James Thompson, recently retired from Abilene Christian University, has been known to comment that if you make your living as a biblical scholar, “you don’t know your work from your play.” And it’s indeed true that as a New Testament prof, you frequently find yourself dealing with the topics you regard as most important, the questions you think most merit reflection, and the texts you most value reading. That’s how the middle weeks of my summer went, thanks to a course I taught on “The Gospel According to Paul.”
Photo: Rembrandt, The Apostle Paul (1657), National Gallery of Art
Given the choice, I would rather spend time with Paul than with any other biblical author. A lot of Christians feel the same way, since Paul’s letters offer us the the fullest account of the work of God in Christ from creation to redemption that the New Testament includes. Not all my reasons for appreciating Paul are so spiritual, I must confess.
I enjoy puzzles, and Paul’s letters present their reader with a host of interpretive and historical riddles to work out. Also, I’ve always enjoyed autobiography, and Paul is the one New Testament author who goes in pretty heavily for that, especially in Galatians 1:11–2:21 and Philippians 3:3–16. Paul’s personality, rough edges and all, shines through his letters more than other biblical authors’ through their books, thanks to their limited address and the dialogical nature of each letter. In most of his letters, Paul addresses a community of Christians he was instrumental in bringing into being and continues the conversation he began with them in the planting of their church.
We owe that metaphor to Paul, incidentally (in 1 Corinthians 3:6), and that brings us to the particular topic we pursued in the summer course. In his letters, Paul refers with some frequency to the message on the basis of which he formed communities devoted to Christ. Often he refers to this message as his “gospel” (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 1:5; 2:8–9; Galatians 1:11; 1 Corinthians 4:15; 15:1) or “proclamation” (e.g., 1 Corinthians 2:4; 15:14).
Nowhere, alas, do Paul’s letters offer a comprehensive account, or even a summary overview of just what Paul taught converts in their initiation. If we want an idea what topics it covered and how it treated them, we have to consult passages in Paul’s letters that recall this instruction, as well as the two summaries of Pauline missionary preaching that Luke includes in Acts (to a synagogue audience in chapter 13 and devotees of Epicurean and Stoic philosophy in chapter 17). That was the focus of our summer study, with most of our attention devoted to Paul’s letters.
In the course of writing letters to his converts, Paul often refers in the past tense to the message he had “preached” or “taught” or “delivered to” them in the founding of their churches (1 Corinthians 2:1–2; 11:2, 23; Galatians 1:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:15), or to what they had “received” or “believed” in response to Paul’s preaching (1 Corinthians 15:3, 11; Colossians 2:6; 1 Thessalonians 4:1), or to the baptism they had experienced and its significance (1 Corinthians 12:12–13; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 2:12). When he came to write the letter remembered as his greatest, to Christians in Rome, Paul introduced himself to a community he had not planted by summarizing “the gospel of God … concerning his Son” (Romans 1:1–3), which he had proclaimed far and wide in his apostolic ministry, resulting in “the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles” (Romans 1:5; cf. 15:15–20). The letter takes this “gospel” as its theme (Romans 1:16–17).
To get at what Paul initially preached, the reader must scrutinize passages like these and see if the founding message that Paul recalls can be distinguished from the elaborations called forth by fresh questions and new challenges in the churches.
A fully realized study of this question requires considering most every issue that’s ever been pursued in the study of Paul’s letters.
- What is the understanding of God, Christ, the Spirit, the church, and salvation presented in these letters?
- In what order were the letters written, and can development in Paul’s understanding of any of these topics be traced between earlier letters and later ones?
- Was Paul’s founding message consistent from city to city, or did he vary his proclamation from mission stop to mission stop?
- Did Paul himself write all the New Testament letters that bear his name, or were some of them written in Paul’s name after his death, like the non-canonical second-century “3 Corinthians”?
- How close or far apart were Paul and other missionaries, especially the apostles in Jerusalem, in their understanding and proclamation of the gospel?
I hope eventually to offer such a comprehensive study, building on the work of scholars including Benjamin Edsall, who has made a fine start. Our brief summer course afforded time for fellow students of Paul and me to read through the Pauline letters together and consider the interpretation of a number of the key passages. It’s my impression we all came away with a deeper appreciation of Paul as a missionary, a theologian, and a dedicated witness to the crucified and risen Christ whom he proclaimed.
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Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin seminary offering B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees, and Austin Grad is accredited by the same agency that accredits Abilene Christian University, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, The University of Texas, and others. Austin Grad — one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas — is affiliated with the Church of Christ and is in conversation with all who confess Jesus as Lord. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.