The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§18)

This week we turn the corner from five sections on “The Beginning of Salvation” to two sections on “The Process of Salvation”. While I’m most excited to read the next section on Israel, the process begins here, with “The eschatological tension.” Already / Not Yet, here I come …

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Chapter 6: The Process of Salvation

§ 18: The eschatological tension

We can see in an early letter (Galatians 3:3) and a later letter (Philippians 1:6) that Paul conceived of salvation as both an aorist event and a continuous process. While these two elements of salvation cannot be held strictly apart, there are some aspects of the process which require a closer look. In order to take that closer look, we need to understand Paul’s eschatological schema. In Hebrew thought, time had a beginning and an end (it was not a continuous cycle). Often times the end was associated with Messianic intervention. The early Christians saw Jesus, the Messiah, as the end of start of the age-to-come—but the old age still held on. This set up a tension. Between the time of Jesus’ first and second comings, believers live in an overlap of two ages. Paul’s perspective “was eschatological not because of what he still hoped would happen, but because of what he believed had already happened” (465, emphasis his).

This eschatological tension is best described by the words, “already” and “not yet”. The work of salvation has already happened but is not yet complete. We can see this already / not yet tension in many of Paul’s metaphors of salvation: redemption, freedom, inheritance, marriage betrothal, justification by faith, participation in Christ, metamorphosis, gift of the Spirit, adoption, installment, firstfruits, and baptism. Particularly in Romans, you can see how Paul oscillates between rejoicing in the already and anticipating the not yet.

Speaking of Romans, the already / not yet dialectic makes sense of Paul’s divided “I” speech in Romans 7:7-25. It has been the majority opinion of scholars (but not Augustine, Luther, or Calvin) that Paul’s struggle here relates to his pre-Christian life. There are a couple of problems with this:

  1. Paul takes too much space to look backwards to his pre-Christian life at this point in his exposition.
  2. It sounds and feels like the modern anguish of being saved but still tempted.
  3. It is confusing to hear Romans 7:25b after the supposed solution of Romans 7:24-25a.
  4. The present tense of 7:25b means it is an ongoing state.

It is better, then, to view the divided “I” passage of Romans as Paul’s expression of the already / not yet tension. To view it as Paul’s past life would unrealistically suggest that post-salvation sin is impossible.

As we move from Romans 7 to chapter 8, we see Paul’s “trump card” (478). Believers are caught between life according to the flesh and life according to the Spirit. The Spirit is the key force in the process of salvation. The Spirit is referred to as the “first installment” and “firstfruits” of what is to come. While it is easy to read a passage like Romans 8:2-9 in isolation, assuming flesh-men and spirit-men are two separate groups of people, it makes more sense to view the believer as both in the eschatological tension. The fullness of Spirit-life will happen at the resurrection of the body. To sum up, Romans 7 and 8 have to be read together as alternate ends of the already / not yet tension. The believer is struggling on both sides.

One final shocking feature of Paul’s eschatological tension: the process of salvation is an experience of both life and death. In the same way that we are raised with Christ, we also (in the perfect tense) are knit together with the likeness of his death (Romans 6:5). In the famous “thorn in the flesh” passage (2 Corinthians 12:-10), Paul argued that God’s grace is found not in supernatural experiences, but in suffering. In a very real sense, the believer’s suffering is a participation in the suffering of Christ. This is why Paul could rejoice in suffering (Colossians 1:24). When believers suffer, they are filling up what is lacking in Jesus’ suffering. Until all suffering is through, the final outworking of Jesus’ passion is incomplete. This theme comes to focus in Philippians 3:10-11 where Paul speaks of knowing Jesus in the fellowship of his sufferings after speaking of the power of his resurrection. Both life and death are necessary elements of the process of salvation.

The process must come to an end. Justification, participation in Christ, the gift of the Spirit, baptism, and all the other metaphors must find their final fulfillment. This end-point of salvation is described by Paul in three main elements:

  1. The Resurrection of the Body: This is his description of the end which draws most of the process themes together.
  2. The Final Judgment: Although Paul inherited this belief from his Jewish background, it is no less important for Christians. Those who have a foundation of Christ but live according to the flesh will have that burned away and be saved by the skin of their teeth (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
  3. Inheriting the Kingdom: This element is more often used in the negative—some will not inherit the kingdom. Those who will inherit already have the down-payment of the Spirit.

There are seven areas where the already / not yet tension can inform Christian life today:

  1. The Spirit is the definition of a Christ, and is given at the beginning of new life.
  2. Spiritual maturity is not found in ecstatic experiences, but in faithfulness to the Spirit.
  3. The believer lives in an overlap of two ages and is not fully free from the old age.
  4. The eschatological tension allows us to understand suffering in the context of Christ’s suffering.
  5. The eschatological tension informs our ethics: daily choices must be made.
  6. Apostasy remains a possibility for believer living in the overlap of two ages.
  7. In the end, all the negativity of the old age is left in the wake of a growing confident trust.

When all clarification and qualification have been run through, the gospel once again can be reduced to its basic components—the love of God, and love for God.

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What a brilliant chapter! Have you ever read something that impacted your worldview so much you could almost feel the foundation of your mind grinding into place? That’s the sort of power a deep understanding of already / not yet entailed for me. Of all the chapters in this volume so far, this is the one I’ll return to the most—especially for its theology of suffering.

I do have to mention one qualm, though. Dunn used the first point in his conclusion (The Spirit is the beginning of new life) to take pot-shots at “second blessing” types. He suggests that they believe the Spirit only arrives at a subsequent baptism event. Here Dunn has fallen to the old straw-man problem. I don’t know of anyone in pentecostal or charismatic circles who would suggest that salvation begins without the Spirit! That said, it’s a very minor point at the end of stunning chapter.

< § 17: Baptism

§ 19: Israel >

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