K:JNWTS 31/2 (December 2016): 30-37

Wolter on Paul’s Theology: A Review

Jeanie Crain

In Paul: An Outline of His Theology[1] (a translation of the German Paulus: Ein Grundriss seiner Theologie, 2011), Michael Wolter constructs a careful, comprehensive hermeneutic of Pauline theology which he describes as influenced by recent Anglophone and traditional German interpretation (xiii). As a distinguished, esteemed, and internationally recognized scholar, his work deserves, in fact, requires, thoughtful and respectful study. He sets out to reconstruct the theological content of Paul’s thinking based on the seven letters that the “critical consensus” takes to be authentic; he  assumes 1 Thessalonians to be the oldest letter, Galatians as written after Philippians and Romans, and the Corinthian letters originating before Romans (1, 6). His contribution as a whole is impressive and will, doubtless, generate and guide future discussions on Paul. His translator, Robert L. Brawley, calls attention to the “fascinating insights” that emerge “from the wide-ranging array of interpretive and theological categories and methods”; Brawley adds “nothing produced insight more than Wolter’s reading of Pauline texts themselves” (xv).

Wolter pursues a consistently constructivist presentation: in a symbolic universe where all experiences must be interpreted and their meaning ascribed “into existing knowledge”, God is permitted as a transcendent reality (152). He is the reality beyond all images and to which all images refer, which can be spoken of only “metaphorically” (155). Easter, the gift of the Spirit, is “interpreted as an element of the promised eschatological salvific action of God to God’s people … through the memory of Jesus’ own eschatological proclamation that was now regarded as vindicated through his resurrection and exaltation” as proclaimed by his messengers (152). Wolter insists any theology of Paul must arise from the content of his letters—this separated from a “resonance chamber” of reception-hermeneutical meaning which is largely detached from the past and individual historical circumstances (1).

Wolter thinks of his work as “an actual systematically and descriptively constructed presentation” (4), suggesting early into his effort an interpretation of Paul’s conversion and mission as a language event and, more disturbingly, treating the incarnation and salvific death of Jesus, not as the objective reality of ontological God breaking into objective history, but as an event leading to a profession based on an “assurance of faith” that comes to separate Christians from non-Christians. He offers an interpretation of the Pauline understanding of faith as one that views “certain matters as genuinely factual because these matters—and this foundation makes its assumption of reality first and foremost a certitude of faith… [that] coincide [s] with reality according to God” (85).  He then concludes “Christian faith is confident in itself that its assumption of reality is true, because it coincides . . . with the determinacy of reality by God” (85). Wolter’s language leans heavily on a tradition of liberal thinking which prefers to discuss religious experience and religious thought under the philosophical terms of “determinacy” and “transcendent reality”, while avoiding any mention of the supernatural power of God. He also seems less interested in the truth of Scripture as a whole than in the words of Paul as recorded in a few select letters and the resulting historical emergence of Christianity.

Wolter comments in his “Prologue” that many presentations organize themselves around “redemption history . . . partly undergirded in a Trinitarian way . . . that also many systematic theologians use” (3). They begin “with what Paul has to say about God and creation, then deal with soteriology (with the themes ‘humanity,’ ‘Jesus Christ,’ ‘redemption,’ ‘Spirit’), proceed to ecclesiology and ethics, and end up with eschatology” (3). His footnote references the German theologians Jürgen Becker and Udo Schnelle. Yet others approach Paul through Romans, where Paul formulates “an explanation of his theology”. Here he refers to British biblical scholar C. K.  Barrett and British NT theologian James D. G. Dunn (3). He rejects both structural approaches, finding them “neither developed from nor based on that which is to be described but either superimposed or by which a structuring principle from a still frame of Pauline theology . . . for its entirety is created.” Wolter creates a work which, he confesses, goes “its own way,” culminating in a structure that is “extensive” and “distinctive,” its various parts semantically coherent, although not actually fitting together (3). Wolter seeks to understand Paul’s theology in terms of theological concepts found in the apostle as well as sorting through linguistic interpretations that have applied theological terms in anachronistic ways. He shapes his central point as “faith in Christ” which annuls the existing boundaries between Jews and Gentiles, but creates new boundaries between believers and unbelievers.

Wolter’s causal rejection of “redemption history” brings to mind several influential voices. Although now dated, Oscar Cullmann’s Christ and Time (1945) paved the way for thinking about time and history as redemption history. For Cullmann, redemption history is a single, unrepeatable process leading into and out of Christ; in the Christ-event, the eternal becomes historical and the bearer of the eternal Word; thus everything in faith hangs on the revelatory events of biblical history. Herman M. Ridderbos, one of the twentieth century’s most influential NT scholars,[2] describes standing before “the imposing edifice of Paul’s theology” and scholars’ views of “the architectonic structure and arrangement of the building as a whole,” and looking to find an entrance through which to give “insight into the fundamental structure of Paul’s preaching and doctrine”; he finds his entrance in the “redemptive-historical method of interpretation” (Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 13, 43). Geerhardus Vos, a pioneer in biblical theology, in his inaugural address at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1894, at a time when biblical theology was emerging as its own science and discipline, distinguished it from all other sciences by insisting it claimed “for its object not the thoughts and reflections and speculations of man, but the oracles of God” (Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 19). Vos explains that in all of the other sciences, a human being approaches the objective world, subjects it to scrutiny, and compels it to submit to his experiments; theology, however, reverses subject and object, understanding it is “God who takes the first step to approach man for the purpose of disclosing His nature, nay, who creates man in order that He may have a finite mind able to receive the knowledge of His infinite perfections” (ibid., 5).

It does not come as a surprise that Wolter (a post-Kantian scholar concerned with the reconstruction of language, the exact meaning of phrases, and the topography of semantic fields) would reduce theology to conceptual, logical analysis or that he would relegate God (outside an experiential presence of the Spirit, 151), to transcendence (140) an “assumption of reality” (85), and metaphorical expression (155); or that God as God should be defined as “the reality that determines everything” (219). Wolter writes “talk about God, God’s being God, and God’s action occupy a central position in the context of justification of Pauline theology,” understood in the narrow sense of “theo-ology” and the particular “essence” of God (373), and used as a generic designation which is always singular in nature (374).

In his important chapter on “The Holy Spirit,” Wolter acknowledges God’s presence among humans through the mode of the Holy Spirit, but God “remains transcendent” and retains a  Barthian “character of otherworldliness” (149) in which an infinite chasm exists between divinity and humanity, impassable by attempts to define God in concepts. Barth though believes this gap can be filled only with the inbreaking of revelation in Jesus, the Scripture becoming the Word, that is, the Lord Jesus Christ (The Epistle to the Romans [1968] 91-94)[3]. Wolter talks about Paul’s “christological confession that (spoken in a Pauline fashion) could not be expressed until after Easter” in that it lies “outside of the assurance of reality of Christian faith” (96). The God Wolter conceptualizes still seems to stand apart as an a-temporal, a-spatial, eternal infinitude described as a “theocentric orientation” in Paul’s theology. Wolter painstakingly avoids giving ontological reality to God, although he does (as previously referenced) talk about “the determinacy of reality by God as coinciding with assumptions of reality in the sense of correspondence” (85). This language differs considerably from that of Vos, who says the distinction between the Creator and the created is absolute and that God takes the first step toward man to disclose his nature. What Wolter concludes of Paul may, in fact, better reflect his own thinking: “the theo-logical, that is, the accent related to God, is found only rarely in the texts” (74). Rather, he thinks of Paul as reformulating “the particular character of Christian faith for Christian communities in his time” (cf. Theologie and Ethos im fruhen Christentum, 2009. In addition to his work on Paul, Wolter is known for writing the lead essay in The Quest for the Real Jesus (2013) challenging a group of international scholars to respond to him with their views on the historical Jesus. In this essay, he argues generally there can be no approach to Jesus that is not an image or construction. When, in fact, Wolter does address ontology, he does so in relation to the “ontological dignity of the reality of faith” (91) and “in the light of the antithesis ‘human being’ versus ‘God’” in his discussion of justification (371).

Wolter describes his work as among those presentations “oriented toward a historical paradigm” which reconstruct Pauline theology (2). The interpreter, as he acknowledges, will include his own theological thinking in such “constructs.” Wolter, however, hopes to be objective in his abstracting, systematizing, reshaping and creating a context for the interpretation of statements contained in Paul’s letters. He quickly lays to rest any attempt to raise a singular “the Pauline theology” (2) on any textual basis, remarking that no one letter develops Paul’s “theological convictions and ideas in their entire amplitude and completeness,” and all the letters are dependent on communication situations (2).  It should be noted that Wolter talks about a “distinctive language of interpretation” in which certain concepts, such as “atonement” and “substitution,” come to belong to biblical thought only through a process of transference and “retrospective systematization” (100). He explains “how” he organizes his chapters about theological concepts categorized as “emic,” or that appear in Paul, such as “gospel,” “faith,” “Holy Spirit,” and “hope,” and “etic,” or anachronistic constructs (do not appear in Paul, 3, 100). Among the latter, he includes the “salvific effect of Jesus’ death,” “ethics,” and the “doctrine of justification” (3).  He surmises “a reflection of perspectives . . . in view of the status of sources is better suited than an approach from a single perspective to allow the profile of Pauline theology to become evident” (3).

Wolter’s search is clearly not about God’s saving acts recorded in the Bible as a whole so much as it is a search to find out what was originally meant by Paul in his letters (2). When speaking about Paul’s conversion and call, he talks about perception, experiential knowledge, contextual identification, and an ascription of “meaning to the experience of his vision” (25). Paul himself becomes an interpreter of his own experience. Paul interprets his vision as one in which God is the actor and then deduces his own role to “proclaim the gospel about him [Jesus] among the gentiles” (27). Importantly, however, Paul “always speaks about solely one gospel.” What Paul calls “My” gospel is always “God’s gospel” and “Christ’s gospel” (53-54). The problem that arises resides not so much in Paul’s interpretation of his vision of Jesus as in Wolter’s interpretation of God as “the subject matter of the knowledge” revealed (57, n16). So viewed, this “subject matter” of “knowledge” carries a hint of some striving after a perfect certainty of truth with its innermost alliance within self-consciousness. Contextually, Wolter is addressing the “good news” Paul has received through Jesus Christ, the vehicle and content of revelation (56) and what he remembers of Jesus’ proclamation (151). What disturbs is that God still functions here as some Hegelian absolute consciousness in a rational system. The gospel of God that Paul is set apart for (Rom. 1:1) has its focus not “on the side of the source of the gospel but on the side of its content and its proclamation” (57).

Wolter further leans in the direction of modern liberal scholarship when he dedicates his book to the “Benedictine Abby of Saint Paul Outside the Walls of Rome,” speaking of it as bringing into being “a culture of cooperation of spiritual fraternity and academic work” reflecting “one of the most important theological insights of the Apostle Paul . . . that there is one body of Christ always, diverse only in its external form, that the unity of this body comes about by way of nothing other than through the common ‘Christ-faith’ of all its members, and that the one Christianity, therefore, can never be anything other than such a pluralistic as well as ecumenical matter” (xi).

In approaching this unity, Wolter finds a “theological correlation of ‘gospel’ and ‘faith’” (75), faith being defined “by the same content as the gospel” and interchangeable with “Christ” (73). In his profile of Paul’s theology, Wolter can say “‘believing’ means nothing other than to hear the proclamation of Christ propounded by Paul as the ‘word of God’” (77). What Paul proclaims “becomes God’s word solely because what it speaks about is that God has acted through Jesus Christ for the salvation of humanity” (66). Nonetheless, this emphasis on “proclamation” and “propounded” brings to the foreground a view of reality in which language and interpretation become the way in which God speaks: “Paul’s gospel is heard as that which it claims to be, namely as God’s word” (67). Wolter seeks to get back to what was heard when Paul was alive and speaking, what was written in his letters, what is now read, re-read, and re-interpreted. In his “Preface to the English Edition,” Wolter hopes the translation will strengthen “the communication in Pauline scholarship across language and cultural borders” (xiii), here expressing his kinship with the plural, ecumenical outreach. He has won warm reception from both systematizing theologians and NT scholars on Paul, although he clearly clings to his own post-modern hermeneutical and constructivist climate.

Choosing to organize his work about concepts, Wolter realizes it “already anticipates a certain understanding of Pauline theology” and that, in a sense, it takes a determined course: “a book’s chapters can always advance only in its own direction” (4). He then lays out an organizational plan in which he begins with a comprehensive narrative and biographical section (chapters II, III) presenting the “antecedents of Pauline theology” (4). These account for the period before Paul’s conversion and call (which he insists comprise not two, but only one event, 23)—the event itself and the events leading up to it, making them “the object of his theological argument” (4). He builds early the idea that “Paul did not dispose of his Pharisaic past” (4) and that he did not change sides from Judaism to Christianity, determining such a depiction as “anachronistic” (24).

The next chapters introduce the various concepts that must be viewed in light of linguistic interpretations: proclamation of the gospel (IV, 51-69)—“in Paul everything begins with the proclamation of the gospel” (4); faith (V, 51-69), complementing this proclamation, and giving “consent to the gospel” or conversion “as well as an abiding characteristic of the Christian life” (4). The redemptive, salvific effect of Jesus’ death, with Jesus exclusively the basis of Christian belief  (VI, 95-124), could have been part of faith, as could baptism (VII, 125-46) and the discussion of the Holy Spirit (VIII, 147-75), these constituting Christian identity and ethos.  Because Paul “used the Spirit profiled entirely as an eschatological category” (IX, 177-220), Wolter makes this chapter follow VIII; Christ-mysticism and participation in Christ, having to do with “the eschatic Christ community and experiential sharing in Jesus’ salvific destiny” (5), he views as a counterpart to eschatology (X, 221-51). Finally, he turns to three chapters on ecclesiology (XI, 253-300), ethics (XII, 301-29), and justification (XIII, 331-99), concluding the latter with “God justifies a person on the basis of his or her faith” (4), and ends with the poignant, culminating question of “What Becomes of Israel?” (XIV, 401-25), followed by an epilogue (427-44). Wolter’s approach then is a retrospective reconstruction of Paul’s faith-experience and the resulting theology in which Paul works out a Christian identity for those who respond in faith to a gospel that becomes “the subject matter and the vehicle of revelation” (56).

Wolter acknowledges a number of people and conversations which, he says, helped him “to find a way out of blind alleys” and showed him the paths he needed to follow in his construction of Pauline theology (“Preface to the German Edition”). Among these, he noted learning that the “Lutheran and the New Perspective are not the only options that exist [one thinks of James Dunn, N.T. Wright, E.P. Sanders, and Krister Stendahl], and that all participants in the discussion about Pauline theology are well advised to listen to the voices of Orthodox theology” (xi-xii). As previously noted, he also credits the international and ecumenical circle of exegetes associated with the Colloquium Oecumenicum Paulinum. In translating Gerechtigkeit as “justice,” Brawley notes that Wolter wishes to discourage juridical connotations (xv). While he does not subscribe to any notion of salvation earned by meritorious behavior before God (works salvation), neither does he dismiss the importance of the individual’s status before God (God’s elect, covenanted people). “Paul,” Wolter proclaims, “self-evidently and without any restriction sees the gospel proclaimed by him and ‘Christ-faith’ as standing in a fundamental and unbroken continuity with the theological foundations and traditions of Israel” (435). What Israel was as “the people of God” now belongs to all believers in Jesus Christ (434). Here, when Paul talks about God as God, “he dissolves the distinction between Jews and gentiles in anthropology and subsumes both under the generic ‘human being,’” pointing out that “on a semantic level on which God is God [one single exemplar], therefore, Jews and gentiles can be nothing other than humans” (374). Wolter finds “the Pauline doctrine of justification” an anachronism and calls it “a construct of Paul’s interpreters” (334). Only after long, intricate discussions about the gospel, faith, and the Holy Spirit does Wolter address justification in his thirteenth chapter, calling it “Justification on the Basis of Faith”. 

In the “Epilogue,” Wolter drives home his central argument that the identity of those who believe in Jesus Christ and are baptized into him is located beyond the distinction between Jews and Gentiles (435). “Belonging to Jesus Christ both annuls the existing boundaries among humans [Jews and Gentiles] and also draws new ones” [believers and unbelievers], creating a new identity [Christian], “something like a tertium genus hominum, even if this designation is first encountered in authors of the second century” (434-35).  Further, Wolter declares, “God is always the subject of justification or the source of righteousness, and humans are always the recipients” (335) such that human faith and believing become the basis for receiving righteousness. He thus makes “What Becomes of Israel?” the highlight of his presentation (XIV). Here, the gospel and Christ-faith fulfill Genesis 12:3 and 18:18 that God as God is, in Abraham, blessing all nations (437). The mission of Jesus becomes God’s salvific care for Israel. He says that Paul’s line of argument in Romans 9:30-10:4 “indicates that ‘Christ-faith’ also stands in continuity with Israel’s striving for righteousness” as recipients of what God gives (437).  In the final sentences of his epilogue to Paul and Jesus, Wolter proclaims that “in the allotment of salvation and perdition in the judgment, God is guided solely by how one has responded to his interpretation of himself” and continues to say, “it is God who stands behind this program [on the side of Jesus “interpreting himself as the inbreaking of God’s royal sovereignty into the reality of humans”] and who . . . has vindicated it on Easter” (444). What becomes suspect, however, is exactly this extension of a limited human interpretive scheme to the self-disclosure of an infinite, eternal, and objectively present ontological God “in so far as He has revealed Himself” to his finite creation (Vos, ibid. 5).

Wolter describes NT research as a “hermeneutical enterprise that is always determined by the scholar’s presuppositions and perspectives rooted in their individual culture and confessional traditions” (xiii). He clearly is concerned with historically-seated ethos and traditions. Even more to the point of his “this-worldly” emphasis (in his chapter on the Holy Spirit), Wolter insists that Paul never ascribes any “particular materiality” to the Spirit, and concludes the most one can say about the question of “‘substance’ [is] that [it] categorically eludes human concepts of matter, because this substance [within the terms of “intramundane substantiality”]  exists only as God’s reality” and can be spoken about in human language only metaphorically just as in principle “it is possible to speak about God’s reality in human language only metaphorically” (155). Still, he confesses, for Paul, “the Spirit is not simply ‘like something’ but also is ‘something’” (155). What this something is, Wolter calls an “assurance of reality” (this coming early in his chapter on “Faith”, 85). He acknowledges the point that faith and believing currently carry denotations of deficient knowledge, and “not knowing”. Paul, he insists, understood faith differently: “it views certain matters as genuinely factual because these matters—and this foundation makes its assumption of reality first and foremost a certitude of faith—coincide with reality according to God” (85). For these reasons, he concludes, “we call ‘faith’ an assurance of reality.” The emphasis here still resides on the side of a knowledge of an other-worldly God operative and generative in humans through the Holy Spirit. Wolter says of Christian faith (as noted earlier), it is “confident in itself that its assumption of reality is true, because it coincides in the sense of the so-called correspondence theory of truth with the determinacy of reality by God” (85).

In his section on “The Theology of the Gospel,” Wolter points out that Paul “does not defend himself against the accusation that his gospel is only of a human sort and origin,” choosing instead to work out a contrast between “‘revelation’. . . with ‘tradition’ or ‘teaching’ . . . as a contrast of two different forms of communication—divine and human” (56).  He then juxtaposes antithetical terms: God/human; “to reveal”/ “to pass down tradition”; and gospel/ “tradition of the ancestors” (56). The origin of the gospel is not of a human kind but comes as a revelation (and one wishes he would linger or say more about revelation) through Jesus Christ (he quotes Galatians 1:11-12 and 15-16). He here makes the point important to the greater movement of his work (brought to conclusion in his chapter “And What Becomes of Israel?”)  that the gospel of Jesus/God unites a traditional world divided into Jew and Gentile to an emerging new world divided into believers and unbelievers. The logical move, however, at this point in his outline involves Wolter’s understanding of the spread of the gospel in its addressees, who agree with the gospel: “attaining the conviction that what he has said in his ‘gospel’ about God and Jesus is true” (71). With faith defined as an assumption of a certitude of reality, it becomes predictable that Wolter can make the point that “Paul himself nowhere made the question about the origin of faith a topic of discussion,” but that exegetes have read Paul’s “theological reflection in their own theology” and brought it “under the constraints of their own system” (78). Wolter then rounds out his discussion of faith by saying “because Christian faith finds its distinctiveness in the assurance that it is God who has acted in Jesus Christ, faith necessarily implies the assurance that arises from it, that assurance that precisely through it a new reality has been created” (93).

In his introductory outline, Wolter says of Paul that he “used the Spirit profiled entirely as an eschatological category” (5).  In concluding his chapter on “The Holy Spirit,” he confides, “We have hereby come full circle” (174). The Holy Spirit makes possible in its presence and work “the assumption of the reality of ‘Christ-faith’” (175).  The assurance is “that the transcendent God is present through God’s Spirit in the believers and in their fellowship in such a way that God determines them and their expressions of life and makes them manifestations of God’s reality in the world” (175). Wolter surmises, hope belongs “to the basic equipment of Christian existence just as self-evidently as the other three attributes,” i.e., faith, baptism, and the Spirit (5).

In the “Christ Mysticism” chapter which follows, Wolter’s presents “the eschatic Christ-community as an experiential sharing in Jesus’ salvific destiny already in the present” (5). For Wolter, eschatology functions as “an anachronistic artificial word” derived from the seventeenth century and generally designating “last things” (180). He says the term has been used “for all kinds of concepts of the end and beyond” (180), but explains that semantics divides eschatology into three fields: individual, universal, and cosmic (181). The first asks about individuals’s expectations about death whereas the second and third “inquire about events that come to pass for humanity or the entire world as it exists.” Wolter continues, “Moreover, it also raises the question about the character of the reality that arises from these three ‘endings.’” In the third field, “theological eschatology frequently deals with its subject as the ‘end’-time counterpart of creation”; both the Old Testament and early Judaism expected a correspondence between “primordial time” and “end time”, with God restoring “the original order of creation” at the end.  Wolter moves the argument to cosmological time when he says the essence of talking about the “end” leads “beyond the end of the present state of affairs (of human life, human history, and the world as it exists) to make statements about conditions that have no end . . . because they will endure forever—in that God is ‘all in all’ (1 Cor. 15:28c).”  “Paul,” he says, “never wrote an article ‘On the Last Things’” (181). 

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of Wolter’s discussion of eschatology comes at the end of the chapter when he talks about “God’s eschatic dealing with the world,” an event that will manifest “God as God, that is, as the reality that determines everything” (219). In this final event, Jesus will transfer his sovereignty to God or subject himself to the Father for the purpose “that God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28c). “The ministry of the Son stands in service to the universal self-implementation of God’s being God” (219), rather than “God in so far as He has revealed Himself” (Vos, ibid.). The Christ event in Wolter yields to a concept-eluding, semantic theocentric masquerading itself as God.  Wolter cannot bring himself to address a sovereign, supernatural God who breaks into history providentially. He prefers to view Scripture in its historical and human form, reading, re-reading, and reconstructing it conceptually. With God defined as “the reality that determines everything,” Wolter reduces eschatology, predictably, to “matters that concern speaking or thinking about last things” and suggests itself as a paradigm for making Paul’s theology perceptible (181).  He concludes his chapter on eschatology by commenting, “We can thereby detect in Pauline eschatology the same theocentric substructure that determines the interpretation of gentile Christian faith… characteristic of his theology of the gospel in general” (220). 

[1] Baylor University Press, 2015. 476 pages. Cloth. ISBN: 978-1-4813-0416-0. $79.95.

[2] Though Wolter ignores him, his title duplicates Ridderbos’s more Biblical and orthodox treatment published in 1975 (Editor).

[3] Cf. Cornelius Van Til on the deceit of this language, Christianity and Barthianism (1965) (Editor).