Monday, December 19, 2011

Beker on Paul's Theology

J. C. Beker’s Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought is a seminal description of Paul’s theology as fundamentally apocalyptic. Beker is emphatic that Paul’s gospel is not an individual message of salvation, but much more:
The gospel is not primarily an intrapsychic phenomenon that limits itself to the conversion of individual souls climbing out of a lost world into the safety of the church, like drowning people climb aboard a safe vessel. Rather the gospel proclaims the new state of affairs that God has initiated in Christ, one that concerns the nations and the creation. (8)
Unlike Acts, which highlights Paul’s conversion (Acts 9.1-19; 22, 26), “conversion” is not a major theme of Paul’s theology. Rather, Paul only speaks of his “calling” as a prophet taking the early Christian mission to the Gentiles (esp. Gal 1.15-16). Thus, Beker concludes that Paul’s thought is not shaped chiefly by his “conversion experience,” but rather his “hermeneutic.”

By “hermeneutic,” Beker does not mean the way Paul interprets scripture. Instead, it refers to “the constant interaction between the coherent center of the gospel and its contingent interpretation” (11). Here we get to what Beker is most often famous for; his description of Paul’s thought as both coherent and contingent. As he puts it, “Paul is neither a rationalistic dogmatist nor a Mishnaic traditionalist; nor is he an opportunistic compromiser or a thoughtless charismatic. Rather, he is able to make the gospel a word on target for the particular needs of his churches without either compromising its basic content or reducing it to a petrified conceptuality” (12). So what is the coherent center of Paul’s gospel, and how does it interact with the contingent needs of his churches?

As Beker sees it, the coherent center of Paul’s thought is the “symbolic structure” or “language in which Paul expresses the Christ-event” (15), and this language is thoroughly apocalyptic. Thus, Paul uses a range of symbols within this apocalyptic structure, including righteousness, justification by faith, being in Christ, freedom, adoption etc. All of these symbols are contingent expressions of Paul’s apocalyptic gospel suited for a particular situation. Thus, Beker argues, “the character of Paul’s contingent hermeneutic is shaped by his apocalyptic core in that in nearly all cases the contingent interpretation of the gospel points—whether implicitly or explicitly—to the imminent cosmic triumph of God” (19).

Beker’s initial chapters beg many questions. For example, what exactly does he mean by the slippery word “apocalyptic”? How does this contingency and coherence play out in Paul’s letters themselves? How might describing Paul’s thought as “apocalyptic” solve perennial problems in Pauline theology? I will post more on both contingency and coherence as I work through Beker, but I will say that his basic argument that Paul’s theology has a coherent framework in contingent expressions seems quite accurate

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