For once the answer seems obvious, of course not, Paul is a letter writer. But leave it to a scholar to cloudy up a clear sky, and in this case the scholar has a name, Richard B. Hays. His book The Faith of Jesus Christ (1983 and 2002), the publication of his dissertation,* brought the narrative approaches common in Gospels studies into Pauline studies.
I am not going to review the book in this post, but have attached a precis of the book on writings page if interested. Here it is suffice to say that Hays argues that the story of Jesus the Messiah generates and sustains Paul’s gospel. Underlying all of Paul’s letters is a fundamental narrative which Paul uses to speak into the contexts of his readers. This way of reading Paul has gained wide acceptance, not unanimous mind you, in the field of Pauline studies. For example, N.T. Wright, probably the most well known outside of the academy, also sees Paul’s thought as rooted in a a fundamental narrative, he just focuses on a different story, the story of Israel.
But we have to ask the all important question, “So what? What does it matter if Paul is narratively grounded?” As far as I am concerned, it matters a lot.
Paul’s letters, yes I think we can all agree he does write letters not stories, are full of commands or propositions. If one reads him as propositionally grounded then his letters can become a long list of rules and regulations for us to follow. The basic premise is I (Paul) have figured it out and now let me tell you (those who have not figured it out) what to do. In reading Paul this way we can fall into a trap harmful to our lives as Christians and harmful to the way we teach and preach Paul. Paul’s gospel starts with a list of rules and regulations for us to follow and impose on others; follow the rules and you will experience salvation. Paul’s gospel as however does not start with rules and regulations but freedom, deliverance, righteousness, and being “in Christ.” There is much to learn from him and yes we should seek his advice. But how ironic that Paul, who is fighting against those trying to impose rules and regulations upon those who have become “new creations” through the saving power of the gospel, is the one now imposing rules on us.
But when Paul is read as narratively grounded then the primacy turns from his propositions and commands to his gospel. All things flow out of and into the story of Jesus Christ, salvation is entering into (being folded into) the story of Christ. Being “in Christ” is not only the entry point into salvation but the story which we are called to constantly live into; being “in Christ” is the power to save and transform.
Hays and others like Wright, have done a tremendous service by returning the focus to the story, and for the most part I agree with them (more with Hays than Wright, will talk about that in another post). Paul is narratively minded, he writes out of a story and calls others into a story.
But being narratively minded is not the same thing as being a storyteller, that is distinction I will tackle later.
*Both encouraging and discouraging for those of us writing a dissertation. Encouraging because I cannot think of any other modern dissertation that has so impacted NT studies. Am I missing one? Can you think of another? So just go ahead and get this thing done, over with because it will most likely not change the world! Discouraging to think I will work for 3+ years to research and write this thing and it will be read from cover to cover by less than 5 people – counting family and friends!