March 10, 2007

Studying Paul with J. D. G. Dunn, 1

I've undertaken the rather formidable task of studying James D. G. Dunn's Theology of Paul the Apostle, his 800-page contribution to Pauline studies. It is hard to imagine a more worthwhile task than trying to "think Paul's thoughts after him," as N. T. Wright has put it, or to think Paul's thouhts from "inside his skin," as Dunn has similarly said. So here I'm going to take my blog as an opportunity to digest and reflect with you on some of the major themes that Dunn illuminates in this important work.

Dunn's first chapter, as is no surprise, is a prolegomena, outlining just what it means to have a theology of Paul, and further, defending the possibility that such a thing is in fact possible. Paul, he says, is the only Christian of the first three centuries for whom we can really attempt to construct a well-rounded and in-depth portrait of his theology. For Paul is in many senses a well-known quantity: we know a good bit about his life and background, we know about his conversion, we know about his ministry, and we have a good number of writings that are undisputedly from his hand. (Dunn takes a relatively traditional scholarly position that Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon are undisputedly Pauline; he also includes 2 Thessalonians on this list; with regard to the other letters, Dunn also asserts that Colossians was written by Timothy before Paul's death, and also defends the value of Ephesians and the Pastorals for coming to grips with Paul's theology.)

I will not attempt here to outline Dunn's method, nor will I repeat his arguments for doing this study, but I do think there are a few important insights that are worth consideration. One of the points which seems most significat methodologically for Dunn's study is his assertion that it is important to understand the multilayered character of Paul's thought. This means (very much in the mold of narrative theology) understanding that at the foundation of Paul's thought is a bedrock of assumptions and axioms (such as God's existence and uniqueness), mostly taken over from his native Judaism, and including the stories of God and of Israel. The second level is Paul's own experience, and most especially his conversion, which proves to be a turning point in his thinking about God and continues to inform his thought. The third level is Paul's immediate situation. Here, in the case of the letters, we mean the situations or issues Paul is confronting and addressing. For Dunn, theology is the interaction of all three. Much like N. T. Wright, then, delving into Paul's theology means identifying and illuminating the underlying thought-patters or narratives that give coherence to his more specific expressions of theology found in the letters. This doesn't mean getting away from the letters, nor necessarily getting behind them, so much as trying to find coherence that goes deeper than just a whole made up of disparate pieces to the very thought patterns that produced those pieces.

A second worthwile insight Dunn has about studying Paul is that it is a study that can't be wholly scholarly and disinterested. Paul's theology was for him a matter of life and death. It had immediate life-significance for him. This means that it is to distort Paul's thought if we approach it in a way that doesn't take into account the deep implications for life (both in Paul's case and in the case of those of us who come after).

No comments: