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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Thought within and beneath the Letters.


One cannot read through Paul's letters without being struck by the dazzling array of images, metaphors, terms, concepts, and typologies that he uses to describe the human situation and the work of Christ and its consequences. A classroom of even beginner-level students can quickly fill up a whole blackboard. In an order as random as a classroom brainstorming session: justification; sin; redemption; judgement; flesh; Spirit; spirit; body; law; works of the law; faith; grace; boasting; Christ; Lord; the first/last Adam; Son of God; sons of God; sons of Abraham; righteousness; reconciliation; adoption; freedom; slavery; expiation; sanctification; enemy; wrath; love; for us; for our sins; blood; gospel; preaching; body of Christ; in Christ; putting on Christ; in the Spirit; crucified with Christ; dying with Christ; rising with Christ; walking; called; being one; bought and sold; first fruits; wisdom; glory; living sacrifice; faith, hope, and love; triumph; dying to the law; dying to sin; principalities and powers; elemental spirits; condemnation; fellowship—not to mention ‘things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat’ (2 Cor 12:4 ).


The list is a testimony to the vigour and vitality of Paul's mind. His was an active intellect, throwing off metaphors and ideas as a grindstone throws off sparks. Yet the very kaleidoscopic dazzle of his language makes it difficult to read him well, especially since his statements on some topics (the law, in particular) seem to be in considerable tension with each other. Is there a discernible pattern or an underlying structure that will help us make coherent sense of this welter of theological language? What, in other words, is the basic shape of Paul's theology?


The task is by no means easy. The puzzlement expressed by the author of 2 Peter, noted at the outset of this essay (2 Pet 3:16 ), is echoed by modern readers as well. In Franz Overbeck's delightfully paradoxical way of putting it: ‘No one has ever understood Paul, except Marcion; and even he misunderstood him.’ Or, in more expanded form: ‘[Paul's] greatness is shown in the very fact that he has found no congenial interpreter and probably never will. From Marcion to Karl Barth, from Augustine to Luther, Schweitzer or Bultmann, he has ever been misunderstood or partially understood, one aspect of his work being thrown into relief while others have been misunderstood and neglected’ (Schoeps 1961: 13).


Some have decided that the very attempt to find a coherent pattern of thought in Paul is misdirected, either because Paul's significance is to be found instead in his spirituality or his exercise of pastoral care, or because his thinking contains an irreducible element of incoherence. Among those who think that the quest for coherence is worth pursuing, there have been several different ways of formulating the problem, or several different places in which the interpretative key has been sought. Some have looked to Paul's ‘background’, hoping to find in Paul's Jewish formation or Hellenistic environment (or a combination of the two) the grid-points around which his theological discourse can be plotted and patterned. Others have looked to his conversion (as has already been observed), hoping to find a biographical and experiential paradigm that might have generated—and thus might make sense of—his later argumentation. Still others have attempted to select from the larger set of terms and metaphors a primary image or a central theme around which the remainder can be arranged. ‘Justification by faith not works’ is probably the best-known example of such an attempt. These approaches have been supplemented from time to time by various developmental schemes, which try to discern a substantial progression of Paul's theology as he matured.


Perhaps the most promising approach, however, is one that sees Paul's ‘theology’ as a cumulative activity taking place between two other levels of cognition and perception. The foundational level, located in structures beneath the surface of the text, consists of Paul's set of basic convictions, things that he took to be axiomatic or self-evident. Some of these were native convictions, stemming from his primary formation in Judaism; others were secondary and reconstitutive, stemming from his Damascus experience. We have already discussed the way in which Paul's ‘conversion’ experience can be seen as a redrawing of his primary Jewish convictions around the new belief that God had raised Jesus from death and thus made him Saviour and Christ.

By contrast, the uppermost level, encountered at the rhetorical surface of the letters, is much more contingent, in that it is related to the specific situations that prompted Paul's epistolary response. This level is not to be simply identified with either the actual circumstances themselves or Paul's actual response, though both are involved. Rather, it is to be located in Paul's perception of the situation, as he views it through the lens of his basic gospel convictions.


What is commonly thought of as Paul's theology, then, can be seen as lying in between these two levels and produced by the dynamic interaction between them. New and unforeseen circumstances in his churches force Paul to develop the implications of his core convictions in order to be able to address them. Questions raised by opponents or sceptical hearers of his message raise to the surface tensions inherent in his new set of convictions, tensions that he needs to resolve if his message is to be heard. Especially prominent in this regard are those tensions arising from his new belief that Christ, not Torah, is the true badge of membership in the family of Abraham. Paul's theology, then, is that developing body of thought that exists in between conviction and circumstance, driven in different ways by both and by the dynamic interaction between them.


This is obviously not the place to try to develop any fullscale description of this developing body of thought. The most recent (and highly successful) attempt to do this (Dunn 1998 ) ran to some 800 pages! But for present purposes, in addition to this suggestion of a multilevel approach to Paul's theology, it will be helpful to make a few further comments about the shift that is currently underway with respect to a central aspect of his thought, namely, the nature of the human plight and of the solution provided by God in Christ. An older pattern, shaped in large measure by the controversies of the Reformation era (though constructed from elements in existence ever since the church had become a distinctly Gentile institution), has been increasingly displaced by a new pattern owing much to a new appreciation of the Jewish context in which Paul carried out his apostolic mission. Of course, to reduce the complex field of Pauline interpretation to two ‘patterns’ is a considerable oversimplification; reality is much more complex than that. Still, it is often helpful to paint with broad strokes before working on the fine details, so there is value in a simplified sketch. In any case, both patterns deal with the central themes of sin and salvation, but in strikingly different ways.


The older approach assumes that for Paul the fundamental problem posed by sin was essentially that it left human beings guilty before a righteous God. God demands righteousness first and foremost, but humans are universally sinful and thus under divine condemnation. Christ's role, then, is conceived primarily as a way of removing this guilty verdict. His death makes it possible for God, though righteous, to forgive sin, and for humans, though sinful, to be considered righteous. In this ‘objective’ view of the atonement (the process by which Christ overcomes the problem posed by sin and effects a reconciliation between God and humankind), the problem posed by human sin is located ultimately with God; even though God might be willing to forgive, the standards of divine righteousness make this impossible. There are various ways in which this ‘impossibility’ has been understood. The most common, however, is that God's righteousness required that sin be punished. In his death—so runs this ‘penal substitutionary’ view of the atonement—Christ functioned as a substitute, experiencing death as the punishment for sin, even though he was not guilty of sin. With the penalty paid, God is then free to overlook sin, ‘imputing’ Christ's righteous status to those who believe.


If guilt and its consequence—condemnation—constitute the nub of the human plight, then the heart of salvation for Paul is to be found in its opposite, justification. Christ's fundamental accomplishment in this older view, then, was seen as opening up the possibility of justification, a new status attributed to the believer on the basis of faith. What gave Paul's doctrine of justification by faith its particular spin in the traditional line of interpretation was the way it was defined in contrast to ‘works’. Faith and works were taken to be fundamental categories for Paul, representing two mutually exclusive personal stances or attitudes vis-à-vis God. ‘Works’ is understood as an attitude of self-confidence based on meritorious achievement, where one attempts to earn acceptance and standing before God on the basis of moral and religious accomplishment. While such standing might be theoretically possible, the pervasiveness of sin, it is argued, made it impossible in reality. Thus Paul's language of justification by faith is interpreted within the framework of two mutually exclusive religious frameworks—one operating on the basis of divine grace humbly accepted, the other on the basis of human achievement boastfully put forward.

In this reading of Paul, Judaism comes into the picture essentially as an example of a works religion—the one with which Paul was most familiar, but nevertheless just a particular example of a more general human tendency. Paul's interest in the Gentiles is taken for granted, in that it is assumed that he begins with a generically human problem—how can a sinful human being find acceptance before a righteous God?


In this way of construing Paul's thought, it can readily be seen how the distance between Luther and Paul has been collapsed, so that Paul's problem and solution are understood to replicate those of Luther himself. We have already seen one difficulty with this reading of Paul—the fact that its legalistic interpretation of Judaism represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how the law functioned with respect to the covenant. But there are other difficulties as well. One has to do with sin. It is hard to imagine how someone who read in his Scriptures that God was ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’ (Ps 103:8 ) could have believed that human guilt for sin was a fundamental obstacle to divine forgiveness. Another has to do with justification by faith. While juridical language (justification, etc.) looms large in Galatians and Romans, when one looks at the letters as a whole one is struck by the limited role it plays. Outside Galatians and Romans (and Phil 3 ) Paul never uses this doctrine as a fundamental first principle to be brought to bear on problems, in Corinth, say, or Thessalonica. Moreover, he quite happily issues all sorts of commands and injunctions to his congregations concerning ‘works’ they are to perform, without feeling any apparent compunction to warn them of the dangers of legalism. In fact, the only ‘works’ that Paul gets upset about are those that would turn Gentiles into Jews—circumcision, food laws, sabbath observance, and other Torah regulations. Since Romans and Galatians are written precisely for the purpose of defending the equal status of Gentile believers as Gentiles, against those who would in effect have them become Jews, it can be argued that instead of being his central theme, justification by faith is a particular line of argument developed for this purpose.


These observations could be developed at much greater length. But for present purposes this will suffice as an introduction to an alternative way of construing Paul's central story of plight and salvation, again sketched out in broad strokes. Rom 8:1–4 provides us with a convenient set of paints and brushes:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

At this point in Romans, Paul is bringing the argument of chs. 1–8 to a conclusion. He returns to the theme of justification: there is no condemnation—that is, there is justification—for those in Christ Jesus. Why? Not because Christ has endured a penalty that had to be meted out, but because Christ has performed an act of liberation: he has liberated you from the law of sin and death. For Paul, sin is conceived not simply as culpable wrongdoing, but more fundamentally as a power, a kind of force-field that ‘has come into the world through one man’ (Rom 5:12 ), bringing death in its train and holding the whole of humankind under its sway. Those in its power commit sins and incur guilt, of course, but precisely because of the power of sin already at work in them: ‘If I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it but sin that dwells within me’ (Rom 7:20 ). The problem posed by sin, then, is only secondarily one of guilt; more fundamentally, the problem is bondage. What is needed is not forgiveness per se; until the power of sin is nullified, forgiveness does not get at the root of the problem. What is needed, rather, is liberation.


Christ's accomplishment, then, is to be seen more fundamentally in terms of a confrontation with sin, breaking its power and opening up a new sphere in which life can be lived. What Christ has done in the flesh is to ‘condemn sin’ (v. 3). In context, this must mean more than simply to declare sin to be deserving of condemnation; the law was very good at doing this (ch. 7 ), but what Christ has done is something that the law ‘could not do’ (v. 3 ). Christ, for Paul, has not only pronounced the verdict but also carried out the sentence; he has won a victory over sin and emptied it of its power—at least for those who are ‘in Christ’ (v. 1 ) and who ‘walk according to the Spirit’ (v. 4 ).


While Christ's death makes possible a new objective status (of which justification is one metaphor), this is not the heart of salvation for Paul. Instead, salvation has to do with the real subjective experience of being liberated from sin's power and transferred to a sphere in which a different power is at work, the power of the Spirit. Those who are empowered by the Spirit—who ‘walk according to the Spirit’ (v. 4)—are thereby ‘of Christ’ (Rom 8:9 ) or ‘in Christ’ (v. 1 ) or have Christ in them (Rom 8:10 ). This language is part of a larger complex in Paul in which the Christian experience is described in participatory terms—i.e. as an experience of sharing with Christ in the process of dying to this age, an age in which sin and death are the regnant powers, and rising to the life of the age to come, where sin and death are finally defeated (Rom 6:1–11 ). While the process will not be complete until the End, believers even now experience the Spirit as a kind of first fruits (Rom 8:23 ) of the full harvest to come. Just as those under the power of sin were bound to transgress the law (Rom 7:14–20 ), so those who ‘walk according to the Spirit’ are enabled to ‘fulfil’ ‘the just requirement of the law’ (v. 4 ).

In contrast to the juridical language of justification by faith, this language of participation in Christ permeates the letters, functioning as the touchstone for ethics (e.g. Rom 6:1–11; Gal 5:16–26 ) and the fundamental first principle for dealing with community problems (e.g. 1 Cor 6:15–20; 10:14–22 ). If we begin here, we will be able to make much better sense of Paul than if we take justification by faith as the centre and startingpoint. Faith is still fundamental, though what it does in the first instance is to open the door for the believer's incorporation into Christ.


In this portrayal of Paul's thought, Judaism comes into the picture not as an example of the wrong kind of religion: rather, in Paul's reinterpretation of Torah-religion, Israel becomes the place where the nature of the human plight was clarified and the decisive act of God's solution was carried out. Israel's role, as Paul understands it, was to be a kind of representative sample of the whole of humankind, in both plight and salvation. Within Israel, the Torah functioned to define and reveal sin (Rom 5:20; 7:7, 13 ), so that it could be clearly seen that all were under its power and subject to death; within Israel, Christ appeared to confront and defeat sin, so that all could be liberated from its power and share in the glory of the age to come. As a representative (Rom 11:1–6 ) of this representative sample, Paul felt himself called to announce this liberation to the nations out of which Israel had been called in the first place.

This is far from being even a sketch of Paul's theology; a rough outline of one section of a sketch would be more accurate. Still, if the letters cannot be understood without some sense of the convictional and theological levels operating beneath the surface, this sketch of a sketch might provide the reader with a bit of a glimpse of what might be going on beneath the surface and giving shape to what appears above.

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