Part II (chapters 5-7) turns to particular issues of ethics that emerge in Paul’s letters. Chapter 5 focuses on 1 Corinthians 5. Horrell considers how Paul here emphasizes the distinctive identity of the church, yet without promoting a sexual ethic that was different from that of the surrounding culture. Chapter 6 turns especially to 1 Corinthians 8-10, where Paul gives instructions regarding food sacrificed to idols and how this should shape relationships among Christians.  Chapter 7 considers Philippians 2:6-11 and its theme of humility according to the imitation of Christ. These chapters in Part II deal thoughtfully with important themes in Paul’s epistles and may prove to be the most helpful part of the book for Modern Reformation readers.

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