Sunday, March 27, 2016

Paul and the Faithfulness of God Chapter 6

I am continuing to read through Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4, Christian Origins and the Question of God, by N. T. Wright. I am making a post on each chapter as I read them. Previous posts are here, here, here, here, here and here. Each chapter is very long so what you are getting here is a very brief summary of this very important book. I welcome comments and discussion on my Facebook page. I am using the Logos version of the book.

Chapter 6 begins part 2 of the first book. While part 1 dealt with the background and environment of the apostle, this section deals with “The Mindset of the Apostle,” how he put all these influences together, built around the revelation of the Messiah to him. In chapter 6 Wright looks at how Paul reworked the defining symbols of his Jewish heritage around Jesus Christ.

Part of the genius of Paul was to bring together ‘theology as a task’ with this implicit Jewish ‘theology as a set of beliefs’, transforming (baptizing?) the task itself in the process while unpacking and explaining the beliefs in a radically new direction—though claiming, and trying to demonstrate, that this new direction was in fact a thoroughly Jewish, scripturally based exploration of the one God, his people and his plans. For Paul, the method and the means by which task and beliefs alike were transformed was Jesus himself, the crucified and risen Messiah, son of God and lord, and the ‘spirit of the son’ which the one God had poured out on his renewed people. 352

The temple, torah and land were the main identifying symbols of the Jewish people of Paul’s day. Paul (and I would say Jesus did this first) redefined the Temple to be Jesus and His people who are part of His “body.” The main identifier for God’s people would be allegiance to Jesus and the unity and fellowship of the Jesus community, especially noticed because they “eat with unbelievers.” 

The replacement of Temple with Jesus and, secondarily and derivatively, with his people remains one of Paul’s central worldview-revisions...And Jerusalem itself, the focus of the longed-for centripetal pilgrimage of the nations, has been replaced by Jerusalem as the centrifugal originating point of the world mission. The redeemer does not now come to Zion but from Zion, going out into all the world to ‘gather the nations’, not by their coming to the central symbol of ancient Judaism, but by their becoming the central symbol, as we shall see, of the transformed worldview. 358

The revised Jewish monotheism which he employs, almost effortlessly, at key moments in his discourse shows where his roots are, and they give him the ‘strength’, as he puts it, to look out on the world, not only of cooked meat but also of pagans of all shapes, sorts and sizes, and to see them, not simply as dark and dangerous persons who should be shunned, but as human beings with whom the Messiah’s people should be free to associate in ordinary human friendship. 361

Thus, the key marks of torah observance circumcision, food laws, holy days, Sabbath become issues of indifference to Paul. They were not bad. They had just been fulfilled and to go back to them was not profitable. The kingdom is expanded from the land of Israel to all the world. Paul’s mission to the Gentile world was thus part of this kingdom enterprise. The key issue is being in the Messiah and being part of his worldwide mission in fulfillment of God’s covenant promises.

Covenantal eschatology: in the Messiah God has unveiled his long-awaited purpose, all preparatory stages are rendered indifferent, and to insist on them is to deny the Messiah himself and his achievement. 363

For Paul, God’s kingdom—as we see clearly enough in 1 Corinthians 15:20–8—is not a non-material, post-mortem destination, but is rather the sovereign rule of the creator over the entire created order, with death itself, that which corrupts and defaces the good creation, as the last enemy to be destroyed. In other words, the final ‘kingdom of God’ is the whole world, rescued at last from corruption and decay, and living under the sovereign rule of God, exercised through the Messiah’s people. 367

Temple, Torah, Prayer, Land, Family, Battle and Scripture: a formidable array of symbolic markers, and none left untouched, all transformed, by the Pauline gospel...‘This is who we are: we are the transformed, messianic people of God.’ And, because the cross and resurrection were the key things that now redefined the Messiah himself, these transformed symbols said, ‘This is who we are: we are the cross-and-resurrection-reshaped people of God in the Messiah.’ 375

The real battle was not between the Jews and Gentiles, but it was between God and the forces of evil that are destroying God’s good creation. Thus, Paul continued the strong Jewish emphasis on resistance to idolatry. The pagan gods do not exist, but to worship them placed one in subjection to evil powers who had usurped the role of the true God who made people in His image.

Part of Paul’s radical and robust rejection of pagan idolatry was based on the clear belief that idolatry not only diminishes God; it diminishes, also, those who actually do bear God’s image. It steals their privilege and bestows it elsewhere; or rather, since it is these same humans who are doing it, pagan worship sells its own birthright for a mess of idolatrous pottage. 377

When Paul rejected so much of the symbolism of the pagan world, that was not because of any dualistic or world-rejecting tendency. Rather, it was precisely because he valued the world, and human life, so highly that he resisted strongly what he saw as destructive and dehumanizing worldviews and their resulting lifestyles. His engagement with the world of paganism was ultimately positive. He had in mind both the good original creation and the promise of creation renewed. 381

The pagan world was prone to all the same things our world is subject to: ethnic identification, tribalism, nationalism, racism etc. This was how community was defined. Paul refocuses identity to the new unified community defined by Christ…

What was central to Paul’s worldview was the fact of a new community, a community which transcended the boundaries of class, ethnic origin, location and (not least) gender, by all of which the pagan world in general, and the imperial world in particular, set so much store. 383

We are simply asking the question: what were the main symbols, and symbols-in-action, of Paul’s newly envisaged and constructed world? And we are about to find, large as life, on the basis not of a theological a priori but simply by asking this question, scratching our heads, and looking around, that the primary answer is the ekklesia: its unity, holiness and witness. 385

Thus, for Paul the main symbol for his worldview was “the ekklÄ“sia: its unity, holiness and witness.” (385) So it was the social practices of day to day life that identified God’s people. The inclusion of all classes, races, genders etc together into one unified group was the identifying symbol of who was in Christ.

Paul’s vision remained essentially Jewish...However, the unity on which Paul insists went explicitly beyond that envisaged within Judaism, since it emphatically included women, children and slaves as well as adult males. 387

Because the Messiah, who is now the lord at the heart of the reworked Shema, is the crucified Messiah, the community’s practice when faced with issues of conscience must reflect the fact that all who belong to the Messiah’s family are brothers and sisters for whom he died, and are called to put into practice the fact that their corporate existence involves a sharing in his death, and the renunciation of ‘rights’ which it entailed. 393

Paul does not want his addressees to see themselves as basically ‘Jews’ and ‘gentiles’ at all, but as Messiah-people. He wants them to learn, on the basis of theology, rather than to discern, on the basis of their automatic self-perception, what their most fundamental ‘identity’ actually is. 397

Jesus bound his followers together into one family and they were to treat each other as family.

Hospitality was expected to be offered and received readily, as would be the case within a geographically extended family...And it is precisely within this context that there grows that powerful imperative, springing up right across the Pauline corpus, for agape: not just a ‘love’ which is drawn instinctively or by emotion towards certain persons, but a practical and outgoing care and concern which displays itself in the concrete realities of money-sharing, project-sharing and life-sharing. 401

Theology is one of the binding factors for God’s family. Jesus and what he has done is the means by which the community connects with God in worship. The cross and the resurrection thus become defining symbols for Paul.

Loyalty to Jesus as Messiah, ‘the obedience of faith’ as Paul puts it, occupies the place within Paul’s new worldview-construct formerly occupied by the ‘loyalty to God’, or to Torah, or to the holy land, within just that zealous Judaism that we know to have been Paul’s own context. 405–406

The cross itself worked its way into the symbolic imagination of Paul’s successors, and from quite early on there is evidence of its use as a visual symbol. But it could become this because it already possessed a symbolic power within the narrative itself, the symbolic power of being seen as the moment above all when the rescuing purposes of Israel’s God were finally enacted and fulfilled. 406–407

Thus, the message of the gospel, that the resurrection shows that Jesus is LORD becomes the central message for Paul.

The gospel, the gospel, the gospel. It defined Paul. It defined his work. It defined his communities. It was the shorthand summary of the theology which, in turn, was the foundation for the central pillar for the new worldview. It carried God’s power.  411

Jesus had, as it were, reversed the normal direction of ‘mystical’ travel. Instead of the mystic ‘ascending’ towards either the throne of God or the place where cosmic secrets might be revealed, Jesus had himself ‘descended’, had come down, come near, transforming the practice of mysticism itself into a life of prayer in the spirit in which all could partake. 415

This new life in Christ was enacted symbolically in the church through baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Baptism became a “community-marking symbol,”  that one belonged to the family of the risen Christ.

Baptism, as part of the community-defining symbolic system of early Christianity in general and Pauline praxis in particular, is to be seen as rooted in the community-defining symbols of Judaism: which means, in particular, the exodus on the one hand and circumcision on the other—both of them, of course, seen by Paul as pointing forward to the dying and rising of the Messiah.  420

One might almost say that Paul appeals for a genuine, thought-out faith on the basis of baptism: now you are baptized, figure out what it means! The true statement that baptism makes is a statement about the baptized community in Christ, with the truth of the dying and rising of the particular individual who is baptized on this or that occasion being a function of that larger reality. The challenge to particular individuals is always then to make real for themselves that which their membership in this community would indicate. 423

The primary point of baptism, then, is not so much ‘that it does something to the individual’, though it does, but that it defines the community of the baptized as the Messiah’s people...Paul’s world of symbolic praxis centred upon the single family, the one community, rooted in the messianic monotheism shaped around Jesus himself and—a particular contribution of the present passage—energized and activated by the spirit. 426

The Lord’s Supper is a reworking of the Exodus story based on Jesus’ death and resurrection. The “nation” is established as a family who should love each other and suffers together in the wilderness until the world is renewed as a promised land.

‘Love’ is for Paul a virtue...The fact that the list of ‘fruit of the spirit’ ends with ‘self-control’ gives the game away: this is no romantic dream of a ‘spontaneous’ goodness. Love, joy, peace and the rest are all things which, though indeed growing from the work of the spirit within, require careful tending, protecting, weeding and feeding. 430

Suffering is, for Paul, a major worldview-marker, precisely because the community thus demarcated is the community that belongs to this Messiah, the crucified one. Their sufferings are his sufferings. That is part of the way they are to be known. And if, in that process, the Apostle is called to take more than his own share, he will interpret that as part of his special, and privileged, vocation. 435

God’s people functioned in the world as little outposts of this promised land. The Spirit working through the church should be a preview of what the promised new world will be like.

As we saw in looking at the central worldview-symbol, the ekklesia itself, one of the ways in which Paul describes it is as the Temple. And this may indicate quite a different mode of ‘mission’. Paul seems to have believed that the individual churches, little groups of baptized believers coming together in communities of worship and love, dotted here and there around the north-east Mediterranean world, were each a living Temple in which the creator God, the God who had dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem, was now dwelling. They were, in other words, the advance signs of that time when the whole world would be filled with the divine glory. 437

The spirit’s indwelling enables the Messiah’s people to be a dispersed Temple-people, the living presence of the one God launching the project of bringing the true divine life into the whole cosmos. 442

The Spirit’s power to change his people into the image of Christ, of course, must be seen in the behavior of God’s people. The community should become the eikon of God. “The community is supposed to live in reality how all humanity is supposed to live in theory.” (447)

The aim is a personal mindset, nested within a community worldview, in which certain styles of behaviour will not even be named, not (of course) because they go on behind closed doors so that everyone lives in a state of denial and hypocrisy, as the cynic in the first or the twenty-first century will always suppose, but because the community, the family and each person have discovered what it means to belong to the crucified and risen Messiah. 445

The people of the one Jewish God, now made known (as far as Paul was concerned) in and through Jesus and the spirit, were to celebrate good examples of humanity wherever they saw them. They were to live in such a way that would commend itself to their pagan neighbours. But they were also to follow a strict way of life which would mark them out. 449

The bottom line is that Paul sees himself defined by the Gospel and his role in the plan of God to restore the world. In the power of the Spirit he continues the work of Jesus.

Paul’s account of himself is that he is ‘in the Messiah’...And, being a Messiah-person, he effortlessly and naturally understands himself to be living in the suddenly erupting new act of a much longer drama, the story of the one God, his people and the world. He assumes this scriptural narrative, its climax in Jesus as Messiah and his death and resurrection, and his own role in implementing what Jesus had achieved. 450–451

Why this worldview, with its central symbol of the united, holy and witnessing ekklesia? Because of this theology: the one God; the people of this one God; the future which this God has in store for his world and his people—all rethought and reworked in the light of the Messiah and the spirit. 455

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