When it comes to the New Testament, or even the Bible as a whole, there is very little agreement as to how to rightly interpret these texts. At all levels of Western society, lay people, clergy, and scholars, there is little agreement as to the history, reliability, significance, and meaning of the Biblical canon. Amongst academic scholars, many foundational questions are asked: How historically accurate is the Old Testament? Is minimalism or maximalism a better way to assessing its historicity? Who was Jesus? Did the Gospels really portray him accurately, or are the Gospels a combination of ad hoc traditioning and agendas? If the Gospels as a whole are not reliable, what material from the Gospels can we use to construct a reliable portrait of this engimatic teacher? For much of the Bible, many of the questions critical study routinely raise to the forefront are historical questions.1 This is in large part due to the type of discourse these texts have, the way people interpret them, and use those interpretations to make sense of the world: Historical narratives function to help us to make sense of why things are the way they are and/or the way things should be; hence the critical questions revolve around whether these narratives have the historical factuality that would legitimate their use for making sense of our existence.
However, the disagreements about the Apostle Paul take on a much different tone. While questions of history occasionally rise up, most of the disagreements over Paul relate to issues of meaning. The Lutheran reading of justification by faith and not be works as Paul’s center contrasts with the loosely affiliated readings of the New Perspective trio in EP Sanders, NT Wright, and James Dunn that attempt to situate Paul more within the Jewish context addresses questions of whether Paul should be considered as a Jewish thinker or as one who rejects Judaism. Related to this is the debate between the Lutheran Bultmannian, existential interpretations of Paul in contrast with the apocalyptic and cosmological interpretations2 of Paul by Schweitzer, Kasemann, Marytn, Campbell, etc.
However, if I may offer what stands at the center of these questions isn’t simply a divergence between Lutheran/Bultmannian interpretations vs. more historical readings of Paul. Rather, the disagreement relates more so to the complex style of Paul’s discourse, in which both classical Protestants and modern reinterpreters may find a launching for their interpretational programs. In short, Paul is a systematizing, paradigmatic thinker attempting to make sense of and provide an understanding of the traditions of the early followers of Jesus in the narratives about Jesus, the way of life Jesus followers were to have, and the rituals of initiation and maintenance.3 On the one hand, classical Protestant readings of Paul have portrayed his letters as containing central, paradigmatic idea(s) that Paul is seeking to make known, such as the Lutheran justification by faith alone or the systematic expression of TULIP by Beza and the Calvinists. But more recent scholarship has attributed to Paul a much richer, narrative thought world, starting with Richard Hay’s seminal The Faith of Jesus Christ, with the diffusion of this idea expanding to scholars such as Ben Witherington, NT Wright, Douglas Campbell, etc all of whom attempt to describe the content of this narrative thought world. While the Protestant Reformation picked up on the more salient, abstract style of Paul’s thought, recent scholarship has perceived the narratives that undergirds Paul’s thought through close readings.
It is important to note that paradigmatic and narratival thinking are two distinct ways of thinking. Jerome Brunner distinguished between paradigms and narratives as two forms of thinking that are irreducible to each other, with the former being more logical and mathematical, whereas the latter is more imaginative and experiential.4 Meanwhile, Lee Roy Beach suggests there is more of an interconnecting between the two, believing that paradigmatic thinking is a subset of narratival thinking, whereas paradigms “help us make our chronicular narratives more plausible and coherent.”5 While I am skeptical of Beach’s idea that paradigms are a form of narrative, I find it plausible that paradigms find their launching point from narratives, and can, therefore, function to help understand the narratives with greater detail. Paradigms access the cognitive schemas that are derived from the interpretation of narratives, so that paradigms are constrained to a more fixed, less-changing concepts whereas narratives retain their multi-valent, multi-functional potential for imaginative thinking.
If this understanding of paradigms and narratives is valid, then we can offer some explanation for much of the difference of disagreement on interpreting Paul and propose solutions for understanding Paul. The discontinuities between the two modes may offer insights to the division in scholarship due particular biases to employ certain modes of thinking; understanding the functional interrelationship between the two modes can provide a basis for asking the question of how specifically the paradigmatic thinking o Paul accesses and molds the narrative thought world as it pertains to Israel, Jesus, the ethics of the church, and its rituals. On the one hand, it hedges against over-systematizing readings of Paul that try to find some central core of Paul’s thought, but at the same time provides a basis to consider how to filter the volumninous content about these narratives discerened by modern scholarship into a) the specific schemas that Paul’s language specifically accesses and b) the rest of the thought world that creatively interplays with those paradigmatic schemas.