The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§ 1)

I just finished reading Wright’s mammoth Resurrection of the Son of God. While reading about Paul’s understanding of the resurrection, I began to feel anemic. I’ve focused on the Old Testament (specifically the prophets) and Jesus for quite a while, so a healthy dose of the Apostle Paul in order. Dunn’s The Theology of Paul the Apostle should do the trick!

While writing my very brief review of Wright’s work, I noticed how much of the book I had already forgotten. In order to help me remember and process the depth of this work, I thought I’d summarize each of the 25 chapters after reading them. Keep in mind that this is my summary of Dunn, and I’m sure I’ll misunderstand my fair share of it. If it interests you, buy the book.

. . .

Chapter 1: Prologue

§ 1: Prolegomena to a theology of Paul

Paul is the first Christian theologian in two senses of the word: he’s both the chronological beginning as well as the preeminent example. This is proven by both the canonical status of his writings as well as his overwhelming influence on the generations that followed him: from Clement to Barth. Paul ensured that the Christian religion would be both international and intellectually coherent. There has been a lack of full-scale works on Paul’s theology since Ed Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism shook up Pauline scholarship by suggesting that the Jewish religion wasn’t a system of works-righteousness after all. This approach (called the “new perspective on Paul”) has been fruitful in uniting Jewish and Christian thinkers on Paul.

When the word “theology” is modified by “Biblical”, “New Testament”, or “Pauline”, things become difficult. It is clear that Paul’s letters were intensely personal pieces of communication with various churches. Paul was not sitting at a university writing dispassionate treatises—he considered himself to be an apostle of the risen Lord with a personal stake in the message he was sharing. To be worthwhile, any theology of Paul must take these contextual elements into consideration. Dialogue is the best way to understand this interaction.

A theology of Paul is a challenging because we have a number of letters written to a variety of churches over a long period of time. Furthermore, no one’s life and ministry can be reduced to seven undisputed letters! However, by looking at the assumptions that underlie the letters (such as a grasp of koine Greek, a knowledge of the LXX, an understanding of the content of the faith, etc.) we can see the shape of Paul’s life and character beyond the mere words of the letters. The idea of “story” is a good way of understanding Paul. Paul has a variety of stories in his life: the story of creation and redemption, the history of Israel, Jesus’ life, and his own testimony. His theology can be understood as how he combines these narratives with those that arise from the churches he wrote to.

Many people search for the centre or unifying factor of Paul’s theology. Candidates have included:

  1. The tension between Jewish and Gentile Christianity
  2. Justification by faith
  3. Participation in Christ

This theological method quickly becomes restrictive because it doesn’t allow room for Paul’s theology to develop over time. A good approach to Paul’s theology is Beker’s model of coherence within contingency: “the coherence of the gospel is constituted by the apocalyptic interpretation of the death and resurrection of Christ” (Beker in Dunn 23). The more flexible a model is, the more useful it will prove.

Dunn’s model for understanding Paul’s theology is dialogue: we overhear Paul’s dialogue with his churches, and within his own mind, and interact with him ourselves. This is important work since it deals with the supreme questions of human existence, and cannot be relegated to historical curiosity. Dunn locates himself in this dialogue in the book of Romans for a number of reasons:

  1. Paul didn’t found the church in Rome—he would therefore want to make sure they knew the essentials.
  2. It was written at the end of the major phase of his missionary work, prior to leaving for Spain.
  3. It was written in congenial circumstances which allowed him time for careful reflection.
  4. It was expressly written to defend his own understanding of the gospel (Romans 1:16-17).

. . .

This introductory chapter just whet my appetite for what’s to come. Over the next 24 sections, Dunn’s going to walk us through Romans while dialoguing with all of Paul’s theology. I like the dialogue method: if we take the inspiration of the Spirit seriously then we are more than able to continue this discussion and hear the truth anew.

I’m also excited to get a better grasp on the “new perspective” of Paul. McKnight’s recent post on it got me thinking, and who better to turn to than Mr. Dunn? In his words at the close of the first section: “Now read on.”

§ 2: God >

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