Reviews of

Pauline Theology and the Problem of Death

In Death, Isaac T. Soon, Joseph Longarino, Mohr Siebeck, NT Theology, Paul, Sin on November 21, 2022 at 3:00 pm
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2022.11.10 | Joseph Longarino, Pauline Theology and the Problem of Death. WUNT II/558 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2021).

Review by Isaac T. Soon, Crandall University.

This book is a revised version of the author’s dissertation, completed at Duke University under the supervision of Douglas Campbell in 2019. Longarino’s study focuses on a truly disregarded problem in Pauline theology: given the death-defying work of Jesus of Nazareth, how is it that his followers are still subject to death? Put another way—from the eschatological vantage point of resurrection—to what extent (if at all) is resurrection somehow a part of the present existence of Christ-followers?

After a compact two-page introduction to the book, Longarino spends the first chapter laying out and analyzing the recent history of interpretation concerning the lingering of death in Christ-believers’ bodies. Readers familiar with dissertation literature reviews know that effort required to read them is not always reflective of the time and effort that go into tracing and accurately portraying past scholarship. Longarino does so with finesse, effortlessly constructing a coherent and accessible narrative of scholarship since the late nineteenth century that attempts to reconcile the persistence of death with Paul’s seemingly deathless theology. 

The author divides scholarship into four epochs, the first at the turn of the twentieth century around two movements he terms the “ethical-subjective interpretation” and the “physicalist-objective interpretation” of death in Paul. The former argues that for Paul the spirit (pneuma) indeed flourishes in resurrection but at the present time does not affect the corporeality of believers. The latter is that somehow the flesh (sarx) is done away with in the present and somehow physically replaced with the spirit (pneuma) in anticipation of future resurrection. Longarino focuses on the latter trajectory of scholarship, starting with Hermann Lüdemann, Richard Kabish, William Wrede, and Albert Schweitzer. The second epoch concerns the work of Rudolf Bultmann who writes in reaction to “physicalist-objective” interpreters. The third epoch sees Oscar Cullman and Bultmann’s student Ernst Käsemann react to Bultmann’s work. The final epoch before a relative lull in recent scholarship examines the work of J. Christiaan Beker and Martinus C. de Boer. 

In chapter 2, though his predecessors tried to disentangle sin and death from one another, Longarino tries to re-entangle the two to explain the continuing mortality of believers. He takes a somewhat mediating position on the issue of whether sin is intrinsic or extrinsic (e.g., a cosmic force) to human bodies. He basically argues that sin is a force, but it is intrinsic to human bodies. Following Stanley Stowers and Emma Wasserman, Longarino argues that sin in Paul can be understood as the “passions” and “desires of the flesh” (e.g., Rom 7:5; Gal 5:24). His unique contribution is that the presence of passions and desires after turning to Christ and receiving the spirit are indications that sin is not fully eradicated from human bodies. While believers are enabled by the spirit to resist sin, sin nevertheless still dwells within their bodies (this language of “dwelling” is repeated throughout). Longarino makes much of Paul’s language in Rom 8:13, arguing that the “flesh or body of a Christian per se is still the seat of ἁμαρτία” (p. 104). In fact, the body is the “permanent home” of sin in the present life (p. 105). Surprisingly, he does not consider the conditionality of Paul’s language here, that one way of reading the text is that believers are re-throning sin as their master and ceasing to be enslaved once more to sin. There is no room for oscillation in Longarino’s framework. Since sin is permanently tethered to human embodiment, human embodiment is permanently tethered to mortality and death. The lack of human agency in Longarino’s interpretation of Paul is startling because, even if believers have the spirit, there is the question of what hope might they have in the present life if they will nevertheless still be subject in to “an inevitable corrupting influence over the body” (p. 109). Longarino says that the consequence of this is that believers are “free from death in both its moral and eschatological sense” but “not free from death in its physical sense” (p. 110). If humans are still subject to death because of the persisting presence of sin, then in this reviewer’s mind, it jeopardizes both moral and eschatological footing since for Paul the persistence of sin would cause continual moral failure that would accrue toward unrighteousness in the day of Christ. In other words, if we can draw on later theological nomenclature, what room is there left for sanctification? 

In chapter 3, Longarino argues that while Jesus takes up human flesh and is subject to sin as desires and passions in that flesh, Jesus himself does not sin. In this way, his experience as a human is not comprehensive because he does not experience the turmoil of wrestling with sin (say, as in Romans 7). Intrinsic to his person is power to resist the domination of sin (pp. 119–20), although Longarino does not mention where this power comes from or what it is. When the spirit of Jesus inhabits believers, they too gain the power to resist sin (p. 120). Longarino argues that “salvation from sin” for believers does not “consist in human flesh being actually destroyed” (p. 119). This, of course, depends on sarx meaning material flesh more broadly and not just material flesh subject to sinful passions and desires, for there is a distinction in Paul.

In his last major chapter, Longarino turns to the purpose of mortality and death in Paul. The first section focuses on the “dead” bodies of Abraham and Sarah in Romans 4 and the connection between pistis (trust, faith) and God’s overcoming the death of their bodies to enable the birth of Isaac. Longarino gives context to the motif in Genesis by considering its early reception history in ancient Jewish and early Christian texts. Abraham serves as a prototype for believers who must rely on Christ to overcome death in their bodies. Longarino then turns to Christ and death in Romans 5–8 arguing that God uses death, specifically the death of Jesus himself, to fully articulate his love for creation (pp. 140–42). When believers are confronted with death, rather than being an obstacle of faith, it becomes an opportunity to commune closer with God. Thus, in tribulation and suffering, believers have their character shaped by death-like experiences (pp. 144–48), which paradoxically reveal where God is most at work (pp. 149–53). 

Longarino’s study opens many fruitful theological avenues for consideration. Instead of thinking about the lingering of death, one might also consider the inbreaking of future life, say, in the presence of the divine spirit within the bodies of believers that enables pneumatic gifts. I wonder also about how resurrection might be an answer to the question of lingering mortality for Paul. Resurrection is, in Longarino’s study, one of the primary vectors used to orient Paul’s conception of death, alongside especially sin. But, is not resurrection, life after death, itself a defiance of death? If according to Romans 2, the revivified unrighteous do not receive eternal life, then this suggests that instead of progressing to resurrection they will return to death. The righteous, on the other hand, do not receive the wages of death but progress on to life eternal. Christ’s dealing with death, then, is not so much about preventing mortality in the present but preventing the duration of morality and death in the future. In other words, the present effect of Christ’s work on believer’s bodies is not that it removes the possibility of death but that it marks such bodies as incapable of remaining dead. 

One thing that gives me pause about Longarino’s conception of sin as desires and passions is the fact that death is not unique to humans alone but to all creation. If sin and death/mortality are intertwined then based on Longarino’s framework, does this not imply that sin resides in all of creation causing it to be mortal? And when Longarino poses that God uses death (specifically Christ’s death) to foster communion with humanity in his foundational work in Christ,” (p. 140) this is not the same as God using the mortality of all believer to foster communion. In other words, while the purpose of one death—the death of Jesus—is for fostering communion, should we really say that all believers’ deaths also foster this same communion? 

Perhaps the only undertheorized part of Longarino’s book is the concept of death itself. While death has many theological contexts as Longarino shows (e.g., as a consequence of Adam’s sin; as a part of God’s plan), to this reviewer’s knowledge no one has yet considered exactly how Paul conceptualizes death and whether or not he views it only as a terminal physical event. In other words, does Paul have more than one single conception of death? Or, should we expect Paul to have a completely coherent conception of death given the situational and ad hoc nature of his letters? These questions do not detract from Longarino’s lucid work, however, which serves as a solid foundation for future study on this matter.

Isaac T. Soon
Crandall University
Isaac.Soon [at] crandallu.ca

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