Paul on the Person

Heavily influenced by the notion of autonomy and freedom, modern-day Western evangelicalism tends to view the person in isolation. Rather than seeing the person in relationship to his/her community and positioning that community as the central point of concern, evangelicals tend to view the person unto themselves and situate the individual person as the central point of concern. This worldview has drastically shaped how the Scriptures are read and subsequently, how Paul and his anthropology in his 13 letters are interpreted.

Context

Susan Grove Eastman, author of Paul and the Person: Reframing Paul’s Anthropology, sought to situate Paul and his writings in his historical context. She broached this topic because

  1. scholarship has largely neglected Pauline anthropology (2),
  2. there has been a resurgence to better understand the person with the advent of modern psychology and cognitive science (2), and
  3. she desired to integrate ancient voices with contemporary voices.

Initially motivated by the imitation language in Galatians (xii-xiii), she set out to prove that “[Paul] displays a functional understanding of human beings as relationally constituted agents who are both embodied and embedded in their world” (2). In other words, she argued that human beings are first and foremost known in relation to each other and to their world before they are known as individuals and isolated from their context.

Eastman demonstrated her expertise and breadth of understanding in this subject by integrating several disciplines into one discussion. In fact, this intersection is where her distinctiveness lies. She is able to integrate Pauline studies, primeval philosophy, and up-to-date psychology so that her readers could better understand one of the main writers of the New Testament and how he viewed the person (4). She wrote to scholars, philosophers, and psychologists so that a full-orbed and contemporary picture of Pauline anthropology could be painted. (5)

In recent decades, theologians like N. T. Wright have called for an examination of Paul because the church may have interpreted him too much through a reformation lens. Eastman, although not concerned with new perspective arguments in this work, seems to take up this notion of understanding Paul in his original context by exploring Paul’s ancient context and situating him in the present context. Therefore, anyone interested in a fresh perspective on Pauline studies, especially as it relates to anthropology, and interdisciplinary conversations should read this book.

Thesis

She prosecuted her thesis in two main moves. In the first move, she interacted with Epictetus, who was a contemporary philosopher to Paul. She then transitioned to explore modern psychology. In her second move, she identifies three passages where Paul talks about the person—Romans 7, Philippians 2, and Galatians 2—and dissected Paul’s anthropology by utilizing second person hermeneutics. She begins with Epictetus because of his enduring influence on philosophical conversation, Pauline-like thought, and interest in anthropology (32-33). She continues with modern psychology because, thanks to advancement in technology, more and more discoveries about the brain and thus how people function are being distilled (63). By integrating these two conversations, her readers will better understand Paul’s thought process and its relevance for today.

After establishing the ancient and modern cultural contexts, she begins to implement second person hermeneutics to understand Paul in key passages. By “second-person,” she is integrating first-person and third-person hermeneutics. In first-person hermeneutics, self-knowledge is subjective and personal (15). In third-person hermeneutics, self-knowledge is objective and distant (15). Therefore, second-person hermeneutics integrates these two perspectives into one perspective (reminiscent of Wright’s “Critical Realism” epistemology).

Eastman applies this hermeneutic, first, in Romans 7:14-25. In this passage, Paul wrestles with his self-understanding when it comes to sanctification. At times, he is doing things that are contrary to who he is. One cannot help but think Paul suffers from schizophrenia in this passage. But, if Eastman’s thesis is correct and adequately applied to this passage, Paul is decidedly not a schizophrenic, but someone wrestling with his relationship to spiritual warfare (124). He knows this problem is internal but enacted by external realities. Second, in Philippians 2:5-13, Paul explores Christ’s condescension to humanity. Integrating her earlier research in imitation, the reader sees that Christ came down and to his people and redeemed God’s people. As a result, Paul calls the Philippian church to work out their salvation because God works in them (Philippians 2:12-13). Applying Eastman’s second person hermeneutic again, his audience is working internally, but in relationship to each other and God. Finally, in Galatians 2:15-21, Eastman reinforces the relational element of her thesis. If God’s people are truly in relation to Christ, then this relationship means his work on the cross is also their work on the cross (162). Thus, when Christ departed the grave, so did God’s people. This close relationship means that God’s people possess a new relationship to him—one that leaves them in their world, but in a proper covenantal relationship.

Her strengths, as mentioned before, lie in her distinct, interdisciplinary conversation partners and depth of interaction with the biblical texts. Since she reframed Paul’s anthropology in key texts to demonstrate that human beings are constituted beings who embody and embed their world, she sold me on her thesis. However, if one is not familiar with ancient philosophy and contemporary psychology, her thesis becomes muddied since there is some leg work required on the reader’s end to catch up to the current conversations in three different disciplines.

She seemed to come across in an almost polemical fashion, though constructive in the conversation since the study of Pauline anthropology is somewhat young. She was polemical in the sense she pushed back against the individualism rampant in Western culture. Again, this pushback was not her primary purpose, but a significant application. Either way, her work was constructive in the sense that it accomplished what it set out to do—reframe Paul’s anthropology. Eastman has provided a foundation to talk about relationships, Paul, and anthropology.

Recommendation

I would recommend this work to those who thrive in exploring deep topics. This book proved challenging because many of the terms and concepts utilized were unique to non-theological disciplines and thus came with their own disciplinary baggage. Thankfully, she did break down her terminology in the introduction, but sometimes it became difficult to keep with the argument since a refresher was needed from time to time. This clarification is not necessarily a negative mark, but something for readers to keep in mind who do not possess formal philosophical, religious, and/or psychological backgrounds.

Eastman’s thesis is important because it recognizes the need for community. The Christian faith was not meant to be lived alone but lived in relationship to each other and to God. If the Christian faith is not lived out in community, then there is a dangerous bias towards the “first-person hermeneutic.” On the flip side, if a Christian does not learn how to be alone, then there is a dangerous bias towards the “third-person hermeneutic.” Therefore, a balance needs to be found between the two to achieve the second-person perspective. Ultimately, Christians cannot achieve this balance on their own but God, through his Spirit, will enable his people to soberly assess who they are in relation to him, his people, and themselves.


Eastman, Susan. Paul and the Person: Reframing Paul’s Anthropology. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017.


This post was originally an academic paper submitted to Drs. Michael Williams and Daniel Zink and Professor Aaron Goldstein in God & Humanity: Foundations for Counseling at Covenant Theological Seminary. It has been modified from its original version.

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