Love in Paul (13) Conclusions and suggestions for a love-audit of our lives

This is the final post in a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

We’ve covered a lot of ground. The evidence is overwhelming that love is central within Paul’s own experience and plays a determining role within his entire theological framework.

That’s a significant claim, but the supporting evidence is strong. Too often love in Paul has been overlooked, downplayed or marginalised as some sort of ‘second order’ doctrine.

There are reasons for this – not least the dominance of soteriology in Pauline theology. Centuries of polemical debates about justification – whether RCC/Reformers, New versus Old Perspectives – have tended, particularly within Protestant/evangelicalism, to make one’s position on justification a touchstone of ‘soundness’ or orthodoxy.

E.G. – if you like N T Wright over John Piper you’re suspect on ‘the gospel’ of justification by faith alone. And therefore suspect (not to be trusted) in general.

But, ironically, this passion for orthodoxy can miss the wider purpose of justification in Paul’s thought. Love is not a nice ‘by-product’ of justification – it is the entire point (Galatians 5:6).

What would it look like I wonder if there was equal passion for ‘soundness’ regarding ‘faith working in love’ as in a correct understanding of righteousness by faith alone?

Paul is first and foremost a missionary-pastor. His priority is the moral formation of believers in the fledgling Christian communities that he planted or helped to grow. And that moral formation is framed within a comprehensive theology of love.

For Paul love does the following:

> His understanding of who God is is revolutionised in light of Jesus Christ. God demonstrates his love in the cross. Out of love the Father, Son and Spirit work together of effect salvation.

> The Spirit works to transform believers into the likeness of Christ – a process that has love at its core

> Believers living in communities of love fulfil the Law

> Christian freedom takes the form of self-sacrifical love

> Christian worship revolves around love for God and love for one another

> Love is God’s ‘spiritual weapon’ in an eschatological conflict between the realm of the flesh and the Spirit

> Love is the ‘oil’ which enables the church to function. The apostle knows that without love communities made up of diverse social, ethnic and religious groupings will fall apart.

> Communities of love are missional in that they form a counter-story to the hierarchies of power that shaped the Greco-Roman world

> Love is inseparable from Paul’s theology of financial giving to help fellow brothers and sisters in need.

> Love for God and being loved by God give a robust framework to withstand suffering, persecution and even death

> Love is the primary motive for Christian mission

> Echoing Jesus, love for enemies is to mark a Christian’s response to injustice

> Without love, all Christian ministry is worthless

> Love describes ultimate eschatological hope for believers – it is love alone which will endure forever

In other words, theology and ethics in Paul must not be divorced. They are inseparable.

A Love Audit of Our Lives

Reflecting on this final list again I’m challenged to think about what a ‘love-audit’ of my – or any Christian’s – life would look like

Perhaps something like this: and feel welcome to add your own comments or suggestions – this is very much a thought experiment.

  1. Consider honestly and self-critically each point above and reflect on your own life in light of them.
  2. Move to prayers of confession and repentance (if you have nothing to do here may I suggest you haven’t done point 1 very well!)
  3. Ask the Spirit’s help to deal with areas of un-love in your life – grudges; unforgiveness; arrogance; lack of action; selfishness; disobedience; lack of generosity; bitterness; despair; greed; where unloving means have justified even good ends.
  4. Be accountable – a life of love is a corporate journey. It is to be shared with others – our failures and weaknesses as as well as successes. Have a friend / mentor who can ask you the hard questions and expect truthful answers.
  5. Write down some concrete actions in light of your reflections and act on them
  6. Repeat 1-5 on a continual basis. In this way make love central to your Christian faith and life since this is God’s agenda for his people.

Romans Disarmed – a review

This is a review I did of Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh, Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019 that was recenly published in the journal Studies in Christian Ethics.

My description and critical assessment are contained in the review so I won’t repeat here what is said below – save to say that while I was unpersuaded by the authors’ relentless politicisation of Paul, many important and controversial questions about the meaning and contemporary relevance of the apostle’s magnificent letter to the Romans are addressed within its pages.

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This ambitious book stands in continuity with Keesmaat and Walsh’s Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (IVP Academic, 2004). I use the word ‘ambitious’ in that since probably no other New Testament book has had as much written about it than Romans, it is a daunting task for anyone to write seriously on the letter, let alone do what the authors are attempting to do in this volume. Namely, to use that historical, theological and exegetical work as a basis for articulating a comprehensive anti-imperial interpretation of Romans (ch. 1 ‘Reading Romans and Disarming Empire’) from which to explore how the apostle’s words continue to challenge various expressions of what the authors identify as ‘modern imperialism’ such as: colonialism and the conquest of the Indigenous peoples of Canada (ch. 3 ‘Empire and Broken Worldviews’); home and homelessness (ch. 4. ‘Homeless in Rome’); ecological destruction (ch. 5 ‘Creation and Defilement in Rome’); the economic destructiveness of modern capitalism (ch 6. ‘Economic Justice and the Fabric of Life’); systematic injustice against the poor and marginalised (ch. 7 ‘Welcoming the Powerless’); a culture extolling nationalism, racism, identity politics, power and violence (ch. 8 ‘The Pax Romana and the Gospel of Peace’); and injurious and exploitative sexual behaviour (ch. 9 ’Imperial Sexuality and Covenant Faithfulness’).

But Romans Disarmed is ambitious in other ways as well. The authors note that the ‘disarmed’ in the title is a deliberate double entendre on the way Paul’s epistle ‘disarms’ both the violence of the first-century and modern empires and the way in which Romans itself needs to be disarmed, ‘after centuries of being used theologically as an instrument of oppression and exclusion’ (p. xiii). What they mean by this surfaces regularly throughout the book. The following gives a flavour of the emotive strength of this critique. ‘For this is a text that has been used to justify the tearing of the church asunder … Romans has been wielded as weapon, often in service of theological violence’ (pp. 105-06). Romans has been domesticated by ‘a pietistic interpretation preoccupied with individual salvation or personal righteousness’ (p. 278). As ‘the church has wielded this epistle as a sword within its own theological wars, the letter itself has been strangely (and paradoxically) rendered powerless’ (p. 252). The text has been ‘betrayed’; the church’s preoccupation with the ‘justification’ of the ‘sinner’ has led it to lose sight of Paul’s ‘radical message of how in Jesus Christ those who are unjust are made to be anew, equipped and empowered for lives of justice’ (p. 252). ‘If we are going to disarm Romans, then we will need to disarm the language of salvation and of its exclusionary judgmentalism’ (p. 368).

Chapter 1 is key to the authors’ project in that it unpacks and defends their reading of Paul intentionally seeking to confront and undermine the story of the Roman empire. They do this through a fictional dialogue with a sceptical observer who asks a series of questions. The questions are obviously ones that the authors are anticipating from scholars, readers and reviewers (such as this one). How convincing one finds their answers will largely dictate how persuasive one finds the rest of the book and so I will pay particular attention to this chapter.

Debates about ‘empire criticism’ have been swirling around New Testament studies since the 1990s, particularly associated with Richard Horsley and the ‘Paul and Politics’ group at the Society of Biblical Literature and later with N. T. Wright. Via their interlocutor, the authors engage with John Barclay’s critique of Wright’s account of Paul and Empire (pp. 13-14). They reject Barclay’s argument (Pauline Churches and the Diaspora Jews. Mohr Sieback, 2001, ch. 19) that, for Paul, the Roman empire was effectively insignificant in that it was merely an unnamed bit-part player in a much bigger cosmic conflict between God and the powers (death, sin and the defeat of evil through the victory of God in Christ). They side with Wright in seeing this cosmic battle being embodied in the specific form of Roman idolatry and injustice (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, book 2. Fortress, 2013. pp. 1307-19). And so Romans is interpreted as a deliberate counter narrative to that of Empire; ‘the symbols, vocabulary and structure of the empire underlie the world’ that Paul describes in Romans (p. 14). Despite Paul never mentioning Caesar and his empire, the original recipients living under the cruel injustices of Pax Romana would have ‘got’ the message loud and clear. It is modern readers who need the epistle’s clear anti-empire implications spelt out – which is what the authors then proceed to do in great detail in the rest of the book. They do so in a highly political manner, going beyond Wright’s softer view of implicit subversion to seeing Paul engaging in a systematic programme of cultural, social and political negation against Rome. The result is that Rome is everywhere in Romans. To give one example, ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss’ (Rom 16:16) is a kiss ‘breaking down the racial, political, gender, and economic boundaries of the empire … the loving and respectful kiss that characteriszes the family of Jesus, in contrast to the imperial family of father Caesar’ (p. 137).

The force of this political hermeneutic is earthed in imaginary stories of Iris (a slave) and Nereus (a Jewish believer named in Romans 16:15). It is also expanded in a number of lengthy ‘Targums’ imagining how Paul would write Romans today in our context of empire, racism, nationalism and economic injustice. It shapes a reading of Romans through the lens of home, homelessness and homecoming where traditional themes such as justification and the status of Israel are set in the context of how a diverse community make home together amid empire. It reads creation groaning as Paul referring to destructive Roman environmental practices. It interprets economic themes as crucial to Paul’s letter that then speaks directly into the injustices of contemporary global capitalism and Pax Americana and related issues such as MAGA. It sees Paul’s ‘creational vision and prioritizing of economic justice in the face of imperial economics’ as underpinning a contemporary ‘economy of care’ that will require ‘full-scale paradigm shift in economic life’ (p. 263). It rearticulates salvation as ‘nothing to do with an eternal home in heaven or the release of a guilty conscience’ but as a matter of justice, especially for the poor (p. 368). It interprets the ‘dominion of death’ of Romans 5:14-17, not as a cosmic power, but as ‘an end to the imperial rule of death’ (p. 369 emphasis original).

On a related, but different tack, the authors contrast the degradations of imperial sexuality against a calling by Paul to sexual relationships of faithfulness, justice and covenant love and conclude that committed, faithful Christian homosexual relationships should be seen, not as a threat to marriage but as a witness to its restoration.

Keesmaat and Walsh write with a passion to see Paul’s ancient words speak with relevance and power into our 21st century world. Whether you agree with their arguments or not, a strength of this book is to ‘defamiliarize’ Paul and make readers think afresh about their prior reading of Romans. Few would disagree that the call of all in Rome loved by God to be saints (Rom 1:7) involves participation in a profoundly subversive way of life within diverse communities bonded together by love. Many readers may find themselves in broad agreement with large swathes of their politics. However, if you sense an impending ‘but’ you would be right. In fact, there are several.

Despite the authors’ anticipation of objections of confirmation bias, it is difficult not to conclude that their methodology is open to such criticism. If you are looking for Rome ‘behind every bush’ then you are going to find it. Repeatedly through the book there are arguments from inference. For example, Paul’s words about creation in Romans 8 ‘could only’ have been understood as a critique of the ‘land-destroying’ practices of empire because he visited Judea and Roman cities and must have been aware of the environmental impact of Roman economic exploitation (pp. 172-3). This is a threadbare basis for such firm conclusions. In this vein, the Targums are in significant danger of literally re-writing Romans along the lines of what the authors judge Paul should be saying. I suspect there is not a lot of daylight between the authors’ politics and those of Paul reimagined for our day.

As noted above, there are highly polemical statements made about how others have ‘armed’ Romans. However, apart from general assertions there is no critical engagement with specific representations of such voices. This weakness extends to a lack of detailed engagement with exegetical scholarship, a symptom of where the scale of the book’s ambition becomes problematic. If such a radical re-reading of Romans is to stand up it needs critical dialogue with alternative voices. It also, dare I say, could do with a more gracious tone.

It is not clear what place is left for eschatology in Romans Disarmed. When death in Romans 5 means imperial rule, creation groaning is primarily about Roman environmental malpractice and salvation equals justice, this question becomes a very real one. There is little discussion of the ‘first fruits’ of the Spirit, life in the Spirit versus life in the flesh in the overlap of the ages, divine conflict with hostile powers, nor of the eschatological implications of resurrection, baptism, the Adam / Christ contrast, Israel in the plan of God, and God’s wrath and future judgment – all significant themes in Romans. At one point angels, demons and the powers are specifically excluded from Paul’s list of things unable to separate believers from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (pp. 378-79). The book closes with an invitation to imagine the future world in the present, but such is the weight put on economic justice that one cannot but feel that Paul’s pervasive eschatological emphasis has been flattened out into a this-worldly horizon.

Paradoxically, given the authors’ critique of Christendom and the captivation of the church to the imagination of empire, the broad political ambitions of this book raises questions about how consistent it is with Paul’s understanding of the church’s mission. Such is the strength of the apostle’s focus on the inner integrity of the community, it is a moot point how much room there is, if any, for transforming the Roman world. Based largely on Romans some scholars like T. Engberg-Pedersen (‘Paul’s Stoicizing Politics in Romans 12–13: The Role of 13:1–10 in the Argument’, JSNT 29 (2006): 163–72) and R. Thorsteinsson (‘Paul and Roman Stoicism: Romans 12 and Contemporary Stoic Ethics’, JSNT 29 (2006): 139–61 and Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality.Oxford University Press, 2010) argue that, in contrast to the universal scope of Stoic ethics there is no ‘love for others’ ethic in Paul, the furthest he goes is exhortation to treat outsiders well. Others, like D. Horrell (Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Paul’s Ethics. 2nd ed. Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016) see some common universal ethical norms such as a shared recognition of the good. But generally, the vocation to be an alternative peaceable community in a world ruled by empire is much closer to Barclay’s judgment than Keesmaat’s and Walsh’s expansive political programme. Paul’s silence about Rome may be the most counter-imperial stance of all.

This is the Original Submission of the review. The final published edition was first published online April 20, 2021. Issue published 01 May, 2021. Studies in Christian Ethics 34(2), pp 267-270.

Love in Paul (12) was Paul a proto anabaptist?

We’re getting to the end of a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

This is the third and final post in strand 3. If strands 1 and 2 were ‘vertical love’ (love of God for humanity; human love for God in response), this strand is ‘horizontal love’ – at a human to human level. It is also the strand about which the Apostle Paul has by far the most to say.

In this post we’re focusing on a controversial issue that brings us right into contemporary debates about social justice and cultural transformation. A question raised by study of a Pauline theology of love is this:

Is there a place for loving ‘outsiders’ in a Pauline theology of love?

And linked to this we can add:

How ‘ambitious’ should Christians be about transforming the culture in which according to Christian principles?

Those who believe the church has a God-given mandate to shape society to Christian beliefs belong to a long history that can be traced back to Constantine’s Edict of Milan in AD 313 when Christianity, for the first time, was officially treated benevolently by the Empire, paving the way for it later to become the state religion. It runs through Medieval Catholicism (Aquinas) and into the Reformation. The Reformers disagreed with medieval Catholicism about a lot of things, but the God-given centrality of the church in ordering society was not one of them.

We can call this the cultural transformers corner.

Yet there is a strange paradox to the cultural transformers’ position. Christians follow a Messiah crucified by the state. The first centuries of the church were forged in persecution and martyrdom. Deep down in its DNA, Christianity is a faith formed by suffering at the hands of those in power. And when the church has got into positions of power, let’s just say that it has not tended to end well.

There is still much theological reflecting to do on the relationships between Christianity and colonialism and imperialism – and how both were dependent on a theology of justified violence to advance Western ‘Christian’ values and interests.

All this to say that the cultural transformers’ position sits very uneasily beside the teaching of Jesus. But less recognised is that is also sits very uneasily beside the teaching of Paul. (You may like to read this related post on Paul and non-violence).

Paul and love of ‘Outsiders’

A beginning point: as we have seen in this series it is undeniable that Paul has an overwhelming focus on love within Christian communities.

Some scholars therefore argue that Paul effectively has NOTHING to say about love for outsiders. His focus is on the internal authenticity of the first Christian communities.

So when you read a text like Romans 12:9-21 it is speaking of love restricted within the community of believers. Yes non-believers are to be treated well but there is no command to love them. This is love as an ‘in-group’ ethic. It defines the community of faith and marks them out as distinct from the world.

The implication here is that there is no mandate in Paul for a theology of cultural transformation. Such thinking rests on an expansive understanding of the church’s mission to be an agent by which God transforms the world. Yet Paul has no such agenda. His focus is on the internal integrity of Christian communities that speak of a different story to that of the ‘present evil age’ (Galatians 1:4).

Other scholars do not want to go so far. Not commanding believers to love outsiders is not the same as telling them only to love fellow believers. There are Pauline texts that suggest loving outside the community of faith, and even love of enemies:

1 Corinthians 16:14 “Let all that you do be done in love.”

1 Thessalonians 3:12 “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.”

Philippians 4:5 “ Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”

Galatians 6:10 “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

Romans 12:14 “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

Beyond specific texts, there is then Paul’s framing of the Christian life as the imitation of Jesus – which involves self-sacrificial love of the other, including enemies (Romans 5:8).

Other scholars discern in Paul a recognition of the common good. For example live peaceably with others and be known of good reputation (e.g., Phil 4:5 “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”)

However, it has to be said that such arguments are a long way short of any theological platform for ‘cultural transformation’. At best they are shaped by Paul’s primary concern for mission – how best to win outsiders for Christ.

So it can be argued – and I do – that Paul’s attitude to the state / wider society is certainly far more consistent with how anabaptists read the New Testament than how cultural transformers do.

In other words, yes, it is possible to argue that Paul was a proto-anabaptist.

His concern for a peaceable, loving, non-violent community willing to suffer for the cause of the gospel is consistent with the teaching of Jesus and is, I believe, hard to reconcile with a Christendom perspective of religiously sanctioned power and violence.

As I’ve said before, all this makes me a very bad Presbyterian!

Love in Paul (10) love for one another

We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

This is the first post in strand 3. If strands 1 and 2 were ‘vertical love’ (love of God for humanity; human love for God in response), this strand is ‘horizontal love’ – at a human to human level. It is also the strand about which the Apostle Paul has by far the most to say.

Indeed, he has so much to say about love for one another that I call him the ‘apostle of love’. He’s right up there with John in the frequency and importance of love within the community of God’s people. The love believers are to have for one another is to be THE distingushing mark of these fledging churches, reflecting their new-found identity in Christ and marking them as belonging to a different story and ethic to that of the surrounding nations.

We’ve mentioned earlier how Douglas Campbell calls this ‘agapeism’ – that love captures all that is important about Pauline ethics. And I agree, it does. Let’s take two broad themes in this post, and we’ll continue with others in the next post

The Missional Focus of Pauline Love

Here’s a sweeping generalisation – there is a strange lack of attention paid to the importance of love within Christian mission. There can be much discussion of context, strategy, culture, vision, leadership, apologetics and so on, but, rarely a sustained focus on the most important element of all – the integrity and attractiveness of the Christian community. (happy to be corrected here)

Paul, it seems to me, has a razor sharp awareness that love is essential for the health and witness of his Christian communities. There was nothing like them in the ancient world. No other communities embraced individuals across the profound religious, gender, socio-economic status and ethnic divisions of the ancient world. Believers now have a new primary identity in Christ as brothers and sisters (adelphoi) within God’s household. Previous identity – whether Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave or free – are relativised, not erased they are – radically – now of no spiritual significance.

In this vein, coming from a social-scientific angle, David Horrell (2016) makes the argument that Paul is primarily concerned with the construction of a corporate solidarity that acts to heal inner-communal conflict and draws strength from a vocation to holiness within an immoral world.

So, in Paul, love is not an end in itself. Rather, it is the defining characteristic of the first Christian communities in their new vocation to live lives worthy of the gospel under the Lordship of Jesus Christ within a world that is ‘passing away’ (1 Cor 7:31).

Love is only thing that could possibly hold such ‘households’ together. Love is essential to the life and witness of the church. Without love no church and no family can survive – and that’s as true today as it was then.

Love as following the paradoxical way of Jesus

For Paul, Christian love is cruciform love. God’s love is demonstrated and experienced through the cross of Christ. Cruciform love is costly, it acts for the good of others at the expense of the self.

This is the paradoxical way of Jesus.

Sometimes this can be misunderstood. Christianity does not call believers to be ‘doormats’ – walked over by others at every turn. Nor does it call for self-abnegation or self-hatred. Rather, it proclaims that real flourishing, happiness and purpose is found in loving others. Loving another means acting for their good, even at cost to the self. Christianity is a corporate faith, which is another way of saying it is orientated around living well with others within a network of mutually loving relationships.

This conflicts head on with Western individualism that says fulfilment is found in self-realisation, finding yourself, loving yourself, expressing yourself and so on. This sort of ‘expressive individualism’ is centered on the self rather than on loving others. It has no place for community and its ‘eschatology’ is consumerist – short-term individual pleasure or achievement. There is nothing ‘bigger’ or more significant than the self.

We see other-focused Jesus-type love applied by Paul to a multiplicity of situations and contexts. Here are some examples and we could keep going at length here:

  • Other-focused love is seen in his repeated appeals to maintain unity (Rom 12:16; 14:1-15:7; 1 Cor 1:10; 12:21-27; 14:12; Gal 6:10; Eph 4:1-3; Phil 2:1-2; Col 3:12-13; 1 Thes 5:12-15; Titus 3:1-2, 8)
  • In his many warnings against divisive attitudes or behaviour (1 Cor 3:1-4, 16-17; 6:1-11; 8:9-13; 10:24, 31-33; 11:17-34; 2 Cor 12:19-20; Gal 5:15; 6:3-4; Eph 4:25-32; Phil 2:3, 14-15; Col 3:5-9; 1 Thes 4:3-6; 1 Tim 6:2b-10; 2 Tim 2:23, 3:1-5; Titus 3:9-11).
  • Converts to Christ are to act in love for each other (1 Thes 4:9; Rom 12:9-10; 14:15; 1 Cor.8:1; Eph 4:2, 15-16; Phil 2:1-2; Col 2:2).
  • Famously, in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, all Christian life and ministry is of no value at all if it is not done in love.
  • The Colossians are encouraged to clothe themselves with love on top of a list of other virtues (Col.3:14)
  • In 1 Thessalonians 5:8 all believers are to put on the breastplate of faith and love.
  • Paul prays that believers’ love would grow as they await the coming of the Lord (1 Thes 3:12; Phil 1:9) and is glad to hear of a church’s love (e.g., 1 Thes 3:6; 2 Thes 1:3).
  • In Philippians he is thankful when Christ is preached ‘out of love’ (Phil 1:16) – regardless of who the preachers are.
  • He rejoices when he hears of believers’ love for God’s people (Col 1:4, Philem 1:5, 7)
  • He encourages the Corinthians to show the ‘genuineness’’ of their love by giving financial help for brothers and sisters in need (2 Cor 8:8, 24).
  • Rather than use apostolic authority, he prefers to appeal to Philemon about Onesimus ‘on the basis of love’ (Philem.1.9).
  • And, as a pastor, it is significant how often Paul expresses his deep love for the communities to whom he ministers (e.g., 1 Thes 2:8; 3:12; 1 Cor 4:21; 16:24; 2 Cor 2:4; 8:7; 11:11; Phil.4:1).

That’s a pretty strong case for ‘agapeism’ right there. More to come in the next post.

Love in Paul (9) Love, Faith, the Spirit and Union with Christ

We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

This is the last post within strand 2 – the responsive love of God’s people to God’s prior love. In this post I want to sketch the connections between faith (pistis) and union with Christ. The role of the Spirit is critical here. And the ‘outworking’, or we may even say ‘purpose’, of being united in Christ through faith alone is seen in a life of love.

The gospel calls for a response of faith which results in believers being joined together ‘in Christ’. This is a remarkable image when you think about it. It speaks of Paul’s high christology that is some cosmic / spiritual sense all believers are united together within the ‘body of Christ’ – the church.

To be ‘in Christ’ is therefore an eschatological concept – believers ‘in Christ’ belong to God’s new creation (Gal 6:14-15; 2 Cor 5:14, 17). Elsewhere Paul talks about them being baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection.

A tight connection between faith, the Spirit and love is typically Pauline. It is the Spirit through whom God’s love is poured out into believers’ hearts (Rom 5:5) and through whom God is known (1 Cor 8:3; Eph 3:19). Indeed, faith and love are often mentioned alongside one another (Eph 6:23; 1 Thess 1:3; 3:6; 5:8; 1 Tim 1:14). The primary evidence of the empowering presence of the Spirit is love (Gal 5:6, 13).

It is important we see the apostle’s pastoral concerns here. So often we get lost in technical theological debates about justification and soteriology that we miss how Paul’s priorities are primarily ethical – that believers would be living lives of love and holiness pleasing to God. This is his heartfelt plea to the believers to whom he writes.

Paul leaves some things unsaid – he doesn’t really explain how someone ‘in Christ’ is transformed by the Spirit into a person of love. The NT scholar Michael Gorman lists different biblical images or ideas that various scholars have argued captures how union and moral transformation ‘work’ in Paul: participation, incorporation, identification, (mutual) indwelling and even (Christ-) mysticism (Gorman, 2019). Volker Rabens (2014) has done outstanding work on unpacking the relational role of the Spirit within the community of the church.

Most recently, Douglas Campbell’s Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (2020) gives five chapters to love within the theme of ‘Formation’. For Campbell love explains everything important about Pauline ethics – he calls this ‘agapeism’. And I’m inclined to agree with him on that point.

Two points to note – and these are absolutely crucial for understanding the theology and pastoral mission of the apostle Paul. Both, I think, are too often missed or marginalised in teaching and preaching today

1) Christianity is a Communal Faith

Or, to put it negatively, Paul knows nothing of individualism. The idea that a believer would or could try to follow Jesus apart from a community of believers would be incomprehensible to the apostle. Faith, the Spirit, and union in Christ brings a Christian into a new community – and it is within that new community that he / she is live and love and forgive and serve and teach and care. And it is in doing so that the Spirit works to effect moral transformation. That doesn’t happen on your own.

If you are reading this it’s likely that like me, you are a Western individualist – shaped and formed by an individualist culture that says follow your own dream, do your own thing, be yourself, you’re worth it etc etc. It is easy to frame the gospel around this sort of narrative – it’s about me and my happiness, or my experience of God’s love, or my assurance about the future and so on. Of course the gospel is personal and individual – it has to be real for each person. It requires personal faith and repentance and a turning around to follow the Lord. But it’s a reduced and distorted Christianity that makes it all about individual experience or individual salvation.

Yes, church can be the hardest place to be a Christian. Yes, churches can be toxic. Yes, any community is going to be difficult. But this was nothing new to Paul – just read 1 Corinthians! His passion is to see renewal and reform – the idea of opting out to go my own way was inconceivable.

2) Every Christian is in a spiritual battle – and love is God’s weapon in the war

Second, love lies at the heart of an eschatological conflict between forces belonging to the old age and the new.

In 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 love is both the goal of God’s salvation and an eschatological foretaste of God’s new creation in the present. Within the present believers are to ‘pursue love’ (1 Cor 14:1) and are later exhorted ‘Let all that you do be done in love’ (1 Cor. 16:14).

In Galatians love grows and matures in opposition to attitudes, desires and actions that belong to the ‘present evil age’ (Gal 1:4) or ‘kosmos’ (world). It is only the empowering presence of the Spirit which can transform uncontrolled ‘desires of the flesh’ (Gal 5:16, epithymia, ‘desire’) that lead to destructive ‘works of the flesh’ (Gal 5:19). In contrast, ‘those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions (pathēma, ‘passion’) and desires’(Gal 5:24).

In the ancient world it was not unusual for the passions to be seen as obstacles to a virtuous life. What is of profound importance in Paul is how the Spirit and love is the means by which the battle is fought and won. Love in this eschatological perspective is God’s ‘weapon’ in a cosmic battle against destructive forces opposed to his good purposes.

Think about this for a moment. This is the heartbeat of the Christian faith. It takes us back to the previous post on Stanley Hauerwas and the way of Jesus being love and non-violence. The radical core of Christian faith is love – not force, not selfish power, not exclusion, not human reason, not Torah obedience. It is the way of the cross. And this all flows from God’s own loving nature – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

LOVE IN PAUL (8) Towards a theology of love and suffering (and a critique of some contemporary Christian worship songs)

When bad things happen to us we often doubt the love of God. Is he really there? Does he care?

We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

We are in strand 2 – human response to God’s prior love.

So how to respond to God when our world falls apart? When a beloved spouse dies?  When a business collapses and bankruptcy looms? When a doctor says ‘I’ve got some bad news …’?

However counter-intuitive it feels to us today, for Paul there is no conflict between suffering, persecution, hardship and even martyrdom and being loved by God.

To put it another way, being loved by God is no guarantee of some sort of divine protection from the harsh realities of life.

Now, that is a lot easier to say than to live through, but we need to get a theology of suffering in right perspective. If we don’t, then when suffering comes we are unprepared. Its arrival can shatter faith – and reveal unexamined assumptions about some sort of guarantee of divine protection and blessing.

Love and Suffering

Recall how I’ve been arguing that there are deep continuities (as well as some profound discontinuities) between Paul the OT faith in regards to love. This call to faithful trust in God whatever happens brings us back to OT wisdom literature and especially to the book of Job.

If you’ve read Job you may recall Job’s response to his wife who urged him to ‘curse God and die’. In her thinking there was an unspoken assumption of divine protection and blessing for those who loved God.

When God did not keep his side of the bargain, all bets were off.

But Job rejected her advice, saying that

Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad? (2:10)

And he is affirmed for this right answer.

Paul stands in this Jewish wisdom tradition: God is still good, even if things that happen to us are not.

His emphasis is on trusting God in the face of ageing, and whatever hardships come our way, while awaiting a future eternal glory (2 Cor 4:16-18).

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Indeed, from this eschatological perspective Paul does not even address the question ‘Why me?’ or ‘Why suffering?’. These things are inevitable and to be expected – but they do not have the last word. He can even call them ‘light and momentary troubles’ of relative insignificance compared to what lies ahead.

Now I’m not suggesting that telling someone in the middle of a traumatic crisis to cheer up because their troubles are relatively insignificant is a good strategy for pastoral care.

But I am suggesting that we need to get our theology of love and suffering right before that crisis hits. Paul’s words could easily be misunderstood. He is not trivializing suffering. He is putting it in a far bigger eschatological perspective. He has a profound understanding that our lives are lived in the overlap of the ages – where the forces of Sin and Death and Evil still hold sway.

And, while those forces hold no fear for the Christian in Christ, they are still real and will do their worst. Since we are not yet in the new creation, all believers will feel their cold grip.

This means we need a theology that combines being loved by God with a theology of suffering, lament and longing for that new creation.

Distorted Love

And I’m suggesting that this sort of theology is lacking within a lot of contemporary Christian spirituality. Or, to put it another way, what Job and Paul (and Jesus) tell us is increasingly alien to much Western Christianity, distorted as it is by a misshaped theology of divine love.

I’d better explain that rather big assertion.

We are inundated with songs and sermons celebrating the immeasurable love of God – that we are special, that we are chosen, that we are the apple of his eye, that we are beloved etc.

None of this is untrue of course. But it is what is not said that is as important as what is said. The overwhelming impression can be little different from a session of hug therapy that helps us feel better about ourselves when we leave.

Within this culture of peppy optimism about ourselves and about God’s all-embracing and unconditional love, there is little room left for lament, for expressing anger, for tears, for confession and repentance, for grief.

David Smith, who teaches on our MA programme at IBI, recently wrote a book on this. Stumbling toward Zion: Recovering the Biblical Tradition of Lament in the Era of World Christianity. After the death of his wife, his experience of much Christian worship left him feeling like an exile. It had little or nothing to say to someone grieving a deep loss.

He laments the absence of lament in the “unremittingly affirmative, positive and celebratory” ethos of much contemporary Western Christianity.

Worse still, more than a few of those songs are more like romantic love ballads. They speak of being held in the arms of God the lover who will protect us and help us feel secure. Here’s one very well-known example:

Hold me close let your love surround me
Bring me near draw me to your side
And as I wait
I’ll rise up like an eagle
And I will soar with you
Your spirit leads me on
By the power of your love

Geoff Bullock, 1992 Word Music/Maranatha Music

This is the language of sexual intimacy between two lovers. It is personal and private, not public and corporate. The music is soft and emotive. Within the 240 word lyrics I counted 49 first-person pronouns (I, me, my) and not one plural pronoun. God becomes ‘You’ – an ambiguous term that makes it even easier for the lyrics to fit into the genre of a pop love song. In this song – and many others like it, Jesus does not appear – nor is there any reference to the Bible story, the incarnation, the cross, future hope etc.

There are hundreds of other examples we could talk about. Maybe that’s a subject for a blog series. Save to say that all this is a long way from the theology of Paul (and the rest of the NT)

Love in Paul (7) Experiencing the love of God

We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

We are in strand 2 – the responsive love of God’s people (now both Jews and Gentiles) in light of God’s prior redemptive action.

Our focus in this post is how, in Paul, the response of believers to divine love involves more than obedience. It is, at heart, experiential.

I think this is often missed in theological discussions of the Pauline theology, that tend, for example, to be dominated by technical debates about how justification works. All to easily we end up making Paul some sort of Enlightenment rationalist writing abstract theology for academics when he was nothing of the sort.

Repeatedly the apostle affirms that God’s people are loved by God (1 Thes 1:4; 2 Thes 2:13, 16; Rom 1:7; 2 Cor 13:11, 14; Eph 1:4-5, 2:4, 3:17-9, 5:1-2, 6:23; Col 3:12). Faithful obedience flows from personal experience of God’s elective love in Jesus Christ.

Let’s look at some texts:

Romans 5:5: Love and the Spirit

And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

All believers experience God’s love being poured into their hearts through the Spirit. [An aside: N T Wright argues divine love in this verse refers to our love for God. But this is unconvincing. It makes much more sense to read it as God’s love for us].

In his commentary on Romans Paul Jewett concludes that believers have nothing to boast about except their shared experience of the love of God conveyed by the gift of the Spirit (Jewett, 2007).

Also notice Paul’s ‘us’ and ‘our’ language. It’s very likely he is talking about his own experience here of God’s extravagant love and grace for a zealous persecutor of the church.

Romans 8:35-39 and Ephesians 3:18-19:

These famous texts speak for themselves. This is no abstract theology but one that speaks of a profound, personal and yet corporate experience of divine love.

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Ephesians 3:18-19

18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

It’s crucial to see what is going on here. Divine love is now reframed from the OT; it now has a Christological shape. Experience of the love of Christ leads to being filled with all the fullness of God (3:19).

These sort of Trinitarian connections between Father, Spirit and Messiah represent remarkable theological development in Paul’s understanding of divine love.

For God’s people, being loved by Father, Son and Spirit should lead to responses of gratitude, obedience and worship.

Indeed it’s fair to ask this question:

If someone claims the name ‘Christian’ but shows no signs of an experiential response of gratitude, obedience and worship in light of God’s prior love, have they really encountered the love of God at all?

Love in Paul (6) Love and ‘the obedience of faith’ (contra ‘when churches go toxic’)

We are in the second strand of three great themes that weave their way through the biblical narrative, OT to NT. The first is God’s love. The second is human love in response to God’s prior love.

Human Response to God’s Prior Love

In the OT, the appropriate response of Israel to Yahweh’s electing and saving love is humility, reverent obedience and heartfelt worship. Love in this perspective takes the form of faithfulness and practical obedience. It is about whole-hearted allegience.

If asked, what would you say is the opposite of love? Perhaps many of us would say hate, or, following Miroslav Volf’s insights from Exclusion and Embrace, perhaps the worst attitude of all to the ‘Other’ is indifference.

But in the Bible narrative, concerning God’s people, a more accurate answer would be idolatry – allegiance to something or someone other than God.

The fascinating thing is that in Paul these Jewish themes continue but are radically reimagined in light of the arrival of the Messiah.

Paul: An Inseparable Connection between Love and Obedience

Have you ever noticed that the surprising, fact is that Paul rarely, if ever, exhorts believers to love God? He never cites the first great commandment (love the Lord your God). The second great commandment (love your neighbour as yourself) is explicitly mentioned twice (Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14).

There are plenty of texts in Paul that refer to love for God but they tend to assume its existence rather than exhort its practice (Rom 8:28; 1 Cor 2:9; 8:3; 16:22; Eph 6:24; 2 Tim 3:4).

Paul’s real concern seems to be elsewhere. As a pastor he is concerned about the spiritual ‘progress’ of believers in his churches. Maturity has a specific form – Christ-like love. Think of his exasperation at the Galatians, longing that Christ would be formed in them but concerned he has been wasting his time.

In other words, Paul’s priority is that a deep experience of divine love will lead to a life of obedience to Christ characterised by love for others within the covenant community. An example is Romans: the apostle frames his mission as bringing about the ‘obedience of faith’ among the gentiles (Rom 1:5; 6:16; 15:18; 16:19, 26). Being loved by God, and love for God is to ‘result’ in transformed lives of obedience.

This helps us to understand Paul’s complex relationship with the Torah. The Law is rejected as a means of salvation – for Jews or for Gentiles. It does not have the power to save or transform lives. But the Law is affirmed in multiple ways as a basis for what a moral and ethical life in Christ looks like in practice.

This is where the apostle’s theology of the Spirit is critical. It is the Spirit, whose fruit is primarily love, through which the law is fulfilled. In Galatians 5:6, ‘the only thing that counts is faith working through love’. Freedom in Christ leads, paradoxically, to becoming slaves of one another (Gal 5:13b). Leviticus 19:18 is reapplied in Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:14: love of neighbour, not Torah obedience, fulfils the law. Bearing one another’s burdens fulfils the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2).

All of this is to say that the Torah finds its true purpose in relationships of self-giving love within a community of believers who are being transformed by the Spirit according to the character of their Lord.

That is an astonishing reimagination of the Torah, of the people of God, of the work of the Spirit, and of love. There is continuity with the OT, but OT themes are reshaped and reworked in light of Jesus and the Spirit.

God loves in order to create people who love.

Toxic Church: When Love Goes Missing

Imagine if that sentence was front and centre in all that Christians think and do. Imagine if that priority were to shape the culture of churches and/or denominations? In how individuals were treated within those organisations and institutions? In what ‘goals’ the church sets as a measure of ‘progress’ and ‘success’?

I’m writing this shortly after reading this long-read article in the New York Times. “The Rise and Fall of Carl Lentz, the Celebrity Pastor of Hillsong Church” . It really is a ‘read it and weep’ story. Power, money, celebrity, sex, success, branding, elitism, greed, selfishness, narcissism – the list could go on.

Yes, this is an extreme example of a powerful pastor, and a church culture, that has lost touch with the heart of God – who loves in order to create people who love. But it is not an isolated one in the USA – and it is not confined to the USA. Church leaders and church cultures can become toxic.

And by toxic I mean when love is sidelined. When the good of the institution is put before people. When the purpose and mission of the church becomes about something else than forming communities of self-giving love.

It bears repeating: ‘the only thing that counts is faith working through love‘.

Do we really believe this?

Love in Paul (5) divine love reimagined in light of the cross

In the previous post in this series we looked at how Paul stands in continuity with three main strands of OT love:

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

But that each of these strands is comprehensively reworked in light of the Christ-event. We looked at how election is reworked to include Jews and Gentiles.

In this post we are still in strand 1) – the electing and saving love of God but turn to look at how God’s salvific love for his people takes a remarkable turn – the cross of Christ.

Divine Love Reimagined in Light of the Cross

For Paul, divine love is the motive for the cross. Numerous texts illustrates this perspective, but before mentioning a few, we should not skip over how astounding a reimagination of divine love it is. No-one in the Roman world familiar with the brutal reality of crucifixion and its attendant political message intimidating opponents, could ever have interpreted the cross in any positive way.

How on earth could a sadistic method of public execution be connected to love? It would be like saying today that God shows his love through the noose or the guillotine.

Some texts

Galatians 2:20: The self-giving death of Christ is an act of salvific love.

I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.

Romans 5:1-11 is probably the most significant example. Humanity needs redemption and are even described as ‘enemies’ of God and facing his wrath. But due to God’s grace (5:2) believers now have ‘peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (5:1). The result is reconciliation through the death of Christ (5:10-11). The cross for Paul therefore ‘proves’ the love of God (Rom 5:8).

For at just the right time, while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God proves His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6-8).

Ephesians 2:1-3: Similarly in Ephesians, humanity is powerless under the power of the flesh (sarx), the world (kosmos) and the ‘ruler of the power of the air’. Again, divine love reaches its climatic expression at the cross – it is out of his ‘great love’ (2:4), ‘mercy’ (2:4) and ‘grace’ (2:5) that believers are made alive and are raised up with him to a new eschatological existence ‘in Christ Jesus’ (Eph 2:6-7).

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. Ephesians 2:4-7.

All this constitutes an astonishing development in the understanding of divine love. Revolution is not too strong a word. It is truly ‘apocalyptic’ – an unveiling of a new theology of God himself. The cross shows us the depth and cost of God’s love for humanity. Paul and John are on the same page – God is love.

Love in Paul (4): Continuity and Discontinuity with the OT. Election Reworked.

In the previous post in this series we traced how Paul probably chose agapē as a relatively ‘unknown’ word that he could fill with meaning – a specific kind of meaning, shaped by the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of God’s Messiah in whom the extraordinary love of God has been revealed.

But how ‘new’ is the apostle’s theology of love? It does not spring from ‘nowhere’. Paul is a Jew, schooled in the Scriptures.

Within the OT, there are three major strands of love that run through the story of Israel.

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people

This is the first and greatest theme. Everything else depends on, and flows from, God’s initiatory, patient and immeasurable love.

2) The responsive love of Israel to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

When we come to Paul, these same three strands are all present (continuity). But they are reshaped in light of Jesus (discontinuity).

Just how much discontinuity there is between Paul and the OT takes us right into Old and New Perspectives on Paul, and more recent apocalyptic Paul debates. All we need to say here is that Paul’s understanding of love is comprehensively ‘reworked’ in light of the radical impact of Jesus. The result is still a recognisably Jewish theology of love, but one that is now Christologically shaped.

Strand 1) ELECTION

We can see this ‘reworking’ of love in Paul’s new understanding of election. It now includes all in Christ – both Jews and Gentiles. That’s quite a reworking right there.

In 2 Thessalonians 2:13 believers are chosen by God for salvation, are loved by the Lord (Jesus) and sanctified through the Spirit (a very Trinitarian verse)

13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.

In Romans the ‘called’ or ‘chosen’ are also loved (Rom. 1:7; 8:28).

To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Paul frequently uses the adjective agapētos in an elective sense of being ‘chosen’. In Romans 11:28-29 it is the Gentiles who are elected and loved

28 As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, 29 for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.

In Ephesians 1:4-5 believers are chosen and predestined to adoption in love through Christ  

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will

So often discussion about election get caught up in the perceived ‘unfairness’ of God choosing some and not others. But for Paul the focus is very much on election as an act of love – that reaches its fulfilment in the grace of God in Christ.

In the next post we’ll consider how Paul’s understanding of election is profoundly reimagined in light of the love of God demonstrated at the cross.