EP Sanders on Why Paul being Unsystematic is not Heretical

I am currently reading through the massive tome in honor of Richard Hays, The Word Leaps the Gap (Eerdmans, 2008), and I skipped ahead of many chapters to read what EP Sanders had to say about the topic ‘Did Paul’s Theology Develop?’  There is much to report here on Sanders’ many insightful thoughts in reflection on his academic journey, but overall the major thrust of the essay is to differentiate between his use of the terms unsystematic and coherent (and also to talk about what it means to grow and develop in one’s thought).

Systematic: Sanders explains his understanding of the term this way: ‘Paul’s theology would be systematic if all parts of it could be fitted into a hierarchical outline that contained several main principles, each with subdivisions that follow from the main points…Paul did not write a systematic theology, since he wrote occasional letters relating to specific issues’ (325-6).

Coherence: Coherence means “clinging together.”  Probably all systematic arrangements are also “coherent,” but it is possible to have coherence without hierarchical or logical arrangement.  That is what I think of Paul: coherent, unsystematic, not notably inconsistent.’ (328); How Coherence works in Paul: ‘My own image of Paul’s thought is a circle containing two main principles: (1) The God of Israel is God of the whole world; he called the Jewish people, brought them out of bondage, and have them the law; but all the creation is his. (2) In recent days, God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to save the whole world from the wrath to come, without regard to whether or not people are Jewish.  Around the outside of this circle can be grouped diverse statements on such topics as the law and the human plight’ (328).

Obsession with Systemization: Sanders basically argues that it is an unnecessary conclusion that if Paul is unsystematic, he must be a bad theologian or apostle.  This is largely because we study him as theologian, but don’t quite grasp exactly what he was trying to do with his message.  We study his texts as scholars and some of us as scholars and Christians.  But, we can’t help but test Paul as another scholar.  Sanders thinks this is where we get off-track.  I end with a very illuminating quote:

‘Paul the completely confident academic and systematic theologian — sitting at his desk, studying the Bible, working out a system, perfect and consistent in all its parts, unchanging over a period of thirty years, no matter how many new experiences he and his churches had — is an almost inhuman character, either a thinking machine or the fourth person of the Trinity’ (Sanders, 347).

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4 thoughts on “EP Sanders on Why Paul being Unsystematic is not Heretical

  1. It’s ironic that Sanders would publish this in Hays’s Festschrift.

    Hays has long argued that Paul’s hermeneutic is the key to understanding his theology. But, as I’ve been telling people for years, Paul’s hermeneutic and his theology are mutually inconsistent on an alethiological level, so that his hermeneutic is probably the *worst* place to begin in understanding his theology. This is a perfect example of how Paul didn’t work things out systematically before he wrote: while his soteriological and christological convictions are the stuff of his new Christian commitments, his hermeneutic is just an unreflective reworking of a few proto-rabbinic conceits, and it won’t survive a systematic outworking of his soteriology and christology.

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