Wednesday, March 05, 2008

5. The Apostle Paul and the Liberal Conscience of the West

Well, I did get my glass of wine last night, but not quite the break I had expected or hoped for! I am then a little behind in my preparation for my Lent Talk tonight which is on the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, I wanted to get the next in my latest series posted so here it is. I apologize if it could do with polishing a bit more!

5. The Apostle Paul and the Liberal Conscience of the West

In the previous posts in this series, I have been looking at the Old and New Perspectives on Paul. With the New Perspective, I see the Gentile question as the context in which we must interpret what Paul writes about justification by faith and the Law. This context has not always been taken as seriously in the past as it ought to have been with commentators wanting to rush beyond it to make more general theological points. With the Old Perspective, however, I remain convinced that at the heart of the dispute between Paul and his opponents is the issue of how Gentiles can be saved. It was in his attempt to answer this question that Paul explains his understanding of justification by faith, the Law, and the place of the Gentiles in the people of God.

Paul answers the question of how Gentiles can be saved by making a more fundamental point and that is that all alike need saving, Jew and Gentile. Both Jew and Gentile and are sinners under the wrath of God. Keeping the Law won’t work because neither Jew nor Gentile can keep the Law. All the Law does is reinforce this fact of human sin. The only ground for salvation is faith in Christ. It is because Jew and Gentile are both in need of saving that God’s plan is to save both by doing something new. This does not mean Gentiles joining the old people of God and becoming Jews, but both Jew and Gentile becoming part of a new people of God by faith. In this new people of God, ethnic differences simply do not count. All are now One in Christ and ought to demonstrate that oneness by how they live.

It’s this last part that the New Perspective has picked up on, that is, the Oneness in Christ. I would venture to suggest that the reason it has struck a chord with so many is to do with more contemporary concerns rather than understanding the first century context of Paul’s writing. New Perspective people argue that the Old Perspective owes more to issues around at the time of the Reformation than those of the first century. Is the New Perspective not also guilty of allowing issues of our own day to affect its understanding of Paul? Let me try to explain.

Modern Christians are very concerned about relationships between people in society and the Church. Issues to do with equality for different groups who are perceived as having been discriminated against in the past have been high on the agenda. The call for equality for women, homosexuals, and people of different races has played big. The New Perspective stress on Paul’s teaching about fellowship and equality in the Church clearly picks up this concern. It fits. Paul argues that Gentiles shouldn’t be treated as second-class citizens and, therefore, we argue nor should other groups in our own day.

Some New Perspective writing makes it sound as if Paul is a modern liberal whose main concern is to campaign for an end to discrimination and for there to be equality within the Church. One writer, Krister Stendahl, who was a forerunner of the New Perspective, wrote a book entitled, The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West. In it he argued that it was Luther’s 16th century obsession with sin that had led to a serious misinterpretation of Paul. Perhaps it is time for someone to write, The Apostle Paul and the Liberal Conscience of the West to show how 20th century liberal obsessions have led to a similar misinterpretation!

The perspective I have been arguing for while relevant to modern liberal concerns would put the emphasis elsewhere in addressing different groups of people. Paul would in the first place be more concerned with how any group - men, women, homosexuals, different races, minority groups - could be saved from the wrath of God. He would argue that they could only find salvation by faith in Christ. This would, of necessity, involve them joining the people of God who were being saved now and who would be finally saved later.

Clearly all those who by faith in Christ join this community of faith are in the same boat and so there are no grounds for discrimination. However, while the modern agenda wants to emphasize this last stage, it is not so keen on the earlier ones. But you can only get to the last stage by going through the previous ones. There is no fellowship without salvation. To have the hope of salvation means recognizing that all alike (men and women whether homosexuals, heterosexuals, black, white or whatever) are sinners under the wrath of God who are unable to save themselves.

Seen in this light the first thing to say to a member of a minority group (or any other group for that matter) is not that they can find equality in the Church, but that they are a sinner who needs saving. My suspicion is that Paul was worried about the issue of table fellowship in Galatia not so much because Peter wouldn’t have dinner with him and the Gentiles, but because of what this implied about how Peter thought people could be saved. I am sure he would also have had something to say about Peter not eating with them and what that said about his attitude to fellow Christians, it’s just that that’s not his main concern. The issue is not Peter treating Gentiles as second-class citizens, but the implication that they are not citizens at all.

To repeat a point from an earlier blog: if it’s just about equality of status amongst believers that Paul is concerned about, then that could have been achieved, as his opponents suggested, by the Gentiles agreeing to circumcision and to keeping the Law. This was something, I must stress again, that they were willing to do. For Paul equality of status does matter, but only after having established how anyone can achieve the status of being in Christ in the first place. Given that we are all, each one of us, only ‘in Christ’ by faith, we should treat others who are in Christ equally. It’s primarily a theological, not a political or social agenda.

It makes little sense to talk about equality between different groups of people until we have established the basis for that equality in the first place and that is finding salvation through membership of the community of faith by faith.

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