The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§12)

My particular background in the Christian tradition used to speak of the foursquare gospel: Jesus saves, Jesus heals, Jesus baptizes, and Jesus is coming again. I’m not interested in debating the amount of skew that places on our understanding of Jesus. I want to point out how cherished the topic of Jesus’ second coming is to many people. The details of the parousia often get clouded in debates about particular end-time theologies. I’m quite looking forward to Dunn’s take on Paul’s take on Jesus’ second advent.

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Chapter 4: The Gospel of Jesus Christ

§ 12: Until he comes

Like Paul’s doctrine of Christ’s preexistence, his doctrine of the coming (parousia) is largely absent from Romans. It is still important to examine, however, because just as Christ’s preexistence shows his involvement in creation, his parousia shows his involvement in final judgment: the beginning and end of God’s plan. The idea of Christ’s parousia was grounded in the Second Temple belief that the righteous would be vindicated. The idea that they would return in triumph to earth, however, was novel.

It seems strange that this doctrine is largely ignored today, despite the emphasis theological pioneers like Schweitzer placed on it. Perhaps this is because “a mistaken imminent expectation and at talk of a literal descent from heaven (1 Thes. 4.16) continues to afflict Christian scholarship” (298). We will examine this doctrine now.

Paul’s strongest statement of the parousia comes in his first letters: 1 and 2 Thessalonians. In 1 Thessalonians he assured the congregation that even though some believers had died, they will still share in the parousia (indeed, they will be first in line). Paul was convinced that this is a “word of the Lord” to the Thessalonians that likely came after reflection on their theological dilemma. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul assured the congregation that events had to happen before the final parousia. Nowhere else in his writing does Paul’s language lean so heavily on apocalyptic. Another feature of 2 Thessalonians is its harsh notes of vengeance. This makes it difficult to integrated it (cross-genre) into a unified Pauline theology. To conclude, the parousia was important to the church in Thessalonica, but not a constant feature of his theology at large. Indeed, where the doctrine would be useful in corralling the Galatians, he bypasses this theme.

Six of the seven references to parousia occur in 1 and 2 Thessalonians (1 Corinthians 15:23 is the stray reference). Still, there are sparse allusions to this theme:

  • In 1 Corinthians 1:7-8; 4:4-5; 11:26; 16:22, we’re told of future judgment that will happen when he comes.
  • In Romans 11:26-27, the idea of a returning deliverer is stated in reference to Israel.
  • In Philippians 3:20-21, three themes of coming again, final resurrection, and Christ’s reign are tied together.
  • In Colossians 3:3-4 there is a reference to a final revealing.

It’s interesting to note that, although some of the major parousia themes are stated, they are nowhere correlated into a unified doctrine. We need to consider why this is, especially in a mature and carefully laid out letter like Romans.

While it seems that the delay of the parousia is a factor in Paul’s developing theology, that is not actually the case. To propose Paul modified his doctrine upon a delay of the parousia underplays the situational context of his letters. There’s also a consistency in expectation in his letters, especially in the sign off to 1 Corinthians: maranatha.

Paul knew that various events had to happen before the parousia, but we must not exaggerate his time-line in either direction. Colossians 1:24 shows his belief that his sufferings fulfilled part of the escatological tribulation required. Paul’s last letter shows that he still expected the parousia (Colossians 3:4). In the end, the delay of the parousia is a non-factor in Pauline theology.

The hope of the parousia is a consistent element in Paul’s theology. His 1 and 2 Thessalonian teaching, while his first written work, came about a decade into his teaching and preaching ministry. What we have in Thessalonians is Paul’s willingness to delve into apocalyptic to make his point where needed. The parousia is the end-point to which every other aspect of Jesus life pointed.

To conclude the entire section on “The Gospel of Jesus Christ”, we have many metaphors and images that reach from Creation to Consummation. These elements are “not in fact mutually consistent, and any attempt to integrate it in a single portrayal would be conceptually confusing, to say the least.” We need to take each image and metaphor as it comes without playing one off against another. The common theme of God’s purpose for the salvation of the world in Christ is what matters.

. . .

I felt a bit cheated by this chapter. The first three quarters of it suggested that Paul modified his theology when the parousia didn’t occur. The last part says, “no he didn’t”, offering genre analysis and generalities to support Dunn’s view. To be sure, Paul always expected the parousia, but I find it very difficult to believe that his level of urgency and expectancy remained as high at the end of his life as at the beginning.

< § 11: The preexistent one

§ 13: The crucial transition >

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One Response to The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§12)

  1. Beth June 16, 2010 at 12:46 pm #

    Hey! Saw your blog today and really enjoyed your thoughts on the apostle Paul. Thought you might be interested in a brand new prepublication offer from Logos Bible software on the book of Romans. Thanks and let me know if I can help in any way!

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