Finding the Apostle Paul

Paul gets bashed a bit these days as more and more Christians realize the anchor of their faith is Jesus. But all orthodox Christian faith is at the same time rooted in the biblical witness and not just historical methods. Biblical faith deals with Paul because Paul’s letters — thirteen of them in traditional counting — not only take up lots of pages in your New Testament but his mission and message shaped 1st Century Christianity at deep levels.

Which of these readings of Paul do you think is most like Paul, or most accurate? Why do you think Paul has “fallen out of favor” with so many today? Why do you think others make Paul so central, even more central than Jesus/Gospels?

Biblical faith, then, deals with Paul. Careful readers of Paul’s letters know that there are some major, major disagreements over how to interpret Paul. So the question is not Jesus have I loved, Paul have I known, but which Paul? Last week we sketched the 1st chp in Michael Bird’s edited volume, The Apostle Paul, another Zondervan Counterpoints book. That chp represents a Reformed, or Calvinist, reading of Paul. Today we look at Luke Timothy Johnson’s study of Paul. Three quick facts: Johnson is Catholic; he is one of the most prolific and significant NT scholars; his sketch of Paul may be Catholic but it shows that when it comes Catholicism, Paul’s letters are not the primary source for creating Catholic distinctives. So, in the end, this is the historian’s Paul, the Paul who emerges from the canonical letters who also thinks — contra many in the academic guild — Paul wrote all thirteen letters.

1. Too many of those who sketch Paul’s theology limit the evidence: he was not a systematic thinker; each letter emerges in context and in contact with issues at hand for his mission; there was a school around Paul; Paul prefers personal relationship and communication.

2. Those who find a “center” in Pauline theology are mistaken, and here he pushes against finding it in Epicureanism, Stoicism, Palestinian Judaism, or apocalyptic — or his struggle with the law or the narrative theology of the new perspective. If we consider all letters, we don’t have a center but themes of a missional apostle.

3. Johnson thinks we have to find the matrix of personal religious experience, the religious experience of his readers, and the compex of traditions and practices already in play at the time of Paul.

4. Christology: an exceptional sketch of Paul’s christology, focusing not so much on Christ as on Lord but it all begins with the resurrection. Holy Spirit is prominent in this sketch. Jesus’ resurrection was an eschatological event. Jesus has representative significance.

5. Cross: a scandal for the Jews; supreme sign that God did not spare his Son, was a sacrifice for sin; an expression as well of Jesus’ faith in God and love for others. It is about his faithful obedience. And the cross is a pattern for human behavior: cruciformity.

6. Salvation: it is accomplished by God and it is not about the accidents of life but basic existential existence; his death was not primarily liberation from systemic powers but from sin and sinfulness. Nanos’ response pokes Johnson for inconsistency here since the remaining portions of this chp seem to move in a more social, if not political, direction.  He’s not a proponent of the empire theorists today. Salvation does not just rescue but transforms. The language of salvation explores five different metaphors, none of which is sufficient but each of which is adequate and pointing us to the fuller realities of salvation: diplomatic, economic, forensic, cultic, kinship. He sees an inaugurated salvation: here and not fully complete yet. But salvation is social in that it ushers people into the new community. Schreiner’s response calls out Johnson for a lack of attention to the grace of God and to the importance of faith for justification and to Johnson’s emphasis on corporate (not individual) election.

7. Church: the local assembly; mostly Gentile churches; sketches leadership in elders and superintendents and servants… more than a voluntary association but derives from the call of God. Paul dealt with boundaries over against both Gentile/Roman world and Jewish world. Jewish believers follow Torah; Gentiles believers need not. Paul had egalitarian ideas that crashed at times against social realities, and Douglas Campbell thinks Johnson needs to work more on this element of his chp as Campbell thinks the social tensions arise in the non-Pauline letters.

Surprisingly, hardly a thing on eucharist or baptism.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.debatingobama.blogspot.com greg metzger

    What did you think, Scot, of what he wrote? Did you see Johnson’s critique of Pagels’ Revelation book in recent Commonweal? Good stuff.

  • http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    There’s another great book on Paul, Neil Cole’s ‘Journeys to Significance’. Its content is not primarily theological, it’s a study of Paul’s life focussing on the things he learned about sharing the good news and planting churches and about himself. What fails, what works, what lasts.

    It was a good read, one of those books I enjoyed very much. But useful too.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I must say, your sketch feels like home to me, particularly the Salvation bullet.

    Wright introduced me to the representative nature of the Resurrection, and now I see it everywhere in the epistles. I wish I had seen that as I grew up a RC, instead I saw it as a magic event that happened to Jesus, not the first time it happened to one of ours.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Well, before I look at Luke Timothy Johnsons’s Catholic perspective (one by the way I really appreciate), I have a few of my own questions on the focus of these four books series.

    1. Why are the Eastern Orthodox voice typically not considered? Unless one has the fallacious idea that Pauline theology and studies of EO’s and RC’s are identical, I think they would add a whole new dimension to many of the topics the four series discuss.

    2. Why all the focus on Paul? Has others considered that Luke wrote practically half the NT with his two long tomes (Luke and Acts). Why not Luke as a biblical interpreter of the early church?

    Okay, coming back to Johnson . . . Johnson seems to posses a broader Christological focus than Schreiner. Johnson pays close attention to the pastoral “ad hoc” situations and Paul’s strategies in dealing with them. As I look at Douglas Campbell’s critique of Johnson, Campbell has a kind of post-colonial or very posmodern edge to his concerns. I’m not sure what all the differences and “post” new perspective means for Campbell, but one I knew in advance is his greater concern in intepreting “Israel” in a more positive light (a critigue for example that some post-liberals have made of N. T. Wright still not going far enough in losing all traces of replacement theology or negative interpretations of Israel).

    Now I am realizing that Campbell also has a postmodern concern for the excluded and marginalized (a kind of liberation theology for the excluded). So whether it is women, immigrants, or the LGBT community, I am understanding better I believe what Campbell’s “post” means. Going beyond Paul or NT ethics progressively to our new situations or “sitz em laben” of our day.

    If Schreiner and Johnson are different over translations of faith and how that relates to the ecclesia, it seems to me that Campbell and Nanos would be more in agreement that Johnson does not read Israel in enough positive light. The whole history of anti-judaism and supersessionism still plagues the church today in many forms. The Catholic Church has done many proactive things in more recent history concerning all this but wearing new lenses that sees the Scriptures as still a Jewish book has been very difficult for most Gentile interpreters of Scripture.

  • Craig Beard

    Speaking of Paul . . . I’m going to drop a related question in among the other comments. Scot, are you familiar with “A Polite Bribe” ? If so, what do you think about it?

  • scotmcknight

    CGC, can you tell me who you’d invite for EO on Paul?

  • CGC

    Hi Scot,
    First off, I was thinking on the fur views books those like baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the Doctrine of God. It utterly amazes me that the EO’s are not even considered in these discussions. As to who I would invite as an EO on Paul would be Theodore G. Stylianopoulos. I read his “The New Testament: An Orthodox Perspective” several years ago and I was amazed at the richness and depth of this book. This is probably one of the best books I have read on Scripture, Tradition, and biblical hermeneutics. For an excellent reading of Paul, see his “Encouraged by the Scriptures.” It used to be true that EO’s really did not engage biblical scholarship but those days are fortunately over.

  • Cole Smith

    I believe that one of Paul’s secretes of Christian power and “success” is revealed in his attitude about his body’s frailty. In his 2nd letter to the Corinthians He says that he was overly gladdened and found pleasure in his ailments (same word John uses to describe the man waiting at the pool). In fact, Paul adds “…insults, needs, persecution, and distress ( 12:10-11). Say what? By today’s standards, we Christians (if we’re honest) would say “He’s out of his mind!” After all, who in his right mind wants aches and pains and insults as a steady diet? We have an obligation to care for our health but not to obsess over it. What’s Paul’s obsession? “I relish in my infirmities so that Christ’s power (dynamite) is the overshadowing influence making me strong (for His purposes). I’m not there. Still too much of me…


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