Paul the Progressive? The Compassionate Christian’s Guide to Reclaiming the Apostle Paul as an Ally

Eric C. Smith
Chalice Press, 160 pages
Reviewed by Jo Forrest

“Never say anything from your pulpit that would cause harm to my Jewish boy,” remains an enduring memory for author Eric Smith from a New Testament class taught by Vanderbilt Divinity professor Amy-Jill Levine. Her motherly protection and son’s physical presence reminded Smith of the real-world consequences his previously conservative beliefs of Paul’s writings could inflict.

Part memoir, part biblical interpretation, part pastoral care, “Paul the Progressive?” weaves together stories of Smith’s self-described evangelical upbringing and conservative points of view with the human encounters and rigorous scholarship that opened his heart and mind to read Paul in a new light. As a result, his perspective about Paul’s writings and his own view of the world changed.

Now targeting “progressives” as a progressive, Smith writes of the apostle Paul’s passions for justice, honesty, reconciliation across differences and, most of all, inclusion.

This book dedicates a chapter to common labels some progressives would associate with Paul, such as a misogynist, homophobe, anti-Semite, prude, slavery apologist, xenophobe and guilt monger. Throughout the arguments, Smith returns again and again to four distinct ground rules he established for interpreters:

  1. Know that Paul didn’t write everything attributed to him.
  2. Trust Paul’s own words over the words of others about him.
  3. Trust Paul’s actions as evidence of his commitments.
  4. Recognize that we are always already viewing Paul through a particular theological and historical lens.

Smith serves as assistant professor of early Christianity and contemporary Christian practices at Iliff School of Theology and has pastored congregations in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). His dual perspectives infuse this slim commentary with practical experiences along with scholarly research on how Paul’s writings have been “used” over the ages.

Against what Smith believes are erroneous interpretations, he provides detailed exegesis, history and context for individual words and verses within each of Paul’s letters. He further demonstrates the ways these verses have been abused, particularly when compared with Paul’s enduring and overarching message of inclusive love.

Highlights from “Paul the Progressive?” include the continual reminder that Paul wrote to particular people and situations to address specific challenges; he did not write abstract essays. Smith shines in the chapter “Paul and Modern Sexual Ethics,” arguing Paul viewed the body as “sacred and vulnerable.” Offering an example of “scriptural malpractice,” Smith criticizes the use of Paul’s writings by then U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions to defend immigration policies. The concluding pages devoted to rethinking salvation in Paul again highlight the importance of checking one’s perspective as it relates to reading Paul’s theologies of salvation, whether as individual or communal.

For teaching elders whose shelves already groan with commentaries on each of Paul’s letters and focused biographies, why add another? When challenged to discuss Paul’s writings that most often are claimed to divide and condemn, Smith’s arguments are concise and pastoral. The historical interpretative stances, translation and exegesis will serve as valued resources in teaching, preaching and reading Paul.

Jo Forrest is a teaching elder serving as senior associate minister at Kenilworth Union Church, an interdenominational congregation on the north shore of Chicago.