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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

“The Word of the Cross: Reading Paul,” by Jonathan Linebaugh

Published Wednesday, June 29, 2022 By John J. Bombaro

Jonathan Linebaugh’s The Word of the Cross: Reading Paul puts on display the best of contemporary biblical scholarship, eclipsing for excellence and usage his laudable God’s Two Words: Law and Gospel in the Lutheran and Reformed Traditions (2018). This collection of twelve accessible essays (including two previously unpublished) announces that a welcome champion of Reformation orthodoxy is on the rise. Seminarians, pastors and scholars should take notice.

The essays within The Word of the Cross show Linebaugh confidently revisiting the battleground of recent Pauline scholarship to engage leading thinkers on the content of the apostle’s epistles, with particular focus on the letters to the Romans and Galatians. Having trained under legendary commentator John Barclay at Durham University and honed his craft within the Divinity School at Cambridge, Linebaugh repeatedly enters the field of debate with considerable exegetical abilities, matched by the mind of a Reformation historian and confessional theologian. Yet Linebaugh engages the academy (ranging from E.P. Sanders to N.T. Wright) with a convivial and congenial spirit, looking to correct interpretative excesses but also theological misdirection, with an aim to edify both academic disputants and lay readers. In The Word of the Cross Linebaugh proves successful to this end.

The author finds that “the word of the cross” establishes the reading horizon and grammar for Pauline theology, agreeable to Jesus’ own interpretative maxim: “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Paul applies this hermeneutic, reiterated and defined by Jesus in Mark 8 and Matthew 16, to creation, redemption and eschatology. Pauline theology proves entirely obedient to Jesus’ commissioned proclamation, lodged in the fact of Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul expounds Jesus’ gospel and, so, he would know no other determinative principle for “the way” than “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Linebaugh himself is held captive to this word of the cross, finding Martin Luther not only an au courant conversation partner but also very much in the same school of Paul as himself, notwithstanding recent attempts to marginalize the Wittenberger’s insights concerning the righteousness of God in relation to sola gratia, sola fide, and solus Christus. Here Linebaugh’s efforts in The Word of the Cross to redress the negation of Luther’s contributions to the doctrine of justification are laudable.

Significantly, writes Linebaugh, “the word of the cross” yields polarities in all three interlocking and overlapping domains: to bring into being things that are not while bringing to nothing things that are. Indeed, the word of the cross eliminates a grey field of religious ambiguity and establishes juxtapositions that underscore the impossibility of self-justification and the utter graciousness of justification-by-another. From death comes life. Out of darkness, a light shines. In a blood atonement humanity is made clean. Not by works of law, but by grace through faith in Christ is one justified. Christ is the all in all when it comes to redemption and re-creation. And yet, for all of the contrasting “not this, but that” of Paul’s cosmology, soteriology and ontology, Linebaugh rightly distances his reading of Romans and Galatians from Neoplatonic paradigms that have long plagued Christianity. The upshot of Linebaugh’s reading is a faithful and consistent biblical anthropology through whom no one is saved by “the works of the law,” but all are represented by God’s Messiah whose accomplishment of redemption is total. It is the message reasserted at the time of the Reformation. A message needing reassertion today. The word of the cross thus ensures that anthropology is determined by Christology, not the other way around.

Readers will find that The Word of the Cross sets clear and certain parameters to sound salvific doctrines but also a spirit of wonder regarding grammar of the cross. Preachers may lift entire sections for sermon material from the eight chapters that constitute “Part 1: Reading Paul” and “Part 3: Reading Paul with Readers of Paul.” The word of the cross preaches and Linebaugh provides helpful phraseology that serve as a distillery for sometimes complex doctrine.

One cannot but be impressed by the breadth of Linebaugh’s reading. His writing style is fresh and engaging, exhibiting a delightful penchant to capture paragraphs of explanation in simple, memorable aphorisms and open nuance topics with relatable and vivid imagery. The tome is further graced by John M. G. Barclay’s splendid “Foreword,” which serves the reader as a primer to Linebaugh’s most noteworthy exegetical contributions found within The Word of the Cross.

Some readers may quibble that “Part 2: Reading Paul in Context and Conversation” strikes an esoteric note. At the same time, it may be worth bearing in mind that the lesser known journals of academia frequently constitute domains of pedantry though which influential non-cruciform opinions gain currency. Linebaugh won’t leave such domains undisturbed. The classical consensual interpretation of Scripture, affirmed in the writings of Luther and Cranmer, broker challenge even here. Moreover, Johann Georg Hamann, the much neglected philosophical repudiator of Immanuel Kant, gets a hearing and offers important hermeneutical insights with currency for today. Hamann, for example, posits a relational understanding to interpreting the word of the cross in Paul that accentuates the Apostle’s pastoral sensitivities amidst suffering.

More substantively, it comes as a surprise that, in reading Paul with Luther, there are a paucity of references to the sacraments by Linebaugh, particularly the sacrament of Holy Baptism, which looms large in Luther’s theology. Redemption accomplished by the cross, to be sure, but what about the application of these benefits or, put differently, the self-delivery of Christ across time and space? For Luther, the word of the cross is in Holy Baptism — the “for you” becomes a creative, soteriological and eschatological reality in the objective washing of the water with the word. Hearing Linebaugh on Romans 6:1-11 would have been most welcome. The Word of the Cross cannot be recommended too strongly for all who care about the article on which the Church stands or falls — the very hinge of the Reformation. Linebaugh’s contributions to the conversation on justification are convincing, needed, and warrant wide distribution.

John J. Bombaro (PhD, King’s College, University of London) is the associate director of Theological Education for Eurasia, based at the Rīga Luther Academy in Latvia.

  • John J. Bombaro

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