The pandemic is exposing the myths of Western individualism

This post is sparked by reading Douglas Campbell’s marvellous Pauline Dogmatics.

If asked to diagram social relations, very likely most of us would typically use a number of circles to represent individuals.

Each person is imagined as a self-contained ‘unit’, a discrete individual, separated off from other individuals by a social space.

This is a picture of the person as a self-sufficient person, with clear boundaries delineating them from other individuals. Others exist in their own spheres, perhaps bouncing off each other now and then, but essentially each of us are our own island.

Margaret Thatcher famously took this to its logical conclusion in stating that there is ‘no such thing as society’. Or, in Campbell’s words;

Personhood exists in isolation and society is a game of marbles

p.50

But with even a little analysis we soon realise this is a myth. All of us are incomplete, indeed we are crippled, without a network of social relationships. Our very identity and sense of personhood depends on interaction with, and recognition of, others.

This simple diagram begins to hint at how who we are is bound up with with relationships. The self cannot exist in splendid isolation.

By Wykis – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1618169

This is why the pandemic is so hard to bear – we are being forced to actually live like the isolated individuals of Western consumerism / capitalism. And it shrivels the soul and breaks the heart. There is something deeply alien to our humanity to be in enforced lockdown.

For those us locked away with family members that we actually like and get on with this is just about survivable! But we still miss 1001 things about everyday life – its vibrancy, life, and delicious complexity, not to mention hugs, food with friends, and endless fascination of meeting new people.

For those trapped in spaces characterised by toxic relationships, it is unimagineably difficult. For those living on their own it is a lonely wilderness experience, unsustainable in the long term.

Douglas Campbell wrote his book long before Covid-19 was known about. So his words have perhaps attained extra prophetic weight in the meantime. He speaks of the connection between our social identity and the nature of God – Father, Son and Spirit.

We must let this revelation concerning the true nature of personhood sink down into out theologial bones, since it will pervade all that follows. People are relational beings because the personal God that is the Trinity is a relational communion, and we are made in the image of God …

At the heart of all reality lies an interpersonal and hence fundamental familial God. We are involved with a divinity that is interpersonal in the most committed and relational fashion.

p.52

Lockdown is necessary. But it comes at great cost – and I am NOT talking money here. It’s an issue of love. I say this because Christians believe, as Campbell says that

At the heart of the universe is a play of love between the Father, the Son and the Spirit.

p. 55

We are embodied beings, made by a relational God of love to be in relationships of love with him and with each other. Of course we can still love others we can only see on a computer screen, but it is a pale imitation of a fully functioning relationship.

And so, from a theological perspective, we long for the ending of lockdown, NOT so we can save the economy (although we need it to work in order to live) but so that we can love – for that is what we have been created to do.

And, even more remarkably, as God’s children love they ‘witness’ to the truth of who God is. God takes the ‘risk’ of choosing people like you and me to reveal or demonstrate his love to the world.

So in this pandemic, let us be asking ourselves, how can we as individuals and as church communities mediate something of the love of the triune God to a coronavirus world.

Comments welcome

What would Paul think? (Douglas Campbell)

From Douglas Campbell in his big new book, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love.

Not a quote you expect to come across in a heavy-weight academic treatment of the apostle Paul’s thought and its implications for the mission of the church in the contemporary world.

I sometimes wonder what Paul would make of the conferences at which scores of highly learned people sit around and debate for hours tiny semantic nuances in his preserved writings. I expect he might be patient with this exercise for a while, but then at some point I’m pretty sure he would jump up – possibly wielding a whip – and shout: “For goodness sake! Haven’t you read what my writings actually say? You’re not meant to be sitting around debating them. You are meant to be out there doing what they tell you to do – meeting people and fostering Christian communities in service to your Lord. Get off your backsides and get moving!” Doubtless this challenge would be accompanied by the sounds of tables being overturned and piles of pristine books crashing to the floor. (p. 4)

Ephesians: walk in love

This is a short video I did (complete with lockdown beard) for an online Irish Bible Institute course on the book of Ephesians. We offered it free during the Covid-19 crisis and had nearly 500 people signed up.

Its focus is the link between love (agapē) and walking (peripateō) in Ephesians. What it means to be a Christian (follower of Christ, united to him in faith through the Spirit) is to walk in love. We may say that the whole purpose and goal of the Christian faith is summed up in that phrase.

Other video contributions from IBI teaching staff included: Grace Campbell (who runs our online courses and wrote and designed this outstanding module); Dr Steven Singleton (our Principal); Paul Perry (lecturer); Joan Singleton (lecturer). Thanks too to a whole bunch of volunteer moderators who helped facilitate discussion in over 20 groups of online learners.

PrBlomberg Cof Craig Blomberg, Distingushed Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, who teaches on our MA Programme, contributed a video and asked a bunch of other NT scholars who have published on Ephesians to join and they did.

 

So we have had excellent teaching from a range of other world-class scholars – thanks all for your time and expertise so generously given:

Cohick Ephesians

Dr Lynn Cohick, provost at Denver Seminary and professor of New Testament. Author of  Ephesians, New Covenant Commentary. Eugene, Cascade Books, 2010

 

 

 

 

 

Bock Ephesians

Dr Darrell Bock – Executive Director of Cultural Engagement and Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and author of Ephesians (2019) Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IVP Academic.

 

 

 

 

 

Thielman Ephesians BECT

Dr Frank Thielman, Presbyterian Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University and author of Ephesians.  Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.

 

 

 

 

 

Klein EBC Ephesians

Dr William Klein – Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary and author of “Ephesians” in the revised edition of the Expositor’s Bible Commentary

 

 

 

 

 

Witherington Ephesians

 

Dr Ben Witherington, Jean R. Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and author of The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles. Eerdmans, 2007.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (28) Love of money

This9781783595914 is a dialogue with Professor Ben Witherington about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: Last question!!!  Your useful chapter about money talks about love gone wrong, love for things instead of people, and the using of people to get things. In short, the sin of greed and acquisitiveness.

I was once watching TV in New York and Reverend Ike came on the TV and said the following: “our Scripture for today is from St. Paul ‘the lack of money is the root of all evil’.  After dismembering Paul’s actual words he then went on to say ‘if money is causing you problems and temptations, then send it to me, and I will relieve you of that temptation’ and so on. I remember well a little pamphlet my old prof at GCTS, Gordon Fee wrote called ‘The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospel’.  What do you see as the cure for that disease, the cure for misdirected love???

PATRICK: Gordon Fee commenting on I Timothy 6 asks that given the strength of the warnings about the spiritual dangers of money

“Why would any Christian want to get rich?”

Riches are a temptation and trap that ensnare those that desire them. If that sounds odd to us maybe it’s because we are shaped by a culture where the pursuit of wealth is seen as a good thing and accumulating riches equal ‘success’.

There is a nest of issues here around the heart, misdirected love, destructive desires, greed and dissatisfaction – always wanting more. The Bible’s unvarnished diagnosis of this is idolatry – seeking purpose, fulfilment and security in money and the power it brings rather than in God.

Regarding a ‘cure’ – I guess the first step is diagnosis of the problem. And that needs courage by pastors and teachers, perhaps particularly within American Christianity which exists within probably one of the most acquisitive cultures that has existed in human history. When did you last hear a sermon about greed I wonder? Yet, as is often said, Scripture has far more to say about money than pretty well any other ethical issue.

Imagine if the church’s ‘default’ attitude to wealth was caution and warnings about its potentially toxic effects. That would be a huge shift and bring us back closer to the attitudes of Christians of the early church.

A second step is de-idolizing money through rightly-directed love. It’s fascinating how Paul’s ‘answer’ to the problem in 1 Timothy is not a list of rules – he goes for the heart. He has confidence the power of the gospel to transform hearts, minds and behaviour. Love of money is a spiritual problem. The ‘treatment’ is to find our security in the love of God “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim 6:17b). To be people of contentment, hope, generosity and other-directed love. An acid test of where our security and hope really lies is how generous we are with temporary resources with which we have been entrusted. 

THAT’S ALL FOLKS., THANKS FOR ALL YOUR Answers.   

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (27) Marriage and singleness

This9781783595914 is a dialogue with Professor Ben Witherington about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: On p. 248 you stress that Christian marriage is not a private relationship in which you have all your love concentrated and all your love needs met.  As you say, Paul sees marriage as exhibit A of the larger relationship Christ has with his body, his bride, the church. “The primary location for love is not the nuclear family but the community of the church.” I agree, but this is not what most people mean by a family church (that usually means a church that nurtures nuclear family units, or worse still a church run by a singular nuclear family). Help us to better understand how in an individualistic age we get across that the church is the primary family.

PATRICK:  I say to students sometimes that there’s a ‘weirdness’ to Christianity that we need to feel otherwise we’ve probably domesticated the gospel. I mean by that that Christianity is profoundly ‘out of step’ with many assumed norms of Western culture – and marriage is one example. Conservatives tend to idealise a 1960s version of the nuclear family – a phrase that probably conjures up in our minds images of 2 parents and 2.5 children living in a detached home on a suburban street. Conservatives tend to want to ‘recover’ this lost ideal as a way of promoting social stability. Western liberalism tends to prize love, sex and the option of marriage all belonging to the private domain of the individual lovers, regardless of gender.

It seems to me that Christian marriage challenges both social conservatism and radical individualism. While it is an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman, it is not a a private relationship.

In Ephesians 5 the couple’s love is to exist within the wider network of relationships that is the church (ekklēsia appears multiple times in this text). They are first and foremost members of Christ’s body called, like any other disciples, to love brothers and sisters across deep divides around religious and ethnic background, gender and social status. This relativises marriage – it is not an end in itself. It is not the place the couple’s love rules supreme and which might perhaps ‘overflow’ to others. It’s the other way around – as disciples they learn to love within the community and take that Christian love into marriage.

As Hauerwas says,

‘Love is a characteristic of the church, not the family per se.’ 

This means that Christian marriages ‘belong’ within community – they are to be ‘porous’ (places of hospitality and welcome) not impermeable (the self-sufficient nuclear family).

This perspective gives space to recover a proper theology of celibacy and singleness as an equally (if not higher) calling than marriage – which is also a radical challenge to idolisation of the nuclear family.

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (26) Marriage and submission

This9781783595914 is a dialogue with Professor Ben Witherington about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN:  I like the way in your discussion of Ephes. 5.21ff. you point out how Paul is busily renovating the traditional patriarchal orientation of the extended family in his day, not merely baptizing that structure and calling it good.  The exposition of ‘submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ is helpful, and it shows the direction Paul is pointing the family in.  I have a doctoral student who has done a detailed study of Paul’s use of isotes in all its occurrences in Greek literature in that period, and it always means equality, not fairness.

In other words Paul in Colossians is even saying, masters treat your slaves as your equals, and serve them as they serve you. Now this is just as revolutionary as Ephes. 5.21.  Unless you see Paul the pastor as starting with the existing household codes and then modifying them in light of the Gospel in a more equitable direction, you’ve missed the thrust of passages like Col. 3-4 and Ephes. 5-6.  Would you agree?  Paul is not trying to change society directly, but indirectly by changing what happens in the Christian home and house church meetings— right?

PATRICK: Right. I used the title ‘Subversive Love’ to describe what’s going on. It isn’t as if Paul is confronting Greco-Roman culture head-on, I don’t think that’s his primary motive. He’s working out the good news of the gospel within fledging Christian communities in relation to different sets of relationships that commonly appear in the household codes. But he must have been well aware that the implications were revolutionary. The way Christians are to relate to one another necessarily undermines the patriarchal and hierarchical structures of existing household codes. The new communities were to be characterised by mutual submission (5:21) – a profoundly Christian concept. Love, humility, service of others, dying to the self – these are all Christ-like characteristics that all believers are called to.

So when it comes to husbands and wives, it is not as though husbands are somehow exempt from Christian submission! There’s a long history of interpretation that tries hard to separate 5:21 (all submit to one another) and 5:22 (wives submit to husbands). Some Bibles even insert a heading after verse 21 that breaks up the text – which, as you know, is one long sentence in Greek from verses 18-23. Yes, wives are told to submit to husbands (and children / slaves to obey parents / masters), not the other way around. But this is best read not as some Pauline mandate for a timeless ‘gender role’. The apostle is recognising cultural realities of the household codes but subverting them as he calls believers to follow the way of Jesus in whatever social role they happen to find themselves in.

The irony of so much discussion of this text is that it is not really focused on changing the behaviour wives at all – but it IS focused on challenging the behaviour and attitudes of husbands. They are told four times in nine verses to love their wives.

That husbands were to love wives self-sacrificially turns Greco-Roman ideas of status and patronage on their head. He is to treat his wife as he has been treated by his own head (Christ). The husbands ‘headship’ takes the form of loving and caring for his wife as his own body. It’s a subversion of cultural expectations – he nurtures her. He is to treat her as he, the man with all the power and privilege, has been treated.

Unless we get this sense of radical subversion I don’t think we’ve heard this text. And this is where many complementarian readings miss Paul’s gospel edge. They end up reinforcing the very Greco-Roman cultural norms that Paul is busy subverting.

 

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (25)

This9781783595914 is a dialogue with Professor Ben Witherington about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN:   Gal. 5.6 is a remarkable claim— the only thing that counts is faith working through love. Why should we not see this as typical hyperbole by Paul in a letter full of hyperbole (like ‘you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me!!!’)????

PATRICK: Yes, it’s remarkable and I liked it so much that I made it the strapline of the book. The danger of making it hyperbole is that it becomes too easy to downplay how what Paul says here is fully consistent with his pervasive theology of love – I’m thinking 1 Corinthians 13, or 1 Cor 16:14 ‘Do everything in love’, or how love fulfils the law in Galatians 5 and Romans 13:8-10, or walking in love in Ephesians, or Colossians 3:12, ‘And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity’.

 ‘Faith working through love’ has a sense of dynamic power, Paul knows nothing of faith that is not transformative and love in this sense is the goal and purpose of faith. In other words, I don’t think it is too strong to say that Paul sees love as God’s ultimate agenda for his people. This tends to get missed in hot debates about justification by faith. Paul’s passion in Galatians is not only to correct a false gospel but also to heal a community riven by division who were ‘biting and devouring one another’. It’s fruit of the Spirit, whose first characteristic is love, that is the only remedy to Galatian divisiveness. In this sense love is a ‘weapon’ in God’s war against the powers opposes to his good purposes. And if that’s the case, then yes absolutely – love is the only thing that counts.

BEN:  Paul speaks of Christ setting us free from something and for something. The problem, at least in my context is that Americans here this and think freedom means ‘free to do as I please’ whereas I assume Paul means something very different— freedom from sin and freedom to do as God pleases.  As you say ‘we are not set free to live for ourselves, but to love one another as Christ loved us.’ (p. 229).  How do we best get this idea across to an increasingly narcissistic  and selfy-oriented western culture???

PATRICK: Christian freedom is a paradox. Galatians 5 begins “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1) but Paul goes on to make clear that it is liberation is found, not in doing whatever we desire, but in serving one another humbly in love (Gal 5:13). Or as the NRSV translates it “but through love become slaves to one another.” The irony is that Paul has been pleading with then not to go back to a life of slavery, now he is commending it!

I guess a start would be to feel the offense of this paradox today in our teaching and preaching within a culture which prizes individual liberty and pursuit of the authentic self. Perhaps this is a particular challenge for the church in America, the home of ‘freedom’ and capitalism, where freedom is virtually worshipped as an end in itself. Self-made individuals neither need anything from others nor expect to be obligated to others. Capitalism fosters the belief that all we have belongs to us – including our possessions, our time, our bodies – and no-one has a right to tell us how to live. That’s a long way from “become slaves to each other in love”. If our preaching and teaching leaves Christians untroubled in a cocoon of wealth and self-sufficiency then it’s not doing its job!

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (24)

This9781783595914 is a dialogue with Professor Ben Witherington about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN:  It seems to me that 1 Cor. 13 is perhaps the most abused text in the Bible when it comes to love. The passage is not about marriage or marital love, but rather about the manner in which all Christians should use their grace gifts.  It does not say that love is a gift, rather elsewhere in Gal. 5 it is called part of the fruit of the internal working of the Spirit. It’s clearly not a discussion of eros, not least because Paul is addressing all Christians in Corinth in all kinds of circumstances and relationships. And of course the operative term here is agape, which is to say its about God given love, the sort of God has and gives to us to share.

I quite agree with what you say about this sort of love being the mark of the Christian, or at least it should be.  All gifts should be exercised in love, including, perhaps especially when we wield the sword of truth.  Without love, spiritual gifts become just an ego display of Christian immaturity.  How many times have we seen very gifted Christians who are so immature, they don’t know how to exercise their gifts in ways that comport with self-sacrificial love? I’ve found this, sadly, often shows up with Christian musicians, of which I am one.

What in your view is the relationship between love and forgiveness? I like the quote about unforgiveness being like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die. Over time, I’ve discovered that forgiveness is as important for the giver as for the receiver. If one doesn’t forgive, a root of bitterness grows in one’s soul.  Forgiveness is not optional. But sadly, forgiveness offered is one thing, forgiveness received is another.  In a sense that situation is like unrequited love.  And there is nothing normal or natural about such forgiveness. It’s a God given ability.

I wonder if you think it’s true that the opposite of active love in some situations is not hate, but rather indifference and inaction as a result.  On p. 218 you say love is the believer’s defense against evil. How so? Unpack that idea for us. You rightly note that the Greek actual says ‘love never falls’, often translated ‘love never fails’ but are these one and the same?  Sometimes even the best godly love does not accomplish its aim, surely. Right?

PATRICK: There’s a lot in that question Ben. Maybe if I say a bit about the text first, then something on love and forgiveness.

In the book, rather than a warm comforting poem to love, I call 1 Corinthians 13 a ‘searing searchlight’ whose light exposes the Corinthians’ (and our) failures to love. Yes, love is described in inspiring and beautiful terms, but the ‘way of love’ is set against the ‘way of unlove’ with the aim of calling the Corinthians to self-examination and repentance. If we don’t read the text that way then we’ve missed hearing its call for followers of Jesus to embrace the difficult discipline of love.

And this is no optional extra – those extraordinarily stark illustrations at the beginning of the chapter reiterate the point that without love anything a Christian says or does is of zero value. Without love, however gifted an individual, however ‘successful’ a ministry, or however ‘impactful’ a church – it’s all utterly worthless. In our pragmatic culture that values results, those are radical words that we need to hear again and again.

The quote about unforgiveness being like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die is so true isn’t it? I see love as a choice and forgiveness is a good illustration. We can choose the way of resentment, bitterness, hatred but that leads to ‘self-imprisonment’. Or we can choose the way of not letting wrongs of others define us, of letting the past go, of moving towards forgiveness and possible reconciliation (which depends on the other responding). This leads to freedom.

Of course it’s easier to say this than do it. It’s a process that can take years and will be different for each person. I don’t think forgiveness can be forced on someone. And it certainly is not to dismiss deep hurt caused by others, that needs to heard and acknowledged. And if #metoo and experiences like Bill Hybels in Willow Creek have taught us anything, it is that forgiveness does not mean hiding sin. 

 

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (23)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: We are called to love self-sacrificially, as Christ loved. That seems a very high standard indeed which we can only approximate at times. But it does make clear that Christ expects a lot of us. ‘To whom more is given….’. I have grown tired of the mistranslation of the famous verse in Philippians which actually reads ‘I am able…… all things in Him who strengthens me’. It seems clearly, in light of Paul just saying he has learned contentment in good times and bad, with and without material well being that the appropriate way to read that verse is not ‘I can DO all things…’ but rather ‘I am able to endure with contentment all things… etc. Comments??

PATRICK: Yes, in John’s Gospel disciples are commanded to love one another as Jesus has loved them. Indeed loving one another is the only duty that is commanded in the whole Gospel. What that means is spelt out – Jesus lays down his life for his friends. This is love orientated to the good of others at cost to the self. It’s the very heart of Christianity. Of course all of this is much easier to understand in theory than do in practice! In the book I quote Francis Moloney, ‘Words about love can come easily enough; lives that demonstrate love are harder to come by.’ I happen to be married to someone who lives such a life but I agree with you that it’s a tough calling. It’s a long way from the sort of naïve positive thinking that you mention. I fail to be loving every day to the people I like, let alone to the ones I don’t! This is why life in Christian community is where the rubber really hits the road. Love hangs in there. It’s open-eyed about human failure – including our own. It seeks forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s honest. Churches are made up of all sorts of people and love is the only thing that’s going to hold it together if it’s going to flourish and grow. Perhaps it’s only such authentic communities of love that are going to make an impact on a (often rightly) sceptical world.

 

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (22)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: On pp. 192-95 you broach the issue of philos. It is interesting how seldom the actual Greek language for friendship really comes up in the NT, whereas the familial language of brother and sister is ubiquitous. But we do have it briefly in John 15. You are certainly right that in an age of arranged marriages, friendship was often the most intimate of bonds, like with David and Jonathan. Jesus considers us his friends, but there is a condition— you have to do what he commands. This seems quite different from some modern laissez faire friendships which think it rude to demand something from a friend. How should we view friendship as Christians today do you think?

PATRICK: This links pretty closely to the last question. In our Facebook era the word ‘friend’ doesn’t have much weight, you can have hundreds of ‘friends’ many of whom you may never have met face-to-face. But in the ancient world much attention was given to philos in both Greek thought (Aristotle for example) and Roman culture (hierarchical frameworks of friendship between patrons and clients). Also, in the OT, Abraham and Moses are both called friends of God. It’s impossible to know exactly what lay in the background of John’s use of friendship, but it’s clear that believers’ friendship with Jesus is unparalleled for at least four reasons that should lead Christians today to worship.

1) It was unheard of for ‘God in the flesh’ to give up his own life for his friends. I say in the book at “If depth of love is somehow proportionate to that which is given up for the good of others, then the cross represents the greatest act of love in all of history.”

2) Believers’ status changes from slaves to friends: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends.” This is a welcome into a new status and relationship. Again, this is astonishing.

3) Unlike Greek or Roman notions of friendship, such a change of status does not depend on being virtuous enough or worthy enough to qualify, rather it is a gift of grace: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you” (15:16a). This is very good news.

4) As we said in the last question, there is no contradiction between called Jesus’ friends and faithful obedience. Disciples are chosen so that they might “go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (15:16). Love is transformative.