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’.
Just 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.