Once something has been labelled ‘new,’ it’s hard to find words for the next thing. What comes after the New Revised Standard Version? What comes after post-postmodernism? What comes after ‘beyond the new perspective’?
Anyway, here are my ruminations on how various ‘perspectives’ on Paul might need continued tweaking…
After our youngest daughter came into our bed at 4:30 this morning, I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to think. And this is what I thought: Paul often operates with theologically primal categories. What does this mean? Well I don’t know if ‘primal’ is the best word, but I’m struggling to think of any word that captures what I’m trying to get at.
It’s related to a point I was making in a post a few days ago…
it is not second temple Judaism, as it actually exists, that Paul is opposing. Rather, he is configuring any way of relating to God outside of Christ as now – and even retrospectively – being effectively insufficient. Indeed, Paul himself, though being blameless according to the law, became exposed by the Christ event as in (literal) need of gracious enlightenment.
Paul, at times, deals not with people or institutions as they actually self-experience, but with primal categories to which those people or institutions effectively belong.
Notice that Paul is able to put himself into a theologically primal category to which he never experienced lived affiliation:
All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else (Ephesians 2:3; yes, admittedly this is Ephesians – but even if one were to think it’s post-Pauline, it is at least an unabashed presentation of the Pauline persona)
Here Paul (or ‘Paul,’ if you prefer) inserts himself into the fall. This is clearly a theological categorisation, because he belongs to ‘all of us.’
But elsewhere Paul is able to reflect on his personal history in experiential terms:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:4-6)
On the surface of it, this doesn’t gel with the passage from Ephesians above. But we need to recognise that lived experience is not the full measure of reality.
As well as being able to refer to himself in these different ways, Paul is able to refer to other people similarly:
For though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. (Romans 1:21)
Paul is describing the fall… and yet he isn’t. He’s using a theologically primal category to picture humankind’s plight – and yet describing it in narrative terms, just as he does with reference to himself in Ephesians above.
This, I think, explains the identity of the speaker in Romans 7. It’s the same persona as in Ephesians 2:3: it is Paul, as inserted into the theological category of without-Christ. This doesn’t mean it actually matches up with Paul’s experience when he was without Christ; it just means that he is adopting theologically primal categories again. In fact, the coming of Christ appears to have prompted Paul to apply these categorical templates to lived history and experience in ways he had presumably not done before.
So how should this impact various ‘perspectives’ on Paul? It should simply remind that Paul writes with rhetorical cunning, and this needs to be recognised when we interpret his writings. We shouldn’t presume to get a clear window into either his pre-Christian life, or second-temple Judaism, when in fact – at times – Paul is dealing with christologically conceived primal categories as opposed to lived experience.