Theology first, always

In our wee church we close the Sunday service each week by saying ‘the benediction’ to each other – not an eyes closed prayer by someone for everyone else, but an eyes-open head-turning blessing/prayer to one another within the community. ‘The benediction’ in question is Paul’s closing prayer for that most vexing group of Christians in Corinth, recorded in 2 Corinthians 13:14:

‘May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.’

The closer you look at this verse, the deeper it gets. What’s fascinating with so much NT theology is its ad hoc assumed nature that oozes out all over the place and this verse does a lot of oozing. What seems a nice closing blessed thought actually unveils much about Paul’s priorities for believers, the shape of his soteriology and his understanding of the identity of God himself.

1. ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’:

Speaks of the immeasurable self-giving of the crucified Messiah of Israel. The good news is Christological – the historical Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah and victorious risen living Lord who has defeated death and sin (1 Cor 15:56-7). His grace is given on behalf of those who follow him as Lord. This grace is a present experienced reality, not a historical highlight, which brings the Christian into an undeserved and unimaginably blessed new status of peace with God (Rom 5:1-2).

2. ‘the love of God’:

The origin, foundation or beginning point of Paul’s soteriology is the character of God. It is God who loves extravagantly and at great cost. He loves us first, before we love him. It is his love that lies behind the great biblical story of redemption and climaxes in the phrase that ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom 5:8). It is in love he adopts us as children through his Son (Eph 1:4-5).

3. ‘and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’

God’s self-giving continues with the gift of his Spirit to believers. It is the Spirit who brings soteriological life. Those in Christ are a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come (2 Cor 5:17). The Spirit empowers that new life and produces his fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The Spirit pours God’s love into believers’ hearts (Rom 5:5) – a remarkable image of deep relationship with the living God. It is in the Spirit that believers are united into the body of Christ (1 Cor 12). This is a fellowship of mutuality and service; the body of Christ / the temple of the Holy Spirit is where God dwells among his people. The gift of the Spirit gives eschatological joy and hope even in the midst of suffering and hardship since the future is already here in the present.

The Identity of God

One of the joys I have at IBI is to teach a course in both Christology and pneumatology (at least I enjoy teaching them, hope students do too!). This verse is by no means an isolated route into both Paul’s Christology and pneumatology and therefore his ‘theology proper’ – the nature of God himself.

The picture in the NT is of a radical shift or development in ‘pure theology’ (who God is) that revolves around both Christ and the Spirit. Paul’s prayer in 1 Cor 13:13 captures the way that Son, Father and Spirit are united in perfect harmony of activity and relationship. This is not worked out ontologically (that would come later in church history), but it is just one example among many of how the three ‘persons’ each have a complementary and intertwining role in salvation (what has been called ‘soteriological trinitarianism’). In this verse God, Father, Son and Spirit, are experienced as a triune reality. Salvation is the work of the one God (monotheism is maintained), effected by the distinct and cooperative ministry of Father, Son and Spirit.

You see this triunity in how the Spirit is the ‘Spirit of God’ (eg 1 Cor 2:10-12), and yet also the ‘Spirit of Christ’ (eg; Gal 4:4-6; Phil 1:19 etc). Jesus does not somehow ‘displace’ God, but shares in his function and role of ‘sending’ the Spirit (Acts 2 and elsewhere).

OK, how does this connect back to a church service with 60 people in an Irish secondary school double Maths classroom?

It’s a reminder of how profoundly and consistently Paul’s theology shapes his pastoral ministry and ours needs to do the same.

There is much written about the church; its failures and continual need for reform in a post-Christendom wilderness. And sure there is lots to write about.

But it seems to me that we need to be thoroughly Pauline in seeking reform. Heck, he faced power struggles, resistance to his leadership, incest, pride, prostitution, heresy, super-spirituality, judgementalism, and division – that all just in Corinth.

But he begins and ends in theology – in what is true in light of the gospel – and then moves on from that foundation to address the issues.

It can be easy to see the faults of a local church and especially a denominational institution. It can be easy to lapse into pragmatic ‘solutions’.

But it is into the reality of an imperfect and often weak church that we need to be praying and reminding each other of deep, true, rich, life-affirming good news: good news that Christians know the presence of the triune God, the community of self-giving love that is the Father, Son and Spirit. Good news of God’s saving grace in Christ; good news that the church is not just a random association of individuals but a fellowship where God’s very Spirit dwells.

Theology first. Always.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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