Paul’s Theology is His History
Wrede brought an end to 19th century liberalism by famously demonstrating that Paul’s religion is his theology. The liberals wanted to seperate the two–the modern Christian can and should extract Paul’s Christ mysticism and ethic of love from Paul’s outdated ideas about a retributive God and coming judgement. Wrede rightly pointed out that this attempt to remove some pure religious fruit (ethics) while discarding such an unpalatable theological husk (judgement) was no longer tenable. Paul’s religious practice is grounded in his theological dogma; the two are welded together, permanently indisoluble.
Nevertheless the rationalistic search for a “pure” Christian religion continued, by Wrede (no friend to classic Christian orthodoxy) as well as his successors. Can we free religion from the outdated belief in an angry God? Can we have an ethic and a religious experience undetermined by the contingencies of history? Attempts have been and continue to be made, to be sure, either through the search for a historical Jesus–assumed to be an ethical teacher and not the apocalyptic preacher we find in the Gospels–or the the de-historizing approach of Bultmann.
And yet the New Testament consistently resists such attempts. We can actually reframe Wrede’s insight another way: Paul’s theology is his history.
What do we mean by that? For Paul, religion isn’t centered on philosophical ideals, theological propositions, pietistic efforts, or deontological morality. It’s about an historical event. Now before moving forward we need to appreciate why that’s a problem, at least for Enlightenment rationalists. If religion is in any way grounded in history, rather than human reason or “absolute” truth, then it is inevitably subject to falsification. If my belief or practice is somehow dependent on an event that occurred in space and time, then my belief or practice is dependent on that event having taken place. Religion, in so far as it is believed to transcend such mundane things as “events,” should not be grounded on them. Religion should not be falsifiable.
That’s not how Paul thinks. Quite the opposite:
If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins (I Cor. 15:14, 17).
In fact, everything about Paul’s religion requires Christ’s resurrection. Paul’s gospel is centered on the event of Christ’s death and resurrection:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the Gospel I preached to you:… that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:1-5).
The implications are enormous and far-reaching, but here I’d like to simply underline the point: you cannot seperate Christianity from history. Stronger still: Christianity is history. It is a metanarrative that stretches from First Adam to Last Adam, directed by God at every step of the way. It is not an ideal, a metaphor, a path, a way of life, a theological system. At least not primarily. It is an event. Or more accurately, it is a series of events that finds as its climax the great sum of everything that God has been accomplishing since creation: the ascension of the Christ.
Or, in the words of John Updike: “let us not mock God with metaphor. If He was raised, it is in His body.”