Tim Gombis on Paul

In this month’s Christianity Today, Tim Gombis has a fantastic article orienting us afresh to the apostle Paul. He calls our attention to several ways in which contemporary evangelicals need to keep having our reading of scripture recalibrated.

First, he challenges the common perception that at his conversion Paul left behind a legalistic Judaism in favor of a salvation-by-grace Christianity. This is a nice, short summary introduction to the New Perspective: Paul’s problem with Judaism wasn’t legalism, but ethnocentrism. But Paul himself remained a Jew and never called other Jews to leave their Judaism behind.

He then makes a point of showing that Paul’s message was as communal as Jesus’ own proclamation of the Kingdom of God. I agree with the point generally, though I might want to work it out a bit differently. Is Acts’ summary of Paul’s preaching as “kingdom of God” historically accurate? Perhaps, but I’m not entirely sure. I am sure, however, that the call to see our Christian identity as inherently communal is spot on, and timely.

The third point is one I would like to see him camp out more on (and maybe you can do it in the comments, Tim, if you’re reading!). He says that Paul shatters our expectations of a powerful, attractive leader. I agree.

So, what does this last point have to do with how we do (and should or shouldn’t) conceptualize leadership in the church today? Is there something normative in Paul’s self deprecation?

It’s a great, short article with lots of potential for stirring up further questions.

One thing that I didn’t see so much there was whether there might be something that holds all of these things together. If evangelicals have tended to misconstrue these various parts of Paul’s life and teaching, is it because these are small indicators of a larger problem of reading Paul aright?

My own perspective on that question is that several of these issues come into sharper focus when we recognize that the Christ event, as Jesus’ death and resurrection, is what we are joined to when we are joined to the body of Christ, by the Spirit, and thereby enter the people of God.

The question of law versus union with Christ provides a better in to Paul than legalism versus grace [full stop]. The reality of union with Christ means being part of the body, which is inherently communal–salvation is in Christ, where all the other saints are. Life in Christ is an enactment of the story of the crucified Christ–so leadership is not about slick talk, beautiful appearance, and obtaining power, but about embodying the folly of the cross.

If you can’t get enough Gombis on Paul, I commend to you Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed and The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God.

17 thoughts on “Tim Gombis on Paul”

  1. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Daniel.

    Now…aren’t you supposed to be on vacation at the moment? How does Laura feel about the continued blogging? :)

  2. Daniel, Thanks. Interesting your thought on Acts not reflecting Paul historically in regard to his preaching in terms of the kingdom of God. I’m not a subscriber to inerrancy, but I wonder what your thought is based on. But good thoughts here. Truth in old perspective I take it, but what really flows out of the text is what this new perspective is pointing out, by and large.

  3. Some good thoughts. I agree that these issues come into focus when we grasp onto something more concrete and central like the Christ event. So much of our modern evangelical beliefs are abstracted first leaving the relational issues to be further abstracted later (not unlike the liberal thought we so heartily reject).

    That’s why I think this is very related to the leadership issue as well. We create an abstract of what the leader should be based on certain “principles” before we discern the character of the person’s communal relationships. “Are they deeply rooted in Christ and bearing fruit relationally?” should preceed “Are they able to exude a positive image and present a compelling argument?”

  4. The online Christianity Today doesn’t have Gombis article!

    It looks to me that:

    According to Paul the Jews were not a saved people, that is, that being under law was not salvific. Whatever they thought they were doing – earning salvation by keeping the law, or doing the law out of gratitude, or whatever – they were under law and condemned by it. Their problem was not ethnocentricity but not being in Christ, just like the all the non-Christian gentiles. That is, in general, since there were Jews who were in Christ and still felt they should be under law. Paul’s answer to that was not that they were being ethnocentric but that if you were in Christ you were not under law any more. Paul expressed a preference for Jews to not practice the law, and did not want at all that they separate themselves from non Jewish Christians over law practices.

  5. davey,

    Keep in mind that for Paul being “under Law” has a specific meaning and shouldn’t necessarily be seen as the same as “continuing to observe the Torah via dietary laws, Sabbath observance, etc.” For Paul, those who are “under grace” are not “under Law” because they already do the things the Torah requires, whereas those “under Law” are those who do not adequately fulfill the Law and are thereby condemned by it. This is why Paul doesn’t tell Jews to abandon their prior traditions of Torah observance while simultaneously indicating that the observance of specific “works of the Law” are not the way one becomes righteous.

    1. Jason, your website gives something of your understanding of the relation of Jew and gentile, an interesting academic exercise with things in it certainly worth a read, but it doesn’t seem to me to be really plausible. Paul looks to me to be basically against Torah keeping even for Jews. If you are a Torah keeper, the ‘moral part’ of Torah condemns, whereas it doesn’t condemn if you are not (Christian ‘moral’ wrong doing is apparently something else).

      1. “The law was added on account of transgression.” For Paul, the Law is unneeded for those who are righteous, those who “love their neighbor as themselves.” It is only necessary as a constraint for those who need a “paidagogos,” those who have not been filled with the Spirit and thereby been made righteous. The Law was given for these people, to bring the knowledge of the sin that was already present within them and provide a constraint upon their passions.

        But for Paul those who are under Grace have no such need, since they have been made righteous. There is no need to “add” Law to those who already do the right things; it is only necessary to “add” Law for those who are already prone to do what it proscribes. For Paul, such people are not under Grace, or they would not be doing what the Law proscribes.

        1. Jason,

          Thanks, I think I misunderstood part of your position – about what you mean by it being ok for Christian Jews to keep Torah, which you mean to be the ‘non-moral’ bits, all tied up with God making promises to only ethnic Israel, who Christian gentiles are really. Nevertheless, it still seems to me Paul is against any Torah observance, and that the promises were not only to an ethnic Israel. But, in any case, I need to read more of your stuff!

  6. Thanks, Daniel, for giving this attention. I’m not sure when the online edition will appear, but hopefully soon!

    I think that the Kingdom of God is actually a larger theme in Paul’s theologizing, but he uses synonyms (New Humanity, “in Christ” used in a locative sense, “in the Spirit” used as a cosmic sphere, etc.) and draws out the concept in other ways. Again, we don’t have a Gospel from Paul, only highly occasional letters. Because of that, we know how Paul counsels and theologizes, but we don’t really have direct access to “his theology.” That’s why we have less “Kingdom” talk than we do. If he ever wrote in the abstract, I think we’d get far more of it. Of course, perhaps that’s me making Paul in my own image!

    All that to say, if we had a record of his close associate summarizing his preaching (and we do—Luke), and if his close associate summed up his preaching in just the way that he does (i.e., preaching the Kingdom), then it’s a good chance that when Paul preached and taught and ministered, that this was a profound and far-reaching theme for him.

    Regarding Luke’s “accuracy,” I guess I’m just happy to make the assertion that given all the hang-ups about historicity and accuracy, we do have the theologically-oriented summary of one of Paul’s close associates—Paul preached the Kingdom. By the way, I just wonder if Luke’s summary of Paul’s theology is in a sense more “accurate” than the witness that we have from Paul’s letters, given how contingent they are and how intentionally summative Luke is. Sometimes our friends know us better than we know ourselves.

    My target for the third point was the many ways in which evangelical leaders make Paul in their own image. I’ve heard an evangelist talk about Paul as the ultimate evangelist. Was he? I’ve heard a fundamentalist preacher talk about Paul as a militant separatist when it came to defending doctrinal purity. Really? A charismatic leader spoke of him as having the ability to lead a movement, be decisive, delegate, etc.

    The more you look at the evidence the more he emerges as probably odd-looking, withdrawn and not terribly sociable, and hard to hear if there was any background noise at all. He certainly wasn’t Billy Sunday!

    I’m not sure that these details of history—insofar as we can recover them—are normative. More fruitful would be Paul’s reflections on cruciform ministry throughout 2 Corinthians, especially chapter 4. Whatever the style of leadership in local assemblies, it must be, as you say, cruciform—embodiments of the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus might be manifested.

    1. And perhaps Luke wrote Hebrews as a summary od Paul’s synagogue preaching… That’s my current “side-issue” I’m working through. Even if not Luke, a co-worker summarizing A “Pauline gospel” taught in synagogue, maybe at Ephesus close to Luke’s home base?

    2. Tim, ISTM you’re wondering a very “good” wonder, here: By the way, I just wonder if Luke’s summary of Paul’s theology is in a sense more “accurate” than the witness that we have from Paul’s letters, given how contingent they are and how intentionally summative Luke is. Sometimes our friends know us better than we know ourselves.

        1. Yes, I do. Before our move eastward, I was a hospice chaplain. Most people don’t know their own stories’ shapes, must less how to interpret them in a way that brings peace to themselves & their loved ones at the end of this life. Very few folks can “listen” to their own lives well enough to discern God’s touch. Chaplains may help some. Luke wrote as if he listened well to people whose stories may not otherwise have been heard. A good “physician”, ISTM.

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