The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life (1) Bruce Longenecker

It was a privilege to write a chapter for The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective edited by Scot McKnight and Joe Modica and published by Baker Academic last month.

I’m not going to post about my own chapter save to say it was a hugely enjoyable and personally rewarding writing project. And to be surrounded by exalted company like JDG Dunn, NT Wright, Bruce Longenecker, Lynn Cohick, Timothy Gombis, Scot and others is a bit surreal.

Now, I guess I might be a tad biased but I really do think it’s an excellent book. The fresh angle here is how the (now not so) New Perspective on Paul helps in developing an integrated understanding of the apostle’s theological vision. Or, to put that differently, he isn’t writing abstract systematic theology, his overriding concern in his letters is the moral transformation of those under his pastoral leadership. It’s theology written that ‘Christ might be formed’ in individuals who have come to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Each author was given a general remit to unpack the connections between the NPP and the Christian life. The result is that as you read the book, a fascinating group of themes begin to emerge. The big question at the back of them all 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?

I’m going to post on a few of the chapters.

The first is Bruce Longenecker’s terrific essay on ‘Faith, Works, and Worship: Torah Observance in Paul’s Theological Perspective’.  

At times, Paul’s contribution to Christian theology has been conceived simply in terms of establishing that Christians are free from having to do anything since they enjoy eternal salvation in the heavenly world of perfect glory by means of their faith in Christ. But Paul did not expect the Christian to live a life devoid of “good works.” He did not think that Christian activity jeopardizes the eternal destiny of the “soul.” Doing good is not, in fact, foreign to Paul’s view of the Christian life. As we will see, Christian activity is an essential component of Paul’s theologizing about God’s engagement with the world. (48)

The activity of the Christian life includes, says Longenecker, self-giving love, empowered by the Spirit. It means ‘bearing one another’s burdens’ – and this includes economic burdens (see his book Remember the Poor for more).

But it’s the background context in which the Christian life is lived that Longenecker brings out wonderfully well.

Two themes highlight the ‘opposition’ or forces arrayed against God and those who would follow him:

  1. Weapons of mass destruction’ – by which he means covetousness, self-interest, hatred, jealousy, envy, strife. “For those beyond the boundaries of Christian community, Paul imagines a world permeated by a destructive moral ethos.”
  2. ‘Cosmos Grabbers’ – by which Longenecker means the powers of Sin and Death – powers that reign like cosmic overlords. These powers are ingrained in fabric of the world and manifest themselves chaotically throughout humanity’s all too destructive existence.

Where these forces produce disunity and disharmony, Paul has come to experience and see that God’s agenda in Christ is to bring peace, unity and harmony not only for his (Jewish) people but for a new humanity consisting of both Jew and Gentile.

But in contrast to the healthy unification of distinct groups that Paul perceived in Christian communities, the stoicheia of the world bastardize God-ordained diversities, transforming those diversities into relationships of destructive disharmony, rather than offering creative possibilities of self-giving. (59)

This united new community, the body of Christ, is not an end in itself but exists to worship God, its creator. A people of joyous praise to the glory of God the father (Phil 2:11)

So it is in and through love and self-giving communities that a spiritual battle is being fought out. Living the Christian life is

an inspiring vision, but it is also a challenging one, since it places Christian lifestyle and corporate practice front and center on the eschatological battlefield. (62)

For Paul, works of Torah could not contribute to this battle. It is the Spirit who empowers believers to life the Christian life. And this is why he resists wholeheartedly any attempt to insist that works of Torah be imposed on new believers. To try to make Gentiles become Jews is another form of ‘centrism’ that leads to division not to unity.

And here’s his challenging conclusion. It’s worth reading more than once:

Stripped to its core, then, what Paul was ultimately fighting for when he wrote “not by works of Torah” was nothing other than cruciform self-giving as the overturning of self-interestedness, itself the product and foothold of cosmic powers opposed to God’s program for the world … Paul maintained a vision of those in Christ as a collection of diverse people, united in worship of the One who created distinctly varied identities, whose challenging corporate life can be sustained only through the power of the Spirit, who enlivens other-regard in transformational patterns replicating the self-giving of the Son of God.

Reading this is it hard not to be struck by the massive importance of unity and self-giving love within the church for the apostle Paul.

What, do you think, would Paul make of the contemporary church? In how it fights destructive spiritual forces with the weapons of love and unity? In how it overcomes ethnic and cultural boundaries that so divide the world we live in?

 

 

 

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Paul and ‘remembering the poor’

I’m doing a bit of reading in my spare time around the theme of the Bible and social justice and have got to Bruce W Longenecker’s Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty and the Greco-Roman World.

His thesis is that, despite a mountain of books on Paul, there tends to be an exegetical  blind spot in regard to the significance of his concern that his early Christian communities would ‘remember the poor’ (Galatians 2:10). And this blindness has contributed to a neglect of an important and central part of early Christian identity and practice.

What scholars on Paul love to do is to reconstruct his theology and debate how it all holds together. Plenty of Pauline scholars from all perspectives have spent lifetimes unpacking the grand scope of Paul’s narrative thought. Yes there are all sorts of debates and disagreement about the details, but the primary focus is on theology: stuff like his view of the law, justification and other soteriological categories, Christology, the Spirit, ethics and so on.

Dujardin: Paul healing of the cripple at Lystra

This is all wonderful and good (and I hugely enjoyed writing a book chapter recently on just this sort of theme). But, proposes Longenecker, they tend to say little about Paul and issues of poverty and wealth (yup – he’s right there).

Rather, he argues that care for the poor is

an integral part of the “good news” that Paul preached. For Paul, economic assistance of the poor was not sufficient in and of itself, nor was it exhaustive of the good news of Jesus; but neither was it supplemental or peripheral to that good news. Instead, falling within the essentials of the good news, care for the poor was thought by Paul to be a necessary hallmark of the corporate life of Jesus-followers who lived in conformity with the good news of the early Jesus-movement.(1)

He backs up this argument in a big carefully researched book. One chapter analyses various strands of the biblical material related to Paul. Just because Paul does not devote whole chapters to care for the poor should not distract us from understanding that right economic relationships were vital to the apostle.

Paul’s command to the Galatians to ‘remember the poor’, Longenecker argues in a separate couple of chapters, is best understood in generic terms rather than any specific group – against long-held scholarly consensus that it refers to a group of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.

And he proposes that Gal 2:10 fits perfectly within the rhetoric of the letter as a whole Gal 5:13-15 – love your neighbour; Gal: 6:2 ‘bear one another’s burdens’ to fulfil the law of Christ. Remembering the poor is an act of love that results in generous giving to those in need (5:22 ‘generous goodness’).

It is in living this sort of life through the Spirit that these Gentile believers fulfil the Mosaic law. While circumcision was definitely not required to be righteous; ‘remembering the poor’ was a necessary characteristic of following Jesus – and flowed out of Judaism’s concern for the poor. [As elsewhere, there is both discontinuity and continuity from Judaism in Paul here].

This Christian care for the poor stood in contrast to much of Greco-Roman paganism. Generous Christian community was an expression and embodiment of the eschatological presence of God. And it is was this sort of radical care for the poor that characterised early Christian communities in the 2nd to 4th centuries.

Towards the end of the book, Longenecker applies this central concern for the poor to Paul’s own life and priorities. The apostle was well-educated, of probable middle-income status, Roman citizenship etc. Becoming a follower of Jesus involved a drop in economic status as well as social ostracization. His missionary life was marked by extreme hardship as captured in 1 Cor 4:;11-12 and 2 Cor 11:23-27: imprisonment, beatings, hunger, thirst, weary from tough physical work, homeless, without clothing and so on.

This experience of exclusion and physical hardship was a consequence of following the risen Lord. Longenecker terms this a ‘self-imposed economic demotion’ : a voluntary lowering of the self at considerable financial and physical cost. He made himself economically vulnerable – and called other Christians to do the same.

This self-sacrifical path led to considerable danger and ultimately, of course, death in Rome. Outpouring one’s life for others was to follow Christ; “just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 5:2). That the rich were to wait for and include the poor in 1 Cor 11 is only a logical extension of such other-love.

And this led to a major project that marked the final years of his life and ministry from 53 AD onwards: the collection for the poor Jewish believers in Jerusalem from his Gentile churches. The collection was founded on the self-giving example of Jesus in 2 Cor 8:9 ‘Although he was rich, yet for your sake be became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’ Gentile Christians were to follow their Lord in giving up riches for the sake of others – the poor in Jerusalem.

Paul’s passionate committment to the poor in Jerusalem has a number of strands:

If he went to Jerusalem in 57-8 AD, it was a dangerous and thing to do with no guarantees of success. Romans 15:;30-31 talks of request for prayer that he would be rescued from unbelievers in Judea and that his ministry would be accepted by Christians there. It looks as if this prayer was not answered – and he was eventually executed in Rome.

In other words, Paul was willing to risk his own life for the collection for the poor.

Longenecker suggests that two goals stood ‘front and center’ of his motivation to go to Jerusalem.

1. The collection would help unify the early Jesus movement – building bridges between Gentile and Jewish believers.

2. The collection would help to legitimate Paul’s own ministry to the Gentiles: – the collection would be a testimony to the work of God among the law-free uncircumcised Gentiles.

Paul put enormous energy and effort into this collection over a number of years. Longenecker concludes his major study with this conclusion;

We have seen that Paul’s concern for the poor had considerable impact on the way that he lived his life, to the point of risking his own life in “putting his money where his mouth was.” This should surprise us only if, unlike Paul, we imagine the “good news” that transformed Paul from persecutor to apostle to be devoid of an economic dimension.

In this view, Paul stands full-square with his Lord Jesus Christ in his own separate proclamation of good news to, and practical ‘remembering’ of, the poor.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Lk 4:18-19).

All this raises some contemporary questions:

How, in your experience, do you think local churches do in ‘remembering the poor’ in their own contexts?

What does Paul’s willingness to embrace ‘self-imposed economic demotion’ – even to the point of risking his life for the poor* – say to us Christians in the West today?

What do you make of Longenecker’s conclusions that remembering the poor is by NOT peripheral or supplemental to the good news but a necessary hallmark of a gospel-shaped life? 

*And these thoughts prompt prayers for ex-cabbie driver and volunteer aid worker Alan Henning and his family,  as he risked his life to help Syrian refugees and now faces almost certain death at the hands of IS.