This review appeared in the March-May 06 edition of the CWI Herald.
There is a Redeemer
How should we read the New Testament? Until recently it was thought that a thorough grounding in Classics was a prerequisite for anyone who aspired to be a New Testament scholar. Paul, it was assumed, borrowed ideas from the Gentile world in order to explain the gospel to his pagan hearers. An understanding of the world in which the apostle to the Gentiles travelled and worked is a great help to any serious New Testament student, but must we automatically assume that Paul’s teaching can be understood only or largely by reference to first-century Gentile culture?
Through Old Testament Eyes
The tide of scholarly opinion is turning. Typical of the new generation of scholars is Mark Nanos, who states in his book The Mystery of Romans: “Where New Testament scholarship is concerned … we can now read the New Testament as a Jewish book”. Scholars like Nanos are recognising that Paul’s preaching and teaching was anchored firmly in the writings of Moses and the prophets.
Tom Holland, who teaches New Testament and Hermeneutics at the Evangelical Theological College of Wales, has done us a great service by publishing Contours of Pauline Theology. In Contours, subtitled A Radical New Survey of the Influences on Paul’s Biblical Writings, Holland argues that ignorance of the roots of Paul’s theology has resulted in a widespread misunderstanding of the New Testament in general and Paul’s writings in particular, especially the epistle to the Romans.
Contours of Pauline Theology is the fruit of wide reading and deep reflection on the Scriptures. While some evangelical writers urge us to read the Old Testament through New Testament eyes, Tom Holland refreshingly urges us to read the New Testament in the light of the Old Testament. It is not possible in this brief article to survey the entire book, so I am choosing to deal with one of the major themes to be found in it, a theme that is very appropriate as we approach Easter.
According to the New Testament, Messiah came to “redeem” his people but what does that mean? “Redemption” is an Old Testament concept; therefore we need a thorough understanding of the Old Testament to understand Messiah’s work of redemption. Tom Holland demonstrates that the primary model for redemption in the Hebrew Scriptures is the Exodus from Egypt and that the New Testament writers understood of the work of Christ in the light of that event. The Exodus, says Holland, is the fundamental biblical pattern of redemption and the prophets of Israel, particularly Isaiah, foresaw a redemption that would follow the pattern established at the Exodus from Egypt but would far exceed it in terms of power and scale.
The title “Redeemer” occurs some eighteen times in our English Bibles, thirteen of those occurrences being in the last twenty-seven chapters of Isaiah, where the Lord declares that he is “the Redeemer of Israel”. In ancient Israelite society “the redeemer” was the firstborn of the family and had three basic, God-appointed responsibilities. His first duty was to avenge the blood of murdered family members; secondly, he had to act as husband to the widow of a relative who had died childless; thirdly, it was his responsibility to buy back family property that had been lost through poverty.
The Redeemer of Israel
With this in mind, Holland shows that the Lord redeemed Israel from Egypt according to this pattern. First, he avenged the blood of his “firstborn” Israel by smiting the firstborn of Egypt, substituting a lamb for the firstborn of Israel; secondly, he took Israel to be his bride; thirdly, he brought Israel into the inheritance that was theirs by virtue of his covenant with Abraham.
Through Isaiah the Lord revealed that although he would send his disobedient people into exile, he was, nevertheless, their Redeemer and would avenge them:
I will contend with him who contends with you, and I will save your children. I will feed those who oppress you with their own flesh, and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with sweet wine. All flesh shall know that I, the LORD, am your Saviour, and your Redeemer. (Isaiah 49:25,26)
He would protect them in their widowhood and raise up children for them:
Sing, O barren, you who have not borne! Break forth into singing, and cry aloud, you who have not laboured with child! For more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married woman,” says the LORD…. “For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is His name; and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel”. (Isaiah 54:1-8)
He would restore them to their lost inheritance:
So the redeemed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing, with everlasting joy on their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness; sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 51:9-11)
But there was an even greater redemption to come than the return from Babylon. In the song of Zechariah in Luke 1, the father of John the Baptist praises God that he has come to redeem his people from their enemies but looks beyond the Roman occupation of the Promised Land to the prospect of God’s people serving him without fear in righteousness and holiness.
The Firstborn of all Creation
For those who have struggled to explain to Jehovah’s Witnesses how Jesus can be both uncreated yet “the firstborn of all creation” Holland’s perspective makes sense of Colossians 1:13-15: “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.”
This is Exodus language. God redeemed Israel from Egypt by slaying the firstborn of Egypt and spared the firstborn of Israel by the substitutionary sacrifice of a lamb. In the New Testament Messiah redeems his people through his own death as God’s Firstborn and as the Lamb of God; he avenges them, he takes them as his bride and acts as a husband to them, and he recovers the kingdom of heaven for them.
Contours of Pauline Theology is an important and brilliant book. I recommend it to all prospective students of theology to read and study before they go to university. It will strengthen them against the old fashioned liberalism they will encounter in their biblical studies. Contours is not always easy to read but it should be required reading in every evangelical college and seminary.
Contours of Pauline Theology
Christian Focus Publications: Mentor, 2004
382pp, h/b, £14.99
Available from the CWI Bookroom at £16.99 (including p&p within the UK)