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Reviews

Meeting God in Paul

Theo Hobson

This introduction to Pauline theology originates in a series of Lent talks. Williams is at his accessible best: his calm critical intelligence and dry wit, and of course his profound Christian commitment, are clearly on display. But are these virtues adequate to distilling the essence of his angular subject?

He begins with a lucid little sketch of the Roman context - 'this is a world that has no conception of universal human rights or dignities - a world in which where you fitted into the social pattern determined pretty well everything about you.' Paul, it seems, was taught by the rather liberal rabbi Gamaliel, and reacted against him - 'it's not at all unusual for a gifted and enthusiastic student to revolt very sharply against a revered teacher.' We briefly learn that Paul had a difficult personality, that he was a poor public speaker, and that he may have struggled with a disfiguring eye disease. But he learned to turn these things to his advantage, to make them props in his message of divine agency.

Crucially, he was an 'insider' in two ways - as a Roman citizen and as a Jew, and he sensed that both identities were limited. 'There is something potentially larger than both these kinds of belonging, a new belonging simply as a human being invited by God into intimacy with the eternal.' So his big idea, says Williams, is that God welcomes everyone. Even our fellow Christians. 'The one thing you know for certain about your tiresome, annoying, disobedient, disedifying fellow Christians is that God has welcomed them; that becomes your challenge.'

He repeatedly emphasizes that Paul warns both Jews and gentiles against arrogance. Jewish Christians should not suppose that their traditions make them an elite in the new landscape, and gentile Christians should not think that their detachment from these traditions makes them superior. All are now in the same boat - 'the assembly of God'. The Jewish law is no longer binding, but we should be wary of over-egging this, for 'what that law aimed at is now achieved in other ways, from the inside out as it were.' As one is shaped by Jesus, 'a new pattern has taken hold of [one], a new regularity of behaviour, a new law.' The Christian sees Jesus as Lord: 'a word that means "owner", "master", in a way that is not at all vague or pious' (how about 'boss'?).

There is a brief passage on Jesus' death as 'propitiation' or healing sacrifice. Paul 'sees the death of Jesus as the supreme peace-making gift, doing what sacrifice was always meant to do in ancient religious practice, including Judaism - …to restore a connection or relation that had been broken.' To simplify this as 'Jesus takes the punishment that we deserve' is too clumsy, says Williams. Rather, Jesus' violent death is a necessary part of God's full self-disclosure, his becoming directly knowable to us - for we must see the full depth of the gulf that otherwise cuts us off.

So we have new life in Christ, we participate in a new sort of community, we have a new sort of citizenship. Of course we often feel flat, ordinary, flawed - and that's a healthy thing, says Williams, for when we are aware of our weakness we are reminded that God, not us, is the agent of this revolution.

Williams tries to convey Paul's gradual, amazed realization that this man who died in a taboo way transforms our notion of God so utterly that he must now be spoken of in the same breath as God - we can't envisage 'the glory of God' apart from his inversion of glory. (I just mistyped 'glory' as 'gory' and that sort of sums it up.) Jesus' divinity is linked to the fact that the world finds its unity or coherence through him - 'or as we might put it in plainer terms, everything makes sense because of Jesus.'

Through Christ we can address God with 'boldness' - the Greek word parrhesia could be rendered 'nerve'. The Spirit enables this - a hint that Paul 'is already working with a "Trinitarian" view of God.' Through prayer, we know that our life participates in God's final perfection of the cosmos - we have a 'foretaste' of it. This makes sense of the claim that worship, especially the Eucharist, is 'heaven on earth'. And of course this entails a new way of behaving, that manifests God, and avoids habits of 'the flesh', which is 'human life seen from the point of view of people… competing for space: lives closed off from each other.' We belong to 'a new creation', because 'the real universe (as distinct from the fantasy world of our fear, selfishness, greed, folly, and rivalry) is the universe that hangs together finally because of the love of Jesus.'

What about Paul's belief in the imminent apocalypse, Christ returning on a cloud amid fanfare - a belief he relates most colourfully to the Thessalonican church? Though Paul didn't abandon such belief, 'his interest seems more and more to be in how we experience now the life that Christ will give in fullness at the end of time.'

All this is clear and thought-provoking: Williams at his best. But there's something missing. Perhaps Williams is too mild and irenic (and Catholic) a voice to convey Paul's urgency, and his high-pitched wrestling with paradox. The powerful drama of being 'in Christ' and yet still a sinner and a sceptic is not quite Williams's cup of tea - he is wary, with some reason, of Protestant riffing on this theme (such as the young Karl Barth performed so well, and Luther long before him). But I think it's territory that apologetics has to revisit - for 'absurdity', 'scandal' and 'folly' are central to agnostics' responses to the gospel. Also, liberal Christianity needs to make the case against legalism with some force, despite the risk of offending other monotheists. Above all, Paul can help us to see that the absurdity and impossibility of faith is something that can be miraculously admitted.