Understanding Paul and His Letters by Vincent P. Branick. Paulist Press, 2009, pb., 464 pp. ISBN: 0809145862

Early studies took him to Rome, where he earned a doctorate in Sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute and to Freiburg, Switzerland, where he earned a doctorate in philosophy. This book on Paul follows his Understanding the New Testament and Its Message that was published in 1998.

Branick dedicated the book during the Year of Paul in 2008 when his church marked the 2,000th birthday of the Apostle.

The author’s stated goal was “to understand Paul as a person of faith, inspired by the Holy Spirit, whose faith as expressed in his writings is a norm for all Christians. Taking Paul’s letters as a norm of faith, however, does not mean that we need to find in his writings a statement of belief that reflects everything we as Christians believe. It does not even mean that his beliefs are the same as ours. It means our faith must be in continuity with his faith.” This is a challenge to the many critics of Paul who distance themselves from the epistles, as well as to his admirers who must be willing to test their theological preconceptions against what was written in its historical context.

However, the main thrust of the text is not historical critical but theological. In order to deal comprehensively with Paul’s complex faith, the author has earmarked six theological themes or trajectories to focus upon as he thoroughly works through the letters: 1. The God and Father of Jesus and our Father, 2. Christ Jesus, whom Paul clearly distinguishes from God as God’s instrument of justice and salvation, 3. The Spirit of God, somehow an extension of God’s action in the world, 4. Salvation from sin, considered in a general way, 5. The union of life with Christ, which gives access to salvation, and 6. Eschatology, the final word of salvation.

In Part I the author lays a strong foundation to prepare students for exploring these theological themes. He pays close attention to the form and style of letter writing of the period, as it “shapes the truth that it expresses.”

Next, Paul’s life and career are studied, starting with a good look at what Luke tells us about Paul in Acts. Finally Paul’s educational, intellectual, and religious background is focused upon in great depth.

In Part II Branick carefully and clearly develops the main lines of Paul’s theology and faith in the seven books most scholars view as authentically Pauline, as well as Colossians that the author believes “most likely penned by another person but under Paul’s supervision.”

Part III is devoted to those letters “written in Paul’s name,” the pastoral letters, that help us understand how the church’s second generation interpreted the apostle. These texts are not to be considered “second class” in status, mindful of the author’s stress on the importance of continuity in faith.

Interestingly, after all the scholarly analysis, the book’s “Conclusion” ends with an acknowledgement that Paul “connected with an eternal and universal mystery” as he fashioned his passionate theology, and a call ”to listen to our hearts” as we read Paul.

This comprehensive study has been called “definitive” and while it is quite detailed and authoritative, it is not definitive. It has also been called “seminal” but it is actually one among several recent books with similar design and content. For instance, Borg and Crossan’s The First Paul covers comparable material.

What Borg and Crossan lack is Branick’s strong suit: the scrutiny he gives to each individual letter. He includes the historical background of the letter to the community, the circumstances for writing, issues of integrity, a sequential chapter-by-chapter commentary, a very helpful thematic summary, and the overall message of the letter. These features are fine resources for preparing well-grounded sermons or class presentations.

A minister or church library might consider buying this one volume rather than individual commentaries as it provides information sufficient for most study purposes. This is a dense text, sometimes overly ponderous if not boring. If one is looking solely for inspiration or reading pleasure, this is not the book to buy.

 THE REVEREND DR. ELIZABETH (DEAN) McDONALD is the chaplain of the National Presbyterian School in Washington, D.C.

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