Paul: Pioneer for Israel's Messiah

By Jacob Van Bruggen
Phillipsburg, N.J. : Presbyterian and Reformed (2005). 411 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
16.2 (Fall 2005) : 349-350

Recent years have witnessed a veritable plethora of books on Paul, his life and his theology. These books have sprung from every corner of the theological spectrum. Jewish writers have also attempted to probe the depth of the apostle’s motives and psyche. While Paul has continued to fascinate for his own sake, many of these authors have also attempted to respond to the “Copernican revolution” in Pauline studies initiated by E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Sanders’ work launched what James Dunn coined as the “New Pauline Perspective.” Writers over the last decade have sought to line up on one side of the other of this perspective. N. T. Wright’s contributions in this area, while distancing himself from Sanders and Dunn on many points, have raised the discussion over Paul and justification to a fever pitch in some corners of the theological and ecclesiastical world. Therefore, when another book on Paul appears, the first question that arises in many minds is: “Where does he stand on the NPP?”

In this regard, Van Bruggen’s book may not satisfy some readers. While mentioning Sanders’ ideas about “covenantal nomism” ( 217, 218 ) and Dunn’s ideas on the “works of the law,” (218), the author opposes their ideas but wrestles little with the issues that these authors raise. M ore disturbing is the fact that Wright is mentioned only slightly in two endnotes (332, 362 ), neither of which relate to his view on Paul and justification. This edition is a translation of the Dutch version of the book, published in 2001. That may account for his neglect of Wright, but certainly Wright’s work What Saint Paul Really Said, published in 19 97, at least deserves some mention.

Van Bruggen also never references the seminal Pauline labors of Richard Hays (Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul) or the major commentaries on Romans by Ernst Kasemann and Karl Barth. If one argues that Van Bruggen is just not interested in non-evangelical authors, how does he explain the absence of any reference to C. E. B. Cranfield’s classic Romans commentary or the relegating of his own evangelical countryman, H. W. Ridderbos, to a single endnote (349)?

Perhaps, one also might argue that Van Bruggen is not interested in interacting with other views on Paul, but rather seeks to expound the apostle’s life and thought in a positive manner. That approach is fine, but not when the author himself states in the preface, “I continuously (have) interacted with modern theories about the person and meaning of this sometimes rather mysterious apostle” (xv). Such interaction, however, is very limited, and is often deeply buried in an endnote.

Is there value in this work? Yes, in its limited scope, it offers much. The author first discusses in eighteen chapters what he calls “Paul the Pioneer.” These chapters discuss in detail the events in Paul’s life as reconstructed from Acts and the epistles. Van Bruggen has a high regard for the integrity of the biblical text, as was evidenced in his earlier works on Jesus. The issue of Jesus’ Messiahship, as the subtitle indicates, is the controlling idea that best explains Paul’s driving force in evangelism. He then expounds in four chapters the theme of “Paul the Apostle.” It is here that one would expect theological themes to dominate. Surprisingly, Van Bruggen counters with the following statement: “In fact, it is very much open to question whether it is methodologically possible to speak of something like Paul’s theology at all” (170). No wonder Ridderbos is not given much of a voice! Israel and the law are the themes Van Bruggen examines mostly in these chapters. Those who look, however, for an explanation of a future salvation for Israel consistent with a premillennial eschatology will be disappointed (272-74).

Van Bruggen’s treatment of Paul will disappoint the reader who is looking for an up-to-date treatment of Pauline issues with some substantive interaction with current alternative views. On the other hand, the reader who desires a positive exposition of the apostle’s life and ministry will find much help. However, in this reviewer’s opinion, the reader who desires more than a factual biography of Paul will be served better by the classic work of F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free.