Common Limitations among Recent Studies in Pauline Christology and a Way Forward

There has been a renewed interest in Pauline Christology for the last several decades. In addition the two “patriarchs” in the “tribe” of the so-called EHCC (“Early and High Christology Club”), namely, Bauckham and Larry Hurtado, contributions by Capes, Fee, Tilling, Wright, and Fletcher-Louis each have advanced the conversations on Paul’s Christology in their own unique and distinctive ways. More recently, scholars have attempted to front a trinitarian perspective in accounting for the apostle’s Christology (e.g., Hill; cf. Bates) whereas others have tied the view of Jesus more tightly with Second Temple Jewish messianism (e.g., Novenson, Jipp and Bühner). While the individual and collective weight of their contributions must be acknowledged, certainly with some nuances, there are at least three common limitations and problems among their approaches.

First amongst these common problems and limitations is the failure to integrate all evidence. At times scholars give exclusive attention to well-known “High Christology” passages, while avoiding/neglecting difficult passages or not reflecting sufficiently on the integration of the two. However, the combination of the two seems to lie near the heart of the NT/Paul’s Christology. Although this combination may appear to be, and is, indeed paradoxical and, thus, we may probably not be able to fully fathom the dynamics involved in their conjunction, we should still do our best to account for their integration in our discussion of Paul’s Christology.

In addition, the failure to integrate Christology within Paul’s larger theological construct needs to be noted. Many scholars who address Paul’s Christology give little attention to how his understanding of Jesus relates to other facets of his theology. More attention should be paid to the relationship between Paul’s Christology and other components of his letters/his theology, given that (a) none of Paul’s letters were composed with a primary focus on Christology itself, and (b), in most cases, Paul’s Christology is stated/hinted in the context of addressing other issues (e.g., soteriological, eschatological, ecclesiological matters).

Furthermore, the failure to consider Paul’s own presuppositions about Scripture must be mentioned. Most scholars in this conversation do not seriously consider Paul’s (and his audience’s) view of Scripture and of divine revelation in their proposals. However, as is often noted, Paul was writing theology in and for the church and as such we should acknowledge and consider closely his (and even our own) presuppositions about Scripture as inspired divine revelation. Along this line G. K. Beale helpfully notes that the apostles and writers of the New Testament books, not least Paul, viewed the Old Testament Scripture as a unified, inspired work that points forward to the Messiah Jesus (Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, pp. 95-97). To read Paul’s letters apart from their theological and ecclesial context will risk misreading them. This point presents a caution toward scholars in the academy to read these letters as Paul intended them to be read: as letters written in the church and for the church.

This paper contributes to the ongoing conversations on Pauline Christology by pointing out some common problems and limitations among the various proposals put forward in recent years and, in so doing, directing the current discussions towards a more constructive and fruitful path–a way forward.

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