Käsemann is an interesting figure for Pauline studies. While he is often noted for his emphasis on justification, his work on participation themes is just as prominent. I definitely like his take on salvation being the experience of the righteousness of God. For a good summary of Käsemann see: David Way, The Lordship of Christ: Ernst Käsemann’s Interpretation of Paul’s Theology, Oxford Theological Monographs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

Before looking into Käsemann’s theology, one must understand the nature of his work. According to David Way, Käsemann’s work on Paul can be roughly divided into two periods based on his direction of thinking: pre-1950 and post-1960. The common theme to both periods of Käsemann’s work is his basic understanding of Paul’s message, which is centered on the lordship of Christ. Accordingly, he states it succinctly in one of his later essays: “For Paul, faith means faith in one thing and one thing alone: Christ as Lord” (PoP: SSJD, 52-3). This common theme was interpreted in different ways in the two periods. In the early period, Käsemann focused more upon participation themes based on an understanding of Paul related to the gnostic myth; however, in his later period Käsemann focused primarily upon justification based upon an understanding of apocalyptic.

With regard to his early period, Käsemann’s understanding of lordship was expressed through being ‘in Christ,’ or joining with the ecclesial body of Christ through the sacraments. Quoting Käsemann, Way comments:
‘The centre of Pauline proclamation is the “in Christ”. It is to be maintained, as in the deutero-Paulines, that this “in Christ” is interpreted as “being in the church” . . . The church is the meaning and telos of both the Pauline Christology and his anthropology’ (Leib 183, Käsemann’s emphasis). Thus ‘in Christ’ is the centre of Paul’s proclamation. Elsewhere in Leib und Leib Christi it is said that the centre of Paul’s doctrine is in the close connection between sacrament and church (161), or the concept of spirit, which in turn is dominated by the idea of the sacrament (127f.) (Way, 107).

However, Way clarifies that for Käsemann “christology determines ecclesiology (and not vice versa), [and] that the church is always subordinate to Christ” (Way, 108). Although Käsemann gives participation the priority, Way qualifies the place of participation with regard to justification in this early period: “Paul’s participatory language is interpreted in the light of his juridical language: the existential meaning of the spirit draws on the doctrine of justification” (Way, 109). We can see, then, the foundation for the next period in Käsemann’s thought.

In fact, Way notes that Käsemann took the first major step towards the second period while still within the first. He states: “Within five years Käsemann moved away from the view that the participatory themes are the centre of Paul’s theology, arguing instead that justification is the centre of Pauline and New Testament proclamation (‘Abendmahl’ (1937) 90, 93)” (Way, 109). In this transition, though, Käsemann did not abandon his interest in participation themes such as the body of Christ and the sacraments, but he did realign his understanding of their importance in light of justification. As these participatory themes were not dismissed, they were put in a different perspective in order to maintain coherence of all Paul’s themes (Way, 111). Justification, for Käsemann, is a reception of the righteousness of God, in which the Giver is also a part of the gift (NTQT: RoG, 174). As a result, he sees coherence in Paul’s thought regarding the believer’s justification and sanctification (NTQT: RoG, 174-5).

An important aspect of Käsemann’s theology, especially in his second period, is also his emphasis upon Paul’s apocalyptic worldview for understanding justification. Käsemann notes the importance: “It is characteristic of the letters that the entire mission of Paul is determined by the expectation of the imminent end of the world” (NTQT: PEC, 241). This eschatological event, however, is not only future. Paul also understands it to have current ramifications. Accordingly, Käsemann states: “The eschatological happening consists precisely in this, that God has begun to reclaim for himself the world which belongs to him” (NTQT: WEL, 191). In this way, Käsemann notes the cosmic scope of Paul’s theology. It is not just anthropology, as Bultmann had argued, because this is too narrow a view of Paul’s theology. Way describes:

Käsemann’s adoption of the term ‘apocalyptic’ is to be understood as a convenient shorthand for his understanding of primitive Christian eschatology, the main points being its cosmic scope, its expression of a theology based on the hope of God coming into his right on earth (with the consequent defeat of the powers of evil), and the theme of an imminent future expectation. ‘Apocalyptic’ becomes a label for an interpretation of Paul’s theology which is focused, not on anthropology, but on Christ’s lordship and God’s final triumph (129).

An important aspect of this apocalyptic worldview is that of ruling powers, which Käsemann notes in Paul’s theology. He writes: “As the world is determined by the conflict of forces, so there is laid on man as a corporeal being the necessity of having a lord, of being incorporated into a dominion, whether it is that of Adam as the representative of the cosmos or that of Christ as the representative of the world of the Resurrection” (ENTT: PDLS, 133). Accordingly, Käsemann understands Christ in Paul as the cosmocrator (Way, 112). We will see later how the spheres of power come into play with regard to Paul’s soteriology.

If Christ’s lordship understood as participation and justification is the content of Paul’s message, the context of is message was opposition from nomists and enthusiasts. With regard to these Käsemann comments, “The Gospel does not appear on the scene without arousing the reaction of both legalism and of enthusiasm” (NTQT: NTQT, 9). While he primarily responds to nomists in Galatians and Romans (cf. NTQT: PI, 186) and the enthusiasts in 1 and 2 Corinthians (cf. JMF, 59-84), he responds to both groups in each of his letters. Käsemann contends that his central theology of justification by faith avoids the two extremes. Against nomists Paul “proclaims the justification of the ungodly” as a gift, not a work (PoP, FAR4, 84). Against enthusiasts justification is for sinners or creatures based on a theology of the cross (PoP: JSH, 73). Justification then effectively responds to both of these problems.

Käsemann understands Christ to be the cosmic Lord who incorporates believers into his body, the church. With this apocalyptic worldview, Paul responds to both nomists and enthusiasts using the paradigm of justification and participation. Now that we have looked at the core concepts of Käsemann’s analysis of Paul, we may now turn more to Käsemann’s interpretation of Paul’s theology with respect to Christ and the believer in more detail.

Anthropology…The key aspect of Käsemann’s understanding of Paul’s anthropology is the use of the term “body” (or σῶμα). Incorporating Paul’s cosmic worldview, Käsemann sees the body allowing (or even necessitating) communication and relationship to others. He explains: “Corporeality is the nature of man in his need to participate in creatureliness and in his capacity for communication in the widest sense, that is to say, in his relationship to a world with which he is confronted on each several occasion. We are always what we are in the mode of belongingness and participation, …” (PoP: PA, 21). This is in direct distinction to Bultmann who saw the body as the core of one’s relationship with one’s self.

Righteousness…“The justification of the ungodly is for Paul the fruit of Jesus’ death, and nothing else. And this means regnum dei on earth” (PoP: SSJD, 46). Righteousness, then, cannot be merely a forensic statement but also an active power initiated by Christ in the believer’s life. That is, righteousness is fundamentally related to the gift-Giver motif as the gift. The Spirit plays an important role in Käsemann’s understanding of Paul. With regard to the gift-Giver motif that drives Käsemann’s theology of righteousness, Käsemann places the Spirit at the core of that relationship as the Giver, and in that same context, identifies the Spirit with Christ (ENTT: PDLS, 113).

Resurrection and Theology of the Cross…In “The Saving Significance of the Death of Jesus in Paul” Käsemann highlights the cross over and against the resurrection, so that they are not two equal events (PoP: SSDJ, 32-59). The resurrection just interprets the events of the cross. Accordingly, one should not presume to expect a life of glory but a life of the cross. In response to the realized eschatology of the enthusiasts, Paul proclaims a ‘theology of the cross.’ That is, God’s people, though sharing in the exalted Lord’s body, live according to his earthly life. Käsemann explains: “On earth, at any rate, there is no sharing in the glory of the risen Lord except in the discipleship of the cross” (JMF, 83).

Käsemann is helpful in tearing down the divisions between conceptions of righteousness, using a both/and conception of the gift and the Giver. Paul is one who makes antitheses clear. I do not find a clear distinction of justification and sanctification in his letters, so Käsemann is commended for proposing a thesis to bring these together. I find his overall system of spheres of lordship compelling. From my limited perspective this seems to be a more synthetic view of Paul’s theology and not one as strongly based on his antecedents.

In Christ…He provides a taxonomy of views at the end of his essay on Romans 4 (PoP: FAR4, 99-101) and also discusses it in relation to Adam and Christ in his commentary on Romans 5 (Way, 164-170). In these two passages Käsemann makes two primary points: being ‘in Christ’ is basically an ecclesiological affirmation related to Christ’s lordship, and being ‘in Christ’ leads one to participate in Christ’s destiny. Passage 1: ‘In Christ’ is not primarily ecclesiological because this might seem that ecclesiology is over Christology. However, Käsemann retains the spatial concept as his core understanding because the phrase ultimately denotes the sphere of lordship in which one resides. In other words, those who are under the sphere of lordship are ‘in Christ’. Passage 2: Regarding Romans 5-6, “σὺν Χριστῷ, along with ἐν Χριστῷ, is used by Paul to give precision to his concept of Christ as a bearer of destiny. Christ is the power which determines the life of the Christian, but, at the same time, Christians have to follow the earthly path of the exalted Lord (Römer, 163). Here the ‘bearer of destiny’ motif functions as an underlying theme of Paul’s theology” (Way, 168).

Body of Christ…Käsemann most fully discusses the body of Christ in his essay “The Theological Problem Presented by the Motif of the Body of Christ” (PoP: MBOX, 102-121). The most striking point is that the lordship motif drives Käsemann’s argument. He continues to interpret the nature of being in the body as being in the sphere of Christ’s lordship, and it this affiliation that determines one’s membership in the body of Christ. This membership or solidarity is real, in that Christ shares himself through the sacraments and the Spirit.

Sacraments…Käsemann makes a direct correlation between the body of the Lord in the Eucharist and the body of Christ, the church. Accordingly, he writes: “Through the element called the σῶμα Χριστοῦ we are incorporated into the σῶμα Χριστοῦ as church, so that according to I Cor. 12:12f., we are members of the body, whose head is Christ” (‘Abendmahl’, 80; translated by Way, 73). In light of his discussion in PoP: SSJD, 57-58 — Paul inherits a view of the sacraments influenced by the mystery religions, which emphasize glory. Paul then modifies this tradition to focus primarily on remembering and sharing in the death of Jesus with only a future expectation of sharing in the resurrection of Jesus. Accordingly, Paul exhorts believers to follow the way of the cross in this life. In light of his discussion in NTQT: RoG, 174-5 — Käsemann draws the sacramental-ecclesial theme back under the lordship of Christ and gift-Giver motifs. He expressly guards against a view of the sacraments working ex opere operato.

In his discussions of the church it is clear that Käsemann wants to distance himself from a salvation-historical point of view that one might find in Roman Catholic theology or in some Protestant discussions of his day. He maintains that the church always remains under the lordship of Christ and in no way replaces or acts as a substitute for him.