Paul's Necessary Sin: The Experience of Liberation. By Timothy Ashworth Paul and His World: Interpreting the New Testament in its Context. By Helmut Koester
Article first published online: 27 NOV 2008
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 1, pages 145–147, January 2009
How to Cite
Turner, G. (2009), Paul's Necessary Sin: The Experience of Liberation. By Timothy Ashworth Paul and His World: Interpreting the New Testament in its Context. By Helmut Koester. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 145–147. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00438_30.x
- Issue published online: 27 NOV 2008
- Article first published online: 27 NOV 2008
Pp. xxv, 245 , Ashgate Publishing , Aldershot , 2006 , £55.00
Pp. xvi, 301 , Fortress Press , Minneapolis , 2007 , $39.00 .
Why is Paul so hard to understand? Perhaps it is a problem of wood and trees. So many writers examine small aspects of Paul that they do not even try to make sense of the whole. And those who do try to make sense of the whole of Paul have trouble pulling the disparate content of the letters together, as well as having to deal with the voluminous and increasingly confusing secondary literature on Paul. Timothy Ashworth has been dealing with the wholeness of Paul for some time through his teaching and presupposes that Paul is a coherent thinker, something that is sometimes denied, by Sanders for example. Ashworth keeps the secondary literature in its place by producing a main argument that is devoid of references to anything but Paul's letters and sometimes to Old Testament texts. He does, however, have detailed discussions in almost every chapter about the main points of his argument with three authors who have all taught in England: Dunn, Sanders and Ziesler. More often than not Ashworth disagrees with them and offers a corrective. Around these discussions, the author's main argument is all the stronger for being focused exclusively on what Paul himself wrote.
Another obstacle in the way of understanding is the meaning of some of Paul's Greek. Ashworth spends some time in the earlier part of his book bringing out nuances of Greek words that affect meaning, nuances that are not usually present in English translations. You do not need to know Greek to read this book but, if you don't, it may send you scurrying to learn some. The translations we use are often locked into theological traditions from the Reformation and Ashworth tries to undo these where necessary. He takes the subjective genitive to be the natural reading of pistis Iesou Christou, the faith of Jesus Christ (‘faithfulness’ would be better but he never uses that word) and shows how it makes a difference, not least by omitting any hint of ‘justifying faith’ that is so important in Lutheran theology.
Justification does not appear here as a central theme of Paul's theology (nor is much said about resurrection) and where it does appear, it is to do with ‘doing right’ rather than about one's standing with God. The author presents an interpretation of Paul that is primarily about experience, transformation, life in the Spirit, prophecy and doing right without the law. Ashworth takes nomos to be broader than Torah and he sees both Jews and gentiles living in practice under some form of law. Law directs you towards what is the right thing to do but each and every system of law is ineffective without the Holy Spirit. Sin is universal and makes life an experience of slavery. But our lives can be transformed because of the faith/faithfulness of Christ. There is the bold suggestion that sin has been necessary in human history to make possible the surplus value that comes with the ‘new creation’, hence the title of the book. All forms of law in effect dethrone Christ and must be abandoned. Instead our lives must be regulated by the voice of the Spirit that comes in the form of prophecy. My difficulty with any autonomous morality or religion that is driven by the voice of the Spirit is that there are few checks on whether the voice has been heard authentically. Nonetheless Timothy Ashworth offers a coherent interpretation – one that I find very congenial for the most part – that comes directly from the texts, one that is both properly theological and concerned with how our lives might be changed. It is challenging and therefore not an easy read. At £55 the ordinary reader will no doubt prefer to wait for a paperback edition, which the work certainly deserves.
One should begin Helmut Koester's book, Paul and His World, with the twenty-fifth and last chapter. It an autobiographical statement about his intellectual history and shows what a distinguished academic career he has had. The book is the first of two projected volumes of Koester's collected articles but the title is misleading because it is only marginally concerned with Paul – it is by no means a general introduction to understanding Paul. The first section, Reading Paul, has nine articles on Paul but five are just on Thessalonians and two on Philippians; Reading Paul's World does not have any of its eight articles specifically on Paul; and he appears only sporadically in the third section Reading Early Christianity.
Koester has some moderately iconoclastic views on Paul: 2 Thessalonians is not authentic because the author presents himself as an authority whereas the author of the first letter is an apostle who is a participant in their community; Philippians is an early letter, written in Ephesus around AD 54 and is a compilation of three short letters; and there is an intriguing argument suggesting that Paul may have been martyred and buried in Philippi after he had left Rome and had been to Spain. It could even be true as his tomb was indeed a pilgrimage centre in the 5th and 6th centuries. But Koester does not approve of hero worship, which includes visiting tombs – he thinks worshipping Jesus as a hero only came with Constantine – and this evident dislike of revering leaders probably comes from his early life in Nazi-Germany. His coded warning against the dangers of racial superiority and the adulation of tyrannical geniuses, however, must read oddly at Harvard where he has worked since 1958.
His dislike of authority figures leads to a version of Liberal Protestantism that rejects Jesus as a ‘divine-man’ in favour of a progressive theosis of all the baptised. Koester sums up Christianity's slide from an experience of divine action in the world towards an authoritarian institution as follows:
The most radical shift is evident in the relocation of the activity of the Holy Spirit in the church. The Spirit was now bound into a canon of Christian writings, written by inspired apostles, and no longer seen as the miraculous power of the continuing divine action in the world. Christianity became a religion of a sacred and inspired book, and its doctrine and teaching had to be justified in the interpretation of this Holy Scripture. Moreover, the interpretation of these Holy Scriptures eventually became a function that could be controlled by ecclesiastical authority.
And he adds that,
Liberation of the early Christian writings from their usage as inspired sources of doctrine and authoritarian control is the most dignified task of scriptural scholarship. (p. 223)
However, this version of Liberal theology, without much use for authority or tradition, has a problem in defining heresy – something that Koester wants to do. Heresy is now: the uncritical continuation of traditional language (he speaks of ‘the escape into tradition’ and it is not a compliment), which is almost the reverse of the Catholic position of heresy as novelty.
Here in chapter 21 and in the penultimate chapter 24 we see Koester, with his interest in ‘the understanding of human existence’, as a representative of the post-Bultmann generation whose time, one may think, has gone. One is taken aback to see his description of Bultmann's Theology of the New Testament as ‘the twentieth century's most perceptive and enlightening theological interpretation of Christianity's basic document’. One's surprise is explained when you see that Koester attributes Bultmann's success to many years of patient research on the history of religions and, when Koester lists the insights of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule on p. 271, you see that most of these insights would now be rejected or seriously called into question. Particularly the two themes that Bultmann worked on: ‘The concepts of the Bible are not moral and intellectual, but mythical and eschatological’ and ‘Religion, and especially early Christianity, is syncretistic in character’.
Nonetheless it is good to have Koester's papers available as he always (outside his interest in archaeology) presents you with an argument, but it is Ashworth that you need if you want to be made to think again about your understanding of Paul.