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.

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5 Comments

  1. I appreciate your review. Contours was life-changing book for me. For years, I had wrestled with the conflicting teachings I heard especially in re: to Romans. Initially, I didn’t buy everything Tom said either,–I kept arguing in my mind about the role of the individual–but the more I studied it out, the more what he said about reading scripture corporately made sense. It really does resolve several tricky issues and actually, it helps recover a healthy balance between the individual and the larger community.
    Thanks for being open to all kinds of books–I too have benefitted from reading literature by a wide variety of authors.

  2. Tom offered to send his commentary on Romans to me next, so we’ll see if he bolsters his argument further!

  3. Sounds very interesting indeed. I’ve always wondered about how different the religious experience would be for those who grew up in a staunchly collectivist ancient culture, versus those who grew up in the staunchly individualistic one of the modern West. Sounds like this book delves into that subject good and proper.

    It seems to me [in my admittedly very limited reading] that if Christian thinking in our current time period will be remembered for anything in particular, it will be for this shifting of Christian theology away from its Greco-Roman influences and towards its Jewish roots. I’ve seen this theme come up again and again, from writers as diverse as Phillip Yancey, Marcus Borg, Michael Frost, Brian McLaren, and NT Wright.

    I’m not particularly well versed in Theology or its history, but from the urgency with which all these writers write about it, it seems like this is a relatively recent way of looking at things. And from the way conservatives, liberals, traditionalists and emergents all seem to agree on this kind of re-Judaisation of the Christian lens in some form or another, it seems that it’s here to stay.

  4. Yes, Jesus’ Jewishness is a recent-years’ overemphasis, but everything runs in cycles, and I think it might start toning down. For one thing, scholars are a bit more skeptical of painting Jesus with the same brush as the “typical Jew.” For another, other scholars keep emphasizing Hellenistic influences even in Galilee and Judea.

    So, Jesus-the-Jew becomes Hellenized, and Paul the wannabe-Gentile becomes Jewish. Who knows.

    Anyway, I enjoyed Tom’s corporate focus, it definitely has a Semitic flavor, something I hadn’t given proper thought to before.

  5. Ah, Fair enough. I guess it’ll be interesting to see where the barometer ends up on the whole Jewish-Hellenic thing once the dust settles.

    I for one embrace the emphasis on the Jewish roots. I think that the West’s Hellenistic tendency to view the world in terms of lofty, abstract absolutes has nurtured some very unhealthy characteristics in our society, and has contributed to the current disconnect between humanity, the planet we feed from, and the species we share it with.

    Even before the consideration of any cultural questions, I think focussing on Jesus-the-Jew is healthy because it helps focus us on Jesus-the-person, and not just Jesus-the-idea.

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