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.


James Davison Hunter on Yoder, Hauerwas and co

In his important and big book on Christianity and culture To Change the World: the irony, tragedy and possibility of Christianity in the late Modern World James Davison Hunter turns his attention to the neo-Anabaptists.

This will be a longer post on what is a significant chapter.

The main difference, he says, between Christian Left and neo-Anabaptists is their attitude to the state. The former seek to use and transform it to aid justice, the latter have an innate distrust of political power. Similarities are an intense dislike of the Christian Right and a highly sceptical view of Western capitalism.

Neo-Anabaptism has its roots in radical Reformation, the rejection of hierarchy and of the structures of Christendom, and the vision of authentic Christian communities. If the Anabaptist tradition is still found in Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites etc, the neo-Anabaptist movement is wider – drawing theologically on Anabaptism’s vision for how to engage the wider 21st world.

Two names best known names [to me anyway :)] are the late John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas.

And let me nail my colours to the wall here – I have great sympathy for the Anabaptist tradition and huge admiration for contemporary exponents like Stanley Hauerwas. I find him a truly prophetic voice; an authentic voice; an honest voice; an inspiring counter-cultural voice who articulates the deeply subversive nature of what it means to follow Jesus in late Western culture. You don’t have to agree with all he says to see that we need prophets like him.

Hunter is right to say that it is not that neo-Anabaptists have no interest in changing the world, but that they have a fundamentally different vision for how to do so.

Main characteristics:

1. Constantinian Error: While Jesus announced and inaugurated the upside-down-Kingdom of God, the story of the church since Constantine has been anything but radical – one where it supports and has been too often corrupted by the status quo. Rather than being radical it became conservative, power-obsessed, wealthy; a custodian of a civil religion while simultaneously losing its prophetic voice to fight for the weak and the vulnerable.

And this submission of the church to the state is nowhere seen more starkly than in the story of capitalism. So dominant has capitalism become, the state’s role and even existence depends on propping it up. [This is right – have you noticed it is our patriotic job to be good consumers so as to help the Irish state survive?].

Capitalism oppresses the poor; panders to greed and selfishness; destroys the environment; leads to a global financial crisis; promotes an insatiable desire for more; replaces God with things as the chief goal of desire. And the American church is up to its neck in sanctifying capitalism. Thus says Hauerwas, ‘God is killing Protestantism and perhaps the church in America, and we deserve it.’

2. The identity of Jesus: big important neo-Anabaptist themes revolve around Jesus. Authentic Christianity will be marked by

the way of the suffering servant who gives up his life for others

the rejection of force and coercion

– a Jesus-like challenge to the political and spiritual powers of the day. The concept of ‘powers and principalities’ is important here. Governments have overstepped their mark, becoming an end in themselves, demanding wholehearted allegiance. Yoder says that the spiritual grip of the powers must be broken. Jesus defeated the powers, his followers are to be free from their grip. Such a calling is communal – when the church is fulfilling its calling it will bear the brunt of the hostility and disdain of the world. The Christian response is one of forgiveness and peace.

a free church that embodies authentic Christian community as a counter-culture to the world. That refuses to endorse and participate in the power structures of the world and is therefore committed to non-violence.

3. The church versus the world

Flowing from this is a strong antithesis between church and world. The present world order is broken, rebellious and violent. Over against this the church is to be the visible foretaste of the kingdom, marked by baptism, Eucharist, preaching, forgiveness, service, peace, justice, love. Hence Hauerwas and his ‘Resident Aliens’ theme. The first and greatest task of the church is to be the church.

So to Hunter’s critique.

His main gripe is that neo-Anabaptism, in a strange parallel to both the Left and Right, still frames its vision in a deeply political way. Discipleship to Jesus is equated with social non-conformity. The very identity of the movement is drawn from opposition to the Christian Right, to the State, to capitalism. The vision for the church is framed against that of the sinful world. It is a ‘passive-aggressive ecclesiology’ – one which depends on the status of the church as a marginal minority community fighting democratic capitalism.

And in tone, the movement is negative. Negative about the world, negative about the failures of the church and its compromises with Christendom, negative about the idolatry of the Christian Right and so on. Hunter uses words like ‘anger, disparagement and negation’ as well as a ‘relentless hostility to all that is not God’. Shane Claiborne gets a mention as an example of the perfectionist, pietistic and separatist tendencies within neo-Anabaptism. In this way, Hunter concludes, neo-Anabaptist joins the ‘politics of negation’ that so dominate American contemporary culture.

Yoder when alive rejected such criticisms, as does Hauerwas today. The church living as an alternative community living a different way of life poses ‘a fundamental challenge to the way of the world’. Far with being pietistic and separatist, such a way of life is deeply political and is radically engaged with culture as it offers a foretaste of the kingdom to come.

We’ll get to Hunter’s own proposal for what he calls ‘faithful presence’ in the next post.

So is this a fair summary and critique of neo-Anabaptism?  Do you agree with its main themes? Why?

My tuppence worth: it seems to me that Hunter is not so much dissenting from any of the three key themes described above, but from the tone and political focus of the movement. It also seems unpersuasive to criticise a movement for being shaped by what it opposes. All theology is contextual, all reform movements are by definition seeking to change the status quo.