Review: Reformation Today (Bill James)

Pauline Theology
Bill James

Tom Holland, lecturer at the Evangelical Theological College of Wales, has produced a welcome and important contribution to the controversial area of Pauline theology: Contours of Pauline Theology; A Radical New Survey of the Influences on Paul’s Biblical Writings (Mentor/Christian Focus, 2004 hc, 382pp).

The author’s thesis is simply that the roots of Paul’s theology are to be found in the Old Testament, and particularly in the prophecy of Isaiah. He rejects earlier scholarship which places too much emphasis on a Hellenistic cultural setting, and the reliance of recent scholarship on the Pseudepigrapha as the background to Paul’s thought. Rather he sees Paul’s theology as an exposition of the Old Testament prophetic hope of a New Exodus, now fulfilled in the coming of Christ. Paul quotes in particular from the prophecy of Isaiah, and Holland suggests that it is this prophecy that actually provides the skeleton of his teaching. He points out that ‘…if the letter to the Romans was laid out as a continuous papyrus, and the citations from Isaiah were raised out of the text and suspended at their point of use, those texts, in that order, would summarise salvation history. Such a pattern could not be anything but intentional.’ (p.31).

This thesis is then applied to key areas of Paul’s thought. It is suggested that we should not understand Paul’s use of the word doulos (slave) against the background of slaves in Graeco-Roman society, but rather with reference to the Old Testament idea of ebed (slave/servant). Holland maintains that an Old Testament background gives a much more corporate emphasis to Paul’s teaching of salvation, and he understands the term “body of sin” as being corporate rather than personal. He also interprets baptism in Romans 6 as corporate – thus following on directly from the corporate emphasis of Romans 5. So baptism here is not a reference to personal Christian experience, but the incorporation of the church into Christ in the same way as Israel was baptised into Moses in the Exodus. The Exodus background is also central to Paul’s teaching on the Cross, where the Passover is the key idea. And the Passover is even seen as central in Paul’s Christology – providing the background for the ‘firstborn.’

It is Holland’s ideas of justification which are of greatest interest, as this is a matter of such controversy in recent scholarship. There are very brief critiques of the works of Dunn and N. T. Wright. He concludes that it is right to understand justification in a ‘forensic’ sense, and that Romans 5 teaches the imputation of both Adam’s guilt and Christ’s righteousness. However, Holland maintains that justification is more than a declaration of innocence in the face of the law’s demands; it is acceptance into covenant relationship with God. He insists that we must keep in view this broader context, that passages such as Genesis 15 and Romans 4 are essentially about the creation of covenant relationship. There is an emphasis on the Cross as Christ’s representative death on our behalf, hence ending our old covenantal ‘marriage’ relationship with Satan (sealed by our guilt), and establishing a new ‘marriage’ relationship between God and the church.

This is a stimulating contribution to the current debate.

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