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THEO 7360 Christian Texts and Traditions 1

Section 1 – Eli Gutierrez

Participation in Christ: Paul and Irenaeus

Phrases such as “in Christ” or “with Christ” are largely used in the Pauline letters. Scholars

have debated the meaning of such language and way of thought. In the early twentieth century the

category “mysticism” was prominent to describe this Pauline motif. More recently, E. P. Sanders

is credited for being the major influence in a change of rubric among Pauline studies from

“mysticism” to “participation”.1 Sanders pointed that scholars lacked the categories to understand

Paul’s argument fully and that further studies were needed.2 Following the discussion, Richard

Hays suggested that “Sanders’s insights would be supported and clarified by a careful study of

participation motifs in patristic theology.”3 In response to Hays’ suggestions some scholars have

studied the Church’s Fathers reading of Paul’s participatory language to clarify its meaning. One

of them is Goodwin in his book Paul and Participation: The Patristic Witness. In this essay, I will

use Goodwin’s chapter regarding Irenaeus as a reader of Paul’s participatory language in

conversation with other scholarly productions on Paul’s theology and Irenaeus reading of Paul.

In his monumental book The Theology of Paul the Apostle, James Dunn analyzes Paul’s

understanding of the “Participation in Christ” within his study of Paul’s soteriology.4 Dunn argues

that the imagery of participation in Christ is “the more natural extension of Paul's Christology.”5

Goodwin also notes that “Pauline scholars today widely accept Paul’s participatory expression as

a highly significant dimension of his theology.” And Campbell says that it is “vital to Paul’s

1
E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977),
440
2
Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 522–23.
3
Richard B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1–4:11 (2d ed.; Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 2002), xxxii.
4
James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) 1998,
390-412.
5
Dunn, The Theology, 390
thought and of great significance.”6 Thus, scholars tend to regard the language of participation as

central to Paul’s theology, especially in soteriology. For Dunn, “its more obvious outworking

would be in terms of the sinner sharing in Christ's death (and resurrection), rather than in a judicial

verdict pronounced on the basis of Jesus' sacrificial death.”7 Dunn argues that, unlike justification,

the theme of participation is at the core of Paul’s theology and the “study of participation in Christ

leads more directly into the rest of Paul's theology than justification.”8

According to Dunn, the phrase “in Christ”, and other similar, is a “characteristic and distinctive

trait within Paul's theology.”9 Moreover, it was not a fixed category but a motif used in different

contexts that indicates a whole perspective from which Paul viewed different aspects of the

Christian life. As a matter of fact, the difficulty of understanding Paul’s though is the diversity of

images and metaphors he uses to describe the process of salvation. In sum, being in Christ was

more than a belief for Paul, but an experience in and with the living Christ. For Dunn, there is

indeed, a mystical sense of Christ’s presence, but it is also something more than that. It was a

pervading presence in the Christian assemblies and the daily life of the believers. Finally, Dunn

concludes that Paul’s participatory language points to three main dimensions. First, a soteriological

significance through participation in Christ’s death. Second, a corporate significance through

participation in his body. And third, an ethical significance through submission to his Lordship.

To clarify Paul’s understanding, Goodwin studies several patristic theologies of participation

as a possible way of shedding light on Pauline participation. In the chapter 10 of his book Goodwin

focuses on Irenaeus participatory language in Adversus Haereses 3.18.7, where the bishop of Lyon

6
Constantine Campbell, Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study (Grand Rapids:
Zondervan, 2012), 61.
7
Dunn, The Theology, 391
8
Dunn, The Theology, 395
9
Dunn, The Theology, 397
draws the Pauline motif of divine adoption from Romans 8:15 and uses it in combination with

participatory expressions. Goodwin argues that here Irenaeus clarifies Paul’s view, in his refutation

of the false teaching and within the framework of his theology of divinization. Thus, Irenaeus uses

the Pauline image of divine adoption (Rom 8:15), as a soteriological motif and an expression of

divinization. Believers participate in the divine adoption through participation in Christ, the Son,

or the Word, himself. There is a relational unity in which the believer comes to share some aspect

of Christ’s divine sonship, such as immortality and imperishability. Therefore, participatory

language has a soteriological function through the salvific implications of the incarnation. For

Goodwin, Irenaeus use of the language union, communion, and participation, point to divine

adoption which has as its ultimate goal the restoration of humanity to “communion” with God and

the divinization of believers.

Along the same lines, Blackwell argues that participation in Irenaeus centers on “communion

with the Triune God and results in the restoration of the divine image and likeness.”10 For the most

part both scholars agree on the meaning of Irenaeus us of Paul’s participation motifs. Perhaps

Blackwell emphasizes more the work of the Sprit in participation, its Triune character, and

Irenaeus’s recapitulation view in which believers are restored to the image and likeness of God.

Finally, there is no time or space to discuss largely, but Mark Medley suggest that the

appropriation of participatory language has contributed to correct deficiencies and liabilities in

soteriological matters in Baptists theology: the overemphasis in justification, the division between

justification and sanctification, salvation understood solely in forensic terms, and the view of

Ben C. Blackwell, “Two Early Perspectives on Participation in Paul. Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria” In “In
10

Christ” in Paul Explorations in Paul’s Theology of Union and Participation, edited by Michael J. Thate, Kevin J.
Vanhoozer and Constantine R. Campbell, 331-355 (MohrSiebeck: Tübingen, Germany, 2014), 335-336
salvation as an experience of the solitary self.11 In conclusion, a reading of Paul through the lenses

of the Church Fathers undoubtedly contributes to a better Baptist theology.

Bibliography

Blackwell, Ben C. “Two Early Perspectives on Participation in Paul. Irenaeus and Clement
of Alexandria” In “In Christ” in Paul Explorations in Paul’s Theology of Union and Participation,
edited by Michael J. Thate, Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Constantine R. Campbell, 331-355.
MohrSiebeck: Tübingen, Germany, 2014

Campbell, Constantine. Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012.

Dunn, James D. G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Publishing Co., 1998.

Finch, Jeffrey. "Irenaeus on the Christological Basis of Human Divinization." In Theosis:


Deification in Christian Theology (Volume 1), edited by Finlan Stephen and Kharlamov Vladimir,
86-103. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 2006.

Hays, Richard B. The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1–
4:11. 2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

Medley, Mark S. "Participation in God: The Appropriation of Theosis by Contemporary


Baptist Theologians." In Theosis II: Deification in Christian Theology, edited by Kharlamov
Vladimir, 205-46. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 2012.

Sanders, E. P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion.


Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977.

11
Medley, Mark S., "Participation in God: The Appropriation of Theosis by Contemporary Baptist Theologians"
in Theosis II: Deification in Christian Theology, edited by Kharlamov Vladimir, 205-46 (Cambridge: James Clarke
& Co, 2012).