Monday, June 2, 2014

Review of Dunson's Individual and Community in Paul's Letter to the Romans

Individual and Community in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. By Ben C. Dunson. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2. Reihe 332.  Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2012, xii+217 pp., $117.50.

Ben C. Dunson, Professor of New Testament at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida, in this revised thesis written under the supervision of Francis Watson at the University of Durham, argues that “the individual and the community belong together in Paul’s theology; there is no Pauline individual outside of community, just as there is no community without individuals at the heart of its ongoing life” (p. 1 emphasis removed). This goes against much of the recent work on Paul that sees the relationship between the individual and the communal in Paul generally, and in Romans specifically, as most precisely aligned with the communal. Dunson, on the other hand, is convinced that the individual and the community are closely intertwined concepts for Paul, since he views individuals in Christ as simultaneously members of Christ’s body.

The introduction highlights several reasons why the individual focus in Paul has fallen out of favor. First, Dunson points to the rise of social-scientific criticism and its anti-individual perspective. Here the work of several members of the Context Group is seen as problematic. Second, the rise of the New Perspective on Paul, with its lack of conviction with regard to Paul’s interests in an individual’s private relationship with God, polarizes communal and individual readings. Third, the rise of apocalyptic as an interpretive framework, with its focus on the cosmic and social dimensions of Paul’s discourse, leads to a further rejection of the importance of the individual in his writings. Though Dunson recognizes the recent work of Gary Burnett with regard to the individual and salvation in Paul, he finds his attempt unpersuasive and offers his monograph, with its close attention to several portions of Romans, as a way to explicate the idea that, “There simply is no individual in Pauline teaching on the believing life that is not at the same time embedded into the ongoing life of the believing community” (p. 16). Thus, Dunson is convinced that if scholars downplay or over-emphasize one of these approaches over the other, foundational aspects of Paul’s theology will be missed.

Dunson, in chapter 2, traces the separation of the individual and the community in Paul to the vigorous debate on this topic between Rudolph Bultmann and Ernst Käsemann. He seeks to bring to the fore the oftentimes overlooked communal aspect in Bultmann’s existential approach. At the same time, Dunson seeks to nuance Käsemann’s non-individualistic and apocalyptic understanding of Paul. After a thorough analysis of both scholars, he notes the way Käsemann’s legacy has been particularly felt, i.e., in the way scholars have adopted his apocalyptic understanding of the righteousness of God. For Dunson, Bultmann’s approach to God’s righteousness as “God’s saving action” is less problematic (p. 61). However, he sees both scholars as selective in their use of textual data and hopes to point out several gaps so that what emerges is not a simple synthesis of the two but the way that, for Paul, the individual and the communal imply one another (see p. 17).

One of the main lines of critique is that people in antiquity did not have a conception of the individual in the same way people do today. Thus, anyone researching from within a contemporary individualistic framework is open to the charge of anachronism. To counter this charge, in chapter 3, Dunson draws on the writings (i.e., the lectures transcribed by Arrian) of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. While resisting the parallel or influence approach often practiced among history of religions scholars, Dunson attempts to place another first century writer in the middle of an ongoing debate between the individual and society. He does not downplay the clear ideological differences between Epictetus and Paul; rather, he allows him to speak to his own concerns, which are primarily centered on moral progress. He offers a fairly persuasive set of data suggesting that Epictetus’s focus on the development of personal virtue has a vital and concomitant communal component to it (cf., Diatribai 1.4; 3.2; with 2.5; 2.10; and 2.22). Epictetus can, at the same time, focus on self-preservation and faithful communal living (Diatribai 4.10.12-13). This allows scholars such as Troels Engberg-Pedersen to set aside “the false assumption that the individual and the community are antithetical concepts” (p. 107).

Chapter 5 unpacks the first four kinds of individuals found in Romans. Within the larger scholarly debate surrounding the nature of these characters, Dunson’s view clearly sympathizes with a Lutheran approach. The characteristic individual, found in Rom 2:1-5, 17-25; 3:1-9, helps to abolish any “Jewish soteriological privilege” (pp. 114, 127). The generic individual, seen as the most pervasive type in Romans, emerges as Paul addresses humanity’s plight without regard to individual ethnic identity, revealing his anthropological universalism. The binary individual, found most predominantly in the Jew-gentile distinction, is employed by Paul, according to Dunson, in a way that radically relativizes existing identities, especially “the covenantal boundaries of Israel” (p. 128). The exemplary individual, i.e., Abraham in Romans 4, is seen as one that other individuals are expected to emulate. This section provides substantial textual argumentation as Dunson seeks to cast doubt on the covenantal definition approach to Romans 4.

In chapter 6, Dunson continues developing his typology by bringing to the fore the communal aspect of the individual. The representative person, differentiated from the exemplary one by the vicarious nature of the description, is found in the Adam-Christ parallel in Romans 5. Dunson argues that the individual has been brought into a communal relationship by the actions of Adam and Christ (p. 154). The negative exemplary individual is found in Romans 7, understood by Dunson both as describing Paul’s own past experience and indicating his role as a representative Israelite (p. 164). The somatic individual is a member of the body of Christ and develops Paul’s “principle of unity-within-diversity” and “individual-within-community” (p. 169; Rom 12:3-8). The final category in Dunson’s typology is the particular individual; this describes real persons in the context of their existing social identities and in relation to other community group members (Romans 16). The conclusion details differences between Paul and Epictetus with regard to the individual and summarizes Dunson’s findings concerning the inseparability of the individual and the community in Romans.

Overall, Dunson has made his case, and scholars should not overlook the significance of the individual for Paul in Romans. There is considerable improvement here on Burnett’s earlier work on the individual in Paul. However, a few questions still remain. First, the generic individual is a crucial part of Dunson’s thesis, but can Paul really conceive of abstracted, non-historicized individuals to the exclusion of their existing identities in such a substantial way? Second, has the move from rhetoric to anthropology been made too quickly? A literary trope may not be that useful for discerning Paul’s concept of the individual. Third, while Dunson readily acknowledges that he is being selective in his choice of sections in Romans to discuss (pp. 110, 147), one wonders if the almost complete avoidance of Romans 9-11 limits the significance of his conclusions. With these questions in mind, Dunson’s work is recommended for scholars working on identity formation in Paul.