Paul and the Christian Life (5) Scot McKnight ‘ecclesial life’

Scot McKnight’s chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective is on ‘the Ecclesial Life’. 

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?

Scot hones in on how deeply and profoundly Paul’s vision for the Christian life is a corporate one. He’s come at this angle through his Kingdom Conspiracy where he ties kingdom and church together more tightly than many, influenced by George Eldon Ladd’s kingdom as God’s dynamic rule, have been used to.

His agenda is to convince that Paul’s vision for the Christian life is one that needs to be recaptured and re-imagined by the church (the American church in particular is Scot’s focus). Why? Because American evangelicalism he argues has been thoroughly conditioned by the ‘old perspective’ – which despite strengths has led to some damaging distortions. Scot puts it like this;

The download for the American church about the old perspective’s approach to Paul entails these elements: Judaism at the time of Jesus and Paul was a legalistic, works-righteousness religion; the God of the New Testament is a God of free grace, and we cannot earn our way with God since salvation is a gift; all humans are in need of grace and salvation, which come to us through Christ’s obedient life and sacrificial death; and the gospel relieves the existential crisis of guilt for the one who ceases striving and comes to rest in God’s all-sufficent grace. Some old perspectivists see the ultimate and universal triumph of grace, but they are still more or less operating out of an old perspective on Judaism and Paul. (127-8)

The implications of this framework for understanding the Christian life are these says Scot:

  • an individualistic understanding of Christian living (an Augustinian anthropology)
  • personal redemption, happiness now and eternal life when we die
  • living out of grace not works
  • mission is getting people saved
  • social justice tended to be secondary
  • ecclesiology tended to be an add on
  • an inherently supersessionistic approach to the OT and Judaism

The NPP starts at a different place. For Scot it goes like this:

  • Paul is not set over against Judaism – he is still a Jew (Acts 23:6) – a Jewish Christian / Christian Jew
  • He is articulating a re-framed theology of God’s people – Israel expanded to include Gentiles (he has a good conversation here about what is supersessionism – in some sense all Christianity is)
  • The focus of the NPP is primarily ecclesial, the Old Perspective was primarily soteriological
  • The conflict, for Paul, is one vision of Judaism (narrow, exclusive) over against another vision of Judaism (broad, radically inclusive) as that which fulfils and expressed the saving purposes of God.
  • Justification is not an accusation against Judaism’s works righteousness, but an inclusive framework that embraces all who have faith in Christ

Scot sketches a third alternative, advanced by Mark Nanos and others, that really what is going on with Paul is a developing theology for Gentiles. Where the Torah continues to apply in full for Jewish followers of Jesus, but is adapted and toned down for Gentiles: a sort of two covenant process. Many of Paul’s letters do not apply to Jewish Christians – they are for Gentiles. The contrast with the Old Perspective could hardly be more stark:

It doesn’t take genius insight to see that the post–new perspective has nearly turned the old perspective inside out and upside down. Instead of a law that had to be abrogated, we have a law that has to be followed (by Jewish and gentile believers); there is no thought here of a works righteousness but of a grace-shaped election formed through a covenant God made with Israel, and the whole Christian life is about the Torah and, for gentile believers, Paul’s teaching about how gentiles who are not given the Torah are to live. (136)

But Scot’s position is that the NPP is more historically accurate to what the NT teaches in light of a better understanding of first century Judaism. And that Paul’s over-riding concern was a theological and exegetical interpretation of the OT in light of Christ that grounds the people of God, Jew and Gentile, as the seed of Abraham.

The force of Paul’s radical vision is felt by gaining a glimpse of the highly stratified social hierarchies of the 1st century: Scot references the work of Peter Oakes on Pompeii, Richard Ascough et al on associations in the Greco-Roman world. Where hierarchy, status, reputation, gender, political connections – these were the lifeblood of Empire – and the small but proliferating Christian groupings (the ekklesia) were a political and spiritual threat to the established order.

It is Paul’s ecclesial ‘obsession’ that shapes his practice – the church is the locus of God’s mission –  texts used here are Colossians and Ephesians. This is light years away for so much individualistic and egocentric evangelical spirituality. It is also, Scot points out, a challenge to the segregated American church.

I wish here to say the really important thing: there is virtually nothing about inner spirituality, about personal spiritual formation, about individual transformation, or about everything that shapes so much of how we teach the Christian life in the American church. Of course, Paul expects them to be transformed and to get sanitized from the ways of Rome, but his focus is so ecclesial that all things individual are folded into God’s mission to form a new kind of community, the ecclesia. I want that to be emphasized: for Paul the church comes first, and the individual’s Christian life is part of the growth and sanctification of the local church. I don’t think Paul’s vision entailed getting individuals sanctified and therefore improving the church. It was groupthink before personthink. It was We before Me. (144)

And, as with many of the other writers in the book, Scot shifts to the Spirit as the origin and empowerer of this ecclesial vision. And this is not an inward pietistic my intimacy with God sort of spirituality – it is robustly other focused, within a risky boundary breaking community of ‘differents’.

And this is why love is at the core of the Spirit’s work and Paul’s understanding of the Christian life. See Gal. 5:6; 5:14; 5:22; 1 Cor 16:14; Col 3:14.The only way the church can work, the only way the Christian life can work, is through love. Scot closes with a brief 4 fourfold definition of love:

1. Love is rugged commitment – God’s covenant love. ‘Love decides in advance to be committed to someone whoever they are.’

2. Love is being ‘with’ someone: God commits to be with his people – in the wilderness and later in the incarnation and in the future in the new creation.

3. Love is advocacy for a person: ‘I will be their God and they will be my people’

4. Love is transformative – for the person’s good: God’s agenda is a holy loving people, fit for his kingdom.

Such love is often demanding and hard; it calls us to love those deeply unlike us. And it is, Scot concludes, in that fellowship of love that we learn to live the Christian life.


Theology first, always

In our wee church we close the Sunday service each week by saying ‘the benediction’ to each other – not an eyes closed prayer by someone for everyone else, but an eyes-open head-turning blessing/prayer to one another within the community. ‘The benediction’ in question is Paul’s closing prayer for that most vexing group of Christians in Corinth, recorded in 2 Corinthians 13:14:

‘May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.’

The closer you look at this verse, the deeper it gets. What’s fascinating with so much NT theology is its ad hoc assumed nature that oozes out all over the place and this verse does a lot of oozing. What seems a nice closing blessed thought actually unveils much about Paul’s priorities for believers, the shape of his soteriology and his understanding of the identity of God himself.

1. ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’:

Speaks of the immeasurable self-giving of the crucified Messiah of Israel. The good news is Christological – the historical Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah and victorious risen living Lord who has defeated death and sin (1 Cor 15:56-7). His grace is given on behalf of those who follow him as Lord. This grace is a present experienced reality, not a historical highlight, which brings the Christian into an undeserved and unimaginably blessed new status of peace with God (Rom 5:1-2).

2. ‘the love of God’:

The origin, foundation or beginning point of Paul’s soteriology is the character of God. It is God who loves extravagantly and at great cost. He loves us first, before we love him. It is his love that lies behind the great biblical story of redemption and climaxes in the phrase that ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom 5:8). It is in love he adopts us as children through his Son (Eph 1:4-5).

3. ‘and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’

God’s self-giving continues with the gift of his Spirit to believers. It is the Spirit who brings soteriological life. Those in Christ are a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come (2 Cor 5:17). The Spirit empowers that new life and produces his fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The Spirit pours God’s love into believers’ hearts (Rom 5:5) – a remarkable image of deep relationship with the living God. It is in the Spirit that believers are united into the body of Christ (1 Cor 12). This is a fellowship of mutuality and service; the body of Christ / the temple of the Holy Spirit is where God dwells among his people. The gift of the Spirit gives eschatological joy and hope even in the midst of suffering and hardship since the future is already here in the present.

The Identity of God

One of the joys I have at IBI is to teach a course in both Christology and pneumatology (at least I enjoy teaching them, hope students do too!). This verse is by no means an isolated route into both Paul’s Christology and pneumatology and therefore his ‘theology proper’ – the nature of God himself.

The picture in the NT is of a radical shift or development in ‘pure theology’ (who God is) that revolves around both Christ and the Spirit. Paul’s prayer in 1 Cor 13:13 captures the way that Son, Father and Spirit are united in perfect harmony of activity and relationship. This is not worked out ontologically (that would come later in church history), but it is just one example among many of how the three ‘persons’ each have a complementary and intertwining role in salvation (what has been called ‘soteriological trinitarianism’). In this verse God, Father, Son and Spirit, are experienced as a triune reality. Salvation is the work of the one God (monotheism is maintained), effected by the distinct and cooperative ministry of Father, Son and Spirit.

You see this triunity in how the Spirit is the ‘Spirit of God’ (eg 1 Cor 2:10-12), and yet also the ‘Spirit of Christ’ (eg; Gal 4:4-6; Phil 1:19 etc). Jesus does not somehow ‘displace’ God, but shares in his function and role of ‘sending’ the Spirit (Acts 2 and elsewhere).

OK, how does this connect back to a church service with 60 people in an Irish secondary school double Maths classroom?

It’s a reminder of how profoundly and consistently Paul’s theology shapes his pastoral ministry and ours needs to do the same.

There is much written about the church; its failures and continual need for reform in a post-Christendom wilderness. And sure there is lots to write about.

But it seems to me that we need to be thoroughly Pauline in seeking reform. Heck, he faced power struggles, resistance to his leadership, incest, pride, prostitution, heresy, super-spirituality, judgementalism, and division – that all just in Corinth.

But he begins and ends in theology – in what is true in light of the gospel – and then moves on from that foundation to address the issues.

It can be easy to see the faults of a local church and especially a denominational institution. It can be easy to lapse into pragmatic ‘solutions’.

But it is into the reality of an imperfect and often weak church that we need to be praying and reminding each other of deep, true, rich, life-affirming good news: good news that Christians know the presence of the triune God, the community of self-giving love that is the Father, Son and Spirit. Good news of God’s saving grace in Christ; good news that the church is not just a random association of individuals but a fellowship where God’s very Spirit dwells.

Theology first. Always.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

and a bit more Hauerwas

And a bit more of vintage Hauerwas from War and the American Difference

The political novelty that God brings into the world is a community of those who serve instead of ruling, who suffer instead of inflicting suffering, whose fellowship crosses social lines instead of reinforcing them. The new Christian community in which walls are broken down not by human idealism or by democratic legalism but by the work of Christ is not only a vehicle of the gospel or a fruit of the gospel; it is the good news. It is not merely the agent of mission or the constituency of a mission agency. It is the mission. (167)

The church is the gospel, the church is mission.  By this he means to break down any abstraction whereby there is a gap between what we say we believe and how we actually live.  The Christian community ‘performs’ the gospel as well as believing it; it ‘performs’ mission as well as subscribing to the idea of mission and witness.

I have huge sympathy with this. The Christian faith not simply a good idea, but a transformed identity; a transformed life; a transformed purpose.; a life shaped by a new story – that of belonging to the risen Lord, Jesus the Messiah of Israel.

So deep is the Enlightenment disjunction between ‘faith’ and ‘knowing’ that the former is privatised and individualised and separated from public life. Hauerwas will have none of this. The gospel is public truth; the church is publicly to embody that gospel.

But this is also of course deeply uncomfortable. If the church ‘is’ the gospel; if the church ‘is’ mission – then how many churches would we gladly and unhesitatingly send our friends to ‘see and taste that God is good’? And if not, why not?

And a PS

While I see his point, for me that language here is too close to identifying the church with the kingdom of God / with the gospel.  While there is real danger of abstraction (look at what we believe, not what sort of community we are!), I would still want to create some distance between the church and the gospel.  The gospel is the ‘gospel of God’ – it is the good news of his saving action in his Son. The church is formed by the Spirit in response to that divine initiative.,

To equate church and gospel is to conflate Christ and church. This, it seems to me, comes close to the classic Protestant objection to Roman Catholic ecclesiology whereby ‘Christ and his church are one’ with all the problems associated with such an identification. By problems I mean where the Church (and its Pope) has unquestioned authority; where salvation can become sacramentalised (to put it crudely, once you are ‘in’ you are OK); and where the kingdom of God tends to be limited to the structures of the institution and so on.

To be sure, the sort of upside-down kingdom community Hauerwas talks of in the quote above is a long way from this, but do you think, as I do, that the language of church = gospel opens the door towards an unhealthily exalted ecclesiology? Or am I too pessimistic about the possibility of a transformed community of the Spirit?!

Some thoughts on losing faith, love, the Spirit and the ambiguous nature of church (1)

Going back to a previous post on losing faith. A common theme that all the leavers had in common was a bad church experience.

Yes every story will have two sides and we’re only hearing the disenchanted voices here. Yes, there were other factors in their leaving – not least perhaps a pretty thin grasp of Christian orthodoxy?

But let’s face it, what’s being said here is all too recognisable for anyone who has been involved in church life for any length of time. So what follows are a couple of posts sketching some basic perspectives that need to be kept in mind in order to ‘keep going’ as a Christian actively engaged within a church community.

Love to have your thoughts on this too. What would you add? What keeps you pressing on being part of what is a ‘volunteer activity’? Or have you been tempted, or have given up? Why? When is it right to leave a church?

Anyway – here’s the first one:

1. An understanding of the ambiguous nature of the church

Churches are ‘ambiguous communities’.

One the one hand (if there is spiritual life at all) there will be grace, care, friendship, sacrificial service, fun, worship, teaching, vulnerability, community – centred around the good news of the gospel and the love of God. There is nothing on earth like a Christian church functioning well – as a globalised, equal, diverse, self-giving, repentant and joyful community focused on taking its part within the redemptive mission of God.

Coming at this via pneumatology – to be in Christ is to have the Spirit. A Christian by definition is someone who has been baptised in the Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). It is the Spirit who unites believers across all social, ethnic and gender barriers within the one body of Christ. And the sign of the Spirit’s presence is his fruit so it is not unreasonable to expect that authentically Christian churches will be attractive communities of people marked by healthy relationships borne of the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness etc).

If this vision isn’t grasped experientially through the Spirit, the church will be doomed to mere functionality, legalism and tradition. If such life isn’t at the heart of the community, flowing out from each individual’s own living faith in Christ, then over time it will probably (and rightly) die.

On the other hand, churches are full of people being people: personality clashes, disappointment, disagreements, power struggles, factionalism, small talk with strangers, different visions of what the church should be, conventionalism, conservatism, formalism, individualism etc. And then there are sins of pride and lust and envy and jealousy and adultery and greed and unforgiveness. You get the picture.

If ‘idealists’ and ‘reformers’ don’t get this, they will always be disillusioned, disappointed, frustrated and angry at other people’s failures to believe and behave in a way the idealist thinks they should. But such judgementalism can be a mask for spiritual arrogance and a lack of humility and awareness of our own brokenness. Jesus has a bit to say about beams and specks here.

I remember talking with a leader of a church that people routinely held up as a wonderful example of what church should be (for there was a lot of good stuff happening). He downplayed the hype, and said the church was just like any other group of Christians – a bunch of sinners in the process of being saved (and he listed, [without naming names!] a bunch of robust sins as examples).

Was he too negative? Is seeing the church and the Christian life this way too pessimistic? Or was he simply being realistic?

How you answer that will to a large degree depend on your anthropology. Are you with Luther’s Reformed realism of simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and a sinner)? As beggars telling other beggars where to find bread?

Or a more optimistic anthropology – like Wesley’s doctrine of ‘perfection’ and the holiness movements that followed; leading into the modern Pentecostal and charismatic movements and their (usually) emphasis on victory, transformation and the power of God to enable the Christian to live a holy and pleasing life for God’s glory.

There’s the ambiguity of the church in a nutshell. For both are true.

To keep engaged in church for the long haul, without becoming either jaded or cynical, both sides of that ambiguity have to be held in tension.

Personal experience of the Spirit and a passionate vision of what the church is and can and should be.
Alongside a realistic understanding of self and others as imperfect people in need of tons of grace, forgiveness, ongoing repentance.

Comments, as ever, welcome