The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life (1) Bruce Longenecker

It was a privilege to write a chapter for The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective edited by Scot McKnight and Joe Modica and published by Baker Academic last month.

I’m not going to post about my own chapter save to say it was a hugely enjoyable and personally rewarding writing project. And to be surrounded by exalted company like JDG Dunn, NT Wright, Bruce Longenecker, Lynn Cohick, Timothy Gombis, Scot and others is a bit surreal.

Now, I guess I might be a tad biased but I really do think it’s an excellent book. The fresh angle here is how the (now not so) New Perspective on Paul helps in developing an integrated understanding of the apostle’s theological vision. Or, to put that differently, he isn’t writing abstract systematic theology, his overriding concern in his letters is the moral transformation of those under his pastoral leadership. It’s theology written that ‘Christ might be formed’ in individuals who have come to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Each author was given a general remit to unpack the connections between the NPP and the Christian life. The result is that as you read the book, a fascinating group of themes begin to emerge. The big question at the back of them all 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?

I’m going to post on a few of the chapters.

The first is Bruce Longenecker’s terrific essay on ‘Faith, Works, and Worship: Torah Observance in Paul’s Theological Perspective’.  

At times, Paul’s contribution to Christian theology has been conceived simply in terms of establishing that Christians are free from having to do anything since they enjoy eternal salvation in the heavenly world of perfect glory by means of their faith in Christ. But Paul did not expect the Christian to live a life devoid of “good works.” He did not think that Christian activity jeopardizes the eternal destiny of the “soul.” Doing good is not, in fact, foreign to Paul’s view of the Christian life. As we will see, Christian activity is an essential component of Paul’s theologizing about God’s engagement with the world. (48)

The activity of the Christian life includes, says Longenecker, self-giving love, empowered by the Spirit. It means ‘bearing one another’s burdens’ – and this includes economic burdens (see his book Remember the Poor for more).

But it’s the background context in which the Christian life is lived that Longenecker brings out wonderfully well.

Two themes highlight the ‘opposition’ or forces arrayed against God and those who would follow him:

  1. Weapons of mass destruction’ – by which he means covetousness, self-interest, hatred, jealousy, envy, strife. “For those beyond the boundaries of Christian community, Paul imagines a world permeated by a destructive moral ethos.”
  2. ‘Cosmos Grabbers’ – by which Longenecker means the powers of Sin and Death – powers that reign like cosmic overlords. These powers are ingrained in fabric of the world and manifest themselves chaotically throughout humanity’s all too destructive existence.

Where these forces produce disunity and disharmony, Paul has come to experience and see that God’s agenda in Christ is to bring peace, unity and harmony not only for his (Jewish) people but for a new humanity consisting of both Jew and Gentile.

But in contrast to the healthy unification of distinct groups that Paul perceived in Christian communities, the stoicheia of the world bastardize God-ordained diversities, transforming those diversities into relationships of destructive disharmony, rather than offering creative possibilities of self-giving. (59)

This united new community, the body of Christ, is not an end in itself but exists to worship God, its creator. A people of joyous praise to the glory of God the father (Phil 2:11)

So it is in and through love and self-giving communities that a spiritual battle is being fought out. Living the Christian life is

an inspiring vision, but it is also a challenging one, since it places Christian lifestyle and corporate practice front and center on the eschatological battlefield. (62)

For Paul, works of Torah could not contribute to this battle. It is the Spirit who empowers believers to life the Christian life. And this is why he resists wholeheartedly any attempt to insist that works of Torah be imposed on new believers. To try to make Gentiles become Jews is another form of ‘centrism’ that leads to division not to unity.

And here’s his challenging conclusion. It’s worth reading more than once:

Stripped to its core, then, what Paul was ultimately fighting for when he wrote “not by works of Torah” was nothing other than cruciform self-giving as the overturning of self-interestedness, itself the product and foothold of cosmic powers opposed to God’s program for the world … Paul maintained a vision of those in Christ as a collection of diverse people, united in worship of the One who created distinctly varied identities, whose challenging corporate life can be sustained only through the power of the Spirit, who enlivens other-regard in transformational patterns replicating the self-giving of the Son of God.

Reading this is it hard not to be struck by the massive importance of unity and self-giving love within the church for the apostle Paul.

What, do you think, would Paul make of the contemporary church? In how it fights destructive spiritual forces with the weapons of love and unity? In how it overcomes ethnic and cultural boundaries that so divide the world we live in?

 

 

 

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