In this Counterpoints series from Zondervan, Michael Bird edited this volume which includes four views from Pauline scholars: Thomas R. Schreiner, Luke Timothy Johnson, Douglas A. Campbell, and Mark D. Nanos. The Counterpoint series is always a helpful in exposing readers to a diversity of perspectives on any given issues, and Four Views on the Apostle Paul is no exception.
Hotly debated today, below is a summary of the four perspectives presented, looking specifically at four aspects of Paul’s theology: 1) Paul’s thought; 2) The centrality of Christ; 3) Paul’s view of salvation; 4) Paul’s vision of the church; followed by a brief critique of the strengths and weaknesses of each view.
Thomas R. Schreiner
Paul’s thought, according to Thomas R. Schreiner, lies in the “already but not yet character of his eschatology,” (22) that is to say that the “new exodus, the new covenant, and the new creation have arrived in Christ,” whilst simultaneously maintaining that it has “not been consummated” (21).
Concerning the centrality of Christ, Schreiner points out that Christ is certainly the heart and soul of Pauline theology (22), and that he fulfills Old Testament prophesy,” and that it was God’s “purpose to unite all things in history in Christ” (27)—everything from early church sacraments and liturgy, to the good news of his cross points to and centers on Jesus Christ; he is supreme, God, creator, Lord, and our life (Col 3:4) (23–26).
In regards to Paul’s view of salvation, it is quintessentially a salvation that is Christ–centered, that is, salvation is understood through a Christological lens as being a prophesy fulfilled and a mystery revealed that entails an already but not yet aspect to it (27)—it is the revelation of God’s great gift of grace seen in the sacrificial death of Christ to atone for the sins of all those who would repent of their sins and place their trust in Christ (35) so as to escape the just wrath and judgment of God and at the same time be united to Christ in his death (34) whereby they await the final redemption of their bodies (35), although enjoying justification and life in the Spirit through faith (40).
Concerning Paul’s vision of the church, the fundamental reality in the people of God is—once again—Christ (44); for she (the church) is the “true” Israel (41), comprised of all those who have trusted in “the cross of Jesus Christ for salvation instead of obedience to the law,”(41) thus sharing in the same faith as Abraham (41–42), existing as the temple (42–43), and the body of Christ (43), are ruled by the peace of Christ in their corporate interactions (45), so as to enshrine God’s saving plan, purpose, wisdom, and so function as the locus of God’s glory, as it is and continues to be rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ, her head and groom (46–47).
Critique of Schreiner
Regarding the strengths of Schreiner’s perspective on Paul, I was certainly helped by and appreciated the wide scope that he presented in his view of Paul—it was comprehensive and robust, entailing significant references to many different passages of the Pauline corpus—if anything this proved that Schreiner attempted to garner the full sense of Paul’s work and interact with it.
Another strength of Schreiner’s chapter was the Christological lens and focus of it: indeed for Paul, the framework of his thought, idea of salvation, and understanding of the church all hinges on the person and work of Christ (47).
Other strengths of Schreiner’s chapter were his comments on union with Christ, (34, 40) the “inaugurated eschatology,” (37) the wide meaning and “justification,” (40) and the church as the Israel of God (41). Since I maintain a lot of Schreiner’s perspective, there is not much that I can critique him for. The only “weakness” that I could pinpoint would be in certain emphases that Schreiner brought up, yet I am sure that they were done so for a reason, most probably in light of the competing views of Paul.
Luke Timothy Johnson
For Luke Timothy Johnson, the framework of Paul’s theology lies in what he refers to as the “gospel of God,” or the “gospel of Christ,” (73) which consists of “three religious realities” (72): firstly, central to Paul’s theology is his own, personal experience, which included his encounter with the risen Lord Jesus, as well as the reality of his mystical union with Christ (72–73); second, is the religious experience of Paul’s readers, who also had experienced the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and thus were also considered to be “in Christ” (1 Cor 1:2) (73); and the third reality was that of the “complex traditions and practices of the community already in place,” (73) which would include such practices as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the traditions of Jesus—it is into this context, or framework that, for Johnson, Paul is set apart from other first-century religious and philosophical literature (73).
The significance of Christ—in Johnson’s perspective on Paul—is certainly the center of Paul’s religious experience and the traditions in which he ministered (74), and is “richly complex,” however, what it vital is the resurrection of Christ; (Christ thus sharing in the presence and power of God) (74–75) the work of the Holy Spirit (75); Christ as the “last Adam,” and as a “life-giving spirit” (76); Christ as creator and divine (77); and finally the crucifixion, which functions as the “key hermeneutical lens for the interpretation of Torah,” (80) represents God’s power present in human weakness (80), expresses Jesus’ human character (80), and is given as a “pattern for community behavior.” (81)
For Johnson, the meaning of salvation fundamentally is wrapped up in two ideas: that of salvation as being “accomplished by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit,” not “something accomplished by humans by their own efforts” (82); and it entails a personal (as opposed to social) change “from a negative to a positive condition” (82) that is wrapped up in many metaphors throughout the NT (cf. 84–85), wherein its recipients are restored and elevated to a higher state of being (83), is a reality that is experienced “now” (85), yet it is “not fully realized” (86), for not just individuals but a “presently-being-rescued community.” (88)
Finally, concerning the role of the church, Johnson envisions believers gathering into “associations” common in Greco-Roman culture,” (89) that consisted not so much of a consistent structure (91), but that were called by God (91), simultaneously discontinuous and continuous with Judaism (92–93), who had as her source and guide the Holy Spirit (91), struggled with tensions in reconciling egalitarian ideals and social realities (95), yet was nonetheless both the body of Christ and a temple (95), in which their work was to reconcile humans to God (96).
Critique of Johnson
In terms of the strengths of Johnson’s view on Paul, I was truly edified by his emphasis on the religious experience found in both Paul and his readers (72–73). Johnson’s comments surrounding the “new creation,” and the eschatological significance of Christ was invigorating to read (76). Regarding the weaknesses of Johnson’s chapter, I did sense his lack of clarity—even absence—of talk surrounding the subject of faith as a short-coming in his view of Paul. Whilst “absent from the Corinthian and Thessalonian correspondence,” (71) faith in Christ as the basis for our union with him is a vital and dominating subject for Paul in the rest of his letters (Col 2:12; Gal 2:16; 3:26; Rom 3:22, 30; 4:13; 5:1; Eph 2:8; 3:12, 17; Phil 3:9; 2 Tim 3:15).
Furthermore, Johnson’s ecclesiology, I thought, was particularly weak in his presentation of polity, which apparently was exempt of any consistent structures (91). However, if we are to remove the apostolic presence (in the book of Acts at least), there does appear to be a clear and definitive pattern—which Paul himself refers to as “order” and “practice” (Tit 1:5; 1 Cor 11:16). And secondly, Johnson’s comments about Paul struggling to “reconcile egalitarian ideals and social realities” were unfounded and anachronistic; the timeless gospel remains timeless in the order and ethics that arise from it—none of them needing redefinition or remodelling in a modern age.
Douglas A. Campbell
For Douglas A. Campbell, the framework of Paul’s thought can be extracted from Rom 5–8, which consists of two principled arguments: the first, an eschatological argument wherein believers are placed within the narrative of Christ and partake of the new creation through the missional activity of the Trinity—rooted in divine love (122)—a “new creation that awaits its final revealing” (125); and the second argument—an ethical one—being that Christ, both his being and narrative, are said to be “determinative for all humanity…dominating the being and narrative of Adam,” (128) thereby enveloping all persons into this Trinitarian revelation of Christ as the superior narrative.
The meaning of Christ, then, is that he is “God acting in our world…[he] is intrinsic to the identity of God and vice versa,” (121) fundamentally through the act of redemption, an act of rescuing a hostile world, an act rooted in divine love that precedes human action (122), and that essentially is determinative for all humanity in its affect, subduing the narrative of Adam (128), securing all believers into the “brotherhood,” the community that shares in the image of Christ (124), who is the revelation of the Trinity’s being and identity (122).
Salvation, for Campbell is this very Trinitarian activity—the “revelation of the solution” (129)—wherein “Christ enters into a hostile world to rescue it” (122), as a gift (124), and who presents and brings about a “vastly superior” kingdom when compared to the “first one associated with Adam” (127).
Finally, regarding the church, Campbell envisions her existence as stemming from God’s gift of himself in Christ, which invariably “calls a community into existence, and the nature of this community simply follows from the nature of the God who created it” (124); they are—according to Campbell—“brothers,” all bearing the image of the resurrected Christ (124); living as a networked entity (125); with their behavior, inseparable from who they are (125); they are eschatological, participating in the “new creation,” whilst waiting for its final revelation (125); nevertheless existing as embodied beings that transcend earthly distinctions (125).
Critique of Campbell
Now concerning the strengths of Campbell’s chapter, I was enthralled by the depth and width of his cursory exposition of Romans 5–8. As much as this analysis was his strong point, it was also his downfall, for Campbell assumed too much of Rom 5–8, insisting that it was the crux and complete substance of Pauline theology. That being said, the theology of the “brotherhood” (124) was truly edifying; contemplating the rich biblical theology surrounding Christ’s narrative and being as being that narrative and being that believers are incorporated into is a wonderful reality.
Nevertheless, since his scope was too narrow, Campbell’s insistence that all are wrapped up in this superior narrative of Christ was also where he erred; for surely this incorporation is dependent on the electing—which by virtue assumes those not elected—love of God to be received by faith. Otherwise, Campbell’s strength lies in his narrative and biblical theological reading, which, if it had incorporated a wider scope of the Pauline corpus, would have been that much more beneficial.
A final critique of Campbell would lie in the flexibility of ethics that renders the Christian life as “free” and “diverse” (139). Campbell appears to contradict himself in that he states that the activities of the new community will “have a certain shape,” and be expressed in “new concrete possibilities,” (138) yet at the same time the “specifics may vary,” and be “rather free and flexible in specific terms” (138–139). How can ethics be simultaneously concrete and flexible? Surely the variety of ethical teaching from Paul arises from the occasional context of his letters? And that Paul had in mind “order” (Tit 1:5), “practice” (1 Cor 11:16), and the “obedience of the faith” (Rom 1:5, 16:26).
Mark D. Nanos
For Mark D. Nanos, central and vital to understanding Paul’s thought is a very important distinction that ought to be made between Jews and non-Jews, a distinction wrought in a “chronometrical” conflict over the meaning of Jesus: (179, 185) that is, that the Jews who followed Christ were to remain as Jews, both in identity and behavior, viz., they were to be Torah observing; on the other hand, the non-Jews existed as an “alternative within the wider parameters of first-century Second Temple Judaism” (179); thus, for Paul, his teaching to these two respective groups divided along the issue of “circumcision/proselyte conversion (the matter of “identity”)”, and “Torah observance (the “behavior” incumbent on those with Jewish/Israelite “identity”)” (182).
The reception and meaning of Christ, then, differed for each respective group: for the Jews, he was the promised one for Jews (16), who were still under covenant; and for the non-Jews, Christ also brought about and extended mercy to Gentiles, who upon receiving Christ entered into “Jewish communal life and its culture,” however with no need to “becoming Jews” (192); they were nevertheless reconciled to the God of Israel through Christ (192).
Salvation, for Nanos, also separated along this Jew/Gentile line: for the Jews, as already noted above, Christ was the promised one for all those in covenant with the God of Israel, the new age had arrived with his death and resurrection (172), however Jews were to “remain Israelites and thus remain faithful to their covenant obligations,” (172) thereby representing Christ “by way of observing the Mosaic Covenant,” (173) for they were already in covenantal relationship with God; conversely, non-Jews were given the opportunity to be rescued and restored to the worship of the God is Israel (16), with “works of law” as referring (189).
Finally, for Nanos, the idea of the church, is also encapsulated with a divide among the Jew/Gentile line: Christ-believing Gentiles were to be integrated—as a sub-group (167)—within Jewish communities, embracing Jewish life, but not Jewish identity (circumcision).
Critique of Nanos
Concerning the strengths of Nanos’ chapter, I was certainly helped by the Jewish perspective that in many ways served to balance my preconceived ideas and misconceptions. I was somewhat confused by his distinction between circumcision (proselyte conversion) and Torah observance (157). Whilst the two are indeed not synonymous, that one can have one but not the other is even refuted by Paul (cf. Rom 2:25–29).
Though it is helpful to view Paul as a Jew and to consider the Jewish context into which the church began, it is however very clear in my mind that Paul had certainly left Judaism—at least in the sense that Nanos infers he did not. Paul can refer to himself as considering all his “Jewish-ness” as filth—as dung!–when compared to Christ (Phil 3:8–9), he was also willing to “observe the law” in attempts to win over Jews (1 Cor 9:20)—what could this mean except that he did not see himself as under Torah? Indeed Galatians 2:11–14 clarifies this point again, suggesting that Paul insisted that the “Jews abandon the Torah for the sake of the Gentiles, so that the Gentiles would realize that salvation is not based on works of law.” (195)
It is to this reality that Nanos’ perspective of the church is also erroneous: she is not a sub-group of Gentiles who merely embraced Jewish culture (167), she is in fact the true and eschatological Israel (1 Cor 10:11; Eph 3:10), purchased by the blood of Christ on the cross (Col 1:20); a reality revealed to those whom Christ so desires (2 Cor 3:14). For the rest, a veil remains over their hearts (2 Cor 3:15).