In The Theology of Paul the Apostle, James Dunn starts his first chapter with the following statement about Paul:
Paul was the first and greatest Christian theologian. From the perspective of subsequent generations, Paul is undoubtedly the first Christian theologian. Of course, all who think about and express their faith as Christians can quite properly be called “Christian theologians,” or at least be described as functioning theologically. But Paul belongs to that group of Christians who have seen it as part of their calling to articulate their faith in writing and to instruct others in their common faith, and who have devoted a considerable portion of their lives to so doing.1
This view of Paul has a long pedigree amongst Protestants, primarily for the reason of highlighting justification by faith as the center of Paul’s theological thinking. Particularly within the Reformed tradition, one can trace a set of ideas that Paul expresses in the letters that provide a systematic expression of Christian faith.
However, in recent years, this portrayal of Paul and his letters has come under fire by Biblical scholars who word from a social perspective. For instance, in Conflict and Identity in Romans, Philip Esler makes the following observation about the tendency in Biblical scholarship to read Paul as if he is a theologian:
Paul did not restrict himself to the ideational dimensions of being a follower of Christ, nor did he produce systematic treatises of “theology,” and it is therefore anachronistic to describe him as a “theologian.” It is difficult not to gain the impression that to refer to Paul as a “theologian” serves the useful social purpose pose of enrolling him as an honorary member of the same club to which those who wield such designations already belong.2
Undergirding the social perspective on Paul is the idea that Paul’s letters were intended to address particular situations. In their mind, they are like an academic lecture on a particular topic, but a more pastoral response to exigent circumstances. While this style of reading Paul doesn’t necessarily deny anything that can be assembled into theological content that can describe what Paul believed, it highlights the situatedness of Paul’s communication.
But to draw an analogy, the difference between seeing Paul’s letters as presenting theology vs. a response to circumstances in Paul resembles a tension that more generally exists in the psychological and social sciences: can we define people according to a set of enduring traits, emotions, habits, thoughts, etc. or should we highlight the role of circumstance in what people think, say, feel, and do? In social psychology, one of the first things that are taught to students is the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is the tendency to overstate dispositions in explain people’s behaviors while underlooking the role of situation. Similarly, in the study of anxiety, there are distinctions that are made between trait anxiety and state anxiety.
The tension between enduring characteristics and situational exigencies can be described as not being any sort of ontological “way things are” but rather the default approach we take to as people to explain other people. “Traits” and “circumstances” don’t exist in some real, ontological sense, but are rather a way of making sense of patterns. But the two approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive. If we recognize that enduring characteristics have a tendency towards overgeneralization and interpretations of situational exigences have a tendency for undergeneralization, we can come to an approximate synthesis of these two approaches: enduring characteristics are those thoughts, feelings, words, and actions that reproduce itself in more diverse circumstances. This approach does “favor” the enduring characteristic approach, but it recognizes that there is a set of circumstantial constraints that determine when and how the characteristic will be expressed.
To bring this to the particular question about Paul and theology, we can ask a fundamental question: to what extent are Paul’s letters expressing ideas of enduring characteristics? If Paul is expressing theological ideas that are used and explained in various circumstances, then the possibility remains that we can see Paul’s letters as being theological. This would then lead us to the question of communicative intention and purpose in the letter: does Paul intended his audience to take the ideas that he is expressing to be applied more generally, or is he only address the specific circumstances? If so, are these ideas about God? On the other hand, if there is not an enduring core to his communication, then Paul’s letters can not be adequately described as theology.
There is one major epistemological constraint on this project, however. In virtue of extending the perspective of modern social science to the study of Paul, we are using a framework of explanation that works upon a larger quantity of observations and data. Whether dealing with an individual person or a large society, the explanatory frameworks of modern social science require a lot of ‘information’ of a wide sample before they become reliable. We do not have that from Paul. In the approximately three decades of Paul’s life as a follower and apostle of Jesus Christ, we have anywhere from seven to fourteen letters depending on how narrow or broad one considers Paul’s authorship to be in the New Testament. Then, we have the books of Acts that presents some biographical data, depending on how much reliability one attributes to it. Even if one has a maximalist approach, what we have from Paul is a very small set of “snaphots” from his life.
Further complicating matters is that some of Paul’s letters seem to be addressing same or similar circumstances. For instance, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians and maybe Phillipians all seem to be written to address the circumstances created by divisions between Jews and Gentiles, including the role of the Torah which was the most salient dividing line between them. While the circumstances for each of these letters are somewhat different, they all share very similar situations. While exegesis of these four letters can reveal a set of ideas that seem to endure across them, the question would still remain of to what extent those ideas should be considered ‘applicable’ to situations outside of ethnic tensions. Similarly, 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians address the same congregation that is influenced by Greco-Roman wisdom, particularly philosophy, and the socially competitive spirit of the Greco-Roman world that influenced the pursuit of wisdom. For instance, should Paul’s discourse about God in Christ reconciling the world to Himself in 2 Corinthians 5.19 be taken as a central key to Paul’s theological thinking? Or, is the language of reconciliation primarily used in response to the competitive, agonistic culture that is influenced the Corinthian’s response to their teachers, including Paul?
In other words, a more inductive, semi-empirical approach to determine the theological nature of Paul’s letters is not doable. This does not mean, however, that the question is left unanswerable, but rather that we are going to need to take a closer look from another angle that the typical, information-driven, implicitly foundationalist, approach of Biblical scholarship. A more abductive explanation that provides a coherent account of Paul’s letters individually and in the aggregate can provide us a different way of approaching the question.
However, the problem with abduction is that our appeal to the best explanation is limited by the type of explanations we are aware of and can appeal to in the first place. If a person looks out and sees the ground is wet, but for some reason has no prior knowledge about dew and the condensation process, they will be limited to explaining the wet ground to rain. Put differently, abduction is more appropriately described as an appeal to the best *available* explanation.
Since we are talking about Paul’s letters and whether they possess an enduring theological meaning, we are addressing the phenomena of cognition. But the two sides of the debate implicitly and unconsciously structure the cognition of Paul in one of two forms. Theological interpreters typically consider Paul’s letters to provide ideational or propositional content, whereas social interpreters of Paul implicitly frame the meaning of his letters in terms of goals and purposes that emerge from the circumstance. Both the representational and utilization forms of cognitive thinking are a part of our cognitive repertoire, but there is another form of cognition that serves as a functional link between representation and utility that is known as expectations. Expectations emerge as the result of the construal of our circumstances through the usage of our ideational-conceptual resources to make implicit predictions of outcomes that then generate responses to either ensure or alter the expected outcomes.
I want to suggest at this point that Paul’s letters can be more adequately made sense of within the framework of expectations: both his own expectations about God and what he deems to be the good and problematic expectations of his various audiences. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 1-4, Paul addresses the false expectations that the Corinthians have of their human teachers as teachers of wisdom, whereas it is actually God who is the Teacher of wisdom in Jesus Christ and through the Spirit who collaboratively inspires the various teachers. Or, in Romans 7, Paul addresses the false expectations that some Jews may have had about the effectiveness of the Torah to make people righteous; Paul instead appeals to the Spirit and Christ as those who enable human righteousness in Romans 8. This similar theme of expectation in relation to righteousness gets expressed in Galatians 5:5: “through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” Then, in Romans 1.18-32 Paul deals with the Jewish expectations of judgment against a pagan society, to then surprisingly turn that narrative of judgment against Jews who act in similar ways in the next chapter, which we might consider motivates the Corinthians to consider adopted a different eschatological narrative of God’s faithfulness as ultimately expressed in Romans 8.31-39.
I give these samples from three of Paul’s letters not to decisively prove my case, as that is impossible given the relative paucity of data, but demonstrate that trying to explain Paul’s discourse in terms of cognitive expectations about God, Torah obedience, teachers, etc. can serve as a fitting abductive explanation of some of the material. Furthermore, appeal to cognitive expectations can give an account for the eschatological material that is strewn throughout all of Paul’s letters.
If Paul’s letters are primarily addressing specific expectations, most particularly about God and those beings or things that come from God as in Jesus, the Spirit, Torah, etc., then we have a basis for interpreting Paul’s letters as theological, but not in a simplistic, systematic sense. Rather than providing an overarching, representational sketch of God and other theological events like justification, sanctification, glorification, etc., Paul engages more so with the expectations of what God is doing and will continue to do in the narrative of human redemption. Justification isn’t about some idea of being forgiven by God as much as it is about God’s forgiveness bringing human life into a distinctively different life-arc through their faith. Rather than the Holy Spirit as the intellectually necessary explanation for human faith and understanding of God, the Spirit is the expected agent of transformation in the various events of believer’s.
It is here where I propose that we can find a reliable, enduring cognitive thinking that permeates Paul’s letters individually and aggregately that is not as reliably present in the ideational interpretations of Paul’s theology. Paul’s expectations have been radically changed in light of the revelation of Jesus Christ to him such that his expectations are saturated in the full narrative of Jesus Christ’s teachings, baptism, trial, death, resurrection, and glorification and the Holy Spirit who is the vital link between believers and Christ. God’s actions in creation are directed towards a specific, eschatological telos, which Paul expects to be understood through the pattern of God’s righteousness as made known in Jesus Christ.
With this in tow, I would then suggest that the aspects of the circumstance of Paul’s discourse can be observed in the various implications and offshoots of this core set of theological expectations. Theological ideas such as justification by faith are not the core of Paul’s theology, but rather they help to explain the way God as known in Jesus Christ is at work in specific circumstances, such as addressing the role of Torah.
Furthermore, since the cognitive expectations we hold are largely influenced by our experiences and interpretations of the past, this account also provides an integral role to history, particularly the history as outlined in Israel’s Scriptures. The Old Testament Scriptures are seen as being fulfilled in Christ, which fits within an expectation-realization scheme of cognition. But these expectations do not mere from an ideational reading of the Old Testament that gives a specific, precise representation of what will happen in the future, but rather the very character of God as seen in His actions and relations with Israel is “pregnant” with Christ. Jesus as the image of God is the prototype/πρωτότοκος of humanity (Col. 1.15). Jesus is the promised seed of Abraham (Gal. 3.16). Jesus is the rock that followed Israel in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10.4). The story of creation, Abraham’s promise, and Israel’s journeys are “pregnant” with Jesus Christ, even though he is not being directly described by the passages. These narratives of God’s actions and promises provide the broad shape and contour God’s nature that provides the expectations for what is realized in Jesus Christ. While Paul’s coming to Christ did not develop in linear progression from interpreting the narrative leading to the emergence of expectations that he then recognizes as fulfilled in Christ, this pattern of cognitive expectations nevertheless provides an explanation for how Paul conceives of the relationship of Israel’s Scriptures to Jesus Christ.
So, are Paul’s letters theology? I would say yes, if we are talking about theology in terms of theological expectations. They are not a systematic exposition on a set of overarching, representational ideas about God, but rather they express a core of expectations about the nature of and shape of God’s redeeming action in Jesus Christ through the Spirit. It is this core that determines the more ideational/propositional content of his letters that are expressed in response to various, circumstantial exigencies. Put in metaphysical terms, Paul’s expectations fit within a particular understanding of God’s agency and human, experiential phenomenon, rather than the Hellenistic categories of substance and essence.3