Salvation History – Bits and Pieces of my M.A. Thesis

In our last post we have briefly summarized the different positions on the “Paul and the Law” debate to show that the topic at hand is quite difficult to assess. Though there is some difficulty, in my mind there is a possibility to make sense of Paul’s “contradictory” statements concerning the Law. But for us to make sense of such, we need to investigate Paul’s negative statements as well as positive statements in respect to the Law.

Today we will look into one aspect grouped under Paul’s negative statements about the Law – salvation history.

Paul’s Negative Statements about the Torah

As stated before, we need to look into Paul’s negative and positive statements concerning Torah because of the seeming contradictions in the apostle’s writings concerning the issue.

In light of recent history in Paul’s time, the apostle is unable to look at matters the way he has done before. I like to compare the situation to someone who is undertaking to write a bibliography about the life of Adolf Hitler. How can someone living after 1945 write about that vicious dictator without taking into account what happened in the recent past? And how is one not influenced to see earlier stages in the German dictator’s life in light of those events? One will clearly assess the childhood and teenager years of Adolf specifically in light of his life from 1933-45. One cannot view history from a post-1945 standpoint the same way one viewed it before.

The same applies to the apostle Paul. In light of the events happening in the year A.D. 30 (or A.D. 33)[1] and his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), the apostle cannot look at the history of Israel, the Law, and other religious matters the same way he used to before. Things have changed, and they have changed dramatically.

It is the purpose of the next three posts to show these changes in light of three aspects: (1) Paul and salvation history, (2) Paul and “works of the law”, and (3) the meaning of being “under the law.”

Paul and Salvation History[2]

First of all I want to clarify the term “salvation history” (Heilsgeschichte) and then explore the significance of salvation history as a hermeneutical lens as well as epistemological point of view and how that is crucial in understanding Paul.

Here the term salvation history is not used in the sense Bultmann referred to in his existential endeavor to rewrite Christianity where the salvation-occurrence (as it is translated) finds itself in the kerygma,[3] but in the sense Robert W. Yarbrough has defined it. He writes that salvation history “denotes the personal redemptive activity of God within human history to effect his eternal saving attentions.”[4] In a similar fashion William Wrede wrote that Paul’s “mode of thinking is purely historical. All his thoughts about salvation are thoughts about a series of events, in which God and man take part and whose scene is on earth and also in heaven…. His very piety receives its character from the salvation history; the history of salvation is the content of his faith.”[5] Salvation history then is God’s outworking of his purpose on earth in our historical plane of time. Gerald G. O’Collins rightly states that “[a]ny interpretation of the biblical account of salvation will be deeply affected by the view one holds of history, time, and the historical mediation of salvation.”[6]

It is my conviction that Paul had such a view of history in which God was actively involved with His people and the world. Ernst Käsemann appropriately observed that “it is impossible to understand the bible in general or Paul in particular without the perspective of salvation history.”[7] Paul saw his ministry as a further step in the salvific plan of God in history. Moo cautions us, however, that “[s]alvation history is not a ‘centre’ for Paul’s thought in the true sense of the word, for it denotes a framework of thinking rather than a dominating idea.”[8] And it is this framework which does shape the thought-world of the apostle.

In light of this it is important to keep a salvation historical perspective in our hermeneutics.[9] We see Paul himself exercising such principles of interpretation for example in Gal 3:15-29 and Rom 4 where the apostle builds his entire argument on precisely God’s outworking in the unfolding history of mankind, specifically in the life of Abraham and the subsequent history of Israel. In the Galatians passage “Paul argues for the chronological priority of the promise and belief credited to the uncircumcised (!) Abraham.”[10] It is precisely this chronological priority playing out in human history (where else?) that Paul can make his defining argument and draw to conclusion that justification before God must be by faith and that we become “heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29) through faith.

Paul had such theological conviction of salvation history. Calvin Roetzel makes the argument that Paul held to certain theological presuppositions, which among others included that Paul saw his theological outworking “encoded in the story of Israel,” that “God was active in history and would bring it to a glorious and positive conclusion,” and that “Jesus was the hinge of time, the inaugurator of the new age, and the key to the meaning of history.”[11] And with that key in hand Paul did unlock the meaning of history in his christologic-eschatological understanding of Heilsgeschichte.

Brian S. Rosner also points to some epistemological implications of holding to a definition of salvation history as pointed out the above. He writes: “A salvation-historical perspective speaks about God in the concrete rather than relying on philosophical and abstract terms of reference” and continues that “God can be known not as some impersonal prime mover or a vague creative force, but as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.”[12] It is a personal God who works in history to which Paul appeals. He (like many of the early Christians) had major concerns to show that the gospel he was preaching is in alignment—yes, the fulfillment!—of that which God had “promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures” (Rom 1:2; ESV).[13]

In one sense to hold firmly to a salvation historical understanding of Scripture, and Paul in particular, is to hold to a personal God who revealed Himself fully by His one and only Son—Jesus Christ. And it is precisely after his encounter with the risen Christ that Paul engages in a dialogue about “works of the law” and “being under the law”. Times have changed and it was time to change.

In the next posts we will then continue with (2) Paul and “works of the law”, and (3) the meaning of being “under the law.”


[1]For the argument in favor of Christ’s crucifixion in A.D. 30 see the discussion in e.g. Rainer Riesner, Paul’s Early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 57–58; in favor of A.D. 33 see e.g. Paul Barnett, Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 19–22.

[2]Insights in this section are taken from Robert W. Yarbrough, “Paul and Salvation History,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism: Volume 2 – The Paradoxes of Paul, ed. D. A Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004); J. A. Kelhoffer, “The Struggle to Define Heilsgeschichte: Paul on the Origins of the Christian Tradition,” Biblical Research 48 (2003): 45–67; Gerald G. O’Collins, “Salvation,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996); Brian S. Rosner, “Salvation, History of,” in Dictionary for theological interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al. (London; Grand Rapids, MI: SPCK; Baker Academic, 2005); Douglas J. Moo, “Paul,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001); John Reumann, “Salvation History,” in The Encyclopedia of Christianity, ed. Erwin Fahlbusch, trans. Geoffrey William Bromiley, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Eerdmans; Brill, 2005).

[3]See e.g. his Theology of the New Testament, trans. Kendrick Grobel (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), 292–306.

[4]Yarbrough, “Paul and Salvation History,” 297.

[5]William Wrede, Paul (London: Philip Green, 1907), 114–115 quoted in Yarbrough, “Paul and Salvation History,” 305.

[6]O’Collins, “Salvation,” 913.

[7]Ernst Käsemann, Perspectives on Paul, trans. Margaret Kohl (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 63 quoted in Yarbrough, “Paul and Salvation History,” 305.

[8]Moo, “Paul,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 138.

[9]For further information on the history and significance of a salvation historical interpretation of Paul see Yarbrough, “Paul and Salvation History.” 

[10]Kelhoffer, “The Struggle to Define Heilsgeschichte,” 57.

[11]Calvin J. Roetzel, Paul: The Man and the Myth (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999), 94–95. Rosner, “Salvation, History of,” 715 writes: “God’s dealings with Israel recorded in the Bible lead to Christ, who is the turning point of history” (emphasis mine) to which Moo agrees when he states that “[t]he Christ event therefore divides history into two epochs, an old age and a new,”  “Paul,” 138.

[12]Rosner, “Salvation, History Of,” 716.

[13]See Kelhoffer, “The Struggle to Define Heilsgeschichte,” 61.

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