Review: Trinity Theological Journal (Singapore) (Dr. Tan Kim Haut)

Trinity Theological Journal, Vol.13, 2005

Thomas Holland, Contours of Pauline Theology: A Radical New Survey of the Influences on Paul’s Biblical Writings (Fearn: Mentor, 2004). 382 pp., £14.99.
Reviewed by Tan Kim Huat

So much has been written on Pauline theology in recent years that one wonders whether a book that announces a concern with its contours has anything fresh to say. Often, what promises to be radical, fresh and creative does not live up to its claims. But the same cannot be said for Holland’s book. This is certainly radical and it boldly pushes forward an idea that has not really been discussed in Pauline scholarship. Holland’s central thesis is that the hermeneutical template with which to organize, and thus, understand, Paul’s theology is the Jewish Passover and the central ideas connected with it.

Holland’s book is divided into four sections. It starts with some necessary ground-clearing work through which he criticizes past attempts to situate Paul’s thought within a Hellenistic framework, and argues instead that the primary background for understanding Paul is the Old Testament He also emphasizes, rightly in my opinion, the importance of corporate perspective of Paul’s theology. The establishment of these key hermeneutical principles completes section one of the book.

In section two, Holland utilises the corporate idea to look at some exegetical cruces and significant theologoumena found in the Pauline corpus. The ‘body of sin’ in Romans 6:6 is understood as the corporate antithesis of the body of Christ (chapter 5). The ‘body’ in 1 Corinthians 6:13-20 is also to be understood corporately and within the framework by Yahweh’s eschatological marriage to Israel, i.e. the body of Christ (chapter 6). Understandably, baptism is hence seen as primarily an inaugural event which took place at Golgotha when the community was created (chapter 6). Although it was adumbrated in section two, it is only in sections three and four that Holland launches out to demonstrate that the Pauline understanding of justification and Christology is profoundly indebted to the Passover event. The original event not only established a community, but also propitiated it. The eschatologizing of this event (including the concept of the new Exodus) in the prophets does not change its tenor but only intensifies what was originally there. Using Ezekiel 45:21-5 as one of his key texts, Holland argues that the new Exodus presupposes an eschatological Passover event, which will also have propitiatory qualities. Consequently, Jesus’ death is to be seen against a Paschal background. His death as the Paschal lamb and his being given the status of the first-born cohere together when seen in the light of the Passover event. Some controversies in scholarly interpretation are dealt with using this perspective. Hilatsterion in Romans 3:25 is understood against the backdrop provided by the Passover and interpreted as propitiation.

Justification is understood as entry into the covenant, made possible by God’s righteousness, i.e., his acting to save, and not his declaring that one is in the covenant. En route to arguing all this, Holland interacts with the New Perspective on Paul, especially with its prominent proponents, J. D.G. Dunn and N. T. Wright. His book fits into the trend that emphasizes the Jewishness of the New Testament. His repeated emphasis on the importance of the new Exodus for understanding Jesus and Paul is not new. This has been taken up by scholars such as N. T. Wright, R. Watts and J. Scott. In this regard, Holland’s book may be described as a further contribution to the rehabilitation of the Jewishness of the New Testament. That said, there is much that is provocative in this stimulating work, which does not shy away from controversies. I shall highlight a few of these.

In terms of method, Holland’s stance will certainly be criticized by mainstream scholarship. He uses the disputed Paulines for his database although his case does not actually depend on them. Furthermore, so strong is Holland in the belief that only the Old Testament provides the background to Paul’s thought that he even has the temerity to suggest that the much-used Second Temple Jewish material, especially the much-loved Pseudepigrapha, has led scholars down the wrong interpretative road. What may be repugnant to the majority of New Testament scholars is actually essential to Holland’s case. This is because he has to bracket out considerations arising from such literature which might otherwise interfere with his analysis, which depends almost entirely on how the Old Testament views a certain event and motif. One question I have for Holland is this. Given the undeniable fact that the early Christian communities saw it fit to use passages from what we now call the Pseudepigrapha to expound important ideas such as those which are related to the eschaton (e.g., 2 Pet 3:10; Jude 9, 14), can one categorically dismiss all Second Temple Jewish literature as being insignificant for our reconstruction of Paul’s theology? If this cannot be done, the Maccabean theory for understanding Paul’s concept of the death of Jesus (i.e., hilatsterion in 4 Mac 17:22) is back in business. I myself have reservations over this theory but I do so on other grounds. It remains to be mentioned that Holland rejects the New Perspective on Paul because he thinks Judaism was very diverse pre-AD 70. Thus, the concept of covenantal nomism may not have been operating in, at least, some Jewish groups.

Furthermore, it seems to me that he drives the Passover idea, especially its putative propitiatory function and the role of the firstborn, too hard. There are only a few explicit references to the Passover’s being related to Christology in the New Testament (the Last Supper narratives in the Synoptic Gospels; 1 Cor 5:7; Heb 11:28). Of course, Holland will argue that the allusions to it are legion and the concept forms the invisible substructure of Pauline thought. Herein lies the rub, what Holland claims to see, others will treat as illusory. To cite an example: stringing together different passages, Holland argues that the firstborn in the Old Testament may be understood as the redeemer. This was presupposed in the Passover event and explains why Christ in Colossians 1:15 is depicted as the firstborn of creation. It is only because he was the firstborn that he could redeem creation (Col 1:14). However, the key texts referred to in the Old Testament (Exod 13:13-16; Num 8:19; Ps 49:52; 78:38) all speak with one voice on the need to redeem the firstborn and not that the firstborn will redeem others. One wonders whether the general concept of primogeniture fills in the gaps better.

Finally, mention must also be made of the discussion on the meaning of God’s righteousness and the attendant concept of the justification of the believer. Holland uses N. T. Wright as his main sparring partner and claims that the latter has not only misunderstood the tenor of Reformed theology but has also wrongly conceived justification in terms of declarative language. Actually, both these scholars understand the aforementioned theologoumena in relation to the covenant. But for Holland, God’s righteousness refers to God’s saving activity, principally his induction of a believer into the covenant which is the objective of the new Exodus. Thus, the justification of the believer has to do with entry into the covenant, which, of course, presupposes that he has been redeemed and saved by God. He writes: ‘Justification is therefore the outcome of redemption. In other words, justification is the product of the Passover sacrifice and, as in the Old Testament, it is about being delivered from God’s wrath’ (p. 216, italics mine). Holland uses passages which Wright has either ignored or skimmed over, such as Psalm 106:31 and Acts 13: 38-9 (cf. Acts 15:6-11). I can envisage how Wright might respond but it is clear that Holland’s challenge is one of the strongest yet made against the increasingly popular construal of justification as solely forensic, resulting in its being understood as declarative language. Of course, Holland knows that the forensic aspect of the doctrine of justification is found also in the theologies of prominent Reformers, and thus, he devotes an appendix to show that it also includes the relational aspect as well.

All this should not detract one from appreciating the radical nature of his book, which is full of interesting exegetical suggestions and insights. It is indeed refreshing to read a bold work, but what I regard as bold may be regarded as brash by others. More careful proof-reading would have eliminated many typographical errors, which are a constant irritation. Four informative appendices and two helpful indexes complete the book.

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