Thursday, July 20, 2006

Contours of Pauline Theology by Tom Holland

Mentor, 2004

The main thesis of this book is that we cannot understand the apostle Paul unless we grasp that his thought was fundamentally rooted in the Old Testament Scriptures. Holland wants to refute once and for all the idea that Paul jettisoned the Jewish roots of Christianity in order to make the fledgling faith acceptable to a Gentile audience. The author argues that Paul did not Hellenise Christianity. The apostle remained faithful to his Old Testament heritage as he preached Jesus the Messiah to the peoples of the ancient world.
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In a chapter Paul and the Prophets, Holland seeks to demonstrate that Paul's Epistle to the Romans is structured around quotations and allusions to Isaiah and other key Old Testament texts. Paul not only cited Isaiah, he drew his theological categories from the Prophet. In Isaiah and the Servant the writer develops a case for understanding Paul's use of the word "servant" against the background of Isaiah's Servant Songs rather than the Greek notion of bondservant. Paul saw himself as a servant of the Lord in the Isaianic sense. His task was to proclaim the light of the gospel to the Gentiles in continuation of the ministry of Jesus, the Servant of the Lord. There is helpful material in this chapter, but Holland takes his case too far by arguing that the great Servant Song in Isaiah 53 was not used by the apostles to interpret the death of Christ. Matthew 20:28, Philippians 2:7&8 and Acts 8:32-35 would suggest otherwise.
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Holland's key idea is that Paul's thinking was radically shaped by Old Testament teaching on new exodus and the passover. Accordingly, Christ's work on the cross is understood as a passover sacrifice that accomplishes the "new exodus"; the redemption of the world from the power of sin, death and Satan. The writer detects the influence of Ezekiel's vision of the new temple on Paul's view of the cross as a propitiatory sacrifice. Ezekiel's apparent conflation of the Passover with the Day of Atonement is claimed to be the source of Paul's teaching in Romans 3:25&26. .
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A recurring theme in this book is that interpreters have tended to view Paul through the lenses of Western individualism. Holland tries to redress the balance by insisting that the 'body of sin' in Romans 6:6 should be understood corporately as humanity under the power of sin and the Devil. He also tries to argue that baptism in Romans 6 and the 'harlot' of 1 Corinthians 6:15ff are corporate categories. I did not find Holland's exegesis altogether convincing. There is certainly a corporate dimension to Paul's thought (Romans 5:12ff, Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4 etc). It would have been better if the author had spend more time unpacking these passages rather than trying to establish a corporate meaning of texts that are better understood on an individual or personal level.
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One can hardly write a book about Paul's theology without interacting with the so-called 'New Perspective on Paul'. Holland devotes a chapter to Justification and the New Perspective. He criticizes E.P. Saunders for misreading the intertestamental literature. Saunders quotes the literature too selectively to prove his case that the Jews did not rely on their works for acceptance with God. Holland suggests that N.T. Wright has misunderstood both Paul and the teaching of the Protestant Reformers. Wright holds that faith in Jesus as Lord is the 'boundary marker' that shows that the believer is in the covenant. Faith has replaced 'works of the law' such as circumcision, which were the boundary markers of the Old Testament. For Wright, justification concerns the question: "Who are the people of God?" rather than, "How can a sinner be right with God?". It is primarily about ecclesiology not soteriology.
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Holland sees justification as God's declaration that he has taken his people into a covenant relationship with himself. Contrary to Wright, justification does not simply act as a boundary marker, denoting those who are in covenant. Justification brings the people of God into the covenant. Justification is a corporate category. God justifies his covenant people rather than individuals. Christians appropriate this justification personally when they believe in Christ. Holland maintains the Reformer's insight into justification as a forensic declaration that sinners have been put right with God apart from their works. But he insists that justification is also relational - because it refers to the creation of a covenant between the Lord and his people. An appendix on The Reformed Faith and Justification discusses this matter further. The downplaying of the individual aspect of justification by faith in Holland's treatment is to be regretted. Paul is capable of describing justification in deeply personal language (Galatians 2:16 & 20).
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In chapters on The Firstborn and the Jewish Cult and The Firstborn and the Colossians Hymn, Holland makes a case for setting the description of Christ as the 'firstborn over all creation' against the background of the Passover. He shows that the firstborn child was a representative figure in the Old Testament. The firstborn Israelite children were spared at the original Passover. The Levites were offered to God as a substitute for the firstborn. The firstborn son was given a double inheritance, so he could act as redeemer, should other members of his family need to be freed from debt or slavery. As 'firstborn of creation', Christ acts as the representative and redeemer of the people of God. These chapters make an original and helpful contribution to our understanding of Christ's role as redeemer of the cosmos.
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The Contours of Pauline Theology is a helpful exploration of the Old Testament roots of the apostle's theology. Holland succeeds in demonstrating that Paul was a true Hebrew Christian and no Hellenist. He exposes some of the flaws in 'New Perspective' thinking. His own proposals on justification demand careful thought and attention, but many will find his emphasis on corporate justification hard to swallow. As has been suggested, the author sometimes over-eggs his pudding by taking his arguments too far. Holland does not have the literary flair of Tom Wright (few do!) and the book sometimes lacks verve and clarity. But this work is the fruit of much study and reflection. It should be read by all who wish to keep abreast of the ever challenging and stimulating field of Pauline Theology.

2 comments:

Solly said...

It is a good book; lots to think about and follow up on. He has enlarged chapters on his website, but each chapter is $5 donation to charity each *sigh*

Exiled Preacher said...

Hi Solly,

Yes a very thought-proviking read. I especially enjoyed his treatment of Christ as the 'firstborn'.