The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§ 2)

In case you missed the first post in the series, I’m summarizing each of the 25 sections in Dunn’s masterpiece on Paul to help me remember what I’ve read. Using Romans as a guide and dialogue as a model, Dunn begins by turning his attention toward Paul’s understanding of God (which is really the essence of any theology).

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Chapter 2: God and Humankind

§ 2: God

Paul’s understanding of God must take priority in a study of Pauline theology because of Paul’s overwhelming emphasis on God. There is a difficulty here since Paul’s statements about God presuppose his views instead of describe them. To understand Paul’s beliefs about God we need to review what would be commonly understood among first century Christian congregations. One initial observation is the massive number of Jewish affirmations about God that make their way into Paul’s writing. Although Christ-as-God impacted Paul’s understanding of Yahweh, his Jewish roots form the substructure of that belief. Paul’s Jewish understanding of God is only strengthened when you consider that the majority of the people he wrote to were Gentiles—Paul didn’t tone-down his Jewish nomenclature to suit his audience.

The most fundamental Jewish belief which Paul wholeheartedly endorses is that God is one. This is evidenced by the Shema, the Decalogue, Philo, and Josephus. Closely tied to this belief is the understanding that the one God is “un-image-able” (31). This is important because it shows that the Jews were aware of the danger of self-projection, and because it offers a reason for the Jewish people’s vehement rejection of idolatry.

We must be careful not to paint too sharp an antithesis between Jewish monotheism and Gentile polytheism for three reasons:

  1. Gentile philosophers could understand the diversity of Greek Gods as emanations of one supreme deity. However, the tolerance of Greek culture toward their many deities contrasts drastically with Jewish exclusiveness.
  2. There was a plethora of intermediary characters in the centuries before Paul. This was likely an effort of the Jewish people to understand how the gods of foreign nations fit into God’s plan, possibly as angels appointed by God. This, along with the wisdom figure, and circumlocutions like spirit of God and glory of God could lead one to believe that strict monotheism is in jeopardy. In truth, the Jewish people were warned not to worship angels or intermediary figures. There was only one God, with all others subservient to him. The question of how Jesus fits into this matrix will become important later on.
  3. Paul speaks of the gods and idols of other people as “so-called gods” (36) and demons. We don’t know if he did this as a concession to the weak in his congregations, or to state an ontological truth. Perhaps Paul was ambiguous because he was unsure himself. He also speaks of the Satan (note the definite article—read: the adversary).  We will explore this topic further when we get to Paul’s understanding of evil. For now, it’s important to note that none of these “so-called gods” (36) or demons impinged one iota on the sovereignty of the one God.

Leaving the fact that God is one, we move on to the less controversial truth that God is the creator. Paul uses Stoic terms freely to describe how we can discern with the mind God via his creation. The Platonic distinction between visible and invisible holds sway, but is qualified. Where it is easy for Platonic thought to morph into spirit=good and flesh=bad, Paul’s Jewish roots affirm that the created tangible world is good. Furthermore, material humans are created in God’s image. Flowing from Paul’s belief of God-as-Creator is that God ordered the cosmos and human society, making God’s will an important part of his writings. Also flowing from God-as-Creator is the Jewish understanding of God-created time. Time is not cyclical as in Greek belief, but progressive and leading to judgment. Paul is interesting in that he describes that judgment (such an important element of Jewish belief) as already happening (Romans 1:18). Even though Jewish and Greek thought about creation overlapped, Paul’s view is distinctively Jewish.

God is not only one, and the creator, but the God of Israel. This brings the contrast between particularism and universalism into sharp focus. God chose to reveal himself to Israel in a special way. However, since God is one, he’s also the God of the Gentiles. God has chosen to justify both Jew and Gentile by faith. The climax of Romans is an attempt to resolve the twin premises that God chooses on and rejects another, while at the same time has mercy on all.

Paul’s understanding of God includes a strong experiential element. Central to Paul’s theology is his conversion experience on the road to Damascus. This personal relationship with God is evidenced by the Hebrew connotations of the world “knowledge”—it’s more than merely cerebral. Paul lived his life before God, and experienced fruit of the Spirit. He prayed to God personally and experienced the power of God in his life. Heart and head are undivided in Paul’s knowledge of God.

. . .

It’s obvious to me that Paul’s understanding of God touches on every other area of his theology: the nature of Christ, the nature of evil, etc. I’m looking forward to future areas of this book where Paul’s understanding of God will be fleshed out in various contexts. This chapter, though, was a great overview and summary of the grand theme of Jewish Theism.

< §1 Prolegomena to a theology of Paul

§3 Humankind >

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2 Responses to The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§ 2)

  1. Richard Peele August 1, 2015 at 2:24 pm #

    Greetings Pastor Steve,

    We met at Silver Birches last week. I was the one who said I wished you were my pastor and since I’ve been on your website I’ve more reason to wish it were so. Anyway I started reading your ‘paraphrase’ of Mr. Dunn’s book and was intrigued. I especially like the following sentence you wrote:

    “Heart and head are undivided in Paul’s knowledge of God.”

    Being in the Pentecostal environment all my church life it has been a running battle with most modern Pentecostals who are intoxicated with the notion of God being the divine epitome of Love and little else so that they feel they don’t have to engage their intellect when it comes to trying discern the Infinite. When you try to point out that God made us ‘thinking’ as well as ‘feeling’ entities and that the knowledge of God is as important as a relationship with Him they start looking for the nearest stake on which to burn you as a heretic. They profess that foolish notion they call ‘heart knowledge’ which by itself is little better than a kind of sentimental love one has for a puppy or kitten. It drives me crazy. That’s why I like this statement. Paul understood as we all must that to know God we must use all the faculties He has built into us as humans not just the heart which as Jeremiah so succinctly stated is “deceptively wicked an who can know it?” Well we know the answer to that question don’t we?

    P.S. I hope you enjoyed the copy of my wife’s CD we gave you at camp!

  2. Stephen Barkley August 6, 2015 at 10:11 am #

    Hi Richard,

    Thanks for the thoughtful words. Pentecostals do have a history of not caring too much about intellect, but that has changed and is continuing to change both in our Fellowship and in the Pentecostal movement worldwide.

    For example, I just finished reading Frank Macchia’s book, “Baptized in the Holy Spirit” where he explores what Spirit-Baptism could mean in a fully-formed Pentecostal systematic theology. Just brilliant stuff.

    I have been listening to Anne’s CD. You two downplayed it as a mere “headphone mix.” Interesting songwriting and great instrumentation. You two are quite the musical duo!

    In Christ,

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