It’s become a commonplace in modern literature on the apostle Paul to observe that he wasn’t a systematic theologian. One need look no further than a standard textbook from the last century, which offers the colorful exhortation not to “rank the tent-maker of Tarsus along with Origen, Thomas Aquinas, and Schleiermacher.” “Paul did not theoretically and connectedly develop his thoughts,” adds Rudolf Bultmann, the titan of twentieth-century New Testament scholarship, “as a Greek philosopher or a modern theologian.” Paul was a pastor, missionary, and letter-writer, not a member of the Sorbonne.
At one level, it’s hard to disagree—though, as a scholar I know once quipped, “Saying Paul wasn’t a systematic theologian is about as interesting and informative as observing he wasn’t an astronaut.” It may be a true statement, but it doesn’t get us very far.
If it is rather banal to point out that Paul occupied a different social space than a contemporary university researcher, then perhaps this seemingly innocuous observation about Paul not being a theologian conceals a more substantive claim. Maybe what modern scholars are really trying to say is that systematic theology is a liability when it comes to reading Paul. The more systematic theology exercises a hold on our thinking, the less we’re able to engage with the apostle to the Gentiles on his own terms. The more we obsess over questions of Christology and Trinity, dual natures and hypostases, the less we’re able to grasp Paul in all of his first-century particularity. Or so the claim goes. Setting a great Christian thinker like Augustine or Karl Barth over against Paul, as if the two were engaged in wholly separate enterprises, invites us to consider the relationship between Scripture and the later development of Christian doctrine as an antithetical one—and to prefer the former (Bible) over the latter (theology).
But should we accept that invitation? Should we think of doctrine as a grimy residue that has to be scrubbed away before we can really see the vibrancy and vividness of Paul’s letters? It’s a hard question to answer in the abstract, once and for all, but at least with respect to the doctrine of the Trinity, a growing chorus of scholars is responding with a resounding, “No.”
Take Francis Watson for example, a leading New Testament researcher in the U.K. He has written that trinitarian theology “appears to be deeply rooted in the Pauline texts.” To the objection that trinitarian categories of “Persons” and “relations” are anachronistically projected back onto texts whose original idiom was rather different, Watson poses a counter-question: “What if those later categories were themselves, at least in part, the products of intensive engagement with the biblical texts?”
Likewise for C. Kavin Rowe, associate professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, “to read Scripture”—and more specifically Paul—“within a Trinitarian framework of theological understanding is to move within the deep theological pattern of thinking that Scripture itself requires.” There is a pressure, in other words, exerted by the Pauline texts, pushing the reader toward the later Nicene trinitarian formulations. As Rowe’s colleague at Duke, the Pauline scholar Douglas Campbell, has added:
The entire set of relationships into which the Christian is born, and by means of which recreated, involves the three divine persons of the Spirit, Christ, and God the Father. Clearly there is no fully developed trinitarian doctrine and terminology here—that is several centuries away—but there is an inchoate tripartite reality at the heart of [Paul’s thinking about salvation].
Other names could be added to this litany of researchers—the Cambridge scholar Simon Gathercole, the recently-retired Regent College professor Gordon Fee, the apocalyptic specialist Richard Bauckham—so much so that one is almost tempted to speak of a nascent “school” of trinitarian interpreters of Paul.
For a sample of the arguments these scholars present for their trinitarian renaissance, one could turn to Philippians 2:5-11, the so-called “Christ hymn.” Jesus, being in the form of God, divests himself of glory, humbling himself to the ignominy of death on a cross, only to be exalted and given the name (vv. 9-11)—“Lord,” kyrios—that in the Greek version of the Old Testament was reserved for God alone (the Greek kyrios substitutes for God’s proper name in Hebrew, YHWH, the “Tetragrammaton”). There is a movement of Jesus’ self-humiliation, distinguishing him from God the Father; and there is a corresponding movement of exaltation, identifying Jesus with God the Father. How can we do justice to these apparently contradictory elements of the text?
On the one hand, we can’t opt for a simple kind of unity, collapsing Jesus and his father into one another, as if they were one person. They are obviously distinct. But Jesus and his father are, at some fundamental level, identified. If Jesus shares the name that is God’s alone, if Jesus is rightly acclaimed as “Lord,” then he must be one with God the Father in some mysterious way.
Such tensions increase as Philippians 2 progresses, like a coiled spring—until Trinitarian doctrine comes along and releases that tension. There is one divine “being” or ousia and three divine “persons” or hypostases according to classic trinitarian theology. Armed with this distinction, we may go back and see Jesus’ distinction from God and his oneness with God as finally complementary, not contradictory. The slow-building pressure of the text finds its proper release in the formulations of later creedal theology. In its own idiom, Philippians 2 says what the Council of Nicaea says using a different vocabulary.
If this is at all along the right lines, then the modern pleas to keep a “critical” reading of Paul separate from the “confessional” practice of systematic theology may amount to a giant red herring. Far from being a liability, the history of Christian doctrine—and specifically the doctrine of the Trinity—may enable us to go back to Paul with fresh eyes and meet the apostle again, as a pastor, missionary, and—yes—trinitarian theologian.
Wesley Hill is in the final weeks of doctoral studies at Durham University and will be taking up an assistant professorship at Trinity School for Ministry, PA in the fall. He is the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan).