Book review: Contours of Pauline Theology
by Tom Holland
This is a deep, controversial look at some of the more important aspects of Paul’s writings. Many scholars essentially consider Paul the founder of Christianity, recognizing his contributions in building a Gentile religion. But Holland adamantly disagrees, and points to Paul’s Jewishness by addressing the dependence of Paul’s theology on Hebrew Bible themes. Paul, he says, never left the religion of the Old Testament and never departed from the teachings of Jesus.
Central to Holland’s thesis is the Passover and Exodus teachings, which he shows were a strong part of Jewish doctrine. Observing Jews anticipated a second exodus of some sort—though it appears there were differing ideas of what this second exodus would be like—and Holland recognizes this theme weaving its way through Paul’s writings.
Holland leans on the community aspects of the Passover and Exodus themes to highlight two different ways of thinking: Individualistic, and Corporate. Consider Paul’s writings about the Body of Sin. Does Paul mean our individual bodies are prone to sin, and warn about individual sinfulness, or is he concerned about community sanctification—mankind as a whole, or the Jewish nation, or the Christian community? Paul, says Holland, is speaking of the state of unredeemed humanity in its relationship to Satan (Sin). A man or woman’s righteousness depends upon the community to which they belong … a very Semitic way of thinking. I can’t say I’m convinced yet, but before rejecting this line of thinking out of hand, Holland’s arguments are worth further study, and I hope to read over Paul’s letters soon from this vantage point.
So where do Gentiles fit in? The prophets said that the Gentiles would become members of the covenant community when the New Exodus had taken place.
Paul writes that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” Most read this to mean God takes up residence in our individual bodies, but Holland argues it should be read in a corporate manner: the church, or community, is the temple of the Spirit. When Paul writes, “Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body,” Paul speaks not of an individual visiting a prostitute, but of a community frolicking with Satan.
Also in the context of the Passover/New Exodus/Community thinking, Holland addresses the meaning of baptism, redemption, justification, and the implication of Christ as the firstborn. He explains that the role of the firstborn in the Passover was vitally important to the early church, who used its imagery to describe the work of Jesus.
Holland concludes that Paul did not tamper with the Christian message; he is not responsible for leading the church to a “high Christology.” Rather, the church held this view from reading the prophets long before Paul converted. Thus, when Holland examines the Colossian hymn, which many scholars believe was not penned by Paul at all, he finds it consistent with Pauline thinking in terms of Christology and the motifs already discussed, and concludes that “there is therefore no need to treat the letter as anything other than a Pauline letter.”
Not an easy read, but well worth the effort.