Paul and the Christian life (3) Timothy Gombis

Another rich chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective is by Timothy Gombis of Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. (His Paul: a guide for the Perplexed is excellent by the way).

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?

Gombis’ essay is called ‘Participation in the New Creation People of God in Christ by the Spirit’

He comes at the issues via two angles: first, how, for Paul, the Christian life is situated and framed by the overarching narrative of Scripture; second the dynamic of the Christian life originates and is sustained by the Spirit.

Narrative:

Gombis summarises the biblical storyline up to the coming of the Messiah like this:

The Scriptures, therefore, present a scenario in which “salvation” must take place. Israel needs to be restored to God so that the nations of the world can be reclaimed and taught to worship the God of Israel. And this is necessary so that the God of Israel can truly be seen as the creator God—the one true God whose glory fills the entire creation. God’s work of salvation will be complete only when the state of affairs ruined by Adam and Eve has been restored—humans worshiping God by imaging him throughout the whole of creation. Looking ahead, this narrative trajectory shapes how Paul conceives of the Christian life, both its theological orientation (restoration of worship) and its direction toward others (restoration of communal relations)

Jesus comes (dramatically) to be understood by Paul as the centre and fulfillment of this Scriptural narrative. Christology is at the heart of Paul’s entire theological vision.

Jesus is the true human who renders to the creator God a faithful obedience embodied by a life of self-giving love for others. Jesus Christ, then, and his relation to the entire range of God’s redemptive purposes, becomes the context within which the Christian life takes place and the template for what it involves.

  • Jesus redeems the failed story of Adam and Eve.
  • Jesus is the true seed of Abraham
  • Jesus is the true Israelite who, uniquely, fulfils Israel’s vocation to be al ight to the nations and source of blessing to the nations
  • Jesus’ self-giving life of love forms the model for the Christian life
  • Jesus’ presence fills each church community through the pouring out of his Spirit. These communities are empowered to be a new humanity (Eph 4:24)

The big point Gombis is making here is that a NT vision of the Christian life does not emerge out of nowhere – it is fully consistent with God’s agenda to redeem and restore (save) his original creation order.

And the Christian life is lived out in community – the new body, the body of Messiah Jesus. The paradigm shift here is that it is made up of both faithful Israelites and faithful non-Israelites.

Spirit

It is the Spirit who unites believers to Christ – in his death and resurrection. Gombis sketches three ways the Spirit and the Christian life are linked for Paul:

First, the Spirit is the promised eschatological presence of God among his people. The new age has come, the kingdom of God is here and evident within his people who are new creations in Christ.

Second, churches are made up of individuals baptized into Christ, united to him, where the very presence of God dwells. See church as temple here (1 Cor 3:16-17)

Third, since churches are made up of people united to Christ, they are united to each other (the body of Christ) – members of one another (Eph 4:15).

How then to describe the Christian life? Gombis puts it corporate language that challenges popular Protestant individualist soteriology:

The Christian life is participation in the new creation people of God, the church, made up of all people in Christ … Paul’s conception of the
Christian life cannot be extricated from his vision of the church. In fact, while much of Protestant theology has focused on the individual in abstraction from the church, we can say quite confidently that Paul would have almost nothing to say about the Christian life if he had to speak of it apart from the church.

And this

Paul’s conception of being Christian is thoroughly wrapped up in and
shaped by the communal experience of being the corporate people of God. At the same time, Paul doesn’t diminish the individual in favor of the community, so it may be better to say that Paul conceives of individuals-in-community. This runs counter to the typical Protestant starting point of the individual as the recipient of salvation and the object in whom God is producing the character of Christ through sanctification. That is, it is somewhat typical to conceive of salvation as worked out in individuals who then must also reckon themselves part of a church made up of other individuals who are also having salvation worked out in them. This theological perspective comes not from Paul’s texts, however, but from a Western tradition shaped by individualism.

All this means that the idea of the Christian life being one where the lone individual ‘lives out’ his or her own choices is a modern creation. For Paul, the Christian life is communal through and through. Believers are bound together so much so that the Apostle’s aim in writing his letters is always that they, as individuals-in-community  “participate in community life to reflect the reality that they are communities of the kingdom of God.”

And it is modern individualism that has shaped popular interpretation of Paul’s teaching on life in the Spirit. The ‘Flesh’ and ‘Spirit’ contrast of Galatians 5 is not some internal individual struggle but two competing realms of power. The command to be ‘filled by the Spirit’ in Ephesians 5:18 is not to individuals but to the corporate body of the church.

The ‘shape’ of this corporate life is cruciformity. The letters of Paul are not detailed templates of ethics, but are better understood as exhortations and encouragements to live a certain way – the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, the way of self-giving love (Phil 2:5-11)

The consequence or fruit of such a life is unity. And this is where the New Perspective kicks in as a useful corrective to Protestant individualism. Gombis says

Protestant, and especially Reformed, interpreters bristle at the suggestion that Paul employs the notion of justification by faith in an effort to unify Jewish and gentile Christians in Rome. When one follows the grammar of Paul’s argument, however, it is difficult to deny that this is what Paul is doing. He writes to a church (or network of churches) in Rome to unify them in the face of developing division. He argues in Romans 1:18–3:20 that all those in the Roman churches were equally condemned under sin—not just gentiles—and in 3:21–31 Paul claims that all Christians have been justified by faith without any reference to ethnic identity.

Justification by faith is vital for Paul, but it functions as a doctrine for the unity of the church, vindicating the saving and redeeming purposes of God.

‘Unity’ means concrete things – loving one another; treating the poor with dignity and respect (1 Cor 11); forgiveness; carrying each other’s burdens; mutual care and multiple similar examples.

And it is the Spirit who empowers Christians to live such a life. Gombis makes an interesting point here relating back to the New Perspective and criticisms of it by some Reformed scholars worried that it somehow imports our ‘works’ into individual salvation

The Christian life as the participation (along with others in Christ) in
God and thus enjoyment of divine empowerment ought to relieve Protestant concerns about potential anthropological optimism. That is, many have objected to a “new perspective” approach to Paul on the grounds that it does not share a critique of works and works of law that reflects the complete inability of humans to adequately obey God or the Mosaic law. We may admit that Paul is not necessarily optimistic about humanity, but he is also not reticent about the necessity of all humanity to obey the one true God revealed in Jesus Christ. This is likely because he discerns the reality that all those who obey God in Christ can do so only because of the divine empowerment enjoyed by all those who have been united to Christ by the Spirit.

I agree with him – too much popular Protestant spirituality is shaped by an overly-pessimistic view of the Christian life (‘we are justified sinners’ or ‘we are simply beggars telling others beggars where to find bread). Note, I did not say an overly-pessmistic anthropology. It seems to me that Paul is (rightly) negative about humanity’s lostness – just look around. But he is also hugely confident about God’s ability to transform that lostness through the empowering presence of the Spirit.

Comments, as ever, welcome.