A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Paul in Fresh Perspective #8 (Final Post)

Today Scot McKnight and I post our final review of Tom Wright's book, Paul in Fresh Perspective. I have truly enjoyed being a part of this joint endeavor with Scot and reading all of the insightful responses.

Summary by McKnight:

Here Wright comes back to an old issue: the relationship of Jesus to Paul. This question fascinates me, not the least reasons being that I think very few have seriously understood how Jesus' view of kingdom relates to Paul's view of ecclesia.

In particular, the issue for me is that most think "kingdom" is big and "ecclesia" (church) is small, so that Paul's ecclesia is a part of Jesus' kingdom. I doubt very much that Paul would agree with this comparison. And, to be honest, until we face the linguistic issue -- that Paul "metaphors" the ideal society in ecclesia and Jesus in kingdom -- we are not facing the real issue. To pretend that "kingdom" is one thing and "ecclesia" another because they are different terms misses the opportunity to explore what a metaphor is designed to do: give us a window onto a wider reality. Nor are we giving a fair hearing to their respective contexts and missions. Well, I'm not doing what I'm supposed to do: summarize the 8th chp. It is the best chp in the book. Buy it just for this chp.

1. Jesus and Paul

Most, Wright says, have posed the question in the wrong terms. Simplistic terms of comparison won't work. The way to look at them is not by way of analyzing and comparing their theologies. They are both Jewish, and they both inherit the Jewish matrix Wright sketches earlier in the book, and both gave articulation to those themes in their contexts -- so it does not surprise that Paul differs. Here's a golden image from Wright: "The relationship between them...was much more like that between a composer and a conductor; or between a medical researcher and a doctor; or between an architect and a builder" (155). Wri(gh)te this down and don't forget it: comparison of terms is a dead-end. We know this from linguistic theory. [I'm thinking here of Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine here: script and performance.]

Wright contends that Jesus' vision was eschatological: he was living out the vocation of Israel and God's return to Zion. This is an alternative eschatology to the Enlightenment. Paul, also, thought he had a role to play in the eschatological unfolding of the ages -- and it was more than just pointing back to Jesus: his was to summons the nations into a undivided family.

Jesus preaches and embodies and does kingdom. Paul metaphors God's work into Jesus as Lord. And justification, and here he repeats again a central theme of his theory, is about how one can tell who are the true people of God. The unified family of God. The "parallel" in Jesus is his redefinition of family (Mark 3:31-35). Justification is not about conversion.

Justification is Paul's term for the gospel that emerged in his missional praxis. [These are my words; they are Wright's ideas -- at least I think they are.]

On ethics, both Jesus and Paul teach not only what to do but how to think about what to do -- and that is why their terms differ. How do you live in the kingdom becomes how do you live in the Spirit? I have taught for years that Jesus' "kingdom" life and Paul's "Spirit" life are different metaphors for the reality of God's gracious life in our midst -- but from two different angles and in different missional worlds.

2. The Work of an Apostle

Servant. Paul re-implemented the Servant of Isaiah task as an extension of Jesus' own Servant role. Apostle. Royal emissary. Set apart.

Redefinitions in practice. God: 1 Cor 8:6 [this one thrilled me; I, too, think Paul grappled with christology through the Shema] and this challenged his world. Israel: redefined via praxis of agape. The church is "God's redeemed humanity" (165). Unity: not passing judgment, but knowing central moral questions deserve a stand. Collection for the saints. Church is a third entity. Eschatology. Paul's mission was to found "Jew-plus-Gentile churches on Gentile soil" (169). Why? 1. Paul thought Jerusalem was under imminent threat. 1 Thes 2:14-16. 2. Paul saw the Jesus as the Lord and Caesar was not.


Hermeneutics: use the metanarrative of the Bible and it is a story that is still not finished. We are in the Fifth Act: Easter and Pentecost. We are called "to improvise a way through the unscripted period between the opening scenes and the closing one" (172; italics in text). [This is a form of emerging theology.] Postmodernity is our world; it gives us a fresh statement of the Fall. [Gollee, I'm glad he says this.] We need to reconstruct the self, knowing through love, the great story of love instead of power.

Response by Bevere:

As I reflect on Wright's excellent last chapter, I ask the question, What does Paul's "fresh perspective" mean for the church in the twenty-first century? Writing as a pastor, let me simply suggest a few things.

First, it means theological reflection and the moral life are inseparably integrated together. The church today is too obsessed with pragmatism; we want what works without reflecting on the grand and fundamental affirmations of our faith that give substance to our life together and to our mission in the world. Wright states that Paul was interested "to teach his churches not just how to behave but why to behave" (p. 160). Too often we simply want to know the steps on how to have a good Christian marriage without reflecting on what Christian marriage is in the first place. We want to know what is and is not acceptable sexual behavior without thinking through the biblical understanding of creation, covenant, redemption, humanity, and community. We want to take the necessary steps to make our churches more friendly places without reflecting on the implications for our mission as Christ's body in light of the hospitality of the cross. The church needs to be just as concerned with why we do as how to do. It is the why that reminds us of our identities, of who we are in Christ.

It is the pastor's job to create this context. Pastors need to spend less time reading "how to" books on leadership, spirituality, and X-amount of steps to a growing and vital church, and spend more time reading theology in all of its modes (biblical studies, systematics, moral theology, church history, etc.). It is not that the other books are bad, but to turn a phrase from Jesus, we should attend to the former without neglecting the latter. If the lay leadership in a congregation is theologically shallow, it is because the pastor is theologically shallow. Wright states, "Paul was never being merely pragmatic, but trying at all levels to live out, in severely practical ways, the gospel and theology he was preaching and teaching" (p. 169).

Second, the church must see itself first and foremost as a missionary organization and pastors must cast their role primarily as missionaries. For too long we have thought of missionary organizations as those places where churches send money, when the church, all along, has been such an entity. Paul understood that God in Jesus was fulfilling Israel's destiny in bringing the message of salvation to the entire world. The new creation has begun and the church is that new creation called to reflect the renewal to the world in order that the world might come to know what it is not but needs to be. In like fashion, pastors need to model their ministries in missionary fashion. "Paul saw his apostleship in terms of being a "royal emissary" (p. 162). The "chaplain" model for ministry must decrease, while the other must increase.

Third, the church needs to understand that its true context is not to be a prop for the state, but to be the alternative to the world. Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not is still true today; for it is God and not the nations who rules the world. The church all too often forgets that in its life and in its mission, it participates in something big. The church participates in the biblical meta-narrative (The problem with the Enlightenment was not that it believed in meta-narrative; its problem was that its meta-narrative was simply false.) of God's new creation in a world filled with idols. Our society might have long abandoned the worship of idols of stone and wood, but the worship of idols is still very much in fashion. Our culture is not simply a Christian culture that is decaying; it is a pagan culture that needs redemption; and as Paul reminds us in his speech to the Athenians (Acts 17:16-34), God in Jesus is now calling all to account (p. 163). The church in its mission is to call all to account, not in arrogance, but in the way of humility, in the way of suffering love, in the way of the cross.

Fourth, the church needs to reflect a Pauline understanding of tolerance where the essentials are insisted upon (in love, of course) and where the non-essentials are kept as "non." As Wright correctly notes, the modern church's Enlightenment understanding of tolerance is too wide and too shallow (p. 166). The church has an uncanny knack for trivializing the momentous and complicating the obvious. Some churches split congregations over things that have no ultimate significance in God's kingdom, while churches of other "bents" want to relegate essential doctrinal and moral standards to redefinition or simply as a matter of one's own personal preference. It seems to me a serious study of Paul can help us make our way through this conundrum.

Fifth, and finally, the church is truly one new humanity. Paul casts the church as "the new version of the human race" (p. 168). It is not simply one more club or association. Unfortunately, I fear that many Christians today understand the church in the same "club" manner, as many Romans in Paul's day viewed their associations and guilds. In the church God is remaking humanity into the unity he promised to Abraham. Thus, it is inexcusable that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. It seems to me that in the midst of massive waves of immigration into the United States, the church has an incredible opportunity to be that new humanity. While the rest of the society is debating the "problem" of immigration, Christians ought to be reaching out to all those around them, offering the opportunity to participate in God's new humanity that can only be found in the church because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing, then to be sure, white, black, latino, asian, etc. should not be barriers in the midst of the new humanity. Indeed, where such barriers exist, there is no new humanity.

The task before us is large, and Wright has given us tremendous assistance in thinking through the task of the church in the twenty-first century. What better way to have at it then by reflecting on the work of the great apostle who wrote to churches, who, like us, were attempting to make their way faithfully in a culture surrounded by idols.


Brennan said...

I enjoyed your responses today. Particularly the "Gollee" from McKnight and the pastoral vision and comments on pragmatism from you.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Thanks, Brennan.

Jordan Barrett said...

Allan, you mentioned that "the church must see itself first and foremost as a missionary organization and pastors must cast their role primarily as missionaries." How do you see this in conjunction with the seeker-sensitive movement?

Also, your thoughts were insightful and full of great wisdom. I know I'm not the only one who has benefited from them. Thanks.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Great question! I am getting ready to leave to teach this morning and I have a lunch meeting after that. I will post a response to your question later today.


Jordan Barrett said...


was wondering if you would have the time to elaborate on my previous question. Perhaps things got a little busy. ;) Thanks for your time.