Review: The Reformation Theological Review (Bill Salier)

The Reformation Theological Review 65:1 (April, 2006)

CONTOURS OF PAULINE THEOLOGY: A Radical New Survey of the Influences on Paul’s Biblical Writings
By Tom Holland (Fearn: Mentor/Christian Focus Publications, 2004), 392pp., hbk„ n.p.

This is a challenging and stimulating treatment of Pauline theology. Holland states that his desire is to show that the proper background for understanding Paul and his theology is the Old Testament and that Paul’s thinking is far more corporate than perhaps normally thought. His focus is that the matrix for much of Paul’s thinking about Jesus are the Passover and New Exodus themes found in the Old Testament and especially the prophet Isaiah. This leads to several lines of investigation all of which are stimulating to those investigating Paul and his theology.

Holland begins by establishing the significance of the Old Testament for both Jesus and Paul. He then moves on to describe the various attempts to reconstruct Pauline theology and is a harsh critic of those attempts to see Paul as hellenising the Gospel. He is also severe on those who would see pseudepigraphic literature as determinative for understanding Paul, mounting a passionate and at times penetrating case against the use of such materials. Holland then examines the use of the term donloj to see if Paul’s usage remains within a pre-conversion Jewish conceptual framework. Holland contends that that the translation ‘slave’ is a concession to Hellenistic thinking and that the proper conceptual background is reflected in the translation ‘servant’.

Having established this, the rest of the study goes on to explore the significance of the Passover for Pauline theology, which Holland contends ‘has its roots in the model of the Passover and the Exodus which he sees to have been a type of the work of Jesus’ (p.l2). After arguing that Paul’s phrase ‘body of sin’ is a corporate term speaking of the state of unredeemed humanity in relation to sin, Paul’s doctrines of baptism and redemption are then examined. All three concepts in Paul are found to be indebted to Passover/New Exodus themes.

Holland then mounts a sustained critique of new perspective understandings of justification and approaches the issue in a fresh and convincing way that posits justification as a creative, and nut declarative, act with respect to the question of covenant membership. In this he does not deny the forensic acquittal nature of justification but points to its relationship creating function within a covenantal framework. Again the Passover background is essential.

A concluding section looks at the issue of Paul’s Christology and especially the paschal background to the term ‘firstborn’. The fruit of Holland’s approach with respect to paschal backgrounds also comes through in an intriguing study of the firstborn references in Colossians 1. Holland denies the wisdom background that is so popular and plumps again for Passover/New Exodus context as determinative. The book is rounded out with four appendices that examine scholarship on the New Exodus motif through the various strata of the New Testament; a brief examination of the Passover motif in the early church; an examination of various reformers, showing that they viewed justification as an entry term into a covenantal relation-ship and not merely in terms of forensic acquittal; and finally an extended discussion of the view of W.D. Davies concerning wisdom Christology.

This is a very stimulating book and much of what is said deserves careful consideration. The writing is uneven, at times easy to follow and at other points difficult and would have benefited from a few more sections connecting the thread of argument between various chapters. The argumentation wavers between, at times, what feels like assertion to quite intricate linking of texts to establish a point. At other times the overall point being made seems to be lost and it may pay the reader to start at the end with a very lucid and succinct statement of goals and intentions in the concluding chapter, in order to grasp the whole.

One wonders whether the corporate dimension is as all-pervasive as Holland suggests. I suspect his reply would be that this comment only goes to show how the reviewer has been hoodwinked by a prevailing hellenistic, individualistic paradigm. What are the implications of this corporate reading for applying Paul? Perhaps we await a further volume exploring this.

In short this is a valuable and provocative study full of broad-brush big ideas and some very important concerns. Holland is surely correct to point to the Old Testament scriptures as our primary source for understanding Paul’s thought. He may also be right in pushing us to consider the more corporate aspects of Paul’s thinking. Much of what he says concerning the Passover background rings true for not only Paul but also the rest of the New Testament and bears careful consideration.


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