Review of The Pastoral Epistles with Philemon and Jude by Risto Saarinen

Risto Saarinen, The Pastoral Epistles with Philemon and Jude, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008).

In the spring 2010 issue of Lutheran Forum, the Finnish Lutheran theologian Risto Saarinen contributed an article called “The Letter of Jude, a Christian Midrash,” based on his work for this volume in the Brazos series. But his whole commentary not only fleshes out Jude (“the most neglected book in the New Testament”) a bit further: it also gives extensive treatment on four pauline epistles. A curious combination—one wonders if the editors just rounded up the ragtag leftovers to be lumped together in one book—but Saarinen manages to treat each book on its own terms, which makes for rewarding reading, however odd the assortment.

Part of the oddness is that Saarinen, like most major biblical interpreters across the Catholic, Evangelical, and Reformation Protestant spectrum, assumes Philemon to be the work of the apostle Paul himself, while the pastorals are seen to contain ample evidence of being from one of Paul’s close associates without being his own direct composition. Still, as Saarinen points out, “readers who are committed to the immediate authorship of Paul can find some consolation in the observation that, given the concentration on theological exposition, my commentary would not be dramatically changed even if I would affirm Paul’s authorship” (23). In fact, what he makes of the pastorals—which have often been maligned for somehow losing the tonic focus on christology in the certainly-pauline letters—goes a long way toward redeeming their value for the serious business of theology two thousand years later.

Saarinen explicitly sets out to tackle two of the typical criticisms leveled against the pastorals. The one is “the fallacy of downgrading Greco-Roman topics” and the other is “the fallacy of preferring the extreme options” (23). The first of these is particularly interesting within the context of a massive rethinking of mission taking place in the church today. Since the pastorals famously appeal to Greco-Roman moral philosophy and virtue ethics, it has long been fashionable to see them as a kind of sellout, the first in a long string of fatal compromises with the surrounding culture. Saarinen chooses instead to see them as the beginning of a long line of necessary experiments in speaking the gospel to a particular culture, with its particular expectations, in its particular language. This in turn takes the punch out of the second fallacy, which perceives in the pastorals’ appeals to moderation a vote for “dull respectability” over martyriological passion for the crucified Christ. To the contrary, Saarinen argues that the pastorals attempt to lift up in Greco-Roman culture its own virtues that can be connected to the biblical witness (at the time, of course, only the Old Testament) and the life of Jesus and to a certain extent Paul in order to make them mutually intelligible. This is what we as Christians actually do all the time. Our cultural lenses color our reading of the Bible, for good or for ill, but inescapably. At the same time, the Bible colors our reading of our culture. There is no handbook as to the right way to do this in every individual culture, but the pastorals paint us a portrait of how one of Paul’s heirs attempted to do so in his Greco-Roman culture.

Of course, that raises questions of its own. Are the conclusions that the pastorals reach to be taken as applicable to all cultures subsequently? Are they to be gleaned for “principles” of biblical-cultural translation but their actual results ignored? Or does the truth lie somewhere in between? Saarinen opts for the third approach, though he devotes a great deal of time to making intelligible the substantial choices of the pastorals in interpreting Greco-Roman culture in a Christian fashion, which would render them apepaling and sensible today. It would be hard, for example, to dismiss the pastorals’ strong insistence that a bishop or overseer ought to be characterized by an unwavering commitment to true doctrine, a refusal to engage in pointless arguments, and an unimpeachable moral character. It is borderline novel today to argue that sound doctrine actually results in sound living; but, via Saarinen, the pastorals make a powerful argument in favor of that view. And as our culture increasingly regards self-control as a form of pathology, it is refreshing to hear the pastorals reverse that judgment entirely.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks in the pastorals today is certain aspects of their teaching on women, which, Saarinen notes, differ from the authentically pauline letters in a number of places. He confesses in particular that, in the case of I Timothy 2:11-15 that links women’s salvation with childbirth (shocking for Lutheran reasons even before it is shocking for feminist reasons), he “has not found a philosopher’s stone that would turn this passage into gold” (28). He appeals to Luther’s rule that “No one is forbidden to do better” in his attempts to deal with it (and adds in an excursus that Luther himself explained that childbirth in and of itself is of no use toward salvation; rather, it’s a figure for women’s missionary calling to raise their children in the faith).

However, precisely in trying to take the engagement with Greco-Roman culture seriously, Saarinen highlights an interesting interpretive possibility in the prescription for female silence. I Timothy 2:11 requires women to be silent (the Greek word is hesychia—important especially in Eastern Orthodox spirituality of prayer), but I Timothy 2:2 requires it of all Christians, as a sign of their godliness. The word had already acquired rich philosophical meaning in the Stoic tradition “in which one becomes virtuous through the mastering of one’s own emotions and the ability not to waste words” (51). It could be that the requirement of silent learning assumes that women are as capable of men at acquiring the virtue and self-control needed for true godliness. That doesn’t entirely erase the matter of forbidding women to teach or have authority over men, in obvious contrast to other biblical examples where that is exactly what happens (Deborah, Huldah, and Priscilla come immediately to mind). Saarinen proposes that submission and silence are the civic virtues of Greco-Roman women, and as such their continuing to embody such virtues is part of their missionary work in that society. This is again where the matter of missionary application becomes tricky. Are silence and submission thus permanent qualities of Christian women? Are they to be discarded in comtemporary societies where such requirements would severely damage the civic reputation of Christianity (which the pastorals want at all costs to avoid)? What if this or another culture turned back from favoring the public teaching and presence of women to abhoring it? At what point do civic and Christian virtues have to suffer a decisive cleavage? We know from early Christian history that the martyrs’ answer to this question came hot on the heels of the writing of the pastorals—but that doesn’t make answering these questions any simpler.

A related issue arises in the certainly-pauline letter to Philemon. Saarinen acknowledges that there are two ways of reading this epistle. The first tolerates slavery as perfectly acceptable even if not always ideal and requires nothing more of Philemon than non-punishment of Onesimus for his flight. The second sees in the letter an all-but-command of Onesimus’s manumission, expressed with a bit of subtlety in case of Roman censors who might get upset about such revolutionary talk. Either case can be argued. Saarinen ultimately sides with the latter for reasons that “are related to the overall emphasis of gratitude, freedom, and love in Philemon. With his polite and open-ended formulations, Paul sets an example of freedom. Philemon should realize that this is the example to be followed in the case of Onesimus” (208). The verse “you will do even more than I say” is perhaps the subtle clue urging Philemon toward manumission. This is not an emancipation proclamation for all slaves, of course. But it’s hard to imagine nascent Christianity entertaining such dreams anyway. The leaven in the lump is the Christian household that receives runaway slaves with love, forgiveness, and freedom.

After treating these five little books of the New Testament, Saarinen wraps up with four more short pieces. The first is “After the Word: Hermeneutical Postscript,” in which he reflects after interpretation on the hermeneutical practices he employed, rather than going into the exegesis with a hermeneutical program already firmly in mind. As he puts it, “Close reading is ‘catch-as-catch-can’; it is a style of wrestling in which any hold is allowed. The expositor need not state his or her hermeneutical rules in advance. The relative usefulness of each ‘hold’ will be judged by the readers of the commentary” (226). All interpretation is in some way a mission project, just like the pastorals in Greco-Roman society: taking the divine terms of God, or Jesus Christ, or salvation, and illuminating them through “handshakes” with terms from ordinary life, both drawing on the familiarity while revising it at the same time. Interpretation is never a finished business. “In this process of searching and learning, the word of God discloses itself as the life-giving word. Thus it turns out to be the active subject of the entire process, the word of God” (232). The modesty and hopefulness together make for an appealing hermeneutical approach.

This “After the Word” is then followed by three appendices that shed a little more light on the Greco-Roman background in which the pastorals were written. The first deals with “Moderation of Emotion,” the most interesting conclusion of which argues that the pastorals follow Aristotle rather than Stoicism in finding an essential and valuable place for human emotion properly moderated (metriopatheia)—noting by contrast the general tendency of patristic writers to prefer Stoic notions of emotionlessness (apatheia). Appendix B considers how false teachers were understood to be suffering from “mental disorders” according to the medical understanding of the time. The final appendix discusses “Varieties of Giving,” between and among both divine and human persons, a topic of particular philosophical interest over the past twenty years and the subject of another book by Saarinen himself (God and the Gift).


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