Paul and the Christian Life (2) JDG Dunn

J D G Dunn has the opening chapter in 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.

9780801049767Just to reiterate the context: 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?

Back in the early 80s Dunn was the guy who coined the term the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul and is one of the triumvirate of key NPP scholars (E P Sanders and N T Wright being the other two).

Dunn has written hundreds of thousands of words related to Paul – his letters, theology and life. He has several publications related to Galatians in particular and this essay is in a sense a distillation of that previous work. It is, dare I say, surprisingly untechnical and straightforward. The heavy lifting has all been done elsewhere; here Dunn is in effect doing an extended Bible study on Galatians as a guide to how Paul sees the Christian life.

One obvious fact: faith (pistis) and Spirit (pneuma) are two words which are peppered throughout the letter (both appearing over 20 times). They point to how faith in Christ and the work of the Spirit are, for Paul, absolutely central to the Christian life. From this opening platform, Dunn unpacks each in turn.

First, faith. For someone who has, at times, been accused of undermining Reformation truth of justification by faith alone, it is striking (and probably no coincidence) how this chapter is an extended articulation and robust defence of that doctrine.

He refers to Gal 2:15-16 and Paul and Peter’s clash at Antioch

We are Jews by nature and not “Gentile sinners,” knowing that no human being
is justified by works of the law but only through faith in Jesus Christ, and we
have believed in Christ Jesus, in order that we might be justified by faith in
Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no flesh
be justified.

Paul opposed Peter because ‘To demand “works of the law” in addition to faith, as a necessary expression of faith, was to destroy the fundamental role of faith.’ (7).

And further

This was where Paul drew the line. Becoming a member of the people of God (Israel) was not primarily what the gospel was about. Rather, the gospel was primarily about being related to God through Christ—being a member of Christ. To be justified before God, only faith in Christ was required. To require any more was to undermine that central gospel affirmation. (7)

This point is hammered home repeatedly in the letter, so much so that Dunn concludes

To make clear the sole primacy of faith—faith, yes, as expressed in baptism and “working through love,” but faith as the sole means and medium through which the justifying relation with Christ is established and sustained—was Paul’s principal concern in writing to the Galatians, and that should never be forgotten or downplayed. That the Christian life, as “Christian,” is a life of faith, faith in Christ, from start to finish, is the primary message of Galatians. (10)

You can’t get much more classically sola fide than that ….

But if justification is by faith alone, that justifying faith is never separated from the other great theme of Galatians – the work of the Spirit. Dunn calls this the counterpart to faith.

A quick aside here – not surprisingly it is the role of the Spirit that emerges as one of the consistent themes of the book across the various essays. My chapter is called ‘The New Perspective and the Christian Life: Solus Spiritus‘, Timothy Gombis’s one is ‘Participation in the New Creation People of God in Christ by the Spirit’. The authors submitted chapters completely independently, so its interesting that when Dunn says

“By faith alone” could be matched by the equivalent phrase “by Spirit alone” as the heart of Paul’s gospel. The outworkings of each should never be allowed to diminish or confuse the primacy of each. (11)

it mirrors a point I make in my chapter that

one could wish that another sola had been articulated at the Reformation—solus Spiritus—for the Christian life is life in the Spirit from beginning to end. (95)

After tracing a theology of the Spirit in the letter, Dunn concludes, with reference to Galatians 6:8 (“Those who sow to their own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption; but those who sow to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life”) that

Paul confirms that for him the most important aspect in the process of becoming a Christian was the fact that he and they had received the Spirit. It was the entrance of the Spirit into their lives which made the vital difference and departure from a life dominated by self-service. It was the work of the Spirit in their lives which ensured the inheritance of eternal life. Beside that, everything else was secondary. And anything which distracted from or confused that central offer and promise of the gospel was a corruption of and distraction from the gospel. If the Christian life began with the reception of the Spirit, then it was also to be lived in accordance with the Spirit.

The big problem in Galatians is that the ‘true mark’ of being a Christian was being measured by ‘works of Torah’ – like the physical mark of circumcision. This was distracting and detracting from the radical gospel. Dunn puts it this way

There is no way of being Christian, according to Galatians, other than faith-and-Spirit working through love. (15)

What, do you think, are contemporary distractions and detractions from this ‘simple’ gospel?





Flesh versus Spirit 2

Returning to the ‘two natures’ discussion a couple of posts back and zoning in on Galatians:

A problem here has been the translation of sarx (flesh) as ‘sinful nature’ (e.g., in the NIV, although more nuanced in more recent editions). This is a loaded translation which distorts the text.

Flesh versus Spirit needs to be understood eschatologically rather than individually as some sort of internal war between two natures.

Paul has some very negative things to say about the ‘world’. Take Galatians 1:4 and his description of how Jesus’ death for our sins rescues us from ‘this present evil age’.

Things associated with pre-Christian identity are being a slave under the ‘basic principles of the world’. The whole world is a prisoner of sin (3:22). The Law (Torah) cannot release people from this slavery. The theme of curse in Galatians is significant: those who rely on the law are under a curse for the law could never justify (3:10-11).

George Grey Barnard, ”The struggle of two natures in man” (1892)

Those in Christ, who have been justified by faith, belong to a new age; they are ‘new creations’ who belong to God’s redemptive purposes for this fallen world. They are set free (5:1) in Christ.

This new creation has invaded the present evil age (Gal 6:14-16). Since the coming of Christ and the Spirit, believers are living in the overlap of the ages. The world in its present form is ‘passing away’ (1 Cor 7:31)

Those in Christ are dead to the old age (flesh); it is crucified. The Christian life is therefore all about a community of faith who are drawn by God’s grace, into his redemptive purposes for the world.

The problem in Galatians was their utter foolishness to go back to something that enslaves and cannot give life. The flesh equals the old age that has decisively been defeated at the cross and resurrection. Its days are numbered. To go there is to go back under the curse.

Paul, their concerned father, has strong words for those who would lead the Galatians astray (1:8-9 – under God’s curse and wishes for a bit of painful self-mutilation with a knife in 5:12).

In contrast, Christians now belong to the new age of the Spirit. The Spirit brings life, grace, justification, freedom, transformation and hope. This is part of the promised blessing to Abraham (Gal 3:14) – for both Jew and for Gentile.

Those who walk by the Spirit will demonstrate practically and ethically what God’s good purposes for humanity looks like. They will live lives that are attractive and loving – full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control.

Individual Christian lives and communities are to be visible, beautiful and joyful witnesses to the new age of the Spirit; a foretaste in the present age of the ultimate age to come. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6)

It is only the power of the Spirit who can change lives; who can bring someone new life; who can overcome the powerful ‘passions’ or ‘desires’ of the (age of) the flesh.

So, rather than end up with a sort of schizophrenic Christian identity of two internal warring ‘natures’ in each individual Christian, the flesh versus Spirit conflict is much bigger than the sphere of the individual.

The real challenge of Galatians is a calling to live by the grace and new identity that has already been given to believers through faith in Christ and the vivifying gift of the Spirit.

For Paul’s warning to the Galatians is not just theoretical – they were in danger of going back under the flesh and turning their back on the gospel. And, at the same time, were denying the radical boundary-breaking implications of justification by faith alone for anyone – Jew or Gentile / male or female / slave or free (3:28).

Do you think that many Christians see themselves as living their lives within a larger cosmic conflict of flesh versus Spirit? If not, why not? Has the church lost touch with Paul’s thoroughly eschatological perspective on the Christian life?

If the Christian life is all about life in the Spirit from beginning to end: walking by the Spirit; sowing to the Spirit; keeping in step with the Spirit; what does this actually look like in practice? In your experience and understanding, how does it work? How do you sow to the Spirit and not to the flesh? Where does the community of the Spirit (the church) come in?

Christian schizophrenia? Do believers have two competing ‘natures’?

In various places, Paul develops a strong contrast between the Spirit and the flesh (sarx) – see Galatians 5 and elsewhere (Rom.8:3-17, Phil. 3:3).

May I humbly suggest that most Christian interpretation of what Paul means here is just flat out mistaken.

And may I also suggest that such a view has damaging pastoral and theological implications (of which more below).

I was taught, and maybe you have been too, that this refers to an internal spiritual conflict within the Christian between our ‘sinful nature’ (literally sarx = ‘flesh) which is warring against our new ‘spiritual nature’. In effect, in this view, Christians have two natures – the old and the new, which exist alongside each other within us for as long as we live.

the struggle of two natures in man
George Grey Barnard, ”The struggle of two natures in man” (1892)

We have constantly to choose to live to our higher ‘spiritual nature’ over our lower ‘fleshly nature’.

This is what Luther taught: ‘there be two contrary captains in you, the Spirit and the flesh’ – and innumerable commentators have followed his lead ever since.

For some this leads to a pretty pessimistic and limited view of the Christian life as a virtually equal struggle between two natures; flesh and Spirit.

Usually this is tied to an interpretation of Romans 7 as Paul describing the ongoing battle of the Christian life in these terms:

14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am!

Now, you can easily see how this link can be made. Romans 7 does describe in graphic terms an inner angst of two competing inclinations. But I’m with Gordon Fee and many others, in finding this completely at odds with Paul’s theology of the Christian life.

There are various interpretations of Rom 7:14-24: one asks whether Paul is speaking in the third person as a faithful Jew under the law – yet the law does not have the power to overcome sin?  But however you cut it, the idea that Christians have a ‘flesh’ nature and a ‘spiritual’ nature co-existing and giving shape to their life ‘in Christ’ is profoundly wrong-headed.

What is being described in Romans 7 is a conflict that Christ delivers believers from – not one that faith in Jesus leads believers into! So verse 24b-25

Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

In Romans (and Galatians), Paul is not thinking in narrow introspective categories of some sort of existential inner crisis that remains unresolved for the believer. This completely  misses how he talks about the acts of the ‘flesh’ in wholly negative terms:

Life according to the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21 describes a life in total opposition to life in the Spirit. Such life will NOT inherit the kingdom of God and leads to destruction (Gal.6:8, cf Rom.8:13).

So, sorry brother Martin, that’s pretty hard to square with ‘flesh’ life being a normal expected part of a Christian’s identity!

Take Romans 8:5-8 and Paul’s discussion of life kata sarxa (according to the flesh) and life kata pneuma (according to the Spirit). Rather than this somehow talking about two inner natures in every Christian, Paul is contrasting two utterly incompatible ways of life. Life according to the flesh cannot please God (Rom.8:8) and is a life hostile to God (8:6).

Far from continuing to have an inner ‘flesh nature’, for the believer, the flesh has been crucified. It is dead (Gal 6:14).

To understand the Christian life as an endless inner (and virtually equal) duel between Spirit and Flesh drastically undermines Paul’s confidence and expectation of the transforming power and presence of the Spirit in a Christian’s life.

It also, wrongly, portrays Christian identity in almost schizophrenic terms.

If you’ve got this far, some questions :

How have you interpreted and understood flesh versus Spirit in your own life? What have you been taught in church?

And if flesh does not equal an ‘inner nature’ within believers, does this somehow suggest that the Christian life should be without struggle and difficulty? In other words, does rejecting Luther’s view lead us into some sort of unreal hyper-spirituality that is doomed to drive us to guilt and failure when we continue to sin? (For sin we will).

And just maybe you are asking if Luther was wrong, what then was Paul talking about in his flesh / Spirit contrast?  Come back for the next post! [Don’t you love these cliffhangers?]

crazy little thing called love

The church is a unique sort of community. All those in Christ are brothers and sisters (adelphoi) within the family of God. Blood ties are relativised. The issue of Paul’s day was that being Jewish is no longer of any spiritual significance within the covenant. Membership of the family is by faith in Jesus and the gift of the Spirit.

But the thing about a family is that you don’t get to choose who else is a member. Family life ain’t always easy and often it can be damned difficult.

Same with the church – you have no control over who else is in the household! There are differences of age, culture, language, personality, opinion, doctrine, maturity, gender, taste and well … you add your own to the list …..

As we’ve talked about in a couple of recent posts, conflict is an inevitable part of family life – whether at home, the church or a Christian organisation.

The crucial ingredient to maintain strong healthy family life, without which any family will eventually fall apart, is that crazy little thing called love.

Love is hard to define and pin down. You tend to know it when you see it or experience it from someone. Often it is easier to spot unloving behaviour. Paul does a bit of the latter in 1 Corinthians 13 when he says what love isn’t:

It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil

But he also says what love is

Love is patient, love is kind … love rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails

Paul has a ton to say about love. Scholars have long recognised that it lies at the core of his ethics. Most of his letters are written to address some sort  of community problem of one sort of another. He knew about the importance of love.

If love was absent, he could write letters til the papyrus ran out and they wouldn’t make a whit of difference. Paul is no romantic idealist when it comes to love.

One of his more remarkable statements is this one from Galatians 5:6

‘the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’

Faith (and not the Torah / circumcision) has been the big theme of the letter. This is a radical thing for a Jewish man to say. But Paul knows how easy it is to be ‘correct’ theologically and yet miss the point. For faith in Christ to be authentic it must express itself through love.

Elsewhere in Galatians:

– love is the primary characteristic of the fruit of the Spirit (5:22).

– The entire purpose of the law is summed up by ‘Love your neighbour’ (5:14).

– The goal of freedom in Christ is to ‘serve one another in love’ (5:13).

And that’s just Galatians.

Elsewhere, Paul talks lots about how God loves his people, most supremely in the self-giving death of his Son. Christians are to love one another (repeated theme). God has poured out his love into their hearts by the Spirit (Rom 5:5).

Christians are simply to do everything in love (1 Cor 16:14).

Now this sort of love to those outside the immediate family would have been considered bizarre in the Greco-Roman world. Love for others, across boundaries of race, gender, social status, hierarchy, culture and religion was alien and unparalleled.

Such love is as counter-cultural and counter-intuitive today as it was then.

I’ll say it again – Christianity should appear to be crazy when compared to the norms of wider culture.

And if all this is true, what are some implications?

Why is love so easily sidelined, and often little talked about, in  a lot of Christian ministry? What takes its place?

Can or should churches and Christian organisations (and individuals for that matter) do some sort of ‘love audit’? A check on relational health? Have you heard of this sort of thing?

One thing is sure I think: the longer a Christian, a church, a ministry continues rolling along, busy in activity yet without love, eventually the wheels will fall off.

And there is nothing more powerful, missional, transformative and attractive than love being put into practice. For love makes visible the presence of God’s Spirit.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

St Paul and the Wolf of Wall Street

wolf_of_wall_streetI went to see The Wolf of Wall Street [TWOWS}last week in York in the tiniest cinema I’ve ever been in – it had 28 seats I think. Small screen, big performances especially by DiCaprio (and Scorsese behind the lens).

You could see it as a dark satire on the madness of turbo-capitalism. Maybe it is, I think not. The cameo appearance of Jordan Belfort at the end of the film said much.  But this isn’t a review, it’s a reflection on a word that I left the screening with.


I ain’t giving anything away to say its a tale about the pursuit of money, simple as that. What makes the story is the intensity of that ruthless desire that drives Belfort to extravagant ‘success’ and wild excess.

That over-desire spreads to become out of control passion for sex, drugs, material things and power which eventually engulf him.

Paul has a lot to say about passions and desires. So did moral teachers of the ancient world. So did Augustine, but we’ll give him a pass in this post.

In the Greco-Roman world, it was passions that were obstacles to the moral life. Passions here are things like desire, pleasure, love, grief. There was optimism that humans can do good if educated and if instructed to be in harmony with a proper view of existence. This was because the passions were linked to false beliefs. If you can be trained to think right, you can achieve self control.

The Stoics had their own twist on this. Since the passions had destructive force, their goal was the not so much the control of passions but their elimination. And this can be done through reason, a cure for the diseased soul. Reason is the path to virtue.

In the Jewish world things worked differently. The Law was the path to blessing. Teachers were therefore crucial. The Law had to be learned, applied and lived. There was no hint that the Law could not be kept.  There was joy in obedience. Keeping the Law was the way to overcome evil desires and sinful behaviour. The commands of the Law are the path to life and restraint of selfishness and injustice.

What’s fascinating is how Paul stands in continuity with his world but develops a whole new theology of how to live a moral life and overcome over-desires and destructive passions in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

He agrees with Aristotle that lack of control of desire undermines moral life. As a Jew he knows that the Law is good and holy. But he takes neither of their paths in terms of overcoming destructive desires.

Unlike Judaism and the Greco-Roman moralists, Paul has a uniquely negative anthropology. All have sinned. The Law cannot be kept and reason is not the path to virtue however well educated you are.

So to Galatians on ‘passions and desires’, e.g., Galatians 5:16  the ‘desire of the flesh’ 5:16 and 5:24 the ‘flesh with its passions and desires’. These passions and desires are barriers to the Christian life.

Paul in several places says such passions and desires are characteristic of the pagan Gentile world. This is the sort of life that his converts have been saved from. These desires results in ‘works of the flesh’  in Galatians 5:19-21 – a list that describes the Wolf of Wall St pretty well.

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

For Paul a life like this is one of slavery, trapped under the power of sinful desire.

So how are these passions and desires to be overcome? [And let’s be honest – part of the challenge is that they are attractive. I wonder if one reason the movie will do well is the way it gives opportunity for a vicarious glimpse of a life without limits, without morality, without restraint – and who doesn’t wonder what that would be like?].

The answer is the gift of the Spirit to those who have faith in Christ. It is the Spirit who gives new life and who empowers the believer to life a moral life. It is the Spirit who sets the Christian free from the flesh and its desires. And it is life in the Spirit which fulfils the Law – it cannot be kept any other way.

Paul doesn’t speak about virtue – what he does talk about is a new life in the Spirit that results in the fruit of the Spirit being visibly demonstrated – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control and the like. All characteristics pretty well totally absent in Scorsese’s movie.

In other words, the only way to overcome destructive desire is to ‘walk in the Spirit’ and be led by the Spirit (5:16, 18). This will crucify the flesh – with its evil desires (5:24). Such a life will lead to doing good to all, especially the household of faith (6:10). Paul is remarkably confident that the new community of the Spirit will be marked by the Spirit’s fruit.

In other words, Paul has a very negative diagnosis of how, whether Jew or Gentile, we are under the power of destructive and sinful desires and passions. But he is supremely confident that the gospel will result in ‘new creation’, a new moral life, a renewed mind, a transformed community of self-giving love.

What TWOWS brings home with visceral force is the power of sin, driven by destructive passions and desires. For Paul, these belong to the age of the flesh. The call of the Christian life is to choose to live in the new age of the Spirit. The works of the flesh destroy lives and relationships – and Jordan Belfort left a quite a spectacular trail of destruction.

Bottom line – to live a moral life we all need (divine) help. Salvation is another word for it. Or as Paul puts it in Galatians 1:4, Jesus Christ gave himself for us to ‘rescue us from the present evil age’.

For on our own we are all like Jordan Belfort in one way or another. He just had opportunity and determination to pursue his desires in a way that few have.

Comments, as ever, welcome