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Moral Formation according to Paul

The Context and Coherence of Pauline Ethics

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"A vitally important book, which shows beyond any doubt that Paul's ethics are . . . a central and integral part of his total theological outlook. . . . This book must be read by all New Testament scholars working in Pauline studies."--Paul Foster, Expository Times 
This fresh treatment of Paul's ethics addresses this question: how, according to Paul, can Christian communities know how God wants them to live? Leading biblical scholar James Thompson explains that Paul offers a coherent moral vision based not only on the story of Christ but also on the norms of the law. Paul did not live with a sharp dichotomy of law and gospel and recognized the continuing importance of the law. Thompson makes a distinctive contribution by locating the roots of Paul's concrete ethical thought in Hellenistic Judaism rather than Hellenistic moral philosophy. Students of New Testament ethics and Pauline theology will value this work.
Introduction: Paul's Moral Teaching in Context
1. Ethics in Hellenistic Judaism: Maintaining Jewish Identity in the Diaspora
2. Shaping an Identity: Moral Instruction and Community Formation
3. From Catechesis to Correspondence: Ethos and Ethics in 1 Thessalonians
4. Pauline Catechesis and the Lists of Vices and Virtues
5. Paul, the Law, and Moral Instruction
6. Paul, the Passions, and the Law
7. Putting Love into Practice
8. Ethics and the Disputed Letters of Paul
Conclusion: The Coherence of Paul's Moral Teaching


"This important study locates moral formation squarely at the heart of Paul's letters--not by replacing 'theology' with 'ethics' but by demonstrating that Paul's agenda was in fact the moral transformation of his communities. Thompson traces the roots of Paul's moral teaching in the Old Testament and the story of Christ and exposes his indebtedness more to Hellenistic Judaism than to Greco-Roman moral philosophy. Crucially, he positions Paul's writings in another 'context,' in communities of people who have begun new life in Christ, who await the final day, and for whom the present is about metamorphosis into a moral counterculture. Thompson does not try to answer all of our present-day questions; instead, he marks well the path for anyone wanting to explore the contours and coherence of Paul's moral vision."

Joel B. Green, editor of Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics; professor of New Testament interpretation, Fuller Theological Seminary

"In his bracing book, Thompson argues that a coherence to Paul's ethical instruction is found in Paul's stress on the corporate nature of Christian morality. He holds that the church, a countercultural community, is demarcated by its adherence to commandments of the Law viewed through the lens of the Love Commandment. Thompson thinks that the topics of Paul's moral instruction, from the earliest catechesis of converts onward, are those of Jewish moral teaching based on the Torah. He is thoroughly conversant with scholarship on Pauline ethics, but his focus is on a close reading of Pauline texts. The book will be useful to pastors and students and provocative to fellow scholars."

Abraham J. Malherbe, Buckingham Professor Emeritus of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation, Yale University

"Books on the moral life according to Paul are relatively scarce. We can be grateful to Thompson for his lucid and readable survey of moral transformation in Paul. Comparing and contrasting Paul's moral vision with both Greco-Roman and Hellenistic writers provides an illuminating social context in which to interpret Paul."

Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

The Author

  1. James W. Thompson

    James W. Thompson

    James W. Thompson (PhD, Vanderbilt University) is scholar in residence at the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. He is the editor of Restoration Quarterly and the author of numerous books, including Moral...

    Continue reading about James W. Thompson


"Despite the ever-growing mountain of books about Paul, there are surprisingly few that offer a broad overview of Paul's ethics, giving reason to welcome this latest contribution. . . . Thompson's survey offers a clear, broad, and valuable overview of the major topics and themes in Paul's ethics. In particular, the book's strength is its description of Paul's ethics in the context of other ancient ethical traditions, both Jewish and non-Jewish, giving a more balanced and wide-ranging perspective than in some works, where one or other specific context is treated at the expense of others. . . . Even if there are other perspectives to be taken into account and plenty of issues to probe critically and discuss in more depth, this book provides a clear, wide-ranging, and valuable study of Pauline ethics in their ancient context that will be appreciated by students and teachers."

David G. Horrell,

Review of Biblical Literature

"This is a detailed but readable study of the Pauline corpus. Its particular strength is to demonstrate the essentially Jewish background to Paul's teaching (with detailed citations of the texts) and to show that, while he shares commonplace ideas with the Hellenistic world, his letters do not show an increasing conformity to Hellenism. . . . There is a wealth of useful material and fresh ideas here."

I. Howard Marshall,

Journal for the Study of the New Testament

"A balanced and comprehensive study of the Christian life viewed through the lens of the letters written by Paul. . . . Thompson's synthesis of Pauline ethics helps each of us, including myself who has been around the track a few times, to understand Paul's letters even better and to appreciate the apostle's understanding of the gospel and the Christian life. . . . . What I really want to say is how much I appreciated Moral Formation according to Paul and the careful work that went into its composition. I only wish that it was written fifty years ago, just before I taught my first course on 'biblical morality.'"

Raymond F. Collins,

Early Christianity

"Thompson has written a vitally important book, which shows beyond any doubt that Paul's ethics are not some epilogue or uninteresting backwater in his epistles, but are a central and integral part of his total theological outlook. The book is clearly and concisely written, and one can follow the logic of the argument with great clarity. Moreover, Thompson demonstrates an able command of Pauline texts that takes his readers into a deeper understanding of many issues relating to Pauline moral instruction. . . . This book must be read by all New Testament scholars working in Pauline studies."

Paul Foster,

Expository Times

"Since the revolution in Pauline studies three decades ago, one could argue that a remaining unexplored arena of study is Paul's ethics. This is especially the case in evangelical biblical and theological scholarship. . . . Thompson's work is a major contribution to the field. It is thorough in its historical inquiry, rigorous in its exegesis, and astute in its theologically-oriented ethical vision of Paul's task. Scholars and pastors will consult it with great benefit."

Timothy G. Gombis,

Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

"[This book] is a welcome contribution to the field of Pauline ethics and offers insights for academic specialists as well as pastors and other teachers of Christian Scripture. . . . There is much to commend in this book, including excellent charts and clear and cogent writing. . . . Readers of Paul will benefit from Thompson's thoroughgoing reminder that his primary concern was the holistic formation of believing communities, not just religious conversion, ritual commitment, or purely intellectual 'faith.'"

Nijay K. Gupta,


"This is an exceptionally well-thought-through and useful study of Pauline ethics."

Donald Senior, CP,

The Bible Today

"Thompson demonstrates convincingly that Paul's moral thought owes its significance primarily to the Jewish tradition. Anyone concerned with Pauline ethics should have this thoroughly researched book on their shelves."

Frederik S. Mulder,


"Thompson convincingly makes his case that the Torah as well as subsequent reflection on it by Jews in Hellenistic Judaism are the primary backgrounds for Paul's ethical discourse. . . . Readers are sure to come away with a strong sense of Paul's moral vision for the church."

Robert S. Snow,

Bulletin for Biblical Research

"Thompson's work has many commendable features. He successfully makes the case that Paul's ethic is a fundamentally coherent one. He further demonstrates continuity in Paul with the OT's summons to Israel to live in light of a distinctive identity grounded in their redemption by God. He also provides much exegetical support for what theologians have termed 'the third use of the law' in Paul's ethical reflections. . . . Thompson has produced a helpful and engaging discussion of Pauline ethics. In its concern to set those ethics in their context, to demonstrate leading themes and commonalities within Paul's ethical instructions, and to stress the fundamental coherence of Paul's ethical reflection, Moral Formation according to Paul is a valuable resource for scholar and student alike."

Guy Prentiss Waters,


"[Thompson's] book contributes significantly to the small but growing literature in the field of biblical ethics. . . . Thompson's close, detailed reading of Paul's letters is commendable, as is his extensive analysis of parallels to Paul's moral instruction in the Greco-Roman and Jewish paraenetic sources. Thompson effectively illustrates these parallels and makes a compelling case for his thesis. . . . Moral Formation according to Paul is valuable reading for NT scholars, students, and pastoral leaders seeking deeper understanding of Paul's own self-understanding of moral formation in the church. Thompson is surely correct that Paul's moral instruction is relevant to the church. Thompson's book invites further response from those seeking to articulate where this relevance may be found."

Vic McCracken,

Restoration Quarterly

"Thompson's approach shows that the coherence of Pauline moral instruction is reflected in its sources and its adaptation to the need of the community. The major contribution of the book is its thoroughness in the comparative study of the context of Pauline ethics."

Mary Yi Wang,


"Moral Formation according to Paul . . . is fundamentally a book on Pauline theology (or at least Pauline ethics), and is easily applicable to inherently pastoral concerns. . . . Thompson's assertions are generally well argued and, although this work toes the line between scholarly monograph and popular-level pastoral aid, they reflect a depth of research. . . . A worthwhile read for those who wish to learn more about the role of Diaspora Jewish thought in Paul, and especially those pastors and students with an interest in Christian ethics."

Gregory P. Fewster,

Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism

"A clearly written account showing some of the ways in which Paul's project for the moral transformation of gentiles into countercultural communities resembles what one finds in the literature of Diaspora Jewish authors."

Richard A. Wright,

Catholic Biblical Quarterly

"With hefty research into Greco-Roman literature and that of Hellenistic Judaism, [Thompson] shows from Paul's texts the basis and impetus for Paul's moral instruction. . . . Thompson's thesis offers a welcome direction within a crowded field of ideas that vie for the center of Paul's theology. . . . He helps us understand Paul's challenge to unite the various Jewish and Gentile cultures under one moral paradigm. Most notable are his emphasis on the community's role in moral formation and his constant reflection on Paul's sources, whether Greco-Roman or those of Hellenistic Judaism. His detailed charts demonstrate parallels with literature available to Paul. . . . An important contribution to all interested in Paul's ethics particularly as it regards his apostolic mission to form new Christian communities."

R. Gregory Jenks,

Trinity Journal

"[Thompson] has bridged a wide and enduring gap in Pauline studies. This field is filled with offerings on the theology of Paul's writings but woefully barren of serious studies of his moral teaching like this one. Thompson's work in this volume is rooted in the biblical text, yet deeply fluent in Greek, and particularly Hellenistic Jewish, tradition. This enables him to make his basic case that Paul's moral teaching is influenced by precedence found in the Hellenistic Jewish writings. . . . [Thompson] provides a healthy advance in studies of Paul's moral instruction. . . . This volume should have a long life among scholars interested in Paul and would be a nice complement to a graduate course on Paul's theology. . . . Thompson is a model for those seeking to serve the church and the academy through excellence in their disciplines."

William R. Baker,

Stone-Campbell Journal

"Thompson has produced an excellent contribution to the growing body of literature on Pauline ethics. He successfully argues that the moral formation of countercultural communities was central to Paul's project and shows the profound connections between Paul's exhortation and Hellenistic Jewish literature. Additionally, Thompson is thoroughly conversant in German scholarship, weaving it effortlessly into his argument with his own English translations. Interested pastors, advanced students, and scholars will be richly rewarded by Thompson's lucid and engaging argument that Paul's moral formation finds its closest analogy in Hellenistic Judaism."

Tyler A. Stewart,

Stone-Campbell Journal

"One of the most interesting contributions of Thompson's text is that he analyzes the different kinds of moral constructions that Paul utilized for his writings. . . . This text provides considerable opportunity to explore the thematic concepts in Paul's writings."

William E. Goff,

Southwestern Journal of Theology

"A valuable contribution to the subject of Pauline ethics. . . . Thompson is a very good communicator and has done good research, packing a lot of helpful information into a rather short book. . . . If you are interested in Pauline ethics, you will find this book worthwhile and I warmly recommend it."

Nijay Gupta,

Crux Sola blog