How Did Paul Understand the Trinity?

Paul and the Trinity book coverPaul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters
Wesley Hill
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015
$26.00

 

Review by Jonathan J. Routley 

In recent years, there has been a growing gap between exegetical studies in the Pauline epistles on the one hand, and trinitarian theology on the other. A widely held view among scholars is that Paul began from the starting point of Jewish monotheism and then sought to understand Jesus and His relationship to God through that interpretive lens. This has led some scholars to assign Jesus a very close identification with God in Paul’s letters, but others to see Jesus as occupying a subordinate role to God. Wesley Hill enters this conversation and presents the alternative of reading Pauline texts through a trinitarian lens.

Summary

The book, which is largely Hill’s doctoral dissertation, begins by discussing the current landscape of NT studies. Hill is critical of what he terms the “vertical axis” approach to Pauline christology. This approach asserts that Paul, as a good Jew with the finest training of his day, held a monotheistic worldview. After seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus and putting his faith in the risen Christ, Paul needed to reconcile what Jesus’ relationship was to the God of Israel and the OT Scriptures. Was Jesus to be equated with the one God? Or did Paul view Christ as lower than God? Thus the “vertical axis” approach addresses the point where a scholar plots Jesus in His relationship to God, creating either a “high” or “low” christology.

Instead of beginning with the question of how divine is Jesus, Hill wants to start with asking questions concerning relations. His thesis is that Paul cannot talk about one of the persons of the Godhead without mentioning, or identifying them by, their relationship to one or more of the other persons. Thus, rather than conceiving Paul’s understanding of christology as a vertical axis, for Hill it is more appropriate to think in terms of a horizontal axis, two-way street, or even an interconnecting web (25).

Throughout the book, Hill seeks to show how Pauline texts do not simply identify Jesus on a vertical scale of how God-like Jesus is (although this is one aspect of the bigger discussion). Instead, the texts show a mutual identification of God, Jesus, and the Spirit through their described relations to one another. Note that Hill makes extensive use of biblical Greek, and so at least an intermediate knowledge of this language is recommended.

Hill begins by examining the way God is understood by Paul in relationship to Jesus. This is not simply as a result of Jesus’ coming, as if something fundamentally changed in the nature of God. Hill argues that Paul understands God, even in the Old Testament texts, as being identified by Jesus. In commenting on Rom. 8:11, for example, Hill says, “If we are to inquire into what makes God the God who predestines and foreknows a people and adopts them in fulfillment of promises made to Abraham, the answer is that God is the God whose telos has always involved God’s son, Jesus Christ. ‘God,’ in other words, is known by Paul always as the God of Jesus Christ,” (75).

Next, Hill addresses the topic of Jesus in relation to God using Philip. 2:6-11, and 1 Cor. 8:6 and 15:24-28. Here, Hill introduces the concept of “redoublement,” claiming that within texts where Paul speaks about God, Christ, and the Spirit, readers need to approach the text in a twofold manner. First, we should ask what is common among the persons, what characteristics they share, or what unites them. Secondly we need to ask what distinguishes the divine persons in the same context. Hill does not see this “redoubled” way of speaking as imposing later trinitarian theology on the text of Scripture, but rather as a way to better understand what the NT authors really had in mind when they wrote about the Father, Son, and Spirit.

Finally, Hill seeks to show that the Holy Spirit is also identified by His relations both to God and to Jesus. He argues that the Spirit’s identity is most often traced back to God and Jesus rather than the other way around, but then offers Rom. 1:3-4 and 8:11 as two prominent passages demonstrating the reverse. “Not only is the Spirit’s identity traceable back to the identities of God and Jesus as the persons or agents who determine the Spirit’s character but also the Spirit’s identity affects the identities of God and Jesus, constituting them in their character as specifiable agents” (154). He concludes by arguing against seeing a binitarianism in Paul which is popular among many scholars today, and links the rise of this popularity to the prominence of the “high/low” christological emphasis of contemporary scholarship.

Critique

There are many positive elements in Hill’s discussion. The first is that the book is an attempt to bring trinitarian theology down from the philosophical stratosphere of theoretical conjecture and once again ground it in the biblical text from which it originally rose. Conversely, exegesis of Pauline texts is examined through the theological lens of the Trinity. “Exegesis of Paul does not reach its full potential without trinitarian theology . . . and, likewise, trinitarian theology is impoverished if it neglects biblical exegesis in general and exegesis of Paul in particular,” (171).

Second, Hill’s assessment of the “high/low” vertical axis of the majority of contemporary NT scholarship deserves much attention and reflection. There can be no doubt that Paul operated with a monotheistic worldview as a Jew prior to his conversion. But what about after Paul’s meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus? So many biblical scholars assume that the next step Paul took was to attempt to identify Jesus in relation to the one God of Israel, with the Spirit very low or not even on Paul’s radar at all. Yet is this the best approach? Hill’s alternative is enticing in that Paul’s theology, while still being distinctly monotheistic, now extols both the Son and the Spirit in that their identities are inseparably linked to the identity of God. This book should be cause for reexamination and analysis of contemporary monotheistic christology in Paul.

Third, one of the greatest contributions of this book is Hill’s presentation and use of “redoublement” in NT exegesis. Hill’s assertion that “the language of ‘persons’ and the language of ‘essence’ thus serve different functions in the construction of trinitarian doctrine” is a goldmine for understanding the interplay between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit throughout Paul’s letters (100). In my estimation this would be a very helpful interpretive tool to make use of, not only when examining the unity and diversity among the divine persons in Paul’s letters, but also throughout the rest of the NT texts. In this area particularly there could be much more exegetical work done in emphasizing a redoubled approach to the text.

Fourth, Hill’s schema eliminates the awkward place given to the Holy Spirit in the theology of Paul by much contemporary scholarship and rightfully sets Him in proper relation to God the Father and Jesus the Son. This contradicts what many have understood in Paul to be a binitarian understanding of God, with the Spirit being somehow subordinate to God and Jesus. Hill’s approach highlights the interconnectedness between Father, Son, and Spirit in a way that champions understanding Paul as having a trinitarian theology even in the writing of these early epistles. So trinitarianism is to be explicitly seen in biblical texts and not simply a theological concoction of the fourth century.

There is one area that could benefit from additional reflection. Hill does an excellent job of presenting and explaining the “high/low” schema in terms of a vertical axis. Yet when he speaks of his alternative approach as a matrix or web he is rather ambiguous as to what this would specifically look like. He talks about the interconnectedness of the relations between the persons, but it is not clear how these relations work or how this could be simply described or visually represented. If Hill seeks to replace the well-established “vertical axis” model of Pauline monotheistic christology he should have a model that is clearly defined and detailed which makes his hypothesis accessible to all. While the matrix idea will necessarily be complex, it is well worth refining and stating explicitly.

Overall, Hill’s book is a wonderful contribution both to NT studies and to trinitarian theologies. One wonders how much of an impact it will have on the world of Pauline exegesis, having attracted the attention of some of the most prominent Pauline scholars of our day. His desire to unite biblical exegesis and trinitarian theology is admirable, and he is largely successful in doing just that. The interpretive aid of redoublement has great potential not only in Pauline studies, but also in NT studies more broadly. It will be interesting to see if others take up the task presented by Hill and carry on the work begun in interrelating biblical studies and trinitarian theology.

 

Jonathan J. Routley received a B.A. in Archaeology and Near Eastern Studies from Wheaton College, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Faith Baptist Theological Seminary, and is currently a Th.M student at Western Seminary. He is an adjunct faculty member at Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, IA.