Paul and the Christian life (7) N T Wright an anabaptist at heart?

The final chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective is by a certain N T Wright and it’s called ‘Paul and Missional Hermeneutics’.

9780801049767Just to reiterate the context of this discussion: the big question of this book is how does Paul the Jew – now a follower of Jesus the Messiah – envision a life pleasing to God? How does he see the relationship with Jewish belief and practice of his day [shaped around the Torah] and what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to live a life worthy of the gospel? What are the implications of these questions for living the Christian life in the 21st century?

Now what on earth new can Wright say about Paul after his colossal 2 volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG). Well, in this short piece he reflects on themes arising from the PFG and, as with pretty well everything he pens, it is engaging, thought-provoking and enjoyable prose.

The term ‘missional hermeneutics’ is a nifty one: it relates to both Paul’s identity and task. He’s a missionary who is doing hermeneutics – thinking, praying and writing in dialogue with the Scriptures of Israel in light of his missionary task. So tightly are these two aspects woven together, Wright says that “we may say that Paul’s mission was hermeneutical and that his hermeneutics were missional.”

And it’s Paul’s missional hermeneutics that Wright focuses on here. He thinks it a useful phrase for three reasons:

  1. Christian hope: where Scripture is read through the a new creation lens – a new-creational horizon – and this frames the missionary task within the larger ‘mission of God’.
  2. It ties in to how the authority of Scripture works – the authority of God that “gets things done” – that is much more about transformative action than abstract answers to tricky theological problems. What Wright calls a “more dynamic hermeneutic” which forms missional communities.
  3. The nature of the NT representing documents written “to build up and energize the church to be God’s people in God’s world, living between Jesus’s resurrection and the final renewal.” Where the primary task of mission is served by theology and not the other way around. Thus Wright’s central argument in the PFG in his own words is

The central argument is that we should understand how Paul invented Christian theology in the first place or, to be more specific, how Paul was teaching his communities the vocational task of learning to work with Scripture in hand, prayer as the energy, Jesus as the focus, the church as the matrix, and God’s future as the goal. (182)

And so a consistent core concern in the NT is that the church would live up to its calling and task to ‘be who they are’ – the holy people of God. Where the church would embody a previously unimagined body politic in the ancient world.

But, Wright here acknowledges a puzzle (or maybe a puzzling silence would capture it better) – there is just not much said about the task of this new church body to ‘do mission’ in the ancient world. It’s not there in Paul however much Wright says he wishes it were.

I grew up in churches which assumed that the early church was always being encouraged to “do mission” in some way or another, because that’s what we were all trying to do, usually in the Platonic form I mentioned earlier. We were all supposed to be telling our neighbors about Jesus; and it was assumed that the early church did that as well. But Paul, perhaps to our surprise, gives us no direct warrant for that. (182-3)

Of much more prominence is the Pauline call for the church to be two things – united (across all boundaries) and holy (living lives worthy of the gospel).

So what is mission? How is it enacted in the world?

Wright has come to the view that it is primarily achieved in and through the church living up to this dual calling – “a united and holy community in the Messiah”. A sign to the world; a challenge to the powers and principalities; a new way of being human, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.A way of life that can face the reality and pain of suffering incurred by violent rejection by the world.

And, it is by looking at the church that the world will “see the lordship of Jesus at work”.

Wright goes to Philippians 2:1-18 as the closest place where Paul talks of the missional task of the church.  See 2:14-16

There must be no grumbling and disputing in anything you do. That way, nobody will be able to fault you, and you’ll be pure and spotless children of God in the middle of a twisted and depraved generation. You are to shine among them like lights in the world, clinging to the word of life. That’s what I will be proud of on the day of the Messiah. It will prove that I didn’t run a useless race, or work to no purpose.

And Wright sums up what’s going on here like this:

When we stand back for a moment from the whole passage, what do we see? Obviously, the poem of verses 6–11 is one of the most striking christological and also theological statements in all Christian literature. It embodies the missional hermeneutic Paul is expounding, drawing together the great strands of Scripture, from Adam to the Servant, focusing them on Jesus and his shameful death, then broadening out, just as the Servant Songs themselves do, to embrace the world, and thereby celebrating Jesus as its rightful sovereign. And in the context of Philippians, the meaning for a missional hermeneutic is clear. The dark world in which the church must shine like the stars through unity, holiness, and suffering is the world which Caesar claims for his own. (186-7)

And what is going on here in Philippians is just a specific example of his missional hermeneutic that shapes his overall reading of Scripture

Let me take a step back to look at Paul’s overall missional reading of Scripture. The allusions to Isaiah, to Exodus, and to many other passages are not mere random gestures toward a distant text assumed to be authoritative. They fall within an implicit narrative upon which Paul draws at various points. It is precisely, in his hands, a missional narrative: the story of how the creator God called a people through whom he would undo the plight of the world, and of the human race, rescuing the creation rather than abandoning it. This story runs from Genesis to Exodus and on, with highlights such as the close of Deuteronomy and the promises to David and the shocking fact of covenant disloyalty and subsequent exile, and the strange, unfulfilled promises of a glorious return, of God overthrowing the pagans and coming back to Zion to be king, of covenant renewed and creation renewed. (187)

This is Wright’s own pithy summary of his narrative reading of Paul. He freely acknowledges that some reject or struggle with interpreting Paul this way.

One is the still powerful “older Protestant narrative of sinful humans, Jesus as substitute, and heaven after all” – which while capturing elements of Paul’s theology fails to put it in proper narrative context and struggles to embrace the idea of the kingdom coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.

Another is a sort of postmodern critique that sees only an ecclesial power trip at work in such a narrative – where the church as God’s people are the ultimate winners. But, Wright, contends, this is a long way from Paul whose vision for the church is as a suffering community of powerlessness, to be characterised by kingdom-of-God-living, not triumphalism or neo-imperialism.

The Christian life, or ethic, is about living in light of this narrative of new creation. And the church is the spearhead of this missiological task.

All this sounds really quite anabaptist to me – the missionary task of the church is “to be the church” in the world. Mission begins at home – in a Spirit-filled alternative community of love and worship in which ethnic, gender and socio-economic boundaries are overcome. The church’s job is not to control or change the world externally, but be a new creation within the old.

Which makes me recall when Wright spoke in Dublin a few years ago. In the  Q&A I asked him if he was an anabaptist in disguise, which I think he found quite amusing. Despite his rejection of that label then and I guess now, I still think his reading of the NT heads pretty strongly in that direction.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

PS to musings on the Bible: Kevin Vanhoozer

Blogging has been sparse of late, just too much going on but the scribbler’s itch is back so here goes ….

I spent 4 days of last week teaching a block week Masters module in Evangelical Identity, History and Theology at IBI. Lots of good discussion and interaction – which kickstarted this post, and a few more loosely related, on evangelicalism.

An article I went back to read as part of prep, partly in light of previous musings, was Kevin Vanhoozer’s ‘The Voice and the Actor: A Dramatic Proposal about the Ministry and Minstrelsy of Theology’, in John G. Stackhouse Jr (ed.), Evangelical Futures, (Leicester: Apollos, 2000), 61-106. [A forerunner to his 2005 The Drama of Doctrine]

Some angst about diverse interpretations of the Bible among evangelicals derives from the assumption that it should not (in theory) exist. The assumption is that the Bible itself speaks systematically and univocally and that this meaning can be uncovered by the attentive interpreter.

What Vanhoozer said back in 2000 was important and perhaps even more relevant in light of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible.

Vanhoozer talks about God being in discourse with us through Scripture and the living Word Jesus Christ. Discourse here is a living dynamic process of communication rather than a more static set of propositions. In addition, the triune God is in discourse with himself through the inter-relationality of Father, Son and Spirit.

A consequence for Vanhoozer is that Scripture has a certain inbuilt plurality. This is seen most obviously in the fact that there are 4 gospels telling the one gospel of Jesus Christ. There can be more than one ‘normative’ point of view that can disclose aspects of the truth.

Taking this more widely, Vanhoozer suggested that this plurality extends to different interpretative traditions within the church. If no single voice can capture all the truth of a text then the different voices need each other.

But this also means something else. ‘Final’ or absolutely complete interpretations of Scripture are (to coin an apt phrase) in the end only possible eschatologically. In the meantime, our interpretations are provisional, incomplete and culture-bound.

This does not mean for Vanhoozer that meaning is endlessly open and subjective. He uses the term ‘canonicity’ to emphasise the dual nature of Scripture. It is fixed and final and authoritative yet simultaneously it contains a multiplicity of genres, contexts, languages, theologies and authors.

The challenge for evangelical theology is to enter the ‘drama’ of the script, keeping within its intent while accepting that different ‘stagings’ of the play in different contexts can be complementary. The test of an interpretation’s authenticity will to a large extent be revealed through time and in dialogue with other interpretations. Without this creative hermeneutical dialogue, truth is reduced to a unitary concept. A richer alternative is a collaborative and complementary understanding of truth.

Some years ago I was part of a theology working group of the Evangelical Alliance Ireland who worked on a basis of faith for the organisation. It was deliberately diverse, across the evangelical spectrum. And it was a deeply enjoyable and rewarding experience as a group of us worked together to agree a document that captured a sense of our pan-evangelical unity. It was enriched by that diversity rather than weakened.

And it is here that us individualist Westerners can learn so much from other Christians who have a much more communal sense of identity and truth.

Comments, as ever, welcome.