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Outline the key elements in Paul’s theology of the cross of Jesus, making careful reference to the text of his letters.
Paul was one of the earliest and most influential Christian theologians, therefore it is very important that readers of the Bible scrutinize the words and implications of his writings if they wish to grasp a clear understanding of the key elements of his theology. Paul’s writings and letters make up a significant part of the New Testament, providing plenty of evidence from which to gain insights. Despite the fact that academics continue to argue over whether or not a valid understanding of Paul’s theology can be gained from what is essentially a collection of letters crafted for specific situations, through a close reading of the texts the most important and significant elements of his theology cannot fail to be noticed.
It is evident from Paul’s writings that he believes the cross of Jesus to be of integral importance to the Christian message he preaches. On one hand the cross acts as a symbol with which to inspire and teach the new followers of Christianity, and on the other hand, as an essential element in the fulfilment of Jesus’ destiny, the reality of God’s sacrifice and proof of the love he feels towards his people. Paul emphasises the symbolic and practical importance of the cross throughout his letters, one example of this being in Philippians, when Paul implies by corollary that the cross is a Christian symbol around which the followers of Christ can gather and seek redemption:
“For many…live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18-19)
The symbolic significance of the cross is undeniable, and it has become one of the most enduring symbols of Christianity in the world today. The importance of the cross is certainly one of the key elements of Paul’s theology and Carey C. Newman, (among others) attributes this to the fact that “…Paul’s primary task in life and thought was to interpret his conversion experience”1. In other words, to preach his gospel to the new community of Christians and to allow them to fully comprehend the importance of Christ, the crucifixion and the resurrection as a cornerstone of their faith, Paul takes the symbol of the cross and harnesses its dramatic significance as a way of reaching out to his congregation. One of the major themes in Paul’s writing is the importance of the resurrection, and a significant part of his theology regarding the cross is evident in the way he juxtaposes the two, one example being in his letter to the Romans:
“The death he died he died to sin, once and for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:10-11)
In this verse Paul emphasises the fact that Jesus’ crucifixion upon the cross is representative of mankind being cleansed from sin. The juxtaposition of the crucifixion imagery and the Christian belief in eternal life is important as it shows that Paul considered the two to be inextricably linked – the powerful nature of the resurrection is enhanced and strengthened by the fact that it is twinned with the image of Jesus and his cross.
Paul seems to have held two theories about the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross as a theological concept and how it concerns the human reality of sin. David Horrell in “The Introduction to the study of Paul” defines these as “a sacrificial interpretation” and “a participationist”2 interpretation. During his letter to the Philippians, Paul seems to be hinting that he endorses the participationist interpretation. Paul discusses the crucifixion and the cross in the context of an important Christian experience, almost like a baptism which the followers of Christ must endure. Paul holds himself up as an example of this:
“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Philippians 3:8)
He therefore implies in this letter that his theology of the cross is based on a participationist interpretation and that Jesus’s cross and crucifixion are symbolic of the suffering which Christians must endure in order to “gain Christ and be found in him”. Paul’s participationist interpretation is also mentioned in a more explicit manner in his earlier letter to the Romans, this time dealing with the theoretical implications as opposed to the practical ones:
“We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” (Romans 6:6)
However, Paul’s theology of the cross also seems to encompass a sacrificial interpretation, as he points out throughout his letters. In his letter to the Philippians Paul concentrates upon the cross as an important reminder of the suffering endured by Christ.
“…Christ Jesus…And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him…” (Philippians 2:6-9)
This sacrificial interpretation is obviously an important element of Paul’s theology. Firstly because Paul saw it as his mission to convert non-believers to Christianity, secondly as an apostle and preacher he felt it necessary to glorify Jesus and the sacrifice endured by him. This was especially important in Paul’s own lifetime when Christianity was a fledgling religion. Paul referred to the cross as a way for others to understand his conversion experience or “call” and in this way, the sacrificial interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion is one of the key elements in Paul’s theology. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul also refers to the sacrificial importance of the cross in an attempt to heal rifts which have developed between different factions in the church at Corinth. Thus, Paul emphasises once again how Jesus’ death on the cross is important symbolically and a necessary tool in his futile efforts to unite the Christian Church.
These two Pauline interpretations of the cross may seem to be conflicting but they are both important elements of Paul’s theology and essential to the understanding of how Paul understands and preaches his gospel message. The participationist interpretation allows Paul to craft the Christian message in a manner which will appeal to and include each individual Christian. In the passages supporting the theory that Paul’s theology is based on a sacrificial interpretation, the emphasis placed on the symbolic importance of Jesus’ cross aids Paul in his efforts to unite the Christian movement under a recognisable and meaningful emblem.
In my opinion Paul’s different interpretations of the cross throughout his writings do not undermine each other. The cross of Jesus was an integral part of Paul’s teaching and the theology concerning it is diverse and complex. I think Paul’s different interpretations of the cross show how he preached his theology to the Christians. While his theology may never be understood in its entirety, Paul does allow the key elements of his beliefs to underpin his teachings and with a variety of texts to gain information from the reader can gain insights into the heterogeneous nature of Paul’s gospel message.
Paul also speaks about the cross in a more obscure and mystical manner at other points in his letters (particularly in his two letters to the Corinthians). In 1 Corinthians he outlines the power of the Cross in relation to his preaching and the meaning behind this and similar statements may is not immediately obvious:
“For Christ did not send me to baptise but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” (1 Corinthians 1:17)
These passages raise very complex theological questions but one definite conclusion that can be drawn is that Paul’s theology is rooted firmly in the belief that the power of the cross is bound up with the power of the Holy Spirit (and in turn, the power of God and Jesus). Therefore, Paul’s gospel was revealed to him directly by the Holy Spirit and so Paul considers himself to be preaching the actual words of Jesus3. Paul believes that the cross of Jesus is extremely powerful, transcending symbolic and practical significance to take up a position of prime importance in Pauline and Christian theology as a whole.
Paul’s letters make up a large and theologically significant part of the New Testament. This is slightly ironic as the purpose of Paul’s letters to the different churches is to address specific issues and problems which have arisen within the fledgling Christian communities there. Paul did not ostensibly write with the intention of outlining or illuminating his views on Christian Theology, or indeed his own theological views. There is no doubt however, that the essence of his theology is fundamental to the advice and teachings included in his writings and therefore, it is possible to pick out the key elements of Paul’s theology concerning the resurrection, God, Christian lifestyle, and (as I have concentrated on in this essay), the Cross of Jesus.
Paul’s letters were included in the New Testament presumably because those in charge of crafting it believed that Paul’s letters were representative of his theology and therefore worthy of inclusion. Although it is impossible to pinpoint Paul’s theological views precisely and in their entirety, I think it is important to draw what conclusions we can after a careful reading of his work. Paul does not lay out his theology in an easy and obvious manner, but the key elements are apparent to any reader. Paul’s theology of the Cross of Jesus has many complex implications, especially with regard to anti-Semitism and the Crucifixion as an integral part of the Christian faith, however, by studying Paul’s writings and by attempting to gain some understanding of their cultural, social and historical context I think it is possible to gain a proper understanding of Paul’s personal beliefs and theology and to see how these views have shaped Christianity throughout the ages.
“The Bible” (Revised Standard Version), American Bible Society, New York, 1946
Raymond E. Brown “An Introduction To The New Testament” ABRL, Doubleday (1997)
Mehrdad Fatehi “The Spirit’s Relation to the Risen Lord in Paul” Mohr Seibeck (2000)
Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly “Sacred Violence – Paul’s Hermeneutic of the Cross” Fortress Press, Minneapolis (1992)
David M. Hay (ed) “Pauline Theology, Volume II” Fortress Press, Minneapolis (1993)
David M. Hay and E. Elizabeth Johnson (eds.) “Pauline Theology, Volume III” Fortress Press, Minneapolis (1995)
David M. Hay and E. Elizabeth Johnson (eds.) “Pauline Theology, Volume IV” Scholars Press, Atlanta, Georgia (1997)
David Horrell “An Introduction To The Study Of Paul” Continuum, London, New York (2000)
A. M. Hunter “Interpreting Paul’s Gospel” SCM Press, London (1954)
Robert Jewett “Saint Paul Returns to the Movies – Triumph over Shame” William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan/ Cambridge, UK (1999)
Brice L. Martin “Christ and the Law in Paul” E. J. Brill, Leiden New York Kobenhaun Koln (1989)
Sven Millert “Limited and Universal Salvation – A text oriented and Hermeneutical Study of Two Perspectives in Paul” CB, New Testament Series 31, Almqvist and Wiksell International (1999)
C. E. D. Moule “Essays in New Testament Interpretation” Cambridge University Press (1982)
Carey C. Newman “Paul’s Glory – Christology – Tradition and Rhetoric” E. J. Brill, leiden New York Kobenhaun Koln (1992)
John A. T. Robinson “The Body – A Study in Pauline Theology” SCM Press, London (1952)
E. P. Sanders “Paul” Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York (1992)
A. J. M. Wedderburn (ed) “Paul and Jesus: Collected Essays” JSOT Press Sheffield (1989)
1 “Paul’s Glory – Christology – Tradition and Rhetoric” (see bibliography)
2 Chapter 5, page 53
3 “The Spirits functions in Relation to the Risen Lord” (see Bibliography)