In his book, Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought, Christiaan Beker presents his interpretation of the center of Pauline theology. Beker's intent with this book is to answer the question; "What is the coherent theme of Paul's thought and what is the texture of his hermeneutic?"
Beker attempts to understand the "whole" Paul by focusing on two central questions. The first concerns the coherent theme of Paul's gospel, which Beker believes to be the triumph of God. The second interested in the "texture of Paul's hermeneutics", which Beker maintains is a translation of the apocalyptic theme of the gospel into the "contingent particularities of the human situation." Paul's "hermeneutic consists in the constant interaction between the coherent center of the gospel and its contingent interpretation" (page 11). By coherent center Beker means the basic core of Paul's theology; by contingency he is referring to the specific context of the letters and the application of the coherent center to that context.
I think Beker's position is stated on page 35 (as well as several other places) - "We can say then that the hermeneutical interaction between the coherent center of the gospel and its contingency - that is, the manner in which the one gospel of "Christ crucified and risen" in its apocalyptic setting achieves incarnational depth and relevance in every particularity and variety of the human situation - constitutes Paul's particular contribution to theology."
Beker shows Paul's coherent center to be found in a "symbolic structure" in which Paul's Damascus experience (conversion) is converted into text in a specific way. Paul's text uses the language of apocalyptic typical of Palestinian Judaism, "in which he lived and thought" (page 16). He shows that Paul has modified the traditional Jewish apocalyptic views. Beker argues that apocalyptic, as modified by the Christ event, is the center for which Paul's other themes (symbols) are supportive. The symbols of apocalyptic include terms such as righteousness, justification, reconciliation, and being in Christ (page 16). Which symbols get used depends on the contingent factors of the situation.
Beker's approach pays attention to the situational aspects of Pauline theology. "The letter form, then, with its combination of particularity and authoritative claim, suggests something about Paul's way of doing theology. It suggests the historical concreteness of the gospel as a word on target in the midst of human contingent specificity" (page 24). Beker stresses the importance of the different occasions and motivations of the letters. Paul still holds to a coherent center of his theology in the letters, but he has rephrased that theology so that it fits a particular situation.
Beker analyzes how he sees this hermeneutic in practice in Part 2 of the book. Beker examines the historical occasion of Romans and distinguishes it from Galatians, indicating how the contextual situations of each epistle influence Paul's theological statements. He compares Paul's different handling of the Abraham story and the Torah in these two letters. It is in the dialogical style of Paul that Beker finds the theological core. It was this section of the book that I found most interesting.
Beker uses Galatians to demonstrate what he feels is Paul's contingency of the gospel, yet he states: "Galatians cannot serve as the central and normative guide for all Paul's letter and theology . . . (b)ecause the Christocenteric focus of Galatians pushes Paul's theocenteric theme to the periphery." (page 58) By presenting corroboration of his position with an unlikely source of support, I think Beker is attempting here to gain credibility for his theory.
Beker also uses Romans to defend his idea of a central theme. He feels that Romans serves as a summary of Paul's theology while at the same time being situational. He states - "The overarching theme of Romans is the righteousness of God, a righteousness that has appeared in Christ as the prelude to God's apocalyptic triumph" (page 92).
Throughout this section, Beker asserts, in his argumentive style, his central claims. On several points he boldly challenges the work of Bultmann in support of Kasemann, and others.
Part 3 of the book, "The Coherence of the Gospel" supports the coherence of Paul's apocalyptic theology in dealing with the cross and the resurrection and the Lordship of Christ. Here, Beker attacks the demything of liberalism, the demythologizing of Bultmann, realized eschatology, and the "collapse of eschatology into Christology by neo-othodoxy." These, Beker claims, ignore the importance Paul's apocalyptic. Beker is arguing that Paul's apocalyptic is theocentric rather than Christocentric and that the resurrection of Christ cannot be treated as an isolated event independent of the apocalyptic.
Beker stress that "the death and resurrection of Christ are not one event for Paul but two distinct historical events that can neither be fused nor separated." (page 196) On the next page, Beker argues Paul "fused" them in his theology of the cross. I found this confussing, and I did not understand what Beker contending.
The final chapter of the book Beker returns to his main argument, that "the triumph of God as the center of Paul's thought" (page 355). God's triumph is yet to come, but it is "imminent" (page 367). Beker concludes that " Paul is an apocalyptic theologian with a theocentric outlook" (page 362). He believes that Christology has a subordinate and functional status, serving the future triumph of divine love.
I had difficulty understanding most of this book. If I had wanted to, I could have, but I had trouble maintaining interest in what Beker had to say. He seemed to use far more words than necessary to state his points and I felt that he presented his points more often than he had to. Often the main point of a paragraph was located in the final sentence. He covered so many details that it was difficult to keep tract of his central argument(s).
I feel I do understand Beker's basic premise, the book does get that point across. His arguments did seem convincing at places. The problem I had was not understanding many of his arguements, or maybe it was not caring enough to sort through is writng style and translate what he was saying.