Saint Paul as Spiritual Director: An Analysis of the Concept of the Imitation of Paul with Implications and Applications to the Practice of Spiritual Direction By Victor A. Copan (Paternoster, 2007)

Copan, Associate Professor of Ministry at Palm Beach Atlantic University, has reworked this monograph from his Th.D. dissertation at the University of Vienna. His goal is to analyze the concept of “imitation” of Paul in the uncontested Pauline epistles and draw from such analyses implications for the praxis of spiritual direction. The topic is timely, reflecting a resurgence of interest in “spiritual direction” among Protestants.

The structure of the book is straightforward: Copan defines the term “spiritual direction” (chapter 2), and engages imitation language outside the Pauline corpus (chapter 3), before focusing on Paul’s convictions on the topic in 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, and Philippians (chapters 4–6). Chapter 7 is taken with a critique of the work of Elizabeth Castelli (Imitating Paul: A Discourse of Paul) that attributes to Paul the characteristics of a “malevolent patriarch” (217). (Presumably this chapter owes its presence here to the work’s original incarnation as a dissertation.) Chapter 8 summarizes Copan’s research and chapter 9 helpfully proffers ideas for praxis.

The author admits that one of the limitations of his work is the nature of the writings being examined—occasional missives from Paul’s hand, not necessarily dealing with the topic of spiritual direction as would an exhaustive treatise (3). Copan confesses that “[w]hat we have is a jigsaw puzzle in which only a few pieces are in place surrounded by gaping holes” (220). Care must therefore necessarily be taken in drawing global conclusions from the topically limited and focused affirmations of the text. The methodology employed by Copan is to ask “generative questions” of biblical texts to understand Paul as spiritual director: What elements of his character are explicit in the text? What textual indications do we have for what motivated, inspired, and drove Paul? (37–38). That there are “textual indications” sufficiently present as a scaffolding to create an edifice of Paul’s theology and practice of spiritual direction is arguable. Nonetheless, this is a worthy endeavor—the investigation of the concept of spiritual direction in the writings of the apostle.

Chapter 2 begins with an excellent analysis of the contemporary usage of the term “spiritual direction” (7–17). The author avers that the ethos of Paul had 3 roots: “(1) the grace of God at work in his life (even before his birth), coming to expression in his calling into ministry (Gal 1:15–16); (2) life experiences and the integration/reflection on those experiences; (3) the various ‘spiritual disciplines,’ to use an anachronistic term, which were practiced in order to conform his life to Christ and the gospel (Phil 3:10)”(25). Quite late in this chapter, one finally comes upon Copan’s own working definition of spiritual direction: “Spiritual direction is the (variegated) means by which one person intentionally influences another person or persons in the development of his life as a Christian with the goal of developing his relationship to God and His purposes for that person in the world.” (39). Rather ungainly in style for a definition, I must say; I wish it had been simpler and its substance unpacked formally for the reader.

Chapter 3 looks at imitation language outside the Pauline Corpus. In Copan’s view, the “total shape of the life of the director”—the character and lifestyle of that person (classical rhetoric’s “ethos”)—is the “key factor” in the success of spiritual direction (2). That the ethos/lifestyle of a director is critical is incontrovertible—“[t]he spiritual director thus ‘teaches’ long before she opens her mouth” (41). Indeed!

Copan notes that the ultimate ground of Paul’s conception of imitation is derived from the Greek world—in particular, the teacher-pupil, leader-follower, and parent-child relationships (43). Imitation, per se, is focused upon three elements in the life of the one being imitated: virtues or personal character traits, concrete actions, and holistic or global imitation (“imitating another’s total-lifestyle—in orientation, thought, and action” [51]) (46–52).

Chapters 4–6 address specific texts in the Pauline epistles. Imitation in 1Thess 1:5–7 is linked to the lifestyle of the apostle—Paul as the leader, teacher, and spiritual father (85–86). Paul’s offering of himself as a standard of imitation “is informed and controlled by his lifestyle that is marked by being in Christ”—the ultimate and determinative focus of imitation (1 Cor 4:15, 17) (111). Copan points, further, to the two exhortations to imitation in Philippians 3:17 and 4:19, that urge a “global imitation” of all Paul did (things his readers “learned,” “received,” “heard,” and “seen” in him), in his public and private life—“all the dimensions and aspects of how they could learn from him” (179).

A rather interesting hermeneutical discussion emerges in the final chapter. Copan asserts that to seek a one-to-one correspondence between the situation in the biblical text and our lives today is an invalid option. Instead, “a ‘metaphorical reading’ of these texts … is the appropriate hermeneutic tool” (231). This reviewer’s homiletical instincts were immediately aroused! Copan, borrowing from Richard Hays (his The Moral Vision of the New Testament), argues that “a one to one [sic] correspondence between the metaphor (Paul’s situation) and the item metaphorized (the Philippians’ situation) is neither intended and nor [sic] called for” (242). How does one move from ancient text to valid praxis? “In the same way that the Word ‘leapt the gap’ from Old Testament Israel to the Corinthian community of Paul, so Paul’s word to the Corinthians can ‘leap the gap’ to us today” (243). That is probably how all of Scripture ought to be applied today but sadly, Copan fails to provide specifics of how this leap may be undertaken; neither does he interact with current homiletical literature that does offer serviceable guidelines.

In sum, being spiritually directed, Copan declares, “amounts to nothing less than ‘spiritual apprenticeship,’” the adoption of the perspective and methods of the master artisan. “Then … the new artisan, having attained sufficient experience, can develop his own regula vita and can be one who humbly says to another, ‘Imitate me as imitate Christ’” (265).

While several typos came up frequently enough to annoy the reader, one cannot afford to be niggardly in praise of this attempt—needful and welcome—to address in depth an issue so critical to the life and health of the church. Copan is to be commended and one hopes that he will continue to explore the issue, and that his future literary output will be a bit more reader-friendly and engaging. That being said, this book will be helpful for seminary students, pastors, and those involved in the pedagogy of spiritual formation.

Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 2 (2009): 288–290

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