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The Anthropology of Romans Four: An Intro to Pauline Theology

July 24th, 2007 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

I. Methodological Remarks

It is not out of alignment with the rest of Pauline scholarship at this point to offer remarks concerning methodological concerns and limitations. One need only peruse the collection of essays presented at SBL beginning in 1985 and published in the volumes Pauline Theology I,II, and III to discern that methodology holds a prominent place in contemporary Pauline scholarship.[3] The fundamental question that plagues Pauline scholarship is, “How do we determine Paul’s theology from the individual expressions in the letters, which are determined both by Paul’s context and his audience’s needs?” Most influential in answering this problem has been J.Christiaan Beker’s “coherence-contingency” interplay.[4] Questions of coherency within contingency lead to problems of the relationship between books. Generally, in delineating the coherent framework of Paul’s theology, Romans is placed at the center. In this essay, I shall follow the consensus and limit my focus on the book of Romans. However, this does not imply that the conclusions reached are limited to Romans. It will remain for subsequent essays to determine the extent to which these conclusions can be further supported by Paul’s other expressions of his theology.

II. A Brief Survey of Pauline Anthropology: Three Interpretations

Rudolph Bultmann shook the world of English Pauline scholarship when he announced, “Every assertion about God is simultaneously an assertion about man and vice versa.”[5] By giving primacy of place to Paul in his systematic theology, Bultmann gives primacy of Paul’s anthropology to his understanding of anthropology, and correspondingly theology. Bultmann states unequivocally, “The most comprehensive term which Paul uses to characterize man’s existence is soma, body…The only human existence that there is—even in the sphere of Spirit—is somatic existence…”[6] Bultmann ignores the “naïve popular usage in which soma means body”[7] and proceeds to delineate what Paul means by the term in theologically significant passages. The interchangeability of soma and personal pronouns in such passages,[8] leads him to conclude: “Man, his person as a whole, can be denoted by somaMan is called soma in respect to his being able to make himself the object of his own action or to experience himself as the subject to whom something happens.[9]

One year after Bultmann’s Theology was released in English, J.A.T. Robinson published his own work on the same topic entitled The Body: A Study in Pauline Theology. Robinson is so adamant that soma be placed at the center of Paul’s theology that he views the Pastoral Epistles lack of the term as one significant reason to deny Pauline authorship of them. Robinson’s argument focuses on the Old Testament parallel to soma. Because the Hebrews did not have a word for “body,” he examines the word that has the nearest semantic range, which is ‘flesh’ or basar. This word indicates a force that joins man “in the bundle of life with all men and nature, so that he could never make his unique answer to God as an isolated individual, apart from his relation to his neighbor. The basar continued, even in the age of greater religious individualism, to represent the fact that personality is essentially social.”[10] While basar represents man in solidarity with creation in general, Paul has two words that represent man in solidarity. Robinson writes, “while sarx stands for man, in the solidarity of creation, in his distance from God, soma stands for man, in the solidarity of creation, as made for God.”[11] Hence, Robinson’s view of soma is in accord with Bultmann in that it stands for the whole man, yet the nature of the “whole man” is “essentially social,” which leads to a significantly more communally oriented interpretation of Paul’s anthropology.

In response to both of these interpretations (and the interpretations that depend upon these or modify them in some way) is Robert Gundry’s important work Sōma in Biblical Theology. Gundry’s response is to accept elements of both Bultmann and Robinson’s respective theses, while rejecting what he views as their central elements. I will let Gundry speak for himself:

The insistence of Robinson on the physicality of sōma is right. His limitation of the human personality to sōma as a result of adopting the holistic definition of sōma is wrong. The insistence of Bultmann that the human personality goes beyond physicality is right. His demotion of physicality to theological insignificance by use of the larger, holistic definition of sōma is wrong. Paul fully personalizes sōma as a necessary part of the human constitution and of authentic existence. However, he neither dematerializes sōma in theological usage nor makes it comprehend the total person. To do either would lay upon the term a burden heavier than it can bear. Rather, without having to do double duty for the spirit, sōma gains theological significance as the physical body, man’s means of concrete service for God.[12]

This lengthy quote neatly encapsulates the thrust of Gundry’s argument. Gundry’s exegesis returns Pauline anthropology to a dualistic view of man, man as body and as soul. Gundry’s critique of Bultmann’s emphasis on the “self-relationship” as the meaning of sōma is, in my estimation, devastating and will not be repeated here. Gundry points out that the desubstantializing of sōma leads to an “increasing withdrawal from the outside world of God, men, and events into private individualism…”[13] Alternatively, there is Robinson’s social rendering of sōma which, while it is in many ways more attractive than Bultmann’s existentialist rendering, suffers in that his “concurrent insistence on physicality and holism in sōma leads him to materialize the corporate Body of Christ, and consequently to sacramentalize union with Christ in a fashion admittedly crude and to antedate physical resurrection.”[14]

What follows, then, in this essay depends in large part upon Gundry’s exegesis regarding sōma. Sōma, contends Gundry does not stand for the ‘whole person’ as both Bultmann and Gundry conclude. Rather, it is a part of the whole of man’s being—psyche and sōma working in unity. When it is used to designate the whole person (as in Romans 12.1), it “directs attention to their bodies, not to the wholeness of their being.”[15] In delineating this relationship, Gundry emphasizes the “instrumental function of the physical body, a function necessary to human existence.”[16] In doing so, he avoids the problematic conclusions of both Bultmann and Robinson.

This brief explication of the various positions has avoided presenting any of the rigorous argumentation that each interpreter undertakes, due to the fact that it is beyond the scope of this paper. The purpose here has simply been to delineate three alternative interpretations of Pauline anthropology and to highlight the distinctives of each one. The rest of this essay will build on and reinforce the conclusions reached by Gundry. However, in emphasizing the functional element of sōma in response to an individualistic or social interpretation, Gundry throws us back upon our original question, namely, the nature of the relationship between these competing paradigms.
Other posts in this series:

Series Intro

Prefatory Remarks

An Intro to Pauline Theology

The Individual vs. the Communal

An Exegesis of Romans 3:20-31

The Turn to Romans 4

Continuing with Romans 4

The Anthropology of Romans 4

Romans 4 with respect to 5-8

Conclusion and Footnotes

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.