Three Things I Liked about Paul and the Person by Susan Eastman
I've recently read through Susan Eastman's book Paul and the Person: Reframing Paul's Anthropology (Eerdmans, 2017). I'm not offering a full review here, but I did want quickly to draw your attention to three features of the book that I very much appreciated.
Interdisciplinary | Technical works of New Testament studies tend to be written for a very narrow audience, namely other members of the academic guild. They interact primarily with other New Testament scholars and are often quite laden with jargon that can be very cumbersome to the uninitiated. One unintended consequence is that many outside the guild get little opportunity to discover the rich insights that can arise out of very careful and very detailed study of the New Testament. This lack of broader exposure can also result in the general impression that academic study of the Bible isn't terribly relevant. One way to counteract this problem is interdisciplinary research, which is what we get from Eastman's Paul and the Person. She goes well beyond the typical dialogue partners to interact extensively with research in neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy. By relating Paul's anthropology to research outside the very narrow field of New Testament studies, Eastman shows the relevance of Pauline theology for contemporary theories on what it means to be a person. That doesn't mean this book is going to be easily accessible to broader audiences. The discussion is very advanced and quite technical at times. It's no pop-level book. Nevertheless, the interdisciplinary approach brings the New Testament into dialogue with other disciplines to show how they shed light on Paul and how he sheds light on them. My hope is that other New Testament scholars will follow Eastman's lead.
Christological Personhood | Understandings of personhood today are deeply influenced by individualism and autonomy. Eastman pushes back against this trend by highlighting approaches to personhood focused on the self as subject. If someone else addresses me as a subject, then it affirms my status as a person. One of the ways others address us as subjects is through imitation. Think about it this way. Children imitate their parents as an expression of their interpersonal relationships. More could be said, but I don't want to get too deep into the theories at this point. What's interesting is the way Eastman uses this to read Philippians 2:5-11. She frames the incarnation as God in Christ imitating humanity in our most desperate and humble condition. Christ addresses us as subjects by participating in our human condition even to the point of death. So what is a person? To be a person is to be "one for whom Christ died" (14). And that's all of us.
Paul's Contribution to Contemporary Issues | Some scholars are inclined to relegate Paul and his views to the past. They suggest that we simply can't view the world the way Paul did. After all, we're modern folk, and we know more about how the world works than ancient people did. (C.S. Lewis called this chronological snobbery.) Eastman helpfully pushes back against these sorts of moves by considering Paul's contribution to contemporary issues. She does it without anachronism by comparing Paul with other ancient authors and contemporary theories of the person. What we get is a humble, illuminating, and very interesting reading of Paul.
For more on Paul and the Person, check out this interview with Susan Eastman on the OnScript Podcast.
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, Alabama, Director of Research at Wesley Biblical Seminary, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice, The Letters to the Thessalonians, and Bless the Nations: A Devotional for Short-Term Missions. Connect at theologyproject.online.