VICTOR PAUL FURNISH
Geoffrey W. Sutton
The Moral Teaching of Paul is one of the books I cited in A House Divided. This third edition comes some 30 years after the first edition and aims to expand our understanding of the sociocultural context of Paul's Ministry related to contemporary moral issues.
Before discussing the moral topics, Furnish reminds readers in Chapter 1 about Paul's authorship, which at this point appears firm for Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Disputed works include Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy. The disputed works have been variously dated in a range from the 70s to the early second century. The importance of identifying Paul's works is a matter of emphasis thus, Furnish focuses attention on the undisputed texts to understand Paul's moral theology.
Furnish advises readers of the problem with a Sacred Cow view of the biblical texts. Such a view leaves readers bound to Paul's words because they are really the words of God given to all people for all time. Furnish argues that the biblical authors addressed situations in their sociohistorical context. Furnish realizes he must deal with those who quote 2 Timothy 3: 16-17. He makes the point, as others have, that the verse about inspired scripture probably referred to the Jewish texts since there was no New Testament at the time Paul wrote. The other point rests on an understanding of the concept, inspiration. As is commonly known, some view inspiration as the very words of God but others interpret the term in various ways (see Chapter 1 for more details).
Following the groundwork in Chapter 1, Furnish begins to address the moral topics that capture our attention. Chapter 2 deals with Sex, Marriage, and Divorce. There is no surprise to see Paul's view of sex as limited to the marriage relationship. Furnish offers background points about marriage during the Roman period. The purpose of marriage was to establish a household where children could be raised and elderly parents receive care. Approved marriages were important to the transfer of property to future generations. Girls married in the age range of 12 to 15 and men married by age 25. Furnish notes Paul's reason for marriage as "good" to meet sexual needs. Paul avoids the reason others have given of marrying to procreate (Gen 1:28).
Divorce was easy to obtain during Roman times, according to Furnish. Adultery was the usual cause of a divorce. Furnish notes Jesus' restrictive stance on divorce and guides readers into a consideration of other reasons beyond infidelity by considering circumstances as does Paul in some of his reasoning.
Chapter 3 is titled, "Homosexuality?" Furnish makes the point early on that there were no ancient words for homosexuality in the biblical languages. Furnish departs from a discussion of Paul's works to provide context from the Jewish laws about same-sex sex. He then proceeds to a discussion of Jewish and Roman cultures in the first century. For Jews, same-sex sex was unnatural and unlawful. He refers to Greek culture and the presence of same-sex relationships. Some practices by people of the time involving sex with boys were condemned by other writers and Furnish thinks these condemned practices may be what Paul had in mind. He offers quotes from ancient extrabiblical texts to make his point about the condemnation of exploitation. Furnish closes the chapter by addressing current concerns about same-sex unions. He reminds readers of the limits of what the biblical texts say and do not say when it comes to contemporary notions of sexual orientation and relationships.
See related chapters in A House Divided
In Chapter 4, Furnish addresses Paul's view of "Women in the Church." As in previous chapters, Furnish provides the sociohistorical context applicable to the texts that appear to limit the role of women in ministry. He includes quotes depicting the inferiority of a woman's human nature e.g., seeing women as easily deceived and having poor reasoning powers. Next, Furnish examines the sometimes confusing array of teachings from Paul's letters. On the one hand, there are texts restricting what women can do but on the other hand, there are texts documenting the important role of women in early church ministries--including Paul's work.
The final chapter (5) addresses the moral challenge of "The Church in the World." We see that Paul expects Christians to live as citizens, which suggests an active role in social life. We also see guidance on how to behave; that is, Paul refers to such virtues as love, gentleness, kindness, and so on. Furnish makes a point that Christians are called to honorable conduct without connecting good works to the conversion of unbelievers to Christianity.
Furnish's analysis of Paul's teachings in the context of Jewish and Roman cultures provides a useful backdrop to consider contemporary interpretations of several hot-button issues that continue to divide contemporary Christians. Thus, Furnish's book remains relevant as Christians sincerely seek to appreciate what the Apostle Paul wrote, the traditions of the church, and how one ought to think about contemporary moral issues. The book will likely not be helpful to those who adhere to an interpretation of Pauline texts that does not permit a nuanced view based on cultural contexts and understanding old words and phrases in the ancient languages of scripture. The Moral Teaching of Paul will likely be useful for those in a variety of Christian ministries and students in Christian colleges and seminaries.
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Furnish, V. P. (2009). The Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues, 3rd Ed. Nashville: Abingdon.
Sutton, G. W. (2016). A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures. Eugene, OR: Pickwick.