Cover Image: Thanksgiving

a Pauline Theme (NSBT)

David Pao (Apollos, 2002)

Blurb Review by Dr. Mark Gignilliat

Review by Dr. Mark Gignilliat

At a cursory glance, Paul's various appeals to "give thanks" within the corpus of his writings may seem peripheral amounting to aside or passing comments. David Pao helpfully presses his readers beyond this construct as he shows both exegetically and from a biblical theological standpoint the central role the theme of thanksgiving plays in Paul's thought. Pao shows himself to be quite aware of the secondary literature on this issue and is discontent with the lack of emphasis placed on the Old Testament (OT) background to this Pauline theme. Though the term eucharisteo is not found in the LXX, due to its development as a term in the late Hellenistic period, one would be remiss to negate the OT conceptual background of "thanksgiving" on the basis of its lacking semantic corollary in the OT. The emphasis on the OT background of Paul's thought is without doubt, in the mind of this reviewer, the most salient feature of Pao's work. For Pao, and for Paul, the theological potential for Paul's thanksgiving injunctions will be most fruitful if placed in its covenantal context.

Leaning on this OT background, Pao observes the conceptual overlap between praise and thanksgiving in the OT. Citing Patrick Miller, Pao concludes that in the OT thanksgiving and praise are conjoined in such a way that to speak of one is to speak of the other (26-27). According to Pao, Paul follows suit on this score. Thanksgiving in Paul's estimation is coterminous with praise and flows from Paul's radically God-centered approach to theology, life and mission. As in the OT, when blessings are received from God blessings are offered back to God, so in the NT. Thanksgiving amounts to worship in Paul's thought and finds its genesis in God's initiative acts of grace to humankind. In other words, our thanksgiving is a response to God's divine action extra nos. When one thanks God, one confesses at the same time that God is the source of all blessing.

Having placed thanksgiving in the context of praise and worship, Pao elucidates the significance of the covenantal background for Paul's usage. In the covenantal relationship of the OT, Israel, as recipient of divine grace, is to acknowledge the divine initiative with the proper response (42). This relationship between divinely gracious initiative and proper human response takes place in a temporal framework of past, present and future. The covenantally faithful Israel would recall God's mighty deeds in the past as an impetus for divine praise and thanksgiving (one notes this especially in the Psalms). Thanksgiving also has a present component as recognition of the Lordship of God compels obedience as the proper response to that divine reality. Also, the future plays a vital role in a covenantal context where trust in the sovereignty of God elicits thanksgiving for God's future acts which have not yet been accomplished (as exemplified in the eschatological yearning for the new covenant; Jer 31:31). The past, present and future are organically linked as each play a vital role in the context of thanksgiving and worship offered to the Lord of history.

Pao spends chapters three, four and five of his work expanding this temporal context of thanksgiving as received in the letters of Paul. Pao emphasizes that though there is continuity between the testaments there is still discontinuity as the new eschatological era brings different levels of significance to the past, present and future aspects. For example, as observed in the Lord's Supper, the new covenant has already arrived in the person and work of Jesus. However, the temporal dimensions still play a central role in Paul's theology of thanksgiving as we recount God's mighty acts in Christ, respond to those mighty acts with lives of obedient thanksgiving with hope for the future to come when all the covenant realities of Christ will reach their consummation.

The antithesis of thanksgiving, in both Paul and the OT, is ingratitude which, in a covenantal context, amounts to idolatry. It is at this point that the overarching unity between the testaments is seen most clearly. God's passionate jealousy for his people in the OT sets the backdrop for his vehement response to idolatry. One finds Paul's language against idolatry equally intense. For idolatry is the ultimate covenant rejection replacing worship of God for another. When God's people worship Him, they worship him in thanksgiving. When God's people forget Him, the fall prey to ingratitude which is idolatry. One recalls Bonhoeffer's definition of temptation as that moment of forgetfulness of God. Pao states, "Using the history of Israel (I Cor 10:1-16), Paul is warning us not to be an ungrateful people. To be ungrateful is not simply a state of harmless absent-mindedness. It is the failure to acknowledge God as the creator and Lord of all" (157).

Pao's work is a helpfully biblical theological approach to an important theme of, and it should be emphasized, Christian Scripture. A biblical theological approach would need to take into account not only the way in which the OT informs our reading of the NT but also the way in which the NT informs our reading of the OT. This is not as much a limitation of Pao's work, as he presses beyond a mere exploration into a "Pauline theme," as it may be a limitation of the nature of the series itself if it claims to be "New Studies in Biblical Theology." One wonders whether an approach to biblical theology can deal with isolated themes of a particular author's corpus without taking into account the Scripture's, as a two-testament canon, own skopos on the subject being discussed. There are a few other short-comings in Pao's work, such as his carte blanche description of Paul's opponents as "Jewish legalist" (94) with no discussion of this hotly debated topic. On the whole, however, Pao's work is a helpful reminder of a key theme of, not only Paul, but Sacred Scripture itself, a theme desperately needed in our thankless times.

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