Saturday, November 14, 2015

Meandering Paul

Discussing the literary structure of the pastoral epistles, Kostenberger and company say this in The Cradle, The Cross, and the Crown:
“R. van Neste summarized the state of scholarship on the Pastorals this way: ‘Until recently, one of the widely accepted tenets of modern scholarship regarding the Pastoral Epistles was that they lacked any significant, careful order or structure.’ This was not confined to liberal critics; even an otherwise conservative commentator such as D. Guthrie wrote, ‘There is a lack of studied order, some subjects being treated more than once in the same letter without apparent premeditation. . . . These letters are, therefore, far removed from literary exercises.’”
It seems like Christians who hold to a high view of Scripture typically bristle at this sort of claim, perhaps because it feels almost irreverent to suggest that some of Paul’s letters lack a careful organization or structure. But there really isn’t anything irreverent about this. There’s nothing wrong with a meandering personal letter, and a lack of structure doesn’t undermine inspiration. What Guthrie says is exactly right. Paul’s letters were not meant to be literary masterpieces.

But look at how the Cradle authors express surprise that “even” conservative commentators have said such things. That’s odd to me. I don’t understand why this particular question should be understood in terms of a liberal/conservative divide. It isn’t like inspiration is at stake here.

The Cradle authors continue:
“Against those who have argued against the literary unity and integrity of the Pastoral Epistles, van Neste demonstrated, in the most careful study of the topic to date, that there is ‘evidence of a high level of cohesion in each of the Pastoral Epistles’ . . . . they demonstrate signs of a coherent structure and of theological competence.”
I don’t see how the word “integrity” has any place in this conversation. A lack of definite structure doesn’t undermine the letter’s “integrity” (whatever that actually means). “Theological competence” is also an irrelevant category. A lack of definite structure doesn’t mean that the letter or its author lacks theological competence.

The indefinite structure of the pastoral epistles can be seen even from the outlines that the Cradle authors themselves present. Consider their outline of 1 Timothy, which I hope no one will mind me reproducing an image of here:

Note that the fourth major section is simply titled “Further Charges.” It’s titled in such a general way because the charges in it are so diverse. There isn’t some kind of unifying feature that ties them all together, other than the fact that they’re all “charges,” though there isn’t even really a charge to be found in the first sub-section on latter-day apostasy (4:1-5). Moreover, there was already a “charge” section earlier in the letter, according to this outline (1:3-20). So why didn’t the “Further Charges” just get combined with those earlier ones?

Furthermore, within the “Further Charges” is a sub-section titled “Further Congregational Matters.” But there was already a major section on congregational matters earlier in the letter, according to this outline (2:1-3:16). So why didn’t the “Further Congregational Matters” just get combined with those earlier ones?

The most realistic conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that Paul meanders. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

In Cradle’s outline of 2 Timothy, there’s a section titled “Ministry Metaphors, Paul’s Gospel, and a Trustworthy Saying” (2:1-26). And those aren’t sub-sections within a major section; that’s the title of a major section. It’s pretty clear that a letter lacks definite structure when one of the main sections in the outline has to have three different ideas in its title.

Outlining a book doesn’t always demonstrate a definite structure. Some people seem to think that if they reduce a letter’s contents sequentially into concise phrases, and put numbers and letters beside those phrases, forming an outline, then they’ve somehow demonstrated a concrete structure. But sometimes an outline simply brings out the fact that the letter doesn’t have a clearly discernible structure.

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