What does it mean that we were buried with Christ in our baptism (Rom 6:4)? Or that our baptism freed us from sin (Rom 6:6-7)? These verses have caused me trouble over the years and I’m sure I’m not alone. Does Paul say that baptism is required for salvation? Or are the unbaptised saved but not freed from sin? Usually the answer goes something like this: when you believed in Jesus, you died to sin and were raised to new life, like Jesus, and your baptism at church symbolizes that reality. But what if our radical individualism has caused us two miss something massive in these verses? In Missing Lenses, Tom Holland thinks that we approach verses like this with a wrong perspective that quickly leads us astray. Holland wants nothing less than to reshape how we read scripture and think about our relationship to Christ and his body.
The book is divided into three parts. Part one recovers the Hebraic backdrop to Paul’s thought. It is here that Holland wants to correct four errors that have led the academy and the church astray. The first error is that the early church abandoned its Jewish heritage due to Gentile influx. The second error—often an overreaction to the first—is that first-century Jewish literature is the key to understanding the NT. Rather, the OT is the key to understanding the NT. The third error is that understanding Greek culture is the key to understanding the NT. No, while Greek language was used, the ideas are thoroughly Jewish. The fourth error is to miss the importance of context for understanding a word’s meaning. So what context is appropriate for understanding the NT? In contrast, Holland finds the answer in the storyline of the OT, particularly its expectation of a New Exodus through a new David.
Part two takes a deep dive into the concept of corporate solidarity. This section largely revolves around re-thinking Romans 5-8. The ideas in this section are many and complex, so adequate summary is impossible. However, the essence of Holland’s argument is that, building upon the New Exodus paradigm, “these passages should be read consistently from a corporate perspective first before making individual application” (p89). For example, as Israel was enslaved to Egypt, so all humanity is enslaved to Sin (Satan). As all Israel was baptized into Moses in the Exodus, the whole church was baptized into Jesus in his death and resurrection. Paul’s emphasis is less on individuals being mapped to Jesus’ experience of death and resurrection; rather, Jesus led the entire church—present and future—through the waters of death and new life, and individuals who believe join that community. This is what Paul means in Romans 6. The passage is not about the individual and their baptism in water, but the rebirth of church in the New Exodus from slavery to Sin. Humans have been in a covenant with death, and only death itself will free them from it. This shift from individual to community results in a radical re-reading of Romans and numerous striking insights along the way.
While the New Exodus changes how we think about community and the individual, part three develops how it affects how we think of salvation. The New Exodus paradigm affects how we think about righteousness, justification, atonement and more. For Holland, Christ’s death should be primarily read through the Passover lens. That is, Christ’s work is fundamentally not an atonement for sin but a redemption from slavery. Justification, then, is less a law-court or accounting image; it is about deliverance and acceptance. Theories of the atonement and debates about justification have gone astray when they neglect the New Exodus background of the NT.
A Profound Re-thinking of Major Biblical Concepts
As to the ideas within Missing Lenses, I must admit that I am still processing. With some books, it is easy to make critiques. Perhaps the author is inconsistent or works from a radically different starting point. However, I agree so much with Holland’s foundations that critique is difficult, despite how radically different his exegesis is. Since his exegetical insights are so numerous and profound, it will take significant time to sift through them all.
Most Christians have likely encountered the idea that we moderns are far more individualistic than our biblical forefathers. Many, too, have been told of the importance of the New Exodus theme in the OT. However, no one more than Holland has allowed these insights to radically reshape the interpretation of scripture with such fruitful results.
Missing Lenses is a more user-friendly re-presentation—with the help of Ann Weaver—of Tom Holland’s earlier Contours of Pauline Theology. Given that Contous is 392, and Missing Lenses is 420, this is a little ironic. The size is due somewhat to the fact that longer explanations are needed to make up for a lack of non-academic terminology and the need to explain complex ideas and scholarly debates to non-academic readers. In other words, the argumentation of Missing Lenses is no less rigorous than that of an academic book. It reads like a translation of complicated ideas into more readable prose, but not necessarily a re-presentation of those ideas for a popular audience. In this way, Missing Lenses finds itself in a slightly awkward position. Academic readers like myself will wish for greater concision, footnotes, less detailed explanations, and more engagement with scholarship. Non-academic readers—the intended readers—will likely wish for greater concision, less detail, simpler explanations, the bottom line, and more practical relevance. However, those who persevere will be richly rewarded with fresh ideas and a great appreciation for the corporate nature of Christianity, the work of Christ, and how the NT is connected to the OT with greater seamlessness than many realize. For me, a good book inspires profound thought and causes me to dig back into the biblical text. Missing Lenses certainly matches that criteria! This book is well worth the effort.
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Tom Holland graciously provided me with a copy of this book, but did not request a positive review.