Thursday, May 19, 2005

Righteousness: "Morality" or "virtue"?

I've been doing a word study on dikaiosune (the Greek word for righteousness) and its derivatives. The actual meaning of dikaiosune is pretty clear and easy to see, but finding the best English word to use for it is not so easy.

I suggested "virtue" previously. I think it captures the meaning of dikaiosune perfectly and that no better word is possible in so far as "virtue" in English means exactly 100% what dikaiosune means in Greek.

However, there are two problems.
1) Virtue doesn't have the appropriate variants in english - ie you can't say "virtuify" or speak of "virtuification" like you can of "justify" and "justification" (the words currently being used to translate the Greek variants)
2) More importantly, a couple of people suggested to me that "virtue" is a bit of an outdated word in English, and that using it is not much better than "righteousness" in terms of the fact that it means little to modern English speakers.

It is the second point that I thought was more important (especially in light of my previous post). So I was trying to think of a better word, and I recalled comments I had read when studying Plato's Republic (written ~360BC). The Republic is all about dikaiosune, so a scholar and translator of it is in a very good position to make comments relevant to the subject. The translator of my copy (Robin Waterfield, writing in 1993) comments that after careful analysis he has decided to translate dikaiosune as "morality" throughout the work.

So there we have the practical opinion of a modern translator as to what the best modern English word is: he thinks it's "morality". I'm happy with that in terms of the fact that the first two words in the definition of "virtue" are "moral excellence". I am much happier with the word "morality" in terms of the fact that it has meaning to modern English speakers to whom the word "virtue" is meaningless.

It was suggested to me that "morality" isn't what I'm after because lots of people today will say "morality is subjective", whereas virtue has the advantage of being a bit more non-negotiable. Initially I thought that was a valid point, but now I'm not so sure. Why? Because The Republic spends time looking at what we might call subjective morality, the idea that "might makes right" is not very far from the positions analysed in book 1 of the Republic. If some people today think that morality is subjective then it is the perfect word to use, because some people in ancient Greece were thinking exactly the same thing.

So, problem solved? Maybe not. Again there are two problems:
1) Variants still aren't great... "moralify" and "moralisation"? I think not.
2) The word "morality" is just not quite grammatically correct somehow. Consider: "O Lord, we praise you for your wonderous love, morality and mercy!" It just seems strange, whereas "virtue" sounds a whole lot better. "Morality" isn't really a quality you can praise someone for... it's really their "moral excellence" that you mean, not their "morality". Perhaps just going with "moral excellence" is better? After all, the definition Aristotle (~350BC in Nichomachean Ethics 5:1) gives for dikaiosune is that it is personal excellence (arete) in all things that pertain to the benefit of others.

In other the appropriate varient of "morality" is not at all wrong-sounding. Consider: "Will you punish the moral with the wicked?" vs "Will you punish the virtuous with the wicked?" It's not clear to me which is better.

Thoughts, comments, or votes?

Friday, May 06, 2005

Paul's New Way of Life, part 2

Perhaps explaining at least some of the reasoning that lead me to the view expressed in the previous post would help people understand it more clearly.

I was reflecting on an argument Sanders makes in Paul and Palestinian Judaism around page 475 in which he argues that most systematic theologies of Paul are "backwards". He points out that they generally start out by explaining the problem - the falleness of man, how man is under sin etc. Then they move to looking at Christ, and how the problem is solved in the work of Christ. ie they go problem then solution, ie man then Christ. They do this generally because its a logical progression and it's what Paul does at the start of Romans. But Sanders argues this is not helpful in understanding Paul's thinking because it's almost certainly not how Paul's own thinking developed.

Paul, it is fairly safe to presume, didn't spend his life as a Pharisee worried about the fallenness of man, about how salvation was impossible under the law. Why? Because Jewish religion was quite firm about the fact that salvation was possible, that it didn't require a perfect keeping of the law, and that it was practically possible to be saved and Paul the Pharisee would have been pretty well certain of his own salvation. What happened to Paul was that once he had his conversion he was convinced of the importance of Christ. He was convinced that in the person of Jesus Christ, God had been at work. He started with Christ, and given the fact of Christ would then have pondered what Christ had been doing or achieving. Hence, starting with Christ as the solution, he would proceed to work out what the problem was the Christ was solving. Hence his line of thinking moved from Christ to man, and solution to problem. Hence, Sanders argues, the standard way of trying to piece together Paul's thought by starting with the assumption of the fallenness of man and asking how Christ solves that well-defined problem is inherently backwards: Paul started with the facts of Christ's life, death and resurrection and moved to asking what the problem was that this well-defined solution is a solution to.

Now we might reasonably quibble with Sander's logic a little and say: Perhaps Paul didn't do this reasoning himself, perhaps he was just taught Christian doctrine by other Christians and didn't really make up much of his theology himself. It doesn't really matter: Someone or some group(s) of people went through something resembling this throught process at some stage between Jesus and Paul and it is the results of this thought process that we find in Paul. For the sake of argument, let us grant Sanders the assumption that it was Paul himself who thought this way.

I was reflecting on this. I suggest you do too - imagine you are Paul: There was this man named Jesus, who was widely acclaimed as a teacher and prophet who taught, did miracles, tended to criticise the religious leaders regarding their legalism, was eventually crucified by them, and then God had resurrected him. So what? What conclusions can be drawn from this?
Well, of primary importance, I think, is the fact of the resurrection. Many Jews looked forward to a resurrection of the righteous on the Day of the Lord, when God judged the earth based and established an eternal kingdom for the righteous. The fact of the resurrection testifies about God's judgement of Jesus - it says something about Jesus' righteousness, namely that God approved of Jesus' life. So, a major thing that we have gained here is knowledge of what God approves of. The resurrection is proof that the way Christ lived is what God approves of. The next obvious step seems to be to apply that to us: If we know what God approves of, how then should we ourselves live? Answer: Like Christ. If we can isolate the things God approved of in Christ's life and emulate them in our own lives then we will be just as approved by God as Christ was.

Looking at Paul's writings, is there anything to suggest he followed the above logic? Yes. I listed a few of them in the previous post. The fact that Paul does have this in mind can perhaps be seen most clearly in Philippians 2:5-9:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
A simple reading comprehension exercise: Why did God reward Jesus? The answer seems to clearly be: Because of humility and obedience - "Therefore God also highly exalted him..." The implicit logic is that if we have humility like Christ's we will receive blessings from God like Christ's. The seems to be what Paul is after in Philippians 3:10-11:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Paul's reasoning seems to be that if he can become sufficiently like Christ, he might be able to attain a resurrection from the dead like Christ had. The same thinking appears to be happening in Romans 8:17 where Paul speaks of rewards if we have similar sufferings to Christ's:
joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Those three passages were the ones that immediately came to mind when I first thought "Did Paul perhaps follow this reasoning?". But a few computer searches and rereadings of Paul's writings made me quickly realise that Paul's writings are absolutely full of this thinking. It took me three days to compose the previous post because I was finding too many passages that exemplified this reasoning and I had to try and trim down my list of quotations and put them all into some comprehensible order.

Interestingly I learned something else in the process of doing this: The words "in Christ" often kept popping up in or near verses that I was increasingly inclined to view as utilising the logic above. Several months ago after doing a study on "in Christ" I had decided it just meant "part of the Church" and was basically a spiritualised way of saying "Christian" (a word that wasn't invented/didn't become common until after Paul's time). So, I wondered, what if "in Christ" can refer to living like Jesus lived? At that point whole swathes of passages started making sense, and I started finding examples of the logic all over the place to the point where I getting totally overwhelmed in them. It's a bit like a combination lock I suppose - you know when you've got it right when it suddenly opens up.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Paul’s “New Way of Life” in Imitation of Christ

I have come to realise that core to Paul’s theology is the idea of a new way of living that is in imitation of Jesus. Furthermore, it seems that Paul’s statements about this have often been misinterpreted as the idea that Paul was trying to get people to believe in Christ.

Paul’s fundamental logic is fairly basic:
Christ lived a certain way, and was vindicated by God because of it. Hence if we live in that same way then we will receive the same blessings.

Look at how Paul formulates it:
Christ was “obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God highly exalted him…” (Phil 2:8-9).
The clear implication is that if we live obediently to the point of death, God will give us similar blessings. Paul makes this explicit:
“I want to know Christ… and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:10-11)
Paul’s reasoning is quite simple: If it is at all possible to get a resurrection like Christ’s then it could be obtained by living the way Christ lived. A few verses later he says:
“Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ…” (Phil 3:17-18)
How can someone live as an enemy of the cross of Christ? Simple: By having a lifestyle that is fundamentally in opposition to the lifestyle exemplified by Christ in his obedience to the point of death on a cross.

“joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom 8:17)
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faithfulness.” (Heb 13:7)
The basic reasoning is the same: We see certain people living a certain way and receiving blessings, hence we know that if we live that same way, we’ll receive the same blessings.
“[Be diligent] so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faithfulness and patience inherit the promises.” (Heb 6:12)
Some people by their faithfulness and patience obtain blessings, so if we live like they did we will obtain blessings like they did.
“And you became imitators of us and of the Lord…. in every place your faithfulness to God has become known.” (1 Thes 6,8)
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 5:1)
“I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me.” (1 Cor 4:16)
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Cor 11:1)
“For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you,” (2 Thes 3:7)
Paul gave his basic principle in Romans 2:7-8, different lifestyles receive different responses from God:
“to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.” (Rom 2:7-8)

The same reasoning applies with Abraham – he lived a life of faithfulness and so was justified. If we live a life like that we expect the same results.
“[Abraham is] the ancestor of all who are faithful without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faithfulness that our ancestor Abraham had.….Now the words, "it was reckoned to him," were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who are faithful to him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Rom 4:11-12, 23-24)

If we imitate Christ’s lifestyle, if the same faithfulness is in us that was in Christ, the same obedience is in us that was in Christ, then can be said to live Christ’s life:
“It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live in the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)
We are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” (2 Cor 4:10-11)
“[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,” (1 Cor 1:30)
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:3-4)
We die to our old lives and live a new life that is like Christ’s was. We are “in Christ”, because we are living his life. This makes a lot of Paul’s confusing rambles about dying and living in Christ a lot clearer.

This whole notion of “equal blessings by equal lives” (if we can call it that) has been almost completely ignored by scholars. Why? I think, because it fundamentally doesn’t fit with standard Protestant theology. Why do I say this? Well, in Protestantism the basic notion is that we put our trust in Christ and His work saves us and the blessings He earned are transferred to us by some semi-magical process, and we ourselves cannot earn or achieve any blessings from our own lives. This is diametrically opposed to the notion that we should be doing the same things as Christ and thereby attaining the same level of righteousness and the same blessings. I offer that as a suggestion for why Protestant scholars for the last 400 years have been unable to understand Paul’s theology, because this central core of his thinking is heresy to them. But as anyone who has studied the early Christian writings will know, the idea of “imitation” (mimesis) and becoming Christ-like (deification) formed a huge part of their theology. They grasped this point of Paul’s thinking with bells on. (It’s not like I’m the first in history think Paul taught this… rather it took 1500 years for Christians to forget that he did.)

This concept has very powerful implications for understanding what Paul is saying in many passages, so please bear it in mind as you read. Sadly, all too often Paul’s meaning is seriously obscured because the translators have not grasped it, eg instead of translating something “you ought to have the faithfulness of Christ”, we get “you should have faith in Christ”, because they assume that Paul thinks Christ is the object of our faith rather than the exemplar of it. Several key passages of Paul often end up translated in ways I consider to be horribly wrong as a result (eg Rom 3:21-31, Gal 2:15-21, Phil 3:9 etc).