Rethinking Paul: Protestant Theology and Pauline Exegesis

Edwin Chr. Van Driel, Rethinking Paul: Protestant Theology and Pauline Exegesis. Current Issues in Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. xv + 399 pages. $99, cloth.

Discussions of Paul and his theology have marked modern theology for two hundred years. The apostle has been read anew decade by decade, and his witness has been rethought generation after generation. In key moments, some of the most decisive moves in modern theology have come in engaging Paul: not just Baur but also Barth, and not simply Bultmann without Käsemann too. Interestingly, whereas so many of those earlier re-interpreters of Paul wrote not only historical commentary on texts but also dogmatic and/or philosophical theology, recent Pauline exegetes tend to be far more constrained in terms of their disciplinary output. Sanders, Dunn, Wright, Martyn, Barclay – they (with the occasional exception of Wright) work within the conventions of modern disciplinary divisions. So it begs the question: if some of these most recent rethinkings of Paul were true, what would be the doctrinal and philosophical implications and emphases?

Building on a handful of essays and journal articles, Edwin Chr. van Driel seeks to offer patient analysis of recent Pauline exegesis and to grasp what makes it work, along the way commending its value and clarifying its implications for Christian faith and practice. Dr. van Driel teaches theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where he holds the Directors’ Bicentennial Professorship. The author previously published a volume, Incarnation Anyway, engaging modern debates (particularly swirling around the proposal of Karl Barth) about so-called supralapsarian Christology. The present book aims to fill an emerging gap between Pauline exegesis and contemporary theology. In so doing, it fits snugly into the Current Issues in Theology series published by Cambridge University Press.

The volume is organized around varied topics and themes which have been significant fulcrums of exegetical debate in recent decades: the narrative substructure of Paul’s thought (ch. 1); justifying faith (ch. 2); Jesus’ faith (ch. 3); the return of the faithful one (ch. 4); atoning faithfulness (ch. 5); resurrection and justification (ch. 6); the Pauline ordo salutis (ch. 7); church and salvation (ch. 8); Christ and history (ch. 9); history and Israel (ch. 10); the narrative of Paul’s gospel (ch. 11); and doing Pauline theology (ch. 12). Others might surely be added, but it is a wide ranging and ambitious survey of key nexus points in thinking theologically with the apostle Paul.

Now van Driel mentions early that he is not arguing for or against various readings of Paul; instead, he offers the book as an exercise in synthesis and implication, seeking to cast a vision for what these new-er readings might actually demand of a Christian theologian. In so doing he begins and ends with a key concept (taken from Richard Hays’ The Faith of Jesus Christ): the narrative substructure. He argues that these various topics are tied together by means of the adoption of a storied form or narrative arc. But he also states that there are varied narrative arcs, and that they do not have equal explanatory power. Crucial to interpreting Paul (or, presumably, other apostles) is the challenge of identifying the narrative thread that runs implicit to the varied texts, happenstance as their seeming contexts may seem.

Perhaps most notably, van Driel works hard to do justice to two major interpretative concerns: salvation-history and the apocalyptic framework employed by Paul. First, he regularly turns to consider the exposition of Scripture which plays an ingredient role in Paul’s argumentation. He further expounds the narrative arc in which various moves fit, in particular leaning on Wright’s teaching about Abraham and about the later exilic experience of Israel. Wright’s focus on placing Paul’s ministry (and writings) within the movement of salvation-history often contrasts with J. Louis Martyn and others who emphasize the apocalyptic inbreaking of the gospel. Many contemporary interpreters would want to describe that invasive work of grace as disrupting all narratives and conceptualizations, but van Driel attempts to argue that the salvation-historical and the apocalyptic can fit together (in as much as the former actually foretells the latter). Whether or not the proposal quite works, van Driel’s attempt is noteworthy in that it aims for something more than most Pauline exegetes have seen needful: he actually tries to account for something more closely approximating the whole counsel of God.

Sometimes the book delivers notably more than it promises. Otherwise, put, however much he initially begged off the task of prove these exegetical proposals correct or incorrect (2), van Driel does proceed at points to argue for specific strands of recent interpretation. One might ask if he’s somewhat picking and choosing when he opts to offer exegetical argument and when he moves in the mode of simply offering synthesis. Either approach might play an analytic role contributing to the theological task (which invariably involves both and more), but it’s simply not clear what is determining when he jumps in exegetically and when he keeps his feet out of that water. This reader thinks the best posture here is to take his aim seriously – to do synthetic and implicatory analysis, presuming the exegesis to be valid for the sake of the thought experiment – and simply to observe that sometimes he does the supererogatory work of also seeking to commend the exegesis as well.

Now in so doing he really does commend a wide range of recently popular judgments, regarding pistis Christou texts, the interpretation of dikaiosune theou, and the like. One might (and, in many cases, I would argue should) question any number of those exegetical presuppositions. I have done so in books on Justification and the Gospel and Sanctification, so I won’t belabor that kind of exegetical back and forth here.  One might question the way in which the reformers are portrayed herein. Their theological judgment is frequently noted. Occasionally their absence of comment (say, on the structure of a biblical chapter like Romans 8 in Calvin) is sometimes mentioned. But precious little is said to give the impression that they were active readers or that their generations kept up vigorous literary-exegetical debates about a host of Pauline phrases. Given the range of recent scholarship on reformation-era exegesis (largely owing to the senior scholarship of David Steinmetz and Irena Backus but now taking in volumes like that of Stephen Chester’s Reading Paul with the Reformers or Michael Allen and Jonathan Linebaugh’s edited volume, Reformation Readings of Paul or now through the emerging publications in InterVarsity Press’s wonderful series, the Reformation Commentary on Scripture), it’s an unfortunate characterization. It can’t help but further a false impression that serious Pauline exegesis started somewhere in a recent Society of Biblical Literature seminar.

Unfortunately, several other elements of the argument suffer from their execution whether by lack of clarification or of argumentation or of contextualization or failure to be consistent. First, his discussion of church and salvation (ch. 8) raises two sorts of questions. Initially, he addresses church and salvation and the way in which interpreters like N. T. Wright view these topics as conjoined or, as van Driel summarizes, that “justification is not so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology” (248). Yet he then castigates critics of Wright for missing the fact that soteriology and ecclesiology are identical (249 fn 61). Whereas he first says justification isn’t about soteriology so much as about ecclesiology, he later seems to say that others wrongly fail to see soteriology and ecclesiology being identical. The former claim is important, the second is questionable, and their pairing is simply ironic.

As that same chapter (ch. 8) progresses, a second move can be observed: looking at John Calvin, Francis Turretin, and Charles Hodge, he seeks to show that they increasingly abstract the dictum of the early father, Cyprian of Carthage (“there is no salvation outside the church”) to the point that, eventually, “downgrading the place of the visible church in the story of salvation has left Reformed theology defenseless in the face of church schism, as is illustrated by the history of the Reformed church family” (239). Now I do think that the Reformed teaching on the church hasn’t always been as consistent or as operative as one might wish in discussion of polity and ecclesial witness (realities we should always seek to explore and address repentantly), but van Driel’s analysis seems to abstract that from other factors in a manner that is unlikely to actually identify real challenges. Ironically for a book on the new perspectives on Paul (which are largely about the significance of newly contextualized readings of him), this section offers wholly a-contextual comparison of three figures from varied centuries of Protestant life and juxtaposes them with a single early Christian witness. There are polemical and cultural reasons that they increasingly nuanced or specificied the character of Cyprian’s dictum, not least given the reality of denominational divisions and eventually of democratic individualism (a story told so well by Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Religion). In van Driel’s telling, though, three figures are simply toning down what Cyprian says, with no sketch of why they are adding qualification or seeking to increase nuance. Again, I don’t say that to rule out criticism (some of which I could easily imagine myself sharing), but real criticism cannot happen until you grasp what’s going on and perceiving theological witnesses demands contextual awareness. “Protestant theology tends to write the visible church out of salvation history” (253); that sort of claim simply won’t do as a productive criticism of traditions that treat covenant theology as a governing hermeneutical grid.

A third example is also illustrative. Van Driel’s first book addressed supralapsarian Christology. That term – supralapsarian (like its opposite: infralapsarian) – comes from debates about the order of God’s decrees. We might ask why it ought to be applied elsewhere; in this case, why must a narrative of the Bible be infralapsarian or supralapsarian? He overtly argues for the latter, but he finally acknowledges in a footnote that some sources can be read otherwise (312 fn 65); might this not raise the question of whether or not the question itself is unhelpful? Might we disentangle the lapsarian question (which is originally about the order of decrees) from other important questions about the range of Christological ends? Second, he also explicitly commends a supralapsarian account of Israel, which he says means that she has an intrinsic rather than purposive place in the narrative. He plainly (and rightly, in my estimation) aims to exclude approaches that would replace Israel with the church. But why is the question of purposiveness bound up with the matter of her eternality?

Finally, his interpretation of Gen 12:3 rightly focuses on the enduring character of the Abrahamic promise to Israel – he uses the language of its “intrinsic” character to commend its everlasting character. Over against the modern tendency of many (including, sadly, some Reformed voices) to speak of the church replacing Israel, he rightly commends the abiding significance of that people precisely because of God’s covenant oath. He leans on the arguments of R. W. L. Moberly in interpreting that verse and even cites the texts that Moberly cites, but with one notable exception. He omits reference to Jo Bailey Wells’ God’s Holy People, which traces the exposition of Gen. 12:3a via Exod. 19:5-6 and 1 Pet. 2:9; her emphasis on the way in which priestly language is invoked speaks of an ingredient purposiveness to the ongoing place held by Israel. Ignoring that strand of biblical data perhaps enables a juxtaposition of eternality and purposiveness where a fuller consideration might not demand such. He should be commended for tending to God’s everlasting love for Israel and abiding identity as the God of Israel, but his way of posing the question hinders saying other things that are also significant regarding the missional or purposive character of Abrahamic election.

Readers will note his reliance on the category of “narrative substructures,” highlighted front and back and operative across the text. In many respects, his emphasis there parallels the role of covenant theology in Reformed theological method (though he is not drawing directly on that covenant theology but instead largely channeling strands of postliberal theology, especially as expounded by David Kelsey). Questions should arise, however, about how that category relates to others. What makes the narrative the focal structuring principle as opposed to, say, an ethical path or a metaphysical theorem or a liturgical formula? Does a focus upon a paradigmatic narrative sufficiently depict the cohesive glue and theological distinctiveness of Paul’s thought? I raise the question not to dispute the significance of the story, as any evangelical believer or creedal Christian must surely be committed to the gravity of thinking in terms of covenant history, but as to whether or not a narrative theology is sufficient to characterize the apostle’s own contribution, much less his self-conception. This reviewer hopes that van Driel says more along these fundamental lines in future writings.

This new book by van Driel will help theologically interested readers glean some of the significance of a spate of recent Pauline debates. It may not always tend to all the data or discussions, and it may sometimes conflate categories, but it does throw into relief those ways in which historical and exegetical discussions manifest doctrinal and ethical significance. Baur and Barth and Bultmann and Käsemann knew so, and their interpretative or historical approaches led to revisions in a range of theological topics. More recent debates also have real significance (for good or ill), and van Driel’s book makes that plain. That readers will want to engage the actual exegesis of the varied passages in much greater detail in no way diminishes the importance of being prompted to think about the synthetic and implicatory tasks of Christian doctrine.

Michael Allen
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando