Toward Understanding the New Testament
Obert C. Tanner, Lewis M. Rogers, Sterling M. McMurrin

Chapter 13
The Theology of Paul

[p.316]Without the apostle Paul, the Christian religious movement might well have died in its infancy and the world’s history since the first century would have been radically different. The Christian faith was grounded on the person of Jesus and his proclamation of the kingdom of God, and the church as a community and institution was founded on the belief in his resurrection and the hope and expectation of his return. However much it may have flourished under the leadership in Jerusalem of James, the brother of Jesus, Jewish Christianity with its devotion to the Temple, synagogue, and the Law, seems to have effectively disappeared from history before the close of the first century. It was the Gentile or Hellenistic Christianity, firmly established through the missionary efforts especially of Paul, that survived to become the mainstream of historical Christianity, not only of the Catholic Church but of the major heretical movements—Montanism, Marcionism, Nestorianism, and Arianism.1

Paul as Theologian

While Paul’s powerful personality and missionary zeal were major factors in establishing and preserving the early church, his faith in the risen Christ as the hope and salvation of the human soul became the foundation of Christian theology. Major theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, from Augustine to Luther to Karl Barth have grounded their theology in Paul. Evangelical [p.317]Christians of all persuasions have followed his admonition in committing themselves to Christ.

Paul’s theology is neither systematic nor entirely consistent, although it displays a general logical coherence. Romans is easily the most influential theological document in Christian literature, but even it has the character of occasional writing which marks all of Paul’s epistles. They were composed for specific occasions, often advising on particular problems or engaging in vigorous admonition. Paul’s emphasis on salvation by faith rather than works, for instance, the central thrust of his religion and theology, was at times expressed in the heat of polemic against the “Judaizing” Christians, those who insisted on adherence to the Jewish Law, especially the requirement of circumcision. Moreover, his theological ideas were grounded in his personal religious and moral experience, the experience of an intensely passionate and committed man who was subject to changing moods and affected by changing circumstance. They were not the issue of a dispassionate institution, the product of councils, or, as far as is known, even of considered dialogue and discussion. Paul’s theology, therefore, is not an intricately structured system of ideas nor is it free from contradiction. Its appeal is more to the sentiments of morality and religion than to the reflections of the disinterested intellect.2

Nevertheless, there is a singleness of purpose and meaning which characterizes Paul’s writing: salvation comes through the risen Christ, with him and in him the converted soul dies to sin and, justified by God’s grace, rises again to the glory of eternal [p.318]life. This Christocentric conviction of salvation ruled his life as a passionate missionary and became not only the main foundation of traditional Christian theology but the chief moving power of the Christian religion.

The foundation of Paul’s thought and feelings is found in Romans 7. Here Paul provides his account of the human predicament, derived from analysis of his own existential dilemma:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. (Rom 7:15-23)

In response to this desperate plight, Paul exclaims, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” and concludes with his own resolution, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom 7:24f).

Paul’s theology, his beliefs about God and Christ, are the outcome of his assessments about his own predicament as a person. From this assessment he generalized about the dilemma of all humanity, that all were created in God’s image with God’s image written upon their hearts, but that all had fallen under the power of sin. In this respect, Jews were no better off than the Gentiles; none were excused (Rom 1:20, 2:1, 12-16).

Redemption and the Messianic Faith

The concept and experience of religion as salvation or redemption were not unknown in ancient Judaism. Indeed, the hope of redemption was a central element in the religious life of the Jewish [p.319]people, and it may be justifiably assumed that it was this Jewish expectation of eventual deliverance that was the foundation of Paul’s Christ-centered faith. Moreover, Jewish faith was not only faith in redemption, but redemption through an atonement that would overcome estrangement from God, the result of the nation’s sins. This was, in effect, the messianic hope that both consoled and inflamed the Jewish people of the first century, the masses of whom labored under the heavy hand of Rome.

The Jewish hope for redemption through atonement was as old as the earliest accounts of the Exodus from Egypt, and in the sixth century BCE it became a foundation for a profound philosophy of history relating to the chosen-people concept in the Suffering Servant songs of Deutero-Isaiah. In some of the world’s most sublime poetry, the suffering of Israel was described as an atoning power that would reconcile not only Israel but also the entire human race with God.3

I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (Is 49:6)

The followers of Jesus, ever anxious to see him and their faith in him as the fulfillment of ancient expectations, not surprisingly recognized him as the object of the poet’s prophecy:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;

yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;

and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Is 53:4-6)

[p.320]The message of redemption that ran through the entire prophetic religious tradition was for the most part a promise of eventual redemption of the nation and of the world through the nation. To be God’s agent in atonement was the role of the chosen people. They were chosen to bear vicariously a burden for mankind, the burden of sin and punishment. The prophetic message centered often on the eventual restoration of the Davidic kingdom, a restoration made possible by the leadership of God’s anointed one, a Messiah, an authentic hero who would overcome the enemies of Israel and lead his people in bringing blessings to themselves and through them to the world. This anointed one was not a divine being, for such a notion would compromise the monotheism which from at least the sixth century was the very foundation of Judaism, but a leader with the natural and even supernatural endowments requisite to the great task of redeeming the people of God. Or the Messiah was the Jewish people personified as a group, or a faithful saving remnant of Israel.

The apocalypse of Daniel gave expression to an alternative, non-prophetic, non-historical conception of the Messiah as a preexistent being who would descend from the clouds of heaven to establish the Kingdom of God. While both conceptions of the Messiah existed in first-century Jewish thought, and in the Gospels themselves—the historical, horizontal Davidic and the apocalyptic, vertical “from above”—Paul held the latter view, the apocalyptic.4 For Paul Christ was not a figure in the upward historical movement of the Jewish religion, one destined by lineage to usher in the kingdom. He was the Son of God sent from above to die and be resurrected. And his resurrection was the gospel of salvation. For Paul everything was tied to the resurrection. As he said in 1 Corinthians: “If Christ has not been raised … your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). The Messiah was not the mighty one of Israel to lead the chosen people into an era of national greatness, of peace and good [p.321]will for the world. He was the Son of God who had by his vicarious suffering atoned for the sins of mankind and by his resurrection overcome death and brought salvation for those who believed in him as their savior.

Paul’s Conception of Sin

The central role which sin plays in Christian theology, especially in western Christianity, is due primarily to the Apostle Paul. Not exclusively, because the long tradition of hope for redemption, even the redemption of the nation, was the hope for salvation from a condition which resulted from sin, the sins of the people. Jesus, for whom sin was not the central issue, nevertheless called for repentance, the repentance which would bring forgiveness. But for Paul the sin of the individual person is central. It is sin that estranges a person from God, that alienates him from the source of his being. But for Paul it is not a matter of repentance and forgiveness. The salvation of everlasting life for the individual is possible only through atonement for sin. That atonement can come only as an intervention of divine power.

As Christian theology developed, especially in the west under the influence of St. Augustine, 354-430, a distinction was made between actual sin, the sin committed by a person, and original sin, the condition and predicament of the human being in estrangement and alienation from God.5 The common view was, and is, that a person is not sinful because he sins; rather he sins because he is sinful. Paul does not employ the term original sin, and the concept of original sin is not clearly developed in his letters, but the Christian doctrine of original sin, though complex in its origins, is to a considerable extent Pauline in source. Christian theologians before Augustine who contributed to the concept of original sin seem not to have grounded their views directly on Paul’s [p.322]pronouncements, but Paul’s almost obsessive consciousness of sin as central to the definition of man and description of the human predicament certainly predisposed Christian theology to such a belief.6 Sin and death, Paul insisted, came into the world as a consequence of Adam’s sin, his willful opposition to God. Expiation for universal sin and victory of mankind over death through resurrection requires the atoning power of Jesus Christ, whose vicarious suffering and death and resurrection are the sole justification of man to God. “Justification” for Paul was a juridical term, apparently intended to mean “to pronounce just,” or “righteous,” the free gift from God to those who have faith in Christ. “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1). In his most influential statement, Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome:

We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation.… Sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned. (Rom 5:11f)

That the Fall of man required salvation through the sacrificial suffering of a chosen servant was firmly established in Paul’s Jewish background and was not the product of his Hellenistic or Greek learning and experience. Nor was it necessary for Paul to derive the ingredients of his doctrine from non-Jewish Gnostic influences, even though mythologies of an original fall were common in the Gnosticism of Paul’s time. The account of the Fall in Genesis 3 was an early attempt to explain the origin of sin and death. Its setting in the Jahvist history, perhaps early in the ninth century, gives it a universal rather than nationalistic meaning. But the Hebrew religion was in a comparatively primitive state when the Garden of Eden myth and narrative originated, and the Fall [p.323]in those stories can hardly be regarded as a theological concept. It was to achieve theological status at a later time and eventually became a major determinant of religion and morals. Perhaps in part because of its artistry as well as its relevance to human experience, the Fall idea, which is found in many cultures, has been a useful receptacle for theological and philosophical analysis. In his Systematic Theology, the existentialist theologian Paul Tillich, in discussing his view that “existence is estranged from essence,” wrote:

The symbol of “the Fall” is a decisive part of the Christian tradition. Although usually associated with the biblical story of the “Fall of Adam,” its meaning transcends the myth of Adam’s Fall and has universal anthropological significance.… Theology must clearly and unambiguously represent “the Fall” as a symbol for the human situation universally, not as the story of an event that happened “once upon a time.”7

Reinhold Niebuhr expressed the universality of the meaning of the Fall in his Gifford Lectures:

When the Fall is made an event in history rather than a symbol of an aspect of every historical movement in the life of man, the relation of evil to goodness in that moment is obscured.8

Notwithstanding its emphasis on sin, and its probable impact on Paul, the Hebrew Bible does not contain the idea of “original sin” as a condition of human nature, and as a clearly defined concept, it is probably not to be found in pre-Christian Judaism. That Judaism of the intertestamental period cultivated the ingredients of a doctrine of original sin is evidenced, however, in apocalyptic and pseudepigraphical literature as well as in certain rabbinical writings.9 But a formulated doctrine probably does not appear in [p.324]Judaism until late in the first century CE in the apocryphal book of II Esdras (IV Ezra), written by a Palestinian Jewish author addressing the Almighty. Ezra, like Job, complained bitterly that sin and death afflicted the covenant people.

And thou didst lead him [Adam] into the garden which thy right hand had planted before the earth appeared. And thou didst lay upon him one commandment of thine; but he transgressed it, and immediately thou didst appoint death for him and for his descendants. (3:6f)

And again,

For the first Adam, burdened with an evil heart, transgressed and was overcome, as were also all who were descended from him. Thus the disease became permanent; the law was in the people’s heart along with the evil root, but what was good departed, and the evil remained. (3:21f)

The Book of II Esdras (IV Ezra) as it appears in its final redaction has suffered Christian additions in the first two and the last two chapters, but the third chapter, from which the above passages come, is authentically Jewish.10 The position of II Esdras on sin and its attitude toward the Law have similarities to Paul, but the eschatological elements of the book have much in common with the Revelation to John. In his monumental work published early in this century, The Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin, F. R. Tennant found elemental ingredients of the Fall-Original Sin doctrine in Ecclesiasticus, where, for instance, in 25:24, Ben Sira says, “From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.” Though Tennant did not ascribe a theological doctrine of original sin to Ecclesiasticus, there being no corruption of human nature in the Fall, he did agree that here was the first clear affirmation in Hebrew literature that the Fall in Genesis was the cause of death.11

[p.325]The apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, probably produced by an Alexandrian Jew in the latter part of the first century BCE, contained elements of a concept of original sin but did not yield an explicit statement comparable to the Christian doctrine which was to achieve full-blown status in Augustine’s dispute with Pelagianism.12

Jewish literature of the period is replete with references to the Fall. That death was a consequence of the Fall was clearly a common Jewish belief by the first century CE. But the notion that the sin of Adam was transmitted universally to his posterity and resulted in the alienation of the human race from God did not appear until II Esdras and the Pauline epistles. The Epistle to the Romans probably antedated II Esdras by several decades, although there is no evidence that Esdras was influenced by Paul’s doctrine. The original sin doctrine in Christianity, however much it may have been influenced by Hellenistic and Gnostic currents of thought, seems thus to have come from the same basically Jewish intellectual and religious milieu which independently produced the Esdras doctrine.

This is not to deny the general truth of Gilbert Murray’s description of the ancient world, both non-Jewish and Jewish, in which Christianity arose in a period in cultural history characterized by a “failure of nerve.” The original sin doctrine, though probably Jewish in origin, was in his view a culminating expression of that failure, which characterized both Jewish and Gentile culture. Murray described it as a

rise of asceticism, of mysticism, in a sense, of pessimism; a loss of self-confidence, of hope in this life and of faith in normal human effort; a despair of patient inquiry, a cry for infallible revelation; an indifference to the welfare of the state, a conversion of the soul to God. It is an atmosphere in which the aim of the good man is not so much to live justly, to help the society to which he belongs and enjoy the [p.326]esteem of his fellow creatures; but rather, by means of a burning faith, by contempt for the world and its standards, by ecstasy, suffering, and martyrdom, to be granted pardon for his unspeakable unworthiness, his immeasurable sins. There is an intensifying of certain spiritual emotions; an increase of sensitiveness, a failure of nerve.13

This “failure of nerve” contrasts vividly not only with the rational philosophic and scientific temper of Greek thought of the earlier Hellenic period but as well with the life-affirming qualities of the traditional Hebraic religion with its prophetic foundations. Judaism and probably early Jewish Christianity were less susceptible to the failure of nerve than was Gentile Christianity with its greater openness to Hellenistic influences. Whatever the causes, the religion which was to become mainstream Christianity was grounded through Paul’s theology in a negative assessment of the human predicament if not actually of human nature, a condition of sin and death from which the individual could not extricate himself. Only by God’s grace, by a free and unmerited gift, was salvation possible.

Matter, Body, and Sin

It is difficult to know precisely what Paul intended in his use of the Greek terms soma, psyche, and pneuma. Psyche appears in Paul where it means “life,” “soul,” or “person.” The basic meaning of the Greek term pneuma is “wind,” which over time came to be associated with the respiratory process “breath” and eventually to express that which was regarded as vital life—”Spirit” (1 Thes 5:23).

The Greek terms soma (body) and psyche (soul) were used early to express a dualistic conception of man—the body being understood as the prison of the divine, immortal soul. According to Orphic-Dionysian mythology, for example, “the body is a tomb.” Releasing the soul from the body (its person) was the central feature of this cult’s beliefs about salvation. But for other Greeks, including Aristotle, psyche referred to the principle of life, being a biological term which simply differentiated living organisms from [p.327]dead objects and marked the capacity for self-activity in living things.

According to C. H. Dodd, soma is the more comprehensive and significant term in Paul’s vocabulary and refers to the individual entity, the totality of a person, including the psyche understood as the non-physical aspects of a person. Soma (body) thus designates the principle of individuality in Paul and “refers to the pure organic form which subsists through all changes of material particles” not to “the structure of bone, flesh, and blood to which we give the name of body.”14

Many scholars assume that Paul being a Jew, albeit a Hellenistic Jew, held a more traditional Jewish-Old Testament view emphasizing the unitary nature of a human being. This view is close in some respects to that of Aristotle for whom “soul” represented the individual person as a totality and not an independent entity merely joined with the body until death. Similarly, in the Hebrew-Jewish view, persons were understood as animated bodies, not incarnated souls. Persons do not have souls which at death escape the body; persons are living souls which perish at death and which, in the views of some, are destined to be revived at some future time.

Paul’s writings are not always explicit or consistent in his conception of the nature of actual sin. Scholars have differed about whether his treatment of sin came mainly from traditional Hebraic or more contemporary Hellenistic influences. On the surface elements of both seem evident. Certainly Paul’s references to Adam and the Fall exhibit his Jewish roots in this matter, and his distinction between the flesh and the spirit suggests Greek influences. The British scholar W. D. Davies has argued convincingly that despite the Hellenistic elements in his views, Paul’s treatment of [p.328]sin came mainly from his Jewish experience and education, but it is to the Jewish tradition by way of rabbinical theology and practice that one must look to find the basis of his position, not directly to the Pentateuch and the Prophets.15

It is especially Paul’s emphasis on the distinction between spirit and flesh that has resulted in the argument that his doctrine of sin is Hellenistic. On the whole, the Hebraic-Judaic attitude toward the material world, including the human body and its functions, was traditionally positive, while the Greek position, expressed especially through the Orphic religion and the Platonic philosophical tradition, was at times negative in the extreme. In Plato’s metaphysics, immaterial form was at the top of the ontological hierarchy, and formless matter was at the bottom, the lowest level of reality. Plato was probably atypical in his own time, but his dualistic theory of reality laid foundations for the denigration of matter that became common in the Hellenistic philosophies and religions after his time. Thus the Jews by the time of Jesus and Paul had developed a definite belief in the resurrection of the body, but the Greeks with their anti-material bias were quite commonly committed to belief in the immortality of the spirit or soul.16 Paul’s negative regard for the body and matter can probably be taken as an indication of gnostic influence upon his beliefs and attitudes.

The word “flesh” in Paul no doubt referred to more than the physical body, its drives and appetites, though it certainly referred to these. Sex was an important factor in his derisive attitude toward flesh, but it was not as central in his moral admonitions as it became later in St. Augustine, where the sin of Adam in the Garden was tied to the sexual act. For Paul, the spirit might be willing even when the flesh is weak. But “flesh” probably meant for Paul whatever attaches to the selfishness and self-centeredness [p.329]of the person. Sin was not simply something that issued from the bodily nature but was whatever destroyed the free and positive exercise of the spirit. “Flesh” referred to material, worldly desires, to whatever tyrannizes human spirituality and freedom.

The actual commission of sin is, for Paul as for the general Judeo-Christian tradition, a transgression of the law and will of God. But Paul also refers to sin almost as if it were a transcendent, though probably impersonal, power. In Romans, for instance, he says that all men are “under the power of sin” (Rom 3:9). Here sin seems almost to be an objective “power” that has humanity in its dominion. Christ as the savior redeemed men from their sin and overthrew Sin as a power. It is important to remember that for Paul man is not sinful because he commits sins. Rather he commits sins because he is sinful. His reference to Sin as a controlling power over the human will is at best ambiguous, and it is probably not possible to fully identify its origins in his thought. It may have simply followed from his intense moral consciousness. Certainly its deepest roots were in his Jewish experience and rabbinical education, which were in his time subject to Greek and gnostic influences. Sin as an objective power or powers conceived in mythological terms had a rather rich but ambiguous history in the Judaism of the pre-Christian era. Sometimes sin was personalized and tied to the popular folk demonology common in the Jewish world.

Letter to the Romans

Paul’s letter to the Christian congregation in Rome was probably written from Corinth between 54 and 58 CE and was intended to introduce him to a religious community where he was not personally known. In anticipation of extending his ministry as far west as Spain, Paul reflected intensively on his conception of salvation through Jesus Christ, setting forth his mature thought that was eventually to have a decisive influence on the foundations of Christianity. This letter was not directed to specific problems of the Roman congregation, which probably included many Jewish Christians as well as gentiles, and it is not laced with polemic [p.330]against the Judaizers in the style of some of the earlier letters. It is concerned especially with the universality of sin, the condition of the human soul resulting from the Fall, and the way to salvation.17

Romans may have influenced 1 Peter, Hebrews, and James, and from at least the time of Clement of Rome, bishop at the close of the first century CE, it received attention from the church fathers. Its great influence was due especially to its impact on Origen and St. Augustine, as also on Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and most recently Karl Barth.18 Its chief influence on the course of Christian theology was due especially to its impact on St. Augustine (354-430), whose work was to become the chief single determinant of Christian doctrine from the fifth century to the present.

In its early passages (1:18-2:29), Romans confirms the universality of sin. In the light of the Gospel, it is clear that all mankind is in sin. Sin invades the life of the gentiles with their heathen vices and idolatry and the life of the Jews in their failure to keep the Law. The Jews received the Law of God through Moses, but the gentiles had it written on their hearts. “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts” (Rom 2:14f). But notwithstanding the good which they do, all have sinned, both Jew and gentile. “All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom 2:12f). That a person is a Jew does not entitle him to more consideration in God’s judgment than a gentile. ‘Where will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek. … For God shows no partiality” (Rom 2:9, 11).

[p.331]The very existence of the Law, Paul held, brings consciousness and recognition of sin. His own vain attempt to live by the Law brought him to the realization that salvation through works, through the strict observance of the ceremonial and moral Law, is impossible. “Yet, if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.'” (Rom 7:7.) He had been saved, that is, justified, not by his commitment and devotion to the Law but by an act of God’s grace, by salvation freely given in the absence of deserving merit.

Paul, the Law, and Faith

Paul’s attitude toward the Law has been a matter of continuing scholarly controversy. The simple and extreme view that as a Christian he completely abandoned or abrogated the Law is no doubt unwarranted. But his criticism of the Law’s effect on man and his insistence that it was now superseded by the Gospel was so revolutionary and radical that since his time he has often been regarded as an arch-apostate from Judaism. Having failed in his efforts to live according to the Law, he came to believe that the Law cannot deliver either Jews or gentiles from the power of sin. In this judgment on the Law, Paul departed radically from established Jewish tradition, which held that by full observance of the Law, the evil of the world and the sin of the individual could be overcome. Whether it was Paul’s conversion to Christianity that brought him to this critique of the Law or his disenchantment with the saving power of the Law that brought him to Christianity is still a matter of scholarly debate.19

According to Paul, the Law, which often means for him the Prophets as well as the Pentateuch, imparts to the sinner a knowledge of his sinfulness, but despite every effort to overcome the power of sin and achieve righteousness, the sinner remains in bondage to sin until liberated by God through Jesus Christ. Salva-[p.332]tion comes not by works but by the grace of God through faith in the resurrected Christ. This faith is not an intellectual commitment, a simple belief that Jesus has been resurrected as the Christ and is the savior, but rather is a mystical participation in the dying and rising of Christ. The dying in baptism and rising in the resurrection of Christ bring not simply assurance of salvation but actual deliverance from sin and death. It is an act of God in accepting the sinner who does not merit salvation:

For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose. (Gal 2:19-21)

The death of the man of faith in the waters of baptism is death to sin, and his resurrection is to a new life, the life to God in Jesus Christ (Rom 6:11).20

The classic work on Paul’s conception of faith as mystical participation in Christ is Albert Schweitzer’s The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle. Perhaps more than any other scholar, Schweitzer has emphasized the distinctive character of Pauline mysticism, that the “being-in-Christ” is not a “being-in-God.” It is a “Christ-mysticism” not a “God-mysticism.” In contrast with those who have regarded Paul’s mysticism as Hellenistic, Schweitzer insists that it has Jewish origins and follows from eschatological problems resulting from the delay of the Parousia and its meaning for redemption. Paul’s

paradoxical assertion that those who are in Christ are only in outward appearance natural men, and are to be considered as having in reality already died and risen again, is irrefutable, once the two-fold fact of the dying and rising again of Jesus has been given the place of importance in the eschatological expectation which it actually possesses for eschatological thought.21

[p.333]Paul, who endured great and varied suffering as a missionary, interpreted suffering as akin to dying. Suffering for Christ was a dying with Christ. The possession of the Spirit was living again in the resurrection. We are, he wrote, “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom 8:17.) That suffering has power to overcome sin was a well-established belief in the Judaic tradition, most notably in the Suffering Servant songs of Isaiah (Is 53.) but also in the Jewish apocalyptic book The Psalms of Solomon:

For the Lord spareth His pious ones, And blotteth out their errors by His chastening (XIII:10),


If the righteous endureth in all these [trials], he shall receive mercy from the Lord (XVI:15).22

The atoning power of suffering was to become a major element of Christian doctrine. Because Christ suffered for our sins, or, in some extreme interpretations, took on himself the sins of the world, our sins became his sins and he suffered death for them. Since, according to Paul, death followed from sin, the overcoming of sin in Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection was an overcoming of death itself. This seems to have been a death of the soul as well as the body, a concept not fully developed in Paul’s extant letters. Paul said of himself in 2 Corinthians, after an account of the beatings, hardships, and dangers that he had endured, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10),

Freedom and Moral Responsibility

Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which condemned as apostasy the teaching that Christians were subject to the Mosaic law, has [p.334]often been considered a declaration of freedom. It celebrated the freedom that comes through faith in Jesus Christ, the faith that brings a release of the spirit and the realization of salvation.

Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Jesus Christ you are all sons of God, through faith. (Gal 3:23-26)

And again:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods; but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more? (Gal 4:8f)23

An obvious but crucial question that issues from Paul’s theology of salvation by grace, where God through Jesus Christ justifies the sinner who is redeemed by his faith but can do nothing to merit the gift of salvation, concerns the moral responsibility of the person thus justified. Those who have died and risen in mystical unity with Christ are in Christ, or Christ is in them. In gnostic terms, not at all foreign to Paul and his teachings, they are the pneumatics, the spiritual beings. They are the elect to salvation, no longer subject to the Law. They are free and in a sense already know salvation. Does this mean that they are released from all moral obligation and responsibility? This is a problem which Paul himself encountered in his own converts. Moral licentiousness has not been uncommon among those convinced of their own deification.

Paul’s reply, set forth in his forceful letter to the Galatians, declared that the freedom which issues from faith is a freedom which abjures the “flesh” and pursues the life of the Spirit which [p.335]is a moral life at the highest level. Here he should speak for himself:

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another. (Gal 5:13-26)

Whether Paul’s ethics is logically consonant with his theology may be questioned, but clearly in declaring freedom from the Law he had no intention of allowing a decline in the moral life of the individual or the society. Quite the opposite. The life of the Spirit was fulfilled in the genuine love of God and love of one another. “For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal 6:8).

Election and Predestination

The concept of divine election, of having been selected by God, is found running through much of the Hebrew scriptures, especially in the form of the belief that the descendants of Abraham through Jacob (Israel) are a “chosen people.” Just what they were chosen for is not always entirely clear. But that there was a cove-[p.336]nant of God with Israel and that he revealed himself and his word to Israel through Moses and the prophets was firmly established in the faith of the Jews long before the beginning of Christianity:

You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine (Lv 20:26),


Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Ex 19:5f)

The covenant of God with Israel as variously depicted in the Pentateuch was, of course, God’s election of a people, the nation of Israel. It was not a promise or guarantee of individual salvation. Both the religion and morality of the Hebrews in the early period were communal in character. But in the sixth century BCE, Jeremiah, the prophet of individualism, declared a new covenant, a concept that was to play an important role in the Christian philosophy of history and theology, that centered on the individual person:

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke.… I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer 31:31-33)

But Jeremiah’s “new covenant” or new testament did not refer to an election for the salvation of the individual soul in a hereafter; rather it was a grounding of the old communal covenant in the religious experience and conviction of the individual. The covenant of individual salvation was to appear later in the proclamation of election in the Gospels and Paul, but even there it was not divorced from the Old Testament promise to Israel, a promise which God would not break. For Paul, the Israel of the covenant became the Christian church, the Israel of the Spirit. Those who were the authentic saints, those who confessed Christ and accepted [p.337]him as their savior and died and arose with him in baptism, were the elect of God appointed to a salvation they could not earn under the Law through meritorious works.

The concept of the elect appears several times in the synoptic Gospels. In Matthew: “For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Mt 24:24). In Mark: “And if the Lord had not shortened the days, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days” (Mk 13:20). In Luke: “And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night?” (Lk 18:7). In John the same concept appears in the sermon on the bread of life: “All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out” (Jn 6:37).

In Luke’s Book of Acts, as in Paul’s letters, the belief in election was more clearly an affirmation of predestination, or at least foreordination. Acts 13:48, referring to believing gentiles in Antioch who were converts of Paul and Barnabas, reads: “And when the Gentiles heard this [that salvation might come to the gentiles], they were glad and glorified the word of God; and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.”

In the earliest of the letters, Paul addressed the Thessalonians by describing their faithfulness as a mark of their election: “For we know, brethren loved by God, that he has chosen you; for our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thes 1:4f). The same idea appears in 2 Thessalonians, “But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thes 2:13).

In his letter to the Romans, Paul explicitly interpreted election as predestination:

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. … And those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Rom 8:28-30)

[p.338]But Paul obviously had the problem of God’s apparent departure from his ancient covenant with Israel in now extending election to the gentiles. In Romans he faced this issue (Rom 9-11), reminding his readers that God said to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Rom 9:15; Ex 33:19), and insisting that in this God was not unjust. The chosen people of Israel, he declared, had fallen in disobedience and therefore had lost the blessing.

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works. (Rom 9:30-32)

But God has not abandoned his chosen people, and the rejection of Israel is not final. After the “full number of the Gentiles come in,” all Israel will be saved (Rom 11:25f). Some Israelites will be brought to Christ through jealousy of the Gentiles (Rom 11:13f). And there is the “saving remnant,” similar to the faithful remnant in the time of Elijah, who had not worshipped Baal (1 Kgs 19:10-18).

Somewhat like his teachings regarding original sin, Paul’s treatment of election as predestination is more or less rudimentary and not clearly defined as a theological concept. Though he laid the foundations of the idea for Christian theology, the doctrines as they were developed later, especially by Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, should not be read back into Paul’s letters. But it is clear that for Paul, even though he had rescued the Christian church from oblivion as a Jewish sect, the Christian religion was not genuinely universal. Only those who were designated by God would come to Christ in faith and know salvation.

For Paul, real salvation was eschatological; salvation was to be realized at the end of the age.24 In his view justification or [p.339]acquittal would provide only a foretaste of salvation in this life; reconciliation and atonement would be achieved only at the final end. For Paul all Christians were to live in hope of the fulfillment of this promise.

Paul’s Eschatology

There was strong precedent in Jewish apocalyptic literature for the belief in imminent eschatology, which was a central feature of the early Christian faith. There is little doubt, for example, that John the Baptist was an apocalyptist or that Jesus himself believed that the coming of God’s Kingdom was near. Indeed, Jesus probably went with his followers from Galilee to Jerusalem to prepare the Jewish nation for the coming of God’s Messiah.

Paul’s theology preserves the essential format of popular Jewish apocalypticism, but he added a very important Christian belief—the doctrine of the Parousia (the Second Coming), which would bring the resurrection. He held the view that Jesus was the long expected Messiah (the Christ) and that his return as the supernatural Savior of the world was imminent. Paul declared that on the day of his return the resurrected Christ would usher in God’s kingdom and mark the beginning of the general resurrection of the righteous dead. From Paul’s time on, the entire apostolic church looked to the Parousia as the great day of triumph.

Paul expected that a personal, visible appearance of the risen Lord would herald the events of the last day. That day, he declared, would come like a thief in the night (1 Thes 5:1f). Although the precise time was not known, Paul was certain that it would occur in his own time (1 Thes 4:17), In 1 Thessalonians he writes,

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. … And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. (4:15-17)

The mystical expression “in Christ” that was basic to Paul’s proclamation of the new life in the Spirit did not fully capture the [p.340]meaning of salvation. Mystical experiences gained through faith only served to guarantee the salvation that was to come on that future day of the messianic kingdom.

Paul addressed the question of the resurrection directly when it was raised by the skeptics among his converts at Corinth (1 Cor 15:12). Apparently, some were doubting the validity of his teaching about resurrection. According to Paul, the resurrection is God’s singular act of salvation in human history. Christ was the unique person who made resurrection possible for mankind in general (1 Cor 15:20-23). Through his death and resurrection to new life, death was finally defeated and destroyed. And how are the dead raised? What kind of bodies will they have? (1 Cor 15:35). According to Paul in 1 Corinthians they are raised as spiritual bodies. Flesh and blood, physical bodies, could not inherit new life in the kingdom (1 Cor 15:44f). To enter the kingdom they must have bodies of spirit as Christ had. As spirit bodies they will retain their separateness as persons. Paul’s doctrine of the resurrection thus retained for Christianity the principle of individuality, the idea of new life for individual persons in immortality.

Imminent eschatology was a troublesome doctrine for the early church after Paul’s day. Second generation Christians needed an explanation of the delay of the Parousia, and an interpretation was attempted in the New Testament document 2 Peter, which explained “that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Pt 3:8). This declaration represented a dramatic change in the Christian calendar of last events, a postponement of the Second Coming, declaring the time of the end to be indefinite, in the future yet always near. Every generation of Christians was bound to conclude that it lived in the latter days, committed to the expectation of Jesus’s imminent second coming.

Modern scholarship too has confronted the dilemma which this doctrine of eschatology posed for the Christian church. The existentialist theologian Rudolf Bultmann attempted to preserve the relevance of New Testament claims about Christ as savior by de-mythologizing or de-literalizing the setting (the world view) [p.341]of the first century Christian writers.25 Bultmann advanced an interpretation of Paul’s literal pronouncements about the resurrection and the End as future historical events. He realized that the first-century view of the world, the literal ways in which the myths of the age were perceived, was archaic and obsolete and that the relevance of the Christian proclamation about Christ (the kerygma) would be lost if Christians were obliged to accept as literal and historical the mythical categories in which it was packaged. Accordingly, he reinterpreted the kerygma by insisting that the key events—the Resurrection and Second Coming—really were mythical images which point out the way in which God encounters man in the world. For Bultmann, the purpose of myth was not to present an objective picture of the world as it is, but to express man’s experiential understanding of himself in the world. Thus myth should not be interpreted cosmologically but rather anthropologically or existentially. In this way the traditional Christian claims become meaningful to modern man. Such an interpretation may contribute to the preservation of the Christian faith, but there can be no doubt that Paul himself lived in the expectation that these events, the Parousia and the Resurrection, were literally to take place in historical time, and this meant during his own lifetime. [p.342]


[p.316]1. The Coptic Christianity of Egypt, which eventually extended to Nubia and Ethiopia and sent missionaries to Europe, the British Isles, and Arabia, was according to tradition originally established by St. Mark, the reputed author of the Gospel of Mark. See Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Bk. II, ch. XVI. See Aziz Atiya, A History of Eastern Christianity (London, 1968), for an extended account of the origins and history of Coptic Christianity.

2. The Cambridge historian Michael Grant has written that “Paul’s mind, despite its great strength, remained undisciplined, paying scant attention to the niceties of rational coherence. The Letters are vividly varied and lively, but unfounded, unarranged, and muddled, making their points not by any orderly procedure but by a series of hammer-blow contrasts and antitheses. Paul is far too impulsive and enthusiastic to standardize his terms or arrange his material. He is often ambiguous—with results that have reverberated down the centuries. And he commits flagrant self-contradictions, which caused Augustine, among many others, the deepest anxiety” (Saint Paul [New York, 1982], 6). A contrary estimate of Paul is given by Albert Schweitzer in his The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, 139: “And how totally wrong those are who refuse to admit that Paul was a logical thinker, and proclaim as the highest outcome of their wisdom the discovery that he has no system!” Schweitzer’s criticism was directed at Adolf Deissmann’s characterizations of Paul in his St. Paul, Eng. trans. (1912).

3. For an analysis of the redemption message of Second Isaiah and its universalistic character, see especially Robert H. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament (New York, 1948), 470-80. Pfeiffer regards the people of Israel as the Servant and treats the Second Isaiah as apocalyptic rather than typically prophetic.

4. For a discussion of the Davidic and apocalyptic concepts of the Messiah, see Leo Baeck, Judaism and Christianity, trans. by Walter Kaufmann (Philadelphia, 1958), chap. 3. See also Joseph Klausher, The Messianic Idea in Israel, trans. by W. F. Stinespring (London, 1956), especially the appendix, “The Jewish and the Christian Messiah,” 519-31.

5. The Roman Catholic concept of original sin as the loss, because of Adam’s sin, of the supernatural gift of sanctifying grace can be found in the decrees of the Council of Trent, First Session, 1546. The standard Lutheran position is found in the Augsburg Confession, Art. II, 1530, and the Formula of Concord, Art. I, 1584. The Calvinist doctrine is best seen in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. VI, 1647. These creeds are readily available in The Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols., by Philip Schaff (1877); 6th ed. (Grand Rapids, 1977).

6. For an analysis of the concept of original sin, see Frederick R. Tennant, The Concept of Sin (Cambridge, 1912), Philosophical Theology, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1928-30), and The Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin (Cambridge, 1903; New York, 1968). Man as Sinner, by Mary Frances Thelan (New York, 1946), treats the concept of sin in contemporary theology. For a discussion of Paul and original sin, see The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, 1968), 53: 53-57.

7. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago, 1957), 2:29.

8. Reinhold Neibuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York, 1953), 1:269.

9. The classic analysis of the original sin problem in early Jewish literature is F. R. Tennant’s The Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin (New York, 1903, 1968), chaps. 5-10. See also Solomon Schlechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (New York, 1901, 1972), chaps. 14-18.

10. Cf. the commentaries on IV Ezra in R. H. Charles, The Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (London, 1913, 1968), Vol. 2 of The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, and Robert H. Pfeiffer, History of New Testament Times with an Introduction to the Apocrypha (New York, 1949), 81-86.

11. “Ben Sira supplies evidence that, in his day at least, the way was being prepared for such an interpretation of the Paradise-story as eventually led to the doctrine of Original Sin” (F. R. Tennant, The Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin, 121). The authorship of Ecclesiasticus is usually assigned to the early part of the second century BCE.

12. Referring to the Canaanites, the Wisdom of Solomon says:

Though thou wast not unaware that their origin was
evil and their wickedness inborn,
and that their way of thinking would never change.
For they were an accursed race from the beginning (12:10f).

But here there was no attribution of sin or evil to the generality of mankind, since the Canaanites were regarded as under the curse of Canaan (Gn 9:25).

13. Gilbert Murray, Five Stages of Greek Religion (London, 1935), 123.

14. C. H. Dodd, The Meaning of Paul for Today (New York, 1957), 58. For Paul the promise of resurrection applies to the body (soma) but not to flesh (sarx). In his view man’s flesh cannot enter into the Kingdom of God, but man as body (soma) has the promise of resurrection into eternal life (1 Cor 15:50). New Testament scholar John Robinson adds by way of interpretation that in Paul’s thought the terms sarx and soma do not delineate two parts of a man’s make-up, one mortal and the other not. Each, he maintains, “stands for the whole man differently regarded—man as wholly perishable, man as wholly destined for God” (John A. T. Robinson, The Body, A Study in Pauline Theology [Chicago, 1952, 31n1).

15. W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, 3rd ed. (London, 1970), chap. 2.

16. For Plato the body was not evil in a moral sense but was a source of moral evil. It was a severe impediment to the soul in its quest for the good, which involved wisdom and knowledge. Death was good because the soul was immortal and in death it achieved release from the body. On the immortality of the soul in Plato, see the Phaedrus and the Phaedo.

17. Paul’s authorship of Romans is rarely seriously questioned, but there are possible problems with the composition of the letter. The doxology, 16:25-27, may not have been a part of the original letter, as its style is not consonant with the letter as a whole and in the early texts it appears in various places and is sometimes omitted. Also, 16:1-23 may have originally been a separate letter, while verse 24 is definitely a later addition to the text.

18. For the impact of Romans on twentieth-century theology, see especially Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans, English trans. by Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London, 1933), and H. R. Mackintosh, Types of Modern Theology (London, 1937), chap. 8.

19. Samuel Sandmel in his The Genius of Paul (New York, 1958), 28, argues that “it is not his Christian convictions which raise the Law as a problem for him, but rather it is his problem with the Law that brings him ultimately to his Christian convictions.”

20. Paul’s reference in 2 Corinthians to the mystical experience of a man caught up into the third heaven, Paradise, is generally regarded as pertaining to himself (12:1-5).

21. Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, trans. by William Montgomery (London, 1931; New York, 1968), 139f.

22. The pseudepigraphic Psalms of Solomon were probably composed during the first century BCE. R. H. Charles, et al., eds, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English, Vol. 2, Pseudepigrapha (Oxford, At the Clarendon Press, 1913), 645, 647. The atonement for sin through a ritual sacrifice was commonplace in Jewish life. See, for instance, the description of the sin offering for the Day of Atonement set forth in Leviticus 16:1-28.

23. The “elemental spirits,” an expression which appears elsewhere in Paul’s letters, probably refers to the control of human beings by astral powers, an indication of Paul’s confrontation with astrology, and perhaps also to regulations of the Law governing religious observances.

24. The term “eschatology” from the Greek words eschaton (end) and logeia (teaching) means the teaching about the end of history. In theological terms it has come to mean “teaching about the last things.” “Apocalyptic” is a form of eschatology. See the discussion of apocalyptic in chap. 14.

25. Vol. 1 of Bultmann’s major work Theology of the New Testament, trans. by Kendrick Grobel (New York, 1951), treats Paul’s theology. The discussion of Johannine theology is in vol. 2. See also Bultmann’s Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York, 1958) and Kerygma and Myth, ed. by H. W. Bartsch (New York, 1961). Also, see Norman Perrin, The Promise of Bultmann (New York, 1969).