Amid increasing interaction between Eastern and Western theologians, several recent biblical interpreters have characterized Paul’s soteriology as theosis, or deification, harking back to patristic interpretations of Paul. In this book Ben C. Blackwell critically evaluates that interpretation as he explores the anthropological dimension of Paul’s soteriology.
Blackwell first examines two major Greek patristic interpreters of Paul — Irenaeus and Cyril of Alexandria — to clarify what deification entails and to determine which Pauline texts they used to support their soteriological constructions. The book then focuses on Paul’s soteriology expressed in Romans 8 and 2 Corinthians 3-5 (with excursuses on other passages) and explores how believers embody Christ’s death and life, his suffering and glory, through the Spirit. Blackwell concludes by comparing the patristic view of deification with Paul’s soteriology arising from the biblical texts, noting both substantial overlap and key differences.
Eerdmans have sent a review copy. Unfortunately, try as I might, I cannot truly recommend this volume for one overwhelming methodological reason: the author, after ‘setting the stage’ in his first chapter (in which he divulges the history of research of the question which occupies him; i.e., deification) moves not to investigate Paul’s understanding of the deification of Christ but rather how a few of the Church Fathers understood Paul’s understanding of deification. He, naturally, has his reasons for doing so and he spends a good amount of time telling us why he’s following a sensible and coherent methodology to do it. But he fails to convince.
The subtitle of the volume would lead potential readers to believe that the topic will be examined by first carefully ‘engaging Paul’s soteriology’ and only then, once that’s been done, ‘with his Patristic Interpreters’. In point of fact, the subtitle more properly should be ‘Examining Paul’s Soteriology Primarily through the Lens of Irenaeus and Cyril of Alexandria’.
The volume’s error lies in the belief that Irenaeus and Cyril got Paul right. Perhaps they did, or perhaps they didn’t, but in point of methodological fact one really has to give pride of place to Paul’s own works and only then turn to the Fathers to see how they have understood him rather than the other way around.
Mind you, Blackwell is a good, a very good writer. Unpleasant as it is to admit, his writing lacks the power to persuade simply and primarily because the foundation of his argument is the roof of the structure. In short, he has everything exactly turned on its head.
To his credit, he has persuaded at least a few notables of the rightness of his cause. John Barclay literally glows in his praise of the work in his really informative Foreword. But he also, intentionally or not, points out the premier flaw of the volume in the very first sentence of his effervescent look ahead:
Blackwell’s Christosis is a bold and highly successful experiment in the effort to read Paul not only with, but even through, his patristic interpreters (p. xvi).
Barclay’s right, it is bold and it is an experiment and it is an effort to read Paul through the lens of his patristic interpreters. And that’s why it just doesn’t work as an examination of Paul’s thought. The deck is stacked. The outcome is predetermined.
To be sure, ‘Reception History’ is an amazingly fruitful field of investigation and this volume is precisely that. But when reception history is the focus and the exposition of a theologian like Paul’s thought is seen through its eyeballs, then we don’t hear Paul. We hear people talking about Paul. It’s as though we’ve returned to 1919 and Karl Barth’s really idosyncratic reading of Romans where we get all Barth and no Paul. It’s as if we have moved back in time to eisegetical impulses where the biblical authors are ignored and their words only used as springboards for the thought of the present ‘interpreter’. Eisegesis, it seems, has returned and taken the field of battle in a coup against more reasonable methodological approaches.
Accordingly, Blackwell’s approach will please many. It just didn’t and doesn’t me. And when Blackwell does finally get around to talking about Paul (in chapter 5, 117 pages in), the well is already tainted. The case is already closed. Paul now serves as mere window dressing for the readings of Paul already predetermined by Irenaeus and Cyril. Irenaeus and Cyril have told us what Paul thought and Paul has been, in essence, shouted down by them.
Finally, one last annoyance reared its ugly head at the end of the volume where Blackwell assembled his bibliographic material. Under the first heading he lists what he calls ‘Primary Sources’ and then every item listed under this category is not a primary source but a translation in either English or French of ancient Greek and Latin sources. Primary sources are sources in the language of the theologian or historian who wrote the material. Translations are never, ever primary sources they are always and forever secondary sources. If one called the Bible in English a primary source one would be wrong. One is also wrong to call a translation of any of the Church Fathers a primary source too.
Luther once took a book Melanchthon had written and had it published without the latter’s permission. In commending it to readers, Luther wrote
For this book itself will boast that Philip is truthful and wise, unless Christ whom he breathes and teaches is not the Truth and Wisdom. For he himself may choose to be, and be called, a fool along with Christ. And would that we, too, were such fools along with them, so that we might boast: “The foolishness of God is wiser than men” [1 Cor. 1:25].
I wish with all my heart that I could write the same sort of thing of Blackwell’s book that Luther wrote in that first line of Melanchthon’s. Alas…