Historical Paul and ‘Systematic Theology’
To Start a Discussion
[A version of this article is published as ‘Historical Paul and “Systematic Theology”: To Start a Discussion’, pages 147-164 in Biblical Theology, ed. M. W. Elliott. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2016.]
Theology Graduate Seminar, February 5 2014
Prof N T Wright
Once upon a time, those who worked in faculties of Theology or ‘Divinity’ made a working assumption about the relationship between exegesis and systematic theology. I don’t know if this working assumption ever actually worked, but then, as Bernard Williams said in his last book, pragmatism is undoubtedly true, the problem is it doesn’t work. So perhaps we should call it a non-working assumption. Anyway, it went like this: the biblical exegetes do their work, constantly refining what we know about what the Bible says; they then pass this work down the hall to the Systematic Theologians, who arrange it into the larger constructs which can then be used for wider discourse, including teaching in church, apologetics, and so on. Underneath this assumption is of course the frequently stated character of Christian theology, namely that it is in some sense or other grounded in the Bible, so that for theology to get too far away from the Bible would be to deny its own supposed presupposition.
As I say, however, the problem with this is that it doesn’t work. I have taught in theology faculties on and off for nearly forty years, and the closest I have come to seeing this model in action was once when I met Henry Chadwick on the corner of Broad Street in Oxford and he spoke warmly to me about my then supervisor, George Caird, as someone from whom I ought to learn a great deal. He was right; but I’m not sure that Caird’s work ever had visible impact on Chadwick, and I’m quite sure it didn’t on John Macquarrie, the Lady Margaret Professor of the time. Nor did systematicians like Maurice Wiles expect to get help from the exegetes, unless the exegetes were people like Dennis Nineham who were, rather obviously, themselves reading the New Testament in the light of some radical theological proposals. If anything, Caird sometimes pointed me in the other direction, saying that if one was ever puzzled by something in New Testament Christology, one should re-read Donald Baillie to check one’s bearings. The situation has, in fact, frequently been much worse than this. In a famous conversation between Paul Tillich and C. H. Dodd at Union Seminary in New York, Tillich basically said that there was no point twiddling his thumbs waiting for some nugget of useful exegesis to emerge from the lexical and text-critical work going on down the hall. This negative comment has frequently been reciprocated, as biblical scholars see theologians who not only claim to be ‘biblical’ but write books about the authority of scripture making more or less no use of the Bible itself in their deliberations. In some quarters, biblical scholars explicitly reject ‘theological’ proposals, as though they were bound to corrupt the pure historical study of the text. If there is supposed to be a marriage of biblical studies and theology, then as Paul says about marriage in Ephesians 5 – but in a different sense – it is a great mystery.
Underneath this uneasy situation there lies the question of history. It isn’t just that systematic theology claims to be biblical; it is that all Christian thinking focuses, in some sense, on Jesus; and, traditionally, this Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, in other words, he is firmly situated and rooted in real human history. Unless we are to embrace some sort of Docetism, then not only does it matter that he was ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’; it matters that he was a first-century Palestinian Jew living in the Greek-speaking Middle East under the rule of the early Roman empire. People sometimes ask – they sometimes ask me – if it would make any difference had Jesus lived in tenth-century China, or twentieth-century Africa; but the very question betrays a complete misunderstanding of what Christian theology is all about. ‘When the time had fully come’, wrote Paul in Galatians 4, ‘God sent forth his son’. The Jewish context, and all the rich blend of history, suffering, prophecy, aspiration and expectation that it contained, is a non-negotiable element of the meaning of Jesus. Perhaps I should say that I believe it is a non-negotiable element; because part of the burden of my song today is that for many theologians it has in fact been neglected almost completely. There are two types of this neglect. First, there are those who have quite properly spent their time studying Augustine or Aquinas, Luther or Calvin, Schleiermacher or Tillich or the great Barth himself – but who seem to have little or no idea of what made first-century Jews tick and hence what meaning should be given to that collection of first-century Jewish texts we call the New Testament. That is dangerous enough; but there has recently emerged a second type, which, flying under the false colours of a first-century technical term, ‘apocalyptic’, have claimed that it is actually a virtue of Christian theology to see it in a dehistoricized form, to sustain the pious fiction that when the theologian reads the New Testament the historical wall between them becomes porous and disappears altogether so that the text speaks directly, ‘immediately’ in the technical sense of that word, into the interpreter’s mind and world. Such a move, of course, renders careful linguistic, textual and historical study of the original texts in their setting irrelevant and even counter-productive: a convenient fiction for those who want to indulge pious fancy without hard work. One sometimes meets a popular version of this – one such was reported to me just last night – according to which the supposed perspicuity of scripture means that it will speak as God’s word to every generation and that any attempt to situate it historically is therefore both unnecessary and distracting.
I hope I do not have to argue against these extraordinary suggestions today. But I have the sense nevertheless that a great deal of Christian theology has taken a not dissimilar position in practice, and my task today, beginning from my own historical (and of course theological) study of Paul, is to propose not only that there are many things in such a study which can refresh the particular topics of systematic theology but also that when we really study Paul for all he’s worth we discover that he himself addresses the larger structural question as well. Fresh study of Paul thus not only enables us to glimpse new angles on Christology, soteriology, eschatology and so on – though of course it does that, and I shall include those centrally in this presentation – but also to see more clearly what theology itself might be. And, since Paul is himself an exegetical theologian one might say that he models for us something of what it means to wrestle with ancient texts and contemporary meanings . . . though, importantly, he himself would say that the texts with which he was wrestling, the scriptures of ancient Israel, stood in a different relation to his work than his own writings should do to ours. More of that, perhaps, anon.
So, to put down a marker from the start: Christian systematic theology cannot do without Paul, but it often hasn’t known what to do with him. It has often reduced him to a few passages on justification, or a couple of examples of early Christology, and for the rest has regarded him as a polemical figure whose sharp and angular words do not fit easily into the delicately shaped boxes of our proposed constructions. Theology has not even glimpsed, I think, the central point I have argued in my recent book, that Paul actually invents the discipline we now, with long hindsight, call ‘Christian theology’; that he does so for a very particular purpose; that he gives it a particular shape and character; and that he, like the Jesus whom he loved and served, can only be properly understood when we locate him within the turbulent and multi-layered world of his day.
Putting Paul in his Place
That task of location has, supposedly, been the aim of much biblical study. However, even in the hallowed halls of the historical critics things have often been very different. A hundred years ago a genuine effort was being made, by people like Adolf Deissmann, to locate Paul within that complex world; but this was largely abandoned in the long years of existential and neo-Kantian interpretation led by Rudolf Bultmann. Instead, exegetes have arranged their Pauline work around a string of essentially theological debates, which swirl around one another confusingly and routinely twist the texts to fit. These debates grow out of, and flow into, one another, though, again confusingly, they do not map on to one another. Was Paul basically writing about anthropology or cosmology (Bultmann vs. Kasemann)? Was the centre of his thought justification or salvation history (Kasemann vs Stendahl, echoing older debates between the followers of F. C. Baur and those who were arguing for some form of Heilsgeschichte, ending notably with Cullmann)? Or, taking a different tack, was Paul really an apocalyptic theologian, or a proponent of salvation-history (Martyn)? Or is the real opposition ‘apocalyptic’ against ‘justification’ itself (Campbell)? And so on. In particular, of course, we have had thirty-five years of trench warfare between something which I originally labelled the ‘new perspective’, but which is now both quite old and certainly highly pluriform – ‘not-so-new perspectives’, in other words – and something which inevitably gets called the ‘old perspective’. And the heat aroused by this debate is certainly not caused by rival hypotheses of historical exegesis. Everyone knows that there are big theological issues at stake, though since the exegetes are not trained to address them and the theologians don’t want to know about the historical basis for the argument this remains a dialogue of the deaf. As Bertrand Russell said of a long-standing argument he had had with one of his former wives: She still thinks she is right, and I still think I am right. Once again: the mystery of the non-marriage of theology and exegesis.
At the heart of my argument, both in the book and today, is the belief that the so-called historical-critical school of exegesis, as it has spent its energies prolifically over the last century, has by and large led us into a quagmire of false antitheses: not because it was historical and critical but because it was not nearly historical or critical enough. Here is the irony of the school that runs from Baur to Bultmann to Kasemann and on to Martyn and others today: they have used enough ‘history’ to fill their pages with learned footnotes, but part of their ‘critical’ stance has been precisely and explicitly to stand over against the text, helping Paul to say more clearly what they thought he was really trying to say, peeling away not only layers of later glosses but also the parts where Paul, unaccountably to this school, persisted in thinking and writing more like a first-century Jew and less like a good existentialist Lutheran. This method, dignified with the name Sachkritik, ‘material criticism’, has bedevilled some of the main work of the last hundred years. While we acknowledge and even applaud the intention to enable the biblical text to speak into very specific and dangerous situations, such as Germany between the wars, the elevation of that unique and peculiar moment, with all its cultural and philosophical currents, into a hermeneutical grid for interpreting the New Testament, was itself a triumph of an essentially anti-Jewish, anti-historical and I believe anti-Pauline impetus. Even when it celebrates its great triumphs, such as Kasemann’s commentary on Romans, it always needed, but alas did not always have, a slave in the back of the chariot to whisper in the great man’s ear, ‘Remember you too are historically situated.’
In particular, and this brings us closer to my central concern, so much mainstream Pauline study of the last century has proceeded on the assumption that since Paul taught justification by faith rather than works his religio-historical situation must be non-Jewish. He picks up early Jewish formulae, say Bultmann and Kasemann, in order to twist them into a new shape relevant for his Gentile audience. He abandons the idea of Davidic messiahship in order to present Jesus as the kyrios, a word familiar to the pagans both in cult and in imperial rhetoric. And so on. Thus the study of Paul, in these highly influential movements at least, has partaken of what I perceive actually to be the problem afflicting so much systematic theology to the present day: the assumption that the Jewish setting of the original texts can and even must be set well aside in order to allow a non-Jewish discourse to proceed unchecked. To this, for the moment, I merely say one thing: that at least in Paul’s mind the idea of worldwide mission was itself a profoundly Jewish idea, based precisely on biblical messianism: ‘his dominion shall be from the one sea to the other, and from the river to the ends of the earth’. When Paul launches Romans by speaking of the Davidic messiah as the heart of the gospel, and ends his theological exposition by speaking of the Root of Jesse who rises to rule the nations, these are not accidental throwaway remarks. They provide the telling framework for the whole thing. Paul believed that the God of Israel, the creator of the world, had been faithful to his promises, both to Israel and through Israel to all humanity, both to humanity and through humanity to all creation. This ‘faithfulness of God’, one possible translation of Paul’s biblically allusive phrase dikaiosyne theou, lies at the heart of his theology, both explicitly in Romans and implicitly throughout the rest of his letters. And it is this motif, I suggest, much misunderstood in both exegesis and theology, which gives us the clue to his fundamental contribution to Christian theology – and by ‘fundamental contribution’ I don’t just mean ‘the main thing Paul had to say’, but ‘the thing Paul said which ought to be foundational for all systematic theology worthy of the name. Paul, the apostle to the pagans, was a theologian who taught about the one true God over against the world’s idols; and this true God was both the creator and the God of Israel. These matter, not just as points to be acknowledged before moving on to other more interesting topics, but as strands to be visible all the way through.
Paul in History: Worldview and Mindset
For the last twenty years and more I have used one particular tool of historical analysis, and I perhaps need to say a word about it here since my main argument first focuses on it and then hinges on it. This tool is the analysis of what I and some others call ‘worldviews’. Three things to note. First, a worldview in this sense (as opposed to the sense used by some post-Schaffer American writers) is not what you look at; it is what you look through. It is the normally unstated and unexamined set of background phenomena – not only ideas but activities and physical objects – which form the unseen lens through which people perceive their world. Second, I use ‘worldview’ to indicate the lenses shared by a community, and I use ‘mindset’ to indicate the particular personal variation on that worldview belonging to a person within it. Third, this corresponds quite closely to what social scientists such as Clifford Geertz have written about, though the terminology sometimes differs. The word ‘worldview’ may appear to privilege the metaphor of sight, which can be unfortunate, but I and others use it in a technical sense where this should not be a problem.
I have devoted considerable space, both in this book and in early works, to trying to understand the worldview of second-temple Judaism. This obviously involves sharp focus on what for many in theology and the church is a dangerous area, the long dark years between (if you like) Malachi and Matthew. Some have criticized me for thus allowing non-canonical materials – Josephus, Qumran, the Pseudepigrapha – to influence my reading of the biblical text. To this I reply that if you want to understand how ideas and phrases are used in the first century it helps to look at the first century, not the fourth century BC or the fourth century AD (still less the sixteenth century AD!); and that in fact until fairly recently most clergy had on their shelves not only Whiston’s Josephus but also Edersheim’s Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, and they plundered these works cheerfully when preaching on the New Testament. To suggest that the pure canonical text ought to be self-explanatory without such aids is to commit again a form of Docetism, and to invite the rejoinder that if you don’t want to use first-century non-biblical materials you’re going to have difficulty simply translating Paul, never mind understanding him. A theology that supposes it can be ‘biblical’ without also being firmly ‘historical’ is like someone trying to dance on one leg only.
At the heart of worldview-analysis stands the symbol. This is usually something concrete, either an object or a particular style of behaviour or life. For second-temple Jews, it was the Temple and the Torah, with Torah playing out in circumcision, the food laws, the Sabbath and so on: these were the symbols which marked out the Jews from their pagan neighbours. For first-century Romans, it was the Empire: some of us just visited the Augustus exhibition in Rome, and the symbols are very clear, on statues and coins and decorative artwork found from Spain to Syria, from Gaul to Galilee. Symbols form the concrete expression of the worldview: they are the things which say, in a thousand small but telling ways, ‘this is who we are’. And my argument in chapter 6 of this book is that the central symbol of Paul’s newly shaped worldview was the church itself: the church as the united and holy community. The church didn’t have the normal Jewish symbols – though we should note that Paul clearly wants his ex-pagan converts to embrace certain aspects of Jewish life, such as the rejection of idolatry and sexual immorality. But the church certainly didn’t take on the symbols of the pagan world. The church itself – a community living with an astonishing social mix, and living an astonishing lifestyle of holiness and care for the poor – was the sign, the symbol, the thing you could see on the street that said something new was happening. Paul’s churches didn’t mint coins, but they believed they could see the face of Jesus in one another, as the Spirit transformed them. They didn’t keep the Jewish food-laws, but they practiced a new sort of Passover meal whose radical egalitarianism was a major challenge to the social and cultural structures of the day. And so on.
Along with the symbol goes the narrative. Here is I think a key element against which many theologians, and some exegetes, push back hard (why?). Ever since Hans Frei’s work we have been alerted to the importance of narrative in the Bible and to its suppression in the modern period. Many still regard narrative theology, or exegesis, as a fad which they can do without. But narrative, properly understood, goes precisely with the ancient Jewish, and early Christian, emphasis on the goodness of creation: the one God has made this world of time and change; and on the call of Israel, and the story of God’s people from Abraham through Moses and David and the prophets and the exile . . . and the strange puzzle about whether exile has really ended, and whether YHWH has really returned to his temple. Once again, to try to avoid all this, in the interests of an abstract timeless theology, is I think a large step away from the Bible, away from Paul, away from Israel, away from Jesus himself. It is like trying to understand the tenth game of the fifth set of a Wimbledon final without any reference to the previous games and sets. To say that this reduces everything to the horizontal dimension rather than the vertical, as people often do, is to miss the point altogether. In the Bible, the divine rescue operation following Eden and Babel is the call of Abraham. To flatten that out is to risk both Docetism and Marcionism. Many there are who go that route.
From Worldview to Theology
All this leads to the central proposal of this book, and the central point I want to make today: that in Paul we not only see the first flowering of Christian theological reflection on topics which have remained central from that day to this – Christology, soteriology, eschatology, and so on. We see also, and at a deeper level, the reason why such theological reflection was necessary in the first place, and the reason why it remains necessary in the church ever afterwards. My central case is that Paul believed theology to be the necessary task of the church if it was to be the church. Without the symbols of Judaism, and without taking on the symbols of paganism, you might think it was asking for the moon to expect people to form united, holy communities, living as a kind of radically renewed Israel within the pagan world. If you know anything about human nature and sociology it looks like a ridiculous experiment. For Paul, the thing that would hold it all together was the constant, radical fresh exploration of the central themes of ancient Judaism: God himself, God’s people, God’s future for the world. Monotheism, election, eschatology.
But the point was not simply that these topics needed to be worked out – as though a couple of generations might do the hard work, write the books, and leave all subsequent generations to put their feet up and look the answers up when they needed them. No: this theological task is, for Paul, the ongoing task to which the whole community, and every member of it, must be devoted. Here is the genius of Paul’s vision: as he says in Colossians, to warn everyone and teach everyone in all wisdom, in order to present everyone mature in the Messiah. Or, in 1 Corinthians: be babies when it comes to evil, but in your thinking be grown-ups. Or, in Romans: do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. For Paul, theology was the task of the whole church, each one contributing their particular gifts. It was constantly rooted and grounded in worship and prayer, and we can see that going on in Paul’s letters themselves, as some of his greatest theological formulations look very much like prayers and hymns. Each community, then, and each generation, has to engage in the same exercise, the same discipline, the same activity; because this activity, this theologizing, is what will enable to central symbol to stand firm. It’s hard enough trying to get a Christian community to be both united and holy. Trying to do so without prayerful, scriptural theology is simply impossible. If you don’t believe me, look around the western world today.
Within this, the choice of central topics is I think vital. It is notorious that Pauline theologians have had trouble fitting together all the various things he says, not only on the Law – always controversial – but on many other things like Christology. (Did he believe that Jesus was fully divine? Was Messiahship important for him? And so on.) I believe, and the thought experiment at the heart of this book reflects this, that our problem has been not least that we have approached Paul with the categories of much later questioning. Commentaries from a hundred years ago often assume that Paul was basically supplying material for later debates, so that for instance Romans 1.3-4 was a statement of Jesus’ humanity followed by a statement of his divinity. I think Paul would have been very puzzled: he certainly assumed Jesus was fully human, he certainly believed he was fully divine, but (as I’ve said elsewhere) these beliefs, like two sharp signs on the musical stave for the Hallelujah Chorus, tell you what key the music is to be played in, not the particular tune that you are going to hear. More recently, the great majority of Pauline scholars have assumed that the best way to organise his theology is through the topics bequeathed to us by sixteenth-century soteriology, which was itself a reaction to fourteenth- and fifteenth-century soteriology, with a massive focus on something called ‘justification’, a topic which was allowed to swell out of all biblical proportions to cover the whole of soteriology, and a corresponding downplaying of ecclesiology and/or ethics. We have then approached these questions through the lens, not of first-century thinking, but of the various philosophies of Kant, Hegel and more recently Heidegger and others. We have thus often spent our energies giving nineteenth-century answers to fifteenth-century questions, with occasional reference to the fourth century as well. My central proposal is that systematic theology would do well to try to give twenty-first century answers to first century questions; and that the first century questions might themselves give us some clues as to how to do that.
I have therefore proposed, in line with various Jewish scholars, that the central theological topics ought to be monotheism, election and eschatology – one God, one people of God, one future for God’s world; and that one of Paul’s greatest achievements was to rework each of those topics, quite thoroughly, around Jesus himself and around the Spirit. This of course needs working out in exegetical detail, and the book supplies plenty of that. But let me tell you how what I think I now see in Paul challenges (what I take to be) the normal proposals of systematic theology. This is my main point to you this morning, from a position of great ignorance about modern systematics but also of great puzzlement whenever I do look over people’s shoulders and see what’s going on. From at least the fourth century onwards, Christian theology has constantly been trying to make theological bricks without the biblical straw. Here, at a very broad-brush level, is what I have seen going on. People used to say things like, ‘Of course, the first Christians were monotheists, so they couldn’t think of Jesus as fully divine; it was only when they moved out of the Jewish world into the Gentile world that this became possible.’ Or they used to say, ‘The Trinity was a philosophical construct of the fourth century which of course the New Testament never for a moment envisaged.’ They would often say, ‘Well, perhaps the early Christians did move in a binitarian direction; but it was only with the Cappadocian Fathers that the Spirit was recognised as fully divine.’ And so on.
This line of thought has been assiduously propagated by two quite different strands of thought. First, there have been the Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians whose vision of theology, and indeed of revelation itself, of God’s Word itself, was that the Bible was only ever part of it, only ever the start of a longer process. With a strong view of Spirit-led tradition, they were very happy to affirm that the apostolic writings themselves were only as it were a preliminary exploration, which needed to be filled out with the more mature reflections of Irenaeus or Athanasius or whoever. Thus it was clearly in the interests of those who believed in the equal importance of scripture and tradition, if not the primacy of the latter over the former, to insist that you don’t find the key theological topoi clearly stated in scripture, but only in the later Fathers and indeed their successors.
Second, however, the same point has been made ad nauseam by a very different school: the liberal theologians of the last two centuries who accepted the historical analysis just offered but read it the other way round. There you are, they said: the New Testament knows nothing of Trinity, Incarnation and so on – so we can discount all that Patristic stuff as so much Hellenistically inspired philosophical speculation. I have met this in liberal Anglican theology; I have also met it in various Jewish writers, notably Geza Vermes. This was what lay behind that nine day’s wonder, The Myth of God Incarnate, in the 1970s.
All this has left conservative protestants looking extremely vulnerable. They want to resist not only that liberalism but also the many evils they see flowing from it. But, in their tradition (oh, irony), they don’t want to put any weight on tradition, only on scripture! What can they do? This is what has driven many in recent years to lay aside their former suspicions of ecclesial tradition and to place a new emphasis on creeds and councils and the ‘great tradition’, and to join their Catholic friends in looking down their noses on the mere exegetes who try to call them back to the scriptures which used to hold pride of place. No, they say: look what happens when you say ‘sola scriptura’: you have the chaos and confusion of modern north American Protestantism. To which I reply: that’s because they are not doing sola scriptura properly. They, like their radical counterparts in Germany and elsewhere, have operated a radical canon within the canon. And when you put the canon back together again, and put Paul back together again, you will find a new angle of vision on all your key topics, and a new frame of reference within which they can be stated robustly and creatively.
The result of all this is, I believe, that we need to tell the story of the Bible and theology very differently. Let’s begin with monotheism. Ancient Jewish monotheism was never, until the later Rabbis, an inner analysis of the being of the One God. It was always a polemical doctrine, against paganism on the one hand and dualism on the other. Paul reaffirmed this in countless ways. But, as a result of what he believed about Jesus, he believed that the One God had now been made known as the God who sent the Son and the God who sent the Spirit of the Son. Galatians 4.1-11 says it all: you either have something remarkably like the trinity, or you have paganism. Many other passages – extraordinarily ignored or downplayed both by liberal exegetes and conservative theologians! – point in the same direction. Of course, Paul doesn’t use the language of substance and nature. But that is precisely my point. I believe that the later philosophical language represents a noble attempt, like that of the Rabbi when asked to summarize the Torah standing on one leg, to say what has to be said but without the benefit of the framework in which it actually makes the best sense. Yes, if you are addressing conversation partners whose universe of discourse is neo-Platonism or late stoicism or whatever, no doubt you will want to try to say things in their language. But the tragedy then, which has never I think been resolved, is that the church forgot, perhaps deliberately (?), the Jewish narrative within which what they wanted to say made much better sense still.
What is this Jewish narrative? I have argued in various places that the key story is the double story of exile and return. On the one hand, second-temple Jews were still looking for the fulfilment of the 490 years spoken of in Daniel 9. The true exile – the political and spiritual exile, much deeper than the geographical one – was not yet over. On the other hand, the same Jews were still looking for the return of the divine glory, the Shekinah, the radiant Presence of Israel’s God, to the temple. The great promises of Isaiah 40 and 52, of Ezekiel 43, of Malachi 3, had not yet been fulfilled. There may have been a sense, based on faith and memory, that when they rebuilt the temple God had somehow resumed his residence; but there is no second-temple scene corresponding to Exodus 40, 1 Kings 8 or Isaiah 6. One writer after another in the New Testament exploits exactly this gap to say, very clearly: these promises are fulfilled in Jesus and the Spirit. The word became flesh, kai eskenosn en hemin, kai etheasametha ten doxan autou. Paul belongs exactly here. He tells and retells, in particular, the story of the Exodus, which is not only the story of rescue from Egypt, of the giving of Torah, and the wilderness journey to the inheritance – all of which play vital roles in his exposition. He tells, in particular, that element of the Exodus narrative which we often forget: that this constitutes a fresh revelation of who Israel’s God is, and that the climax of the narrative, bringing in a sense a closure to the two-volume work Genesis and Exodus, is this God coming to dwell, as an act of sheer grace despite Israel’s sin, in the tabernacle beside the camp. The glory of YHWH dwells with the people, and leads them through the desert to the promised land, constituting them as the new-Eden people, even though that will bring tragedy as well as promise. My case here, then, fully consonant with fourth-century Trinitarian theology but I believe setting it on much firmer foundations than people had realised it possessed, is that so far from the early Christians telling stories about Jesus and then gradually realising they had to say something about God, they rather found themselves telling the story of how this God had visited and redeemed his people, had accomplished the new exodus, had constructed the new tabernacle – and found themselves compelled to tell this story by talking about Jesus as the place where the living God had come to dwell with his people, and about the Spirit who, like the pillar of cloud and fire, led them through the desert to their inheritance. They weren’t telling Jesus-stories and embellishing them with God-language. They were telling God-stories, indeed, the ancient Jewish God-story, and claiming it had all come true in Jesus and the Spirit. If I am even half right here then the last two hundred years of attempts to put exegesis and theology together have been missing the point. The Fathers did a great job of expressing all this in fresh language, but by ignoring the ancient Jewish and biblical roots they gave huge hostages to fortune. Chalcedon itself looks like a confidence trick. It didn’t need to. The tools were at hand, but the narratives had been forgotten, and the scriptures reduced to collections of topoi, or allegorized into the teaching of virtue and spirituality. Virtue and spirituality are very important, but the scriptures are more than collections of topoi. Systematic theology needed them in the fourth century, and it needs them today. Better late than never.
When it comes to soteriology, the central Jewish category is election itself: Israel, chosen for the sake of the world. This does not ‘instrumentalize’ Israel, as some have wrongly charged – or, if it does, it does no more than what in the Bible God always seems to do, making humans in his own image so that they can run his world for him, calling specific people for specific tasks. This is not a form of abuse, as is sometimes ridiculously suggested, but a great ennoblement and honour. Abraham’s seed will bring blessing to the world. Israel will be the light to the nations. The Messiah will rule from sea to sea. The new covenant which will result from the Servant’s work will bring renewal to the whole creation: myrtle instead of briar, cypress instead of thorn. The great narratives of scripture, particularly those which speak of exile in terms of punishment for sin and hence of return from exile in terms of atonement and rescue, provide the rich resource from which the whole New Testament, and particularly Paul himself, launch their particular expositions of how the one God has rescued the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit. In Paul’s hands – perhaps I should say in his heart, because he regularly speaks of this with a sense of grateful love – the ancient Jewish themes come rushing together into fresh configuration. The cross and resurrection stand at the heart of this, of course, though Paul never says the same thing twice about either of them, but allows them to act as the lens through which one argument and line of thought after another is brought into specific focus. One of the most frustrating things for me, after thirty-five years of new and not-so-new perspectives, is to see systematic theologians still going round and round in circles discussing justification with minimal reference to the story of Israel and, often enough, with minimal reference to the Holy Spirit. Yes, there are notable exceptions. But this speaks to me of an attempt to address sixteenth-century issues without first-century help – merely using Paul’s text as a source for phrases and ideas, and treating Romans in the usual low-grade way, as a text about how to get saved in which Abraham plays only a small back-up part and the whole story of Israel becomes a detached treatise on a different topic. This sort of theology, if I may be so bold, is like sex without marriage: an attempt, so to speak, to get the climax without the covenant. And from this all sorts of ills have arisen, as you might expect. Let me just mention two.
I know that in some rules of contemporary rhetoric any mention of the Third Reich automatically causes points to be deducted – it’s basically morality by cliché – but in this case it’s very relevant. Generations that had used forms of Sachkritik to help Paul shuffle off his Jewish coil; generations that had been told that Judaism was ‘the wrong sort of religion’; generations that had read not only Luther’s wonderful expositions of the love of God but also his terrible denunciations of ‘the Jews’ – these traditions paved the way, only too obviously, for many in the church to find themselves ill-equipped to stand against the blasphemous nonsense of 1930s anti-semitism. Equally, generations that had read Paul from a Reformed standpoint but had systematically screened out the fact that every time he talks about justification he was also talking about Jew and Gentile coming together in a single family where ethnic differences were irrelevant – such generations had prepared the way for another great twentieth-century blasphemy, the heresy of Apartheid, and indeed its transatlantic counterparts which in a measure continue to this day. Of course, in all these situations there were many other factors involved. And of course the greatest wickednesses of the last few centuries have been perpetrated by avowed atheists. But my point remains: that a curtailed and truncated reading of Paul’s soteriology, one which for generations had refused to allow him to say what he was actually saying in Romans and Galatians in particular, were crucial in preparing the way for supposedly Christian viewpoints in which ethnic divisions, and ethnic hatreds, were allowed to become normative, rather than being ruled out before they could begin.
All this applies as well to theories of atonement and justification. Here there is a particular problem which arises from the privileging of Romans – something of which I am myself sometimes accused. The trouble here is that if you treat Romans as a systematic exposition of soteriology, rather than as a Christologically grounded exposition of the faithfulness of God, in which of course soteriology plays a central role, you will be tempted at once to treat, say, Romans 3.21-26 as a more or less complete statement both of atonement and of justification. It isn’t. It summarizes what Paul says at much greater length on these topics elsewhere, in Romans and other letters, in order to set out the main argument, which is about the dikaiosyne theou, the faithfulness of God, revealed through the faithful death of the Messiah for the benefit of all the faithful. That is why the treatment of Abraham in Romans 4 is a decisive part of the same argument: Paul is there explicitly expounding Genesis 15, the chapter where God made the covenant with Abraham, in order to demonstrate that in the Messiah these promises are fulfilled. Let this small example serve metonymically for the larger point I want to make. Again and again, theology has approached exegesis not with the desire of hearing what the text is actually saying, but with the hope that it will speak to the particular questions we bring to it. Answer: it will, but only if you pause long enough to let it first reframe the question and then answer it in the reframed terms. That pause is, I think, part of what it means to believe in the authority of scripture. And I regret that, like the pause between the two halves of a chanted psalm-verse, it is all too often omitted in the hurry to get on with the job.
The same could be said on the third topic, eschatology. Many in the last few centuries have written about eschatology, but it’s often been hard to get the focus exactly right, not least because most western theologians have still been thinking in terms of the mediaeval question of heaven, hell and perhaps Purgatory (or perhaps not). The biblical idea of God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven has been quietly sidelined. For Paul, however, it was clear: the Messiah was already reigning, in fulfilment of the Psalms and Isaiah, and the last enemy to be destroyed, like the enemy king being killed at the end of a triumphal procession, would be death itself. It is a matter of astonishment to me that some systematic theologians who are otherwise apparently orthodox in their views can suppose the bodily resurrection, including Jesus’ empty tomb, to be an optional extra. That speaks of a theology that has forgotten what Paul was all about. But it’s more than this. The inaugurated eschatology of the New Testament, the ‘now and not yet’ for which Paul is rightly famous, can only be understood in second-temple Jewish terms – which means that rich blend of what has misleadingly been called ‘apocalyptic’ and what has misleadingly been called ‘salvation history’. The end has come forward into the beginning, which is both a total and unexpected shock and, in retrospect, the fulfilment of all that had been promised. And Paul’s teaching on the parousia, the second coming, owes a great deal to his Christologizing of the ancient biblical ‘day of the Lord’, just as his ethics, also to be understood eschatologically, owe a great deal to his rethinking, around the Spirit, of the Jewish vision of a fully human life.
When we put all this together, as I’ve tried to do in the final part of the book, we find a rich engagement, already there in Paul, with the political, religious and philosophical worlds of his day, as well as with his own Jewish context. From all this I want to highlight, in conclusion, one of the philosophical points which comes out very strongly. It has to do with epistemology, always a vital topic in theology as well. For Paul, it is part of his inaugurated eschatology that the full and final revelation not only of God’s purposes but also of his personal identity had been revealed in Jesus, and particularly in his death and resurrection. ‘He is the image of the invisible God’, he writes in Colossians: in other words, as in John 1.18, Jesus is the starting-point for the knowledge of God. It isn’t that we know who God is, ahead of time, and somehow fit Jesus into that. It is that Jesus requires that we take all our earlier ideas of who God is and allow them to be remade around him. That is why the gospel is ‘foolishness to the Greeks’, as well as scandalous to the Jews, and it is on the horns of that dilemma, I believe, that so much systematic theology has found itself impaled. Rather than articulate the scandal, we have avoided the deeply Jewish meanings which a true historical exegesis would reveal; then, leaving behind the foolish Jewish message of the gospel, we have translated it into something a bit less foolish. Paul would insist, for reasons anchored in the cross and resurrection themselves, that this is not the way. The method of his theology is itself rooted in the message. The old world is crucified to Paul, and he to the world, and this must work out epistemologically as well as morally and spiritually. Likewise, with the resurrection the new creation has been born, a new world coming into existence within the ongoing old one; and the appeal of Romans 12.2, not to be conformed to the present age but to be transformed by the renewal of the mind, is therefore essentially an appeal for a resurrection-based epistemology. We are to see everything, beginning with God himself, in the light of the renewed-Jewish eschatology, through which we understand how election has been and is being fulfilled, through which the faithfulness of the one God comes at last into full view. I know that many theologians would insist on all this as well. I hope I have provided a more solid foundation, should that be necessary, for this understanding of a theological epistemology.
All this is focused, finally and fully, in the rich life of prayer where, once again, Paul takes essentially Jewish forms and reworks them through Messiah and Spirit. I have spoken elsewhere of the way in which Romans 9-11 is book-ended with a classic short lament and a classic short doxology. I have argued in detail that in 1 Corinthians 8.6 Paul takes the central Jewish prayer, the Shema, and discovers Jesus at the heart of it. I end, for today, with Ephesians 1, which is a great reworked Jewish Berakah, a blessing of the one God of creation and covenant, of exodus and tabernacle. As all great systematic theologians have always known, Christian theology is never more truly itself than when it is prayer, and vice versa: ‘Let us bless God, the father of our Lord Jesus, the king, who has blessed us in the king with every spirit-inspired blessing in the heavenly realm . . . he chose us in him, he foreordained us for himself, to the praise of the glory of his grace . . . we have deliverance, the forgiveness of our sons; his plan was to sum up the whole cosmos in the Messiah, everything in heaven and on earth. In him we have been made heirs, and have been marked out with the spirit of promise, the guarantee of our inheritance; and, once more, all this is to the praise of his glory.’
Every topic in Christian theology is rooted in this prayer. There is no need to move away from it and seek another foundation. From this standpoint, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians, he is able to take every thought captive to obey the Messiah. That is, of course, harder than it sounds. All too often the captives have taken over the camp. My underlying aim in this book, and this paper, is to reclaim Paul’s perspective: to let Paul teach us not only what to believe but how to believe, not only the basic content of systematic theology but its ongoing method. Only if we recover this perspective, I believe, will theology be able to serve the purpose for which Paul at least believed it existed: to enable to the church to live as the united and holy community, so that the powers of the world would be confronted with the symbol which declares, more deeply than words and books, the fact that that Jesus is Lord and they are not.