Book Review – Stendahl, K., The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West

  • Link: Amazon
  • Length: 148
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Topic: Justification, Jews and Gentiles
  • Audience: Mainstream Christians
  • Published: 1976

The introspective conscience is a Western development and a Western plague. Once the introspective conscience came into the theological bloodstream of Western culture, it tended to dominate the scene far beyond its original function. It reached its theological climax and explosion in the Reformation, and its secular climax and explosion in Sigmund Freud. But Paul himself was never involved in this pursuit. (Loc 245)

Stendahl’s book is actually titled, ‘Paul among Jews and Gentiles’. But it is famous because of the essay in it called ‘The apostle Paul and the introspective conscience of the west’. This essay is one of the better known documents which is foundational for the new perspective in Paul. It’s a classic that calls into question the reformed doctrine of Justification by faith. I’ll review the more prominent chapters in the short book.

This post is one of my book reviews.


Main points

1 Paul Among Jews and Gentiles

The first essay serves as an introduction to the essays that follow.

The following chapters will demonstrate how such a doctrine of justification by faith was hammered out by Paul for the very specific and limited purpose of defending the rights of Gentile converts to be full and genuine heirs to the promises of God to Israel. Their rights were based solely on faith in Jesus Christ. This was Paul’s very special stance, and he defended it zealously against any compromise that required circumcision or the keeping of kosher food laws by Gentile Christians.

As the Apostle to the Gentiles he defended this view as part and parcel of the special assignment and revelation that he had received directly from God. In none of his writings does he give us information about what he thought to be proper in these matters for Jewish Christians. Himself a Jew, but with a special mission to the Gentiles, Paul is never heard to urge Jewish Christians to live like him in these respects. (Loc 74)

Compare justification as sinners become righteous, and the righteous identified as righteous. Stendahl argues ‘justified by faith’ is about Gentile converts recognised as full and genuine heirs to the promises of God.

A little afterward he says;

Justification no longer “justified” the status of Gentile Christians as honorary Jews, but became the timeless answer to the plights and pains of the introspective conscience of the West. …

As his teaching of justification was removed from its setting within the relationship between Jew and Gentile and became part of his teaching about salvation, the difference between Jews in Romans and Judaizers in Galatians also came to have little interest. (Loc 111)

Note Stendahl refers to ‘justification by faith’, not simply ‘justification’. We might infer from this Stendahl does not simply assume justification everywhere is used to argue the same point. For example ‘justified by faith’ in Rom 3.28 and Gal 2.16 is intended to convey a different meaning from ‘justified’ in 1 Cor 6.11, Tit 3.7 and Rom 5.8-9.

Distinguish with other uses of ‘justification’ with respect to two different types.

Further, it became difficult and irrelevant to notice that the Corinthian or the Thessalonian correspondence had a yet totally different vocabulary, problematic and intention. It was possible to homogenize Pauline theology since the common denominator could easily be found in generalized theological issues, and the specificity of Paul’s arguments was obscured. (Loc 111)

Stendahl claims Pauls justification by faith arguments are specific to Romans and Galatians and are different from the issues he addresses with the Corinthians and the Thessalonians.

2 Call Rather Than Conversion

Stendahl famously denied Paul was converted, rather he argues he was called.

It thus becomes clear that the usual conversion model of Paul the Jew who gives up his former faith to become a Christian is not the model of Paul but of ours. Rather, his call brings him to a new understanding of his mission, a new understanding of the law which is otherwise an obstacle to the Gentiles. His ministry is based on the specific conviction that the Gentiles will become part of the people of God without having to pass through the law. This is Paul’s secret revelation and knowledge. (Loc 152)


In the first place, the term “conversion” easily causes us to bring into play the idea that Paul “changed his religion”: the Jew became a Christian.

But there is ample reason to question such a model. To begin with, people in those days did not think about “religions.” And, furthermore, it is obvious that Paul remains a Jew as he fulfills his role as an Apostle to the Gentiles. (Loc 193)

I agree with Stendahl regarding Paul’s calling. The text is clear. Regarding his conversion, I’m not so sure. Let me explain. Stendahl’s argument raises a couple complex questions.

  1. What is conversion? The term is not used in the scriptures. Dictionaries generally define it as moving from one religion to another. What has to change in or about someone such that we can say they have been converted?
  2. What about Jews who believe in God and obey the law of Moses who then accept Jesus is the promised messiah. Can we say they have converted from one religion to another? Or have they learnt something new about their existing religion? What about Abraham? David? And other OT examples of faith?

These are complex questions which go beyond the scope of this review. I tend to think a person’s relationship with God is the key factor in whether a person is converted or not.

With respect to Paul himself, salvation is a decisive factor in saying whether or not a person is converted. Paul says he was ‘saved’ (2 Tim 1.9; Tit 3.5) and judging from Paul’s behaviour prior to meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, I tend to think he did not have a relationship with God prior to this meeting either. Paul was converted from a delusional pretense to a living faith in the risen Christ.

These passages are food for thought: Acts 9:1-19; 22:4-16; 26:9-19; Gal 1.11-17, 2.19-20; Rom 11.17-24; Heb 11.

Near the end of this chapter Stendahl says;

Scholars of the West are shocked to find that for at least three hundred years after its writing and distribution the basic insight of Paul’s theology-justification by faith (alone), without the works of the law-seems to have been more or less lost in the teaching and thinking of the church. (Loc 245)

This leads us into the next chapter.

3 Justification Rather Than Forgiveness

Stendahl returns to the theme of justification by faith.

The peculiarly Pauline connotation of the term “justification,” justification by faith rather than works, is confined to Romans and Galatians, particulary to Romans. One might explain this by saying that it was only when Paul wrote to the Romans, perhaps his last epistle, that this peculiar significance came through to him. But for other reasons I do not think this is the case. There are hints of the term’s significance in his earlier writings, and these are not tentative insights which only later seem to materialize, but rather indications, albeit not elaborated, which already show maturity of thought.

My simple answer to this problem is that Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith has its theological context in his

  • reflection on the relation between Jews and Gentiles, and
  • not within the problem of how man is to be saved, or how man’s deeds are to be accounted, or how the free will of individuals is to be asserted or checked. (Loc 375)

These are the two options which scholars today’s are arguing about. The new perspective on Paul argues for the former. The reformers argued for the latter.

Noteworthy is the fact that wherever such passages concerning justification by faith occur in Paul’s letters they most probably are to be found in the same verse as or at least adjacent to a specific reference to Jews and Gentiles. (Loc 388)

Stendahl rightly notes the repetition of Jew-Gentile themes in the Romans and Galatians contexts. Problem for the NPP is that those same passages also have frequent references to salvation as well. Working out the interrelationship is the heart of the debate.

Stendahl points us to read the scriptures afresh.

We must first read the Bible to find original meanings and allow those meanings to correct our tendencies to read our own views into the original rather than letting the original stand and speak for itself. (Loc 505)

And warns us of blindly imposing tradition over scripture.

That is one of the aspects of Christianity which might be opened up with the help of Paul-if we restore Paul to his fullness and do not translate him into a biblical proof-text for Reformation doctrines. Thus even justification by faith, important though we have seen it to be, must be subsumed in the wider context of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, part of God’s total plan for his creation. (Loc 557)

4 Weakness Rather Than Sin

Stendahl spends a little time explaining what Paul refers to as his weakness (2 Cor 4.10; 12.10). He presents this human side of Paul.

It is not in the drama of the saving of Paul the sinner, but it is in the drama of Paul’s coming to grips with what he calls his “weakness” that we find the most experiential level of Paul’s theology. More importantly when Paul speaks about weakness, he does not think of sin (with one possible exception, mentioned below, pp. 47-48). I stress this promptly and strongly so that we keep weakness and sin apart. Otherwise the impression might be that I am referring to sin when actually I am referring to weakness-quite a different matter. In our time we tend to equate the two. (Loc 562)

He gives Rom 5.8-9 a brief treatment describing it as the one instance where sin and weakness are put together in parallel.

5 Love Rather Than Integrity

This chapter dwelves again into the topic of the consequences of being overly introspective. Stendahl compares the two virtues of love and integrity. He deals mostly with the issues in Corinthians to make his point.

Love, to Paul, is constant concern for the church, for one’s brothers and sisters. This is the point: concern for the church, for one’s fellow Christians is what love is about. Knowledge (gnosis) makes one boast or have pride, (1 Cor. 8:1) , while love builds up (oikodomein, to strengthen, edify [the church ]) . This strengthening, edifying love is what 1 Corinthians 13 deals with. Love, not in the sense of feeling ever more deeply into one’s innermost emotional life, but love in the sense of plain, reasonable concern for the church in its totality is the greatest of things. (Loc 789)

Stendahl values integrity, by which he means commitment to ones convictions and the truth. But he has a realistic view of the church.

I have entitled this chapter “Love Rather Than Integrity,” not because I have anything against integrity, and not because the Bible considers integrity a sin. Integrity is the issue when people with different views and different convictions and different gifts must live together. This can become a problem, and Paul addresses precisely this problem when he emphasizes love. (Loc 802)

This is what Stendahl looks for in the church.

The church is a place where people can afford to live together with different views, but that requires love. It is in a climate of love and mutual acceptance that respect for diversity is heightened. (Loc 828)

I’ve heard of several instances where employed staff were sacked because they held to what they believed the scripture says and did not stick to the reformed confessions. Sometimes I wonder if my own church climate too easily divides with fellow Christians because of unwillingness to acknowledge different interpretations of the scriptures.

I don’t think Stendahl is denying the importance of integrity and division on issues that would destroy the church. Neither am I. I think the powers that be often err on the side of integrity and forget what it means to love.

I have always liked the story of the boy scout who knew that it is good to help old ladies cross streets. He had, however, really started to understand the seriousness of Christianity, so that he had started to realize that he did such good deeds leading old ladies across the street-just to show off. One day there was an old lady who needed help in crossing the street, but the scout withstood the terrible temptation to help her because he knew he would be doing so only to show off. So he kept his integrity, and the old lady was run over. Indeed, he had kept his integrity but he had lost the perspective of love. Perhaps it is more important to help than to be totally pure in one’s integrity. (Loc 881)

6 Unique Rather Than Universal

This chapter discusses Paul’s unique contribution among the wider body of New Testament authors.

We may be allowed to guess that Paul would be willing to be only one of many, unique, incapable of being universal without the help of others. Thus he rests well in the midst of others found among the books of the New Testament. There we see him in his indispensable uniqueness. (Loc 1029)

He believes not all of the New Testament can be applied to a single person, church or situation at the same time.

The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West

Prior to this chapter Stendahl introduces the problem of the western introspective conscience. In particular he targets Luther;

Here is a point at which it is equally important to discern the differences between Paul and Luther. Paul’s experience is not of that inner experience of conversion which Western theology has taken for granted. What is behind this distinction is something very serious. It is that we all, in the West, and especially in the tradition of the Reformation, cannot help reading Paul through the experience of persons like Luther or Calvin. And this is the chief reason for most of our misunderstandings of Paul.

In Luther, for example, we have a man who labors under the threatening demands of the law-a man in despair, a man for whom the theological and existential question is “How am I to find a gracious God?” He was a person who recognized that the harder he tried, the more he fell short, a person who precisely in his piety reached the very depths of the abyss of futility and shortcomings before God, a person who walked to the very gates of Hell; a person who knew guilt in its most introspective intensity. And this young man Luther found in Paul and in his words on how “the righteous shall live by faith” and in similar sayings, the message of God which lifted him out of despair and placed him in that mighty fortress of grace about which he wrote his stirring hymn.

Contrast Paul, a very happy and successful Jew, one who can, even when he thinks about it from his Christian perspective, say in his Epistle to the Philippians “. . . as to the righteousness under the law (I was) blameless” (Phil. 3:6). That is what he says. He experiences no troubles, no problems, no qualms of conscience, no feelings of shortcomings. He is a star pupil, the student to get the thousand dollar graduate scholarship in Gamaliel’s Seminary, if we can trust Acts (22:3) -both for character and for achievements of scholarship-a very happy Jew. Nowhere in Paul’s writings is there any indication that he had any difficulties in fulfilling what he as a Jew understood to be the requirements of the law. (Loc 206)

These accounts strike me as quite different from the “tower experience” of Luther, and from the whole tradition of the Reformation. And especially is this so in the latest existentially psychologized stages of that tradition marked by the attempts of us Christian preachers to outdo the psychologists, not to say the psychiatrists, in our morbid and masochistic ability to describe the futility and the shortcomings of all human attempts and hopes. (Loc 219)

This chapter picks up from where he left off.

Stendahl introduces the concept of the introspective conscience of the west in dealing with some of Paul’s writings.

He compares Paul’s understanding of himself before God and Luther’s. He finds they are quite different. He says Paul has a robust conscience.

Stendahl compares Rom 2-3 and Phil 3 noting the Romans account deals with corporate Israel and Phil 3 Paul’s individual performance under the law.

Yet it was not until Augustine that the Pauline thought about the Law and justification was applied in a consistent and grand style to a more general and timeless human problem. In that connection we remember that Augustine has often been called “the first modern man.” While this is an obvious generalization, it may contain a fair amount of truth. His Confessions is the first great document in the history of the introspective conscience. The Augustinian line leads into the Middle Ages and reaches its climax in the penitential struggle of an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, and in his interpretation of Paul. (Loc 1101)

Stendahl questions the validity of the reformers framework of interpretation.

The Reformers’ interpretation of Paul rests on an analogism when Pauline statements about Faith and Works, Law and Gospel, Jews and Gentiles are read in the framework of late medieval piety. The Law, the Torah, with its specific requirements of circumcision and food restrictions becomes a general principle of “legalism” in religious matters.

Where Paul was concerned about the possibility for Gentiles to be included in the messianic community, his statements are now read as answers to the quest for assurance about man’s salvation out of a common human predicament. This shift in the frame of reference affects the interpretation at many points. (Loc 1113)

So drastic is the reinterpretation once the original framework of “Jews and Gentiles” is lost, and the Western problems of conscience become its unchallenged and self-evident substitute. (Loc 1126)

Stendahl then proceeds through a series of passages, including Rom 7.7-25 and 1 Tim 1.15 to defend his points. He finishes saying;

Thus, the theologian would note that the Pauline original should not be identified with such interpretations. He would try to find ways by which the church-also in the West-could do more justice to other elements of the Pauline original than those catering to the problems raised by introspection. He would be suspicious of a teaching and a preaching which pretended that the only door into the church was that of evermore introspective awareness of sin and guilt. For it appears that the Apostle Paul was a rather good Christian, and yet he seems to have had little such awareness. (Loc 1230)

Here are a few other passages as food for thought:

23 And looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” (Acts 23.1)

3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. (1 Cor 4.3-4)

10 You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. (1 Thes 2.10)

16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. (1 Cor 4.16-17)

Excursus: Westerners Misreading Scripture

Stendahl wrote some interesting things on the way us ‘Westerners’ tend to interpret scripture.

How then did we arrive at our introspective, clever Western interpretation? Because we thought that when one reads the word of God, one should perceive the message as coming directly to us, and when the Bible says “we” and “our”, we had better take it personally. The law, it says, was or is “our tutor” (Gal 3.24) or “our custodian.” Who am I then to say, “The Scripture says our’, but in this case it refers to a time back there, and not to me.” But “our” in this text means, “me, Paul, with my Jewish compatriots,” and nothing else. It is totally wrong to apply that “our” to us Gentiles. Of course, when we read in Acts “And then we sailed to Crete,” (Acts 27.7) very few preachers suggest that “we” should be understood as dealing with persons now, but as soon as such a pronoun occurs in a theological context, we fall into the pattern of applying it to ourselves. Many of Paul’s uses of “we” and “our” are that stylistic plural by which he really means only himself, but in many cases, much more serious and difficult to detect, the uses of “we”-“we Jews”-stand in direct contrast to “you Gentiles.” (Loc 339)

What makes this sort of quest so central-and again I guess-is that it is related to the fact that we happen to be more interested in ourselves than in God or in the fate of his creation. This is a general description -not necessarily a condemnation-of what Christianity is about today. We are so sure, and find it obvious, that God can take care of his own business, that our attention is quickly turned to anthropology. This concern appears easier, more natural, and in a line with much of Christian experience. Rudolf Bultmann’s whole theological enterprise has one great mistake from which all others emanate: he takes for granted that basically the center of gravity-the center from which all interpretation springs-is anthropology, the doctrine of man. (Loc 362)

Many of us read the Bible all on one level. One reason for this may be that we are somewhat afraid that unless we do this the word of God is not going to be relevant for us. We do not have enough faith in the word of God really to allow it to speak for itself-so we hang on our own little relevancies, just as apples or other decorations are hung on a Christmas tree. Actually, there is no greater threat to serious biblical studies than a forced demand for “relevance.” We must have patience and faith enough to listen to and seek out the original’s meaning. If this is not done, biblical study suffers and may, indeed, come up with false and faulty conclusions and interpretations. (Loc 492)

This tendency is also highlighted in Richards, O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes.


The book is short and I found it easy to read.

As mentioned in the introduction it is one of the foundational documents for the new perspective on Paul. Stendahl is the first of himself, Sanders, Dunn and Wright.

It brings into question the reformed doctrine of Justification by faith by highlighting the Jew-Gentile context of Romans and Galatians.

It also highlights the western tendency for relentless introspection to judge whether we are right before God. Something Stendahl argues Paul never suffered from.

Stendahl reviews a large number of passages in Paul to back himself up.

All this is surprising on that Stendahl himself is a Lutheran scholar. The first new perspective criticism of Lutheran readings of Paul came from within their own camp.

For these reasons I recommend this book for reading.

Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2017. All Rights Reserved.