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Paul’s Visual Piety: The Metamorphosis of the Beholder

J. M. F. Heath
Published by Oxford University Press in 2013

Reviewed by Gregory S. MaGee, Biblical Studies, Taylor University

Is it possible that Reformation-inspired interpretations of Paul’s theology have diverted attention away from Paul’s interest in visual piety?1 J. M. F. Heath detects this tendency within biblical studies and proposes applying insights from the field of Visual Studies as a corrective. In Paul’s Visual Piety: The Metamorphosis of the Beholder Heath submits that “Biblical Studies and Visual Studies” are fields that “should be mutually complementary” (15), and that interpreters often “reduce the visual to the verbal” in Paul’s writings (256). Heath seeks to demonstrate that increased sensitivity to visuality can enrich readers’ interpretation of Paul’s letters.

Part one of the book introduces the reader to the relatively new field of Visual Studies. Heath conceives of Visual Studies as broadly and flexibly as possible instead of limiting the scope to objects of art. As a scholar in the field of Visual Studies, Heath investigates viewers’ assumptions about viewing, actual visual practices, and how viewing habits shape individuals and cultures. Heath also clarifies that both literal and metaphorical seeing fall under the umbrella of Visual Studies, and that both ways of viewing are relevant to his study.

In part two Heath explores the history of ideas about visuality from both the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds. The Greco-Roman chapter is especially interesting in its coverage of viewpoints about visuality among ancient philosophers, rhetoricians, and political propagandists. Heath succeeds in showing that there was already a rich intellectual tradition about the relationship between seeing and knowing when Paul wrote his letters.

Heath turns his attention to the New Testament in the third and final section of his book. He begins by explaining how Romans 1:17 took center stage in Pauline studies, at the expense of the visually-oriented verse at the heart of Heath’s study, 2 Corinthians 3:18.2 Heath alleges that Romans 1:17 overshadows other verses in large part because of its prominence in Martin Luther’s account of his conversion experience. Moreover, Heath claims that because of the verbal and conceptual parallels between the two verses, theologians have inadvertently imported conclusions from Romans 1:17 into their understandings of 2 Corinthians 3:18. The result is that an emphasis on justification through believing the spoken or written word (Rom 1:17) has diminished scholars’ appreciation of the theme of transformation through beholding (2 Cor 3:18).

Instead of jumping immediately into his focal passage 2 Corinthians 3:18, Heath first explores visual piety and its transforming effects according to Romans. He begins in Romans 1:18-32, where Paul identifies the visible creation as a portal to an invisible God, for those who are reverently alert to the display of God’s glory in creation. While Romans 1:18-32 bolsters Heath’s case for the pertinence of “beholding” to Paul, Romans 12:1-2 touches upon transformation, or metamorphosis. Believers experience transformation into the image of God’s Son as part of God’s process of making all things new.

Turning to 2 Corinthians, Heath lays the groundwork for his target passage by noting the repetition of the visually oriented language of “manifestation” (from φανερόω) throughout the letter. Over several chapters Heath surveys various debated lexical and contextual issues in 2 Corinthians 3:18 and preceding and subsequent material, contending that Paul’s chief interest in 2 Corinthians 2:14-7:4 is “how Christ is perceived, especially how he is perceived through the senses” (193). Believers anticipate the future visible and comprehensive transformation of their lives in the glory of God’s presence when they behold the suffering of Jesus and the affliction of his apostles. Through eyes of faith, these believers envision the resurrection power of God that brings about a new creation even in the midst of a frail and mortal existence.

Any time a scholar enlists methods from a specific field of study as a tool for biblical interpretation, there is a risk that the specialist’s employment of the methods will obscure the basic argument of the biblical passages. New Testament letters need to be understood primarily according to the occasion behind the letter, the author’s resulting purpose in writing the letter, and the argument pursued to achieve that purpose. Occasionally Heath bypasses a central feature of Paul’s discourse (for instance, the way that Romans 1:18-32 sets up Paul’s trap of the judgmental reader in Romans 2:1), but he typically interacts with major participants in the study of Paul’s letters and then complements their insights with his own visually keen input. In those many instances Heath’s awareness of the visual contours of Paul’s discourse supplements and enriches the interpretation of the passage.

Originally a Ph.D. thesis, the book retains a technical feel, complete with untranslated Greek, Latin, and German, as well as jargon specific to the fields of study featured in the book. Additionally, the book does not reflect a tightly sequential or linear argument but is marked more by a meandering approach to its subject matter. Concluding sections throughout the book, however, are quite helpful for summarizing the author’s main points. Also effective is the “show and tell” approach Heath uses to pique the reader’s interest and reinforce the benefits of Visual Studies. He guides the reader in observing visual features of works of art (Caravaggio’s The Conversion of St Paul, Rembrandt’s St Paul at His Writing Desk, the Synagoga and Ecclesia figures of medieval art), and written texts (The Letter of Aristeas, along with numerous passages from Scripture).

There are several helpful takeaways from this book for Christians and Christian educators. First, the idea of a “sacred gaze” is a recurring topic in the book that sparks interesting reflection about both discipleship and Christian liberal arts education. Heath explains that a Christian’s sacred gaze is the practice of rightly assessing the value of what is perceived by the senses. It is a gaze that is “not only intellectual … but also worshipful when it looks at the created order” (153). People marked by a sacred gaze respond to God’s visual manifestation of his presence and intervention with faith and praise, while the spiritually blind respond with resistance and idolatry. Heath expounds upon this idea especially from Romans 1:18-32 and 2 Corinthians 3:7-4:18. Christians who cultivate a sacred gaze in their lives are able to sense the divine significance of each moment in this world. A sacred gaze is certainly in operation when a Christian absorbs the beauty of the created world and directs thanksgiving to God. But more broadly, vocation, learning, service, and even hardship take on deeper meanings when God’s activity is recognized, through a sacred gaze, in these arenas.

In a second and related area, Heath underscores the scriptural pattern of contrasting responses and outcomes among people who encounter God. The righteous and wicked are exposed to the same sensory revelation throughout salvation history, but the two groups experience opposite effects of those shared phenomena. This biblical pattern may resonate with teachers in small and large ways. One student reacts to course material with engagement and curiosity, while the other expresses only indifference. More fundamentally, some students make great progress in personal and spiritual growth over the course of their years in college, but others seem to stall or even resist God’s forming influence in their lives. In his study Heath devotes well-deserved attention to the spiritual condition and heart-habits of recipients of truth, whether recipients of sensory or metaphorical truth.

Finally, Heath alerts readers to the surprising reality that the glory of God is often revealed strikingly in the lives of his suffering servants. The apostle Paul’s “decaying flesh” serves as the “outward expression of God’s revelation and locus of his glorification” (239), as was the case with the enigmatic suffering servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and most definitively with Jesus. The theme of beholding God in the depths of human frailty prompts readers to reconsider triumphalist expectations about life, to pray for the suffering and persecuted church, and to contemplate to what extent they are experiencing and visibly displaying the power and virtues of the gospel of Christ through strength and weakness.

Heath’s intention to address a “disciplinary blind spot” (13) in biblical studies has resulted in a useful book for biblical scholars. His interdisciplinary approach and proficiency in a number of fields and eras has made this a profitable study for wider audiences as well.

Cite this article
Gregory S. MaGee, “Paul’s Visual Piety: The Metamorphosis of the Beholder”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:3 , 291-294


  1. This question may sound familiar to those who have followed discussions about the so-called New Perspective on Paul in recent decades. Advocates of the New Perspective on Paul have suggested that Reformation-shaped assumptions have similarly led scholars to overlook essential points Paul made about the spiritual status of Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ.
  2. In the New International Version, Romans 1:17 is translated as follows: “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul says, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

Gregory S. MaGee

Taylor University
Gregory MaGee is Chair of the Biblical Studies, Christian Ministries and Philosophy Department and Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Taylor University.