[K:NWTS 23/2 (Sep 2008) 74-81]

Book Review

Christopher D. Stanley, Arguing with Scripture: The Rhetoric of Quotations in the Letters of Paul. New York, NY: T & T Clark International, 2004. 196pp. Paper. ISBN 0-567-02630-2. $48.95.

In this book, Dr. Stanley seeks to examine the rhetorical effectiveness of Paul’s quotations from the Old Testament. As rhetoricians tailored their writing to their audiences, Dr. Stanley believes that a study of Paul’s possible audiences and their possible responses to his quotations will help us understand Paul’s rhetorical purposes.

One thing that must be said in favor of this book at the outset is that it delivers what it promises. It promises not to give us theological insights into Paul’s quotations and it scores almost 100% on this promise. However, some readers (when they first read this promise) might hope that it only indicates the emphasis of the book. The reason: it promises to deal with the rhetorical dimension of the text. And one might think that to deal with the rhetorical dimension of the text one would have to present some insights into what the text actually says (which is theological). Without dealing with what the text actually says in some richness, it is difficult to deal with the subtleties of its rhetorical arguments. And that’s exactly the result—Dr. Stanley fails to deal with Paul’s rhetorical subtleties.

Instead, the book (as promised) sets out to answer how three different groups of people in the church might have responded to Paul’s quotations. Stanley calls these three groups the “informed audience,” the “competent audience,” and the “minimal audience” (67-68). Following research that suggests the low rate of literacy in the Roman Empire, only one of the three groups (the “informed audience”) was both literate and knowledgeable of the Old Testament. And this first group had only a limited knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, since ancient scroll manuscripts were expensive. (This was before codices.) The second group (the “competent audience”) was knowledgeable of the Hebrew Bible because they had been taught it in the synagogue even though they were not literate. The third group (the “minimal audience”) consisted of people with a pagan background who had little knowledge of the Old Testament. Although Dr. Stanley acknowledges that Paul might have taught these new believers some things about the Old Testament, he suggests that their knowledge remained limited.

Dr. Stanley then analyzes some of Paul’s quotations in 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans in terms of this framework. In every case, he asks how each of these three audiences might have responded to Paul’s comments on an Old Testament text. In this respect, Dr. Stanley seems to be engaging in a type of Reader Response Criticism. However, the “insights” he gives us on the readers’ possible responses are of such a general nature that they contain very little penetration into the readers and the specific responses that might have been generated in them by these specific texts. With the exception of some contextual markers for the different quotations, some of the insights on various quotations are almost identical. Frequently we hear that the “informed audience” who knows the Old Testament would not find cogency in Paul’s argument because Paul did not do justice to his quotation in its original context. On the other hand, Stanley suggests that Paul used Old Testament quotations with Gentiles who were ignorant of the text to persuade them of his positions simply by the sheer impressiveness of his knowledge of the Old Testament and by his appeal to its authority. At one point, he suggests that they might have been so ignorant of the text that they might not have known who Moses was. They might have thought he was a contemporary opponent of Paul. This is stretching their ignorance beyond belief.

Dr. Stanley’s underlying assumptions are grounded in modern rhetorical theories, not simply those of the ancient world. Much modern rhetorical theory is grounded in the philosophy of Nietzsche, arguing that speakers are engaged in power relationships. Speakers argue, not to discover truth and persuade others of it. Instead, they argue to gain power over others. These assumptions guide this research. As a result, Stanley argues (following one modern rhetorician) that any time someone uses a quotation, they change it from what it was before to something different. We might say, they change its truth-value—or more accurately, they change its meaning, since it had no truth-value to begin with. They automatically transform it into something not envisioned in the original text.

In our opinion, this position assumes an invalid either/or position. It goes like this: When someone quotes another passage, either it means the same identical thing it meant in the quoted text or it means something not envisioned in the original text. Since it obviously doesn’t mean the identical thing it meant in the original text (since our author doesn’t quote the entire original work and adds words to make a new argument with other words not found in the original text), then it means something not envisioned in the original text. Obviously (according to this line of argument), anyone who quotes from others is using their material for his own power purposes. He is not unearthing the meaning of the previous text and developing it.

But this either/or dilemma is a false one. There is another option, a tertium quid, a middle way. And we believe Paul is following it. That is, Paul is organically unfolding and developing the meaning of the Old Testament texts that he quotes. Geerhardus Vos (following his teachers Charles Hodge and William Henry Green along with scholars like C. F. Oehler) recognized and expounded this organic view of revelation. And it is at work in Paul as he quotes the Old Testament. An organism undergoes a development that is not self-contradictory. For instance, a bud envisions a flower even though it is not a flower. So the Old Testament texts envision the full revelation of the New Covenant although they are not that full revelation. In each Pauline quotation, this organic principle is at work. When Paul quotes an Old Testament text, he finds the meaning inherent in that text in its original context. Then he shows how the history of redemption and revelation brings the inherent meaning of that text to full flower in Christ.

Dr. Stanley implies that someone quoting another text is automatically turning it into something it was not. The organic principle admits that it becomes something it was not fully before, but only insofar as it organically develops something already in the organism of revelation into something new. It does this through its own inherent internal development and nature. Stanley’s view suggests that when authors quote another text in their writings, they must add something entirely new to it from without in such a way that the product is not something found inherently and organically in the original quotation. For Paul, that which is new in Christ is inherently an unfolding of previous revelation. For all special revelation is a progressive revelation of the same unified God and his heavenly arena. It is the progressive unveiling and penetration of the same reality. Therefore that which comes after must be organically related to that which came before. And all the redemption that it reveals is found in Christ, the same unified God-man and his unified work of redemption culminating in his life, death, and resurrection. It is this redemptive reality that penetrated the Old Testament and was the substance of its redemption. Stanley inherently denies this reality. For him, Paul must develop his quotes by non-organic, chock-a-block methods of reinvention. But if this were the only way things could develop, Stanley would not have had the available energy to write his book.

Stanley knows that many New Testament scholars try to discover the connection between the Old Testament context of Paul’s quotations and the arguments he presents to the church. Apparently Stanley does not find this appeal to context convincing in many cases. It may be that his book is a subtle attempt to undermine these studies.  If so, the evidence he cites is of such a flimsy nature that many readers will be unconvinced. What might this evidence be? Perhaps Stanley’s attempt to lay out the three possible audiences has this purpose. If so, it cannot bear the weight of this argument. For even if there were numerous members of the congregation that did not have a literate understanding of the Old Testament, this does not mean that Paul’s text does not have layers of meaning. And for those who had greater knowledge of the Old Testament, it would have yielded a greater fruit of understanding. That is, Paul could have intended to properly interpret the Old Testament even though all of his audience would not have understood the rich ways in which he interpreted various passages.

Even so, Dr. Stanley claims that the most “informed audience” would have often disagreed with Paul’s interpretations of Scripture because these interpretations were not sound. However, Stanley’s understanding of the “informed audience” is limited by his reductive scholarship. He does not seriously consider the possibility that the “informed audience” might have been more informed than himself. Instead of suggesting that he himself may be shortsighted (and that Paul’s audience may have properly recognized his interpretations as sound), our author becomes the standard of the informed audience. This is especially unfortunate since his understanding of how Paul used his quotations tends to be superficial. He does not deal with the various suggestions made for how Paul interpreted specific Scriptural citations. And he does not assess their validity with cogent arguments.

For instance, in his analysis of Paul’s quotations in Galatians 3:10-14, he again claims that Paul did not interpret Scripture in its original context (123). His proof—the Old Testament texts say the exact opposite of what Paul is trying to prove. According to Stanley, neither Habakkuk 2:4 nor Leviticus 18:5 pits obedience to the law against faith; but this is how Paul used them. However, in both cases Dr. Stanley fails to consider the larger argument of Habakkuk and Leviticus respectively. For the law functions in Leviticus in a way that it does not do in the present age of fulfillment. Habakkuk 2:4 recognized this and spoke of the eschatological righteousness to come in the eschaton. Within the book itself, Habakkuk 2:4 does this by glimpsing the end of the book (Hab. 3:17-19) in which the theocratic blessings of the law (received through Israel’s obedience to the law) are transcended by the greater fulfillment to come in the Messianic age.

Considering Leviticus, Stanley is correct when he says that Leviticus 18:5 does not exclude faith from obedience to the law. But the point Paul is making is that it includes obedience to the law as a means of alleviating the curse. The call to obedience of Leviticus 18:5 requires Israel to keep all the ceremonial laws in the book of Leviticus. In context, Leviticus requires many rituals in order to avoid specific forms of uncleanness. These are to keep the people from being defiled so that they will not be cut off like the nations (Lev. 18:24-30). This cutting off is parallel to the curses of Deuteronomy. Thus, in one respect Leviticus 18:5 was written to those under the law. God promised them that to the degree they trusted him and obeyed the law they would evade his covenant curses and have life in the inheritance in Canaan. In accordance with the Torah’s eschatological thrust, in this promise God also offered eternal life in the inheritance above to those who would keep the law perfectly.

However, as Paul saw it, both resulted in failure, for none kept the law as required. And the covenant curses brought death to those in the land and eternal death to the cosmos (Rom. 3:19). But now in Christ Jesus, the situation is reversed on both accounts—for both have been fulfilled in him and made one. Now the inheritance is above in all respects; it is semi-eschatological. Now God promises justified life in the inheritance above (Gal. 3:18) through faith alone—faith grounded in the source of this justification—Christ’s death and resurrection alone. Paul’s point is that God has reversed the situation of Leviticus 18:5. He did so by placing the curse upon Christ (Gal. 3:13) and raising him from the dead by the Spirit (which lies behind his gift of the Spirit in 3:14).

Thus, God does not call his people to obey the law as a means of removing the curse and bringing righteousness to the inheritance. That has already been accomplished in Christ—for he has been justified in his resurrection. As such he has entered the curseless inheritance above, the inheritance in which righteousness has been inscribed on everything (as the prophets foretold). And the justifying righteousness by which we have access to that inheritance is received by faith alone.

This is where sensitivity to Paul’s organic view of revelation becomes helpful once again. While Paul contrasts the present situation with that under the law, his claim is not ultimately at odds with Leviticus 18:5. Paul knows he is revealing something new, but something that progresses beyond Leviticus 18:5 by fulfilling it and in that sense reverses it. Thus, Paul’s argument incorporates Leviticus 18:5 in order to progress further. For if Christ’s suffering the curse is to be efficacious for others, he must be an innocent sufferer. He must have fulfilled the call of Leviticus 18:5 for perfect obedience to the law. Only then can he bear the curse for those who break Leviticus 18:5—and only then can its promise of eschatological life be fulfilled in his resurrection.

In this respect, the fulfillment of Leviticus 18:5 involves an eschatological reversal for God’s covenant people—those united to Christ. They are not called to obey the law in order to reverse the curse. Christ has accomplished this by bearing the curse and rising from the dead. Thus his people are promised a new word—the word of promise in Leviticus 18:5 is theirs in Christ, received through faith alone. As we have noted, this is precisely Paul’s point. Stanley’s criticisms of Paul on this point are therefore without foundation. His failure to understand the broader structures of the law and their relation to Paul’s organic view of revelation has blinded him. Paul is indeed properly interpreting the Old Testament here as elsewhere. Here he reveals his skill as an interpreter, partially molded in his Pharisaic training, but now renewed in Christ. Undoubtedly some of the highly trained in Paul’s audience would have recognized the cogency of his arguments and his skillful use of Scripture.

Stanley does have a few helpful comments on rhetoric in Galatians and Romans, but overall he wears the blinders of modern rhetoricians. As noted, these natural men assume that all rhetoric stems from the speaker’s desire to control others. It stems from the speaker’s own personal power maneuvers. These modern interpreters derive these conclusions from looking at the way fallen human beings use their speech to control one another. Like Nietzsche, they assume that this is the natural state of affairs. They suppress the fact that this is the fallen state and that we are called to a higher ideal, one in which we identify with the supreme source of all power. And thus they cannot (consciously) imagine another form of rhetorical motivation, one in which the author draws his audience, not into himself, but into God, the source of all power.

If the issue surrounding Paul’s rhetoric has something to do with power relations, it is of a wholly different sort than that imagined by modern rhetoricians. Paul is not making personal power maneuvers. He is seeking to draw his readers into the source of all power (God himself) and into the great manifestation of his power (the history of redemption). Paul’s use of his quotations is not to draw readers into his own personal power. It draws them into the organic unfolding of that supernatural power that intruded into history apart from Paul. Paul is unfolding the previous supernatural acts and revelation that occurred in the Old Testament period before he was alive. And he is seeking to identify his readers with those acts and that revelation, not himself. He is seeking to enrich their identity with the one who is the source of those acts and their culmination, Jesus Christ. Thus he displays how they unfold in him, in his supernatural acts and deeds; in him, the suffering and risen Lord of Glory, the everlasting God, the source of all power, now seated in eschatological power above. Only in light of this prior reality (and Paul’s own union with Christ) is Paul seeking to draw his readers into union with himself—that in so doing they may be united with Christ as their only Lord.

This is the only appropriate way for a creature to be related to the source of all power. It is the only appropriate way for a sinner to be related to the source of eternal redemption—the eternal power of the risen Christ. For in him they possess the arena of God’s very own life in heaven—the arena where he is Lord. This is not oppressive power, the exaltation of mere human power, but it is proper liberty, for it is freedom from creaturely power and tyranny to identification with the only one in whom there can be liberty, the everlasting God who created and sustains his people—and who is their very life. You have liberty when the source of your sustaining power (which is your Lord) is your only true Lord, and when you dwell with him as such eternally—eschatologically. This is something that the powers of this age (and its rhetorical analysts) cannot comprehend. And thus they must reduce Paul to their horizontal vector, making him a powerbroker of this age.

In our opinion, Stanley’s treatment of Paul’s quotations is not penetrating either in content or rhetorical analysis. As a result he can present a view of Paul’s quotation process that is at odds with the organic nature of revelation and the progressive movement of redemptive history. Perhaps others can find some usefulness in this work in spite of these flaws, but we have found little. Save your money and look up the quotations yourself. And if you want rhetorical insights, read Paul along with some classical rhetorical handbooks and Greco-Roman speeches. That would even help your preaching, but this book will not.

—Scott F. Sanborn