The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§7)

It’s time to turn the corner. After three chapters expounding humanities failures (Romans 1:18-30), it’s time to look to the solution: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have to admit: after reading about Adam’s failures, Sin, Death, and the Law, I’m about ready for some good news. I suppose that’s why Paul spent so much time emphasizing the negative at the beginning of Romans. Everyone asks for the bad news first.

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Chapter 4: The Gospel of Jesus Christ

§ 7: Gospel

Paul is able to indict humankind in such brutal terms (Romans 1:18-3:20) because his answer to the indictment is equally glorious: the gospel (euangelion). This term is specifically Pauline, occuring 60 of 76 times in the NT in Pauline literature. From his earliest letters through the end of his ministry, Paul’s chief concern was effective preaching of this gospel.

It’s interesting that Paul can speak of the “Gospel of God” as much as the “gospel of Christ”. Romans 3:21-26 puts this dual emphasis (God and Christ) in plain view. Indeed it is Christ’s Gospel that vindicates God’s faithfulness.

Paul’s use of euangelion as a singular noun is foreign to the LXX, which suggests that Paul used this term in a significantly new way to sum up the fullness of the Christian message. The most probable background for his use of the term is in Isaiah (40:9, 52:7, 60:6, 61:1-2). Jesus used Isaiah 61:1-2 specifically to refer to his own ministry, so it is not surprising that Paul followed suit. It is certain that Paul was the first to sum up the Christian message as gospel. It is quite probable that Paul’s influence on Mark led to its inclusion in his Gospel.

Paul felt it necessary to describe this Gospel as God’s plan from the beginning. To do this, he used three main passages from the Jewish Scriptures to make his point: Genesis 15:6; Leviticus 18:5, and Habakkuk 2:4. This Scriptural understanding of Gospel stands in tension with the liberty Paul felt in citing scripture. He felt free to manipulate the written text by adapting the grammar and syntax to suit his rhetorical goals. In doing so, he was clearly acting according to the standards of his day. He also felt free to modify the meaning of the original text due to his overriding belief in Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish Scripture.

The content of Paul’s gospel proclamation stands in direct continuity with the message the church had been preaching prior to his conversion. While there is no hard proof of liturgical formula in the New Testament, such texts are suspected for the following reasons:

  1. Churches naturally develop these sort of summaries in their daily life.
  2. The phrases in question appear with regularity in and outside of Pauline literature.
  3. After three extensive chapters on humanity’s indictment, Paul spends a mere 6 verses (Romans 3:21-26) to describe the content of Christ’s gospel. If these verses were not liturgical and universally accepted, he would have spent more time explaining and defending them.

There is a tension between the Gospel as scripturally confirmed tradition (Romans 1:1-4; 3:21-26) with gospel as not of human origin (Galatians 1:11-12). Here’s the solution to this tension: Paul’s Damascus road conversion (or: commission) was not a shift from legalistic law keeping to grace-inspired gospel, but a shift in focus: toward the Gentiles. Paul was not converted from one religion to another since he remained a Jew. His conversion was from Pharisee to Nazarene. Paul was not converted from one ideology to another: he transitioned from a limited reality to a broader plane. In doing so, he couldn’t look at his past in positive terms even though it was part of the same religion. Paul could speak of his achievements as a Pharisee as worthy of the rubbish heap because he was radicalized by the figure of Jesus Christ.

. . .

This chapter cleared up a lot of confusion I’ve had about Pauline theology—which, I suppose, is the essence of the new perspective on Paul. Paul didn’t switch allegiances from a works-righteousness quagmire to a grace-filled love-fest. He finally understood (in the light of the Christ) that God’s plan for humanity was always intended to go beyond ethnic Israel. God is the Lord of the entire universe. That is good news indeed.

< § 6: The law

§ 8: Jesus the man >

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