Psychological Aspects of Pauline Theology

Written by Gerd Theissen Reviewed By Tom Wright

The breathtaking achievements of Professor Gerd Theissen of Heidelberg continue with this extraordinarily complex and fascinating book. Married to a psychologist, Theissen has, he tells us, been steadily exploring different approaches to the subject and ways of applying them to religious texts and phenomena, and this book is the result, taking five Pauline texts (in one case, a group of texts) as his starting points. Just as Theissen braved the scorn of the academic community with his The Shadow of the Galilean—and, in my judgment, got away with it—so he is well aware that he is doing the same thing here, treading where angels (and most others) have feared to enter.

But Theissen has again got away with it. Not that his theories, either in general or in particular, necessarily carry full conviction”. Rather, he has attempted an astounding integration of two highly complex and difficult wholes, and the attempt itself compels admiration. If, in the end, we conclude that he has shot a rocket at the moon and fallen short, we are nevertheless grateful that the rocket was even fired, none like it having been seen before, and particularly for the brightly coloured stars that exploded from it as it went. Something like this needed doing: if anything, it needs doing still, at far more length, perhaps in a periodical and monograph series over a couple of decades; and anyone addressing the area will need to be phenomenally learned to better Theissen. The fact that the book prompts these reflections shows how high it must be rated. I read it alongside half-a-dozen other works of NT studies which I was also reviewing: they all appeared pale and thin beside this solid, thorough, robust piece of work, like (at best) cucumber sandwiches beside a substantial steak.

What is Theissen trying to do? Psychological exegesis: that is, seeking ‘to describe and explain, as far as possible, human behaviour and experience in ancient Christianity’ (p. 1). Starting with potentially ‘favourable’ sources, one can make deductions about the nature of early Christian experience, stated in psychological terms, or about the texts themselves as ‘psychic acts’ (this is not the only place where the translator might have had second thoughts, opting perhaps for ‘psychological acts’: but the task cannot have been easy). He begins, therefore, with the premises of ‘a hermeneutically oriented psychology’, as a framework within which various models are to be employed; this is the framework that enables the transfer to take place between the modern interpreter and the ancient text. He then sets out, in thirty-four packed pages, the three models he will use: Learning Theory (as known, for instance, in the work of Behaviourists), the Psychodynamic approach (Freud and Jung in particular), and the Cognitive approach. (If these subjects are foreign to readers of Themelios, they might perhaps do what I did: make a little map of the theories for quick reference later on in the book. Knowledge of them is not presupposed in what follows here!) Theissen then discusses the issues raised by integrating the three models within a hermeneutical scheme.

This brings him to the main part of the book, in which he takes various texts and applies the methods to them. First, however, in each case he subjects the texts to thorough and rigorous analysis in terms of its own line of thought and the traditions it embodies or reflects. This methodological rigour is impressive and satisfying even where one disagrees—as I often do—with the conclusions. Theissen has made every effort to avoid the problem of simply bouncing psychological theory off the texts without paying serious attention to what they are actually about at all sorts of other levels. When, in each instance, he comes to the psychological analysis, he brings the three models to the text and explores their possibilities one by one. He concludes the book with a brief epilogue discussing the effects of Paul’s preaching in transforming behaviour and experience.

I have already suggested that the book has succeeded in one of its most fundamental aims—that of raising the questions of a psychological hermeneutic of Paul in a way that cannot be dismissed or marginalized. Does it succeed in its more detailed proposals?

I have to say, with some sorrow, that I find it unconvincing. I do not think the task is in principle wrong-headed or that it could never be done with the hope of accurate results: but I do not think that Theissen has yet achieved such results.

In the first place, there are bound to be serious questions of method. The strength of the book lies partly in the wide-ranging use of different psychological methods. But what are we to say of a method that then makes a virtue of playing all the methods through one after the other with each text, so that we not only have Freud and Jung side by side, each offering insights from his own perspective, but the two of them keeping company with those who, in real life, are still bitterly opposed to their whole enterprise? Theissen has done with the psychologists what John Hick did with religions: despite what they think, they are all simply different paths up the same mountain. It would, of course, be far riskier to opt for only one model or sub-model: Theissen’s method keeps options open, and means that if we dislike, say, behaviourism we will not need to reject the book at once. But another option might have been to try out the different models and then to argue that one of them was in this case hermeneutically more appropriate. This would correspond to the practice of many psychotherapists and others who use different models and methods electically in sensitive response to particular different needs. It would also raise the question of controls and criteria: what counts as hermeneutically more appropriate? To this question Theissen suggests no answer.

Still at the level of method, I found myself wondering whether the title of the book should have referred, not to Pauline theology, but to Pauline religion. What is under investigation is, for the most part, the religious experience witnessed to or seen in the texts, not the theological argument or thought-patterns of individual letters or of Paul as a whole. And this reflection makes one realize that, if early Christian religion is the actual subject of investigation, there are at least five different things that we might be talking about: (a) the psychology of Paul himself; (b) what Paul himself said about the areas we call ‘psychology’; (c) what was going on, psychologically speaking, when Paul wrote this or that letter, or the letters in general, to churches; (d) the psychology of early Christians as a whole; and (e) what Paul said or thought about the psychology of early Christians as a whole or in particular cases. We could even let these interact interestingly on one another.

When we make such distinctions certain things, I believe, become clear. First, Theissen is in danger of sliding from one category to another. Second, we are only anywhere near terra firma when discussing (b) and (e). It is hard enough to be certain of one’s analysis when talking to a co-operative client one knows well with whom one shares a cultural background and who can be quizzed on points of doubt. If we think it at all easy to do (a), (c) and (d) it may well be because, as C. S. Lewis said in another context, those who could blow the whistle are dead.

Theissen chooses a set of fascinating passages as the basis for the main section of the book. He begins with 1 Corinthians 4:1–5, Romans 2:16 and 1 Corinthians 14:20–25, all of which speak of the secrets of the heart. He treats these, as he treats all the chosen passages, from three points of view: text analysis, tradition analysis, and psychological analysis. The first two in each case tend naturally to be less controversial: in these areas, Theissen is more or less a normal modern post-Bultmannian German reader of Paul. In the third case, he arrives after a long discussion at the bracing conclusion about the inner workings of Paul’s life-world that the ‘inner dialogue’ which all humans hold with themselves has been transformed through ‘a new central reference person’, i.e. Christ.

He then moves on to ‘The Veil of Moses and the Unconscious Aspects of the Law’, a study of 2 Corinthians 3. Here the (to my mind) weakness in a post-Bultmannian reading of the text gets in the way rather more, since I do not think that in this chapter Paul is primarily contrasting himself, or Christ, with Moses: it is, rather, his hearers who are contrasted with Moses’ hearers. (See my article in the Memorial volume for George B. Caird.) It is true that Paul does have a different view of Moses from that which he had in his pre-Christian days, and this now has, no doubt, deep resonances within Paul’s own heart. But Theissen has read out of his own tradition, not out of the text, the idea that Paul’s view of Moses is now deeply negative, and he cannot see (for reasons that, as he himself might well wryly admit, could themselves be subject to interesting socio-psychological investigation) that what Paul has done is rather to integrate the position he always held about Moses—that God’s glory was revealed through him—with a fuller, but not contradictory, Christian position. This means that when we come to the psychological analysis I want to make all sorts of other moves to Theissen, who mainly sees the law as a punishing superego now overcome, or the system of law as producing a cognitive dissonance now surmounted. Nevertheless, the conclusion remains, I think, valid, as interpretation if not as exegesis: ‘It is true of all Christians that as long as they have not integrated both their Jewish and Gentile heritage, they are not yet transformed into the image of God. As long as they are not, a veil still lies on their hearts too’ (p. 158).

A digression is inserted at this point, in the form of a long discussion, in similar print, of the other passage in Paul where the ‘veil’ plays an important role—1 Corinthians 11:2–16. It contains much that is fascinating, much that is bewildering: not least the conclusion, which for some (though not Theissen) could become mercilessly reductionist, that Paul’s statements here symbolize a defence against unconscious sexual impulses, in part heterosexual and in part homosexual. This might be part of the truth, but I do not think it is the whole truth, and Theissen’s warning against too readily judging and condemning Paul ‘from the perspective of an uninhibited modern sexual ethic’ (p. 174) is not, it turns out, a warning against anachronism or against assuming that the modern western world is right and Paul wrong, but only a note that 1 Corinthians 11 is not Paul’s last word on the subject.

We often come, with a sense of inevitability, to Romans 7. Here Theissen has a field-day, even by his own standards, and so on virtually every page out of the eighty-eight devoted to the chapter there are exclamation marks, ticks, question marks, and/or enthusiastic underlinings in my copy. It is impossible to summarize the plethora of rich insights and (in my view) misleading ideas here. I find myself very close to him, though, at certain key points: ‘Philippians 3:4–6 [which is often played off against Romans 7] reflects the consciousness of the pre-Christian Paul, while Romans 7 depicts a conflict that was unconscious at the time, one of which Paul became conscious only later’ (p. 235). Equally, I find some of his suggestions close to absurdity (though such a charge is difficult to advance in this field): e.g. that Paul is repressing an earlier desire for the death of God (p. 248), or that a close parallel exists between Paul and Freud himself (p. 250 n. 50). However hard it will be for exegetes to integrate his insights into their work, they certainly should try—as is done to a quite limited extent in the recent commentaries of Dunn and Zeller, and somewhat more in that of Ziesler.

The last two sections of the book deal with glossolalia (arguing that it is the language of the unconscious, but language capable of becoming conscious; here there certainly is reductionism which any self-respecting charismatic should challenge), and wisdom as spoken of in 1 Corinthians 2 (a higher state of consciousness in which a previously unconscious content may now be reflected upon). Theissen concludes with an Epilogue, exploring briefly the ways in which Paul’s preaching effects transformation in behaviour and experience.

Almost every book by Theissen is a tour de force, and this is clearly no exception. He puts us all enormously in his debt, both when we agree with him and when we find him frustrating or even opaque. He has wrestled hard with giants in so many fields, and has returned to display the spoils of often successful battles. He is not over-confident about the new methods he has explored so creatively: ‘anyone who thinks that this religion can be illumined historically and factually without psychological reflection is just as much in error as one who pretends that everything about this religion can be said in this fashion’ (p. 398, the closing sentence of the book). It is to be hoped that this challenge will be taken up by many other scholars with Theissen’s breadth and subtlety of mind; though saying that prompts the reflection that there are not many NT scholars who come anywhere near this prodigy. Heidelberg is fortunate to have him. He, incidentally, is fortunate to have T. & T. Clark as his publisher: apart from a string of misprints, and a few stylistic oddities in the translation, the book is beautifully produced, with the sometimes substantial footnotes properly at the bottom of the page. All in all, this is a book that many will find forbidding, but that all serious students of Paul should get to know. Its resonances, one way or another, are going to be with us for some time to come.

Tom Wright