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Paul, Stephen Fowl, and Trinitarian Doctrine

May 25, 2018

The contributions to the multi-author volume that I noted yesterday here include a thoughtful essay by Stephen Fowl (who, in my experience, writes only thoughtful work):  “Paul and the Trinity” (pp. 151-61).

He first notes that, although in Paul we have a “christological maximalism,” Paul did not engage the questions that occupied pro and anti figures in the Nicene-era debates, such as how to understand the “generation of the Son.”  So, “both pro- and anti-Nicene theologians made ready recourse to Paul.  If one is to say that there are Trinitarian implications to Paul’s view of God, then one must say that there are Arian implications too” (152).

Fowl then surveys quickly the questions with which Paul was concerned, which mainly focused on the terms on which Gentiles could be treated as full co-religionists by Jewish Jesus-believers.  But Fowl also notes how readily Paul linked God, Jesus, and the Spirit in his discourse and references to divine redemptive and creative work.

Fowl concludes by proposing that we, though we should not ascribe a full-blown Trinitarianism to Paul, “pro-Nicene doctrine” may be viewed as a reasonable way of handling the tensions in Paul’s thought between an “unwavering commitment to God’s singularity and his Christological maximalism in the light of theological and ecclesial pressures different from those Paul faced” (161).

That’s not to close off further discussion, and Fowl would agree.  But his essay demonstrates the kind of patient and irenic exploration of how each age has to formulate doctrine in light of its own conceptual categories and pressing issues.

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  1. jaysmith permalink

    Thanks Sir for pointing me to the resources. i hope i will read your book One God, One Lord within next month. Also i eagerly wait to read your upcoming book. I need some clarification regarding your proposal Sir.
    So there is a discontinuity exists(as far as worship is considered) between historical Jesus who never demanded worship and the earliest Christians who started to worship this historical Jesus because of their religious experience. This human Jesus(as far as synoptic gospels are concerned) suddenly became(or mutated into) divine Jesus in a remarkable way because of religious experience. Professor please correct me whether i have understood (or misunderstood) your proposal.
    is there a mysterious gap between Christology of the synoptics and Pauline epistles?

    • The NT writings present the conviction that God exalted Jesus to heavenly glory and now requires him to be reverenced. They didn’t base their actions in this regard on whether Jesus taught them to worship him, but on the conviction that God required it.
      The Synoptics presuppose this view, and in varying ways allude to it. But their main aim was to narrate the ministry of Jesus.

      • In what ways did the synoptic authors allude to Jesus requiring worship during his ministry?

      • Hon Wai: You misunderstood what I wrote. I wrote that the Gospels allude to the “post-Easter” worship of Jesus. They don’t say that Jesus demanded it. And that wasn’t the reason that early believers gave the risen Jesus cultic reverence. They did it because they believed that God had exalted Jesus and now required him to be reverenced. They believed they were obeying GOD, not some demand of Jesus himself.

      • Thanks Dr. Hurtado for the clarification. I misunderstood. This clarification raises a new question for me in a different direction. Scholars commonly point to evidence of various authorial redactions in the synoptics, which are unlikely to have originated from the historical Jesus. Given that the synoptic authors were of the conviction that God demanded worship of the risen Jesus or at least that Jesus was divine “in some sense” (qua Ehrman’s “How Jesus became God”), isn’t it remarkable they didn’t redact this central conviction onto the lips and deeds of Jesus in their narration of his ministry? I note your point that their main aim was to narrate the ministry of Jesus. Yet doesn’t it strike us as remarkable the authors redacted their views of secondary issues but refrained from redacting their central conviction?

      • Yes, there are actually a number of matters that show a concern to represent Jesus authentically in an early first-century Judean context. We don’t have reference to circumcision for example, which was a major issue for Pauline churches. The evangelists (esp. the Synoptics) did actually locate Jesus historically with impressive care. See my discussion in my book, Lord Jesus Christ.

      • jaysmith permalink

        Thank you Sir for your explanation. Anyhow i still don’t understand how the synoptics allude to post-easter Jesus worship when Jesus himself never demanded such kind of worship. . . . . .
        I became so interested to know your say on I Enoch 48:5. So i cross referenced and found your book ” At the origins of Christian worship” was having the answer. Your answer in page 73 is convincing to me. but still i have few doubts surfacing my mind. In that page you have said that the worship of eschatological figure/elect one/ son of man figure is only literary phenomena. In the same page you talk about “devotional praxis” of early church. Are you saying that only a consistent devotional praxis can be termed as worship and all other evidences like I Enoch 48:5, 62:9 which use the term worship a literary phenomena? The verse is having “singing hymns and falling down” . Can these two things (singing hymns and falling down) be considered as devotional praxis? Also if you narrow down worship to devotional praxis , how can you explain Romans 12:1 which has no devotional praxis but still Paul claims renewing the mind is the true worship?

      • Jaysmith: The Gospels allude to ritual practices of the time of their composition, but don’t ascribe these to Jesus. How often must I repeat the point: For earliest believers, the key question was what GOD required. And in their experience God required the risen Jesus to be reverenced. Whether Jesus demanded it is simply not relevant.
        As for 1 Enoch 48:5 read the text more carefully: the hymns and prayers are addressed there to “the Lord of Spirits” (God), not to the messianic figure.

  2. My question to Prof.Larry Hurtado,Is worship the only attribute or category that decides deity of Jesus? Sir, have you reviewed Sean Mcdonough’s Christ as creator? If so please give me the link.
    My second question is this: When Paul and other earliest christians(epistle to hebrews) convey the deity of Christ in so many ways, why(scholars including Prof.Hurtado)hang on just to one particular aspect or category? It seems like reducing the earliest christians language about Christ to single aspect. Why the diverse expressions that show the deity of Jesus are excluded for the sake of single aspect called worship. Also if you have reviewed “Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters-Wesley Hill”, please give me the link sir.

    • Jaysmith: Your questions open a whole body of issues that require more than a blog comment. Essentially, however, (1) language of “deity” is applied in ancient Jewish sources to various heavenly beings, e.g., angels can be called “gods”; (2) participation in creation can be ascribed also to angels or to God’s Wisdom; (3) in the ancient world the key way to register the deity of a figure was by worship; (4) in Jewish circles of the time, only God received cultic worship; (5) which makes the worship-pattern of earliest Christian circles so remarkable and historically significant. It is the most unambiguous expression of divinity in that setting. See, e.g.,my book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, or my forthcoming small book, Honor the Son, for a fuller discussion.

  3. Dr Hurtado, if I may ask a question here concerning Pauline theology, not on christology but on atonement. Paul presented his christology to address concerns and needs of his time, which was subsequently further developed in terms and concepts of later centuries to address new concerns and needs. Could Paul’s theology of atonement similarly be underdetermined hence compatible with many of the competing theories of atonement of later centuries (e.g. ransom theory, moral influence, Christus Victor, satisfaction theory, penal substitution), none of which are contained in entirety in the Pauline corpus?

    • Hon Wai Lai: Paul refers to the redemptive significance of Jesus’ death in various ways, “atonement” being one of them (e.g., Rom 3:21-26). And even there, it doesn’t directly fit. For he refers to the deity making atonement, or assuaging his own wrath, which totally reverses the whole idea of atonement. So, we have to be careful about taking these images simplistically.

  4. Dale Tuggy permalink

    “The question isn’t whether Paul was “Nicene” but whether those who used Paul to support such a position were or were not attempting to draw upon him in dealing with the questions of their own age.”

    Dr. Hurtado, with respect, I don’t see why the fathers’ *intentions* should be of much interest. Yes, a historian should try to approach his subject with as much sympathetic understanding as possible. But insofar as we’re interested in Paul’s *theology*, thinking it has some kind of authority for us, what should matter more is whether or not, or to what extent, they got Paul right, whatever their intentions were. Aquinas intended to get Aristotle right, but Aristotle scholars think he is often reading through later lenses, and gets only a distorted view of Aristotle’s doctrines. This is no harsh judgment on Aquinas; it’s just what people do who want to know *Aristotle’s* views.

    I take your point about the main point of the essay. It’s fine if you don’t want to discuss whether or not the descriptions “trinitarian” or “unitarian” fit Paul’s theology.

    About the Nicenes though – what is so interesting, is that they have an army of seminary-trained partisans right now – people trained in what is basically an Athanasian narrative of the whole series of 4th c. controversies. Thank God, historians are now correcting much of that. RPC Hanson’s The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God is worth its weight in gold here. Anyway, despite the great distance between a 4th c. worldview and ours, in the field of theology, the Nicenes are very much portrayed as the good guys who stood up to defend obvious truth, though the reality is very complicated!

    • Dale: The point about intentions is that those on all sides of the 4th century controversies were, in their own minds, seeking the best expression of the truths that they held dear. There were no bad guys or good guys, just guys who differed markedly (although the behaviour of some, including Athanasius, toward others was sometimes shameful). The other point is that neither Arius nor Athanasius will do for theology today. For they both were working with categories and premises that we don’t (or shouldn’t) share. But the issue HERE isn’t which side was right, or how to do theology today, but just the historical grasp of that ancient controversy.

  5. Dale Tuggy permalink

    Thanks for this, Dr. Hurtado. I look forward to reading this. By your summary, Fowl seems to be reading Paul as confused – if really his theology has both Nicene and anti-Nicene implications. I wonder… where exactly does Paul say something to the effect that Jesus and God are homoousion?

    Yeah, on the face of it, it is sensible to admit that Paul is not going to be an explicit, self-conscious trinitarian, or Pro-Nicene – that’d be an anachronistic reading. But IF (and his is a big if) some Trinity theory best explains what Paul says and doesn’t say, then yes, we should attribute that theory, that trinitarian theology to Paul, even though he wouldn’t have stated his views that way. It all comes down to what best explains what we see in the texts.

    But there is this: Paul everywhere seems to assume that the one God is none other than the Father. You know all the texts. But a trinitarian, properly speaking – someone who believes in a tripersonal God – thinks that the one God just is the Trinity. Doesn’t this rule out his being committed to any theology of a triune God? What do you think?

    Does Paul also think that in some sense Jesus is divine, and can be called “God”? Let us grant both. Still, that is consistent with what I just said. It is also consistent with the fact that Paul’s “one Lord,” the exalted Jesus, is solidly, always portrayed as subordinate to his and our God.

    • Dale: You rush in to defend a particular and later position without having read the essay that I commended, particularly because of its irenic and somewhat even-handed tone. To a few of your comments: Of course neither Paul nor anyone else in first century Christianity used categories of “homoousios” or “ousia”. That’s not under dispute. The question isn’t whether Paul was “Nicene” but whether those who used Paul to support such a position were or were not attempting to draw upon him in dealing with the questions of their own age. And even in traditional “Trinitarian” thought, the Son is sent by the Father, not vice versa, and is “begotten” of the Father, not vice versa. But the point here isn’t to argue for this or that position. Fowl’s essay is more about how theologians of every age must attempt both to maintain some faithfulness to their tradition and yet also speak to the categories and questions of their own age. And neither Arians or Nicenes reflect ours!!

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