The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§25)

The end. Phew. In once sense I’m relieved that this epic study of Paul is finished. On the other hand, I suspect I’ll have to pick up another book by Dunn shortly. His formula of scholarship + passion + lucid writing is perfect. Here in the last chapter we’re going to wrap up the study and consider the whole of Paul’s theology one last time.

. . .

Chapter 9: Epilogue

§ 24: Postlegomena to a theology of Paul

As mentioned in chapter one, any study of Paul is a dialogue on three different levels:

  1. Paul’s dialogue with his inherited beliefs (Judaism)
  2. Paul’s dialogue with Jesus Christ
  3. Paul’s dialogue with his churches

The dialogue on every level was personal and passionate. Paul is no stuffy theologian—he interacts on many levels with his dialogue partners. When you add to these stated partners every theologian (including Dunn) throughout history who has put questions to Paul and received answers, the resulting theology can become massive. Dunn has tried his best to offer the fruit of his own dialogue with Paul over four decades. To conclude this theology, we’ll examine each of Paul’s three major dialogue levels in turn.

With Judaism. Paul remained in the faith of his ancestors more than most of his commentators give him credit for. His faith in Jesus was the fulfillment of his ancestral beliefs, not some different thing. We can see this when we look at how he handled the five major pillars of Second Temple Judaism.

  1. Monotheism. Paul never traded monotheism for tri-theism. He insisted that there was one God. The tension of how to understand Father, Son, and Spirit can be worked out within a monotheistic framework.
  2. Election. While Paul is given credit for breaking Christianity out of its Jewish mold, he still spoke positively about God’s choosing of Israel and her future.
  3. Torah. Paul’s interaction with Torah is evident throughout his theology. He revisits and reworks the role of the law but does not write it off wholesale.
  4. Temple. Paul used this element of Second Temple Judaism the least. Perhaps he followed what was happening in rabbinic Judaism by replacing Temple with and emphasis on scripture.

With Jesus. Jesus was the pivot point of Paul’s theology. He was the place on which everything—including the religion of his ancestors—swings around into a new direction. Now the God of his ancestors can only be known definitively in reference to Christ. Every element of Judaism is reinterpreted and refocused in Christ. Indeed, Christianity is Christ. If we wish to find a centre of Paul’s thought (such as the often suggested “justification by faith”), we can only find it in Christ. Of the three major ways Paul described the beginning of salvation, “In Christ” is the most prominent. The centre of Paul’s theology was not a static concept, but a living person.

Like any theologian, Paul’s emphases shifted as he matured. We can see four events that shaped his theology:

  1. His early preaching of the parousia to the Thessalonians shifted (it was not abandoned).
  2. The threat to the Galatian church caused him to emphasize his status as an apostle.
  3. The crisis in Ephesus between 1 and 2 Corinthians (esp. 2 Corinthians 1:8) caused him to develop a theology of suffering.
  4. The realization that he had completed a major part of his mission to the northeastern Mediterranean led him to pen his theology in a more comprehensive manner in his letter to the Romans.

With the Churches. Paul’s theology did not consist of abstract thought experiments. It was always wrapped in concern for local congregations. Even Romans, his most “systematic” letter, begins and ends with the practicalities of living as a Christian in this world. His interaction with his churches have produced many of the concepts and terms we take for granted now: “gospel,” “grace,” “love,” “body,” “flesh,” “charisma,” etc. He knew all too well the reality of living within the eschatological tension. Salvation is accomplished and awaiting completion. I’ll leave the last sentence of this series of summaries to Dunn:

Paul’s theology . . . was first and last an attempt to make sense of the gospel as the key to everyday life and to make possible a daily living which was Christian through and through. (737)

. . .

If The Theology of Paul the Apostle is the music of James Dunn, then this chapter was his Greatest Hits compilation. He used the rubric of dialogue levels to revisit key elements of the journey we’ve taken through Paul’s theology.

This experiment in summarizing a major work of theology has been challenging and enlightening. The practice has driven Paul’s theology far deeper into me than simply reading the text would have. By the number of visits these summaries have generated, I see it’s helped some of you too. I’d love to hear how you’re using these posts.

Thank you Dr. Dunn for sharing years of devoted reflection in one eminently readable and theologically stimulating package.

< § 24: Ethics in practice

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