Moral Formation according to Paul: The Context and Coherence of Pauline Ethics
In Moral Formation, Thompson seeks a coherent theology behind Paul’s ethical directions to his churches. The situational nature of his letters obscures any structure behind his moral commands. Some interpreters assume that Paul mimicked a Hellenistic ethic, or else he derived his commands from a theological rubric of love or soteriology. Others argue that Paul gave commands in an ad hoc fashion depending on the need of each community with no rhyme or reason. Thompson argues that Hellenistic Jewish writers provide a clear background for Paul’s ethical direction.
Even though they did not directly quote the Law, Hellenistic Jewish teachers used the Law to provide a coherent basis for moral instruction. Thompson observes: “Attempting to maintain Jewish identity while adapting to a majority culture, they interpreted the law in summaries that focused not on the sacrificial system or the Jewish boundary markers but on an ethic that was responsible to the larger audience” (p. 15). Jewish writers in the Diaspora omitted cultic requirements and ethnic markers, yet remained committed to the Law for moral guidance. They followed the normal Hellenistic practice of drawing up virtue and vice lists. Thompson concludes that “biblical content is poured into Hellenistic forms” (p. 34).
Unlike his Jewish counterparts, who wrote to a homogeneous group, Paul faced ethnically diverse audiences without shared values. He incorporated these communities into the Old Testament narrative. The Law provided this continuity.
Paul summarized the Law around two themes: Spirit and love. First, through the Spirit, both Jews and Gentiles enjoy the benefit of the New Covenant, by which God will “write the Law on their hearts” (Jer. 31:31–34). For Paul, this comes through the Spirit (Rom. 8:4). Second, Paul noted that the Law culminates in love (Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14; Mark 12:29–31; cf. Lev. 19:18). Christ’s death on behalf of the community as an expression of God’s love (Rom. 5:7–8) represents the type of self-giving love that believers should have for one another. Ultimately, this love unites the Christian community. Paul’s negativity toward the Law presents a difficulty for Thompson (Rom. 6:14; 7:4; Gal. 2:19). Salvation does not come through the Law; yet it still represents God’s holy standard (Rom. 2:17–20; 7:12; 1 Tim. 1:8–9).
Throughout the book, Thompson addresses the undisputed Pauline letters. The last chapter focuses on moral instruction in Paul’s disputed letters, mainly Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals. Without discussing the issue of authorship, Thompson assumes that these represent a later stage of Pauline writing and a development in his ethical thinking. In particular, Colossians and Ephesians portray Jesus’ death and resurrection as a victory over cosmic powers. This victory liberates Christians from the cosmic power that once enslaved them (cf. Eph. 2:2–7) and creates a new identity. This new community forms the basis of a new lifestyle (cf. Col. 3:1–4:6).
Paul made little use of the Law in these books; however, Spirit and love remain important themes in his writing. This suggests more continuity than Thompson allows. In Ephesians, because of this cosmic victory, the community has received the Spirit (1:13–14). Paul encouraged his readers to be “filled with the Spirit” (5:18). The following participles describe the results of this filling. The last participle, “submitting to one another in the fear of the Christ,” becomes the dominant theme that runs through the household code (5:21–6:9).
Love also remains a dominant theme in these books. Paul directed his readers to love one another as an imitation of Christ’s love through His sacrificial death (Eph. 5:1–2; cf. Col. 3:14). Although Paul used a different metaphor in Ephesians and Colossians, he drew from these two dominant themes to describe his ethics, which his earlier writings link to the Law. Thompson assumes that these letters represent a later period; it is not surprising that he finds discontinuity. The evidence, however, suggests that they might be closer than he indicates.
In the end, Thompson’s thesis presents significant consequences. First, it shows continuity between Paul and Hellenistic Judaism. Most assume that Paul’s treatment of the Law shows a break with Judaism. Thompson’s exegesis shows that this might not be the case. Paul presents the Law in a more nuanced manner. Second, Thompson provides a basis for a coherent ethical system within Paul’s writing. Even though this may not be clear on a prima facie reading, the Law unifies Paul’s ethical commands.
About the Contributors
Benjamin I. Simpson
Dr. Simpson joined the faculty in 2006 as the registrar. In 2011, he moved to Houston to work with the Houston campus. In 2016, he and his family moved to Washington DC where he continues helping external students complete their degrees while positively influencing their ministries. His research interests include Jesus, the Gospels, and hermeneutics. He is married to Amber and they have two children: Madison and Eli.