Ben Witherington @ Irish Bible Institute on ‘Rethinking Romans’

Last Friday we had the great pleasure of hosting Prof Ben Witherington for IBI’s 2017 ‘Summer Institute’. The theme was ‘Rethinking Romans’.

IBI was full and it was a terrific day of teaching on Paul’s most famous epistle. It was also a pleasure and privilege to meet Ben and his wife Ann. He is remarkably prolific and has blessed the Church worldwide with a lifetime of top-class scholarship made accessible for teachers, preachers and lay believers.

He is also a top-class communicator. There are lots of video resources out there, but what doesn’t come over in those more formal recordings is Ben’s wit and humour – it was a fun day as well as an educational one. Thank you Ben.

Romans is perhaps the most influential letter ever written in human history. Every chapter resonates down the centuries of Christian theology. Themes like Christian anthropology, sin, justification, ethics, pneumatology, eschatology, predestination, Israel and the church, and Christian morality all emerge in the course of Paul’s persuasive argument for Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome to be united.

For example, take justification. From Luther, Calvin & co onwards – right on through to the New Perspective on Paul from the late 1970s to the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) between the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation – justification has been a continuously ‘live’ theological issue for centuries and Romans is at the heart of it all.

I’m not going to recount all that was covered in a packed day, but here are 8 snapshots. For more you can always go to a copy of this book sitting on my desk!

Snapshot 1: A female Apostle

Romans 16:7: ‘Greet Andronicus and Junia’ – a husband and wife team, both apostles, who are noteworthy in that group.’Deal with it’ said Ben in regard to Junia being a female apostle.

They have been jailed with Paul. Women did not tend to go to jail in antiquity. This is an indication of a remarkably courageous and counter-cultural witness which is also a deconstruction of patriarchal paradigms.

Following the work of Richard Bauckham, Ben suggested that Junia – which is the Latin name of Joanna – is the SAME person who is a patron of Jesus in Luke 8:3. Andronicus and Joanna were ‘in Christ before me’. Was this Joanna, wife of Chuza, of the gospels who was a patron of Jesus who then later became a co-worker of Paul? She went to Jerusalem with Jesus. Chuza could have had the Latin name Andronicus, or she may have been widowed and remarried.

If so, Ben suggests that we should think of TWO prominent names among the Jerusalem believers – that of the apostle Peter AND the Apostle Joanna (Junia).

Now that’s a head-wrecker for all sorts of theologies build on male apostleship AND those that elevate the primacy of Peter. All sorts of implications follow …

Snapshot 2: What is Romans all about?

Ben argued at length that Romans is best understood through the lens of ancient rhetoric – hence his series of NT ‘socio-rhetorical’ commentaries on the New Testament. The key ‘thesis statement’ of Romans is, he argued, Romans 1:16-17.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

The whole thrust of the letter is aimed at Gentile believers in Rome to understand their place in God’s story of redemption, and the place of Jews, and Jewish believers in Jesus, in that story.

Paul’s big concern is to ‘level the playing field’ between Jewish and Gentile Christians and to appeal for real embodied unity, love, and common worship among the Christian communities in Rome.

The gospel is first to the Jew. Gentiles are not to think more highly of themselves than they should. It is God’s power and God’s gospel that graciously includes both Jews and Gentiles.

The gospel is shocking and surprising – a crucified Messiah. But rather than be ashamed of the cross (as everyone in antiquity would have been), Paul is determinedly not ashamed. The only explanation for embracing the cross in this way is if the cross has been shown to be a place of God’s victory over death – in the resurrection of the Son.

Along with Richard Hays and N T Wright, BWIII goes for pistis Christou meaning ‘the faithfulness of Christ’. But his faithfulness is always accompanied by others placing their faith in Christ. The faithfulness of Christ is the basis of faith in Christ. Jesus’ faithfulness in mission means that anyone (you or I) may believe (response of faith)

When if comes to righteousness, Ben contends that it would be better if the dikaio word group was not translated as ‘justification’ at all. It is too redolent of legal / impersonal language to capture the way righteousness is all about God setting relationships right. It is all about moral transformation – that is the heart of Paul’s concern for the believers he writes to in the New Testament.

Snapshot 3. No imputed righteousness but moral transformation of the believer

Ben is a Wesleyan. His commentary on Romans is one of the few written from an Arminian perspective. While he said he has much to thank the Reformers for, not surprisingly he interprets Romans in a very different way to traditional Calvinist readings.

For example, take Romans 4, Abraham and righteousness. The righteousness in question is that of Abraham. It is NOT Christ’s righteousness somehow imputed to believers. God sees us as we are. Ben sees imputed righteousness as a ‘legal fiction’. Imputed righteousness is not there in Romans 4 – it is reading back into the text by the Reformers who were overly shaped by Latin translations of the text.

What is being talked about is an imparting of righteousness to believers, in the Spirit which leads to holiness and moral transformation.

Luther’s presuppositions led him to read Romans 7 as typical of the Christian life. But it is a total misreading of the text to see it as a description of the normal struggles of the believer (an internal conflict of flesh versus spirit). What Paul is doing is talking about the pre-Christian condition through the lens of Adam.

I agree wholeheartedly with this view of flesh and Spirit. For more on flesh / Spirit see this post. My chapter ‘Solus Spiritus’ in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life argues, as the title suggests, for the Spirit being at the core of Paul’s understanding of new creation life that leads to a transformed moral and ethical life in the world.

Snapshot 4: a transformed life of holiness

Ben’s reading of Romans 8 can be summarised like this:

This is not to say Christians cannot sin, it is to say that Christians are without excuse. Whatever your struggles are, greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world. Call on the Spirit of God. We are in the process of being sanctified by Jesus Christ. I am saying that we sin against the grace of God. God’s grace and Spirit is sufficient to help us avoid intentional sin. Christians are MORE responsible for their sin than non Christians.

This reflects the high expectations of holiness in the Wesleyan tradition – and of course Ben would add – Paul and ultimately God himself.

So Christians should be eagerly pressing on to the goal of the new creation and resurrection life to come. If we are not, we are failing to fulfil our calling.

Snapshot 5: God is good – not all that happens in this world is of God

Romans 8:28 famously says

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him

Ben argues that this is a long way from God fore-ordaining all things such that cancer, violence, injustice and evil are all somehow part of his good plan.  God is not the one who blights us, sends us disease, and afflicts us. Not everything in this world is of God – there are powers of darkness and evil at work.

The ones for whom all works together for good are not some abstract humanity – they are the ones who love God. Paul’s concern is the destiny of those who love God. This is a word of encouragement. Today we can know that if you are in Christ you have a great destiny.

Snapshot 6: Can  you lose your salvation?

Basically the answer is ‘Yes’.

Ben argued that ‘lose salvation’ is the wrong way to look at it. Paul’s warnings are not about misplacing your faith – they are about intentional apostasy. Calvinism does not take Paul’s warnings at face value – or the warnings of Hebrews 6.

It is clear, he contends, that apostasy is possible. This is ‘throwing away your salvation’ rather than losing it.

Snapshot 7: N T Wright can be wrong

As is well known and I have posted about here, BWIII is not a fan of NTW’s equating Israel with the Church. The former argues that Romans 9-11 is about how the Jews are TEMPORARILY broken off from the people of God, but God is not finished with them yet. When the full number of the Gentiles is gathered in, there will be a divine overcoming of what Paul calls the ‘impiety of Jacob’ – which is non-Christian Israel. The church is not Israel. Israel will be saved when Christ returns – by faith in Jesus, by grace.

I’m still figuring out this one. Reading my old post and listening to Ben, the differences are not that great. There is one story, the only way in is by faith in Jesus, the Mosaic law has come to an end. The Abrahamic covenant has been fulfilled.

The difference is BWIII’s insistence that ‘Israel’ does not mean church and Israel has a distinct future which involves many Jews being brought into the story of Jesus.

Snapshot 8: If you are a Christian, you are not your own

Quite simply the framework for Romans 12-15 is this

You do not belong to you. You belong to the Lord.

Live accordingly through faith in Jesus and by obedience to the Spirit.

You can’t get much more counter-cultural to Western individualism than that.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Contested Love (3) love as the supreme virtue

9780300118308I’m skipping on in Simon May’s Love: A History to an important chapter on the evolution of love within Christianity.

A question: what is Christian love? How would you define it? What is distinctive about Christian love as compared say to love in our wider culture today?

I had quite a few quibbles with May in the this chapter. Not surprising I guess, he is venturing into detailed areas of Christian theology and painting with a broad brush. There are half-truths and generalisations, but the overall thesis is intriguing.

He argues that two major shifts in the history of love happen that are intimately linked to how love comes to be understood within Christianity.

  1. Love is elevated to become the supreme virtue. There is no better thing than to love and be loved. The idea of love as eternal and supreme is everywhere in the West.
  1. Love as divine: in love we are united to the divine. And this experience of divinity is radically democratic – open to all ordinary people.

He traces this development, beginning with Jesus. (and this is one place that it is ‘Yes, but’)

Jesus is not linked to the two developments above. He is firmly located within OT categories of love as command and obedience. May says Jesus speaks little of love – I think this is overplayed with significant elements of love within the life and teaching of Jesus passed by.

May pits Jesus against John (love as divine) and Paul (love as supreme). Again, I am not convinced that there is such a wedge between Jesus, John and Paul when it comes to love.

[And there are links here back to our discussion of the New / Old Perspective on Paul – with love in the apostle’s teaching seen in some frameworks as part of Christianity’s love / grace / freedom set over against the law / legalism / slavery of Judaism.]

May argues that the claims made for love by Paul are uniquely extravagant in the history of love – love fulfils the law. [But I would argue that love is deeply rooted within the law – Deuteronomy 6]. May sees a radical disjuncture of OT to NT (Paul) in terms of love. A sort of Old / New Perspective on Love.

“one thing that is obviously happening is the creation of a new morality – based on so great an intensification of Old Testament morality that a genuine revolution in values has occurred.” 87.

What do you think? Is love within Paul a ‘new morality’ and ‘revolution’ compared to love in the OT?

Moving on, it is Augustine, May argues, where love becomes the greatest virtue and from which all actions and morality flow.  But what happens is how love not only answers questions of flourishing and ethics, but deeper questions of existence and meaning.

“love is to be the lodestar of our lives and, if blessed with the capacity to exercise it, we can aspire to imitate God. It was only a matter of time before the outrageous conclusion was drawn that through love we, ordinary men and women, can ourselves become divine.” 87

A bit of a villain in the historical exaltation and divinisation of love is Martin Luther who he quotes as saying “we are gods through love.” He acknowledges that Luther is well aware of potential heresy here – again I think this is overplayed.

But things get really interesting in how May perceptively links Christianity’s elevation of love as the supreme virtue WITH a deep awareness of the need for humility within Christian spirituality.

To fill in what I think he means here: if we are commanded to imitate the love of God, such love is only possible because of grace, the gift of forgiveness, the Spirit and God’s enabling.  Love is always first from God.

If Augustine is the theologian of love, he is also the theologian of grace: we are not self-sufficient. “The Grace of God makes a willing man out of an unwilling one.” 90

We find our fulfilment in God (Augustine’s restless heart).  May sees Augustine as very Platonic – the ladder of ascent to the divine. It is by grace that humans can ascend to caritas (divine love, selfless love, eternal love) rather than cupiditas – lower love, without reference to God.

It is this unique combination within Christianity of an ascent to divine love combined with a deep emphasis on humility, that is so powerful and enduring. Such love is hard – it requires obedience and persistence and discipline.

The implication I think is that he means love only comes slowly, it needs character, it is a virtue that is the fruit of moral integrity and dependence on God.

“This view of love expresses the reality that exaltation and abasement are related to each other in a profound dialectic – a dialectic incomparably revealed in the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ. ‘Wanting to be gods’ is inseparable from wanting to go the way of the Cross. The crucifixion of the incarnate God is not a gruesome paradox, as Nietzsche was to characterise it, but rather speaks a deep truth: if you want to be ‘Gods and Saviours of the world’ you have to be (and not merely appear) humble.   (92)

How convincing do you find this?

What are the essential requirements for love to flourish?

 

Paul & Gift (2)

img_20161104_225105One more post on Paul and the Gift.

Contrary to popular (particularly Reformed) Christian views, Paul does not somehow stand out uniquely from all other Jews of his time as the only one who suddenly ‘gets grace’. He is part of debate within Judaism in terms of the priority of grace (God’s initiative) and its incongruity (the mismatch between the goodness of God and the unworthiness of the human).

What does of course stand out is how Paul interprets

“the Christ-event as the definitive enactment of God’s love for the unlovely, and to the Gentile mission, where the gifts of God ignore ethnic differentials of worth and Torah-based definitions of value (“righteousness”)”   565-66

This theology of grace re-shapes Paul’s understanding of the identity of Israel. His theology of grace is NOT AGAINST Judaism (as a religion of works). God’s grace relativises the Torah in a way absolutely at odds with any of his Jewish peers.

“Paul is neither anti-Jewish nor post-Jewish, but his configuration of the grace of God in Christ alters his Jewish identity and makes him question his former allegiance to the Torah. 566

The crucial theme of Barclay is that for Paul the gift of God’s grace is incongruous (without regard to the worth of the recipient). Non-Jewish ‘un-worthy’ Gentiles pagans are ‘called in grace’ to be in Christ and gifted with the Spirit. But so are Jews (like Paul himself in his own experience). The Christ=event dissolves every pre-existent classification of worth. So the new communities of Christ are Torah free (not anti -Torah) made up of people from across social, ethnic, religious, gender distinctions.

The flip side of this inclusive grace is an inclusive theology of sin. No exceptions – the radical claim that all are sinners (Jew and Gentile) are under the rule of sin. The Torah can’t solve it. The only thing that can is the grace of God in Christ and the gift of the Spirit.

This ties to Paul’s mission:

The goal of Paul’s mission is the formation of communities whose distinct patterns of life bear witness to an event that has broken with normal criteria of worth. Paul expects baptism to create new life-orientations, including forms of bodily habitus that express the reality of resurrection-life in the midst of human mortality. 569

In other words, the gift of grace carries an expectation of transformation and obedience to the reality of new life in the Spirit.

In Christian history, grace was reapplied in very different contexts to the original missional one of Paul. For example, in the Reformation grace is ‘rediscovered’ by Luther, NOT in the context of preaching the gospel to people who had never heard it to form a new community of Jews and Gentiles detached from their previous cultural identities, but INTERNALLY within Christendom (my term not Barclay’s). In other words, grace was applied as

“a tool for the inner reform of the Christian tradition, its critical edge turned against believers, undermining not their pre-Christian criteria of worth but their pride or purpose in achieving Christian worth … an attack on the believer’s confidence or independence in adhering to Christian norms. 570

The ‘law’ is reinterpreted as = a reliance on self-righteousness. And Judaism unfortunately is therefore seen as a religion of works from which Paul was freed by the grace of G0d.

Augustine was key here as one who interpreted “boasting” in believers as “pride” of those who attribute merit to themselves and not to God. It is this inner turn of grace within the life of the believer (which is not what Paul was talking about) which is then taken up so famously by Luther. Paul’s polemic against ‘works of the law’ are taken to mean “subjective evaluation of one’s own good works as effective for salvation.” 571-72

Reading this, I’d put Barclay closer to the side of the ‘New Perspective’ which has been making similar points (if not identical, Barclay’s approach of the incongruous nature of God’s grace and framework of worth are crucially new).

He identifies his departure from the New Perspective around the theology of Paul’s mission.

A criticism of Sanders for example was that he found actually little difference between Christianity and Judaism – both were religions of grace. The ‘problem’ of Judaism was that it was not Christianity.

Famously also J D G Dunn had argued that Sanders’ Jewish Covenantal Nomism’ actually preached “good Protestant doctrine” (grace is God’s initiative [prior], human effort is the response to divine initiative, and that good works are the fruit of salvation, not its root). Justification by faith for Paul, according to Dunn, seemed little more than the boundaries had been widened to include Gentiles.159

N T Wright’s fulfilment theology, where Israel’s sin was to hold on to ethnic and national privilege despite the righteousness now being available to all nations, also tends to downplay the importance of grace in Paul’s theology. 163

So Barclay wants to highlight that it is the theology of the Christ-gift given to all that lies behind Paul’s radical mission.

A nice line:

“It is because grace belongs to no one that is goes to everyone” 572

“Paul’s ecclesiology has its roots in his soteriology of grace”

A challenge for churches today is to identify and re-articulate “what it is about the good news that makes them socially and ideologically distinctive.”

I think he means by this that grace was deeply radical in Paul’s day, it remains deeply radical today. Not only ‘internally’ in how no individual can be ‘worthy’ of God and needs grace, but also in how churches can be communities of grace in a fast-changing post-Christendom culture.

A culture where little can be taken for granted any more in how ‘church’ and ‘gospel’ and ‘grace’ are understood.

And perhaps a culture that is perhaps as deeply divided in its own way as Paul’s was in terms of social, religious, gender, economic and cultural boundaries.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Grace reimagined: Paul and the Gift

img_20161104_225105Looking forward to preaching at MCC tomorrow. As a one off sermon rather than part of a series, it’s going to be about grace; connected to working through John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift. Hopefully the sermon will not be a lecture on the book! Will be trying hard to earth it.

Prof Barclay was in Maynooth last year.

What would you say grace is?

Something like the unconditional love of God? Or God’s unmerited favour to sinners?

Far greater minds than mine have hailed this book as a masterpiece and one that will re-shape how grace is understood within Christian scholarship and the wider church (Have a read of the endorsements on the Eerdmann’s website above).

Having spent quite a bit of time researching and writing a book chapter ‘The New Perspective and the Christian Life: Solus Spiritus’ within The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life this is an area I find fascinating.

Not so much on ‘Old’ versus ‘New’ (I don’t really have a dog in that fight), but how the discussion relates to mission, how the gospel is presented, the role of the Spirit (pneumatology), the place of Israel, the radical implications of who can be righteous before God (ecclesiology) and how (soteriology), the identity of Jesus (Christology) and how to read the Bible as a whole (narrative vs systematic) and how we understand the Christian life itself.

So a lot of things are tied up in understanding Paul.

So it is fantastically impressive to see John Barclay cut with a surgeon’s knife through over 40 years of contentious debate between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Perspectives. His operation is clinical (in the best sense), analytical, massively learned and compelling.

A huge issue that he brings out so well is that a lot of the confusions and disagreements about Paul, grace, justification and works, is that people are often working with different understandings of what grace actually is and how it works.

For example, many people say that grace is ‘free’ and ‘unconditional’. But what does unconditional actually mean in practice?

Does it mean that God’s saving grace in Christ is unconditional (it is not conditioned on anything we do or are)? OK. But is grace still free or unconditional after that?

Protestants have deep anxieties about subsequent ‘works’ being mixed up with grace and talk a lot about grace being ‘free’ if it is truly to be grace. Catholics generally don’t (they talk about an infused righteousness that can go up and down in the Christian life).

‘Old’ Perspective people are generally Reformed and have been dead set against some ‘New’ Perspective voices that seem (to them) to make works part of saving faith and so undermine grace.

E P Sanders, who kicked off the whole debate in 1977, talked about Judaism as a religion of ‘Covenantal Nomism’ – Jews were already ‘in’ the Covenant by grace. All of Judaism, he said, was a ‘religion of grace’ and therefore Jews had the task of ‘staying in’ by keeping the Torah. And the implication was that Christianity worked much the same way.

But this challenged ‘Old Perspective’ ideas that went back to Luther and in some ways all the way to Augustine. Namely, that Paul’s solution of grace was in contrast to Jewish legalism. The gospel of grace was an answer to legalism (self-righteousness).

Today, the dominant way evangelicals talk about grace and the gospel is in terms of liberation from self-righteousness (trying to save ourselves). This is good news to be sure, but was Paul talking about grace as salvation from legalism?

Barclay’s book is so important for a number of reasons: he is a world class scholar on Paul. He also has done years of research into gift in the Greco-Roman world and also has discussed in detail the ‘history of grace’ – through people like Marcion, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Sanders and modern scholarship.

Barclay’s brilliant move is to offer an original and creative 6 fold matrix for defining what grace actually is and how it works within the realm of gift. This then becomes his analytical tool for seeing how grace is being understood and used by Paul and also by those theologians through history.

Reading through his extensive conclusions I found myself nodding in agreement and having plenty of ‘Ah Ha’ moments when something vague became crystal clear. He has a terrific gift of his own for writing clearly and logically. In doing so he has forged, not a middle way between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Perspectives, but a way that helps to bring out the best insights of both into a fresh and convincing understanding of grace.

But that’s not all. Paul’s theology of grace is worked out in mission to Gentiles. Barclay sees how Luther’s reconfiguration of grace, while departing from Paul in significant ways, was still a brilliant re-application of grace in the context of Medieval Catholicism. As we think about grace today, we also need to be thinking about how it applies missionally – and he finishes the book with insightful ideas for grace in our contemporary Western world (one or two of which I will be nicking tomorrow).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

John Barclay in Maynooth: the incongruity of grace

John Barclay , Lightfoot Professor of Divinity, Durham University was speaking in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth this evening on ‘Grace as Free Gift: Freedom from What?’ This was the opening keynote address of the Irish Theological Association Annual Conference.

His 2015 book Paul and the Gift is one of those very big books a top scholar writes at the peak of his / her career. I don’t mean in big in size (although at over 600 pages it ain’t small) but in significance. It is the fruit of many years of research and has caused a substantial amount of reaction and debate, most to my knowledge very positive.

If you are keen you can read two substantial reviews at Books & Culture by Scot McKnight and Wesley Hill  Others of a more Reformed persuasion can be found here  (Thomas Schreiner) and Alistair Roberts here. Ben Witherington (as he is wont to do) did a mammoth blogging review in dialogue with John Barclay – like a mini-book in itself.

img_20161104_225105And if you are really keen you can always buy and read the book – I’ve a copy (here’s a pic) and plan to read it over Christmas if all goes well.

All to say is that this post isn’t yet another review (which would be a bit difficult since I’ve only glanced through it as yet and have read reviews). But it is some observations and thoughts on tonight’s lecture.

First, Barclay developed his argument with clarity, brevity and good humour in four sections.

1. GRACE IS IN THE FIELD OF GIFT

This is talking about grace in general. Remember when someone gave a you a nice gift? Or invited you to dinner? What is going on? The act of grace you have experienced is a free, voluntary act. You are not legally obligated to respond! Neither (I hope) are you eating the dinner and working out a budget of what it cost your host in terms of time and money so that you know exactly how much to ‘pay back’ when you invite them around in return – the gift is non-calcuable. But note the sense of obligation to reciprocate often created by a gift. But the main thing a gift is doing is building relationship – they are personal. They are also ‘discriminatory’ in the sense that you have received that invitation because the person likes you – they haven’t invited a total stranger or someone they don’t like.  Barclay gave the example of a will – you leave money to people and causes you have affinity with. You might not leave money to the local dog shelter because you believe that your money is better spend helping humans .. this is discriminatory grace.

In the ancient world, the expectation was that the gods gave favour in this sort of discriminatory fashion – to people of value and worth. So the qualifying factors – perhaps your ethnic identity, gender (usually male preference), your moral superiority etc – determined the giving of grace. For God / gods to do otherwise would be to cause upheaval and social chaos – where is justice and social order if grace is indiscriminate?

2. GRACE AS FREEDOM FROM PRIOR CONDITIONS OF WORTH  (the incongruity of grace)

This is where Christian grace becomes revolutionary and truly shocking. God’s grace is given without regard to ethnic, moral, gender or any other conditions. In fact ‘Christ died for the ungodly’. Repeatedly in the NT  (but also foreshadowed in the OT – I think more could have been said here on texts like Deut 10:14-22, Isaiah 58:6-7, Job 29:12-17 which make clear that God’s impartial love and grace is intrinsic to the OT and simply carried on a climax in the NT) it is stressed that God’s grace is unconditioned – Jesus and the Prodigal Son, Paul telling the Corinthians that it was exactly that they were NOT rich, wise, clever and powerful that they were chosen by God – it was in this choice that God was demonstrating his ‘foolishness’ (Paul is not into building false self-esteem here!).

This is Barclay’s important notion of the ‘incongruity’ of grace – it does not make logical sense – it is a misfit between the gift and the worth of the recipient.

This radical notion of grace has been central to all Western forms of theology – Catholic and Protestant. But there are struggles and differences in how the incongruity works out in the life of a Christian.

Famously, for Luther is it ‘simil iustus et peccator‘ – simultaneously justified and a sinner. This does NOT mean that Luther is thinking introspectively that he in himself is both a sinner and righteous person. He means that he is a 100% a sinner and that he is 100% righteous only because he is united with Christ and his righteousness. In other words, for Luther, grace was permanently incongruous.

Others, in different ways have wanted to square God’s incongruous grace with the expectation that grace will be transformative – and therefore effective in making the changed sinner more congruent with God’s final justice. Augustine, Aquinas  and Calvin all wrestled with this.

Barclay referred to Therese of Lisieux who, near death, said that if she was to be judged according to works then she would have no works – all she would have were the works of Christ in her (very Lutheran indeed!).

But the Christian tradition as a whole have agreed that God’s grace truly is a wonderful and life-giving freedom from being in some way good enough to be chosen by God. (Again a text like Deuteronomy emphasises similar themes – Israel is specifically told she was chosen exactly NOT because she deserved it).

3. GRACE AS FREEDOM FROM OBLIGATION?

Here we get the crux of popular distortions of grace among a lot of contemporary Christianity – both Catholic and Protestant. These distortions are shaped by a Western notion that grace is not really grace unless it is ‘unconditional’. In other words, there is absolutely no expectation of reciprocity or return.

There is a key difference between ‘unconditioned’ grace and ‘unconditional’ grace. One is the basis on which grace is given, the other is the expectation of return in light of grace.

Barclay mentioned Kant (grace is grace only if there is no obligation) and Derrida here – who said that creating any sense of obligation in the recipient destroyed the sense of gift. It was better to give anonymously. Indeed the best gift would be given when you are dead – then there is no chance of obligation of a return gift! This is typical of the idea of unobliging gift – no strings attached at all.

Yet the Bible has little difficulty in the idea of obligation in light of God’s grace. For Paul, the grace of God is revealed in Christ. That gift places believers under the lordship of Christ (literally slavery to Christ) – Christians are under new ownership and are ‘to live to the Lord’ and ‘live a life worthy’ of the gospel.

But a key qualifier here is that the gift of grace created relationship. There is a new status – beloved son, adopted by the Spirit, abba Father .. out of which the believer is to live a new life in love and thankfulness to God. And this is a social context – worked out in community

It is only because of our radical individualism that we can imagine there is no obligation of a gift of grace given.

4. GRACE AS FREEDOM FROM PRE-CONSTITUTED CRITERIA OF WORTH

Barclay has been forging a path that is between Old and New Perspectives on Paul. In this section he sounded distinctly ‘New Perspective’ in that his concern is that grace too often has been interpreted in narrow individual categories – John Newton’s Amazing Grace captures wonderful truth but is detached from the social implications of unconditioned grace.

Take Galatians (on which Barclay did his PhD): the real issue is not works-righteousness he says, but WORTH. The pagan Galatians were not deemed worthy by the Judaizers until they were circumcised. But says Paul, any pre-conditions of worth are utterly destroyed by God;s grace – so Galatians 3:28

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

In Corinthians, God’s grace subverts human ideas of worth – they are simply not worthy by standards of the ancient world. This is actually God’s point in choosing them. There is an intentionality in God’s grace to turn human ideas of worth on their head. This is why the early church was socially revolutionary (again a New Perspective feel to this, although he did also say that while NP got the social dimensions of justification well, it tended to lose the theological motive for how and why Jews and Gentiles were brought into one new community – that theological basis being God’s grace). Justification by grace alone created new communities formed only by people who were recipients of grace and not on any other criteria at all.

The context for Paul was missional – grace dissolves existing value systems regarding age, education, social status, gender, ethnicity, wealth etc.

APPLICATIONS

Here Prof Barclay was interesting and pastorally very helpful. Note the title of part 4 – it is not guilt or merit but WORTH. Grace tells us that the gospel is for all regardless of their worth.

Two areas of application:

First, chatting to him afterwards, he made a very interesting point about ageing – old age is the hardest time of life: you are losing friends, status, work, health, strength, social mobility, and maybe even your mind. This is where the gospel really impacts at a deep level for it speaks of a worth that is not measured by any of these things – a worth that is only dependent on God’s grace and this gives hope beyond loss of all we hold most dearly and that which currently gives us value and esteem.

Worth asking ourselves a question – how would you cope do you think if all that currently gives you a sense of worth was taken away?

Second, in a ‘sinless’ society with little notion of guilt this is another way of talking about the good news. He commented that numerous students and young people are under enormous pressure to measure up in a social media saturated society – cyber bullying, internet shaming, constant criticism, hierarchies of acceptance, pressure to perform and conform are more intense in a globally connected world.

Here God’s grace remains revolutionary good news – there is life and acceptance and welcome in a new community of brothers and sisters who gather around the Lord’s table solely on the basis of grace – nothing else.

This is why it is so important to work towards churches where there is real diversity – across gender, social, money, culture and ethnic lines. For this is a living breathing community of grace where we are reminded that this is what Christianity is all about – it’s not a narrow culturally specific religious club, it is about God’s unconditioned grace in Jesus Christ.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Paul and the Christian life (7) N T Wright an anabaptist at heart?

The final chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective is by a certain N T Wright and it’s called ‘Paul and Missional Hermeneutics’.

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?

Now what on earth new can Wright say about Paul after his colossal 2 volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG). Well, in this short piece he reflects on themes arising from the PFG and, as with pretty well everything he pens, it is engaging, thought-provoking and enjoyable prose.

The term ‘missional hermeneutics’ is a nifty one: it relates to both Paul’s identity and task. He’s a missionary who is doing hermeneutics – thinking, praying and writing in dialogue with the Scriptures of Israel in light of his missionary task. So tightly are these two aspects woven together, Wright says that “we may say that Paul’s mission was hermeneutical and that his hermeneutics were missional.”

And it’s Paul’s missional hermeneutics that Wright focuses on here. He thinks it a useful phrase for three reasons:

  1. Christian hope: where Scripture is read through the a new creation lens – a new-creational horizon – and this frames the missionary task within the larger ‘mission of God’.
  2. It ties in to how the authority of Scripture works – the authority of God that “gets things done” – that is much more about transformative action than abstract answers to tricky theological problems. What Wright calls a “more dynamic hermeneutic” which forms missional communities.
  3. The nature of the NT representing documents written “to build up and energize the church to be God’s people in God’s world, living between Jesus’s resurrection and the final renewal.” Where the primary task of mission is served by theology and not the other way around. Thus Wright’s central argument in the PFG in his own words is

The central argument is that we should understand how Paul invented Christian theology in the first place or, to be more specific, how Paul was teaching his communities the vocational task of learning to work with Scripture in hand, prayer as the energy, Jesus as the focus, the church as the matrix, and God’s future as the goal. (182)

And so a consistent core concern in the NT is that the church would live up to its calling and task to ‘be who they are’ – the holy people of God. Where the church would embody a previously unimagined body politic in the ancient world.

But, Wright here acknowledges a puzzle (or maybe a puzzling silence would capture it better) – there is just not much said about the task of this new church body to ‘do mission’ in the ancient world. It’s not there in Paul however much Wright says he wishes it were.

I grew up in churches which assumed that the early church was always being encouraged to “do mission” in some way or another, because that’s what we were all trying to do, usually in the Platonic form I mentioned earlier. We were all supposed to be telling our neighbors about Jesus; and it was assumed that the early church did that as well. But Paul, perhaps to our surprise, gives us no direct warrant for that. (182-3)

Of much more prominence is the Pauline call for the church to be two things – united (across all boundaries) and holy (living lives worthy of the gospel).

So what is mission? How is it enacted in the world?

Wright has come to the view that it is primarily achieved in and through the church living up to this dual calling – “a united and holy community in the Messiah”. A sign to the world; a challenge to the powers and principalities; a new way of being human, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.A way of life that can face the reality and pain of suffering incurred by violent rejection by the world.

And, it is by looking at the church that the world will “see the lordship of Jesus at work”.

Wright goes to Philippians 2:1-18 as the closest place where Paul talks of the missional task of the church.  See 2:14-16

There must be no grumbling and disputing in anything you do. That way, nobody will be able to fault you, and you’ll be pure and spotless children of God in the middle of a twisted and depraved generation. You are to shine among them like lights in the world, clinging to the word of life. That’s what I will be proud of on the day of the Messiah. It will prove that I didn’t run a useless race, or work to no purpose.

And Wright sums up what’s going on here like this:

When we stand back for a moment from the whole passage, what do we see? Obviously, the poem of verses 6–11 is one of the most striking christological and also theological statements in all Christian literature. It embodies the missional hermeneutic Paul is expounding, drawing together the great strands of Scripture, from Adam to the Servant, focusing them on Jesus and his shameful death, then broadening out, just as the Servant Songs themselves do, to embrace the world, and thereby celebrating Jesus as its rightful sovereign. And in the context of Philippians, the meaning for a missional hermeneutic is clear. The dark world in which the church must shine like the stars through unity, holiness, and suffering is the world which Caesar claims for his own. (186-7)

And what is going on here in Philippians is just a specific example of his missional hermeneutic that shapes his overall reading of Scripture

Let me take a step back to look at Paul’s overall missional reading of Scripture. The allusions to Isaiah, to Exodus, and to many other passages are not mere random gestures toward a distant text assumed to be authoritative. They fall within an implicit narrative upon which Paul draws at various points. It is precisely, in his hands, a missional narrative: the story of how the creator God called a people through whom he would undo the plight of the world, and of the human race, rescuing the creation rather than abandoning it. This story runs from Genesis to Exodus and on, with highlights such as the close of Deuteronomy and the promises to David and the shocking fact of covenant disloyalty and subsequent exile, and the strange, unfulfilled promises of a glorious return, of God overthrowing the pagans and coming back to Zion to be king, of covenant renewed and creation renewed. (187)

This is Wright’s own pithy summary of his narrative reading of Paul. He freely acknowledges that some reject or struggle with interpreting Paul this way.

One is the still powerful “older Protestant narrative of sinful humans, Jesus as substitute, and heaven after all” – which while capturing elements of Paul’s theology fails to put it in proper narrative context and struggles to embrace the idea of the kingdom coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.

Another is a sort of postmodern critique that sees only an ecclesial power trip at work in such a narrative – where the church as God’s people are the ultimate winners. But, Wright, contends, this is a long way from Paul whose vision for the church is as a suffering community of powerlessness, to be characterised by kingdom-of-God-living, not triumphalism or neo-imperialism.

The Christian life, or ethic, is about living in light of this narrative of new creation. And the church is the spearhead of this missiological task.

All this sounds really quite anabaptist to me – the missionary task of the church is “to be the church” in the world. Mission begins at home – in a Spirit-filled alternative community of love and worship in which ethnic, gender and socio-economic boundaries are overcome. The church’s job is not to control or change the world externally, but be a new creation within the old.

Which makes me recall when Wright spoke in Dublin a few years ago. In the  Q&A I asked him if he was an anabaptist in disguise, which I think he found quite amusing. Despite his rejection of that label then and I guess now, I still think his reading of the NT heads pretty strongly in that direction.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Paul and the Christian life (6) Tara Beth Leach

The penultimate chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective is by Tara Beth Leach on ‘A Symphonic Melody: Wesleyan-Holiness Theology meets New-Perspective Paul’

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?

This angle is an interesting one – Wesley’s concern for holiness – entire or perfect sanctification worked out in a Christian life motivated by pure love for God – immediately makes connections to themes within the NPP.

We’ve seen consistently in chapters so far common strands emerging: – ecclesiology across all boundaries, a new community marked by love, the role of the Spirit in creating and empowering believers to live the Christian life; a theology shaped by a radical and revolutionary new interpretation of the biblical narrative in light of the Apostle’s own experience.

Beth Leach sketches the contours of Wesley’s theology of original sin, prevenient grace, justification, sanctification, holiness and love. The discussion reminds how classically Reformed Wesley’s theology of justification is – leave out prevenient grace and there is no real gap here between the Arminian and Calvinist takes on Paul. Our works cannot save us; we are under the judgement of the law; faith is the only condition for justification, an act of God’s grace in Jesus Christ through whom sin is atoned for and the sinner declared righteous.

The distinctive emphasis of Wesley was how he tied justification together with the necessity and possibility of a radically transformed Christian life. It was not only guilt that is dealt with in Christ, it is also the power of sin. And so Wesley developed his – how would you put it? – positive? optimistic? confident? unrealistic? Pauline? – theology of the Christian life. A theology that taught and expected a life of holiness and love, empowered by the Spirit and marked by changed desires and priorities within.

I’ll put my cards on the table here and say, whatever you might think of Wesley’s version of a ‘two-stage’ reception of the Spirit (fine to have an Aldersgate experience but just don’t force a personal experience into a theological grid to impose on others), his passion, desire and conviction that God is in the business of spiritual renewal and change is far closer to Paul than a theology that one that talks a lot about being ‘saved’ and yet has little expectation of the power and presence of God in the subsequent Christian life.

Beth Leach maps Wesley’s holiness theology onto Paul’s vision for the Christian life, emphasising the latter’s corporate context. Her chapter doesn’t get into critical analysis of Wesley or the contemporary holiness movement, but she hints at the major problem within holiness spirituality and within Old Perspective soteriology – that of individualism. (I’d like to have heard a response to the criticism that Wesley mirrors the Old Perspective tendency to individualism, flowing out of an overly dominant justification theology that tends to flatten Paul’s wider narrative framework). The challenge for both is the Apostle’s call to what she terms a ‘Symphonic Melody’ – where it is only together that the orchestra can play beautiful music, each member needs the other. She concludes this way ..

Beethoven did not write his Overture from Egmont with one instrument in mind, but he also didn’t create it so that every instrument would sound exactly the same. Beethoven wrote the symphony with all the instruments in mind and for each instrument to shine in its unique way …. The beauty of music happens when the ensemble comes together in one unifying voice. In the very same way, our Creator and King did not create the redemptive narrative with one person in mind, but the goal has always been for a holy people. The beauty of it all is when the people gather as one voice; this is when holiness happens.(177-8)

Amen to that lovely image.

Comments, as ever, welcome.