Paul and the Christian life (6) Tara Beth Leach

The penultimate chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective is by Tara Beth Leach on ‘A Symphonic Melody: Wesleyan-Holiness Theology meets New-Perspective Paul’

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?

This angle is an interesting one – Wesley’s concern for holiness – entire or perfect sanctification worked out in a Christian life motivated by pure love for God – immediately makes connections to themes within the NPP.

We’ve seen consistently in chapters so far common strands emerging: – ecclesiology across all boundaries, a new community marked by love, the role of the Spirit in creating and empowering believers to live the Christian life; a theology shaped by a radical and revolutionary new interpretation of the biblical narrative in light of the Apostle’s own experience.

Beth Leach sketches the contours of Wesley’s theology of original sin, prevenient grace, justification, sanctification, holiness and love. The discussion reminds how classically Reformed Wesley’s theology of justification is – leave out prevenient grace and there is no real gap here between the Arminian and Calvinist takes on Paul. Our works cannot save us; we are under the judgement of the law; faith is the only condition for justification, an act of God’s grace in Jesus Christ through whom sin is atoned for and the sinner declared righteous.

The distinctive emphasis of Wesley was how he tied justification together with the necessity and possibility of a radically transformed Christian life. It was not only guilt that is dealt with in Christ, it is also the power of sin. And so Wesley developed his – how would you put it? – positive? optimistic? confident? unrealistic? Pauline? – theology of the Christian life. A theology that taught and expected a life of holiness and love, empowered by the Spirit and marked by changed desires and priorities within.

I’ll put my cards on the table here and say, whatever you might think of Wesley’s version of a ‘two-stage’ reception of the Spirit (fine to have an Aldersgate experience but just don’t force a personal experience into a theological grid to impose on others), his passion, desire and conviction that God is in the business of spiritual renewal and change is far closer to Paul than a theology that one that talks a lot about being ‘saved’ and yet has little expectation of the power and presence of God in the subsequent Christian life.

Beth Leach maps Wesley’s holiness theology onto Paul’s vision for the Christian life, emphasising the latter’s corporate context. Her chapter doesn’t get into critical analysis of Wesley or the contemporary holiness movement, but she hints at the major problem within holiness spirituality and within Old Perspective soteriology – that of individualism. (I’d like to have heard a response to the criticism that Wesley mirrors the Old Perspective tendency to individualism, flowing out of an overly dominant justification theology that tends to flatten Paul’s wider narrative framework). The challenge for both is the Apostle’s call to what she terms a ‘Symphonic Melody’ – where it is only together that the orchestra can play beautiful music, each member needs the other. She concludes this way ..

Beethoven did not write his Overture from Egmont with one instrument in mind, but he also didn’t create it so that every instrument would sound exactly the same. Beethoven wrote the symphony with all the instruments in mind and for each instrument to shine in its unique way …. The beauty of music happens when the ensemble comes together in one unifying voice. In the very same way, our Creator and King did not create the redemptive narrative with one person in mind, but the goal has always been for a holy people. The beauty of it all is when the people gather as one voice; this is when holiness happens.(177-8)

Amen to that lovely image.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Wesley and the experiential Spirit

The other end of the spectrum within Western pneumatology to the institutional tendency is what T. David Beck calls the ‘experiential tendency’.

If Barth is an example of the former, John Wesley is an example of the latter. His conflict with the Anglican Church of the day revolved to a large degree around his view of the Spirit in the Christian life. Wesley was charged with being an ‘enthusiast’ (a bad thing to be obviously).

Wesley’s influence has been every bit as significant as Barth’s. His holiness theology was one of the inspirations for the rise of the modern Pentecostal movement, now the largest and most dynamic sector of global Christianity.

If justification is what God does for the believer in and through his Son, sanctification is what God works in the believer by his Spirit.

If the Christian life is a battle between ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’, the Spirit can win the struggle. The believer can therefore reach a state of ‘perfection’ – which in Wesley’s terms means loving God with all of our hearts, mind, soul and strength. In this state of perfection, or entire sanctification, there is no room left to commit wilful sin.

Wesley emphasised unique functions of the Spirit. One was assurance through the inner witness of the Spirit. Another was an experience of the depth of God’s love for the individual believer. He talked about a ‘sweet calm’ satisfaction of knowing God’s grace.

The indirect sign of the Spirit’s transforming presence is the fruit of the Spirit – affections like joy and peace and love.

The big point here is the experiential role of the Spirit in transformation – whether assurance of being a child of God; overcoming deliberate sin; or seeing his fruit as a visible witness of his presence.

Wesley never stopped insisting on the perceptibility of the work of the Spirit in the day to day of the Christian life. It is this experience of the Spirit that is the key to preventing Christianity from sliding into formalism and institutionalism.

In other words, this is a theology of encounter with the Spirit. The Spirit’s work is distinct from, and complementary to, that of the Father and Son.

There are great strengths in this form of pneumatology:

– a stress of personal experience of God in and through the Spirit

– a Trinitarian framework, but one in which the Spirit has distinct agency and ministry

– a passion for holiness and personal transformation

A quick read of the previous post gives a sharp reminder of how different Wesley is from Barth.

Beck points to weaknesses in Wesley’s pneumatology:

– The Spirit’s work is too closely focused on the individual believer with the subsequent danger of individualism

– The Spirit’s ministry is therefore tied too tightly to the present time – with little reference to the OT and to eschatological hope.

– And if Barth is overly Christocentric, Wesley could be charged with being overly ‘pneumacentric’ (to make a word up). And it’s no surprise to see this tendency emerge in some forms of Pentecostalism, where there is a search for spiritual experiences of the power of God as a key to revival.

Beck’s overall argument is that neither ‘bipolarity’ of Barth or Wesley is adequate to do justice to the NT witness of the Spirit. I’ll try to summarise his path between them in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.