More on “The Plight” from Wright

I’ve been reviewing some older critiques of “the new perspective on Paul” that mention specifically its lack of a theology of sin and salvation. It seems to me, however, that it’s more accurate to say that “the new perspective” broke the hegemony of a certain account of what Paul must have meant by the plight and the solution.

That is, many interpreters had assumed that for Paul, the problem is that humans are sinners and the solution is salvation. Humans are unrighteous and are at enmity with God, and they need righteousness and must be set right with God.

The revolution in Pauline studies that led to a global re-reading of Paul’s texts (all of them, not just our favorite ones) demonstrated that while all this is true, it is part of a much larger picture of what is wrong and how God has acted to set things right.

Grasping this more robust and far-reaching Scriptural depiction of what is wrong leads to a greater appreciation for God’s manifold action in Christ, and to a greater understanding of how God’s people inhabit and embody the massive (and under-explored) reality called “salvation.”

Wright PFG

I say all this just to note that N. T. Wright in Paul and the Faithfulness of God does a very nice job of demonstrating what Paul saw as “the plight.” It wasn’t just that humans needed righteousness. In fact, the problem went beyond humans. It was cosmic in scope, including the entire creation.

What happens, then, when we put together these three elements, cross, resurrection and spirit? Paul has revised his previous understanding of the plight of the world, of humans and of Israel in line with his revision of monotheism itself. Standing behind it all was the strong early Christian belief that in Jesus and the holy spirit the covenant God had returned at last, and had acted decisively to judge and save. The sudden brightness of this light cast dark shadows: if this was what it looked like when YHWH returned, all sorts of things were called into question. The resurrection of Jesus constituted him as Messiah, but he remained the crucified Messiah, and if in the strange purposes of the One God the Messiah, his one and only true ‘son’, had had to die, it could only mean that the plight of Israel was far worse than had been thought. The resurrection itself demonstrated that the real enemy was not ‘the Gentiles’, not even the horrible spectre of pagan empire. The real enemy was Death itself, the ultimate anti-creation force, with Sin – the personified power of evil, doing duty apparently at some points for ‘the satan’ itself – as its henchman. Finally, the experience of the spirit revealed the extent to which hardness of heart and blindness of mind had been endemic up to that point across the whole human race. All these were there in Israel’s scriptures, but so far as we know nobody else in second-temple Judaism had brought them together in anything like the form we find them in Paul. It looks very much as though it was the gospel itself, both in proclamation and experience, which was the driver in bringing Paul to this fresh understanding of ‘the plight’ from which all humans, and the whole creation, needed to be rescued (761-2).

Earlier Jewish writers had seen quite a bit of this, of course. But for Paul the nature and extent of ‘the enemy’ and ‘the problem’ were revealed precisely in the act of their overthrow. The full horror of the threatening dragon became apparent only as it lay dead on the floor. The hints had been there already, including the biblical warnings about the corrosive and destructive principalities and powers standing behind outward political enemies and operating through the local and personal ‘sin’ of individuals. Neither Saul of Tarsus nor Paul the Apostle would have supposed one had to choose between the partial analyses offered by Genesis 3, Genesis 6 and Genesis 11: human rebellion, dark cosmic forces and the arrogance of empire all belonged together. A thoughtful and scripturally educated Pharisee could have figured that out already. But for Paul all of these were seen afresh in the light of the gospel. The fungus that had been growing on the visible side of the wall could now be seen as evidence of the damp that had been seeping in from behind. The worrying persistent and ingrained sin of Israel, not merely of the nations, was the tell-tale sign that the principalities and powers of Sin and Death had been at work all along in the covenant people, as well as in the idolatrous wider world (763).

Paul’s robust monotheism allowed fully for the fact of rebellious non-human ‘powers’ luring humans into idolatry and hence into collusion with their anti-creational and anti-human purposes. Sin in the human heart, darkness in the human mind, dehumanized behaviour in the human life: all went together with the rule of dark forces that operated through idols, including empires and their rulers, to thwart the purposes of the one creator God. And Israel, called to be the light of the world, had itself partaken of the darkness. Israel, too, was ‘in Adam’ (771).


N. T. Wright on Paul’s “Plight”

In Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright has a wonderful section dealing with the multifaceted “plight” in Paul’s theological outlook. For Paul, far more has gone wrong than simply humanity being sinful and in need of being set right with God. The problem of evil is multi-dimensional, including personal and cosmic aspects. This, of course, makes salvation multi-dimensional for Paul.

Wright PFG

The larger section of which the below is an excerpt is well worth reading, not least because it demonstrates the emptiness of the claim that Wright and others who read Paul from a “new perspective” don’t take sin seriously.

The ideas of personal sin and salvation, and the role of Israel’s Torah in relation to those questions, remain important, indeed obviously vital, in Paul. But instead of approaching them through the framework of mediaeval and Reformational theories, we must relocate them within the much larger Jewish framework: monotheism versus idolatry, Torah-keeping versus immorality, the social, cultural and political meanings which went with those antitheses, and not least the larger global and even ‘cosmic’ perspective which was glimpsed from time to time within Israel’s scriptures and later traditions and which Paul brought more fully into the open. We must not, in other words, collude with the relatively modern break-up of ‘the problem of evil’ into ‘natural evil’ on the one hand and ‘human sin’ on the other. Nor, in particular, must we go along with the classic western assumption (still evident in the continuing mainstream tradition and in Sanders’s revisionist proposals) that ‘salvation’ will mean the rescue of humans away from the present world. Insofar as second-temple Jews reflected on such things, they saw evil of all sorts as an unhappy jumble of disasters at all these levels, and ‘salvation’ as rescue from evil (whether personal, political or cosmic) rather than as rescue from the created world. Their monotheism was expressed in the cry for justice and the plea for rescue, two of the great themes of Isaiah 40—55: in other words, for a radical change of affairs within the created world. Paul’s revised monotheism declared that justice had been done, and rescue provided, in the Messiah and by the spirit. This gave him a much sharper vision of ‘the problem’, but it did not create it from scratch.

The basic point can be put quite starkly. Paul already had ‘a problem’; all devout Jews did, as we have seen. The fact that it was not the same as the ‘problem’ of the conscience-stricken mediaeval moralist does not mean it was non-existent. It was the problem generated by creational and covenantal monotheism: why is the world in such a mess, and why is Israel still unredeemed? The revelation of Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah meant, for Paul, that the covenant God had offered the solution to these problems – but, in offering the solution, Israel’s God had redefined the problems, had revealed that they had all along been far worse than anyone had imagined (p. 749).

Christians & Depression

For a variety of reasons, many churches are not places of welcome and rest for those struggling with depression. The helpless silences and perceived judgmentalism can have tragic consequences.

Depression in the Church

In Depression in the Church, my sister, Alison Hall, courageously tells her own story of suffering in the darkness and of breaking through the deceptions and misconceptions that afflict many Christian communities. She honestly tells her story and then offers very practical, hopeful, and biblical counsel for those who suffer or who love those who find themselves so afflicted.

I’m a proud big brother, but I’m also confident that many will be blessed by Alison’s hopeful reflections.

Prayer for Commencement

Last Friday night Grand Rapids Theological Seminary held its commencement ceremony. It was a wonderful time of celebration and once again made me so happy to be part of an institution and community so thoroughly shaped by the gospel and by Kingdom priorities. I led the invocation and this was my prayer:

Lord and heavenly father, we pray to you in Christ and by your Spirit. We thank you for this community, for GRTS, for these students – now graduates – for our administration, for faculty and staff. Thank you for the warm community of friendship and support throughout the process of preparation for ministry.

Thank you for the fellowship we enjoy in a community of learning, where we’ve provoked one another to consider how we might grow up in understanding, in skill in handling the Scriptures, and in resolve to honor you as we serve your people.

We give you thanks on this occasion of celebration for your faithfulness. You have carried us, upheld us, sustained us, empowered us, challenged us, shaped us, and loved us in more ways that we could count or imagine.

And as we look to the future, to the unknown, to the struggles, difficulties, and challenges we will face, we know that you will remain faithful.

Strengthen us, Lord. Give us courage. Give us wisdom. Keep us humble. Give us expansive hearts to love as you love.

You have prepared us for the ministries to which you have called us. And we thank you that we can be confident as we look to the future.

We thank you for all these things in the name of Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

Explaining Stage Fright

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain has an interesting discussion of stage fright, noting that “public speaking is the number-one fear in America, far more common than the fear of death.”

I’m terrified pretty much every time I speak in front of other people, so this makes perfect sense to me.

In fact, public speaking anxiety may be primal and quintessentially human, not limited to those of us born with a high-reactive nervous system. One theory, based on the writings of the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, holds that when our ancestors lived on the savannah, being watched intently meant only one thing: a wild animal was stalking us. And when we think we’re about to be eaten, do we stand tall and hold forth confidently? No. We run. In other words, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution urge us to get off the stage, where we can mistake the gaze of the spectators for the glint in a predator’s eye. Yet the audience expects not only that we’ll stay put, but that we’ll act relaxed and assured. This conflict between biology and protocol is one reason that speechmaking can be so fraught. It’s also why exhortations to imagine the audience in the nude don’t help nervous speakers; naked lions are just as dangerous as elegantly dressed ones (pp. 107-8).

An audience as a pack of predators — makes even more sense!

Paul the Pastoral Theologian

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about Paul as a pastoral theologian (or, as a theologically-oriented pastor). I was struck by, and had to re-read a few times, this wonderful closing passage to Part 2 of N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God:

So when people say, as they often do, that Paul ‘was not a systematic theologian’, meaning that ‘Paul didn’t write a medieval Summa Theologica or a book that corresponds to Calvin’s Institutes,’ we will want to say: Fair enough. So far as we know, he didn’t. But the statement is often taken to mean that Paul was therefore just a jumbled, rambling sort of thinker, who would grab odd ideas out of the assortment of junk in his mental cupboard and throw them roughly in the direction of the problems presented to him by his beloved and frustrating ekklsiai. And that is simply nonsense. The more time we spend in the careful reading of Paul, and in the study of his worldview, his theology and his aims and intentions, the more he emerges as a deeply coherent thinker. His main themes may well not fit the boxes constructed by later Christian dogmatics of whatever type. They generate their own categories, precisely as they are transforming the ancient Jewish ones, which are often sadly neglected in later Christian dogmatics. They emerge, whole and entire, thought through with a rigour which those who criticize Paul today (and those who claim to follow him, too!) would do well to match.

What is more, the reason Paul was ‘doing theology’ was not that he happened to have the kind of brain that delighted in playing with and rearranging large, complex abstract ideas. He was doing theology because the life of God’s people depended on it, depended on his doing it initially for them, then as soon as possible with them, and then on them being able to go on doing it for themselves. All Paul’s theology is thus pastoral theology, not inthe sense of an unsystematic therapeutic model which concentrates on meeting the felt needs of the ‘client’, but in the sense that the shepherd needs to feed the flock with clean food and water, and keep a sharp eye out for wolves. For that, pastoral theology needs to be crystal clear, thought out and presented in a way that teaches others to think as well. That, too, is part of the point: Christian theology, for Paul, was not just about what you know, but about how you know. And, just as the Christian worldview compels people to think in a new way, because otherwise the worldview itself is unstable, so Christian theology remains both a corporate task, one in which the church as a whole has to engage, rather than being spoon-fed by one or two high- octane teachers, and also an incomplete task, because each generation needs to become mature in its thinking, which wouldn’t happen if Paul, Athanasius, Aquinas, Luther, Barth or anyone else had closed off the questions with answers that could then simply be looked up. The ‘authority’ of Paul did not consist in his providing lots of correct answers to puzzling questions. That would have left his converts, and subsequent generations, with no work to do on the questions he had answered, and no starting-point for the ones he didn’t. They would have remained radically and residually immature. Give someone a thought, and you help them for a day; teach someone to think, and you transform them for life. Paul’s authority consisted in his setting up a particular framework and posing a specific challenge. Living as Messiah-people demanded, he would have said, that people work within that framework and wrestle with that challenge (PFG, 568-69).

Conceiving Christian Identity

Over the last few days I’ve been reflecting a bit on the character of Christian identity with reference to its corporate and individual dimensions. After introducing it in class a few times, I’ve been struck by some of the questions I’ve encountered.

As I indicated previously, students from communal cultures (e.g., parts of Africa, Asia, S. America) think this is normal, whereas N. American students are often discomfited, casting about anxiously to establish some place for the individual.

I’ve often wondered about what motivates some of these questions. Is it that our imaginations have been so thoroughly shaped by Western individualism that we want to have full and sole control over future possibilities? Is it that notions of “freedom” as the absence of coercion create in us discomfort when the realization dawns that we belong to and are obligated to others?

Getting under the skin of our deeply embedded individualism reveals impulses, inclinations, habits of thought, and modes of imagining and longing that need to be identified and refined in the light of Scripture.

At any rate, here are a few (still-in-process) thoughts about Christian identity:

First, Christian identity is neither communal at the expense of the individual, nor individual at the expense of the community.

Second, it may be most helpful to think in terms of “individuals-in-community.” Many acknowledge that communities are indeed made up of individuals, but it’s equally important to note that individuals have their identity as part of the Christian community. We are who we are in relation.

Third, dynamics of renewal do not work exclusively from individual-to-community, or exclusively from community-to-individual. Both dimensions are at work. Paul assures the Philippian church that God, who has begun a good work among them will bring it to completion (Phil. 1:6). He informs the Corinthian church that they are the temple of God’s Spirit, who dwells among them (1 Cor. 3:16). In much of that letter, Paul appeals to them to forego their individual rights and privileges (even to be wronged!) for the sake of the church. Attempting to resolve the conflict between Philemon and Onesimus, Paul addresses the whole church (Phmn 1-2).

One could easily argue that for Paul, the Spirit’s work is primarily corporate, identity is fundamentally corporate, and that the dynamics of renewal work from communal-to-individual. It seems, however, that the wider witness of Scripture indicates that both dynamics are at work and that they sometimes work in this direction, and at other times, in that direction.

In Revelation 2-3, the exalted Lord Jesus rebukes and comforts churches, but also confronts individuals in need of repentance. In fact, it’s interesting to see the interplay of corporate and individual dynamics in the messages to the churches, though there again, one wonders if some of the individual notes (i.e., the promises to “the one who conquers”) are directed at whole churches to persevere.

All of this is to say that for Westerners in general and for Americans in particular, faithfully grasping the contours of the Christian faith is no straightforward enterprise. We tend to think of salvation as the order of events that happen to me rather than my participation – along with a redeemed community — in God’s movement to reclaim creation for the glory of his name.

Corporate & Individual Christian Identity, Pt. 2

Yesterday I reproduced a blog post I wrote a few years ago about the first audience(s) of the New Testament. The recipients of NT letters were communities and not individuals (even in the case of Paul’s letter to Philemon!). I brought this up in order to generate some discussion and to clarify my own thoughts about individual and communal Christian identity.

Further, I’ve been puzzled by certain responses I’ve encountered when I’ve presented this material in class. For the most part, when I bring this up, students nod their heads as if I’m only saying that our culture is too individualistic (which most people affirm) and that the church is really important (who would disagree?).

But I’ve pressed the issue further, indicating that the communal dimension of things in the NT is more fundamental than that. I’m not simply saying that the church is important, but that the basic conception of being Christian is a communally-shaped and communally-oriented endeavor. It’s not that the church is the collection of all the people who are being Christian. Christian existence is participation in the body of Christ – the church – into which we are baptized and apart from which Christian discipleship does not exist. How we think about our identity must reflect that reality.

Now, to my point. Having discussed this in the past, I’ve been reflecting more recently on a question I’ve encountered occasionally. I’ve been asked, “well, what about the individual? Are we running the risk of losing sight of the individual in light of the community?”

My question is this: Where does that question come from? Is it coming from our individualized culture? Or, is it coming from the need to keep things in biblical balance?

If it is the case that Paul addressed his letters to churches, that there is almost no command that anyone can fulfill in the NT letters without being in community, that we are baptized into the body of Christ (and this occurs simultaneously to being united to God in Christ) – if all of these things are true, why is it that when someone highlights the corporate dimension of the Christian faith there is pushback about not leaving behind the individual dimension of things? Is that because we should be careful to also keep in mind the individualized aspects of Christian faith?

Or, is it that our lifelong discipleship in Western thought-forms and modes of life are being threatened and we haven’t yet become comfortable thinking in biblically-shaped categories?

Here’s a related question: When the Bible is read in cultures where identity is shaped communally, where they celebrate the faith and conceive of life corporately, when they hear the Bible read, does anyone stand up and ask, “hey, what about the individual?”

To this point I’m only stirring the pot and generating some discussion (thanks, by the way, to those who have responded!). I’m still chewing on this and will likely roll out some provisional thoughts over the next few days.

Corporate vs. Individual Christian Identity

I’ve had a number of discussions recently about the differences between modern and first-century conceptions of being Christian. The paragraphs below represent what I’ve taught in classes on the NT. How do these thoughts strike you?

The documents of the NT, with a few exceptions, are addressed to communities and not to individuals.  Many of us know this and it may not be too shocking, but the significances of this reality must continue to transform how we envision Christian identity.

Nobody in the first century had a Bible.  Most people in the first few Christian generations were illiterate and couldn’t have read their Bibles even if they had them.  When Scripture was read, it was read to communities who listened to it.  When NT letters were circulated and read, they were read aloud by individuals to communities.

Consider just one significant aspect of this.  When communities heard, “Jesus said, ‘I say this to you…’,” groups of Jesus-followers gathered together looked around at each other and thought, “he’s saying that to usWe need to…”  After hearing the Scriptures, they would begin to ask each other, “how are we going to follow these words of Jesus?  What do you think we ought to do in light of what Jesus said?”

They did not conceive of being Christian as something that they did on their own when they left the church gathering.  They did not consider their Christian discipleship as something separable from the community.

If a group heard someone read, “a new command I give to you, that you love one another,” two or three people who were involved in conflict would glance at each other, knowing that Jesus was commanding them to reconcile.  Two more people would look on, knowing the situation, committing to be part of a reconciling effort.

American evangelical Christian identity is completely shaped by individualism for a variety of really fascinating historical and cultural reasons.  I’ve discovered that it’s almost impossible to pull people out of the mindset that considers the Bible as “God’s love letter to me.”

How do these thoughts strike you? Do they seem to wrongly marginalize the individual? Does it appear that a corporate conception of Christian identity is nearly impossible to imagine? What objections could you anticipate from others?

The Tyranny of Convenience

In a recent class, we discussed how the modern value of convenience works against the cultivation of rich community life in churches. We are rushed and hurried, and the frantic and harried pace of life shapes us in such ways that we see occasions where we can linger with one another as “wasted time.” We’re not accomplishing anything! We can do this more conveniently!

I was struck by the following passage in Michael Moss’s book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, a fascinating look at the processed food industry. It reveals just one way in which convenience as an obvious value of modern life was reinforced by advertising over the last half-century.

Every year in New York City, the top executives of companies that sold a wide range of goods gathered together under the auspices of the Conference Board, an august association best known today for conducting the “consumer confidence” survey. In 1955, the dinner speaker was Charles Mortimer, and he got right to the point. Food, clothing, and shelter were still important, he told the crowd. But now there was a fourth essential element of life that could be “expressed in a single word—convenience—spelled out with a capital ‘C.’”

“Convenience is the great additive which must be designed, built in, combined, blended, interwoven, injected, inserted, or otherwise added to or incorporated in products or services if they are to satisfy today’s demanding public. It is the new and controlling denominator of consumer acceptance or demand.”

There is convenience of form, he said, citing the Gaines-Burger dog food patties that Clausi had invented to be as soft as hamburger but so durable that they could sit on the pantry shelf until needed. There is convenience of time, like the grocery stores throughout American that were starting to stay open in the evenings to accommodate increasing numbers of women who worked outside the home. And there is convenience of packaging, like beer in bottles that used to have to be hauled back to the store but were now disposable, and aluminum foil pie pans that were showing up on the grocery shelves.

The original 50s TV dinner

Photograph: William Gottlieb/Corbis

“Modern Americans are willing to pay well for this additive to the products they purchase,” Mortimer told the executives. “Not because of any native laziness but because we are willing to use our greater wealth to buy fuller lives and we have, therefore, better things to do with our time than mixing, blending, sorting, trimming, measuring, cooking, serving, and all the other actions that have gone into the routine of living.”

As if on cue, time-saving gadgets and gizmos started arriving in the grocery store that year that helped the modern homemaker trade a little more of her new wealth for some extra time away from the kitchen. Ready-to-bake biscuits appeared in tubes that could be opened by merely tugging a string. Special detergents came out for electric dishwashers that had special compounds to get off the water spots. One entrepreneurial firm even made plastic lids with spouts that snapped on cans of milk or syrup for easier pouring (pp. 60-61).

What I find so sinister about convenience is that it is in the midst of “all the other actions that have gone into the routine of living” that we often find rich fellowship with one another and mutual sharing. And with the systematic elimination of such moments from our lives, we’ve inadvertently lost opportunities to cultivate and strengthen bonds of friendship and community, both in families and in churches.


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