Theology & Social Embodiment

At the Galatians conference in July, John Barclay gave a wonderful paper on the integral connection between doctrine and social practice.  He argued that in Paul’s view, justification by faith is not merely a notion to be affirmed or confessed.

It must be socially embodied by communities of Jesus-followers that do not reckon each others’ worth by cultural standards of competition, such as ethnicity, income level, or social class.

If justification by faith isn’t socially embodied by communities that welcome one another gladly and serve each other in cruciform love, the Christ-gift (Barclay’s term) simply ceases to have existential reality.

Along the same line, Bruce Longenecker captures so well how the triumph of God in Christ is integrally connected to the existence and flourishing of such communities.

To go back to the stipulations given through the mediator Moses, to return to the influence of the weak and beggarly ‘elements’, is to turn away from the intention of the one, sovereign, universal God, who is creating a catholic people in Christ.  Accordingly, in Paul’s thought, God’s ‘oneness’—that is, God’s sovereignty, supremacy over competing deities, and worthiness as the one who alone is to be worshipped—is advertised in the social constituency of God’s people.  God’s eschatological triumph results in, consists of, and is exhibited by, the establishment of a community of catholic membership.  The formation of such a group is itself the placard, the display, and the disclosure of the power of the ultimate divinity (The Triumph of Abraham’s God, p. 57).

Barclay and Longenecker get to the heart of Paul’s theology in Galatians and present a pretty stark challenge to culturally-accommodated churches.

Whatever we confess with our lips, if we do not embody the gospel as communities of cruciform love, we cannot make any claim that the gospel actually exists.  And our failure displays the reality that God has not triumphed over the evil forces that have hijacked his world.

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