Review: Congregational Concern (Dr. Chris Sinkinson)

Contours of Pauline Theology
Tom Holland
Mentor Press, Ross-Shire, 2004

There is, at present, a huge debate going on in theological studies over the interpretation of Paul and his letters. Among Protestants the massive influence of Luther and Calvin has established a widely accepted understanding of Paul, legalistic religion, the atonement and justification by faith. However, this orthodoxy has been significantly questioned through the present debate. E.P. Sanders provided evidence that first century Judaism had been badly misunderstood by Protestants. The Jewish background to the rise of Christianity was not a religion of works but a much more sophisticated “covenantal nomism”. Evangelicalism has been forced to rethink its understanding of these issues particularly with the influential work of N.T.Wright. To cap it all, at a very popular level, the new perspective has even had its bearing on the recent controversial book from Steve Chalke  – The Lost Message of Jesus.

Many of us in ministry are trying our best to keep up with the debate and come to an informed opinion. As Bible believing Christians we are not hostage to any particular Reformer or tradition but simply want to understand and submit to the teaching of Scripture. The new perspective has both helpful insights and troubling implications – so we should do our best to reflect on it. To this end, Holland’s book has been one of the best helps I have come across. It is readable, scholarly, imaginative and stimulating. All in one book!

Holland’s essential argument is fairly simple: the background to Paul’s theology is the exodus. Throughout the Old Testament, the exodus, with its Passover lamb, is the paradigm understanding of God as redeemer. The prophets take up this theme with the promise of a new exodus. Far from being an innovator, Paul sticks closely to this new exodus theme in his understanding of Christ’s person, the atonement and justification.  Holland brings much light to bear on Romans 3:21-26 by reading it in terms of the Passover (Chapter 8). This line of thinking is fruitful for many new ways of understanding Paul. Just to give one example, when the language of “firstborn” describes Christ it expresses his status as Passover lamb rather than being an ontological statement of his Trinitarian relationship to the Father.  Does this undermine the doctrine of the deity of Christ? Far from it, only because Christ is Creator can he be Redeemer – the creation can only be redeemed by the creator (Colossians 1:15-20); “This in turn leads us into a Biblical Trinitarianism that is not the result of philosophical speculation but the result of Salvation history.” (p.290)

Holland demonstrates that there is much closer continuity between the testaments than critics have acknowledged. Even closer continuity than many evangelicals notice!  Paul is a Jewish writer through and through. The new perspective does shed some helpful light on Paul but puts too much emphasis on fragmentary second temple literature. Holland offers an alternative route – finding many more direct parallels between Paul and the Old Testament.

Do I unreservedly recommend this book? No. It isn’t the best place to start if this debate is all new to you (have a look at Philip Eveson’s The Great Exchange). Nor is it a book to read if you just want to be comforted with a traditional Evangelical understanding of Paul and find nothing to disagree with. I found plenty that I did not agree with – his corrective emphasis on salvation as corporate rather than individual seemed overdone to me to the detriment of some very personal ways Paul applies salvation. I also remained unconvinced by his argument that the Greek word “doulos” should be understood in terms of the language of servanthood rather than slavery. But if you want to catch up with the contemporary debate and have a lot of new ideas to think about then this is a must read. Holland offers evangelical theology at its best – responding to errors and also forcing us to rethink our traditional understandings.

Chris Sinkinson
Pastor, Alderholt Evangelical Congregational Church

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