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God in New Testament Theology
The Library of Biblical Theology
By Larry W. Hurtado
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
"GOD" IN/AND NEW TESTAMENT SCHOLARSHIP
The immediate observation to make about how NT scholarship has treated "God" is that things have improved since Dahl published his lament, especially in the last couple of decades. There is a stillmodest but somewhat increased body of scholarly publications that are either specifically focused on "God" in the NT or at least include a substantial discussion of the topic. In a number of cases, it is obvious that Dahl's essay factored in helping to generate schl#topic1olarly interest in the treatment of "God" in the NT, as reflected in the citation of his essay in many of these more recent publications. Even though the body of publications in question is finite, my intention here is not primarily to give an exhaustive review of them. Instead, in what follows I aim to portray the broad directions of scholarly study on "God" through considering what I hope are works sufficiently representative. Our key concerns will be to see how scholars have gone about engaging this demanding topic and what developments we see in their efforts.
For any scholarly discussion of "God" in the NT, there is the immediate question of how to organize matters. Dahl posed as alternative options either "to represent the form and function of theological language" in individual NT writings or to give "a systematic treatment of major themes" across the whole of the NT. In either case, he urged, scholars must consider both the unity and the variety in the theological emphases reflected in the NT. This concern about the question of unity and diversity in the NT applies, of course, to practically any discussion of theological ideas in the NT, as is reflected in the major NT theologies of recent years (to which I return later in this discussion). It is a somewhat simpler task to focus on a particular NT writer or writing, however, and it is therefore understandable that the majority of scholarly publications to be considered have this more restricted coverage. So, I begin by noting important examples of this sort.
"GOD" IN PAULINE WRITINGS
We may begin with studies of "God" in Paul's Epistles. Perhaps the earliest major work to note is Halvor Moxnes's 1980 monograph on Paul's presentation of "God" in Romans. Moxnes's book, based on his PhD thesis, which was done partly under Dahl's supervision, focused particularly on Romans 1–4 and 9–11, where references to "God" are particularly frequent. His aim was to show how Paul's statements about "God" reflect issues then current, especially among fellow Christian Jews, over the status of Gentile converts and the continuing religious significance of "Israel." That is, Moxnes emphasized how Paul's God-statements must be seen in their literary and historical context. Moxnes advocated proceeding from detailed study of individual statements about "God" to assessing "the place and function of theology within Paul's thinking as a whole" and, thereafter, "the function of theology in the historical situation of Paul and his audience."
Moxnes's study reflects the sort of foundational work on which a proper theological analysis of "God" in the NT should be built, certainly. But, to use a distinction that Dahl made, what Moxnes provided was more a contribution to a history of earliest Christian beliefs about "Romans." It is entirely right that NT theology be informed by careful studies of the history of early Christian beliefs. But NT theology and the history of early Christian beliefs are distinguishable tasks, and the one cannot substitute for the other.
In the early 1990s two further important monographs on Paul's view of "God" appeared. The key questions in Paul-Gerhard Klumbies's 1992 book were how Paul's ideas about "God" related to beliefs in Jewish tradition and in what way(s) Paul might have appropriated and altered them. So, the first major portion of his discussion was a survey of references to "God" in Second Temple Jewish texts (pseudepigraphical literature, Qumran, and Jewish writers such as Philo and Josephus). Klumbies also more briefly discussed possible evidence of the beliefs about "God" that circulated in Christian "prePauline tradition." Thereafter, Klumbies conducted an exegetical analysis of a body of key Pauline texts from 1 Thessalonians, 1–2 Corinthians, Philippians, and Romans, and then offered some synthesizing conclusions.
Klumbies judged that for Paul "God" was not a subject for speculation, but instead his God-statements are characteristically linked to soteriological and christological emphases. That is, "God" appears characteristically in statements about divine redemptive actions and purposes, such as God sending forth or giving over Jesus for the redemption of believers (e.g., Gal 4:4-6; Rom 8:31-33).
Also, emphasizing "the fundamental significance of christology for Pauline statements about God" and that Paul's God-talk is thoroughly shaped by his faith in Christ, Klumbies insisted that Paul's view of "God" is in a significant measure quite distinguishable from Jewish views of the time. Granting that the God about whom Paul speaks is the God of Abraham and Moses, nevertheless, Klumbies urged, Paul filled inherited statements about "God" with new content. Most centrally, for Paul the key defining revelation of God was Christ instead of Torah, which represents a serious discontinuity with Jewish tradition. Indeed, Klumbies argued that the major continuity between Paul and his Jewish/OT background is a retrospective one. In the light of his perception of Jesus' significance, Paul retrospectively understood all previous references to "God" in the OT and Jewish tradition. For Paul, God was always in some sense "in Christ," and the OT is a prefiguring and anticipation of the manifestation of Christ. That is, Paul's God-talk was Christ-oriented; Christ was not simply added onto a previously fixed view of God.
Klumbies contended that Paul's view of "God" is also readily distinguishable from "pre-Pauline" Christian tradition, positing that Paul placed a greater emphasis both on the meaning of Jesus' redemptive death as the uniquely significant revelation of "God" and manifestation of divine love and also on faith as the essential human response to God's redemptive actions. Moreover, Klumbies urged that Paul distinctively articulated a more thoroughly christological understanding of "God" and of Christ as not only Messiah but also as the divinely ordained basis and pattern for the divine sonship of believers. In sum, granting that Paul was not an academic theologian, nevertheless Klumbies portrays him as a significant and major figure whose statements about "God" make him unique among NT writers.
Neil Richardson's 1994 monograph (based on his 1992 PhD thesis) has a related but distinguishable focus as an extended linguistic study of key Pauline passages where God-statements are particularly prominent and clustered (especially Rom 9–11; 12:1–15:7; 1 Cor 1:18–3:23; 2 Cor 2:14– 4:6). After registering the Christian theological concerns that make his study important, Richardson complained about the neglect of Paul's Godlanguage in NT scholarship, judging that "the significance of Paul's language about God has been greatly underestimated" and that there was "no overview of Paul's teaching about God." Toward the end of his study, Richardson alleged a "remarkable neglect in New Testament scholarship of what the New Testament teaches about God, and the striking difference of opinion among New Testament scholars about whether a new understanding of God is indeed reflected in the writings of Paul."
Richardson's key questions were "how far were Paul's concept of and language about God changed by his conversion to the Christian faith?" and also to what extent did the "ideas and language about God [shape] Paul's understanding of Christ and the language which Paul used about Christ?"
On the first question, Richardson concluded that Paul's "hermeneutical standpoint" was Christ and that this meant that Paul differed from "all his non-Christian contemporaries." Richardson had in mind particularly Paul's Jewish contemporaries, and he contended that Paul was also actually more theocentric than most Jewish texts of the period, which (in Richardson's view) often focused more on OT worthies such as Moses or Abraham or Israel or (as in Qumran) some elect subset of Israel than on "God." Ironically, Richardson argued, Paul's powerful experience of Christ and the consequent realization of Christ's great significance as the unique revelation of "God" produced this distinctively theocentric outlook.
Richardson judged, however, that "Paul reworked traditional [Jewish/OT] God-language" and that there was "both continuity and discontinuity with the Old Testament and later Jewish language about and understanding of God."
Paul's thought and writings are both theocentric and Christocentric; Paul's language about God and his language about Christ are so intertwined that neither can properly be understood without the other.
One of the results, Richardson urged, was that for Paul "Christ universalized and radicalized the Old Testament understanding of the grace and love of God," transcending the focus on Israel to include all nations.
Noting that not all of Paul's God-language was "distinctively Christian" but was heavily indebted to his Jewish background, nevertheless, Richardson concluded, "much of it is implicitly christological," and there is a "vital interdependence of language about God and language about Christ" in Paul. Yet Richardson also posited that Paul's Christlanguage is "grammatically subordinate" to his God-language, which "points to God as origin, author, warrant and goal," Christ characteristically referred to as the unique agent of divine purposes. This produces a paradoxical conclusion. On the one hand, Paul's thought is "deeply theocentric," and "time and again God is emphatically the ultimate referencepoint." On the other hand, "much of his God-language alternates with, and is even dependent on, language about Christ." In sum, "If it is true that Paul uses God-language in order to interpret and 'define' Christ, it is also true that language about Christ in turn redefines the identity of God."
One of the works cited by Richardson is Larry Kreitzer's 1987 study, Jesus and God in Paul's Eschatology. This is another noteworthy contribution to scholarly studies of Paul's thought, but the focus is limited to the ways that Paul links Jesus and God in his statements expressive of eschatological expectations and hopes. Kreitzer refers to a Pauline "transference" or shift of terms and roles from God to Christ, but Richardson (rightly in my view) judged that it is more accurate to characterize Paul's thought as involving an "overlap" in which Christ shares in some of God's attributes and actions. That is, we may think of Paul as reflecting a unique and remarkable inclusion of Jesus into roles, attributes, and significance otherwise reserved for "God" in biblical/Jewish tradition.
Even though it is restricted to an examination of key Pauline passages, Richardson's book is probably the fullest study of Paul's references to "God" and presents a generally balanced and nuanced discussion. It combines careful exegesis that includes detailed linguistic analysis of Pauline statements about "God" with explicit theological concern. We may note a further interesting observation registered by Richardson. Although he agreed that we must avoid reading later doctrinal developments back into New Testament texts, Richardson contended that there is no great discontinuity between Paul and the later theological developments of the patristic period. Certainly, he granted, the one is not the other.
Yet Paul's emphasis on the lordship of Christ as the new and final expression of Jewish monotheism, the incarnational implications of much of his language about Christ, together with the explication of his God-language by its association with Christ-language and Spiritlanguage, suggest that the later doctrines of the Incarnation and Trinity were the logical consequences of his theological grammar.
This is likely a view to which some others, but not all, would give unqualified assent. I noted earlier Richardson's reference to a continuing difference of opinion among scholars about whether Paul's view of "God" represents a distinctively Christian reshaping of Jewish beliefs in the light of christological convictions or whether Paul essentially took over a view of God from Jewish tradition and simply added onto it beliefs about Jesus. In some other contributions to the study of Paul's theology we see this difference of opinion vividly.
Gordon Fee's massive study of Paul's references to the Spirit of God constitutes a forceful assertion that Paul operated with "thoroughly Trinitarian presuppositions," for "not only has the coming of Christ changed everything for Paul, so too has the coming of the Spirit." In Fee's analysis, Paul operated with a "Trinitarian understanding of God" that was "foundational to the heart of his theological enterprise—salvation in Christ." To cite Fee's own forthright statement:
Salvation is God's activity, from beginning to end: God the Father initiated it, in that it belongs to God's eternal purposes (1 Cor 2:6-9), has its origins in God and has God as its ultimate goal (1 Cor 8:6), and was set in motion by his having sent both the Son and the Spirit (Gal 4:4-7). Christ the Son effected eschatological salvation for the people of God through his death and resurrection, the central feature of all Pauline theology. The effectual realization and appropriation of the love of God as offered by the Son is singularly the work of the Spirit.... There is no salvation in Christ which is not fully Trinitarian in this sense.
In his large study of Paul's theology (1998), however, James Dunn strikes a somewhat different emphasis. Dunn freely acknowledges "how fundamental to Paul's theology was the experience of his conversion" and "the extent to which Christ is bound up with Paul's sense of personal knowledge of and relationship with God." Early in his chapter on "God," he notes that the "God-given 'revelation of Christ' did not leave his fundamental belief in God unaffected." But in Dunn's comparatively brief discussion of Paul's beliefs about "God," the dominant emphasis is that "Paul's convictions about God are all too axiomatic" and were "Jewish through and through," e.g., God as "one," as the creator, and as especially linked to the history of Israel. So, Dunn contends, there is little elaboration of beliefs about "God" in Paul, for "they were already common to and shared with his readers." Moreover, Dunn states that Paul's " 'speech about God' was part of the shared speech of the first Christian congregations, already a fundamental 'taken-for-granted' of their common discourse."
So, Dunn devotes only 23 pages to "God," whereas the largest chapter of Dunn's weighty tome is devoted to Paul's beliefs about Jesus, comprising some 152 pages, and in his final chapter Dunn devotes a further section to Christ as "the fulcrum point of Paul's theology." In this latter discussion, Dunn certainly makes much of Jesus' significance for Paul. Thus, e.g., Dunn says that "Christ was the decisive factor," playing the "pivotal role" in Paul's theology, "the central criterion by which Paul made critical discrimination of what counted and what was of lesser moment." Moreover, Dunn writes of the "realignment" of Paul's Jewish heritage, stating that "in Paul's theology Christ gave that heritage clearer definition." Indeed, Dunn judges, "For Paul, God was now to be known definitively by reference to Christ," God's character revealed "most fully in terms of Christ" such that "the revelation of Christ was the revelation of God," the result being that "Christ became the definition of God."
Nevertheless, it seems significant that Dunn thereafter also registers some puzzlement that Paul's gospel required that "faith had to be in Christ and could no longer be simply in God," for in Dunn's view Paul "never properly explains" this. Indeed, Dunn adds, "Presumably he could have envisaged a saving faith which was not focused in Christ as such."
Excerpted from God in New Testament Theology by Larry W. Hurtado. Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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