Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Trio of Current Concerns in Pauline Studies

As I am scoping out my thesis and trying to figure out which are going to be the most fruitful lines of enquiry there are three major shifts that have been going on in Paul studies over the last few decades. Depending on who you talk to you will receive different answers as to how important they really are to understanding Paul, but as far as I am concerned they are all important for me to take into account at this stage.

1. The shift from viewing Paul as being in opposition to 1st century Judaism to seeing him as a product of it. (This often goes hand in hand with seeing Paul not as a convert to Christianity but as a Jew who had found in Jesus the messiah)
2. The shift from viewing Paul as a writer-of-theology to a writer-to-people. This might seem like hair splitting, but much scholarship has attempted to extract systems of Pauline theology from the letters. Now a greater appreciation of the unique circumstances that each letter was written to suggests that Paul's letters (with perhaps the exception of Ephesians?) are not examples of a systematic thelogy but of closely contextualised situational theology.
3. The shift from seeing Paul's primary opposition as being against Judaism to seeing Paul being primarily opposed to the Roman Empire. This understanding has come to light mainly as a result of post-colonial sensitivities discovering in the text what seems to be layer upon layer of anti imperial rhetoric and a growing historical awareness that most of the positive view of the empire we have from ancient literature is from the elite within that empire rather than those living in the lower social strata.

Now for some people these shifts are deeply worrying and to be resisted because they have radical implications for the way we read and understand Paul's letters. For me however they are a real ray of hope showing the possibility of a Paul who is not so difficult to connect to the rest of the New Testament as, say, the Paul of Luther. I have always been uncomfortable with the way 'Paul's gospel' seemed to have a radical disconnect from the rest of the NT and indeed the OT too. In these shifts there is at least the possibility that Paul's gospel has had this disconnect only because of the way we have been reading him through the distorted lenses of 16th century reformers and western emperialism individualism. So I will be paying close attention to the way these shifts will inform my research.


  1. "I have always been uncomfortable with the way 'Paul's gospel' seemed to have a radical disconnect from the rest of the NT and indeed the OT too."

    I'm intrigued by this statement. I've come from dismissing Paul to absolutely loving his stuff because of those Reformers who showed the connections throughout the whole Bible. Can you explain your thinking a bit more here, please?

  2. Sure. Simply, that the way I have heard Paul preached and taught in churches and university Christian union, in particular the 'conservative evangelical' types with their strongly objective forensic approach to salvation, has a theology which does not seem to agree with the theology of the entire rest of the Bible.

    This is not a problem with Paul, but the way I had been taught to understand Paul. hence I put 'Paul's gosepl' in scare quotes. This is not a problem with Calvin but it is a problem with many 'Calvinists'. The problem more likely stems from Luther who simply did not know what to do with some bits of the Bible because his interpretation of Paul, whose theology he made the controlling standard for understanding the gospel, had no place for them. The climax of God's revelation is Jesus Christ not the theology of the apostle Paul, but too often I have heard Paul being used to interpret Jesus rather than the other way round, and this is something that goes back to some of the reformers.

  3. Ok, let's get into the nitty gritty.

    Why does justification by faith alone, by grace alone and in Christ alone not agree with "the theology of the entire rest of the Bible".

    As someone who didn't go to a conservative cu can you tell me what an objective, forensic view of salvation is, as well.

  4. I like the blog. Thanks.
    For some time now, I've been frustrated by the way that we assume that all of the bits in the Epistles have to fit into some perfectly constructed intellectual theology. For example, when we assume that the lists he writes - lists of sins, or righteous acts, or types of ministries - are exhaustive.
    I imagine that actually he was a human, who wanted his letters to be read and understood by the people he was writing to. This means, that his letters may make little sense to a person that is not sharing his context.

  5. Phil, I can see we need to have a proper discussion about this. I'll do another post to answer those very pertinent questions. It would be too long for a comment.

    Mr and Mrs Grant, yes indeed, but we need to be cautious not to say they cannot make sense to epople outside that context, only that those outside that context need to be carefull in how they approach the text, respecting that fact that the text arises in opposition to an issue in the context. This is as true of Genesis 1 as it is of Romans 1.

  6. Cheers, Jon.

    Look forward to it.

  7. Point taken; however, I was careful to say "may make little sense" instead of "cannot make any sense".