Paul’s (Yes) Similarities to Augustine and Luther

In revisiting Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God, I’m struck (even more than on first reading) by how unique Paul is made out to be when compared to his later interpreters. Readers unfamiliar with the book should consult my review for thorough summaries of the justification and transformation models in order to understand what follows.

Early in the book Campbell chronicles the writings of theologians like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon in order to assess the “ratios” of justification to transformation in each, and the mixtures naturally vary. For instance, Augustine reached a point where he abandoned all aspects of the justification model in favor of transformation.

“It is fair then to claim that the early Augustine — who should be characterized as neo-Platonic and even semi-Pelagian — supports Justification’s initial premises, but the later or mature Augustine, evident from at least 396 CE onward, certainly does not, and would doubtless be appalled at any such suggestion!” (p 282)

In the case of Luther’s later writings, however, aspects of both models became accentuated.

“Luther seems to betray little cognizance of the fact that [his Transformation doctrine] causes acute difficulty for his endorsement of Justification… The contradiction is absolute.” (p 270)

The obvious question prompted by Campbell’s assessments (which I take to be fairly accurate) is simple: if Augustine’s thought evolved and changed, and if Luther’s theology became increasingly contradictory over time, why can’t Paul’s thought have evolved and changed, and why can’t his theology have taken on tensions and contradictions the more he thought about things? Campbell’s project puts me in mind of the Jesus-questors of the ’90s who thought it implausible that Jesus could have been apocalyptic and sappiential, or that he fasted and feasted, or that he attached positive valence to honoring one’s parents as much as hating them — all on account of inconsistency. You’d think that historical critics, by this point, would be comfortable respecting the biblical figures as human beings.

For all their differences, Augustine and Luther shed light on the apostle’s own thought process. Paul went in the opposite direction of Augustine. Where Augustine first harped on justification issues and later abandoned them (almost completely) in favor of transformation doctrine, Paul began in reverse (“the solution preceding the problem”, as Sanders famously put it), with aspects of justification theory resulting as (almost inevitable) consequences of transformation beliefs. This, in turn, made Paul as contradictory as Luther (whose direction of thought was also opposite that of Paul’s), in the sense that justification is as much present in his thought as transformation is (especially in his later thought, witness Rom 1-4 and 5-8 respectively) — and we don’t need to whitewash the justification texts (esp. Rom 1-4) anymore than scholars of Luther try claiming that the Reformer didn’t mean what he said half the time.

As I noted in my review, I don’t think justification and transformation are quite as contradictory as Campbell makes them out to be, especially by the standards of Paul’s day where human will and divine election went hand-in-hand. Many of the tensions are judged as such (and quite understandably) by the horizons of modernity. Yet it’s fair to grant Campbell at least some incoherencies between the two models. What we can’t grant is that Paul was incapable of being incoherent himself.

4 thoughts on “Paul’s (Yes) Similarities to Augustine and Luther

  1. One quick observation and one quick question:

    (1) If you can supply a reading that removes serious incoherence or contradiction from a figure, then it's not a good counterargument simply to suggest that some people are contradictory. That it is a possibility is of course valid–and DOG says this–but you need some evidence that it is actually and necessarily the case.

    (2) Were the differences between Athanasius and Arius important or mere peccadilloes? Those are the differences between the two models in Paul, and I take them to be quite important.

  2. Rachel, I think you've badly framed the issue. I'd say that if you can supply many, many examples of theologians who show tensions and incoherencies (as Campbell does in the case of the later church thinkers), it's not a good assumption that another theologian (particularly the one on whom the others rely) is exempt from this. When Campbell says that “Paul must be given the benefit of the doubt” (DOG, p 13), he has the right idea wrong; Paul should be given the benefit of the doubt, indeed, but for being a bundle of natural tensions and contradictions.

    In any case, I've argued some of the details in previous posts. I'm even working on a book that chronicles Paul's thought from messianic-covenantal to libertine to something in-between, and trying to explain how these evolutions occurred in the face of many pressures: hostile situations, failed expectations, a bad reputation, and personal unease with his own convictions. As his theology changed, echoes of what he discarded inevitably lingered.

  3. While I don't think it's appropriate to claim that Paul or anyone else *cannot* be incoherent, I do think that, from a methodological perspective, that incoherence ought to be concluded only after reasonable attempts at finding coherence have failed. However, I recognize that it can be tricky to determine when reasonable efforts at finding coherence have failed.

  4. Incoherence ought to be concluded only after reasonable attempts at finding coherence have failed.

    Yes, but there have been many such reasonable attempts in the Pauline field, and the spectre of Raisanen haunts us, however upfront we are about it. And keep in mind that I don't see tensions and contradictions as necessarily pejorative. Human beings are bundles of inconsistencies (though some obviously more than others), and given the opposing conclusions experts draw about Paul it might just be profitable, by this point, to start with the assumption that Paul's diverse statements about faith and the law can't be brought under an umbrella or scheme of coherency. That doesn't mean Paul didn't make sense, or that his credibility should suffer as a result. But I agree with your basic point: follow where the evidence leads.

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