Saturday, January 4, 2014

Did Paul invent Christian Theology?

In some down-time from PhD coursework I am reading N. T. Wright's long awaited Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG). I came across this striking claim,

One of the extraordinary achievements of Paul was to turn 'theology' into a different kind of thing from what it had been before in the world either of the Jews or of the pagans. One of the central arguments of the present book is that this was the direct result of a corollary of what had happened to Paul's worldview. Paul effectively invented 'Christian Theology' to meet a previously unknown need, to do a job which had not, until then, been necessary. (p 26, italics original)

This statement is in the larger context of Wright's argument that the study of Paul, or any ancient person, must be holistic. That is, one cannot simply explain Paul’s “theology” as a systematic collection of ideas as though Paul were simply a brain walking around on two legs (p. 28). This is a throwback to his argument in The New Testament and the People of God Part II (especially chapters 2–4) and makes an important point. When Wright speaks of “worldview” he clarifies that he wants to include social scientific studies while avoiding reducing Paul to a mere product of his culture, social imaginary, etc. In this way he posits a threefold hermeneutical spiral for Paul that includes worldview, theology and history (p. 23–24). Each is element is necessary for a “thick description” of Paul and no element can be avoided without reductionism.

In PFG, however, Wright goes further to make a specific claim about Paul’s role in creating Christian theology. It’s not entirely clear to me what exactly Wright means by “Christian theology” here, and his explanation of this claim is terse. However, I think that as Wright sees it, when Paul was confronted with fundamental “why” questions,“he had to speak of one particular God, and of the world, in a way nobody had before” (p. 27). Wright sees Paul doing something radically new with theology both in its content and its function within his larger worldview.

As Wright sees it, Paul’s theology is part of a new worldview, a revision of Jewish theology so radical in content that it came to a serve a new function in his worldview. Using the example of Philemon, Wright describes Paul’s unique worldview as it relates to “reconciliation”,

There is no sign that he is appealing to, or making use of, the symbols and praxis of his Jewish native world. Nor is he appealing to an implied world of social convention [. . .]. Nor is he drawing on any previously elaborated philosophical [. . . ] schemes of thought. He has stepped out of the Jewish boat, but not onto any hidden stepping-stones offered from within the non-Jewish world. He appears to be walking on the water of a whole new worldview. (p. 30)
Based on what Wright does here, it appears to me that Wright is saying Paul's invention of Christian Theology is a result of new theological content about God based on his experience of the risen Christ which raises theology to a new more central activity for those who claim to follow the risen Christ.

What do you think? Did Paul "invent" Christian theology? And if so, in what sense?


ἐκκλησία said...

The question of whether or not Paul spoke of one particular God, and of the world, in a way nobody had before is parallel to the question of whether or not Jesus acted out His monotheistic faith in one specific God with respect to the world in a way nobody had before. Given a God who is eternal, without shade, variation or hint of change - unlikely the 'newness' introduce by Paul and Jesus was substantial rather than qualitative.

Evidence of this can be seen in Jesus. Notwithstanding the role the Cross played with respect to completing the OT requirements for atonement, consider how Jesus confronted religion. When people look back to the religion of the Pharisees for example, and see a dead religion of works and assume that form of region was authentic Judaism, the religion given to Moses passed on to the Prophets. Yet Jesus did not address the the works themselves, rather He addressed the 'intention of the workers'. It was not wrong to tithe, suggested Jesus, it was wrong to tithe hypocritically (tithing dill and mint while ignoring the God-serving purpose behind these acts).

That the faith of the Pharisees was devoid of the Spirit of Life does not mean the faith bequeathed to and by Moses was. The faith the prophets embodied included the Spirit of God [Jud 14:6][Sam 16:13] but it departed [Isa 5:5] and was prophesied to return [Eze 37:26,28; 39:29].

So too - Paul's way of speaking of one particular God, and of the world, or even the Davidic Kingdom, may have reflected a long forgotten prophetic perspective, but it was not "new" even if it foreign of his generation. The point is that the Law was always spiritual [Rom 7:14], the Abrahamic promise and adoption [Rom 9:4], always set [Matt 15:24], the world always wicked [Gal 4:3], and God always Holy and True [Eph 1:4].

The prophets preceding Paul had to 'describe' Christian living to facilitate an understanding holiness within God's Davidic kingdom. Jesus provided a perfect example of this; one that Paul could reference, and did.

Therefore what Paul spoke was was not 'new' but 'renew'.

Unknown said...


I don't really know where to begin in responding to your comment, which I find problematic for a number of reasons. I assume you mean well and I hope my response will start a conversation rather than a fight, but I must respectfully disagree.

First, I think it is a mistake to say that Jesus "confronted religion" as though the particular embodiment of religious practice that he confronted was a wholesale rejection of "religion." This makes for nice slogans, but it's not accurate nor is it really helpful to label "religion" as a bad thing and Christianity as something else, superior and free from the trappings of "religion." Christianity is a religion. I simply don't see the value in using "religion" as a pejorative label. Furthermore, I certainly don't think Pharisees specifically or Second Temple Jews generally had "a dead religion of works." That is a modern misreading that has been rejected by careful scholarship but lingers in a lot of popular-level preaching and teaching.

Second, wholesale condemnation of the Pharisees is, I think, highly problematic. Paul after all was a Pharisee as were a number of early Christians according to Acts 15. Furthermore, early Christianity looks substantially like Second Temple Pharisaism.

Third, I take your point that Paul did not do something "new" but rather called for renewal, but there were lots of people in Paul's day calling for renewal. What made Paul different?

I don't know that I agree with Wright's argument that Paul "invented Christian Theology," and perhaps I have been clear enough about what Wright means, but I don't think your response is nuanced enough to adequately address the question. Furthermore, while Paul upholds Jewish scripture as "the oracles of God" he also has a theology that confronts large parts of the narrative. Paul is doing something new even if it isn't "Christian theology."

Patrick said...

Even if Paul is responsible for theology we would not have w/o his epistles, I'd conclude that Christ created the theology since He animated Paul's thinking("we have the mind of Christ").

Or, if Paul didn't exist, Jesus would have elected another hater/killer like Paul had been to get the beatific vision, be converted, be this wonderful servant and write this wonderful theology for us.

From the human viewpoint, someone had to go beyond what Jesus taught as He restricted His ministry to ethnic Israel and wrote nothing. We are dependent on flawed men to tell us what Jesus did say .

Anne Kanno (Sugano) said...

On another note, Paul may have came up with the idea to write using a technique that was used in the Hebrew scriptures in order to make his words more authoritative or scriptural sounding.

I've organized the New Testament books and letters into newly revealed parables, to replace the chapter, title, subtitle system. Though the texts don't appear to be parables, they are written in the same way the parable of the prodigal son has been written.

Paul's letters and the other New Testament books and letters were intentionally seamlessly written using a 5 section literary format.

I would like to post a color-coded example of the first parable of Romans here to show you what I am talking about, but I don't think color works in this comment area. Does it?

If you are interested, my website introduces the concept and shows some examples on the parables tab, but my books explain more details of course. (If I put all the details on my website, I won't be able to support myself.)

Anne Kanno (Sugano)