Matthew R. Perry

“Interpreting the Pauline Epistles” by Thomas R. Schreiner (A Book Review)

In Book Review on July 28, 2007 at 8:59 am

11978.jpg“Since 13 of the 27 books in the NT are attributed to Paul, a separate book on how to do Pauline exegesis is warranted” (13). So starts Dr. Schreiner in his very helpful work, Interpreting the Pauline Epistles.Schreiner serves as the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at Louisville, Kentucky.

Prior to coming to Southern, he served as assistant professor of New Testament at Bethel Theological Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Schreiner has contributed a number of books and commentaries on New Testament interpretation.

Schreiner’s focus in this volume is stated in the book’s introduction, which is to “focus on the methodology that should be used in interpreting the Pauline letters” (22). He continues, “Methodology focuses upon the science of interpretation, that is, the principles and procedures that are essential for exegesis” (22). He sees that the goal of exegesis is “to gain a worldview based upon and informed by the biblical text” (17). He feels so strongly about this method that he notes, “If one has never trembled when doing exegesis (Isa. 66:2), then one is not listening for the voice of God” (18). Schreiner seeks to make the case for using exegesis as the interpretative tool for understanding Pauline

Chapter One deals with “Understanding the Nature of Letters.” Schreiner believes that “perhaps the most important issue in interpretation is the issue of genre. If we misunderstand the genre of a text, the rest of our analysis will be askew” (23). This initial step is crucial to accurate interpretation of the Pauline epistles. In this chapter, Schreiner addresses the structure of epistles by discussing its opening, body, and closing. He notes how Paul’s epistles are not intended to be systematic theologies, but rather “are pastoral works in which Paul applied his theology to specific problems in the churches”(42). Interpreters must understand this mindset of Paul in order to more accurately assess his message.

Chapter Two deals with textual criticism. In this short chapter, Schreiner makes a number of suggestions regarding “textual study” and will “highlight a few examples of the practice of textual criticism in Pauline literature” (51). Chapter Three, entitled, “Translating and Analyzing the Letter,” Schreiner strongly advocates the necessity for knowing the original languages. “The goal at this point is to have a good working knowledge of the text. Subsequent detailed exegesis may lead the student to revise the initial translation” (57).

In Chapter Four, Schreiner addresses “Investigating Historical and Introductory Issues” and is divided into two portions: a focus on “historical-cultural issues” and the second portion on “introductory issues that relate specifically to the book under consideration” (61-62). In Chapter Five, entitled, “Diagramming and Conducting a Grammatical Analysis,” Schreiner’s goal is “to present as simple a system [of diagramming] as possible” (79) in order to clearly understand the syntax of the particular
passage under review. He believes that understanding the syntax outside of diagramming is impossible.

In Chapter Six, entitled “Tracing the Argument,” Schreiner is convinced that tracing the argument in Paul’s epistles “is the most important step in the exegetical process” (97). The importance of this step lies in the challenge of reconstruction many of Paul’s complex arguments. In Chapter Seven, Schreiner
turns his attention to “Doing Lexical Studies.” He laments that this step has suffered “great abuse,” therefore this step is an important one.

In Chapter Eight, entitled “Probing the Theological Context,” Schreiner discusses whether it possible to discover a Pauline theology, or do Paul’s letters simplyaddress pastoral issues to distinct situations?
Schreiner believers “there is enough information [in these letters] to provide the reader with a very full-blooded picture of Paul’s theology” (136). Chapter Nine, entitled “Delineating the Significance of Paul’s Letters,” addresses the issue of Paul’s letters and their significance in contemporary times.

Critical Analysis

Schreiner provides an excellent work in the realm of New Testament interpretation, giving us a practical volume to help the student truly understand the Pauline Epistles. He laments that “one of the greatest weaknesses of students is an inability to read the Greek NT” (58) — to which he advises a program of “regular reading” to improve this necessary skill.

One of the many strengths of this work is Schreiner’s strong emphasis on authorial intent. In his definition of exegesis, he notes:

Exegesis is the method by which we ascertain what an author meant when he or she wrote a particular piece of literature. The meaning of Scripture cannot be separated from the intention of the author as that intention is expressed in the words of the text. . . .We aim to discover God’s meaning, but such a meaning cannot be known apart from the intention of the human author (20).

While Schreiner’s view directly opposes many contemporary scholars who advocate a reader-response method of interpretation in our postmodern society (this is where the meaning entirely comes from the response of the reader and none other), his view is infinitely practical and lines up accordingly with the way most people live their lives. When one receives a shopping list of items and is asked to purchase those items at the grocery, the shopper would be foolish to ignore the author’s intention. The same mindset holds for those under contract — whatever the terms the contract holds are based upon the intention of the author of that contract.

Schreiner advises when reading Paul that “we should recognize that we are all inclined to read our own preconceptions into Paul, and thus we should struggle to read Paul on his own terms first and then apply his word to our culture” (152). Schreiner rightly notes, “The more one knows about the culture, history, and literature of NT times, the greater will be the ability to put oneself into the shoes of the original readers, which is always a benefit in interpretation” (62). Exegetes must absorb these lessons in order to rightly divide the Word (2 Timothy 2:15).

Schreiner makes an excellent observation in noting that “the capstone of exegesis is theological synthesis” (135). This theological synthesis is foundational in shaping the worldview of the interpreter. Schreiner believes that “exegesis will not be the passion of students unless they see that it plays a vital role in the formation of one’s worldview. . . . If one’s heart never sings when doing exegesis, then the process has not reached its culmination. And if one has never trembled when doing exegesis (Isa. 66:2), then one is not listening for the voice of God” (18). What an incredible reminder he gives in showing how the exegete must engage in worship as he uncovers the meaning of the biblical text.

Schreiner notes the pastoral intention of the letters as well:

One of the most crucial points to remember in interpreting Paul’s letters is that they were written to address specific situations. They are not systematic treatises that were intended to present a complete Christian theology. They are pastoral works in which Paul applied his theology to specific problems in the churches (42).

The reader will appreciate Schreiner’s references to other works that deal specifically with the subject under discussion. He stays focus to his particular area of emphasis rather than trying to say something about every possible area. He uses a helpful method by directing the reader to other helpful works in case the reader would like to delve in deeper to another angle which Schreiner does not cover.

Schreiner details a great amount of this work to the method of diagramming in order to understand the grammar and syntax of a particular passage. His conviction is clear with this particular statement in the first paragraph of Chapter Five:

It is true that one can understand the Greek text without diagramming, but no one can comprehend the Greek text unless the grammar and syntax of the text are understood. And no one can claim to comprehend the syntax of the passage unless he or she is able to diagram the
passage” (77).

The concern with Schreiner’s statement lies in the absolute nature with which he endorses this method, as if to say that no other method ever devised may provide the interpreter with an understanding of the text and its grammar and syntax. He may be correct — but to the novice, Schreiner sounds like a salesman:“Other methods have tried — only this one succeeds.” Yet, having sat under Dr. Schreiner’s teaching and preaching at Southern Seminary, this reviewer knows first hand of the humble nature with which he not only ministers but also lives his Christian walk. While he may not mean to convey this mindset, too many readers may be put off by the absolute nature of his comments.


Schreiner’s work stands as a great help for the pastor and seminary student alike. His work remains accessible to the average pastor and his busy schedule because he does not overload the pastor and student with extraneous material. Schreiner maintained focus in communicating basic helps which will
benefit the pastor throughout his entire ministry. Having read this entire work thoroughly, I would highly recommend this work to every pastor.

Schreiner, Thomas
R. Interpreting the Pauline Epistles:
Guides to New Testament Exegesis
. Grand Rapids, MI:
Baker Books, 1990. 167 pp. $18.99.

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