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A Christian case against Brexit

11/06/2016

My friend Joshua Searle, who is tutor in theology and public thought at Spurgeon’s College, London makes the case against Brexit in Christian Today ..

Here’s a clip or two – click on the link to read the whole article:

The EU is currently under a concerted attack by an unholy alliance of communists, hardline demagogues and neo-Nazi parties. Right-wing political parties and associations such as PEGIDA in Germany, UKIP in England, the National Front in France, and Geert Wilder’s neo-fascist, Islamophobic Party for Freedom in the Netherlands are on the rise. In Slovakia the ultra-nationalist fascist Marian Kotleba refers to foreigners and refugees as “parasites”. Kotleba, who despises the EU, has recently won a significant regional election in Slovakia. He was head of a banned neo-Nazi party which allegedly celebrates Adolf Hitler’s birthday and looks back nostalgically on the Nazi puppet state that ruled Slovakia during World War II.

Reuters: Marian Kotleba

I’m now afraid that these extremists are winning and that those of us who believe in solidarity, peace and reconciliation among the nations are going to lose. We are about to enter a new age in which nationalism triumphs over solidarity.

We might think that we are now living in a civilised world and that we can take peace for granted, but this would be a huge mistake. The EU does not get the credit it deserves for preserving peace among nations that for centuries before had been cutting each others’ throats.

I do not believe that the EU is free from the seduction of anti-Christian forces. But in the light of its role in facilitating peace and reconciliation in Europe, I would tentatively argue the EU was established in the providence of the “God of peace” in order to promote peace, security and the general welfare of the world. The EU offers a model of international solidarity and a bulwark against xenophobia, nationalism, fascism and racism.

…..

I do feel a Christian obligation to warn of the dire consequences that would ensue from a Brexit. Sir Edward Grey said almost exactly 100 years ago: “The lamps are going out all over Europe and we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” I’m afraid there is now a risk that we are about to enter another period of prolonged political and spiritual darkness in Europe.

There is a real danger that politicians are not spiritually equipped to grasp the cultural or geo-political consequences of withdrawing from the EU. Many Christians, too, do not have a proper understanding of the tectonic spiritual shifts that are taking place in the world.

I hope readers will at least consider carefully the case I’ve tried to make about why, from a Christian perspective, it is essential that solidarity and hope prevail over nationalism and fear.

Chris Wright on the Great Commission

16/05/2016

At Belfast Bible College, we had the pleasure and privilege of having Chris Wright speak at our Celebration of Studies last Friday and then at a half day conference on “The GREAT COMMISSION: what does it really include?”

 

Chris Wright @ BBCChris was exploring a biblical theology of mission, engaging along the way with contested ideas of mission, and criticisms of his own approach as outlined most fully of course in his magnum opus The Mission of God.

Some notes and observations of the half-day conference: – and these do not therefore represent exactly what Chris said but one person’s interpretation ..

Both terms ‘holistic mission’ and ‘missional’ are useful but both can easily become too anthropocentric – they revolve around ‘us’ and what we must do. They do not in and of themselves resolve the question of what ‘holistic’ and ‘missional’ actually mean – they mean different things to different people.

Based on the Great Commission of Mt 28, Chris unpacked some key themes. The Great Commission if framed within the lordship and presence of God. It is both cosmic (all of creation – See Eph 1:9-10 etc) and  Christocentric (based on the Messiah’s saving work).

Mission is God’s activity, not primarily ours. It has both a global scope and cosmic scope. The mission of the church needs to reflect the scope and size of God’s mission.

As a foundation for understanding mission, Chris went to the 5 marks of mission first articulated by the Anglican Communion in the 1980s / 90s. In brief they are:

  1. Evangelism (proclaim the good news of the kingdom)
  2. Teaching (teach, baptise and nurture new believers)
  3. Compassion (respond to human need by loving service)
  4. Justice (transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation)
  5. Creation care ( strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth)

All intrinsically flow from the Lordship of Christ

Chris broke these down into 3 themes that he unpacked in turn:

A. BUILDING THE CHURCH

Including 1 and 2: evangelism and teaching

1. Evangelism

Is a call for people to submit to the lordship of jesus. Gospelizing is proclamation of the good news. Mission work is telling the story of Jesus and its call for response of repentance and faith. Christians are to be baptised in the name of Jesus and are to follow him as Lord, not other gods or idols. The gospel of Jesus is at the heart of all Christian mission.

This is in contrast to some understandings of ‘holistic mission’ where it means everything else apart from evangelism. (see photo). Holistic mission should never be shorthand for social justice or other activity divorced from evangelism.

Neither should it be the case where “mission” becomes just one option in the buffet bar of Christian activity: some are into evangelism, others not .. Rather Chris was arguing for the centrality of the gospel as an integrating centre.

2. Teaching

A big obvious reality from Scripture is that teaching is part of the mission of God: Jesus is the Rabbi. Paul the teacher / missionary. The OT is one huge story of theological education (after Andrew Walls). A unravelling teaching programme about God, ethics, identity, holiness, faith, covenant, creation and so on that forms an indispensable platform for understanding the significance of the NT.

[I like to see the whole NT as theological reflection on the OT in light of Jesus]

Chris linked to Paul and Apollos: BOTH were vital in the mission of God. Paul is the evangelist / church planter, Apollos is the teacher. Both are about mission work and extending the lordship of Christ in the world. Therefore both evangelism and teaching are part of the Great Commission

(including theological education – the challenge for theological education is to ask how much is it intrinsically missional?;  how are teaching and modules serving God’s mission in the world?)

For Pastors, weekly preaching is part of the Great Commission. It is not some sort of ‘secondary’ task to mission / evangelism.

This does NOT diminish the necessity of global cross cultural mission .. but traditional ‘mission work’ does not summarise or represent the true scope of the Great Commission.

B. SERVING SOCIETY: COMPASSION AND JUSTICE

Chris put compassion and justice under the heading of ‘Serving Society’.

To the objection that “Is this really part of the Great Commission?” he argued how each is naturally linked to the Lordship of Christ. Jesus commands and actions to show compassion on the poor only echoes texts like Deut.10.12-19 and God’s desire for compassion and justice. When God is “godding’ – he is by default with the weak poor and needy. This is who God is and what he does. Likewise, Jesus’ in Matthew describes what true obedience to God looks like – and it is not to neglect the weighty matters of the Torah – issues like justice (see Micah 6.8). His disciples are to be “the light of the world” – meaning people whose attractive deeds shine with goodness and mercy. Like in Isaiah 58:7-8 where light is good deeds done in the name of the Lord. Just as Israel was to be a nation of light and justice, so Jesus’ new community of the kingdom is to be a renewed community of the King – the light of the world.

Such integration of discipleship and acts of compassion and justice are woven though Acts – there was no needy person among them (Acts 4:32-38)

Chris made the often overlooked point here that Paul & Barnabas’s first missionary journey was, contrary to popular assumptions, actually the famine relief visit to Judea as told in Acts 11. Perhaps overlooked because it did not ‘fit’ the popular understanding of ‘mission’ as overseas evangelistic work.

And in a very strong echo of what Bruce Longenecker has exhaustively researched and I posted about here, Chris argued that the ‘remember the poor’ of Galatians 2 is no side issue within Paul’s theology and life. Actually, it is talked about more by Paul than justification by faith. Economic concern for those in need is an integral part of his mission and therefore the Great Commission.

C. CARING FOR CREATION

The third theme of the Great Commission from Mt 28, Chris proposed, is that Jesus is Lord of heaven on earth. This global / cosmic reign of Christ is seen in Colossians 1 where the death of Christ on the cross has a cosmic dimension:

19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

It’s here, Chris said, that evangelicals above all people should be able to integrate things. They are by definition people passionate about Jesus,  the cross and the atonement – and should be able to affirm how this saving work of God has universal dimensions. Put another way, discipleship talked about in the Great Commission has the context of being worked out within a creation that God is going to redeem. This has implications for how discipleship is understood.

Evangelicals need a better doctrine of creation. And here Chris linked to familiar texts such as Is 65, Revelation 21-22; Romans 8; Colossians 1. God’s agenda is one of redemption, rescue, restoration – not of destruction or obliteration of the earth. The end game is a new heavens and earth; the New Jerusalem and God’s presence coming down to earth. The creation has a future ..

This all means that our best view of creation is as tenants – with temporary stewardship responsibilities. Creation care now is prophetic action foreshadowing God’s restoration of creation to come. Creation care – a career in the sciences, in environmental work etc – is a legitimate and valued calling of the Great Commission.

CONCLUSION

‘Mission’ is not done only by missionaries. All of God’s people are to be involved in the mission of God. There is a profound and damaging dualism in much traditional evangelical theology of mission where there is a dichotomy between those who do mission and those who do not. A better way to see things is the church as a body of people who are all on mission, with some at work overseas.

Just as the mission of God is broad in scope, so not everyone can do everything. Some will be missionaries and evangelists, some in creation care, some teachers and preachers, some working for justice and serving those in need.This is not to revert to the ‘buffet bar’ or ‘bag or marbles’ approach to mission where only some do evangelism and others do justice – the lordship of Jesus must be at the centre of all Christian life and witness.

Chris linked to Lesslie Newbigin here in mission best being understood as dimension of the church not as a specific task of the church. In other words, the church exists in mission; and within that existence are many expressions of mission. Just like within Science there are many expressions of the scientific enterprise; or similarly within the Arts.

So, how does this broad framework for understanding the mission of God help you think about your life and work – whatever it is that you do?

Do you find this liberating from old-style dualisms between the sacred and secular?

What do you see as potential weaknesses or dangers of this broad understanding of the Mission of God?

And, reflecting on this more, I wonder if certain jobs ‘fit’ more easily within the 5 marks of mission than others? Chris argued that those at all sorts of work are routinely engaged in ethics and issues that call for justice, truth and rightness and their calling needs to be seen as vocational within the mission of God, just as much as any missionary or pastor involved in ‘spiritual’ work. I agree with this – but do the 5 marks of mission [summarised under ‘Church work’, ‘serving society’ and ‘caring for creation’] still leave out most types of work that most people do day to day?

Yes, if you are a teacher, nurse, counsellor, carer, religious worker, environmental consultant – your work can fairly easily fit in the 3 themes. But I am not sure they really make space for someone working in IT, or accountancy, or business who are not doing church related stuff, nor caring for others pastorally or focused on looking after creation.  I guess I wonder if ‘serving society’ needs to move beyond a pastoral focus, to include bringing positive benefit to society – like creating jobs, giving the opportunity for the dignity of work, training people to develop in life skills and experience and so on.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Paul and the Christian life (7) N T Wright an anabaptist at heart?

07/05/2016

The final chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective is by a certain N T Wright and it’s called ‘Paul and Missional Hermeneutics’.

9780801049767Just to reiterate the context of this discussion: the big question of this book is how does Paul the Jew – now a follower of Jesus the Messiah – envision a life pleasing to God? How does he see the relationship with Jewish belief and practice of his day [shaped around the Torah] and what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to live a life worthy of the gospel? What are the implications of these questions for living the Christian life in the 21st century?

Now what on earth new can Wright say about Paul after his colossal 2 volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG). Well, in this short piece he reflects on themes arising from the PFG and, as with pretty well everything he pens, it is engaging, thought-provoking and enjoyable prose.

The term ‘missional hermeneutics’ is a nifty one: it relates to both Paul’s identity and task. He’s a missionary who is doing hermeneutics – thinking, praying and writing in dialogue with the Scriptures of Israel in light of his missionary task. So tightly are these two aspects woven together, Wright says that “we may say that Paul’s mission was hermeneutical and that his hermeneutics were missional.”

And it’s Paul’s missional hermeneutics that Wright focuses on here. He thinks it a useful phrase for three reasons:

  1. Christian hope: where Scripture is read through the a new creation lens – a new-creational horizon – and this frames the missionary task within the larger ‘mission of God’.
  2. It ties in to how the authority of Scripture works – the authority of God that “gets things done” – that is much more about transformative action than abstract answers to tricky theological problems. What Wright calls a “more dynamic hermeneutic” which forms missional communities.
  3. The nature of the NT representing documents written “to build up and energize the church to be God’s people in God’s world, living between Jesus’s resurrection and the final renewal.” Where the primary task of mission is served by theology and not the other way around. Thus Wright’s central argument in the PFG in his own words is

The central argument is that we should understand how Paul invented Christian theology in the first place or, to be more specific, how Paul was teaching his communities the vocational task of learning to work with Scripture in hand, prayer as the energy, Jesus as the focus, the church as the matrix, and God’s future as the goal. (182)

And so a consistent core concern in the NT is that the church would live up to its calling and task to ‘be who they are’ – the holy people of God. Where the church would embody a previously unimagined body politic in the ancient world.

But, Wright here acknowledges a puzzle (or maybe a puzzling silence would capture it better) – there is just not much said about the task of this new church body to ‘do mission’ in the ancient world. It’s not there in Paul however much Wright says he wishes it were.

I grew up in churches which assumed that the early church was always being encouraged to “do mission” in some way or another, because that’s what we were all trying to do, usually in the Platonic form I mentioned earlier. We were all supposed to be telling our neighbors about Jesus; and it was assumed that the early church did that as well. But Paul, perhaps to our surprise, gives us no direct warrant for that. (182-3)

Of much more prominence is the Pauline call for the church to be two things – united (across all boundaries) and holy (living lives worthy of the gospel).

So what is mission? How is it enacted in the world?

Wright has come to the view that it is primarily achieved in and through the church living up to this dual calling – “a united and holy community in the Messiah”. A sign to the world; a challenge to the powers and principalities; a new way of being human, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.A way of life that can face the reality and pain of suffering incurred by violent rejection by the world.

And, it is by looking at the church that the world will “see the lordship of Jesus at work”.

Wright goes to Philippians 2:1-18 as the closest place where Paul talks of the missional task of the church.  See 2:14-16

There must be no grumbling and disputing in anything you do. That way, nobody will be able to fault you, and you’ll be pure and spotless children of God in the middle of a twisted and depraved generation. You are to shine among them like lights in the world, clinging to the word of life. That’s what I will be proud of on the day of the Messiah. It will prove that I didn’t run a useless race, or work to no purpose.

And Wright sums up what’s going on here like this:

When we stand back for a moment from the whole passage, what do we see? Obviously, the poem of verses 6–11 is one of the most striking christological and also theological statements in all Christian literature. It embodies the missional hermeneutic Paul is expounding, drawing together the great strands of Scripture, from Adam to the Servant, focusing them on Jesus and his shameful death, then broadening out, just as the Servant Songs themselves do, to embrace the world, and thereby celebrating Jesus as its rightful sovereign. And in the context of Philippians, the meaning for a missional hermeneutic is clear. The dark world in which the church must shine like the stars through unity, holiness, and suffering is the world which Caesar claims for his own. (186-7)

And what is going on here in Philippians is just a specific example of his missional hermeneutic that shapes his overall reading of Scripture

Let me take a step back to look at Paul’s overall missional reading of Scripture. The allusions to Isaiah, to Exodus, and to many other passages are not mere random gestures toward a distant text assumed to be authoritative. They fall within an implicit narrative upon which Paul draws at various points. It is precisely, in his hands, a missional narrative: the story of how the creator God called a people through whom he would undo the plight of the world, and of the human race, rescuing the creation rather than abandoning it. This story runs from Genesis to Exodus and on, with highlights such as the close of Deuteronomy and the promises to David and the shocking fact of covenant disloyalty and subsequent exile, and the strange, unfulfilled promises of a glorious return, of God overthrowing the pagans and coming back to Zion to be king, of covenant renewed and creation renewed. (187)

This is Wright’s own pithy summary of his narrative reading of Paul. He freely acknowledges that some reject or struggle with interpreting Paul this way.

One is the still powerful “older Protestant narrative of sinful humans, Jesus as substitute, and heaven after all” – which while capturing elements of Paul’s theology fails to put it in proper narrative context and struggles to embrace the idea of the kingdom coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.

Another is a sort of postmodern critique that sees only an ecclesial power trip at work in such a narrative – where the church as God’s people are the ultimate winners. But, Wright, contends, this is a long way from Paul whose vision for the church is as a suffering community of powerlessness, to be characterised by kingdom-of-God-living, not triumphalism or neo-imperialism.

The Christian life, or ethic, is about living in light of this narrative of new creation. And the church is the spearhead of this missiological task.

All this sounds really quite anabaptist to me – the missionary task of the church is “to be the church” in the world. Mission begins at home – in a Spirit-filled alternative community of love and worship in which ethnic, gender and socio-economic boundaries are overcome. The church’s job is not to control or change the world externally, but be a new creation within the old.

Which makes me recall when Wright spoke in Dublin a few years ago. In the  Q&A I asked him if he was an anabaptist in disguise, which I think he found quite amusing. Despite his rejection of that label then and I guess now, I still think his reading of the NT heads pretty strongly in that direction.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Paul and the Christian life (6) Tara Beth Leach

02/05/2016

The penultimate chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective is by Tara Beth Leach on ‘A Symphonic Melody: Wesleyan-Holiness Theology meets New-Perspective Paul’

9780801049767Just to reiterate the context of this discussion: the big question of this book is how does Paul the Jew – now a follower of Jesus the Messiah – envision a life pleasing to God? How does he see the relationship with Jewish belief and practice of his day [shaped around the Torah] and what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to live a life worthy of the gospel? What are the implications of these questions for living the Christian life in the 21st century?

This angle is an interesting one – Wesley’s concern for holiness – entire or perfect sanctification worked out in a Christian life motivated by pure love for God – immediately makes connections to themes within the NPP.

We’ve seen consistently in chapters so far common strands emerging: – ecclesiology across all boundaries, a new community marked by love, the role of the Spirit in creating and empowering believers to live the Christian life; a theology shaped by a radical and revolutionary new interpretation of the biblical narrative in light of the Apostle’s own experience.

Beth Leach sketches the contours of Wesley’s theology of original sin, prevenient grace, justification, sanctification, holiness and love. The discussion reminds how classically Reformed Wesley’s theology of justification is – leave out prevenient grace and there is no real gap here between the Arminian and Calvinist takes on Paul. Our works cannot save us; we are under the judgement of the law; faith is the only condition for justification, an act of God’s grace in Jesus Christ through whom sin is atoned for and the sinner declared righteous.

The distinctive emphasis of Wesley was how he tied justification together with the necessity and possibility of a radically transformed Christian life. It was not only guilt that is dealt with in Christ, it is also the power of sin. And so Wesley developed his – how would you put it? – positive? optimistic? confident? unrealistic? Pauline? – theology of the Christian life. A theology that taught and expected a life of holiness and love, empowered by the Spirit and marked by changed desires and priorities within.

I’ll put my cards on the table here and say, whatever you might think of Wesley’s version of a ‘two-stage’ reception of the Spirit (fine to have an Aldersgate experience but just don’t force a personal experience into a theological grid to impose on others), his passion, desire and conviction that God is in the business of spiritual renewal and change is far closer to Paul than a theology that one that talks a lot about being ‘saved’ and yet has little expectation of the power and presence of God in the subsequent Christian life.

Beth Leach maps Wesley’s holiness theology onto Paul’s vision for the Christian life, emphasising the latter’s corporate context. Her chapter doesn’t get into critical analysis of Wesley or the contemporary holiness movement, but she hints at the major problem within holiness spirituality and within Old Perspective soteriology – that of individualism. (I’d like to have heard a response to the criticism that Wesley mirrors the Old Perspective tendency to individualism, flowing out of an overly dominant justification theology that tends to flatten Paul’s wider narrative framework). The challenge for both is the Apostle’s call to what she terms a ‘Symphonic Melody’ – where it is only together that the orchestra can play beautiful music, each member needs the other. She concludes this way ..

Beethoven did not write his Overture from Egmont with one instrument in mind, but he also didn’t create it so that every instrument would sound exactly the same. Beethoven wrote the symphony with all the instruments in mind and for each instrument to shine in its unique way …. The beauty of music happens when the ensemble comes together in one unifying voice. In the very same way, our Creator and King did not create the redemptive narrative with one person in mind, but the goal has always been for a holy people. The beauty of it all is when the people gather as one voice; this is when holiness happens.(177-8)

Amen to that lovely image.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Paul and the Christian Life (5) Scot McKnight ‘ecclesial life’

01/05/2016

Scot McKnight’s chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective is on ‘the Ecclesial Life’. 

9780801049767Just to reiterate the context of this discussion: the big question of this book is how does Paul the Jew – now a follower of Jesus the Messiah – envision a life pleasing to God? How does he see the relationship with Jewish belief and practice of his day [shaped around the Torah] and what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to live a life worthy of the gospel? What are the implications of these questions for living the Christian life in the 21st century?

Scot hones in on how deeply and profoundly Paul’s vision for the Christian life is a corporate one. He’s come at this angle through his Kingdom Conspiracy where he ties kingdom and church together more tightly than many, influenced by George Eldon Ladd’s kingdom as God’s dynamic rule, have been used to.

His agenda is to convince that Paul’s vision for the Christian life is one that needs to be recaptured and re-imagined by the church (the American church in particular is Scot’s focus). Why? Because American evangelicalism he argues has been thoroughly conditioned by the ‘old perspective’ – which despite strengths has led to some damaging distortions. Scot puts it like this;

The download for the American church about the old perspective’s approach to Paul entails these elements: Judaism at the time of Jesus and Paul was a legalistic, works-righteousness religion; the God of the New Testament is a God of free grace, and we cannot earn our way with God since salvation is a gift; all humans are in need of grace and salvation, which come to us through Christ’s obedient life and sacrificial death; and the gospel relieves the existential crisis of guilt for the one who ceases striving and comes to rest in God’s all-sufficent grace. Some old perspectivists see the ultimate and universal triumph of grace, but they are still more or less operating out of an old perspective on Judaism and Paul. (127-8)

The implications of this framework for understanding the Christian life are these says Scot:

  • an individualistic understanding of Christian living (an Augustinian anthropology)
  • personal redemption, happiness now and eternal life when we die
  • living out of grace not works
  • mission is getting people saved
  • social justice tended to be secondary
  • ecclesiology tended to be an add on
  • an inherently supersessionistic approach to the OT and Judaism

The NPP starts at a different place. For Scot it goes like this:

  • Paul is not set over against Judaism – he is still a Jew (Acts 23:6) – a Jewish Christian / Christian Jew
  • He is articulating a re-framed theology of God’s people – Israel expanded to include Gentiles (he has a good conversation here about what is supersessionism – in some sense all Christianity is)
  • The focus of the NPP is primarily ecclesial, the Old Perspective was primarily soteriological
  • The conflict, for Paul, is one vision of Judaism (narrow, exclusive) over against another vision of Judaism (broad, radically inclusive) as that which fulfils and expressed the saving purposes of God.
  • Justification is not an accusation against Judaism’s works righteousness, but an inclusive framework that embraces all who have faith in Christ

Scot sketches a third alternative, advanced by Mark Nanos and others, that really what is going on with Paul is a developing theology for Gentiles. Where the Torah continues to apply in full for Jewish followers of Jesus, but is adapted and toned down for Gentiles: a sort of two covenant process. Many of Paul’s letters do not apply to Jewish Christians – they are for Gentiles. The contrast with the Old Perspective could hardly be more stark:

It doesn’t take genius insight to see that the post–new perspective has nearly turned the old perspective inside out and upside down. Instead of a law that had to be abrogated, we have a law that has to be followed (by Jewish and gentile believers); there is no thought here of a works righteousness but of a grace-shaped election formed through a covenant God made with Israel, and the whole Christian life is about the Torah and, for gentile believers, Paul’s teaching about how gentiles who are not given the Torah are to live. (136)

But Scot’s position is that the NPP is more historically accurate to what the NT teaches in light of a better understanding of first century Judaism. And that Paul’s over-riding concern was a theological and exegetical interpretation of the OT in light of Christ that grounds the people of God, Jew and Gentile, as the seed of Abraham.

The force of Paul’s radical vision is felt by gaining a glimpse of the highly stratified social hierarchies of the 1st century: Scot references the work of Peter Oakes on Pompeii, Richard Ascough et al on associations in the Greco-Roman world. Where hierarchy, status, reputation, gender, political connections – these were the lifeblood of Empire – and the small but proliferating Christian groupings (the ekklesia) were a political and spiritual threat to the established order.

It is Paul’s ecclesial ‘obsession’ that shapes his practice – the church is the locus of God’s mission –  texts used here are Colossians and Ephesians. This is light years away for so much individualistic and egocentric evangelical spirituality. It is also, Scot points out, a challenge to the segregated American church.

I wish here to say the really important thing: there is virtually nothing about inner spirituality, about personal spiritual formation, about individual transformation, or about everything that shapes so much of how we teach the Christian life in the American church. Of course, Paul expects them to be transformed and to get sanitized from the ways of Rome, but his focus is so ecclesial that all things individual are folded into God’s mission to form a new kind of community, the ecclesia. I want that to be emphasized: for Paul the church comes first, and the individual’s Christian life is part of the growth and sanctification of the local church. I don’t think Paul’s vision entailed getting individuals sanctified and therefore improving the church. It was groupthink before personthink. It was We before Me. (144)

And, as with many of the other writers in the book, Scot shifts to the Spirit as the origin and empowerer of this ecclesial vision. And this is not an inward pietistic my intimacy with God sort of spirituality – it is robustly other focused, within a risky boundary breaking community of ‘differents’.

And this is why love is at the core of the Spirit’s work and Paul’s understanding of the Christian life. See Gal. 5:6; 5:14; 5:22; 1 Cor 16:14; Col 3:14.The only way the church can work, the only way the Christian life can work, is through love. Scot closes with a brief 4 fourfold definition of love:

1. Love is rugged commitment – God’s covenant love. ‘Love decides in advance to be committed to someone whoever they are.’

2. Love is being ‘with’ someone: God commits to be with his people – in the wilderness and later in the incarnation and in the future in the new creation.

3. Love is advocacy for a person: ‘I will be their God and they will be my people’

4. Love is transformative – for the person’s good: God’s agenda is a holy loving people, fit for his kingdom.

Such love is often demanding and hard; it calls us to love those deeply unlike us. And it is, Scot concludes, in that fellowship of love that we learn to live the Christian life.

Paul and the Christian life (4) Lynn Cohick

27/04/2016

Continuing posing through The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective leads to a chapter by Lynn Cohick of Wheaton College called ‘The New Perspective and the Christian Life in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians’.

9780801049767Just to reiterate the context of this discussion: the big question of this book is how does Paul the Jew – now a follower of Jesus the Messiah – envision a life pleasing to God? How does he see the relationship with Jewish belief and practice of his day [shaped around the Torah] and what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to live a life worthy of the gospel? What are the implications of these questions for living the Christian life in the 21st century?

The lens into these questions for Cohick is Ephesians. She begins by contending that while the sins forgiven aspect of Paul’s gospel has been front and centre, the communal and transformational flip-side of his gospel has been muted within the church.

She summarises the fruit of NPP on Judaism as highlighting how

“a Jew’s faithfulness to God’s law did not earn him or her salvation; rather this obedience represented the correct response to God’s election or call.”

This was a fusion of ethnic, religious, cultural and political identity with Judaism of Paul’s day – expressed in various ways among sects like the Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, Sadducees etc. And in this, she argues, Jews were quite typical of other religious identities of the ancient world.

In Ephesians, there is not a contrast between the narrow, ethnocentric, legalistic Jewish identity as opposed to the abstract, neutral and broad Gentile identity. The disaster within Christian anti-Jewish rhetoric is where the ‘Jew’ “who represents the pride and arrogance that plague humanity.” The benefit of the NPP is that it has demonstrated that Jews of the first century were no more arrogant than humanity in general and can’t be used as a foil for the ‘humble’ Christian who accepts God’s grace.

The better way to see things is how Gentiles and Jews both have identities: ethnic, cultural, religious, political. Paul is rejecting Gentile idolatry, but also any Jewish claim that Torah obedience carries special weight and that it should be adopted by Gentiles. Cohick puts it this way:

Paul theologically shifts the doing of the (ritual and cultic) law from a universal mandate for God’s people to a sociological category representing a cultural display expressing Jewish heritage. The Jewish believers continue to practice their heritage but must refrain from insisting that gentile believers within the same community embrace Jewish cultural practices.

Reading Ephesians via a NPP lens, Cohick contends, rightly highlights how the ‘Gentile question’ is the driver behind the letter’s ecclesiology: there is a profound ‘recalibration’ going on about who now are the holy people of God. Gentiles have become recipients of the Spirit. Their inclusion is a sign of the universal ‘power of the cross to make all believers new.’

2:14 is a revolutionary statement in the ancient world – one new humanity, within one body, through the death of the Jewish Messiah (2:16). Both Jews and Gentiles are adopted into God’s family through faith in Christ (1:15) and both remain Jews and Gentiles. This new humanity foreshadows the inheritance to come in the new heavens and earth – a humanity of diversity and unity. The shocking and radical inclusion of the Gentiles is for Paul a deep mystery (3:6).

Until that eschatological new creation, the present age is ruled by powers and authorities opposed to the work of God (2:2)

The gospel challenges the spiritual rulers and principalities that keep their power in part because they separate and destroy; they “build” hatred between peoples rather than tear down dividing walls of hostility. The peace these rulers promote is pacification of the weak by the strong. This is not the peace of Christ, which brings together all members of his body in love.

The response is for God’s people to put on the armour of God – this is apocalyptic language and imagery, but the method of warfare is respect, generosity, forgiveness, faith and so on not aggressive, triumphalistic posturing.

Paul frames his injunctions to practice forgiveness with his conviction that spiritual evil forces rampage about the world, wreaking havoc and su!ering. Humans are victims of such powerful evil. Paul asks the community to put on their “new self” that is fitted for godly behavior that imitates God and walks as Christ walked (Eph. 5:1–2). This new humanity, Jew and gentile, one in Christ, by its very existence declares ultimate victory over sin and death, and life eternal in the new heavens and new earth for all who call upon the name of the Lord.

Cohick offers some interesting observations on the contemporary relevance of the inclusion of the Gentiles is in the ‘nonprivileging of status’ of whatever sort – even that of Western theological traditions, now a minority voice within the global church.

The “we” of the American churches needs the “you” of the global South and the Asian churches. The “we” of Paul and his Jewish compatriots is not a “we” of dominance, of paternalism, of superiority; it is a “we” of chronological experience of God’s revealed truth.

And she expands on this contemporary application

Today in most US churches, it takes daily diligence to resist the siren call of consumerism, nationalism, and individualism and to embrace fewer material goods and more global church identity. Paul’s kinship language would be a good place to start in renewing our minds and thus our practices and pocketbooks. A goal would be an ethnically and racially integrated local church experience, one that does not privilege one ethnic or racial approach over another. A baby step in this direction might be partnerships between currently homogeneous churches within a city. The danger here is that the wealthier church might call the shots or imagine itself as the “senior partner” of the pair. This same temptation exists when an American church partners with a church in the global South. Paul’s call to be one body requires tremendous restraint of will in the relinquishing of control by the dominant group and the intentional empowering of the least of those in its midst.

Ethnic boundaries broken; radically different attitudes between identities forged in opposition to each other; equality and humility as identities are relativised; a new humanity marked by the Spirit, existing as a powerful alternative to the world; peace, unity and shalom – it is this sort of focus and insight that flows from a NPP reading of the text.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul and the Christian life (3) Timothy Gombis

26/04/2016

Another rich chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective is by Timothy Gombis of Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. (His Paul: a guide for the Perplexed is excellent by the way).

9780801049767Just to reiterate the context of this discussion: the big question of this book is how does Paul the Jew – now a follower of Jesus the Messiah – envision a life pleasing to God? How does he see the relationship with Jewish belief and practice of his day [shaped around the Torah] and what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to live a life worthy of the gospel? What are the implications of these questions for living the Christian life in the 21st century?

Gombis’ essay is called ‘Participation in the New Creation People of God in Christ by the Spirit’

He comes at the issues via two angles: first, how, for Paul, the Christian life is situated and framed by the overarching narrative of Scripture; second the dynamic of the Christian life originates and is sustained by the Spirit.

Narrative:

Gombis summarises the biblical storyline up to the coming of the Messiah like this:

The Scriptures, therefore, present a scenario in which “salvation” must take place. Israel needs to be restored to God so that the nations of the world can be reclaimed and taught to worship the God of Israel. And this is necessary so that the God of Israel can truly be seen as the creator God—the one true God whose glory fills the entire creation. God’s work of salvation will be complete only when the state of affairs ruined by Adam and Eve has been restored—humans worshiping God by imaging him throughout the whole of creation. Looking ahead, this narrative trajectory shapes how Paul conceives of the Christian life, both its theological orientation (restoration of worship) and its direction toward others (restoration of communal relations)

Jesus comes (dramatically) to be understood by Paul as the centre and fulfillment of this Scriptural narrative. Christology is at the heart of Paul’s entire theological vision.

Jesus is the true human who renders to the creator God a faithful obedience embodied by a life of self-giving love for others. Jesus Christ, then, and his relation to the entire range of God’s redemptive purposes, becomes the context within which the Christian life takes place and the template for what it involves.

  • Jesus redeems the failed story of Adam and Eve.
  • Jesus is the true seed of Abraham
  • Jesus is the true Israelite who, uniquely, fulfils Israel’s vocation to be al ight to the nations and source of blessing to the nations
  • Jesus’ self-giving life of love forms the model for the Christian life
  • Jesus’ presence fills each church community through the pouring out of his Spirit. These communities are empowered to be a new humanity (Eph 4:24)

The big point Gombis is making here is that a NT vision of the Christian life does not emerge out of nowhere – it is fully consistent with God’s agenda to redeem and restore (save) his original creation order.

And the Christian life is lived out in community – the new body, the body of Messiah Jesus. The paradigm shift here is that it is made up of both faithful Israelites and faithful non-Israelites.

Spirit

It is the Spirit who unites believers to Christ – in his death and resurrection. Gombis sketches three ways the Spirit and the Christian life are linked for Paul:

First, the Spirit is the promised eschatological presence of God among his people. The new age has come, the kingdom of God is here and evident within his people who are new creations in Christ.

Second, churches are made up of individuals baptized into Christ, united to him, where the very presence of God dwells. See church as temple here (1 Cor 3:16-17)

Third, since churches are made up of people united to Christ, they are united to each other (the body of Christ) – members of one another (Eph 4:15).

How then to describe the Christian life? Gombis puts it corporate language that challenges popular Protestant individualist soteriology:

The Christian life is participation in the new creation people of God, the church, made up of all people in Christ … Paul’s conception of the
Christian life cannot be extricated from his vision of the church. In fact, while much of Protestant theology has focused on the individual in abstraction from the church, we can say quite confidently that Paul would have almost nothing to say about the Christian life if he had to speak of it apart from the church.

And this

Paul’s conception of being Christian is thoroughly wrapped up in and
shaped by the communal experience of being the corporate people of God. At the same time, Paul doesn’t diminish the individual in favor of the community, so it may be better to say that Paul conceives of individuals-in-community. This runs counter to the typical Protestant starting point of the individual as the recipient of salvation and the object in whom God is producing the character of Christ through sanctification. That is, it is somewhat typical to conceive of salvation as worked out in individuals who then must also reckon themselves part of a church made up of other individuals who are also having salvation worked out in them. This theological perspective comes not from Paul’s texts, however, but from a Western tradition shaped by individualism.

All this means that the idea of the Christian life being one where the lone individual ‘lives out’ his or her own choices is a modern creation. For Paul, the Christian life is communal through and through. Believers are bound together so much so that the Apostle’s aim in writing his letters is always that they, as individuals-in-community  “participate in community life to reflect the reality that they are communities of the kingdom of God.”

And it is modern individualism that has shaped popular interpretation of Paul’s teaching on life in the Spirit. The ‘Flesh’ and ‘Spirit’ contrast of Galatians 5 is not some internal individual struggle but two competing realms of power. The command to be ‘filled by the Spirit’ in Ephesians 5:18 is not to individuals but to the corporate body of the church.

The ‘shape’ of this corporate life is cruciformity. The letters of Paul are not detailed templates of ethics, but are better understood as exhortations and encouragements to live a certain way – the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, the way of self-giving love (Phil 2:5-11)

The consequence or fruit of such a life is unity. And this is where the New Perspective kicks in as a useful corrective to Protestant individualism. Gombis says

Protestant, and especially Reformed, interpreters bristle at the suggestion that Paul employs the notion of justification by faith in an effort to unify Jewish and gentile Christians in Rome. When one follows the grammar of Paul’s argument, however, it is difficult to deny that this is what Paul is doing. He writes to a church (or network of churches) in Rome to unify them in the face of developing division. He argues in Romans 1:18–3:20 that all those in the Roman churches were equally condemned under sin—not just gentiles—and in 3:21–31 Paul claims that all Christians have been justified by faith without any reference to ethnic identity.

Justification by faith is vital for Paul, but it functions as a doctrine for the unity of the church, vindicating the saving and redeeming purposes of God.

‘Unity’ means concrete things – loving one another; treating the poor with dignity and respect (1 Cor 11); forgiveness; carrying each other’s burdens; mutual care and multiple similar examples.

And it is the Spirit who empowers Christians to live such a life. Gombis makes an interesting point here relating back to the New Perspective and criticisms of it by some Reformed scholars worried that it somehow imports our ‘works’ into individual salvation

The Christian life as the participation (along with others in Christ) in
God and thus enjoyment of divine empowerment ought to relieve Protestant concerns about potential anthropological optimism. That is, many have objected to a “new perspective” approach to Paul on the grounds that it does not share a critique of works and works of law that reflects the complete inability of humans to adequately obey God or the Mosaic law. We may admit that Paul is not necessarily optimistic about humanity, but he is also not reticent about the necessity of all humanity to obey the one true God revealed in Jesus Christ. This is likely because he discerns the reality that all those who obey God in Christ can do so only because of the divine empowerment enjoyed by all those who have been united to Christ by the Spirit.

I agree with him – too much popular Protestant spirituality is shaped by an overly-pessimistic view of the Christian life (‘we are justified sinners’ or ‘we are simply beggars telling others beggars where to find bread). Note, I did not say an overly-pessmistic anthropology. It seems to me that Paul is (rightly) negative about humanity’s lostness – just look around. But he is also hugely confident about God’s ability to transform that lostness through the empowering presence of the Spirit.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

 

 

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