Review: The Banner of Truth Magazine (Robert Strivens)

Contours of Pauline Theology: A Radical New Survey of the Influences on Paul’s Biblical Writings
Tom Holland Christian Focus, 2004, 351 pp. + bibliography & indexes, hardback. £14.99
ISBN 1 85792 469 X

This book demands a significant amount of concentration from the reader, but is both rewarding and refreshing in terms of the biblical thrust of its main thesis. It should be compulsory reading for any who feel in any way seduced by the arguments of either liberal or ‘New Perspective’ theologians on the origins and content of Paul’s theology. It presents compelling evidence that Paul’s theology was thoroughly rooted in the Old Testament.

Dr Holland has a number of goals in this book. Firstly, he challenges head-on the liberal idea that Paul’s theology represented an imposition of Hellenistic thinking upon the Semitic ideas of Jesus and so resulted in a departure from Jesus’ teaching.

Secondly, he wants to cut the ground from under the feet of those, from E. P Sanders on, who place great emphasis upon extra-biblical Jewish writings as an aid to the interpretation of the New Testament.

To counter these views, Holland sets out to demonstrate that Paul’s thinking and theology were deeply and thoroughly rooted in the Old Testament. The particular thesis that Holland develops is that of the New Exodus. Paul views redemption in Christ as a new exodus – the return from exile promised by the prophets. He sees much of Paul’s thinking and language as rooted in the concepts and language of the (first) Exodus account, and in particular (contrary to much contemporary scholarship) in the language and concepts of the Passover.

He seeks to demonstrate that this is a more convincing way of understanding Paul than trying to discern Hellenistic in- influences on Paul or ransacking other Jewish literature for clues as to Paul’s meaning. The correspondence between Paul’s theology and the theology of passover, exodus and return from exile are too strong, argues Holland, to necessitate proposing other solutions.

But Holland also wants to make his evangelical readers think. He takes contemporary evangelicalism to task for over-stressing the individual application of New Testament passages at the expense of a corporate understanding. This is a much-needed corrective. Evangelicals have, surely, too often missed seeing that the primary application of many passages is to the church as a whole, rather than to individuals separately. Dr Holland helps us to correct this, although sometimes (for example, in his understanding of 1 Cor. 6:12-20) I thought he pressed the point too far.

Inevitably, the subject of justification and the ‘New Perspective’ is addressed. Here, again, Holland wants to make us understand the New Testament teaching in the light of its Old Testament roots. He is rightly scathing about the over-reliance of the New Perspective upon extra-Biblical sources for understanding Judaism in NT times, and seeks constantly to draw us back to the OT to find the conceptual framework in which the teaching of Paul is to be understood. He agrees with many of the New Perspective advocates that justification, righteousness and sin must be seen in an over-arching covenantal framework. However, he argues (contra N. T. Wright and others) that justification is about entering into, indeed creating, the covenant relationship, not about identifying or declaring who is in the covenant. He argues that the justification language of Romans 4, among other passages, speaks, not so much of the imputation of righteousness to the individual believer, it of God’s entering into covenant with whole peoples – Jews and Gentiles. This corporate and covenantal justification still needs to be ‘individually availed’ – the individual enters into it and benefits from it only through personal repentance and faith.

Nevertheless, Holland here presents an understanding rather different from the traditional Reformed understanding of the meaning of the justification and righteousness terminology of these passages, while at the same time affirming that ‘the Reformers … had the heart of the biblical understanding of justification’. The validity of his argument here, and its implications for the doctrine of justification, will need careful thought.

This is a timely book, thoroughly biblical in its orientation. Although it will appeal mostly to those familiar with the recent scholarly debates concerning Paul’s theology, there is very useful material also for the pastor and preacher wanting to deepen his understanding of the Old Testament roots of Paul’s theology.


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