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

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.

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