Posts Tagged ‘Paul’

Paul and Jesus

April 28, 2010

Hello! It’s been a while since I’ve posted – but I’ve not given up blogging. Just not done it for a while, though I have kept on reading quite a few other people’s blogs. Kind of like my attitude to playing cricket.

Anyway, thought I’d mention that have put up an excellent lecture by David Wenham on whether Paul is the real founder of Christianity. David Wenham is also the author of a number of books on the subject – Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? (Eerdmans, 1995) and Paul and Jesus: The True Story (SPCK, 2002), both of which I’ve managed to find in my university library, so if you’re a student at a university which offers Theology/Religious Studies you might be able to read a copy for free. Of the two, the second is probably a bit more accessible.

The debate, which I had not encountered at all until coming to university, revolves around the charge that Paul actually invented what we would recognise as “Christianity”, and that Jesus (if he even existed!) taught something entirely different to Paul, and did not believe he was the divine Son of God or that his death was sacrificial (“for our sins” 1Cor 15:3; Gal. 1:4).

This is something which a lot of more liberal Jesus scholars have put across, and which quite a lot of non-scholars have found quite attractive. The idea finds a lot of resonance (apparently – I’ve not read it yet) in Philip Pullman’s new book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. I think part of the attraction is the idea that you can have Jesus’ moral teaching without all the crazy stuff about the resurrection, sacrificial death, Son of God stuff. In fact, you can have Jesus as just a human being (which is probably all you’ll find if you look at the gospels with atheist presuppositions) who taught some nice stuff but was misunderstood by his followers and misrepresented by the Church. It’s a lie, but a tremendously powerful lie because it lets you have Jesus on your own terms (he can even be an atheist if you want) and because he’s not God incarnate he can’t challenge you any more than Plato or Cicero challenge you: Take the bits of his teaching you like and discard the bits you don’t. It’s a way of being against the Church without necessarily being against Jesus (at least, not the Jesus you think really existed).

Wenham deals with these arguments very cogently, particularly in the area of Christology. I won’t summarise the arguments in this post, but I’ll just add that I’ve been studying some stuff Paul wrote for my dissertation and have discovered quite a few verbal parallels with the teaching of Jesus, and much theological cohesiveness between the attitudes of Jesus and Paul to (in this case) civil government. The two of them aren’t opposed, at least not in the texts I’ve been studying.

Prayer and evangelism: Colossians 4:3-4

January 27, 2010

Today I was studying Colossians 4 at the CU small groups leaders’ bible study and was struck by what Paul asks the Christians in Colossae to pray for him:

“And pray for us too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.”

First, Paul asks for prayer that he might be able to share the gospel, whether or not he is released from prison. It wouldn’t be wrong for the Colossian church to pray for his release – and verse 18 might hint at that too – but for Paul, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ takes precedence over his legal rights.

Second, there’s a real stress both on the sovereignty of God in calling people to faith (“pray that God may open a door for our message…”) and on the need for Paul to communicate this accessibly and meaningfully (“pray that I may proclaim it clearly…”). Sometimes Christians who (correctly) stress that nobody can properly respond to the gospel without the enabling of the Holy Spirit – and indeed that our hearts and minds are “blind” to the truth of the gospel until God acts on us (2Cor 4:4-6), emphasising the need for what Reformed theologians call “prevenient grace” – sometimes these Christians can downplay the need for the gospel to be presented in culturally appropriate and accessible ways. If people need God to work to “unblind” them to the gospel, it doesn’t matter much if most people don’t understand our gospel presentation, because they’re just not ready to hear it yet. God hasn’t opened their eyes, and when he does, the Christian jargon, seventeenth-century language, and exclusive terminology we use just won’t be a hurdle. But Paul doesn’t draw this conclusion from the sovereignty of God in evangelism. Here he puts both God’s initiative and the need for clarity and communication side-by-side.

I think here we have a justification for thinking carefully about how to explain the “mystery of Christ” to the culture we find ourselves in today. How can we communicate it clearly and faithfully? Perhaps blurting out “Two Ways To Live” isn’t appropriate for every (or almost any!) situation. But lest we skip too quickly to debating methods and approaches – notice that Paul asks for prayer for this skill. It’s something we’d do well to pray for, too. I know I don’t find it easy – because I’m used to talking about the gospel to Christians where we share common terminology and attitudes and understandings (to a large degree!) and much less used to talking about the gospel with people who don’t know what “grace”, “redemption”, “reconciliation”, or even “God” means in a Christian context.

Render to Caesar

September 11, 2009

One of the books I’ve been reading for my dissertation is Christopher Bryan’s Render to Caesar (Oxford: OUP, 2005). As well as being one of the more well-written books I’ve read so far, I’ve found it really helpful both in presenting an attractive synthesis of the New Testament’s teaching on government; and in the questions it raises about approaches to Jesus and the New Testament which interpret early Christianity as a politically subversive or revolutionary movement.

Many scholars do read early Christianity in this way – for example, Jacob Taubes talks about Paul’s letter to the Romans in terms of “a declaration of war against Rome”. Richard Horsley has written much on New Testament political theory and sees Christianity in this revolutionary sense. N.T. Wright takes much of this onboard too, perhaps motivated by a desire to (correctly) affirm the public and universal nature of Christian claims about Jesus.

Bryan does not question this reading of the New Testament as a subversive or revolutionary manifesto by appealing to an anachronistic division between secular and sacred, private and public spheres. In fact, his seventh chapter draws out precisely why this modern idea cannot apply to the New Testament or the world where Christianity began: politics, even Roman politics, had a theological and religious dimension. He does not deny that Jesus and the apostles had things to say about Caesar’s empire. Instead, Bryan questions whether those who see the political teaching of the NT as a revolutionary agenda are reading it closely enough, and sets it in the canonical context of the prophetic tradition:

“My conclusion, briefly, is that Jesus and the early Christians did indeed have a critique of the Roman superpower, a critique that was broadly in line with the entire biblical and prophetic tradition … I think that the biblical tradition challenges human power structures not by attempting to dismantle them or replace them with other human power structures but by consistently confronting them with the truth about their origin and purpose.”
(p.9 – emphasis in original)

One of the frequent claims made in the literature on this topic is that the early Christian confession “Jesus is Lord” was meant in the sense that “Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord”. It is common to find scholars arguing that Christians were persecuted for proclaiming Jesus as “another King”. Does not Acts 17:7 bear this out? Actually, Bryan points out, this is a Jewish accusation against Paul that seems to be ignored by the Romans, and which Paul himself denies (Acts 25:8). In a world of many gods and many lords, Christians were not persecuted for proclaiming Jesus as Lord, but rather, because they refused to pay homage to the Roman divinities – Bryan adduces a wealth of ancient evidence that the most common charge against Christians was that of superstitio and impietas (pp.116-7) i.e., that they did not honour the Roman gods and thus became a “security risk” to Roman society, inviting the gods’ displeasure and wrath.

When Christians called Jesus “Lord”, “Son of God”, “Saviour”, they were not using these terms in the same sense that Romans used them as a title of Caesar. This Christian rhetoric was not a parody of imperial rhetoric or “deliberately calculated treason”, as Crossan would have it, but should actually be read against a Jewish background rather than an imperial Roman one. This seems to me to be a fair and crucial point – surely the early Christians meant rather to identify Jesus with YHWH by calling him “Lord” (κύριος – used to translate  יהוה in the LXX) rather than to identify him with Caesar.

To digress a moment, this can be seen by a look at Philippians 2. There are many Greek terms that are used in secular literature as technical terms of government and politics – Peter Oakes is quoted by Bryan as an example of someone who reads this as a subversion of imperial rhetoric. Yet the real parallel is with the Jewish background of Isaiah 45:

Isaiah 45:24

Philippians 2:10

… that to me every knee shall bend and every tongue shall swear by God … … so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord ,to the glory of God the Father.
ὁτι ἐμοὶ κάμψει πᾶν γόνυ, καὶ ἐξομολογήσηται πᾶσα γλῶσσα τὸν θεὸν ἱνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ ἐπουρανίων καὶ ἐπιγείων καὶ καταχθονίων καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται ὁτι κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός.

This passage is about identifying Jesus with YHWH’s throne rather than with Caesar’s throne.

In addition, Bryan examines the Synoptics and John against their Jewish background and concludes that Jesus was no Zealot – he did not make the cause of Jewish home rule his own. His teaching does, however, indicate a concern for God’s glory, which includes that rulers set in place by God understand their power to be a gift from God and exercise it justly. This is not about the form or structure associated with that power, nor (and I think Bryan is aiming his remarks at his adopted country of the United States here) whether or not those in power are Christian or not, but about rulers doing their God-given task of ruling. For Bryan, abdicating the responsibility or political power given to us is just as much a sin as its misuse: “If you are Caesar, you must not claim to be God, but you may no more step aside from being Caesar than a mother may abandon her children or a captain the ship” (p.128).

All in all I found this a very helpful book and Bryan’s synthesis of the New Testament’s attitudes to government very helpful. It’s also very easy to read and I’d recommend it highly!


June 23, 2009

As part of the impending third year of my degree, I can do a 12,000 word dissertation on pretty much anything theological. I’m quite a Biblical Studies-orientated person, but hopefully the topic I’ve chosen can bring in some historical and systematic stuff as well. I’m choosing to look at Paul’s thought on the relationship of the Christian to government in Romans 13 with a look particularly at the history of interpretation in 20th century German scholarship vis-à-vis the Nazi state. I’ll be looking at the Greek of Romans 13, and various commentaries, but particularly at some of the German scholarship. I’ve been reading the excursus on the history of interpretation in Ulrich Wilckens’ Der Brief an die Römer (Zurich: 1982) 3:43-66 which, although focussed mainly on the Reformation, covers the 20th century well. I’ve also read Stephen Ozment’s paperback history of Germany, A Mighty Fortress, which traces some currents relevant to the discussion of the Nazi state back to the Reformation and Martin Luther, so it will be interesting to see how this affects the history of interpretation of Romans 13.

I came across some of the basic discussion concerning the theological responses to Nazism when I was studying German and History, funnily enough – and this topic does manage to bring together a lot of things I’m interested in. I expect to find that it will be quite challenging for me to study, though – my default setting is not towards a positive view of the “state”, though neither is it towards political activism in the name of Christ. In fact, as I have remarked at different times to many people, one of the hardest examples I find to follow in the New Testament is that of Paul in Acts 23, where he applies the commandment “do not speak evil of a ruler of your people” to prohibit him from talking back to the High Priest who was ordeing him to be beaten and opposing the gospel. I hope studying Romans 13 (and other things Paul has to say about government and the “state”) will help me to see which of my attitudes need to change.

“The God Who Wasn’t There” and Jesus

April 26, 2009

Recently I’ve seen adverts and trailers all over the internet for a forthcoming film called “The God Who Wasn’t There“, which claims to do for religion what “Supersize Me” did for fast food. I checked it out, but I don’t think I’ll be parting with the Student Loan Company’s money to go and see it any time soon.

It really surprised me that the filmmakers claim that the early church were “unaware of the idea of a human Jesus” and (I surmise) that the gospel traditions that have Jesus being a real human being are therefore secondary. Logically, I guess, they must then proceed down the “Jesus never existed” avenue, which I really wasn’t expecting from something trying to portray itself as based on legitimate scholarship.

I’d be interested to know how the filmmakers substantiate their claim that the early church did not think of Jesus as being a human being, though. Usually the objection is the other way around – that Jesus’ earliest followers did not think he was a God!

Justin Martyr mentions in his second-century Dialogue with Trypho that he believes Christ to be both man and divine. Interestingly, he mentions that some “of his race” (either Christians, or Greeks more generally) struggle with the idea, but from the angle of ‘How could Jesus be divine?’ rather than ‘Was Jesus human?’.

Now assuredly, Trypho, [the proof] that this man is the Christ of God does not fail, though I be unable to prove that He existed formerly as Son of the Maker of all things, being God, and was born a man by the Virgin. But since I have certainly proved that this man is the Christ of God, whoever He be, even if I do not prove that He pre-existed, and submitted to be born a man of like passions with us, having a body, according to the Father’s will; in this last matter alone is it just to say that I have erred, and not to deny that He is the Christ, though it should appear that He was born man of men, and [nothing more] is proved [than this], that He has become Christ by election. For there are some, my friends, of our race, who admit that He is Christ, while holding Him to be man of men; with whom I do not agree, nor would I, even though most of those who have [now] the same opinions as myself should say so; since we were enjoined by Christ Himself to put no faith in human doctrines, but in those proclaimed by the blessed prophets and taught by Himself.
(Dialogue, 48:2 – emphasis mine)

Clement of Rome writes at the end of the first century AD that Jesus is a descendant of Abraham:

From him [Abraham] also was descended our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh…
1Clement 32

Of course, this is nothing that the New Testament authors have not already taught- Clement is alluding to Romans 9:5 which also calls Jesus “God”. Moments after describing Christ’s divine status and preeminence over all creation in Colossians 1, Paul can talk about his “body of flesh”, his afflictions and his death. The same divine-and-human Jesus is seen in Philippians 2. Disagree with the early church if you will, but don’t claim that they were unaware of the idea of a human Jesus, or, for that matter, of a divine Jesus.

Scripture and Christology

April 20, 2009

I’ve been working on an essay for my Christology and Atonement module, and had one of the best, but broadest essay prompts ever: choose one particular doctrine of Christological controversy and show how it compels a particular reading of a text of scripture which could be read otherwise. Geeky, I know. I’ve also had a bit of trauma with it today, having found out the word limit is 500 words less than I had assumed, and therefore having to cut out John of Damascus and Leo the Great entirely from my essay, and paring Origen down to a soundbite. (Sorry, guys. We can chat more about your stuff in heaven!)

Anyway, I chose to look at the Arian controversy and Colossians 1:15, where Jesus is called the “firstborn of all creation”. In the fourth century, Arius taught that only God the Father was uncreated and eternal, and that therefore Jesus (the Word) was a created being who acts as a kind of demi-God – the agent through whom God creates and saves. His teachings were summed up – either by himself, his supporters, or his detractors – in the phrase “there was a time when he [Christ] was not”.  Arius claimed that his view was taught by scripture, and one of the texts he appealed to a lot (which is why I chose it) was Colossians 1:15:

 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation

Arius understood the genitive “of all creation” firstly as a partitive genitive rather than a genitive of subordination. A partitive genitive suggests Christ belongs to the set of things “creation”, as the firstborn. So an analogous genitive might be a student who is “top of the class” – the student is a member of the class, as the top of it. However, this is not the only way to understand “of all creation” – for example, the NIV translates the phrase as a genitive of subordination with “firstborn over all creation“. An analogous genitive would be to say someone is the “teacher of the class” – the teacher is not a member of the class!

Secondly, Arius understood the word “firstborn” to refer to Christ’s temporal status – that he preceded everything else, but had a beginning in time at some point. He also understood “firstborn” to qualify the Son’s relationship to the Father, as well as the Son’s relationship to creation.

One of the things that surprised me in looking at some of the early Church writers on Colossians 1:15 was that many of them also understood “firstborn” to qualify the Son’s relationship to the Father. Justin Martyr for instance:

…we know Him to be the first-begotten (πρωτότοκος – lit. firstborn) of God…
(Dialogue with Trypho 100.1)

Theodoret of Cyrus:

Thus is he the firstborn of creation: not because he has a created sibling but because he was begotten before every creature

Notably, Athanasius denies this:

Accordingly it is nowhere written in the Scriptures, ‘the first-born of God,’ nor ‘the creature of God;’ but ‘Only-begotten’ and ‘Son’ and ‘Word’ and ‘Wisdom,’ refer to Him as proper to the Father.
(Athanasius, Against the Arians 2.62)

And rightly so. To be fair to those who argued against Arius, a lot of them did do what seems to be the obvious thing and read on to the next few verses, which clearly distinguish Christ from the creation. However, I haven’t found a single ancient commentator who makes an appeal to the use of “firstborn” in Psalm 89:27 – “And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” – which, according to Gordon Fee (Pauline Christology, pp.250-1) and Donald Macleod (The Person of Christ, p.57), had become a recognised Messianic title by the time Colossians was written. For Paul (or whoever – it is possible that Colossians 1:15-20 is a quote from an early hymn) to call Jesus the firstborn over all creation was to claim that Jesus was the Messiah and was the rightful heir and ruler of creation. It’s not a statement about coming into being or being “eternally begotten” at all.

So why is it that I can find this idea only in modern commentaries? Eduard Schweizer (The Letter to the Colossians, pp.251ff.) raises an interesting idea – it is because Paul’s world of ideas has been largely lost to Greek commentators by the 3rd/4th centuries; and so they were essentially unaware of the Jewish background of Messianic titles in this text (One might object that Paul may have been writing to a Gentile church – I’m with those who think it likely that Paul is quoting a bit of a hymn here that may well have been written by a Jewish-background Christian). This made it possible to interpret things like “firstborn of all creation” in a way that Paul didn’t mean. Of course, Arius had some other texts, and some philosophical presuppositions about what it means to be a monotheist as well, but it seems like a loss of touch with the world of ideas of the New Testament may also be partly to blame in allowing him to develop a heretical interpretation of this verse. A first-century Jew would never have thought of “firstborn of all creation” as referring to time, but to a position of honour and status promised to the Messiah in the Psalms.

Which brings me to a question I was chatting about on Saturday with another Christian theology student: How important is it to do the contextual and “critical” study of Biblical texts in terms of Christian reading of Scripture? We’d both noticed rather a lot of academic work that only seemed concerned with “What did this mean to the original writer/audience?” and agreed that this wasn’t a good approach for e.g. a sermon, or bible study; or even for doing systematic theology. We both agreed, too, that it was necessary to work out the implications for us, and that, believing the Scriptures to be God’s word as well, those implications are authoritative. But I think the close initial study of the text in terms of its historical context, and the world of ideas in which it makes sense, is important before we move on to applied or systematic theology. It doesn’t give us all of the answer, but maybe it can help prevent us from getting the wrong answer.