Reviews of

Worship that Makes Sense to Paul: A New Approach to the Theology and Ethics of Paul’s Cultic Metaphors

In Cognition, Cultic metaphors, De Gruyter, HB/OT, Nijay K. GUPTA, Paul's ethics, Philippians, Romans, Samuli Siikavirta on October 14, 2011 at 10:43 pm

2011.10.06 | Nijay K. Gupta, Worship that Makes Sense to Paul: A New Approach to the Theology and Ethics of Paul’s Cultic Metaphors, (Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde des älteren Kirche 175), Göttingen: De Gruyter, 2010. ISBN 978-3-11-022889-2. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Samuli Siikavirta, University of Cambridge.

RBECS would like to thank De Gruyter for kindly providing us with a review copy. Visit us on facebook too.

How are cultic metaphors of the Hebrew Bible used in Paul’s undisputed letters? What does paying attention to the cognitive, literary and social aspects of Paul’s cultic metaphors reveal to us about his thought in general? These are some of the key questions asked by Nijay K. Gupta in his Worship that Makes Sense to Paul that is based on his Durham doctoral dissertation.

Gupta goes on to find answers to these questions by way of a careful exegesis of Paul’s epistles. Narrowing down the scope of such an ambitious task, the author focuses on the five undisputed letters (chronologically, 1 Thess., 1 Cor., 2 Cor., Rom. and Phil.) that contain at least one probable non-atonement cultic metaphor. What makes Gupta’s methodology distinct from previous works is his way of classifying a broad spectrum of cultic metaphors as “certain”, “almost certain” and “probable”. This is an interesting and helpful attempt to avoid becoming too narrow on the one hand and to circumvent the problem of seeing too many undeniable cultic references in Paul’s text on the other. Thus, the methodology gives space for also seeing non-cultic layers of meaning in some of the metaphors under study in the work (p. 67). Gupta focuses primarily on Paul (the “target domain”) and his use of the Old Testament (the “source domain”), instead of prioritising comparison with for instance Qumran texts (p. 58). What interests Gupta is to shed light on the key correlations between Old Testament cultic imagery and Paul’s writings.

The book is divided into three parts: methodology (including history of research), exegesis of the texts and perhaps the most interesting “Synthesis of Key Correlations” – the more theological section of the work.

The first part paints a most useful picture of the history of the research of Paul’s cultic metaphors, especially for the purposes of a student in this field. Gupta follows the modern conceptual theory of metaphor and defines the source domain as “the cognitive field from which we find metaphorical expressions” (p. 33, e.g. the temple cult) and the target domain as “the cognitive field that needs to be understood better” (ibid.). The notions of cognition, epistemology and understanding play an important part in Gupta’s study later on. “Cultic metaphors” are limited to the Jewish categories of temple, sacrifice and priesthood (p. 37). Quite rightly, Gupta pays special attention to the avoidance of anti-ritualistic spiritualisation of Paul’s cultic language (p. 43).

In the second part, Gupta certainly cannot be accused of conducting his exegesis haphazardly. Gupta’s exegesis of Paul’s certain, almost certain and probable cultic metaphors is careful and systematic. It takes into consideration the rhetorical and contextual differences of each epistle. In addition, each section ends with a diagram that acts as a cognitive tool for the understanding of Gupta’s thesis. The writer’s discourse on the notions of the body in Romans (pp. 119-124) and the “new epistemology” in Christ in Philippians (e.g. pp. 137f.) are especially fascinating. Gupta sees a cultic aspect in Paul’s language of the bodily sacrifice: the body is, for Paul, an organ of worship (p. 126). At times, the role of the body is, however, perhaps somewhat overemphasised at the expense of the νοῦς (with regard to Rom. 12:1f.). Gupta writes correctly that the body must be oriented away from the realm of sin by conforming to the suffering of Christ and by one’s becoming a slave of Christ (Rom. 6). The cognitive and rational aspect receives more ample attention in the exegetical section on Philippians. Gupta takes φρονἐω to mean things such as “a transformed outlook” and “to train one’s perception” (Phil. 1:7; 2:2, 5; 3:15, 19; 4:2, 10) so as to see the world as God does through Christ (pp. 137f.). What is particularly important is to discern critically (φρονἐω) as Christ did (Phil. 2:5; cf. pp. 150f.) and to have knowledge (γνῶσις) of Christ and to know like Christ (Phil. 3:8; cf. pp. 144-148). It all boils down to the notion of epistemology, Gupta maintains: how one views reality in light of Christ is reflected in one’s value system (p. 152).

Despite the clear merits of this section, one is left to wonder whether the author’s emphasis on the individual believer as the target domain of non-atonement cultic metaphors is at times slightly over-stretched (e.g. pp. 60, 64, 74), even when Paul addresses people in the second person plural (e.g. with regard to 1 Thess. 5:23 and 1 Cor. 6:11). This is not, however, to say that the corporate target domain of the body of Christ is entirely neglected in Gupta’s book (e.g. p. 85). What one might wish for him to address in much deeper detail, however, is the role that the initiating and in many ways community-oriented act of baptismal washing plays in Paul’s ethical argument. For instance with regard to 1 Cor. 6:11, Gupta follows Dunn’s symbolical view that the verse is not so much about Christian baptism but about a wider cultic metaphor of purification (p. 71) that, again, concerns the individual believer (p. 73).

When it comes to his approach to Paul’s ethics in general, Gupta upholds the traditional yet more recently disputed indicative-imperative division (p. 73), whilst maintaining quite rightly that Paul’s ethical imperatives are more about the Christian’s new identity in Christ than simply “doing” (p. 117f.).

What the reader may find the most useful in the book are the author’s exegetical outcomes – the seven key correlations that he finds between the source and the target domain. Part three, then, is the well-written theological synthesis of these correlations that are coined as service to God, holiness and purity, spiritual endowment, suffering and death, embodiedness, judgment, and new eschatological perspective. The concluding section does repeat lots of the things already said earlier in the exegetical part, but it also crystallises Gupta’s already sharp conclusions. Again, Gupta gives a good account of Paul’s somatology and links it with worship metaphors: the body is, for Paul, a vessel for either Christ-worship or the worship of the self and of death (pp. 180-183, 185). The body is reclaimed in Christ to be a vessel of the Spirit and to serve (δουλεύω) and worship God. Just as it was important for Israel to remember her new relationship with the God of the exodus, this new servitude is also important for Paul and his readers to remember (pp. 155, 157; cf. Deut. 5:15; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22). The new epistemology, new wisdom and knowledge, is given by the Holy Spirit in the new age of Christ. The cross reshapes one’s worldview (pp. 194, 196). This true knowledge, then, also leads to true worship (p. 202), and the two aspects went hand in hand already in Jewish thought (Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 9:10; Sir. 1:14; 4 Ezra 14:47). Epistemology and ontology are inseparable in Paul’s thought, Gupta rightly concludes (p. 203; Rom. 8:1f., 6; 12:2). This is also shown by Paul’s emphasis on worship in his Fall narrative of Rom. 1:8-2:5 (p. 204).

Finally, Gupta articulates three theological propositions: “New life is dedicated to God in service and obedience” (p. 213); “Although God has reclaimed his own people as his sole possession in the new life, the state of their earthly present-age existence requires conformity to the bodily suffering and death of Christ as a catalyst for resurrection power” (p. 214); and “New life requires a transformed perception which the world does not share in the overlapping of the ages” (p. 214).

Despite containing a few typographical errors (pp. 73, 76, 92) and layout problems (pp. 81, 116), Worship that Makes Sense to Paul gives a carefully thought-through impression. The book makes an intelligent contribution to the discussion around Paul’s use of worship metaphors and rhetoric and provides the reader with a fresh perspective on these matters. More remains to be studied, as indeed Gupta himself admits (p. 219f.), but what scholars can take with them from this clearly argued work is an outlook for the themes of worship, conformity with Christ’s suffering and a new cognition in the Pauline corpus. They are quite appropriately the key concepts that Gupta sees arising out of Paul’s use of cultic metaphors.

Samuli Siikavirta
University of Cambridge
mss43 [ at ]

  1. Many thanks for the balanced review and your criticisms are fair!

  2. […] relatively thorough and fair review of my monograph (Worship That Makes Sense to Paul) on the blog RBECS. Thanks, Samuli! Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Explore posts in the same […]

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