Sunday, August 07, 2016

Paul and the Faithfulness of God Chapter 13

Paul AFOGChapter 13 continues Part IV of Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4, Christian Origins and the Question of God, by N. T. Wright. Chapter 13 looks at how Paul’s theology would have been viewed within the Roman religious world. Again, this 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.

In chapter 13, A DIFFERENT SACRIFICE: PAUL AND ‘RELIGION,’ Wright looks at how Paul and his theology fit into the religious landscape of the 1st century. He criticizes several other works which discuss Paul in terms of more modern understandings of "religion." How did Paul fit in with the other religious communities, practices and belief systems? Paul interfaced, from within real communities, with a very real religious world which was tied up in politics and culture etc. This is why Paul caused such a stir in his communities.

I intend, in other words, to investigate here the relation of Paul to first-century ‘religion’, as discussed in that earlier chapter, rather than to ‘religion’ as that term has been understood since at least the eighteenth century. 1321

The point for which I have been arguing throughout this book is that Paul did indeed think through, articulate and teach a coherent theology, which was indeed ‘a modification of Jewish belief’ in the light of the crucified and risen Messiah and the gift of the spirit; and that Paul urged his communities to learn how to think these things through, not as a displacement activity when faced with ineffable experiences, but as their grasping of the reality of Israel’s God and his purposes, the reality within which they would be able to live. 1327

I want to go considerably further than Theissen in two or three particulars, and to propose a way of understanding Paul within the ‘religious’ world of his day which shows how the implicit clash of political allegiance and culture we studied in the previous chapter was, hardly surprisingly, focused in and symbolized by an implicit clash of religious allegiance and culture. 1330

First he answers the question about whether Christianity was a "religion" as the Roman world would have considered it. He answers with a qualified "yes." Religion and its rituals, in the Roman world, were the system that bound "gods" and people into one society, one political allegiance and one "cultural fabric." In that sense Christianity was a religion, though a very different one than any in Rome. It was “religion” defined around Jesus himself, the indwelling Holy Spirit and the Kingdom of God.

If a ‘religion’ in the ancient world was the system of signs, including myths and rites, by which people were ‘bound’ together (assuming the link of religio with religare) as a civic unity in which gods and humans both shared, the whole of Part II above provides evidence that Paul saw the common life of those en Christo as precisely that: a united community, whose politeuma was in the heavenly places, and whose complex unity was both expressed in and powerfully reinforced by the radically new kind of sacrifice, the very different kind of celebration, the attention to ancient scriptures, the prayers and particularly the special and symbolic ‘rites’ of baptism and eucharist. 1332

First he looks at baptism as the key rite of initiation into the church. He sees this as coming, not from Roman mystery religions, but from the story of Israel - it is the symbol of the new Exodus. He sees the background of it in the story of the newly redeemed Israelites going through the Red Sea, led by the fire of God (the Spirit) and becoming a new nation of God's people. It is a public statement of an entry into a new kingdom - God's.

The Messiah’s people, for Paul, are thus the new-Exodus people, formed as was ancient Israel into ‘a people’ by the redeeming action of the One God on their behalf and by the sovereign and holy presence of the One God in their midst, leading them in the pillar of cloud and fire and sustaining them on their journey. And baptism, it here becomes clear, is indeed (to use the old theological language) the ‘outward and visible’ sign of entry into the Messiah’s people, defining them just as surely as the crossing of the Red Sea defined the people whom Abraham’s God brought out of Egypt. 1334

In the new world that Jesus’ followers believed had been launched by his resurrection and the gift of his spirit, baptism retained the meaning it seems already to have had during Jesus’ public career—identification with his kingdom-movement—and to have deepened its resonance with the Exodus on the one hand and with his death on the other. 1337

In the next sections Wright notes that the "religion" of the early Christians had many outward similarities to that of the pagan world and to Jewish practices, but they were radically redefined and reworked in light of what Jesus had done. The most radically redefined was the idea of sacrifice. Both Judaism and paganism were awash in the blood of animal sacrifice, but Christ's was a one-off event, that provided access to God for the whole world and made animal sacrifice unnecessary. Yet, Christians were called to respond with self-sacrifice for God and others and to perform their priestly mission. The Lord's Supper/Eucharist was a religious rite designed to unify God's people and remind them of what Christ had done to bring them together as God's people. Finally, corporate prayer was a necessary element in the church's unity. If these "religious acts" failed to build the unity of Christ's church they were being misused.

Paul has rejected pagan religion in all its works and ways. But ‘religion’ itself—centred upon the celebratory offering of sacrifice, through which humans and the divine presence are bound together in the solidarity of one community and its consequent fruitfulness—is something Paul sees fulfilled and transformed in and through Jesus. 1343

The eucharist thus clearly functions for Paul as a rite, complete with traditional words; as a rite in which a ‘founding myth’ was rehearsed, though in this case the ‘founding myth’ was an actual event which had occurred not long before; as a rite in which the worshippers share the life of the divinity being worshipped, though the divinity in question is a human being of recent memory; as a rite dependent on a prior sacrifice, albeit the very strange one of the crucifixion of that same human being; as a rite which should bind the community together, so that signs of disunity during the rite are a contradiction of its inner meaning; as a rite which, if thus performed in the wrong way, will have bad consequences for that community. 1347–1348

Paul assumed that his communities would have a common life in which prayer played a central role. In his world, communities which prayed together were bound together, and binding together was what religio meant and did. 1348–1349

In the final section Wright talks about Paul's view of God’s direction. Roman religions were focused on getting information about the future. Paul was concerned about the future but emphasized using the mind to know the scriptures and apply. The Spirit speaks and provides direction, but most often the Spirit's leading is more subtle and recognized in hindsight.

If Paul urged his hearers to learn how to think things through, to develop a wise Christian mind, it was something he had had to do himself. Certainly Luke has made no attempt to portray the apostolic mission in terms of constant ‘supernatural’ guidance, though that kind of ‘intervention’ does happen from time to time. 1350

He saw the scriptures as much more than a rag-bag of sayings and cryptic wisdom, ‘oracles’ waiting to be decoded and applied randomly to this or that situation. They told the story of the One God, his world and his people, in such a way (Paul believed) as to lead the eye not only up to Jesus but on beyond, all the way to the expanding apostolic mission. 1351

His conclusion to chapter 13 is that Paul and the early Christians saw what they were doing as a religion. But it was a very different religion. It was not designed to get things from God. Instead it focused on worship and generous service characterized by gratefulness and generosity, because God had already done everything needed through Jesus Christ. This served to bind the community together in fellowship and mission.

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