Elsewhere I have posted on some of the emerging scholarly debates regarding a counterimperial impulse in Paul’s writing. Of late, I have been reflecting on this theological trend. Why such a preoccupation with counterimperial theology? Is this a product of anti-American sentiment? Perhaps a resurgence in Greco-Roman backgrounds for NT scholarship? Or maybe a political hermeneutic? I suspect all three are at play and that there is no consensus explanation for the spate of literature on counterimperialism in Paul.
However, I am more concerned about hermeneutics than motive. Did Paul intend to convey counterimperial ideas when writing his epistles? Was his word selection based on Greek or Jewish lexicography? Is it an either/or, after all Paul was both missionary and theologian. I engaged some of these issues in my Th.M thesis, Creation in Colossians, and was struck at the time by the hyper-counterimperialism of Walsh and Keesmaat’s Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. At times, they confuse contemporary implication with Pauline meaning. That said, I have room for Pauline contextualization, which is often counter-cultural; however, I have been careful to not confuse his intended theological meaning with his missiological orientation.
Denny Burk has provided some critical reflection on what he dons “The Fresh Perspective,” language taken from Wright’s writings on Paul. In this issue (vol 51) of JETS, Burk published:“Is Paul’s Gospel Counterimperial? Evaluating the Prospects of the ‘Fresh Perspective’ fro Evangelical Theology.” Although Burk states in anti-imperial thesis up front (314), he adduces convincing reasons to be suspect of the FP hermeneutic. Here are a few:
- Caution of the use of parallels. Just because a biblical word or concept has a Roman parallel use does not mean that Paul intended it to be an anti-Roman polemic, especially when the word or concept has a rich Jewish origin. After all, Paul quotes and theologizes extensively from the Septuagint (Greek version of the OT). Burk identifies the key linguistic issue: “To what extent are the parallels due merely to the fact that Paul and the imperial cult were drawing from the common stock of Koine Greek, the lingua franca of the eastern part of the Roman Empire?” (317)
- Caution about the distinction between meaning and implication. Citing E.D. Hirsch’s landmark work on literary interpretation, he writes: “An implication, however, differs in that it is not a part of the author conscious intention, even though it is established by a type that derives from the author’s willed meaning.” (320) In other words, get the author’s intended meaning first, then consider implications second. Make the distinction; don’t confuse possible implication with intended meaning.
- Caution about the hermeneutics of the FP. Burk points out that much of the hermeneutical ethos of the FP has been generated by the Paul and Politics group from SBL. Richard Horsley, a leading scholar among the Paul in Politics group, clearly articulates a political agenda in the fresh perspective of counterimperial studies: “The aims and agenda of the Paul and Politics group are, broadly, to problematize, interrogate, and re-vision Pauline texts and interpretations, to identify oppressive formulations as well as potentially liberative visions and values…” And here is Burk’s concern–Horsley’s elevation of the post-colonial readers of Paul to the level of “the text being read in the work of interpretation” in Paul. In other words, by trying to accomodate the political concerns of readers, Horsley and his colleagues give those popular readers’ concerns a prominent place in the interpretive task.