Friday, August 12, 2005

Deissmann on Paul

An short appreciation of Adolf Deissmann's,
St. Paul. A Study in Social and Religious History.

As some of my visitors know, I am a writing a doctorate on the Christology of the Apostle Paul. 'Boring', I hear you yawn. But did you know that Paul's letters are the earliest extant Christian writings? Yes, earlier than the gospels. In fact, any reconstruction of how the early Church came to believe what they did about Jesus, and thus how most of us did, must engage with the evidence in Paul's letters. Especially given the modern debates, this 'Paul-wrestling' remains an absolutely crucial task.

I am a little surprised, therefore, that the image of Paul I read in many modern monographs is one that I suspect Paul himself would have difficulty recognising. As much as I love recent debate concerning 'justification', 'baptism', 'Israel' etc., I have a nagging suspicion that we are falling back into a version of the dry 'Paulinism' that plagued much of Pauline scholarship at the end of the 19th century.

At least this is how I want to appreciatively introduce Deissmann (1866-1937), whose words are, I feel once again very much 'in season'.

In a book that at time sounds like poetry, Deissmann 'waxes lyrical' against the sort of scholarship that has turned Paul 'into a western scholastic philosopher', an 'aristocratised, conventionalised, and modernised Paul now suffering his eight imprisonment in the paper bondage of "Paulinism"' (xi). And while things aren't, anymore, how Deissmann found them, his words, I think, still ring with prophetic relevance for our present day. Have many of us once again delivered Paul into a 'paper bondage'? I suspect so.

When others were reducing Paul to various and familiar '-ologies', Deissmann wrote in an altogether different language. In relation to christological inquiry, he writes:

'The attempt is usually made under the heading, "the Christology" of St. Paul. But it would be more accurate, because more historical, to inquire concerning the apostle's 'knowledge of Christ', or 'experience of Christ' … Anything that tends to petrify the fellowship with Christ, which was felt at the beginning and felt so vividly, into a doctrine about Christ, is mischievous' (124)

While I cannot, as with much of the 1st and 2nd generation publications of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, drive a clear wedge between Paul's 'religion' and 'theology', I deeply understand the attempt of Deissmann to once again put colour and religious fervour back into our picture of the Apostle. I think we ought to heed the 'spirit' of Deissmann, and make sure our Paul doesn't become a 'Paulinism', and our Christology, an anathema to Paul's Christ-devotion.

'But this is only important to you because your specific field is Pauline Christology', perhaps you may think? And while I admit my favourite questions are those christologically shaped, I am of the conviction that Paul, and his thinking, cannot be understood without the most profound reference to his risen Lord. That may sound obvious, but under the skin of much 'New Perspective' discussion, and certain 'Israelologies' being generated in Paul's name, is, I suspect, an underlying inability to grasp the importance of the Apostle's Christ-soaked, nay, Christ-obsessed life and thinking. Though I'm not yet claiming that the 'New Perspective' is therefore wrong (my internal jury is 'out' on that one still), I feel that many of our hermeneutical approaches to Paul could do with a bit of a 'haul over'. And in this sense, Deissmann could teach us all a lot.


At 10/07/2005 4:52 PM, Blogger poserorprophet said...

I've been engagin in some dialogue around the "in Christ" motif in Paul's writings. Correct me if I'm wrong but doesn't Deissmann argue that this is the central motif of Paul's writings (Jimmy Dunn argues this about Deissmann)? I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on how this motif works with Deissmann's approach to Paul's Christology.

Speaking of Paul's experience of Christ reminds me of Michael Gorman's book Cruciformity: Paul's Narrative Spirituality of the Cross. I highly recommend it, if you have not read it already.



At 10/08/2005 9:05 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Hi Dan!
Thanks for stopping by my blog. Yes, Deissmann was very important in bringing the 'in Christ' formula into scholarly discussion. And it was an important part of the Religionsgeschichtliche Scuhle response to the dry 'Paulinism' of much German scholarship late 19th century.

For Deissmann, Paul's experience of the risen Lord (which the 'in Christ' motif is just one, albiet important part), there are clear christological consequences. However, Deissmann certainly does not mean by this a specific or developed doctrine of Christ. Indeed, he appears at pains to avoid use of the word 'Christology' when it would be expected. He would, however, still affrim a Pauline divine-Christology - in his own way.

However, while his work, along with a few others, including Gunkel, drew the attention of scholarhsip back to Paul's experience of the risen Lord, it was a line of research that was to too early be sidelined by a developing focus on chronological and titular issues.

The most important work on the christological significance of the 'in Christ' formula is Moule's The Origin of Christology. Dunn's discussion in his Theology of the Apostle Paul, as you mentioned, is also important. However, arguably they have both largely missed the point ... as I explore in my Doctorate.

Personally, I think it is time to recover the spirit of Deissmann in these discussions, and develop his arguments more thoroughly.

At 10/11/2005 8:16 AM, Blogger poserorprophet said...

Hey Chris,

Some helpful comments. I read Moule's book on the origins of Christology some time ago and imagine it would be well worth reading once again.

I'd love to hear how Moule and Dunn are wrong about Deissmann -- especially since of only have a second-hand knowledge of his writings. Of course I understand if you're not too eager to put any bits of your doctorate work out there.

Also I'm going to continue to press for you to read Michael Gorman's book (Apostle of the Crucified Lord is his more substantial work on Paul and it's worth working through as well).




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