What's the Heart of Paul's Theology?

If you ask any Protestant about the centerpiece of Paul's theology, surely they will say: it is justification by grace through faith. By God's grace we've been offered forgiveness. It was a theological breakthrough that challenged the reigning Catholic orthodoxy of the 16th century that seemed to suggest that one gained salvation/forgiveness by way of merit -- if not your own merit, then perhaps by tapping into the merit of the saints.

With justification as the key to theology, the focus has long been placed upon the individual. But, even though
justification is the touchstone of Protestantism, is it the centerpiece of Pauline theology? A book, I just finished reading, says no it's not. In a most interesting study of Paul's pastoral theology written by Church of Christ (not UCC) biblical Scholar James W. Thompson, the suggestion is made that transformation of the community is the foundation of Pauline theology.

Thompson argues that Paul's is a pastoral theology, but traditional interpretations have left the focus on forgiveness of the individual. Thompson, argues that there is much more to this pastoral theology than simply an offer of acceptance and forgiveness. I plan on devoting several posts to the propositions in the book, because they're worth exploring in an open forum.

In opening the book, Thompson makes several observations:

1. The idea that justification is the center of Paul's theology "rests on an assumption highly debatable in biblical scholarship."

2. The traditional paradigm "ignores the corporate nature of Christian existence, offering an individualized understanding of justification by faith."

3. "It ignores Paul's consistent call for transformation." Paul's instructions focus on a call for ethical transformation. (pp. 18-19)

By focusing on justification, we in pastoral ministry end up leaving people where we find them. Our traditional pastoral theologies also focus on individuals, when for Paul the focus is on the community as a whole. This is most intriguing.

I leave you with this point: "the center of Paul's thought is a theology of transformation, which provides the basis for Paul's pastoral theology" (p. 19).

By the way, the book is entitled: Pastoral Ministry according to Paul: A Biblical Vision, (Baker Books, 2006).


Timothy said…
I would agree wholeheartedly. Do the best you can to drop all presuppositions from your mind and read, for instance, Ephesians on its own merit rather than through the interpretive lens of a particular understanding of Romans.

Paul everywhere is most concerned about drawing all people into a single, undivided community. Thus Jews requiring Gentiles to become Jews are wrong. Gentiles looking down on Jews (in, for instance, Rome) are wrong. Maintaining distinctions within the church between master and slave, rich and poor are wrong. The rampant divisions in the Corinthian church horrifies him. And he commends the church in Colosse, which he did not start, why? Because he's heard of their great love for each other.

So yes, I think putting all the emphasis on an individual relationship with God, while perhaps necessary in its time, was really a complex misunderstanding. Yes, the individual meanng is found, but it's found inside these larger themes.

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