The Theology of the Apostle Paul | James D. G. Dunn (§19)

Ah, the moment I’ve been waiting for. The question I’ve never been able to understand: now that the Gentile mission has flourished, what about the Jewish people? This question is exacerbated by the prophetic fervor that has gripped my tradition ever since Israel became a political player on the world scene. I’m excited to how Dunn synthesizes Paul’s view of his own people.

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Chapter 6: The Process of Salvation

§ 19: Israel

It seems odd to read the beautiful climax of Romans 8, only to be thrust into the lengthy anguish-ridden argument of 9-11. A closer look at Romans reveals that this is not just an add-on to his theology, but a necessary question to answer. Back in Romans 3:1, Paul asked a question that he could not answer until this point in his argument: What advantage is there in being a Jew if God’s righteousness is extended to everyone? Let’s pause to look at God’s righteousness and faithfulness here. If God’s work with Israel is through, then his commitment to Israel (his faithfulness / righteousness) has failed! Secondly, if God’s righteousness to Israel has failed, who is to say he will keep faith with the Gentiles?

We can begin to unravel these problems by examining Paul’s point in Romans 9:6: Not all from Israel are Israel. There’s a subtlety here that’s easily missed. Earlier in Romans, Paul spoke of the Jew. Here he continues to use that term, but adds the additional term, Israel. They are not strictly synonymous.

  1. Jew: A description of Paul’s people according to their relationship to land.
  2. Israel: A description of Paul’s people according to their relationship with God.

Dunn states this clarification perfectly:

It is not possible to include “Greeks” within “Jews”; that is simply a confusion of identifiers. But it might be possible to include “Gentiles” within “Israel.” (506)

Indeed, a church which does not understand its identity as part of Israel has forsaken its claim to the Jewish scriptures. Once again, the eschatological tension rears its head. Just as, on an individual level, Paul could speak of the divided “I” in chapter 7, he can speak, on a corporate level, of the divided “Israel” here.

It’s easy, upon reading Romans 9:6, to jump to the conclusion that Paul is setting the Jews over against the Christians. Another alternative is that Paul is setting historic Israel over against remnant-Israel. Both opinions cut short the intricacy of Paul’s theological argument. For Paul, historic Israel is not defined by physical descent (Ishmael was not chosen), but by God’s call. His call is not made on the basis of works since Jacob was chosen over Esau from the womb. This opens the door to a doctrine of election which entails double predestination. Paul walks (uncomfortably for us) down that road (Romans 9:18), but doesn’t push too far. Despite God’s ability to do with his created vessels as he wills, the strongest note of his will is ultimately mercy. Indeed, Paul calls the elect “vessels of mercy” (Romans 9:24). These vessels, defined only by God’s call, include a remnant of historic Israel as well as chosen Gentiles. Israel itself is living in the eschatological tension between what it was and what it will be.

Paul continued by explaining what true Israel means for historic Israel. He used Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 30:12-14 to make his case. It’s important to keep the already explored perspective of Paul’s view of the law. We must not read Romans 9:30-10:4 in a way that places law and faith on completely opposite poles. It was the law as Israel’s guardian angel that has come to an end. Paul’s use of Deuteronomy 30:12-14 is keeping in line with other Jewish expositors. Baruch refers to the law as divine Wisdom. Philo refers to it as the good. Paul understands the law in terms of faith. In the end, the historic division between Jew and Gentile amounts to nothing (Romans 10:12). Historic Israel is left caught between the times.

Paul begins Romans 11:1 with a revisited question and a strong answer: Has God rejected his people? No! In fact, the very question evokes themes prevalent in the Jewish Bible. The continuity of the people God foreknew remains unbroken. In a way, the oscillation between apostasy and belief is such a feature of Jewish life, this current time is not a surprise. In the mystery of divine election, God has chosen, at this time, to harden the majority of Israel. This hardening even has some positive features:

  1. It’s not permanent.
  2. It allows the Gentiles to enter God’s salvation.
  3. The Gentiles will provoke Israel to jealousy so they will return.

Paul uses the classic Israelite metaphor of an olive tree to wrap up his thoughts. Because of disobedience, God has broken off some of the branches of Israel to graft in believing Gentiles. It’s still one and the same tree.

Paul brought his argument to climax in Romans 11:25-26. In place of the former trilogy of Israel, the elect, and the rest (Romans 11:7), you have Israel-partially-hardened, the full number of the Gentiles, and all Israel. In the end, the Israel ripped apart by the eschatological tension will be healed. Israel, including Gentiles called by God and grafted into the olive tree, will be saved.

It’s worth noting that Paul returned to his Jew/Gentile discussion in Romans 15:7-13. There we see four features of his theology:

  1. Paul moved from the weak/strong discourse to the Jew/Gentile discussion on the theme of “welcoming”.
  2. The continuity of Israel is emphasized.
  3. The integration of other nations with Israel is emphasized.
  4. The radical inclusiveness of Paul’s vision is emphasized.

This section of Romans is personal and passionate, since Paul—apostle to the Gentiles—is talking about his own people, the Jews. It’s a sad commentary on Christianity through the ages that Paul’s redefinition of Israel has been ignored. That we speak in terms of Jews and Christians is proof of this. The modern church would be wise to revisit and deeply understand Paul’s vision of what it means to be part of the people of God.

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This section on Israel is essentially a theological commentary on Romans 9-11 (with an addendum of Romans 15:7-13). Very few other works in Paul’s corpus are mentioned. Dunn essentially applies the already/not yet tension he developed in the last chapter to the state of Israel. Israel is living, divided in the tension. Still, there is ultimate hope for her salvation.

< § 18: The eschatological tension

§ 20: The body of Christ >

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