Wednesday, December 5, 2007

James Dunn on the 'center' of Paul's Theology

After reviewing the myriad ways in which Pauline interpreters have sought to describe the 'center' of Paul's theology (The Theology of Paul the Apostle;19-22), James Dunn describes the mediating view "between the static imagery of centre and the changing imagery of development" may lie in the "unfolding of the significance of the intial christophany." (22) He then notes an attempt by Jürgen Becker (Paulus. Der Apostel der Völker) to explore the center of Paul's theology by identifying three phases in Paul's writing: 1) His theology of election (1 Thessalonians); 2) His theology of the cross (Corinthian correspondence); 3) His message of justification (already in Galatians). (22) Dunn notes that for Becker the second is the "real centre; the theology of the cross is the 'canon' by which the theology of election is defined; the message of justification is the language in which theology of the cross is clothed." (22-23)

Attractive as the above sketch that Becker proposes, Dunn now gives the nod to another scholar similarly named, Johan Christiaan Beker("Paul's Theology" 364-77; and "Recasting Pauline Theology" in Bassler, ed., Pauline Theology 1.18, reflecting on his earlier Paul the Apostle).

Dunn writes:

However, of all the attempts in this area, the most sophisticated and influential has probably been Beker's advocacy of a model of coherence within contingency, where for him 'the coherence of the gospel is constituted by the apocalyptic interpretation of the death and resurrection of Christ.' (italics original) The strength of this model is precisely that the coherence does not reduce to some static formulation or unalterable structure of thought, and so cannot be easily broken by the shifting currents of contingency. Rather, the coherence is that stable, constant element which expresses what Beker calls 'the convictional basis of Paul's proclamation,' or what Paul himself refers to as 'the truth of the gospel' (Gal 2.5, 14).

Certainly students of Paul's theology would be wise to adopt some such model. It is simply a matter of respect for our subject matter and for the sheer stature of the man that we should assume an essential coherence to his thought and praxis, unless proven otherwise. And it is simply a matter of common sense that any such coherence will have taken a variety of forms, some of which may be defined in developmental terms, but all of which will be contingent in greater or less degree. At all events, it is the more flexible model which is most likely to prove fruitful as a tool in the analysis of Paul's theology. (23)

So bibliobloggers what do you think? Is Dunn on to something? I personally like the idea of 'coherence within contingency' I believe it takes Paul out of our interpretive boxes and allows for a more 'concrete Paul' rather than an 'abstracted Paul'. By this I mean a Paul who is a sophisticated theologian, one who is not bound solely by 'justification by faith' and the like, but rather a Paul who cannot be pinned down to one overarching theme.


James F. McGrath said...

I like this way of putting it - Paul's various statements are practical applications of core beliefs and convictions. Although I am not in favor of imposing consistency where it seems clearly to be lacking, it certainly makes sense to look for an underlying coherence before jumping to the conclusion that someone is contradicting themself.

If I had to pick one particular idea that seems to be part of the core of Paul's thinking, I'd probably go with "in Christ". Nothing new there, of course - this has been suggested by Schweitzer and Sanders, among others. But it certainly seems to be the predominant way that Paul thinks of Jesus salvific significance. Through union with him, Christians have died to the present age and have begun to share in the life of the age to come, not fully but provisionally.

Matthew D. Montonini said...


Good to hear from you!

The "in Christ" motif also is attested in Paul's partcipatory suffering language (cf. 2 Cor 1.5; Col 1:24).

I think a good case can be made here as well. One thing these posts have shown is a lack of consensus for Paul's center!