Hagner on the Pastoral Epistles

[by Chuck Bumgardner]

Donald A. Hagner has been associated with Fuller Seminary for forty years, and presently holds the title(s) of George Eldon Ladd Professor Emeritus of New Testament and Senior Professor of New Testament School of Theology. His New Testament Introduction: A Historical and Theological Introduction (Baker, 2012) (NTI) represents the mature judgments of a seasoned scholar. My purpose here is to summarize his work on the Pastoral Epistles (PE) in that volume.

Before I do that, however, I’ll observe that Hagner has (to my knowledge) produced only one standalone essay on any of the PE: “Titus as a Pauline Letter,” in Society of Biblical Literature 1998 Seminar Papers, Part Two (SBLSPS 37; Atlanta: Scholars, 1998), 546–58. This essay was part of an ongoing project in the SBL Theology of the Disputed Paulines group, a project which also included Luke Timothy Johnson’s “Oikonomia Theou: The Theological Voice of 1 Timothy from the Perspective of Pauline Authorship” and Gordon Fee’s “Toward a Theology of 2 Timothy—from a Pauline Perspective.” Each of these essays addressed the theology of one of the PE from the perspective of Pauline authorship.

In his essay, Hagner first establishes the “life-setting” of Titus, noting its distinctiveness over against the undisputed Pauline letters in two areas: Paul’s acceptance of a delayed parousia and a correspondingly different approach to his churches, and an individual recipient (except in the case of Philemon) (546–48). These two items, in conjunction with the likely use of an amanuensis, explain any differences between Titus and other Pauline letters. With this foundation laid, he engages a close reading of the most overtly theological passages in Titus, 2:11–14 and 3:4–8a, comparing their theology minutely (and favorably) with Paul’s theology in the undisputed letters (548–52). (Since these are soteriological passages, this section is helpful for studying salvation in the PE in connection with other writings of Paul.) Finally, Hagner examines the “theology of the practical instructions of Titus,” finding strong parallels with the undisputed Paul here as well (552–55). All in all, this is a strong article defending the authenticity of Titus.

Fifteen years later, in his NTI, Hagner now finds that the cumulative weight of various arguments against Pauline authorship of the PE (including Titus) means that pseudonymity has “the probabilities on its side” (614). He presents a very helpful section which addresses six different battlegrounds of opinion vis-à-vis authorship (language and style, church organization, theology and ethics, nature of opposition, the picture of Paul, and the personal history of Paul), first succinctly presenting how proponents of pseudonymity would frame a given issue, then providing a brief response from the perspective of authenticity (615–21). He stresses (1) that no particular argument for pseudonymity is persuasive in and of itself, but the cumulative case is persuasive; (2) that the debate is one of probabilities, not certainties (621–22). In his judgment (following a critical consensus), the PE simply “breathe a different atmosphere” which is unlike the undisputed Paulines, and they reflect a “conventional, ‘bourgeois’ Christianity,” displaying “the marks of an incipient early catholicism” (622).

Exploring various explanations for the “problem of the Pastorals,” Hagner examines the amanuensis hypothesis (e.g., Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing), the possibility of wholesale pseudepigraphy by an associate of Paul’s after his death (e.g., Wilson, Luke and the Pastoral Epistles), theories involving Pauline fragments/notes (e.g., Miller, The Pastoral Letters as Composite Documents), and the possibility of authenticity (e.g., Fee, Knight, Johnson, Mounce, Towner) (622–26). Reading “Titus as a Pauline Letter,” I felt that Hagner was firmly championing a position of authenticity; reading his NTI, I don’t get the impression that he has confidently changed his stance on authorship, but has edged over the line, so to speak, with the balance of evidence ever so slightly disposing him to a rather agnostic position of pseudonymity.

Hagner turns to examine various emphases in the PE: protecting orthodoxy/orthopraxy; preserving and transmitting the tradition; establishing church offices; the self-consciousness of the church (626–34). Finding these to support “an incipient early catholicism,” he summarizes: “Because of the delay of the parousia, the church must reunderstand itself not as a group of believers waiting to be taken away from this world to the next, but rather as the people of God, residents in the world for the foreseeable future, whose unchanging message represents unshakable truth” (634).

Arguing that the PE ought to be considered both individually and as a cluster, Hagner gives a brief overview of the contents of each letter (634–37). He closes the essay with a position of agnosticism as to authorship, a guess that the letters were written for church leaders in general, and a preference for a date shortly after Paul’s death (637–38). A very solid English-language bibliography (25 commentaries and 85 other entries) completes the essay, including commentaries as late as 2006 (Towner [NICNT] and Witherington), and other works as late as 2010 (638–42). I only note that in commentaries, the venerable Lock (ICC, 1924) is missing, apparently being of too great a vintage, and Oden’s Interpretation volume (1989) is omitted. In other literature, Hagner has surprisingly included nothing by Trebilco (e.g., The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius, 2004) nor Wieland (e.g., The Significance of Salvation, 2006).