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Classic precis of Paul's Theology. Buy It and Read it! Dec 11, 2006
`Paul' by German New Testament scholar, William Wrede, appears to me, out of the blue, from 100 years ago, as another entry into my `little book' hall of fame containing titles such as Strunk and White's `The Elements of Style', Wittgenstein's `Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus', and J.R.R. Tolkien's `The Hobbit'. While the book was first published in German in 1904, it was a central source of agreement with Albert Schweitzer's more famous 1930 book, `The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle' and it is still cited by major modern scholars of Paul's theology and influences such as W. D. Davies and E. P. Sanders , the founder of the `new perspective' on Paul's background and influences. It's ironic that Wrede's `Paul' was published as a member of a major series of German language summary volumes on a wide range of intellectual subjects, including titles on theology and religious history. The irony comes from the fact that one of the best modern books I've seen on Paul is by Saunders in Oxford University Press `Very Short Introductions' series. But then, the most famous philosophical article published in the United States, Charles Saunders Pierce's `How to Make Our Ideas Clear' was published in `Popular Science'!
All this babble is to convince you, dear reader, that in spite of its humble and aged providence, it is a very important book on the second most important figure in the history of Christianity!
While Wrede falls in the same camp as the famous Schweitzer, it is just a bit intimidating to see the ranks of his contemporary German Lutheran scholars including Adolph Harnack who would dispute some of his opinions. One of the most controversial theological opinions is the relative importance to Paul of the doctrine of `the justification by faith' which was so important to Luther's using Paul's theology as the cornerstone of his arguments against the Roman Catholic church of his day. Wrede points out that Paul mentions this doctrine in only two of his epistles, `Romans' and `Galatians', just the ones which happen to be devoted to the Jewish law and it's irrelevance to being a follower of the Christ, Jesus.
This book is valuable for much more than as a torchbearer for this controversial subject. For starters, even in translation, like the later translations of Schweitzer's books on Paul, the volume is simply a pleasure to read. This is clearly not a hack job done by a person who dashes off introductory volumes on subjects of current interest. Even in translation, it is actually easier to read and more comprehensible on first reading than Sanders parallel `little book', to which I gave high marks for scholarship, but not for an ability to engage the lay reader.
Another major argument for seeking out this volume is the fact that there are a boatload of popular and semi-popular works on Paul recently, including N. T. Wright's `What Saint Paul Really Said'; `Paul' also by N. T. Wright, `Rabbi Paul, An Intellectual Biography' by Professor of Religion, Bruce Chilton; `The Gospel According to Paul' by Oxford (Lincoln College) don, Robin Griffith-Jones; `Paul: The Mind of the Apostle' by A. N. Wilson, and `What Paul Meant' by Garry Wills. Counting Saunders contribution, I have read all of these recent works except Wilson, and Wrede's little 100 year old book is better than most of them on many counts.
The most important count is the fact that Wrede is the only writer who makes Paul's theology the centerpiece of his discussion. And, he describes this in such a manner that it becomes easy to see why Paul was adopted as the standard bearer for the Marcionists' interpretation of Christianity. Marcion discarded virtually all reliance on Jewish heritage and embraced Paul for his discounting the Jewish law. And yet, Paul's background was about as Jewish as you can get; albeit in a different manner than Jesus.
While Wrede does not go into this in as great detail as the later Schweitzer, it is clear in his presentation that Paul's mysticism placed Jesus' death and resurrection in the centermost point in his theology to illustrate the innate evil of `the flesh' or the physical world and our becoming free of this by participating in the resurrection of Christ into the spirit. Wrede also shows how it was easy for Luther and Calvin to adduce their doctrines of predestination from Paul's notion that grace was a gift from God, given freely, based on no action or virtue of believers.
The first seventy pages of Wrede's book is dedicated to those facts about Paul's life and work which we have on the basis of some reasonably sound authority. It is always important to keep in mind when thinking about Paul and his contemporaries that the eleven letters we can feel certain were written by Paul himself are by far the earliest documents, and virtually the only surviving documents written by near contemporaries of Jesus and his immediate apostles. Of course, it is fairly certain Paul never met Jesus `in the flesh'; however he had several famous spiritual close encounters with the risen Christ and contact with Peter, James, and other of Jesus companions.
The tragedy with Wrede the author is that he died at a young age, after writing but two small books. One can be thankful that this one survives in print to this day. Seek it out before spending too much time with many of the more recent spate of popular Paul books.