Paul: An Outline of His Theology

Written by Herman N. Ridderbos Reviewed By James LaGrand, Jr

Paul: An Outline of His Theology is the most important published work of Herman Ridderbos, the distinguished Dutch scholar, recently-retired from the New Testament chair in the Theological School of the Reformed Churches (Gereformeerde Kerken), Kampen, the Netherlands. Readers of Themelios have reason to be grateful to the translator and publisher for making the full text of this study readily available in Britain.

Since the publication of the first Dutch edition in 1966 and an abridged German edition in 1970, this study has influenced a growing number of New Testament scholars. (The English translation was first published in America by Eerdmans, 1975.) Both Ernst Käseman and F. F. Bruce have described it as ‘a standard’. Many evangelical students will judge it to be not only a standard but the best available single-volume exegetical study of Paul’s theology. For some, incidentally, this book will serve as a solid introduction to an evangelical tradition of Biblical scholarship which is neither British nor German, but critically appreciative of both.

The first chapter, entitled ‘Main Lines in the History of Pauline Interpretation’, is a useful short survey of Protestant scholarship since the sixteenth century. In the second chapter, Professor Ridderbos asserts that ‘more recent investigation … has succeeded in arriving at a broader conception of Paul’s preaching’ (p. 44). The author is convinced that most of the systematic distortions which characterized earlier interpretations of Paul’s letters can be eliminated by acknowledging ‘the eschatological or redemptive-historical starting point of Paul’s proclamation’ (p. 44).

This redemptive-historical starting point, according to Ridderbos, is ‘where the entrance is to be sought to the imposing edifice of Paul’s theology’ (p. 13). The second chapter, entitled ‘Fundamental Structures’, can stand by itself as a valuable introduction to a study of Paul’s letters or as a critical review of studies completed or in progress. The author’s thesis, presented clearly and persuasively in this chapter, is supported by detailed exegetical argument throughout the remaining ten chapters.

A three-page table of contents (which includes twelve chapter titles and eighty section headings) and a sixteen-page, triple-column ‘Index of Scriptures’ make this book usable as a reference work. The shorter ‘Index of Principal Subjects’, however, is both more and less than its counterpart in the Dutch editions. The translator and publisher accepted the difficult assignment of recasting this index completely for English readers, but they seem to have lacked enthusiasm for the task. Advanced students who have learned to form their first judgements of a book from its subject index should be warned that this summary index is not the best feature of the book. Although there is no bibliographical index, adequate bibliographical material is included in the footnotes throughout. References to books can be retrieved by use of the ‘Index of Persons’ which also serves as an instructive survey of the author’s indebtedness to other New Testament scholars.

Rudolf Bultmann receives sharply negative treatment throughout this book—but in almost every section the author also indicates his positive appreciation of Bultmann’s work. Alternative sharp disagreement and acknowledgement of deep indebtedness also mark the author’s frequent references to Ernst Käsemann’s work. In Ridderbos’ references to Oscar Cullman’s work the negative criticism in detail is somewhat surprising in view of the obvious agreement between the two scholars in their basic approach to an understanding of Paul’s theology. The author owes much to Dutch scholars, of course, but Themelios readers will discover that many references which are unfamiliar, but obviously significant, are to works published in English—such as A. J. Bandstra’s The Law and the Elements of the World (1964).

Not even students engaged in an intensive course of Pauline studies are likely to find it profitable to read this book straight through. The very fact that the author attempts to answer every question he raises (with the one notable exception of ‘baptism for the dead’, p. 25) makes cover-to-cover reading taxing. Characteristic recapitulations at the beginning of chapters does little to speed the reader on his way, but it can be helpful to the student choosing to read one or two chapters for a specific purpose.

Ridderbos’ strong emphasis on the corporate nature of Christ’s saving work and of the resulting spiritual life is a noteworthy and substantial contribution to an evangelical understanding of Pauline theology.

Students should note—and be warned—that Ridderbos accepts Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastoral Epistles as Pauline, and he exploits the consequences of this judgement throughout the book. Ridderbos is generally conservative even of ‘critical orthodoxy’ (to borrow a phrase used instructively by J. A. T. Robinson), but he goes further than almost any other modern scholar in insisting on equality for Ephesians and Colossians alongside the ‘pillar epistles’.

In the introductory first chapter, Ridderbos remarks that Albert Schweitzer not only rejected the Pastoral Epistles and 2 Thessalonians as spurious, but ‘also leaves out of consideration the epistles to the Colossians and the Ephesians, with their peculiar Christological pronouncements. All this cannot enhance the prestige of his interpretation’ (p. 31). Students who must be prepared to face the ‘critical orthodoxy’ of examiners should not forget that on this point Ridderbos probably has less ‘prestige’ than Schweitzer. Perhaps only Markus Barth, among modern scholars, is more radical than Ridderbos in his affirmation of the integral role of Ephesians and Colossians in the Pauline corpus. The logic of Ridderbos’ study presses towards Markus Barth’s view of these two epistles as examples of Paul’s mature theological development and so the truest measure of what is ‘Pauline’.

F. F. Bruce, the author of the little book Paul and Jesus, is well-known to readers of Themelios. The book’s title is also well-known, as Bruce notes in his introduction, for there have been very many little books published under this title by different authors. Even this book itself has been available in university libraries since 1974, when it was first published in the United States. But those who already have read a library copy will be the most likely to buy their own copies now that the book is available in an inexpensive British edition.

Professor Bruce is widely respected as a solid scholar and a reliable teacher. He is cautious and conservative, and he has not betrayed his craft or convictions here. But this little book is provocative and exciting. The thesis, clearly stated in the polemical two-page introduction, is that ‘if we are concerned with the real Paul and the real Jesus, then a movement away from Paul turns out to be at the same time a movement away from Jesus, who found no more faithful interpreter than Paul’ (p. 12). Without dropping the thread of the argument, which he obviously enjoys, Bruce notes that Paul’s ‘insistence that in Christ there is neither male or female entitles him to be recognized as the patron-saint of women’s liberation’ (p. 12). The author concludes the introduction with the profound and obvious—but often neglected—judgement that ‘Paul saw more clearly than most into the inwardness of Jesus’ teaching as, following His example, he proclaimed a message of good news for the outsider’ (p. 13).

All six short chapters are concerned with ‘Paul and Jesus’, but the argument in the first four relates more directly to Paul and his writing than in the last two where the focus is on Jesus and reconstruction of His teaching.

The genius of this book is the author’s ability, while surveying some of the most controversial texts of the Bible, to focus issues sharply and yet draw conclusions which do not entangle the reader in whole series of related interpretations. To be sure, many of the author’s judgements challenge the reader to further, systematic study of a subject—such as his sound observation that the Pastoral Epistles preserve the precise Pauline use of the term ‘mystery’ (p. 27). But even when Bruce presents a conclusion which most of his readers will consider outrageous (such as his suspicion that Paul himself had been married and divorced, p. 71), the argument is fair and unthreatening to those who wish to maintain their own opinions on the subject.

John Drane’s Paul seems intended for use in secondary schools. The book’s sturdy, sewn binding and very attractive format will recommend it for this use, but university’ students will find it to be of very limited value for their: studies. The main support for the subtitle’s claim that the book is a ‘documentary’ is the column of Scripture, references set out in the margin of the text.

Since Dr Drane clearly does not intend to advance Pauline research with this book, the work should be judged on its own terms as a popular survey of the results of modern research. But even first-year students are likely to find that questions which promise new insights are too easily answered and that the text of this book flattens rather than clarifies Paul’s life and writings (p. 6). Two features of the book which might recommend it for use by students deserve critical comment. The best feature of the book, both in terms of sound scholarship and imaginative format, is the series of case studies which are set off from the main text at appropriate points throughout the book. Important issues in Pauline studies, such as ‘Who were the prophets?’ (p. 24) and ‘What Paul said about women in the letter to Corinth’ (p. 84), are presented here in a useful introductory way. Even advanced students may welcome these balanced surveys of arguments and evidence as an alternative to long footnotes and excursuses. Bibliographical suggestions are always of interest to students, but the ‘Other Books on Paul’ which Drane lists seem to be little more than an arbitrary sampling in the field.

The author’s theological framework is generally conservative and his evangelical intentions are fairly clear, but again and again Drane’s summary judgements short circuit perception of important historical and theological issues. The statement, for example, that ‘from the beginning of his ministry Paul was an individualist’ (p. 37) is highly debateable at best and at worst encourages a narrow modern perspective which shuts out any adequate understanding of the historical Paul. Similarly, the flat assertion that ‘the Pharisees were legalists’ (p. 20) is hardly calculated to dispel modern prejudice. Moreover, when Drane says of Paul himself that ‘the very way he writes, using the Old Testament to “prove” his theological points, is taken directly from his training as a Pharisee’ (p. 18), the inverted commas do little to solve the problems he has introduced. In a later chapter Drane returns to the issue of Paul’s use of the Scriptures and makes the highly doubtful assumption that many of those who accepted Paul’s teaching ‘had no idea what was in the Old Testament. Paul had given them no indication that it was necessary for them to find out in order to be acceptable to God’ (pp. 46–47).

These few examples suggest that the main value of this school book for university students is as a case study of the hazards involved in an attempt to popularize the results of modern biblical scholarship.

James LaGrand, Jr

Pastor of Halifax Christian Reformed Church, Canada