I have been reading Laato's Paul and Judaism: An Anthropological Approach and I have encountered something odd...at least to me. It seems to be implied that one can read the Pauline Epistles in two basic ways: to find a pattern of religion or to uncover theology. I fear that both of these endeavors may be suspect.
First, finding a pattern of religion seems a nebulous idea at best. What is one looking for? How a religion determines who is saved, "in," and/or part of the community? How one, to use Sanders' terminology, "gets in" and "stays in" a religion? How one goes about doing a religion (think rites and the like)? Or how a group is self-defined? All of these things seem somewhat foreign to what we have in Paul. Finding the "religion" that Paul espoused has proven to be quite difficult. The primary problem, as I see it, is that the scholar would bring his or her definition of what constitutes a religion to the Pauline texts. Then the texts would be fit into this pattern and the parts that did not fit would be explained away or ignored. This simply does not let the biblical text speak for itself.
Second, finding theology in Paul's Letters has a similar problem. How one defines "theology" will have a major impact on what sort of "theology" is found in Paul. If by theology "God-talk" is intended, that can be found all throughout Paul's correspondence. If one by theology is referring to the traditional categories of systematics (christology, soteriology, pneumatology, etc), then they too may be found to some extent in Paul. In either case though the exegete is placing a matrix on top of the biblical text and only reading what fits inside, thus, again, marginalizing what does not fit.
So is there a solution? Not that I am one hundred percent sold on this and not that I pretend in anyway to know more than anyone else, but it seems that dealing with Paul's actual words themselves first may be beneficial. To put it another way, a better question to ask might have to do with Paul's terminology. The reason for this is that the limited number of documents that we have and the occasionality of these documents prevent the discovery of a sure and certain Pauline religion and/or theology. Why? Because there is much that he may have left unsaid. This could be because it was considered a given or common sense. It could be that the pressing issues of the letters (the threat of the "Judaizers," the delayed Parousia, etc) caused Paul to focus more narrowly only upon what was at hand. The differing purposes of the letters themselves make discovering a unifying theology and/or religion nearly impossible. Thus, the evidence we have is not the sort that will make manifest definitive ideas about religion and theology. To make it do so is a major disservice to it.
Instead it would be helpful to see a center or gravity in Paul's terminology in a given document (and perhaps in all of the Pauline corpus). How could we go about this endeavor? Perhaps statistical/grammatical/structural analysis may point us to primary phrases, words, and thought-blocks used by Paul. Perhaps rhetorical analysis could reveal points of emphasis for Paul through the examination of his argumentation. Perhaps a historically-rooted reader-response analysis could indicate the central points of contact with the "original" audience that may have been effective (though I admit that trying to determine the nature of the "original" audience is quite difficult and speculative). But in the background of these approaches would have to exist conscientious and careful historical/sociological analysis that would ensure that anachronism could be avoided.
Why would this terminology-focused study be useful? Primarily because it would allow Paul's texts to speak on their own. It would hopefully eliminate the damaging process of forcing Paul's words, thoughts, and ideas into modern molds. And it could be multi-disciplinary, thus promoting cross-pollination in NT studies and the interpretation of Scripture in community.