Review: Evangel (Dr. Stephen Dray)

Contours of Pauline Theology
Tom Holland
Fearn: Mentor, 2004
382pp, h/b, £14.99
ISBN 1-85792-369-X

The purpose of this important book is to demonstrate that, in contra-distinction to most contemporary New Testament scholarship, Paul was not the innovator who created Christianity but a faithful disciple of Jesus who never left his inherited religion of the Old Testament. The present reviewer, an Old Testament specialist, finds Holland’s arguments as largely compelling and would suggest that Holland has re-integrated the faith of Old and New Testaments in a manner that serves effectively to emphasise the unity of Scripture.

Methodologically and specifically, Holland seeks to demonstrate that the Gospels and Paul show an indebtedness to the expectation of a New Exodus (and the accompanying theme that a new Moses – but born of the tribe of Judah) that, he argues, is strongly present in both the Old Testament and the inter-testamental literature. In order to support that this is consistent with Pauls’ general use of the Old Testament, he suggests that Paul’s theology depended upon a careful exposition of the good news of Jesus on the basis of this theme as it appears in Isaiah (and the Old Testament, as a whole). As a specific test case, he seeks to demonstrate that Paul was influenced by Isaiah’s Servant. He suggests that a close reading of the prophet’s threefold use of the image finds its corollary in the apostle’s usage. His point is well made.

Holland recognises that this conclusion is challenged by the way in which the Pseudepigraphical literature is generally used and the New Testament read through Greek eyes. He notes, however, that such is historically anachronistic and frequently subject to the etymological fallacy and the misuse of classical Greek to interpret the Koine.  All of which leads to these writings being read through the ‘wrong’ cultural and conceptual eyes. Further, he properly notes, assumptions are made as to the representative nature of the literature, their widespread dissemination and their coherence. Read in the proper light, the documents do no more than ‘provide evidence as to how widely different themes were discussed.’ p 68. Methodologically, Holland demonstrates here awareness of modern linguistics and contemporary hermeneutical discussions and uses their insights effectively.

On this basis, Holland proceeds, in the second section of his book to explore, against the Old Testament context, the themes of Passover and community (pp85-154). In a highly challenging discussion he concludes that Paul’s concept of the ‘body of Sin’ is not individualistic but Hebraic and refers to ‘the state of unredeemed humanity in its relationship to Satan (Sin)’. p 108. This, he argues, is based upon the (covenantal) model of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. Paul’s understanding of a world under sin is (in part) nearer to that of Orthodoxy than what Holland himself describes as ‘the Hellenistic view that has dominated since Augustine’, p 139. This is supported, he argues, by recognising that baptism in Paul is usually a reference to the baptism, the death of Christ, by which the new covenant community is constituted. Thus, while his argument ‘in no way alters the need for personal repentance and regeneration… it puts the goal of the individual response to be entrance into the already formed and ‘complete’ covenant community, as it was in the Old Testament.’ p 149.

Holland proceeds, in the third section of the book, to argue that the Paschal context (viewed through the lens of Ezekiel 45:25) helps to explain Paul’s imagery of redemption. It is the ‘eschatological’ Passover where the Davidic king will propitiate for the sins of the people and constitute them the new covenant community. He comments ‘God has now delivered his people from the exile to which Adam had delivered his offspring. A new covenant now exists which is the fulfilment of the promise Yahweh made to Abraham that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed.’ p 172. Justification is, therefore, ‘not only atoning… [but] brings about the release and creation of the covenant community.’ p 175.

At this point (pp 183-234) Holland turns to the New Perspective. He argues that both forensic and covenantal aspects are to be found within the biblical concept of ‘justification’. This is so because in the Old Testament redemptive texts upon which Paul was building (rather than the covenantal nomism of the second Temple) there was ‘certainly a legal dimension to justification in that it is Israel’s sin that has caused her exile and this has to be dealt with.’ p 205. Indeed, ‘justification is not, as claimed by Wright, the declaration of being in the covenant. Rather it refer to the creation of a covenant between Yahweh and his people.’ p 233.

The fourth section of Holland’s work is devoted to examining (in the light of his primary thesis) the relationship between Paul’s Christology and the Passover. He emphasises the primarily functional rather than ontological language of the New Testament and suggests that Paul’s use of the ‘firstborn’ motif is, consequently, fully in line with its Old Testament usage. As with the remainder of the book, there is much to stimulate in the detailed exegesis offered of a number of familiar passages given a fresh ‘twist’.

The book concludes with several useful appendices and, the third, in particular demonstrates how his conclusions are consistent with the teaching of the Reformers.

While some of the more detailed discussions must await the engagement of those with knowledge and skills that the present reviewer lacks, the argument as a whole is methodologically nuanced, respects the unity of the Bible and presents an undeniable case for locating Paul in the Old Testament world (rather than that of post-Exilic Judaism or Hellenism). It also should help evangelicalism free itself from an over-emphasis upon the individual at the expense of the community and establish the case for a global ‘take’ on redemption that is undoubtedly Pauline and biblical.

Stephen Dray

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