Centrality or Directionality in Pauline Theology?

(If ever there were an image begging for Raiden-style lightning bolts to be Photoshopped in, it’s this picture of my friend, mentor, and former NT professor, Rollin Ramsaran.)

Many debates between the “New” and “Old Perspective” on Paul (hereafter ‘NP’ and ‘OP,’ respectively) rise and fall on defining the center of Paul’s theology. For various OP/Lutheran readers of Paul, the center is justification by faith. For Albert Schweitzer, the center was being “in Christ,” with justification nestled as a subsidiary within that center. Schweitzer’s “crater-within-a-crater” reading of Paul’s central concerns was then redeployed, in modified form, in E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, one of the first shots fired by what has later come to be known as the NP. What is important here is that all three—Luther, Schweitzer, and Sanders—assumed that Paul’s theology had a center and that identifying this center was the first step toward satisfactory exegesis.

Identifying the ‘center’ of Paul’s thought, however, is not the only way we can attempt to understand and describe the apostle’s theology. In the analysis of any discourse, talk of a “center” is profoundly metaphorical. Neither Paul’s letters nor theology are geometrical shapes; in treating them as one, we deploy “center” as a heuristic metaphor to describe how his thought ‘works’ (again, another metaphor!). In the study of Paul, attempting to describe his center has its benefits. It allows for taxonomy, for the identification of all the various parts and pieces of Paul’s theology and the singular driving force that lends animation to them all. But, again, “center” is not the only metaphor we can use and, by using it, we necessarily risk over-emphasizing one thing and under-emphasizing others. There are other options.

Another metaphor we might use instead of “center” is “direction.” As my seminary mentor, Rollin Ramsaran, put it to me at SBL last year: Paul’s theology doesn’t have a center; it moves in a direction. This is reflected in Ramsaran’s preferred method of teaching Paul: the Pauline Moral Reasoning Chart or, as many Emmanuel Christian Seminary students and alumni affectionately call it, the Paul Chart:

(C) Rollin Ramsaran, teaching document. Reproduced from my class notes.

Here Ramsaran, who is neither OP nor NP (but maybe he might hang out with some of the Apocalypticists? I’ll have to ask him next time we break bread), emphasizes that Paul’s theology doesn’t have a center but rather a beginning point: God’s grace, extended first to Israel through the Law and now to the gentiles through Christ. The proper human response to this grace is faith, which then leads to the gift of the Spirit (which binds Christians one to another and together to Christ), and so on. Already the center(s) described by Luther, Schweitzer, and Sanders are subsumed in the directional schematic. Importantly, though, they are not downplayed; they are simply re-contextualized as stops on the way to the telos of Pauline theology, the parousia.

The Paul Chart doesn’t play out exactly like this in every single letter but, among the undisputeds, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t Paul’s basic order of operations. As Ramsaran teaches it, we can use the chart not only to read Paul as a thinker but to read and identify “the weight” of an individual letter (“the weight” = which point[s] on the chart are emphasized most in a given letter). As part of my preparation to teach a series on Paul at a local church, I ran each of the undisputed letters through Ramsaran’s chart. While only the longer letters (Rom, 1 Cor) run through the whole chart, every aspect appears and works out in this basic order depending on the circumstances of a given letter.

Reading a whole slew of NP material, I have been wondering of late if “center” is the best metaphor we might use. While Ramsaran’s Paul Chart does not unseat the explanatory power of all aspects of the NP (nor does it even attempt to), this seems to me to be the better way to map Paul’s theology. By insisting on a center, we must necessarily relegate other aspects of Paul’s thought to a periphery. If, on the other hand, we insist on reading Paul directionally, fewer items of import (e.g., eschatology, ethics) are pushed toward a periphery and are instead contextualized within a distinctly Pauline theological teleology.

10/13/2016: I’ve since used Ramsaran’s chart to read Galatians. You can read my interpretation here.

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting my engagement with some of the “big ideas” in Galatians studies in preparation for a comprehensive exam.


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