Carson: “Mystery and Fulfillment”

I just read s-l-o-w-l-y through a 44-page article for the third time. (The last time I read it was fall 2006.) In my view this is the most brilliant academic article that D. A. Carson has written:

D. A. Carson. “Mystery and Fulfillment: Toward a More Comprehensive Paradigm of Paul’s Understanding of the Old and New.” Pages 393–436 in The Paradoxes of Paul. Vol. 2 of Justification and Variegated Nomism. Edited by D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 181. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004.

It richly repays repeated, thorough readings. But be warned: it’s dense. What follows is an uneven summary that doesn’t do it justice. (Read the whole thing. It’s worth the price of the book, which amount to a little less than $1 per page.) Understanding this article will help one make connections between the OT and the NT more richly.

Note: Italics in quotations are in the original.

1. The Problem

Paul thinks in polarities (393):

  1. old covenant vs. new covenant
  2. being a Jew (or even a Pharisee in Paul’s case) vs. being “in Christ”
  3. the law-covenant vs. the grace of God in Christ

The new perspective on Paul emerged after perceptions of these poles changed, namely, “Judaism (especially Palestinian Judaism) and Pauline Christianity” (393). Applying the useful category of “covenantal nomism” (i.e., the covenant based on law [nomos]) to Second Temple Judaism as a whole is simply reductionistic (393–94). That is why volume 1 of Justification and Variegated Nomism is entitled The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism (394). Contra E. P. Sanders, covenantal nomism should not “exercise hegemonic control over the exegesis of the Pauline corpus” (394). To follow this assumption of Sanders, Dunn, Wright, and others is to domesticate Paul “by laying him on an Procrustean bed of a monolithic background” (395).

Moo’s conclusions are judicious: new perspective exegesis of these passages, even where they expose themes that are genuinely there in the text, exchange what is at most the background for the foreground, thereby losing sight of what is of most interest to the apostle himself (395–96).

This essay argues that Paul’s polarities “have been inadequately explored in their relationship to each other. Preliminary reflections on them may shed a little light on patterns of continuities and discontinuities . . .” (397).

There are two pairs of polarities (397):

  1. promise and fulfillment (which presupposes continuity)
  2. hiddenness and revelation, i.e., μυστήριον (which presupposes discontinuity)

So the problem is this: How can the very things that are said, on the one hand, to be predicted in the past and now fulfilled [e.g., the OT’s testifying to Jesus’ death and resurrection and what flows from that], be said, on the other, to be hidden in the past and only now, in the fullness of time, revealed? On the surface, at least, the former polarity envisages certain kinds of continuity; the latter presupposes discontinuity (397–98).

Sections 2 and 3 wrestle with the tension we may feel (but that Paul remarkably did not!) in this continuity and discontinuity, and section 4 clarifies “some of the polarities inherent in debates on the new perspective” (398).

2. Continuity and Fulfillment

This section displays six of “the kinds of ways in which continuity may, in Paul’s thought, be grounded,” and “what is so interesting is that some form of discontinuity attaches itself to each kind” (398).

2.1. Continuity Located in Common, More-or-Less Unchanged Beliefs

“Inevitably Paul the Pharisee entertained some fundamental beliefs that were maintained even after he became Paul the Christian” (398). For example, “There is but one God, who is the Creator of all” (398). Such beliefs “came across the divide relatively unscathed, more-or-less in a straight line” (398).

But for Paul the Christian, some of these beliefs “underwent shifts of one kind or another,” though Paul did not abandon them. For example, his “monotheism became more complex,” such that he “applies to Christ texts that clearly referred to Yahweh,” and he does this “with a clear hermeneutical conscience because of his revised estimate of Jesus of Nazareth this side of his Damascus road experience” (399).

2.2.Continuity Located in the Moral Application of Old Testament Narrative

In 1 Cor 10:1–13 and 2 Cor 11:3, Paul grounds his application in common experience, though there is certainly some discontinuity (399–400).

2.3. Continuity Located in Common Legal/Ethical Prescriptions

In 1 Corinthians 5–7 and 9:19–23, Paul grounds his application in common legal or ethical exhortations, though there is certainly some discontinuity (400–403).

2.4. Continuity Located in Verbal Predictions and Event-Fulfillments

In Gal 3:8, Paul connects OT predictions with NT fulfillment, though there is certainly some discontinuity (403–4).

2.5. Continuity Located in Typological Fulfillment

Three clarifications:

  1. Typology is distinct from allegory.  Interpreting allegory “depends on an extra-textual grid, some extra-textual key, to warrant the explanation,” but typology is grounded in both history and corresponding events (404–5). E.g., Gal 4:21–31 is typology (405).
  2. Paul understands recurrent typological patterns to point “forward to a culminating repetition of the pattern. This presupposes that God himself is directing the pattern toward the end; it does not presuppose that early observers in the cycle of patterns necessarily understood this anticipatory or predictive function” (405).
  3. Paul appeals to types “of various kinds, measured by the degree of likeness or unlikeness that subsists between type and antitype” (407). E.g., cf. Rom 5:14; 1 Cor 5:7–9; 10:4; 15:1–8 (407–10).

2.6. Continuity Located in a Temporal (i.e. Salvation-Historical) Reading of the Old Testament

[Earlier in this volume, Robert W. Yarbrough defines “salvation history” as “the personal redemptive activity of God within human history to effect his eternal saving intentions” (“Paul and Salvation History,” 297).]

How does one account for the differences between how Paul the Pharisee and Paul the Christian read the OT? More is necessary than merely distinguishing “between appropriation techniques and hermeneutical assumptions” (410). Paul argues that what he “finds in the Scriptures is actually there” and that unconverted Jews do not see it because the Spirit has not illumined their understanding (411).

But how does Paul “seek to warrant his Christian reading in the Scriptures themselves, and thereby convince his readers?” (411). How does Paul warrant, for example, his view of law?

Paul relativizes it by paying strict attention to the actual story-line in the Books of Moses. At the risk of deploying anachronistic categories, instead of allowing the law-covenant to gain controlling force in a massive systematic theology, he reads the texts in a biblical-theological fashion, in a salvation-historical sequence. Suddenly, the law-covenant is no longer the high point, the culmination and control of all that is meant by true religion. Instead, it has almost become a parenthesis (Gal 3:15–4:7). . . . It appears that the argument of Galatians 3 turns on temporal distinctions, on salvation-historical distinctions (411–12).

Two important observations follow from this (412):

  1. “These temporally-based distinctions are grounded in a surface reading of the Old Testament text, of the story-line itself (i.e. they are not fabricated by the apostle out of whole cloth, or generated by an extra-textual grid).”
  2. Paul’s salvation-historical argument in Galatians 3 responds not primarily to appeals to the law’s boundary markers, but to a wrong estimate of its place and function in God’s sweeping salvific purposes (which of course includes assessment of the boundary markers).

3. Discontinuity and Mystery

Section 2 presupposes continuity and notes accompanying discontinuity. This section likewise presupposes discontinuity and notes “some remarkable elements of continuity” (413).

3.1. Μυστήριον

[This 12-page section scratches the surface of a subject to which DAC regularly devotes a semester-long PhD seminar.]

Whether for Second Temple Judaism or for Christianity, whenever one speaks of new revelation — i.e. revelation whose material has been hidden in the past but only now revealed — one must ponder its relation to antecedent revelation. Implicitly, there is at least some kind or measure of discontinuity, or it would not in any sense be “new.” The nature of that discontinuity is precisely what must be probed, especially if (as is the case for both Second Temple Judaism and for Christianity) it is simultaneously claimed that this recent disclosure is somehow in line with the long-held revelation (415).

Μυστήριον occurs in Paul’s writings in Rom 11:25; 16:25 (textually debated), 1 Cor 2:1 (textually debated); 2:7; 4:1; 13:2; 14:2; 15:51; Eph 1:9; 3:3, 4, 9; 5:32; 6:19; Col 1:26, 27; 2:2; 4:3; 2 Thess 2:7; and 1 Tim 3:9, 16 (424n88). This section probes four of those passages (1 Cor 2; Rom 11:25–27; 1 Cor 15:50-55; and Rom 16:25–27) by making five inquiries:

  1. “the content of the mystery (i.e. that to which the μυστήριον refers)”
  2. “who receives it”
  3. “the nature and degree to which this mystery has been hidden in the past”
  4. “the nature of the revelatory act that now discloses it (e.g. is that act public? private and personal?)”
  5. “its relation, if any, to antecedent Scripture” (415)

3.2. Mystery Without Μυστήριον

Some passages do not use the word μυστήριον but nevertheless express the concept, e.g., John 2:19–22; Gal 1:11–17 (424–25).

4. Synthetic Reflections and Their Bearing on the New Perspective

These six reflections are based on sections 2 and 3. (I’ve added the headings in place of DAC’s numbered list.)

[4.1. Paul simultaneously recognizes both continuity and discontinuity.]

It appears Paul thinks of the gospel he preaches as simultaneously [1] something that has been predicted in times past, with those predictions now fulfilled, and [2] something that has been hidden in times past, and now revealed (425).

Scholars commonly “stress one stance at the expense of the other” (425). Dunn, for example, overemphasizes continuity by insisting that “Paul did not abandon his ancestral religion” and convert “to a new religion” (426).

[4.2. Paul feels no tension between this continuity and discontinuity because they genuinely lock together.]

First, there is no evidence that Paul himself was aware of any tension between these two stances; and second, within the patterns of promise and fulfillment, regularly connected with continuity, various kinds of discontinuity emerged, while within the patterns of mystery and fulfillment, regularly connected with discontinuity, various kinds of continuity emerged in that the revelation of the mystery was on occasion tied to (revelatory) exegesis of Scripture. These two matters dovetail. The reason Paul does not sense any tension between the two stances is because they genuinely lock together (426).

Paul certainly does not insist that when the stipulations regarding the Passover lamb were first written down, both writer and readers understood that they were pointing to the ultimate “lamb,” the Messiah himself. So it would be fair to say that such notions were still hidden — hidden in plain view, so to speak, because genuinely there in the text (once one perceives the trajectory of the typology), but not yet revealed. And that, perhaps, is why a “mystery” must be revealed, but also why it may be revealed through the prophetic writings. In other words, Paul feels no tension between these two stances because, as he understands them, there isn’t any. And this is why the gospel itself, not to say some of its chief elements, can be simultaneously seen as something that has been (typologically) predicted and now fulfilled, and as something that has been hidden and has now been revealed. What starts off as almost intolerable paradox emerges as a coherent and interlocking web (427).

[4.3. By reading the OT’s storyline salvation-historically, Paul concludes that the OT reveals and is fulfilled in Christ.]

Earlier we saw that methodologically Paul differs in his reading of the law-covenant from the reading of first-century Judaism by appealing to the Old Testament’s story-line. . . . [O]nce the importance of the story-line is grasped, then determining what is of most controlling importance cannot be discovered by measuring what themes take up the most space. In other words, Paul assesses the significance of Israel and the Sinai covenant within the larger biblical narrative. It is this essentially salvation-historical reading of Genesis that enables him to come within a whisker of treating the Sinai covenant as a parenthesis: the law’s most important function is to bring Israel, across time, to Christ — and to bring others, too, insofar as the “law” is found among those “without the law.”

Here, then, too, we obtain a glimpse of how something could be simultaneously long hidden / eventually revealed and long prophesied / eventually fulfilled. It was right there in the text (provided one reads the Scriptures with careful respect for the significance of the historical sequence), even though, transparently, this was not how it was read by Paul the Pharisee. Doubtless it took the Damascus road Christophany to make Saul of Tarsus recognize that his estimate of Jesus was wrong: Jesus could not be written off as a (literally) God-damned malefactor if in fact his glorious resurrection proved he was vindicated, and so the controlling paradigm of his reading of the Old Testament had to change. But when it changed, Paul wanted his hearers and readings to understand that the Old Testament, rightly read in its salvation-historical structure, led to Christ. In other words, as far as Paul was concerned the gospel he preached was announced in advance in the Scriptures, and was fulfilled in the events surrounding the coming, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus — even if this gospel had long been hidden, and was now revealed in those events and thus in the gospel Paul preached — the gospel revealed, indeed, through the prophetic writings (427–28).

[4.4. Paul’s understanding of the law recognizes both continuity and discontinuity.]

DAC draws on and tweaks Stephen Westerholm’s mature analysis (428–30). Christians are not under the law, yet Christian righteousness fulfills the law. Further, the righteousness of God revealed in Jesus operates apart from law, yet the law witnesses to the righteousness that Christ brings us. “The law is upheld [Rom 3:31] precisely in that to which it points. The law’s continuing validity lies in that which it anticipates and which fulfills it” (430).

[4.5. N. T. Wright emphasizes continuity at the expense of discontinuity.]

We have already noted that some scholars maximize the continuity and minimize the discontinuity. The position of N. T. Wright in this regard is simultaneously curiously penetrating and slightly misdirected (430).

First, it is difficult to see how Wright has taken on board what Paul says about “mystery” . . . . To lay great emphasis on the coherence of Paul’s reading of the Old Testament without simultaneously taking into account Paul’s insistence on hiddenness — that strange hiddenness that corresponds both to human morally culpable blindness and to God’s infinitely wise ordering of things so as to bring about the cross — not only ignores Paul’s specific utterances regarding the μυστήριον, but misconstrues the biting edge of his understanding of typology. This result is that God himself, in his word, becomes domesticated. . . . This “typology with teeth,” this re-reading of Scripture by focusing on the story-line, this unveiling of material that is actually there in the text (even if it was long hidden), is precisely what makes coherent the shattering event of the cross. Unless one simultaneously preserves mystery and fulfillment, then both the sheer Godhood of God and the despoiling of human pretensions are inexcusably diluted (432–33).

Second, Wright’s actual reading of the typologies, though it is frequently fecund, is, I think, too narrowly tied to Israel’s history, and therefore fails to position Paul’s understanding of the law-covenant within redemptive history (433).

[4.6. James Dunn emphasizes continuity at the expense of discontinuity.]

“Dunn has subsumed the mystery schema under the salvation-historical schema” (434).

Paul’s analysis of the purpose of the law was more penetrating, more radical, not least because of his profound and complex typological interpretations, but also because, owing to his salvation-historical reading of the Old Testament, he understood the nature and role of the law within the larger narrative framework of creation/fall/promise-to-Abraham/Israel-and-Sinai/Christ (435).

We are left with the paradoxes of Paul — a man who esteems the law-covenant highly, yet no longer sees himself under it (if it is conceived primarily as lex); a man who teaches that the gospel has been announced throughout the Scriptures, yet who insists that only fresh revelation, both in the person of Christ and in the illuminating work of the Spirit, unpacks what is there in the text and brings it to fulfillment; a man whose being can on occasion breathe gratitude for his Jewish heritage, yet who reads the Bible in the still larger salvation-historical frame of reference shaped by creation, Adam, the fall, the promise to Abraham, and the broken and enslaved universe crying out for the promised liberation from its bondage to decay (435–36).


  1. says

    Thanks for this. This is very helpful in the discussion of continuity / discontinuity relationship in the OT/NT debate. Expensive book but will probably read both volumes.

    Thanks again, Andy.

  2. Todd says

    Andy, this is great stuff. I appreciate your diligence in your summaries; it is incredibly helpful. Unlike Frank, I probably will not buy the book and, therefore, I probably won’t read it so that makes your post even more valuable. But I may now read this chapter and especially the 12 pages on mystery. Thanks again.

  3. Dan King says

    I have Volume 2, but have not yet begun reading it. When I purchased it I was thinking of it as a reference book that might not need to be read straight through. Your highlighting of this article in it seems to support my approach. However, I would be curious as to whether you would _strongly_ recommend reading the whole volume (and Volume 1, for that matter) or whether there is sufficient value in reading articles here and there.

  4. says

    Dan, it depends on your objectives. If you’re a NT doctoral student or professor, by all means read both volumes. Otherwise, you’re probably safe to skim them and focus on the ones most relevant to your research and interests. FWIW.


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