The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§13)

We’re now turning the corner from Christology to Soteriology. (As I wrote that sentence, I had mental flash-backs to 8 a.m. Bible College classes. Thankfully, I’m far more interested in the subject matter now!) Let’s dive into God’s plan in Christ to save this world.

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Chapter 5: The Beginning of Salvation

§ 13: The crucial transition

The dilemma is clear. Humans are the beloved creation of God. However, we’re weak and inevitably enslaved by our passions. We even corrupted God’s good law. In Jesus, God summed up what it means to be human and dealt with sinful flesh by killing it. In his death, death was exhausted. So, how to we benefit from Jesus’ death?

  1. In Jesus there is an “epochal” shift from the age dominated by the power of sin and Jewish privilege to the new age lived in Christ.
  2. The transition from the old age to the new age must be echoed in human lives for it to be effective.
  3. This human transition takes place in two stages: it has a beginning, but is also an ongoing process. Chapter 5 will continue by looking at the beginning stage, while chapter 6 will examine its ongoing sense.

For Paul, salvation is always the initiative of God. That’s why he calls it grace (charis). In the OT, chen (grace, favour) was translated with charis (grace), while the far more frequent chesed (covenant faithfulness) is translated with eleos (mercy). While both OT words (chen & chesed) describe the action of a superior to an inferior, the former was one-sided while the second was more relational. It’s notable that Paul picked up on charis rather than eleos as the defining mark of the gospel. This is likely because his contemporaries would understand the idea of charis as a “favour” done by the state. Here are five features of Paul’s grace theology:

  1. Grace is a spontaneous and generous giving.
  2. Grace is the action of a powerful God.
  3. Grace for Paul is always singular because it has a singular source (God) and expression (the atonement).
  4. Grace is a unilateral expression that can never be sufficiently reciprocated.
  5. Grace is fully realized when the recipient becomes a vehicle of that grace to others.

Humanity’s membership (by default) is in Adam. The move to “in Christ” was an act that requires a decision. This is clear when we see the numerous times Paul asked his readers to remember the moment of their “conversion”. Maybe “conversion” isn’t the best word. Paul does use it in reference to the decisive act (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 1:9), but it’s not his customary language. He also avoids the use of “repentance” and “forgiveness”, despite their obvious prominence in the Synoptic tradition and in Acts. Paul focused more on the positive aspect of the decision: Paul called his people to faith.

Paul used a wide variety of metaphors to describe this coming-to-faith decision:

  1. Metaphors from customs: justification, expunging a record of dept, redemption, liberation, freedom, reconciliation, citizenship
  2. Metaphors from everyday life: salvation, inheritance, waking up, night to day, putting on and off clothes, receiving an invitation, writing a letter
  3. Metaphors from agriculture: sowing and watering, irrigation, pitcher of water poured out, grafting, harvest
  4. Metaphors of commerce: a seal of ownership, refining, building
  5. Metaphors from religion: saints, anointing, priestly service, circumcision, baptism, new creation
  6. Metaphors from major life events: abortion, becoming a father, giving birth, adoption, engagement with Christ, marriage with Christ, death

This vast kaleidoscope of images brings out the reality of the coming-to-faith decision for Paul. It also shows us that the coming-to-faith decision defies the simple categorization which is so prevalent in modern evangelicalism. The wide variety of metaphors suits a wide variety of experiences. We need to revel in the metaphors, not systematize them.

. . .

Wow. The last section of this chapter amazed me. I thought that I understood the metaphors of coming-to-faith: salvation, redemption, reconciliation, etc. I had no idea there were this many ways of speaking of it. I suppose I’ve been taught the “major” categories so frequently that I just assumed the other metaphors were somehow sub-sections of the important ones. I’ll leave you with an inspiring footnote: Dunn quotes Fitzmyer who quotes Richardson (in Dunn 333):

Paul offers us “not theories but vivid metaphors, which can, if we let them operate in our imagination, make real to us the saving truth of our redemption by Christ’s self-offering on our behalf. . . . It is an unfortunate kind of sophistication which believes that the only thing to do with metaphors is to turn them into theories.”

< § 12: Until he comes

§ 14: Justification by faith >

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