The Western Captivity of the Apostle Paul

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It is now a commonplace observation among scholars that Paul’s most basic convictions were misrepresented by the most dominant streams of Western theology.

Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1528).

Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1528).

Many of the articles featured on this website refer to the Jerusalem School’s essential disagreements with mainstream scholarship.[1] The popularizing nature of the website, however, suggests that areas of potential agreement with mainstream scholarship are also worthy of note, especially where the position in question represents an important shift from ideas that are nearly universal in confessional contexts. (“Confessional” includes both the local pulpit and the basic fare of professional theologians.) A number of such areas come to mind, but none is more prominent, and theologically momentous, than the developments that have taken place in the past forty years concerning our understanding of what the books of Romans and Galatians are all about.

It is now a commonplace observation among scholars that Paul’s most basic convictions were misrepresented by the most dominant streams of Western theology. Although a more detailed discussion would include a number of lesser figures as well, it is significant that the principal culprits in the Westernization of Paul (e.g., Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Karl Barth, et al.) are all deserving of chapter heads in a general history of the Church. This shows how central the interpretation of Paul is to the Christian history of ideas. As it goes with Paul, so with the Church.

Portrait of John Calvin attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543).

Portrait of John Calvin attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543).

One of the most important contributions to our understanding of Paul actually precedes the era that I delineated in the first paragraph. Gustaf Aulén’s Christus Victor (in English by 1931) should be required reading for all seminary students. (Aulén was a theologian, and not a biblical scholar, but he was also a Swede, and Sweden is one of the few places where the fields of theology and biblical studies have remained in close enough contact that a theologian can sometimes do the work of a biblical scholar. The advent of postliberalism ruined this possibility for the rest of the world.) In his book, Aulén compellingly argues that Paul understands the believer’s ultimate salvation as the result of Christ’s victory over cosmic forces, rather than the payment of a penalty for our guilt. In other words, the human predicament is not sin-as-guilt (a forensic condition), but rather sin-as-death (thralldom to a cosmic power). For Paul, the soteriological[2] work of Christ was accomplished not principally in his dying on the cross (as is so widely preached today), but rather within the whole event of dying and rising. It is this “cosmic” aspect of Christ’s work, his destroying death by rising from the dead, that underlies Paul’s references to the Christ event. The limited phraseology that gave rise to the “forensic” or “substitutionary” understanding of soteriology is a secondary, less literal reinterpretation, and should not be construed as a straightforward account.

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  • [1] While I agree with several of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research’s emphases, I am not a member.
  • [2] “Soteriology” means “the doctrine of salvation.”

Comments 2

  1. Pingback: Character Profile: Paul the Apostle | Online

  2. So, what does the Day of Atonement Messianically signify? Is it yet to be fulfilled in the future? If so, then in what manner will it be fulfilled?

    The way I understand it, both the atonement for sin and liberation from the power of satan and sin, which was typified by Moses’ exodus, were fulfilled already on the same day of Passover when Jesus died. For Jesus Himself has said that His shed blood would be for the forgiveness of sin. So if the Day of Atonement needs also to be fulfilled by Christ, it has to be in the future. Perhaps it will be done by the future Millenial Kingdom’s Temple of Ezekiel where Christ will minister on earth for a thousand years as God’s High Priest.

    Nevertheless, I agree wholeheartedly about the absolute inclusion of Christ’s resurrection within the message of Gospel salvation.

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  • Jack Poirier

    Jack Poirier

    Jack Poirier is the chair of biblical studies at the newly forming Kingswell Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio (scheduled to open in Fall 2008). Jack earned his doctorate in Ancient Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he wrote a dissertation…
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