Paul was not a Theologian
Here’s my claim: “Paul was not a theologian.” Click bait? Absolutely, but hear me out. Typical readings of Paul orient themselves (either consciously or sub-consciously) around the claim that Paul is something like “the greatest theologian in church history.” I don’t necessarily disagree with that claim (though if there’s going to be a competition, I’d like to put forward the author of Hebrews). The problem is I don’t think it’s very useful. Approaching Paul as a kind of “master theologian” begins in the wrong spot. He is a master theologian, but theological meditation is neither what motivates his writing or animates his ministry. Paul was not a theologian, he was a pastor. Paul’s theological endeavors are secondary to his pastoral purpose; he uses theology to address and resolve pastoral problems.
A way of reading
The “Paul as theologian” model of reading his letters begins at the wrong end. When we think of Paul as a theologian we think that his primary aim and work is the study of theology. I love theologians; I have several friends who are theologians! Well, I have at least one friend who is a theologian (you know who you are). What is more, I personally love theology and believe deep theological knowledge makes better pastors, teachers, exegetes, philosophers, and historians. I also agree that in some very important ways “everyone is a theologian.” Nevertheless, the term “theologian” as a job description or principle goal (which I take as implied in the sentence “Paul was the greatest Christian theologian”) implies that Paul’s principle aim is the study, development, and dissemination of good theology (and, correspondingly, that the primary aim for us as readers is to understand, extract, and expound on that theology). That’s not Paul’s primary aim. His primary aim is far more local and mundane. In most of his letters he is scrambling to address pastoral problems. His theology develops in service to concrete and diverse pastoral situations.
Why is this important? If we approach Paul’s letters as if they are “answers” to theological questions, or alternatively “rebuttals” of theological error, or “treatises” on theological topics, we will fail to appropriately interpret his words in light of the pastoral situation that they intend to address. While most careful exegetes will avoid egregious errors here, the problem is “theology first” approach to Paul can result in a passive bias that obscures things like tone, purpose, and occasionality in Paul’s letters.
Galatians is one such case. If we approach it as a king of “complete treatise” on the relationship between faith and works we can miss important nuance. We could come to the conclusion, for example, that Paul’s statement “if you are circumcises, Christ will not profit you” is always and everywhere true. It’s not. It’s specific to this situation. Or we could conclude that it’s wrong for Jewish Christians to continue to worship at the temple; that also appears to not be the case, since Paul himself participates in temple ritual in Acts 21. Romans is another example. While it’s less situationally driven than Galatians, it’s not really “Paul’s Systematic Theology,” as it is sometimes claimed. Paul has a number of pastoral aims he wants to accomplish, though he’s not transparent about that until we get to Romans 15-16. (By the way, if you’re looking for something that can be more fittingly called “Paul’s Systematic Theology,” may I suggest Ephesians, though even here I think “Missionary Introduction Letter” might be better).
Theology in Context
This is, of course, not to say that Paul is not theological, or that we should consider theology unimportant. It is, rather, a reminder that Paul’s theological interests and development are “fitted” to his pastoral focus. It’s important, then, to read Paul’s letters within their specific pastoral context. We need to develop a “pastor first” way of reading Paul, even as we do the important work of describing his theological claims and contributions.
It’s not a new claim, nor is it particularly insightful, but it does provide a helpful reading strategy. Try it on for size. What do you notice when you approach Paul’s letters as personal and pastoral, rather than didactic and theological? Maybe some things will “pop” more than they did previously, or maybe you will see something new. This happened to me recently in think about 1 Cor. 13, the “greatest of these is love” passage. It’s a beautiful passage that stands on its own. It’s a theological and poetic masterpiece on the nature and power of love. But it’s also a sub-point to a pastoral issue: the selfish and distracting use of spiritual gifts in the church. Paul is pastoring here, and an important pastoral point arises when one notices that: the Gifts of the Spirit are in service to the Fruit of the Spirit. The fruit is eternal, the gifts are not; they abide only in so far as they cultivate the fruit.
Can you see this with a “theology first” reading model? Absolutely. But it “pops” in a pastor first mode. The pastor model forces me to keep asking, “what problem does this theological truth address? How is it useful for the church? How does it fit the pastoral need?” Those questions will not only make us better readers, they hopefully make us better shepherds.