A Passion for Paul: Interview with Professor Douglas Farrow

You’ve just produced a work of biblical commentary. In the academy that is more commonly a task for biblical scholars. How and why did a theologian take it up?

The best theology has always grown out of biblical study and served to enrich it. Aquinas famously regarded his entire Summa as an aid to biblical exposition in the pulpit. Disciplines do matter. But one of the weaknesses of the modern academy is the fragmentation of the disciplines and a corresponding tendency to preach to the choir. The Brazos Theological Commentary series, in which this book appears, is meant to address that weakness.

But doesn’t that tend to produce another kind of weaknesses, as people work outside their expertise?

It may do, but the requisite expertise is very broad. The challenge of serious biblical commentary today is to produce something that is attuned to advancing historical knowledge of the milieu in which the text arose, yes, and to growing understanding of its author(s) and of their own use of language and texts. But it must also be attuned to the relevant features and needs of our present era, insofar as the text can help identify and address them. It must be conscious of the developing mind of the Church as it continues to digest its canonical texts within the framework of settled doctrine. It must discern something of the text’s power to change lives and societies.

Patristic and mediaeval scholars were already onto all this, in their advocacy of a fourfold interpretation based on the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical meanings inherent in inspired texts. Of course they sometimes lacked elements of our historical knowledge. Then again, perhaps they weren’t quite so readily enticed down the rabbit holes of pseudo-historical speculation. And they were much less concerned to appear innovative. They gloried in coherence rather than contradiction, preferring wholes to heaps of parts. They looked for integrity in and between texts wherever possible. They didn’t take them all to bits and leave them like that. Nor did they suppose that page after page of grammatical or sociological analysis sufficed in place of thicker and more compelling reflection on the meaning or relevance of a text. They took into account the Church’s long pondering of it, and the lectional or liturgical work to which it had been put. Their approach was not a divide-and-conquer approach. Neither a theologian nor a historian nor a biblical scholar nor a pastor can hope to be a true master of all the relevant disciplines. The exercise must be a cooperative one.

So how did you attempt to keep all these things in play?

I studied my betters in the business of understanding Paul’s milieu. I attempted my own fresh translation of the text, a rather important step in 2 Thessalonians especially, which seems to have been written in some haste. I made use of tools such as Anthony Thiselton provided in collating later appeals to the Thessalonian letters, and read commentaries on those letters from Chrysostom through Aquinas to our own rather profligate period, which is capable of producing the most enormous tomes even on the shortest of epistles. And I put to good use my own training in exegesis, the history of doctrine, constructive theology, moral and liturgical theology.

Who were your inspirations? Where did the desire to attempt this come from?

I’ve always had a passion for Paul. It would be very difficult to be a practicing Christian who didn’t much care for Paul, though that is sometimes attempted! Paul is a kind of lightning rod for whatever people do or don’t like about Christianity. I learned to read him more intelligently with the help of Tony Thiselton and Tom Wright, both of whom I had the privilege of serving in a T.A. capacity long ago, as a student in Vancouver. I was then doing some research into Oscar Cullmann and Karl Barth, under John Nolland and the late J. I. Packer at Regent College. I thought of becoming a Pauline scholar but ultimately opted for theology, which I pursued under Colin Gunton at King’s London. There, as a lecturer, I was able to work alongside some other very fine biblical scholars such as Graham Stanton and Francis Watson and Douglas Campbell. I don’t profess to be their match; we do indeed have different disciplines. But we share a common drive to understand what we read.

“Do you understand what you are reading?” That is what St Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch, Queen Candace’s finance minister, when he heard him reading Isaiah (Acts 8). If it is important to understand Isaiah, it is equally important to understand Paul. I want to help people understand Paul, and for the same reason Philip wanted the Ethiopian to understand Isaiah: both bear witness to the truth about God and his Christ, as Paul would say.

Your book is some 300 pages. It has bits of Greek and Latin. There are short and long excurses on Augustine and other patristic, mediaeval, or modern thinkers. It doesn’t shy either from troubling exegetical details or from the big and difficult questions about human destiny. Will readers who are not specialists understand you?

Not perhaps if they are in a great hurry. But I’ve always worked very hard on my English prose and on developing arguments in a fashion at once orderly and intriguing. I’d like to think that anyone who really wants to understand, and is willing to take a little trouble to understand, will not come away disappointed. And that the same Spirit who enabled Philip to overtake the Ethiopian’s chariot will provide whatever assistance they may require.

There’s a well-known work of art by Luca Signorelli that divides your treatises on the two letters. Is that just decorative?

SIGNORELLI, Luca (b. ca. 1450, Cortona, d. 1523, Cortona), Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist

No, not just decorative. Signorelli’s Disputation of Antichrist (which is more often viewed than grasped) is expounded in my treatment of the second letter. For that letter points to one whom Paul calls “the man of lawlessness,” who like the Christ will have his own parousia or royal advent – this under the guise of law but in deep antipathy to it. It includes a warning, as does Signorelli’s fresco, that history will lead ultimately to a contest between the one man (or kind of man) and the other, and it offers advice as to how to deal with that. That is what makes the letter so interesting, together with what it contributes to Paul’s understanding of the justice of God.

The authorship of the second letter is disputed, is it not? Do you really think that Paul is the author?

Yes, I do. I don’t belong to what I call, somewhat mischievously, the “John le Carré” school, which takes great delight in fashioning theories of pseudonymity by which to set Paul against Paul. But you’ll have to look at the commentary to see why I side with those who see only Paul.

One last question: You say you’ve been working on this for ten years, but in that period you’ve produced three other books as well, two in systematic theology and one in political theology. Is there a common thread here?

Yes, there is. Ascension Theology (T&T Clark 2011) began to develop a political theology motif that is carried forward, albeit in quite different ways, by Desiring a Better Country (MQUP 2015) and by the present biblical commentary. The same motif can be found also in Theological Negotiations (Baker Academic 2018), set there in the context of classical disputes about grace and nature. All come to the same conclusion, really: Fear God, not man, for the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. It is also the best way, the only sure way, to a happy end.

 I said “last,” but now I’ve got to ask, What’s next?

 Well, I’ve been meaning for some time to write up my lectures on theological ethics, which discuss the art of living well on the way to the End, an art that Paul references many times in his letters to Thessaloniki. I’ve less excuse now for procrastination, which is no part of that art. But I’d rather people heard Paul’s voice than mine.



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