Review by N.T. Wright
Do the earliest Christian writings support the fifth-century trinitarian creeds and dogmas? A line of liberal scholarship, looking back to Socinus and even Arius, says No. Paul and the Trinity says Yes: only if we read Paul’s words in the light of later expositions of the mutual trinitarian relations can we grasp his real meaning. I declare an interest: I agree with the Yes, but not with the way Wesley Hill gets there. (While his book was in the press I published on the same topic, in chapter 9 of Paul and the Faithfulness of God.)
Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. His book creatively straddles the traditional divide between biblical and systematic theology, making Paul and the Trinity important not only for what it says but for what it does. Disciplinary specializations have often colluded with cultural and ideological presuppositions to make “New Testament studies” and “Patristics” antithetical rather than complementary. Hill challenges this head-on.
Paul and the Trinity
Hill concentrates on recent debates, though he does not make it clear that these mean what they mean within a longer story. For most of the last 150 years the underlying scholarly assumption was that early Christianity morphed from “Jewish” to “Hellenistic,” with the question being, when and how did this happen? For some, the early Jewish mode was the purest and most original. Others assumed that “Jewish” meant legalistic ethnocentrism, needing rescue by law-free Hellenism. The latter position was reflected in Christology: Wilhelm Bousset’s Kyrios Christos argued that Paul abandoned Jewish messianism and constructed a view of Jesus based on non-Jewish “Kyrios” cults. This position carried a powerful, if internally contradictory, appeal to three groups: to German and other Christians who wanted Paul to teach a non-Jewish Christianity; to liberals eager for a supposedly pure, simple, and non-Patristic theology; and to Jewish thinkers wanting to reclaim Jesus (and perhaps also Paul) as good Jews who would have been horrified to think of incarnation, let alone a Trinity.
That is the back story for the debates against which Hill lines up his proposal. James D.G. Dunn, whom Hill mentions frequently, argued that Paul had a Jewish and therefore “low” Christology, with a “higher” view only emerging later with John and Hebrews. Others like Geza Vermes and the famous book The Myth of God Incarnate (neither of which Hill discusses) insisted that phrases like “son of God,” in their original context, carried no Nicene implications. The assumption was still that “Jewish” meant “monotheism” and therefore ruled out high Christology; for a high Christology one needed Hellenism, leading to the philosophical arguments of the later Fathers. This assumption, and these conclusions, have now been undermined by writers like Martin Hengel, Larry Hurtado, and Richard Bauckham. I have added my own two cents: the early Jewish Christians held a “high” Christology. Hurtado in particular challenged Bousset (and, with him, Dunn and others) head-on. Most think he succeeded.
It is therefore initially surprising that Hill places Dunn and Hurtado on the same side of a different divide. They both began with “Jewish monotheism,” and asked whether Paul fitted Jesus into that, with Dunn saying “not quite” and Hurtado saying “yes, just.” Hill argues that this is the wrong way to go about it. Paul does not set up an abstract Jewish “monotheism” and then assess Jesus’ status against it. For him, the word God itself is already substantially reconfigured around Jesus, both meaning what they mean in relation to the other, and both also spoken of in close relation to the Spirit.
Hill invokes a supposed “counter-tradition” within New Testament scholarship, embodied in articles by Nils Dahl, Leander Keck, Francis Watson (Hill’s supervisor for his Durham doctorate), and Kavin Rowe, all of whom, but most particularly Watson, argue that for Paul the word God itself, rather than being merely imported from earlier Jewish belief, means what it means in relation to Jesus and the Spirit. Since this cannot be a new “God,” it must mean that God himself is now disclosed, through the gospel events, “as having always been differentiated” (p. 109).
Hill argues that the categories developed by the Fathers offer a more satisfying way of explaining Paul’s texts than those theories that remain content to speak of the Son’s “subordination.” There is no “competition” between Father and Son, argues Hill. There is an “asymmetrical mutuality” between Father, Son, and Spirit, not a sliding scale between a “high” and “low” Christology with the Spirit left out somewhere on the side (producing the early “binitarianism” suggested by some scholars).
This is a bold and interesting argument. It deserves careful pondering not only for its proposals about using later trinitarian theological categories to understand Paul but also for the wider challenge of seeing the first five Christian centuries as a continuum rather than in two different compartments — which raises important questions about Scripture and tradition. Hill is in my view right to challenge a method that sets up the question in terms of a simple “high or low” Christology, and to invoke “relational” categories instead. This represents an important step forward.
There are, however, five ways in which I think this thesis could be filled out, modified, and perhaps adjusted.
First, Hill does not appear to see why monotheism remained important to Paul. Paul was the apostle to the pagans; pagan polytheism was his main target. Monotheism was not, for him or his Jewish contemporaries, an abstract analysis of the inner being of the one God, but the polemical belief that Israel’s God was the true God and that the pagan gods were a sham. This is not to be waved aside by pointing out that the term monotheism itself is of fairly recent coinage. Belief in the one God remained vital in the early Church, against both paganism and gnostic dualism. It is, indeed, the main reason why the developed doctrine was trinitarian rather than tritheistic.
Second, Hill never reckons with the importance of messianism for Paul. He uses the word Christology in a fuzzy way, to include general reference to Jesus within a statement about God. He does not seem to notice that “son of God” for Paul continues to carry messianic meaning (he does not discuss Psalm 2) while being filled with new (“incarnational”?) content, as in Romans 8:3 or Galatians 4:4. This brings into play the entire story of Israel, summed up in the faithful Messiah, in a way that I believe ought to be fruitful for a full account of who Paul’s “God” really is.
Third, when Hill suggests a relational reading of statements about “the God who raised Jesus” and the like, the argument requires more than these phrases can supply. Here I found his treatment of Romans 4 particularly unconvincing, which is a shame since he makes it foundational. Paul’s identifying of God as “the God who raised Jesus” is parallel to biblical statements about “the God who rescued Israel from Egypt.” These are important, but (to put it gently) it is not immediately obvious that they carry any proto-trinitarian sense.
Fourth, Hill never explores Paul’s understanding of what it means to be human. The idea of human beings as image-bearing agents, reflecting God’s wisdom into the world, could be extremely fruitful for his project. Psalm 8 offers a “high” view of the human vocation within the overall praise of the one God. Instead, Hill (like some others) assumes that Dunn is correct to suggest that an “Adam” Christology would mean a “low” Christology, and so fails to see how it might actually work within a fully Nicene, and indeed Chalcedonian, model.
Fifth, Hill never takes account of the fact that the dynamic and relational account of “God” demanded by Paul’s language might be better understood not with fourth-century categories but with existing, though often ignored, Jewish ones. In Israel’s Scriptures, “God” was both the creator and the Exodus-God, who came to dwell in the midst of his people. Paul arguably understood the events concerning Jesus, and the gift and continuing agency of the Spirit, in those terms: new creation, new Exodus, and the newly tabernacling divine Presence.
Within those interlocking biblical and Jewish frames of reference, many Jews retrieved the narrative of Scripture in terms of Israel’s God coming back in person to reveal his glory in a sudden rescue operation (Isa. 40 and 52 come to mind). This plays into the Temple theology that is arguably central to Paul’s vision of both Jesus and the Spirit but that again Hill never incorporates into his scheme. For a fully trinitarian theology of Paul, then, we do not have to “amplify” his voice by importing categories from later centuries (p. 171, quoting R.R. Reno). We should instead note the ways in which some ancient Jews told the story of the one God, and the ways in which the death and resurrection of Israel’s kingdom-inaugurating Messiah compelled Paul and others to tell that same story in terms of Jesus and the Spirit.
With that, the theological relationship between early Jewish Christianity and later Greek theology is posed afresh. Wesley Hill’s book raises this perennial question in an exciting and provocative manner, and for that we may be thankful.
The Rt. Rev. N.T. Wright is professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.