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What Is at the Center of Paul’s Theology?

Paul’s Whole Teaching

A survey of the history of interpreting Paul coupled with recognizing the inherent difficulty involved (2 Pet. 3:16), serves to impress on us an important question: How should we proceed in our own interpretation? Where should we begin? Is it, for example, with his teaching on justification by faith? Or with his teaching on the work of the Holy Spirit? Or somewhere else?

To put the question another way, How can we minimize the inevitable tendency to constrict our understanding of the apostle and the impact of his teaching? How should we approach Paul so that our understanding is opened in ways that are appropriately broad and enable us to gain a perspective on the whole of his teaching, so that our understanding is deepened as we process his teaching and respond to it for our lives?

With this question of approach in view, Ridderbos uses a helpful analogy.1 He compares the teaching of Paul to a vast imposing building, a large edifice with a number of entrances. What, then, is the main or intended entrance, in distinction from other possible places of entry? What is the door or set of doors that, when we enter, enables us to discover the floor plan of the entire structure so that we do not end up wandering about confused or semi confused in what amounts to a maze?

In the Fullness of Time

Richard B. Gaffin Jr.

Richard B. Gaffin Jr. gives readers an accessible, exegetically grounded framework to study Paul and the book of Acts.

To vary the image, what is the center of that circle whose circumference is not improperly restrictive and sufficiently broad to enclose the whole? Does Paul’s theology have such a center? If so, how do we go about identifying it?

The Center of Paul’s Theology

Despite the reservations some have about affirming that Paul’s theology has a center, it seems difficult to deny that it does, particularly if that notion is not maintained rigidly or too narrowly. It is certainly not the case that there is a single key concept—like election or salvation or even God—a Zentraldogma (“central doctrine”) from which everything can be shown to be deduced. At the same time, however, the ad hoc, occasional character of his letters clearly does not provide us with a proverbial wax nose, so that we can make of them whatever we will.

By the metaphor of a “center,” then, I mean that in Paul’s letters an overall set of concerns is identifiable, in which some matters are plainly more important for him than others. Certainly, Paul may be approached from a variety of perspectives, and it is valuable to do so, but each of his various concerns is not equally important or controlling. Recognizing this state of affairs points to a circle of interests, in which each is more or less central, with room for debate in some instances as to relative centrality.

Assuming, then, that in this sense Paul’s theology has a center, what is it? What is the locus of his centering concerns, and, more importantly, how do we go about properly identifying that center?

There is perhaps more than one way to answer this question. But it seems that we proceed most safely and usefully by identifying passages in Paul that have a summarizing or synoptic function, whether these be in his own words or whether he may be utilizing an already existing formulation. Our interest, in other words, is those statements that express, more or less clearly, his core concerns.2

Among such places, 1 Corinthians 1:18–3:22 is a passage in which Paul is concerned to provide an important overall perspective on his ministry as an apostle and in doing that highlights factors basic to it, including what may be seen as the heart of his theological epistemology. This concern leads him to declare, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:2 NIV). Paul’s epistemic commitment—as exclusive as it is comprehensive—is the crucified Christ. In a similar sweeping vein is Galatians 6:14: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (NIV). Second Timothy 2:8, perhaps adapting an existing creedal summary, similarly asserts, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead. . . . This is my gospel” (NIV).

Such statements point to the overall centrality of Christ’s death together with his resurrection. What further would seem particularly useful—with an eye toward identifying the center of Paul’s theology—are statements, like these, that are sufficiently nuclear, yet, unlike them, with enough additional detail to enable identifying an appropriate and adequately inclusive circumference of issues and concerns.

In this regard, the passage that commends itself as perhaps most helpful and forthcoming, or at least more so than others, is 1 Corinthians 15:3–4. There Paul, perhaps though not certainly, utilizes an already existing confessional fragment:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.

Within the overall context of Paul’s teaching, this statement prompts several observations:

First, in the prepositional phrase, literally “among first things” (ἐν πρώτοις), “first” almost certainly has, as virtually all commentators take it, a qualitative, not a temporal, sense, and most English translations properly render it “of first importance.” So, Paul tells us explicitly, his paramount concerns have their focus, their “center,” in Christ’s death and resurrection.

The center of Paul’s theology is the gospel, and at the center of that gospel are the death and resurrection of Christ.

In light of 15:1–2 (“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you.”), this center is the center of his gospel. That, in turn, prompts an even broader observation: At 15:1, Paul is best read as beginning to reflect on his ministry as a whole among the Corinthians (as he did earlier in 1:18–3:22). In view, then, is not just a part or aspect of his proclamation but that preaching and teaching in its wholeness.

That disposes saying, perhaps risking a certain degree of reductionism, that Paul’s theology is his gospel; his is a “gospel-theology.” Or, better, viewed in terms of expanding concentric circles, the center of Paul’s theology is the gospel, and at the center of that gospel are the death and resurrection of Christ. The focus of the whole of his teaching, its gospel-center, is Christ’s death and resurrection.

Second, the death and resurrection are not in view as bare, isolated, and uninterpreted facts. In that regard, two things are stipulated. For one, their occurrence is “according to the Scriptures” (15:3 NIV). That is, they have their meaning as they fulfill the Jewish scriptures, as they involve fulfillment of the Old Testament—a fulfillment, as will become clear as we proceed, that is nothing less than eschatological.

Also, the death is said to be “for our sins.” At the center of Paul’s gospel theology, Christ’s death, together with his resurrection, as the fulfillment of Scripture, has its significance in relation to human (“our”) sin and its consequences. This points, we may note here, to their applicatory, ordo salutis significance. That ordo is rooted in and flows from the historia centered climactically in Christ’s death and resurrection.

This brings us, then, to this baseline conclusion, following from this passage and reinforced by others already noted: At the center of Paul’s theology, constituting that center as much as anything, are Christ’s death and resurrection—or, more broadly, messianic suffering and glory, his humiliation and exaltation, in their saving and Scripture-fulfilling, eschatological significance. The center of Paul’s theology is determined by the triangulation of his Christology, soteriology, and eschatology.

This provides important substantiation for the observation of Vos, noted above, that “not only the Christology but also the Soteriology of the Apostle’s teaching is so closely interwoven with the Eschatology, that, were the question put, which of the strands is more central, which more peripheral, the eschatology would have as good a claim to the central place as the others.”3


  1. Herman Ridderbos, “The Redemptive-Historical Character of Paul’s Preaching,” in When the Time Had Fully Come: Studies in New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1957), 44.
  2. See also Richard B. Gaffin Jr., By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), 24–25.
  3. Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979), 28‒29.

This article is adapted from In the Fullness of Time: An Introduction to the Biblical Theology of Acts and Paul by Richard B. Gaffin Jr.

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