Victor Paul Furnish's Theology of Ethics in Saint Paul: An Ethic of Transforming Grace. By Michael Cullinan. Pp. 406. Rome, Editiones Academiae Alfonsianae, 2007, €22.00.
Article first published online: 6 DEC 2012
© 2013 The Authors. The Heythrop Journal © 2013 Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 54, Issue 1, page 152, January 2013
How to Cite
Turner, G. (2013), Victor Paul Furnish's Theology of Ethics in Saint Paul: An Ethic of Transforming Grace. By Michael Cullinan. Pp. 406. Rome, Editiones Academiae Alfonsianae, 2007, €22.00. The Heythrop Journal, 54: 152. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2013.00794_24.x
- Issue published online: 6 DEC 2012
- Article first published online: 6 DEC 2012
Victor Furnish is a widely respected NT scholar who taught for forty years at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas until his retirement in 2000. Furnish has written a number of books on Paul, particularly on ethics, and he has provided the subject matter for a doctoral dissertation by Michael Cullinan, which has been updated for publication. Cullinan approaches Furnish's account of Paul as a Roman Catholic and as a moral theologian. His interest is in what Paul might offer to a renewal of Catholic moral theology in the period after Vatican II and also how Furnish's account of Paul might be modified, and by implication improved, when they are placed in the context of Catholic debate. Furnish has himself provided a generous and humble Foreword.
Most of the book is a descriptive account of what Furnish has written about Paul (and, to a much lesser extent, other NT works in his book on love in the NT) and how his publications have been received by reviewers. Furnish began teaching in Dallas in 1959 so we are taken back to his formative years in the 1960s when, as a liberal Protestant (a Methodist actually), he was much impressed by Bultmann's understanding of Paul in the two-volume Theology of the New Testament. We would, then, expect an existentialist, non-dogmatic interpretation of Paul from the Lutheran tradition. And this is more or less what we get, with Furnish sitting light on existentialism. Yet he is, from Cullinan's standpoint, loath to attempt any sort of systematization of Paul or of ethics, for he thinks there are no absolute, timeless moral principles to be found in Paul. There are some broad moral principles but everything in Paul's letters is context-bound and, as we live in different social contexts, only a limited amount can be carried over directly. So in sexual matters, fidelity and restraint are to be commended, while divorce, homosexuality and sex before (but not outside) marriage are dealt with liberally and free of rules. This is partly because of Furnish's understanding of law in Paul. In Cullinan's account, Furnish skates over some of the difficulties of understanding Paul on the law. He follows the Lutheran line that the gospel is in opposition to the law, but this does not please Cullinan who, as a Catholic moral theologian, believes there is religious value in law and laws. Furnish accepts that, as a gift from God through Moses, the law has value, but Christ is the end/abolition of the law – certainly the purification and ceremonial laws, as well as the commands on food and circumcision. So what is left, if not moral laws? There are indeed moral laws, says Furnish, but they lead to our destruction if we follow them in order to save or justify ourselves. He never really resolves the status of moral law and the Torah generally.I think Dr Cullinan could have pressed Furnish harder on this. Furnish's traditional post-Reformation interpretation is not looking so good in the light of recent writing that criticises Luther's understanding of justification, faith and law in Paul.
One of Furnish's conclusions is that no clear division can be made between theology and ethics in Paul. Certainly the two are intertwined but a paucity of moral rules in Paul does not mean that we cannot draw out a Pauline ethics, because Paul gives a rich account of what constitutes the Christian life. Cullinan says that Furnish has shown that if moral theology can learn anything from the NT, then Paul is a good place to start. The reader does have a sense, however, that Cullinan's starting-point is the magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church which is used to judge Furnish and, perhaps, Paul himself. One hopes that Paul could be used to judge and modify, where appropriate, Catholic moral teaching. What we have learned is that Paul is not owned by Protestants and is not inimical to the Catholic tradition.