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Paul of Tarsus: Jew, Roman & Christian Missionary to the Gentiles – Part Four.   Leave a comment

The Challenge – What was Paul thinking?

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The Sources – The Great Pastoral ‘Epistles’:

To understand the thought of Paul, we naturally turn to his letters. Although Luke’s Acts of the Apostles gives a fair account of his life and work, and a general idea of what he stood for, it is in his letters that his mind is fully revealed. In the New Testament, there are thirteen letters that name Paul as their ‘author’. A fourteenth, the Letter to the Hebrews is often included with them it is, in fact, an anonymous work, since in the early church itself it was admitted that no one knew who wrote it. Of the thirteen, it is by no means certain that all were written by Paul’s hand or even at his dictation. This was not unusual for the period in which he was writing since it was not unusual for disciples of an outstanding teacher to compose books to propagate his teaching as they understood it, and to publish them under his name; we only have to remind ourselves how ‘loosely’ the gospels are connected with the disciples whose names they bear.

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There are strong reasons for thinking that the Letters to Timothy and Titus might have originated in a similar way. On the other hand, the four great pastoral Epistles to the Galatians, Corinthians and the Romans, to which we might add the short note to Philemon, carry the style of the apostle’s style and personality on every page and in every verse. There is no question that Paul composed them and most scholars have claimed the same about Philippians and the two Letters to the Thessalonians. There is more doubt about Colossians, but the balance of probability falls in favour of Paul’s authorship, possibly with some collaboration. The inclusion of the Letter to the Ephesians is more debatable, because of the difference in style. Yet if it was written by a disciple, it must have been written by one with great insight into the mind of the apostle, and whether or not it comes from his own hand, it can be included in the canon in gaining a full picture of his thought in its fullest and most mature form.

The letters were almost all the result of some particular event, and none of them, except perhaps the Letter to the Romans, makes any attempt to present the author’s thinking in any systematic way. They were clearly written at intervals in the midst of an extremely busy life, but are also the product of a prodigious intellect responding to the challenge of practical problems of Christian living in a pagan environment, as in the correspondence with the church in Corinth, or of a subtle propaganda which seemed to be subversive of the truth, as in Galatians and Colossians. We have to interpret his teaching by gathering and combining what he wrote in different geographical contexts, to different people and at different times. His thought was formed both by his background and the environments he was writing in and for, as well as by his personal experiences. We have to take particular account of his strict Jewish upbringing and of what he owed to the primitive Christian community which he had joined at an early, formative stage in its history. What assessment can we then make of his brilliant mind and passionate heart? Tom Wright has the following answer:

For Paul, there was no question about the starting point. It was always Jesus: Jesus as the shocking fulfilment of Israel’s hopes; Jesus as the genuinely human being, the true ‘image’; Jesus the embodiment of Israel’s God – so that, without leaving Jewish monotheism, one would worship and invoke Jesus as Lord within, not alongside, the service of the ‘living and true God’. Jesus, the one for whose sake one would abandon all idols, all rival ‘lords’. Jesus, above all, who had come to his kingdom, the true lordship of the world, in the way that Paul’s friends who were starting to write the Jesus story at that time had emphasised: by dying under the weight of the world’s sin in order to break the power of the dark forces that had enslaved all humans, Israel included… Jesus was the starting point. And the goal.

Jewish Heritage, Judaism & the Nations:

God’s plan had always been to unite all things in heaven and on earth in Jesus, which meant, from the Jewish point of view, that Jesus was the ultimate Temple, the heaven-and-earth place. This, already accomplished in his person, was now being implemented through his spirit. Paul always believed that God’s new creation was coming, perhaps soon. By the time of his later letters he realised that he might himself die before it happened. But that the present corrupt and decaying world would one day be rescued from its state of slavery and death, emerging into a new life under the glorious rule of God’s people, God’s new humanity – this was something he never doubted. Insofar as there was an ‘apocalyptic’ view in Paul’s day, he shared it. He believed that Israel’s God, having abandoned the Temple at the time of the Babylonian exile, had revealed himself in Jesus, breaking in upon an unready world and an unready people. There was a certain contradiction deeply embedded in the monotheistic Judaism of the first century. The One God, it taught, was the God of the whole world, maker and ruler of all mankind. Yet in a special sense, he was the God of Israel, the nation bound to him in an ‘everlasting covenant’. The ‘charter’ of this covenant was the Law, which was held to be the perfect embodiment of the righteousness He required of men. As such it was absolute and universal, but it was also, primarily, Israel’s law. Paul himself gave eloquent expression to the pride which the Jew felt in this unique privilege:

You rely upon the Lord and are proud of your God; you know his will; instructed by the Law you know right from wrong; you are confident that … in the Law you see the very shape of knowledge and truth.

(Rom. 2: 17-20).

The possession of the Law marked Israel out as God’s chosen people, and it was to his people that God had revealed himself in ‘mighty acts’, through which his purpose was fulfilled. This was the central motive of its history and the key to its destiny. In this way, the highest moral idealism became wedded to an assertive nationalism. What then was the status and the destiny of the nations that did not know the Hebrew God? The answers to this question were various and uncertain. Some of them show a finely humane spirit which went as far as possible – without prejudice to Israel’s prior claim – in generosity to the Gentiles. Others seem to us today to approach the limits of chauvinistic nationalism. But there was in first-century Judaism a strong ‘missionary’ movement towards the pagan world. On one level, it was content to propagate the monotheistic idea and certain fundamental moral principles, but its ulterior aim was to bring Gentiles within the scope of the divine mercy by incorporation in the chosen people. The ‘proselyte’ submitted himself to the Law of God – that is, to the Jewish Law; he became a Jew.

On the other side, the question arose, what was the status and the destiny of the Jews who, knowing the Law, do not in practice observe its precepts? Here again, the answers were uncertain and various. The Law itself proclaimed a curse on all who do not persevere in doing everything that is written in the Book of Law (Gal. 3:10), and prophets and Rabbis alike use the language of the utmost integrity in castigating offenders. Yet there is a notable reluctance to admit that in the last resort any ‘son of Abraham’ could be rejected by God; for the sake of the fathers, he would come through in the end. For Paul, who looked at the matter with his broader view of the world outside Palestine, this was simply not realistic; moreover, it was inconsistent with the principle of monotheism. The One God could not be the exclusive God of the Jews; he also had to be the God of the Gentiles. The conclusion was therefore unavoidable, that…

God has no favourites; those who have sinned outside the pale of the Law of Moses will perish outside its pale, and all who have sinned under that Law will be judged by the Law.

(Rom 2: 11 f.)

Yet while this clears the ground by setting aside any notion of preferential treatment, it is a negative assessment of the human condition. There is no distinction in that all have sinned (Rom. 3: 22), so that while there may be some ‘good’ Jews who keep God’s Law (Rom. 2: 29), and some ‘good’ Gentiles who live by ‘the light of nature’ (Rom. 2: 14), Paul held that, fundamentally, human society is in breach of the Law of God and is therefore headed for ultimate disaster, subject, as he put it, to the law of sin and death (Rom. 8: 2). This universal human condition enters the experience of every individual in the desperate moral struggle which Paul has depicted with deep psychological insight in the seventh chapter of Romans: When I want to do the right, only the wrong is within my reach (Rom. 7: 21). The problem which began as a domestic concern within Judaism turned out to be a broader enquiry into the human condition. That is why Paul’s controversy with his Judaic opponents which looks, at first sights, like an antiquated, parochial dispute, turns out to have permanent significance. The only possible solution to this quandary that Paul could contemplate was a fresh divine initiative such as the one taken when he had established the covenant with Israel at Sinai. He now saw that this new initiative had actually taken place when Christ entered history:

What the law could not do because our lower nature robbed it of all potency, God has done – by sending us his Son.

(Rom. 8: 3).

The Divine Initiative – Doctrines & Metaphors:

This divine initiative is an entirely free and authentic, original act of God, conditioned only by his love for mankind while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5: 8). This is what Paul describes as the ‘grace’ of God. The response that is asked for from the people is ‘faith’, or ‘trust’ in God. In writing about this divine initiative in human experience, Paul uses a variety of expressions. The most frequently used was ‘salvation’. In common Greek usage, this word had a wide range of meanings. It could simply mean safety and security, deliverance from disaster, or good health and well-being. In effect, it conveyed the concept of a condition in which ‘all is well’, and the particular way in which that was the case depended on the context in which it was used. In Paul’s writings, as in those of the New Testament authors in general, salvation stands for a condition in which ‘all is well’ in the absolute sense; a condition in which we are secure from all evils that afflict, or menace, the human spirit, here or hereafter. Thus the expression, while strongly emotive, is hardly capable of telling us what precisely, as Paul sees it, God has done for us in Christ.

More illuminating are some of the metaphorical expressions he uses. Three of these have played a major part in the development of Christian doctrine, and need to be looked at more carefully. First, there is the legal, or forensic metaphor of ‘justification’, which we have previously encountered with Tom Wright in the context of the letter to the Galatians (Gal. 2: 15 f), but it is also a major theme in the later letter to the Romans (Rom. 3: 24, 26). Sin is conceived in this context as an offence, or offences, against the Law. The sinner stands at the bar and no-one but a judge with competent authority can condemn or acquit. Before the divine tribunal, the defendant is unquestionably guilty, but God acquits the guilty (Rom. 4: 5). Here Paul is setting out in the most challenging terms his conviction that God takes man as he is, with all his imperfections on his head, and gives him a fresh start so that he can then take on his moral task relieved of the crippling sense of guilt.

Secondly, there is the metaphor of ‘redemption’ (Rom 3: 24; 1 Cor. 1: 30; Eph. 1: 7; Col. 1: 14). The Greek word was used of the process by which a slave acquired his freedom; it means ‘release’, ’emancipation’, or ‘liberation’ (and is translated as such in the NEB). For Paul, the condition of a man caught in the moral dilemma he has described is a state of slavery, since he is unable to do what he wishes to do. But God, exercising all his supreme authority, declares the slave free, and free he is. All that Christ did – his entry into the human condition, his life of service, his suffering and death – may be regarded as the price God pays for the emancipation of the slave. The exultant note of liberation sounds all through the letters as Paul’s own experience as well as that of those he was writing to:

Christ set us free, to be free men.

(Gal. 5: 1)

Thirdly, there is the ritual metaphor of sacrifice. Sin can be regarded not only as a crime against the law, bringing a sense of guilt, or a state of slavery, bringing a sense of impotence, but also as ‘defilement’, which makes a man feel ashamed and disgusted with himself. In ancient religious defilement could be incurred in all sorts of ways, many of them having nothing to do with morals. It was assumed that the defilement could be removed by the performance of the proper ritual, most commonly, and perhaps most efficaciously, by the sacrifice of a victim. This was called ‘expiation’ or, less accurately, ‘atonement’. The metaphor of expiation, drawn from a world of thought quite alien to us, was ready to hand for anyone, like Paul, who was familiar with the elaborate ritual of sacrifice laid down in the Law of Moses, and in his time still practised in the temple at Jerusalem – or indeed for anyone acquainted with the religious rituals of the Greek states. This is the background of what he says about the work of Christ: God designed him to be the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death (Rom. 3: 25). There is no suggestion, here or elsewhere, that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice to ‘propitiate’ an offended deity. In using the metaphor of sacrifice Paul is declaring his conviction that the self-sacrifice of Christ meant the release of moral power which penetrates to the deepest recesses of the human spirit, acting as a kind of ‘moral disinfectant’.

These are the metaphors which have most captured the imagination of Paul’s readers. His thought has sometimes been obscured through taking one of or another of them by itself, and then forgetting that it is, after all, a metaphor. What he was writing, all the time, was that in Christ God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. The criminal could not pronounce his own acquittal, nor the slave set himself, nor could the slave set himself free, and God alone could ‘expiate’ the defilement we have brought upon ourselves. In the course of the following passage, perhaps the clearest and most succinct statement of his teaching on this theme:

From first to last this is the work of God. He has reconciled us men to himself through Christ … What I mean is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer holding their misdeeds against them.

The Ministry of Reconciliation:

In the idea of ‘reconciliation’, his thought passed out of mere metaphor and adopted the language of actual personal relations. Many people know something of what it means to be ‘alienated’ or ‘estranged’ – perhaps from their environment or their fellow-men, perhaps from the standards of their society, perhaps, indeed, from themselves. The deepest alienation is from the true end of our being, and that means estrangement from our Maker, out of which comes a distortion of all relationships. The great thing that God, from his side of the gulf that has opened, has put an end to the estrangement; he has reconciled us to himself. Nowhere does he suggest that God needed to be reconciled to us. His attitude towards his creatures is, and always was, one of unqualified goodwill; as Jesus himself said, he is kind to the unthankful and wicked. Out of that goodwill, he has provided the way to reconciliation.

It was entirely in harmony with the prophetic valuation of history as the field of the ‘mighty acts’ of God that Paul saw in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as one more ‘mighty act’, the ‘fulfilment’ of all that God had promised in the whole history of Israel. In common Jewish belief, the symbol of that fulfilment was the expected ‘Messiah’. After his conversion, Paul accepted what the followers of Jesus were saying, that in him the Messiah had come. But what Paul meant by ‘Messiah’ was something different from any of the various forms of Jewish messianic expectation. The messianic idea had to be re-thought in the light of a new set of facts. One invariable trait of the Messiah in Jewish expectation was that he would be the agent of God’s final victory over his enemies. On the popular level, this meant victory over the pagan empires which had oppressed the chosen people from time to time. In Paul’s thinking, the idea of the messianic victory is completely ‘sublimated’. It is the cosmic powers and authorities that Christ led as captives in his triumphal procession (Col. 2: 15). Here, Paul was drawing on mythology which belonged to the mentality of most men of his time (Rom. 8: 38; Gal. 4: 3; Eph. 6: 12; Col. 2: 8, 15, etc.) The mythology stood for something real in human experience: the sense that there are unexplained factors working behind the scenes, whether in the world or in our own ‘unconscious’, frustrating our best intentions and turning our good to evil.

As Paul saw it, Jesus was, in his lifetime, in conflict not only with his ostensible opponents but with dark forces lurking in the background. It was, Paul says, the powers that rule the world that crucified him (I Cor. 2: 8), perverting the intended good to evil ends, for neither Pilate nor the chief priests and Pharisees meant ill. But in the outcome, Jesus was not defeated, and unclouded goodness prevailed. His resurrection was the pledge of victory over all enemies of the human spirit, for it was the final victory over death, which Paul personifies as ‘the last enemy’ (I Cor. 15: 26).  So, God gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (I Cor. 15: 57). It is for Paul highly significant that Jesus lived a truly human life, that he was a man and a Jew. But that does not mean that he is just one more individual thrown up by the historical process. On the contrary, his coming into the world can be seen as a fresh incursion of the Creator into his creation. God has now given the light of the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (II Cor. 4: 6). In the act of creation, according to an influential school of Jewish thought, it was divine ‘wisdom’ that was at work, and Christ himself, Paul wrote, was ‘the wisdom of God’ visibly in action among men (I Cor. 1: 24). According to these Jewish thinkers, this wisdom was the flawless mirror of the active power of God and the image of his goodness (Wisdom of Solomon 7: 26). So Christ, Paul says, is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1: 19).

This was a new historical phenomenon, to be brought into relation with the history of Israel as the field within which the purpose of God was working itself out. The formative motive of that history was the calling into existence of a ‘people of God’ – a divine commonwealth – in and through which the will of God might be done on earth, an ‘Israel’ worth the name. The distinguishing mark of such an ‘Israel’, Paul wrote, was to be found in the promise made to Abraham, the founder of the Hebrew people, that in his posterity all nations shall find blessing (Gal. 3: 8). This ideal had never yet been realised, though in successive periods there had been some who had it in them to become such people, the ‘remnant’ of which prophets spoke (Rom. 9: 27; 11: 5). In the emergent church of Christ, Paul saw the divine commonwealth coming into active existence. If you belong to Christ, he writes, you are the issue of Abraham (Gal 3: 29), i.e. you are the true Israel in whom all nations shall find blessing.

Church & Sacraments:

002 (3)Here we have a pointer to one reason, at least, why Paul set such store by his mission to the Gentiles. The church was the consummation of a long, divinely directed, history. It is a theme to which he returns in the long and intricate discourse in Romans (9-11). The new, supra-national Israel was constituted solely on the basis of ‘belonging to Christ’, and no longer on racial descent or attachment to a particular legal system. Paul wrote: you are all one person in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3: 28). The expression ‘in Christ’ is one which recurs with remarkable frequency throughout Paul’s letters. The reality of the doctrine for which it stands was present in the church from the beginning in the two rites of baptism and the ‘breaking of bread’. It was through baptism that a person was incorporated into the community of Christ’s followers. In its suggestive ritual, in which the convert was ‘buried’ by immersion in water, and came out cleansed and renewed, Paul saw a symbolic re-enactment of the death and resurrection of Christ:

… by baptism we were buried with him and lay dead, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead in the splendour of the Father, so also we might set our feet on the new path of life (Rom. 6: 4).

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Baptism affirmed the solidarity of all members of the church with Christ. So, even more clearly and emphatically, did the other primitive sacrament of the church. From the first, its fellowship had been centred in the solemn ‘breaking of bread’ at a communal meal. As the bread was broken, they recalled the mysterious words which Jesus had spoken when he broke bread for his disciples at his last supper: ‘This is my body’ (I Cor. 11: 23 f.). Reflecting on these words, Paul observed, first, that in sharing bread the company established a corporate unity among themselves: We, many as we are, are one body, for it is one loaf of which we all partake (I Cor. 10: 17). Also, Christ himself had said, This is my body. Consequently, when we break the bread, it is a means of sharing the body of Christ (I Cor. 10: 16). The church, therefore, is itself the body of Christ; he is the head, and on him, the whole body depends (Eph. 4: 16). It is in this way that the new people of God is constituted, ‘in Christ’.

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In all forms of Jewish messianic belief, it was common ground that the Messiah was, in some sense, representative of Israel in its divine calling and destiny. Paul presses this idea of representation further by stating that those who adhere to Christ in sincere faith are identified with him in a peculiarly intimate way as if they were being included in him in his own being. He was the inclusive representative of the emergent people of God. Another way of putting it is to say that Christ is the second ‘Adam’, symbolic of the new humanity of which the church was the head. In the Jewish schools of thought where Paul had his training, there was much speculation about the ‘First Adam’ and about the way in which all men, as ‘sons of Adam’, are involved in his fortunes as depicted mythologically in Genesis. Paul takes up this idea: mankind is incorporate ‘in Adam’; emergent new humanity is incorporate ‘in Christ’: As in Adam all men die, so in Christ, all will be brought to life (I Cor. 15: 22; Rom. 5: 12-14). Once again, we see here a fresh expansion of the messianic idea.

The church, as the new ‘Israel of God’, in its essential nature was a united entity and this unity, he argued, should be reflected in the life of every local congregation; he was dismayed to see it being disrupted. In particular, there were persisting influences, both pagan and Jewish, in the minds of those so recently converted. Paul discusses, for example, divergences among Christians about the continued observance of Jewish holy days and food regulations (Rom. 14), and, on the other side, about the extent to which they might share in the social life of their pagan neighbours without sacrificing their principles (I Cor. 8: 1-13; 10: 18-33). But apart from such special discussions, Paul insisted on the idea of the church as a body, analogous to a living organism, in which the parts, while endlessly various, are interdependent and subordinate to one another, and each makes its indispensable contribution to the well-being of the whole. There is a passage in his First Letter to the Corinthians (12: 14-27) which is the classical statement of the idea of the social organism. He develops this idea in relation to his governing conception of the church as the body of Christ. In all its members, it is Christ who is at work, and God in Christ, through his Spirit:

There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are varieties of service, but the same Lord. There are many forms of work, but all of them, in all men, are the work of the same God.

(I Cor. 12: 4-11).

We can see from the lists of ‘services’ in other letters (Rom. 12: 6-8; Eph. 4: 11 f.) just how complex and sophisticated the activities of the ‘primitive’ church had already become in Paul’s time. It is in this context that Paul develops his doctrine of the Spirit, which is another of his most original contributions to Christian thought. It was an innovation rooted in what he had taken from his own Jewish background as well as from the first Judaic Christians. In some forms of Jewish messianic expectation, it was held that in the days of the Messiah, or in the age to come, the divine Spirit, which was believed to have animated the prophets and heroes of Israel’s remoter past, would be poured out afresh, and in a larger measure (Acts 2: 16-18). The early followers of Jesus, when the realisation had broken upon them that he had risen from the dead, had experienced an almost intoxicating sense of new life and power. It was accompanied, as often happens in times of religious ‘revival’, by abnormal psychic phenomena, including visions, the hearing of voices, and ecstatic utterance or ‘speaking with tongues’. The early Christians valued these as evident signs that God was at work among them through his Spirit. These abnormal phenomena reproduced themselves in the new Christian communities which sprang from Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, and here they created an exciting atmosphere which he also saw to be full of danger.

Liberty & the Gifts of the Spirit:

The situation needed careful handling since Paul did not want to be seen as damping down the enthusiasm of which these strange powers were one expression (I Thess. 5: 19-21). Nor did he wish to deny that they could be the outcome of genuine inspiration. He knew from his own personal experience what it was to have visions and to hear voices (II Cor. 12: 1-4), and he could himself ‘speak with tongues’ (I Cor. 14: 18). But there were other ‘gifts of the Spirit’, less showy, but in the end far more important to the community, such as wisdom, insight, powers of leadership, the gifts of teaching, administration, and the meeting of needs of those in states of deprivation and/or distress (Rom. 12: 6-8; I Cor. 12: 28). These were gifts which helped ‘build up’ the community (I Cor. 14:12) and in emphasising them Paul diverted attention away from the abnormal and exceptional to such moral and intellectual endowments as any society would wish to find among its members. It was their devotion to such endowments to the common good that gave them real value.

It was this original concept of the Spirit as the mode of Christ’s own presence in his church opens up a new approach to ethics. Paul found himself obliged to meet a formidable challenge to his message that the Christian is free from the ‘bondage’ of the law since Christ annulled the law with its rules and regulations (Eph. 2: 15). This kind of language ran the risk of being misunderstood. His Jewish critics, both inside and outside the church, suspected that in sweeping away the discipline of the Mosaic Law he was leaving his Gentile converts without moral anchorage in a licentious environment. Paul scarcely realised at first how open to misconstruction his language was. He soon discovered that he was widely understood to be advocating a purely ‘permissive’ morality, which was in fact far from his intention. People were claiming, We are free to do anything (I Cor. 6: 12; 10: 23), in the belief that they were echoing his own views. He did point out that there were some obvious limits on freedom and that Christian morality was not conformity to an external code but sprang from an inward source. The transformation which this involved was made effective by the work of the Spirit within as the true source of Christian character and action:

“We are free to do anything,” you say; but does everything help to build up the community?

(I Cor. 10: 23)

You were called to be free men, only do not turn your liberty to license for your lower nature.

(Gal. 5: 13)

Let your minds be remade, and your whole nature transformed; then you will be able to discern the will of God, and to know what is good, acceptable and perfect.

(Rom. 12: 2)

The harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, and self-control. There is no law dealing with such things as those. 

(Gal. 5: 22 f.).

The church was under a ‘new covenant’, which was not, like the ‘old covenant’, guaranteed by a single code of commands and prohibitions engraved letter by letter upon a stone (II Cor. 3: 7), but by the Spirit animating the whole body of the church. But that Spirit was not simply an ‘inner light’, but the Holy Spirit, the Spirit in the church which is the Spirit of Christ working in the members of his body. This was the historical Christ who had lived and taught, died and rose again. Christians who had received the Gospel and teaching that went with it were in a position to know what it was like to be ‘Christlike’ in character and conduct, and this was an objective standard by which all inner promptings could be brought to the test. It might even be described as the law of Christ (Gal. 6: 2; I Cor. 9: 21), but Paul was obviously cautious of using such quasi-legal language; he did not wish to be introducing a kind of new Christian legalism. The ‘law of Christ’ and the ‘life-giving law of the Spirit’ are, for Paul, one and the same thing (Ro. 8: 2). Sometimes Paul wrote as if the ‘reshaping’ of the mind of the Christian took place almost immediately upon their becoming believers, but there are sufficient passages in his letters which reveal that he was aware that the process might be gradual, perhaps lengthy (Gal. 4: 19; Eph. 4: 13; I Cor. 9: 26) and possibly never completed in this life (Phil. 3: 12-14). But once the process was genuinely underway, a believer was ‘under the law of Christ’, and Christ himself – not the Christian’s own ideas, not even in the end, his conscience – is the judge to whom he defers in all his actions (I Cor. 4: 3 f.).

Loving-kindness – The Law of Christ & Social Ethics:

The ‘law of Christ’ is, therefore, Christ himself working through his Spirit in the church to give ethical direction. And it is all that we know of Christ that comes into it – his teaching, the example of his actions, and the impact of his death and resurrection. These acted as influences on Paul’s thought, not as from outside, but creatively from within. His ethical judgements are informed by the Spirit of Christ and yet are intimately his own. That is why the law of Christ, while it commands him absolutely, can never be thought of as a ‘bondage’, as the old law with its rules and regulations; where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (II Cor. 3: 17). Paul’s ethical teaching, therefore, is the application of what it means to be ‘Christlike’. His death is the commanding example of self-sacrifice for the sake of others (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5: 2, 25), and it was his expression of his limitless love for mankind (Rom. 8: 34 f.; Eph. 3: 18 f.).

It is this quality of love, above all, that Paul holds up as the essence of what it means to be ‘Christlike’, and as the basic and all-inclusive principle of Christian living (Rom. 13: 8-10; Gal. 5: 14; Col. 3: 14; Eph. 1: 4). The word he uses is the almost untranslatable agape, a word first brought into common use in a Christian setting. It can be rendered by the older use of the word charity, from the Latin Caritas. ‘Agape’ includes feelings of affection (Rom. 12. 9 f.), but it evokes, more fully and fundamentally, the energy of goodwill or ‘loving kindness’ emanating unconditionally towards others, regardless of their merit, worthiness or attractiveness. The eloquent passage in I Corinthians 13, which has the feeling of a hymn to agape, contains pointers to the kind of attitude and behaviour it inspires, and in this context, it is presented as the highest of all ‘gifts of the Spirit’ (I Cor. 12: 31; 14: 1). It is in this ‘hymn’ that the ‘law of the Spirit’ and the ‘law of Christ’ become intertwined and thereby completely indistinguishable.

Agape, then, is the source of the distinctively Christian virtues and graces of character. It is also the most constructive principle in society; it is love that builds (I Cor. 8: 1). Thus the ideas of the building of the body and the centrality of love imply one another and form the effective basis for Paul’s teaching on social ethics. The whole of Christian behaviour can be summed up in the maxim, Love one another as Christ loved you (Eph. 5: 1; Gal. 5: 13 f.; I Thess. 4: 9; Col. 3: 14). This does not mean, however, that Paul is content to say, Love and do as you please. Nor, on the other hand, does he undertake to show how detailed rules of behaviour could be derived deductively from a single master-principle. Ethical behaviour is essentially an individual’s response to actual situations in which he finds himself in day-to-day living as a member of society. Paul envisages his readers not just in any society, but in the particular society in which their daily lives must be lived, namely the Graeco-Roman world, which he knew so well, with its political, legal and economic institutions, and within that world, the young Christian communities with their distinctive ethos and unique problems. He indicates, always in practical terms, how this whole network of relations may be permeated with the Christian quality of living.

How close these immature Christians stood to the corruptions of paganism, and how easily they could relapse into them can be gathered by some of the startling remarks which he lets fall about his converts (I Cor. 5: 1 f.; 6: 8-10; Col. 3: 5-7; I Thess. 4: 3-8), as well as from the passion with which he insists that there must be a complete break with the past (Col. 3: 5-10). So alarmed was he at the possibility of the infection of immorality that he sometimes writes as if the only safe way of avoiding this was for the church to withdraw from pagan society altogether (II Cor. 6: 14-18); but he had to explain that this was not his real intention: the idea that Christians should avoid dangerous contacts by getting right out of the world he dismisses as absurd (I Cor. 5: 9-13). In fact, it is clear that he envisaged Christians living on good terms and in normal social intercourse with their pagan neighbours (I Cor. 10: 27 f.). Their task was the more difficult one of living as full members of the society in which their lot was cast, while firmly renouncing its corruptions; to be in it, but not of it. But although deeply corrupted, Graeco-Roman civilisation was not without moral ideals. A certain standard of what was ‘fitting’ was widely accepted, at least in public. The Stoics spoke of it as the general feeling of mankind (communis sensus hominum), and there was a genuine desire to see this standard observed in corporate life. Paul was well aware of this, as he shows when he enjoins his readers: Let your aims be such as all men count honourable (Rom. 12: 17). Even after his fierce castigation of pagan vices at the beginning of his Letter to the Romans he goes on to write that the good pagan may do God’s will by the light of nature; his conscience bears true witness (Rom. 2: 14 f.). There is a broad universality about what he writes to the Philippians:

All that is true, all that is noble, all that is just and pure, all that is lovable and gracious, whatever is excellent and admirable – fill all your thoughts with these things.

(Phil. 4: 8)

It is therefore not surprising that Paul was concerned to work out his sketch of Christian behaviour within the framework of Graeco-Roman society as it actually existed, rather than as Christians might have wanted it to be. The empire was, for him, part of the divinely given setting for a Christian’s life in the world, and he made it clear that he would be following the law of Christ in obeying the Roman law, respecting the magistrates, and paying his taxes. This was an obligation imposed not merely by fear of retribution but by conscience. In fact, the fulfilment of such obligations is an application of the maxim, Love your neighbour as yourself (Rom. 13: 1-10). Similarly, in dealing with family life he took over a general scheme current among Stoics and moralists at the time which assumed the existing structure of the Graeco-Roman household, with the paterfamilias as the responsible head, and the other members, including the slaves, having their respective obligations (Eph. 5: 21 – 6: 9; Col. 3: 18 – 4: 1), and indicated how within this general structure Christian principles and values could be applied.

As far as Paul is concerned, marriage is indissoluble for Christians because there is a saying of the Lord to that effect (I Cor. 7: 10 f.; Mark 10: 2-9). Beyond that, because in Christ there is no distinction between man and woman (Gal. 3: 28), although the husband is usually the head of the household, the marriage relation itself must be completely mutual as between husband and wife. Neither can claim their own body ‘as their own’ (I Cor. 7: 4). This bond is so sacred that in a mixed marriage the ‘heathen’ spouse is ‘holy’ to God, as are the children of such a marriage (I Cor. 7: 14). So the natural ties of family relationships are valid within the Christian fellowship which is ‘the body of Christ’. However, in I Cor. 7: 26-29, Paul apparently ‘entertained’ the belief that family obligations were of limited relevance since the time we live in will not last long. It was only by the time he wrote to the Colossians that he had fully accepted the principle that family life should be part of life ‘in Christ’, though even then he only gave some brief hints about what its character should be (Col. 3: 18-21).

The Graeco-Roman household also included slaves, and here again, Christian principles and values began to make inroads into this practice. It was a fundamental principle that in Christ there was neither slave nor free man (Gal. 3: 28, Col. 3: 11). Accordingly, there is a level on which their status is equal:

The man who as a slave received the call to be a Christian is the Lord’s freedman, and, equally, the free man who received the call is a slave in the service of Christ.

(I Cor. 7: 22)

In writing to the Colossians he urges slaves to give their service…

… as if you were doing it for the Lord and not for men… Christ is the Master whose slaves you must be; … Masters, be fair and just to your slaves, knowing that you too have a master in heaven. 

(Col. 3: 23 f.; 4: 1)

The Christian ideal of free mutual service transcended the legal relations of master and slave. The letter to Philemon is a short ‘note’ in which Paul deals with the particular case of the recipient’s runaway slave, Onesimus, who had also helped himself to his master’s cashbox. Somehow or other Paul came across him, and converted him. Under Roman law, anyone harbouring a fugitive slave was liable to severe penalties, and a runaway recovered by his master could expect no mercy. Paul decided to send Onesimus back to his, trusting that the ‘law of Christ’ would transform their relationship from within, without disrupting the civil order, and in Philemon’s readiness to take a fully Christian view of the matter:

Perhaps this is why you lost him for a time, that you might have him back for good, no longer as a slave, but as more than a slave, as a dear brother. 

(Philemon 12-16)

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Paul’s Eschatology – Christ, the Church & the Future:

The permeation of the church, and ultimately of society, with the Christian quality of life gives actuality to Paul’s doctrine of the indwelling of Christ, through his Spirit, in the body of his followers, the church. It is not simply the experience of an individual, but a force working in history. But if Christ is thus present in the church, then he has to be known not only through his historical life, supremely important as that is, but also in what he is doing in and through the church in the present and in the future into which the present dissolves at every moment. His brief career on earth had ended, so far as the world, in general, could see, in failure. His disciples may have known better, but how was the world to know? For many early Christians, the very short answer to this question that, very shortly, he would ‘come again’, and then ‘every eye shall see him’ (Rev. 1: 7). Paul began by sharing this belief. At the time when he wrote his earliest surviving letters (as they probably are), to the Thessalonians, he seems to have had no doubt that he and most Christians would live to see the ‘second advent’ (II Thess. 2: 1-3; 4: 15). Even when he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians he was still assured that ‘we shall not all die’ (I Cor. 15: 51). Before he wrote the second letter there was an occasion when his life was despaired of (II Cor. 1: 9), and it may be that for the first time he faced the likelihood that he would die before the Day, and in that way ‘go to live with the Lord’ (II Cor. 5: 8). At any rate, from this time we hear little more of the expectation of earlier years.

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Tom Wright suggests that when writing II Thessalonians, Paul had perhaps foreseen the fall of Jerusalem of AD 70, quite possibly through a Roman emperor doing what Caligula had so nearly done. The ultimate monster from the sea, Rome itself, would draw itself up to its full height, demolishing the heaven-and-earth structure that had (according to Jesus) come to embody Jeremiah’s “den of robbers.” Jesus would then set up his kingdom of a different sort, one that could not be shaken. But if Jerusalem were to fall to the Romans, Paul had to get busy, because he knew what reactions such a terrible event would produce. Gentile Christians would claim that God had finally cut off the Jews, leaving ‘the church’ as a non-Jewish body. Christianity would become ‘a religion’ to be contrasted (favourably, of course) with something called ‘Judaism’. Conversely, Jewish Jesus-followers would accuse their Gentile brethren – and particularly the followers of Paul – of having precipitated this disaster by imagining that one could worship the true God without getting circumcised and following the whole Torah. And Jews who had rejected the message of Jesus as Messiah would be in no doubt at all that all this had happened because of this ‘false prophet’ and the renegade Saul, who had led Israel astray. Wright’s supposition leads him to believe that Paul was therefore determined…

 … to establish and maintain Jew-plus-Gentile communities, worshipping the One God in and through Jesus his son and in the power of the spirit, ahead of the catastrophe.

Only in this way, he believed, could this potential split, the destruction of the ‘new Temple’ of I Corinthians 3 and Ephesians 2, be averted. This is why Paul insisted, in letter after letter, on the unity of the church across all traditional boundaries. This was not about the establishment of a new ‘religion’ and had nothing to do with Paul being a “self-hating Jew”. This anti-Semitic slur is still found in ill-informed ‘studies’ of his work, but Paul affirmed what he took to be the central features of the Jewish hope: One God, Israel’s Messiah, and resurrection itself. For him, what mattered was messianic eschatology and the community that embodied it. The One God had fulfilled, in a way so unexpected that most of the guardians of the promises had failed to recognise it, the entire narrative of the people of God. That was what Paul had been preaching in one synagogue after another. It was because of that fulfilment that the Gentiles were now being brought into the single family. The apostle came to be less preoccupied with a supposedly imminent ‘second advent’ as he explored the range of Christ’s present activity in the church. He saw the church expanding its influence abroad, and developing internally the complexity that marks the evolution of a living organism. If all this raised some problems, it was all part of the growth of the body – of Christ’s body – and it was Christ’s own work:

It is from the Head that the whole body, with all its joints and ligaments, receives its supplies and thus knit together grows according to God’s design.

(Col. 2: 19)

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This, as Paul saw it, was the way in which Christ is revealed to the whole universe (Eph. 3: 10). Nor is there any limit to this growth, until we all, at last, attain the unity inherent in our faith (Eph. 4: 13). In the church, Paul saw men actually being drawn into unity across the barriers erected by differences of ethnicity, nationality, language, culture or social status. He was powerfully impressed by the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in the fellowship of the church (Eph. 2: 11-22). In this, as his horizons widened, he saw the promise of a larger unity, embracing all mankind (Rom. 11: 25-32).  In this unity of mankind, moreover, he finds he finds the sign and pledge of God’s purpose for his whole creation. In a passage which has much of the visionary quality of poetry or prophecy, he pictures the whole universe waiting in eager expectation for the day when it shall enter upon the liberty and splendour of the children of God (Rom. 8: 19-21). In the church, therefore, can be discerned God’s ultimate design to reconcile the whole universe to himself… to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, through Christ alone (Col. 1: 20). Such was the vision of the future which Paul bequeathed to the church for its inspiration. In a sense then, he continued to believe that he was living in the last days. For him, God had, in sending the Messiah, had brought the old world of chaos, idolatry, wickedness, and death to an end. Jesus had taken its horror onto himself and had launched something else in its place. But, as Tom Wright puts it…

… that meant that, equally, Paul was conscious of living in the first days, the opening scenes of the new drama of world history, with heaven and earth now held together not by Torah and Temple, but by Jesus and the Spirit, pointing forward to the time when the divine glory would fill the whole world and transform it from top to bottom.

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This vision was not to be found in the non-Jewish world of Paul’s day. It was a thoroughly Jewish eschatology, shaped around the one believed to be Israel’s Messiah. Paul believed, not least because he saw it so clearly in the scriptures, that Israel too had its own brand of idolatry. But the point of Jesus’s ‘new Passover’ was that the powerful ‘gods’ and ‘lords’ to which mankind had given away their authority, had been defeated. The resurrection proved it and had thereby launched a new world with a new people to reflect the true God into that new world. That is why Paul’s Gentile mission was not a different idea from the idea of forgiveness of sins or the cleansing of the heart. It was because of the powerful gospel announced and made effective those realities that the old barriers between Jew and Greek were abolished in the Messiah. That is why Paul’s work just as much as ‘social’ and ‘political’ as it is ‘theological’ or ‘religious’. Every time Paul expounded ‘justification’, it formed part of his argument that in the Messiah there was a single family consisting of believing Jews and Gentiles, a family that demonstrated to the world that there was a new way of being human. Paul saw himself as a working model of exactly this:

Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.

Sources:

C. H. Dodd (1970), Paul and His World; The Thought of Paul, in Robert C Walton (1970), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM.

N. T. Wright (2018), Paul: A Biography. London: SPCK.

Alan T. Dale (1979), Portrait of Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

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