C. H. Dodd on Paul’s Poor Writing & Defective Imagination

The Apostle Peter tells us that in Paul’s letters “there are some things … that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). We are not surprised then to find passages which require work to understand. In these cases it becomes particularly clear whether one approaches the Scripture expecting it to conform to one’s own understanding (Does this passage fit life as I understand it?) or whether one approaches the Scripture as the true Word of God to which we must conform (it is true, how must my understanding adjust to appropriate this teaching).

I stumbled upon a very clear example of this this week in C. H. Dodd’s commentary on Romans (The Epistle of Paul to the Romans. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1932). In discussing Paul’s use of a marriage analogy in Romans 7 about the law, Dodd states, “The illustration, however, is confused from the outset” (100). He goes on to say, “We shall do best to ignore the illustration as far as may be, and ask what it is that Paul is really talking about in the realm of fact and experience” (101).

I am aware that Dodd did not share my view of the Scripture, but this level of condescension was still surprising. It only gets worse. Dodd’s concluding paragraph on this passage is below:

The two lines of illustration, then, which Paul offers, have not proved very felicitousHe lacks the gift for sustained illustration of ideas through concrete images (though he is capable of a brief, illuminating metaphor).  It is probably a defect of imagination.  We cannot help contrasting his labored and blundering allegories with the masterly parables of Jesus, unerring in their immediate translation of ideas into pictures, or rather their recognition of the idea in the picture which life itself presents.  Paul flounders among the images he has tried to evoke, and then with unconscious humour pleads that he is trying to stoop to the weak nature of his correspondents.  We are relieved when he tires of his unmanageable puppets and talks about real things (103 – emphasis original).

Too bad for Paul. It is a shame he had a defective imagination and blundered so poorly in these letters which have shaped the Western world and have impacted millions of people the world over (believers and unbelievers). Dodd’s comments remind me of a retort Howard Marshall once gave in a seminar where someone presented an argument similar to Dodd’s (on a different passage)-  “I now have a new exam question for first year students, ‘Rewrite Paul’s argument in order to more faithfully communicate his point’.”

Yes, commentators note the challenge of this passage, but across the centuries they have not landed on Dodd’s counsel of despair.

Of course someone with a high view of the Bible’s inspiration cannot brook Dodd’s approach. However, even apart from inspiration, this dismissive condescension is foolhardy. It reminds of C. S. Lewis’ apt phrase, “chronological snobbery”- the ancients were obviously less intelligent than we are and we can explain how it really ought to have been done.

We ought beware of the hubris of assuming we- whose writings have not yet endured a generation, much less a couple of millennia- can stand in judgment over writing which has been read, understood, appreciated and applied for 2,000 years in various cultures and translations. Simple historical awareness and cognizance of our own smallness should give pause.

One suspects the defective imagination was Dodd’s.

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