Tag Archives: Paul

To Story or Not to Story?

Englewood Review of Books has done me the great honor of reviewing Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?.

The reviewer wasn’t so sure about Jesus and the story of Israel.

Though this is surely an appealing narrative, it is troubled by one problem: Paul never uses it…

While I fully concur with Kirk that stories are necessary because they show and instruct rather than simply tell the truth that we are, indeed, caught up in a grand story, I am not so sure that it is a story so easily narrated.

I’ve replied in the comments section, and would invite you to head on over there to jump in and join the conversation:

One of the recurring issues in NT scholarship has to do with what has been dubbed an “apocalyptic” reading of Paul. Those who look to Ernst K√§semann and J. Louis Martyn as mentors tend in this direction. The point is something like this: God’s act in Christ is a radical in-breaking into the cosmos, not a development from within a continuous narrative.

…But there is an important point of push-back that has to be offered to this dichotomy, and is being offered in various venues; namely, that the dichotomy is a false one. (click here to read the rest)

If Ephesians Used Colossians…

I’m doing some digging about in Colossians these days, so you’ll probably find an unusual concentration of Colossians related throughts on the blog for the next few weeks.

One perennial question about Colossians is who wrote it. The letter speaks of church as a more universal entity than the localized communities we see in, say, the Corinthian correspondence. The letter seems to have a more realized eschatology (you are now raised with Christ) in contrast to the reserve evidenced in, say, Romans (we will also live with him).

And, Colossians seems to be a source for the writing of Ephesians, which shares much of the same material, theological bents, and interests. Ephesians is less widely accepted as Pauline than Colossians.

In reflecting on this use of Colossians by Ephesians, James Dunn suggests that the literary dependence is a slight mark on the “non-Pauline” side of the ledger for weighing who wrote Colossians. His argument: Colossians was a model for Ephesians of what a post-Pauline letter should look like.

But I’ve wondered if the use of Colossians by Ephesians doesn’t enter a mark on the other side of this great balancing act. If one was to choose a letter on which to model one’s one post-Pauline correspondence, wouldn’t one choose a letter that he thought to be from Paul’s own hand? If I wanted to further the thought of Paul by writing a Pauline letter, I would seek out the work of the master himself rather than the work of an apprentice.

There are lots of arguments for and against the authorship of various letters. But what do you think about this one? If someone copied Colossians as a model, to write a post-Pauline letter, does that indicate that the writer of Ephesians sees Colossians as Paul’s? or as a first, really strong effort to republish Paul’s thoughts under Paul’s own name?

Christ’s Insufficient Sufferings?

Previous ruminations on Colossians 1 have taken us through exercising faith while in Christ, believing as doing, Christ the image of God, and the need to participate in Jesus’ saving death through faith.

Jesus’ death reconciles all things. Which makes Paul’s statement at the end of the chapter all the more surprising:

Now I’m happy to be suffering for you. I’m completing what is missing from Christ’s sufferings with my body. I’m doing this for the sake of his body, which is the church. (Col 1:24, CEB)

Paul sees himself so intimately tied to God’s work of redeeming the world in Christ that his own sufferings are wrapped up into the saving death of Jesus. Later in this paragraph, he will say that he is completing the mystery of God by including the Gentiles in the people of God (Col 1:26). And in ch. 2 he will say that Christ himself is the mystery.

All of these pieces work together.

Christ is the mystery. His body is the global body of a reconciled humanity at one with God and purified in himself. The means by which this global mystery comes to revelation is Jesus’ own death and the subsequent ministry of Paul (and others).

Ministers are extensions of the saving work of Christ on the cross. The body of believers is an extension of the saving work of Christ on the cross. In the already/not yet eschatology of a world reconciled and being reconciled to God, the death of Jesus is both a one-off reconciling event and a saving reality that the church is called to extend in space and time.

Paul sees suffering as necessary because he sees a world that is not yet fully subject to the reigning Christ. The means of Christ’s attainment of glory must therefore be perpetuated among Christ’s ambassadors who are bringing that work to its culmination and fulfillment.

So long as there are people who do not know the message, so long as there are ministers taking it to new places, there will be people filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.

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.

A Flawed Gospel?

What does a flawed gospel look like? Dunn reads Paul like this:

What is so agonizing for Paul is that if Israel does not finally embrace the Christ, then his own gospel is flawed at its heart–the gospel of God’s righteousness, his free grace and faithfulness to the undeserving and ungodly; if it does not continue to Israel despite Israel’s unfaithfulness then it is not the gospel which he proclaims to all. (Romans 9-16, 532)

Paul and the Story of the Cross

When I start talking about the importance of the story of the cross as I did yesterday–that we are a cross people and that we know what the cross signifies because of the whole story in which it is found–I quickly bump up against the fact that most of the books of the New Testament are not stories.

So what happens to a storied faith, a storied identity, when we delve into hortatory letters?

We discover afresh that Paul doesn’t talk about the cross as we so often talk about it. Paul wants to place us in the middle of a cosmic narrative–and by “middle,” I don’t mean just that we are influenced by the crazy cosmic story of Jesus but that the church, in union with the crucified Christ, finds itself at the heart of everything.

Paul’s story of the cross is told by his own life, by his ministry, by his churches.

For Paul, the faithful are united to the crucified Christ.

For Paul, baptism unites to the crucified Christ.

For Paul, the Spirit is the clear demonstration and agent of participation in the crucified Christ.

And so to the Galatians, who think that they need to start observing Torah to be part of the people of God, Paul says, “… Before your eyes Jesus Christ was placarded as crucified. This is what I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the Law or by faithful hearing… Did you suffer so many things in vain?”

These connections are not incidental. To receive the story of Christ crucified is both to receive the Spirit and to being the earthly manifestation of co-crucifixion with Christ. Or, as Paul will put it clearly in Romans 8: to receive the Spirit of the Son, is to be co-heir with the son, if we suffer with him in order to then be glorified with him.

The test of Christian identity is the cross: the suffering of the people of God is their manifestation of their union with the suffering savior. We are the story that we preach. We are the cross people, Paul insists. This is our story, and the measure of our fidelity.

To be the cross people means that the defining markers of Christian identity are the cross, the crucified Christ, and all these entail.

Are we a people who have been united to Christ? Then an inseparable component of our Christian identity is unity–because there is one bread of communion in Christ’s death, we who are many are one body for we all partake of the one loaf.

Are we Christ’s? Then we must be one, and act as one body–because by one spirit we were all baptized into one body.

Is our message one of God’s power in crucifixion? Then pursuing power by the world’s economy of death, of attainment, of prestige is all rendered antithetical to the story of the church.

Is our message one of God’s wisdom in crucifixion? Then the world’s ways of wisdom–of prudence in exercise of force, of wisdom in the methods of growing large organizations, of attainment through doctoral level education at prestigious universities–will all be foolishness, in the end. These are not the measures of the Kingdom of God. Our story is the story of folly in the sight of the world. And we must live it.

For Paul, no less than for the Gospel writers, we are a people of the story. The story of God is, in fact, our story. It’s not ours in the sense that we own it, but in the sense that it is the story we are called to enact, the play we are called to perform.

We are cross people.

This is the story that makes me ambivalent about Osama. I believe in the God of justice. I believe in justice being realized on earth as an in-breaking, however small, of God’s glorious Kingdom.

I also know that taking up the sword against the unjust tyrants was precisely where the disciples wanted Jesus to act on their behalf, and where he refused. No, said Jesus, we are going to be a cross people. Follow me by taking up your cross.

Have faith in God–God will throw the mountain into the sea at the proper time of judgment.

Law in Romans: Promissory

I apologize for taking so long to get here. But when we talk about “Law,” we have to be clear what we’re saying (and not saying). What Paul says about the Law is a subset of what he says about, and how he reads, the rest of the scriptures of Israel. I take these to be his presuppositions:

  1. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the good news
  2. This good news is brought about by Israel’s God
  3. God promised to bring such good news to Israel
  4. These promises are found in Israel’s scriptures

This is little more than a restating of Romans 1:1-7. So, in brief reply to people’s vociferous reactions from earlier this week: No, what I’m about to lay out is not a supersessionist, replacement theology. It is a surprising redefinition of what it means to be faithful to the Law and scriptures of Israel.

There are problems with claiming that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s scriptures and the way of salvation–especially when ethnic Israel, by and large, is not receiving Jesus as God’s promised good news. But these are the problems Romans was written to answer.

The first thing to say is this: the purpose of the Law is to witness beyond itself to the coming Messiah. This means that the purpose of the Law was not ultimately either (a) to define the people of God; (b) provide the righteousness requisite for being acquitted as one of God’s faithful people; or (c) tell people what to do for all times and places.

The first indication of this is in the opening verses, where Paul says that the gospel concerning God’s son was prepromised in the scriptures. The stage is set, here, for scriptural references to be read as promissory.

This vein is worked out in several places of the letter:

In Rom 3, after stating the law will not justify any flesh, Paul situates the law with respect to his gospel: “But now, without law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, being witnessed to by the law and the prophets–the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ.”

The law and prophets witness to something beyond themselves: to the coming Christ as the revelation of God’s righteousness.

Similarly, Paul introduces Rom 4 with a statement that he establishes the law. He then goes on to depict the Abraham narrative as anticipating the Christ event in two crucial ways: as Jesus’ death provides for the justification of the ungodly, so too Abraham believed in the God who justifies the ungodly (4:5). And, in the second half of the chapter, the birth of Isaac is depicted as a resurrection–so that Abraham believes in the God who gives life to the dead. This anticipates our own justification as we believe in him who raised Jesus from the dead (4:22-25).

The Abraham narrative shows that the gospel of Christ establishes the Law because it depicts the promises to Abraham, and his justification, as anticipations of the work this same God does now, through Paul’s gospel.

This becomes Paul’s focus as he wrestles with the problem of Israel’s unbelief in chs. 9-10 as well.

At the end of chapter 9, the difference between Israel’s non-attainment of righteousness and the Gentile’s attainment of it has to do with Israel’s failure to read the Law as witness to Christ: “Not by faith, but as though by works–they stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, ‘Behold! I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and however believes in him shall not be disappointed.’”

Wrong use of the Law is failing to see it as an anticipation of the coming Christ.

Similarly, in the beginning of ch. 10, the problem with Israel’s pursuit of righteousness is that it did not use the law so as to arrive at Christ. They strove to attain their own righteousness rather than recognizing God’s righteousness which comes through Christ: “For Christ is the telos of the law, unto righteousness for all who believe” (10:4).

In a third pass at the same argument, Paul contrasts the self-referential idea of “doing” the Torah with the Christo-referential idea of the law as witness to the coming Christ.

Law-righteousness, he claims, says, “Whoever does these things will live by them.” Faith righteousness, however, sees in Torah a witness to the Christ event: “Do not say in your heart who will ascend into heaven–that is, to bring down the Messiah. Nor, who will descend into the abyss–that is, to raise the Messiah from the dead. What does it say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart; that is, the word of faith that we proclaim. That if you confess Jesus is Lord with your mouth and believe in your heart that God raised him from among the dead, you will be saved.”

In this, Paul rewrites Deut 30. No longer do those verses testify to the gift of the Law as the means of salvation, but to Christ as that means.

This is the first line of argument about the Law in Romans: that the purpose of the whole Torah is to bear witness to something beyond itself. It is a diachronic purpose. The law, correctly understood, has a centrifugal rather than centripetal force: it throws you outside of itself to the coming Christ.

Tomorrow we will take up a second line of argument: that the Law comes in in order to ensure that Israel, like everyone else, is recognizably sinful.