N.T. Wright, the Anglican clergyman and scholar, just published a 1700 page, groundbreaking exploration of St. Paul and the origins of Christianity, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. One point the book makes, and that Wright emphasizes in an interview about his book, is that Paul basically invented the notion of “Christian theology”:
For me, as for many people, ‘theology’ used to have a rather dry, abstract sound – arranging ideas in clever patterns but without much linkage to real life. With Paul all that is different. Paul was a man of action, believing that it was his God-given vocation to found and maintain communities loyal to Jesus right across a world owing allegiance to Caesar. But these communities were bound together by no social ties and indeed cut across normal social divisions. How could they be united and holy? Paul’s answer was: through prayerful, scriptural meditation on who God actually is, who God’s people are, and what God’s future is for the world. That is a kind of working definition (though I come at it in the book from several angles). These were essentially Jewish questions, but ‘theology’ in the new way Paul was doing it was something the Jewish people hadn’t needed to do – and something the non-Jewish world (for whom ‘theology’ was simply a branch of ‘physics’, the world of ‘nature’) hadn’t needed to do either. This kind of theology is a never-ending exploration – each generation has to do it afresh in its own context, and Paul gives us the tools for that rather than a set of pat ‘answers’ which mean that people don’t thereafter have to think.
Peter J. Leithart, who is making his way through the text, picks up on the same theme:
[O]ne of [Wright’s] most interesting suggestions … is that Paul gives a place to “theology” – to prayerful reflection on the nature of God and His works – that is unprecedented in either Judaism or paganism. The reason, he claims, is that Paul set about the redefine everything he inherited in terms of Jesus (this another theme from earlier work): He preached a Christological monotheism, retold Israel’s story in terms of its fulfillment in Jesus, redefined the people of God around Jesus and the Spirit, hoped for a future shaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus. In order to achieve this redefinition, he had to give a more thorough and “systematic” account of God than was common in the religions around him. Theology takes on a “symbolic role” in Paul that it never had before.
(Image of Raphael’s St. Paul Preaching in Athens, 1515, via Wikimedia Commons)