Paul, the Pastoral Epistles, and the Early Church

By James W. Aageson
Peabody, Mass : Hendickson (2006). xv + 235 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
20.2 (Fall 2009) : 241-243

The last several years have seen a renewed and vigorous debate on the nature of the Pastoral Epistles and their relation to the overall Pauline corpus of the NT. The now-traditional liberal assumptions of non-Pauline authorship of the Pastorals are being challenged within that sphere and for the last decade a study group in the Society of Biblical Literature (hereafter SBL) has been dedicated to a re-examination of these key epistles.

Aageson’s work is part of a larger series, The Library of Pauline Studies, edited by Stanley E. Porter, President and Professor of New Testament at McMaster Divinity College in Canada. The series now totals five volumes and this present volume is one of the most significant. The author is Professor of Biblical Studies and Chair of the Division for Arts and Humanities at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He has been one of the key contributors to the SBL study group and has authored several articles on this subject.

The author has compiled a detailed and specific bibliography, and useful subject and scripture indexes have been included. The text is thoroughly noted and the writing style is scholarly and clear, and though he expresses his considered opinion on controversial points, he is even-handed in his approach.

For the most part, the author views the Pastoral Epistles as a bridge of sorts between the “Pauline Scripture,” that is the so-called undisputed letters of Paul in the NT and the “Pauline Tradition” or “Pauline Legacy” of the early church. The author examines the Pastorals in several different avenues: (1) the theological patterns of the Pastorals; (2) an examination of those patterns against the undisputed letters of Paul, (3) an examination of the Pastorals in relation to Paul’s apostolic authority; and then (4) two sections of influence of Paul and the Pastorals in the early church.

The issue of Pauline authorship, though perhaps not dominating the work, is nonetheless a recurring theme that the author addresses from various angles. In the last century of biblical scholarship, the emerging view (mainly within the sphere of progressive, non-inerrantists) was a denial of Pauline authorship of the Pastorals. Various lines of reasoning were promoted and eventually this denial became the dominant view, to the point that even a respected evangelical such as I. Howard Marshall in his ICC Commentary (Pastoral Epistles, 1999) has joined the majority of those who, “take it almost as an unquestioned assumption that the PE are not the work of Paul” (Marshall, 58). The issue of authorship becomes a central issue in distinguishing what the author calls “Pauline Scriptures” and a “Pauline Canon” (90).

If Paul is not the author, the question is, how did the Pastorals find a place in the NT canon? Though Aageson concludes against Pauline authorship, he notes,

The writer(s) of the Pastorals looked to the Pauline past and used a memory of the pastor to enact a version of the Pauline tradition in the present. In this functional way, the Pastoral writer(s) contributed to the development of the early church even as he sought to combat various theological opponents (208).

In other words, is it plausible to assign the Pastorals an authorship by a late-firstcentury Christian, facing new problems and issues in the church, who was committed to the “Pauline Tradition” and who asked the now cliché-like question, “What Would Paul Do?” Aageson’s answer to the question is yes; this person crafted letters steeped in Pauline tradition and framed in a plausible Pauline scenario. The effect was to enhance the letter’s authority to deal with the questions at hand and also to build or strengthen the Pauline legacy in the early church at a time when it was apparently in danger of being usurped.

This writer (or these writers) in the Pauline tradition were apparently so successful that by the immediate post-apostolic age, “Paul was perceived to be the author of all the NT epistles that bear his name” (122). As the author notes,

These letters and the stories recorded in Acts represented the “real” Paul for much of the post-apostolic church, and they contributed to his ongoing and transforming legacy. In the emerging traditions of the church, there was ultimately no thought that the Pastoral Epistles or the so-called Deutero-Pauline Epistles were from anyone other than the “real” Paul, or that the Paul in Acts was somehow different from the Paul of the epistles. …In short, they gave rise to new images of the apostle. Paul, however, was not only a figure of apostolic authority, he was a writer of letters and a theologian who significantly shaped the first century church (ibid).

In short, the author, and others like him, are fighting a battle to retain Pauline authority for the Pastorals while at the same time denying traditional authorship and giving no weight at all to the notion of the inspiration of Scripture. The “Pauline Tradition” is viewed as largely good for the church today and largely authoritative in terms of historical precedent, but it is not absolute, and though it is “canonical,” it is not “Scriptural.”

This is a book that should be read by anyone working through the Pastoral Epistles and Pauline theology in general. The careful research of the author is evident. It represents a significant advance over the simplistic liberalism that rejects the Pastorals as having no validity or usefulness today. This reviewer disagrees with the underlying assumptions regarding Pauline authorship presented in this work, but finds its trajectories and argumentation both helpful and stimulating.