a prodigious centre

Thursday, 20-Oct, 10.00pm marked the end of a 5-week course I teach on Pauline theology,* a course I’ve had the opportunity to teach several times already. While the material (or, notes) for the course remains virtually the same, I typically take the time to read through–albeit in a somewhat casual way–some of the latest treatments on the subjects discussed. This is partly for my own awareness of the state of Pauline scholarship in these areas, and partly to prepare myself for possible questions from the students. If time allows, I also attempt to re-read some of the older works so that I stay in touch with their arguments and continued relevance.

In my recent preparatory reading, I became more aware of the scholarly interest in trying to ascertain the ‘centre’ of Paul’s thought or theology. (I say ‘more aware’ because I always knew this to be a key point of inquiry, but I might have inadvertently overlooked its details and significance while searching for information about other topics or themes). This increased awareness might stem from my earlier reading of Herman Ridderbos’ Paul: An Outline of His Theology (1975), where he spends adequate time dealing with that particular issue. It might also stem from the fact that I was more relaxed and open while reading this time round. Thus, what was previous familiar suddenly became new and exciting.

The various proposals for what constitutes the ‘centre’ of Paul’s theology range from general concepts (e.g. grace or love), to theological categories (e.g. justification [by faith] or Christocentric soteriology), all the way to specific persons (e.g. Jesus or the Holy Spirit). Admittedly, there are times when the boundaries of this range are blurred so that a combination of proposals becomes a new option (e.g. our union with God ‘in Christ’ or God’s apocalyptic victory in Christ). While all of these, and certainly many others, represent fundamental aspects of Paul’s theology, I struggle with seeing any of them as the ‘centre’ of his theology.

I say that partly because, despite the apparent difficulties of his logic or argumentation, I believe Paul operates according to rather basic principles or beliefs. Accordingly, I also say that because I believe Paul would say something (or, someone) so enormous, obvious and essential stands behind each of the other proposals. And it is this enormous, obvious and essential other that I think forms the centre of Paul’s theology, and that centre is the person of Yahweh; everything else, for Paul, emanates from this centre. While I would love to say this proposal is original to me, I am neither that arrogant nor that foolish; Gordon Fee says something similar as does Thomas Schreiner. However, I will relish in the joy of having come to this conclusion on my own before finding comfort in the fact that I am not alone in reaching it.

* The five weeks cover: the (not so) ‘New Perspective on Paul’; the (developing?) eschatology of the Thessalonian letters; gifts, love and meaning in 1 Cor 12-13; faith and ‘sacred space’ in Gal 3; and the ‘election’ of Jews and Gentiles in Rom 9-11.

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