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What Kind of Thinker Was Paul? Less Theologian, More Theologizer

Categories New Testament

Apostle-Paul_Humanity-HealingIn the preface to his The Theology of Paul the Apostle, James Dunn writes affectionately of his “fascination with Paul” beginning forty years prior to its writing.

As a boy, he was fascinated “by Paul’s missionary achievements, particularly his extensive travels and his success in establishing Christianity in Europe.” (TAP, xv)

As a university student, Dunn’s fascination deepened as he began to appreciate Paul as a theologian. “The combination of profound theological reflection and sensitive grappling with all too real human problems, of out-spoken argument and pastoral insight, ‘found me’ at many points.” (TAP, xv)

As a lecturer, he has been “constantly drawn back to him” and has “probed more and more aspects of Paul’s theology.”

Dunn’s retrospective on his relationship with Paul mirrors the feelings Bruce Longenecker and Todd Still express in their new book Thinking Through Paul.

In it they insist “To study Paul well can be exciting. To study Paul well can be challenging. To study Paul well can be life-changing.” (10)

“Thinking through Paul” involves thinking about Paul. It means “sorting through his letters and considering what he was saying in them” by studying and exploring him as an object. It also involves thinking with Paul, “seeing things from his perspective, thinking along his thought patterns…;" he's "a catalyst to stir our own thoughts about the things that matter.” (13)

But what kind of thinker was Paul? And is it right to appreciate Paul, as Dunn has, as a theologian?

Yes, and no.

This is one of several intriguing questions Longenecker and Still confront in their engaging book. They help us realize he's a different thinker than many of us have thought.

Paul Was Less a Systematic Theologian…

It’s no secret many view Paul as a systematic theologian. They imagine that, “In the deep recesses of his penetrating mind, Paul delved into intricate theological issues, emerging from his passionate cogitations with rigorously considered ideas that he bequeathed to the church as systematically robust articulations of Christian theology.” (299)

While this view has some merit, Longenecker and Still contend he was not a systematic theologian. Instead, “he was more of an expert missionary and a devout pastor” who engaged this twin calling from a deep well of theological resources. (299)

“His letters to Jesus groups of other cities were not systematic treatises per se, but were pastoral letters occasioned by specific situations and intended to influence the thinking and behavior of localized groups of people who required correction or instruction on selected matters.” (299)

Yet this doesn’t mean Paul couldn’t be considered a theologian; it’s just that he wasn’t the kind many of us make him out to be. He wasn’t an Irenaeus, he wasn’t an Aquinas. He wasn’t even a Luther or a Calvin. Instead Paul did theology as a Jew; “Paul often shows himself to be a thoroughly Jewish thinker.” (322)

Longenecker and Still make it clear that Paul’s “theological discourse was immersed in the resources of Jewish Scripture and tradition…” (322). This is evident in Paul’s emphasis and reasoning on

  • abandoning the worship of the pagan gods (e.g., 1 Thess 1:9);
  • abandoning pagan ways of life (e.g., Rom 1:18–32; 1 Cor 6:9–11; 1 Thess 4:3–7);
  • the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15);
  • the proper use of the body in sexual relations (e.g., 1 Corinthians 6);

Paul “excelled in considering the story of God’s action in Jesus Christ in relation to the story of the covenant people of Israel.” (322)

But even then, Longenecker and Still believe Paul was more a contextual theologizer than a systematic theologian.

…And More a Contextual Theologizer 

Longenecker and Still rightly wonder, “Should we expect Paul to have had a fully articulated theological system or package ‘in his back pocket,’ in a sense, from the moment he encountered the resurrected Christ?” (300)

Others have asked similar questions. As Longenecker and Still reveal, current Pauline scholars prefer to speak less about Paul’s “theology” and more about his “theologizing;” Paul was less a systematic theologian and more a contextual theologizer.

“This avoids imagining that Paul’s theology comes readily ‘prepackaged’ and does better justice to the situational dimension of his thinking.” (301)

The authors speak about the socio-rhetorical dimension such scholars as Ben Witherington III have exploited and employed. While there is certainly logical cohesion to Paul’s arguments, many of them are made within a rhetorical, contextual bubble, so that ”Paul’s distinct arguments are rhetorically targeted to serve their purposes within particular situations, being driven primarily by canons of rhetorical urgency rather than logical consistency…” (301)

This doesn’t mean the whole of Paul’s theologizing is merely a discombobulated, disconnected mess, however. Yes, there is a situatedness to Paul’s theology. Yet “attention must be given to both the situational dimension of Paul’s theologizing (i.e., its contingency) and the larger matrix of Paul’s theological convictions (i.e., its coherence).” (301)

The authors point to  J. C. Beker’s The Triumph of God in Life and Thought. Becker proposed that standing behind Paul’s theologizing was a coherent “macro-symbol.” Longenecker and Still agree, believing a so-called “apocalyptic matrix” threads Paul’s letters together, defined as “the sovereign triumph of Israel’s God over competing forces that threatened to unravel the cosmic order of creation.” (302)

Throughout their book the authors comprehensively explore how this narrative is the nexus that gave rise to Paul’s theologizing, and also helped him answer several theological questions within his contextual, situated letters.


Longenecker and Still conclude with the words of Claude Lévi-Strauss: Paul is “good to think with.” Their informative, engaging book will help students and other interested Christians not only think about Paul, but think with him, too.

As a theologian, yes, but especially a theologizer.

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