“Paul the Missionary” by Eckhard J. Schnabel

As a pastor, I am constantly in danger of getting so caught up in the maintenance of my church that I forget its mission. To avoid this danger, I read widely in theology, biblical commentary, and spirituality rather than in leadership and management. Leadership and management are important disciplines, of course—spiritual gifts, even. But American society is so permeated by consumerist assumptions and management techniques that pastors must be wary lest in their stewardship of the church, they become conformed to the world rather than transformed by the renewal of their minds.
The renewal of pastoral minds, and through them the renewal of the church, requires focused attention on Scripture. What does it say about the mission of the church? How should the church go about accomplishing that mission? In Early Christian Mission (2 vols.), Eckhard J. Schnabel set out to study the theology and praxis of Christian as it is portrayed in the literature of the New Testament. Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods narrows its focus to see what can be learned about Christian mission from the career and theology of the Apostle Paul. This entails a close reading of Paul’s missionary journeys in Acts as well as of his thirteen canonical letters.
In the Preface, Schnabel tips his hat to Roland Allen, who published Missionary Methods: St. Paul or Ours? in 1912. Like Allen, Schnabel exegetically mines the biblical text for contemporary application. Unlike Allen, however, he has a better understanding of Second Temple Judaism and Greco-Roman culture. He also draws different conclusions here and there and applies his learning to a radically different contemporary social context than did Allen.
Schnabel works with several assumptions that some New Testament scholars will disagree with. First is the basic historical reliability of Acts. Second is the authenticity of Paul’s canonical letters. And third is the factuality of Paul’s release from Roman imprisonment and mission to the West. Each of these assumptions is defensible, although Schnabel does not engage in a defense of them. No scholar can reconstruct the history of early Christianity without relying on Acts. Schnabel’s close reading of Paul’s missionary journeys in that book seem to me to confirm Acts historicity (unintentionally) by providing a plausible account of the social background of the events in Acts with reference to extrabiblical information. And while critical New Testament scholars typically do not consider Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, and the Pastorals as authentic, a plausible case can be made that they are based on Paul’s admitted use of an amanuensis, the changed circumstances under which he was writing, and the personal details offered in the Pastorals, which are too incidental and unimportant for a forger to fabricate whole cloth. Schnabel’s supposition of Paul’s release from Roman imprisonment and mission to the West follows from the good reception Christians received from Roman hands in Acts as well as from the authenticity of the Pastorals. There is slight extracanonical support for Paul’s mission to the West, so this third assumption is Schnabel’s weakest, from the standpoint of historical evidence.
In the Introduction, Schnabel asks a basic question: What is mission? Here’s his answer:
The term “mission” or “missions” refers to the activity of a community of faith that distinguishes itself from its environment in terms of both religious belief (theology) and social behavior (ethics), that is convinced of the truth claims of its faith, and that actively works to win other people to the content of faith and the way of life of whose truth and necessity the members of that community are convinced.
For Schnabel, missionaries are concerned with three realities: (1) They “communicate the news of Jesus the Messiah and Savior to people who have not heard or accepted this news”; (2) they “communicate a new way of life that replaces, at least partially, the social norms and the behavioral patterns of the society in which the new believers have been converted”; and (3) they “integrate the new believers into a new community.”
If you are familiar with current missiological debates, you will recognize that Schnabel’s definition of mission and enumeration of missionary realities firmly place him on the good news side of the good news/good works continuum. (I borrow this terminology from Ron Sider.) The mission of the church is to evangelize and disciple people within the context of an ecclesial community. This does not mean that Schnabel discounts poor relief and humanitarian works as an integral part of Christian life. It does mean, however, that there is no mission without conversion.
Chapter 1 outlines the missionary work of Paul, based mostly on Acts, beginning with his conversion and call on the road to Damascus and ending with a mission on Crete, which arises from evidence in the Pastorals. Schnabel’s close reading of Acts situates Paul’s actions and speeches within the religion, culture, and politics of each city Paul is reported to have visited.
Chapter 2 outlines the missionary task according to Paul’s articulation of it in his letters. If Acts describes Paul’s actions, Paul’s letters describe his self-understanding of those actions.
Chapter 3 outlines Paul’s missionary message, returning largely to Acts. Schnabel shows how Paul presented the gospel differently to Jewish and Gentile audiences, based on their differing background assumptions. He also shows what great care Paul took not to run afoul of the law when he presented the gospel in civic settings. Paul’s presentation of the gospel nonetheless included an element of ideological and cultural confrontation with his audiences. But much of his presentation also aimed at pastoring new converts and providing an apologetic for the gospel.
Chapter 4 outlines Paul’s missionary goals. For Schnabel, Paul’s goal was to convert individuals, establish churches, disciple converts, and train church leaders, including new missionaries.
Chapter 5 outlines the missionary methods of Paul. For me, this was the most interesting chapter in the entire book. As a pastor, I struggle with two big questions: Where do I go to find people who need to hear the gospel? And how do I present the gospel to people who do not currently believe it? Schnabel refutes Allen’s contention that Paul focused on provinces rather than cities. Indeed, according to Schnabel, Paul had no “geographical strategy” at all, instead going to whatever city or village presented an open door for ministry. In each city, he sought out whatever venue he could use to accomplish his goals: synagogues, the agora or forum, lecture halls, and private homes. How does the pastor find people who need to hear the gospel? Go wherever they are.
How should the pastor present the gospel to unbelievers? In the ancient world, rhetoric was a highly prized discipline. Unfortunately, the rhetorical strategies of Greco-Roman thinkers were useless to preachers whose message centered upon a crucified Jew. Reading 1 Corinthians 1-4 with classical rhetoric in mind, Schnabel notes how Paul self-consciously rejected rhetorical strategies in order “to know nothing among [the Corinthians] but Jesus Christ and him crucified.” The theology of the cross determines which methods are and are not appropriate for Christian mission.
Chapter 6 outlines “the task of missionary work in the modern world.” Schnabel applies the learnings from his study of Paul’s theology and praxis of mission to current questions. Among other things, he rejects the “homogeneous unit principle” of the Church Growth Movement. And he warns about the tendency of evangelical missions to expect that the right methods will produce results automatically. If Paul rejected classical rhetoric as a method inappropriate to the proclamation of the gospel, modern Westerners need to be cautious in their use of reproducible methodologies, whether Willow Creek-style seeker sensitive churches of Purpose Driven models. God converts people. Our role is prayer, proclamation, and authentic living. No method assures conversion results.
The book concludes with an extensive bibliography, author index, subject index, and Scripture index. Together with a three-page table of contents, these tools make it easy to find Schnabel’s conclusions on particular topics and his discussion of particular Scriptures.
Although Paul the Missionary is not a quick read, it is a rewarding one. New Testament scholars, missiologists and missionaries, and local pastors like me will profit from Schnabel’s focused attention on Scripture. And ministers of the gospel will profit through extended reflection on the theology and praxis of Paul, whose example is well worth imitating.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s