Pauline theology refers to the apostle Paul’s beliefs about God and the world around him, as expressed in the New Testament epistles that he wrote and his words as recorded in the book of Acts. Constructing a “Pauline theology,” then, is an attempt to discern what Paul believed and taught about various topics. For example, when people say they want to approach poverty “based on a Pauline theology,” they mean that they are attempting to address the issue of poverty from the same perspective as Paul. Pauline theology should not be confused with Pauline Christianity, a movement among some scholars seeking to drive a wedge between the teachings of Jesus and Paul.
Pauline theology is thoroughly biblical, in that it is drawn from Scripture. Many times, scholars studying Pauline theology are trying to systematize Paul’s doctrine and explain his worldview. Paul never wrote down all of his thoughts on every topic, and deducing the theology behind his written doctrine is a difficult task. A Pauline scholar explains: “We have no access to Paul’s thought outside the letters he wrote, preserved for us in Scripture. But Pauline theology must be more than a simple repetition of what we find on the surface of Paul’s letters—otherwise, it would be hard to distinguish theology from exegesis. The Pauline theologian must penetrate ‘behind’ the text in an effort to uncover the basic framework and content of Paul’s thinking” (Moo, D., The Theology of Paul and His Letters, Zondervan, 2021, part 1, chapter 1, § 2.1).
Sources for reconstructing Paul’s perspective include his letters, which address specific issues in the communities he founded, and the book of Acts, which portrays Paul’s conversion and missionary work. Prominent scholars who have written about Pauline theology include James Dunn, Thomas Schreiner, and N. T. Wright.
Developing a Pauline theology is a broad and unique task that involves exegesis, a study of history and culture, and careful attention to context and detail. Paul was a complex person, chosen by God as an apostle, and he changed the entire world in his relatively short lifespan. Attempting to uncover themes in his theological viewpoints is an admirable pursuit, as long as it continues to point people toward the God Paul loved with his entire being. As Paul himself wrote, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).