What is a human being? Why do we never just, well, be? We are always changing, from babies to toddlers, children to teens, young adults to elderly. We are always changing, always becoming. This is actually how author Frederick Carr—Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Northeastern Seminary and Roberts Weslyan College—describes humans. We are not so much human beings as we are human becomings. In his book, Being and Becoming, Carr’s goal is “to examine the relationship between transformation and the self in the letters of the apostle Paul” (1).
Paul often writes about our transformation. We have been transformed and are now “new creations” (Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:17). We have died and become a new person (Gal 2:19-20; Rom 6:1-11). We have put off the old self and have put on the new like clothing (Gal 3:27; 1 Cor 15:53-54; 2 Cor 5:1-4). We have morphed or transformed into someone new (2 Cor 3:18; Rom 12:2). In 1 Corinthians 15:51, Paul writes, “We all will be changed.” Paul writes that we have been changed (past—Gal 2:19-20; Rom 6:1-11; 7:4-6; 2 Cor 5:14-15), we are being changed (present/ongoing—2 Cor 3:18; 4:16; Rom 12:1-2), and we will be changed (future/eschatological—1 Cor 15:35-57; Phil 3:20-21).
Carr sets Paul in conversation with other ancient Greco-Roman and Jewish writings to compare Paul’s conception of transformation and what they suggest about his conception of the human self (1–2).
Carr’s two questions are interconnected:
- What does Paul mean when he speaks of people being transformed?
- And what do such transformations tell us about the apostle’s understanding of the human self? (2)
Carr answers these questions by looking at the undisputed epistles of Paul which fit his criteria (see below): Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians (1 Thessalonians and Philemon didn’t meet the criteria).
My primary focus on developing a phenomenology of human transformation in the undisputed letters of Paul. What kind of change does Paul mean when he says we have been, are being, and will be transformed? Who accomplishes these changes? “How are these changes experienced, and how do they relate to one another?” (2).
Carr’s second focus concerns selfhood. What must be true about us humans for Paul to describe changes in the way he does. These two foci have rarely been considered together, which gives Carr some new territory to work with.
Carr uses two specific criteria “to identify those passages that qualify as transformation discourse” (10). A text needs only to meet one to be considered. So a text must contain either:
- explicit transformation terminology in reference to human change (seen in 2 Cor 3:18; 4:16; 5:17; 11:13-15), or
- “depictions or descriptions of human change with seeming disruptions to the self’s continuity and thus two embodiments of the self or, perhaps, two selves—a former self and a new self” (seen in Gal 2:19-21; 2 Cor 5:1-5, 14-15, 17).
Carr first surveys how human transformation and change was viewed in Greco-Roman thinking (ch. 1)—such as in writings by Ovid, Apuleius, and philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, and Plutarch—and in Jewish thinking (ch. 2) from both the OT—i.e., 1 Samuel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Ps 51—and Second Temple literature.
Chapters 3–6 examine aspects of transformation in Christ seen in Galatians (ch. 3), Philippians (ch. 4), 1–2 Corinthians (ch. 5), and Romans (ch. 6). After examining a few texts in 1 Corinthians, Carr spends most of his time in 2 Corinthians 3–5 and 11.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul believes that the goal of our present transformation is “a future of full participation in Christ” (239). The goal of our present transformation is to be like Christ, but that doesn’t have a definite shape; it will look differently for every believer.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul argues for the legitimacy of the apostleship he received from Christ. Paul belabors the point that true transformation is what Christ-followers experience, a transformation of righteousness, surpassing glory, and of the Spirit. Tue false apostles though try to mask their true identity. They alter their appearances in order to deceive, Paul is honest in all his dealings and in his suffering to show the eternal transforming glory of Christ.
Carr has done a good work on showing how we can conceive of the self and how transformation in Christ works. This is definitely a niche study: it focuses on transformation, how that relates to anthropology, the self, and personhood, and it examines only five of Paul’s letters (which still includes an incredible 19 passages). We see that believers are liberated from the powers of sin and death when we put our faith in Jesus Christ and are transferred into his kingdom. His Spirit enters and transforms our hearts (Gal 4:6; 2 Cor 3:1-5; 4:6), which allows for moral change as our minds are renewed (Rom 12:2).
Accordingly Paul’s mind (and in his writings), change is not a threat to the self. It is fundamental to who we are as people and, more specifically, as Christians. Right now, believers are becoming something in Christ. Transformation is something of what we are. Carr shows not only how we are transformed in Christ but how transformation brings us into deeper connection with the rest of the body of Christ.
Being a niche study, those studying transformation may want to consider picking this up. Care’s exegesis is top-notch, often lucidly showing Paul’s flow of thought and his main idea. He shows well where we find transformation, how these texts are connected, and what they say about us as people in Christ and connected to his body. Though a dense volume, it is rewarding as you work with it.
- Author: Frederick David Carr
- Hardcover: 366 pages
- Publisher: Baylor University Press (September 1, 2022)
Buy it from Amazon or Baylor University Press!
Disclosure: I received this book free from Baylor University Press. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.